Soccer: Gun midfield in title shot

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

Narratives change quickly in modern football but Arsenal have managed to go from their lowest ebb in recent years to their highest point in just seven weeks.

Their season threatened to finish before it even started after losing at home to Aston Villa on the opening day but it has morphed into a remarkable recent run of 10 straight wins including one on penalties - each seemingly better than the last.

Given the last two - Swansea away and Napoli at home - it is safe to say Arsenal are playing the best football in the country, with the best options in midfield. When was that last true? During their trophy drought there have been two seasons 2007-08 and 2010-11 when they came close enough to challenging before letting it slip.

Arsene Wenger said last week this was their best chance at the Premier League title since 2004-05, given they now have more quality and experience to decide title races. After Wednesday, as they tore Napoli apart without even Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Theo Walcott, Wenger's claim seemed true.

Arsenal travel to West Brom in the early hours of tomorrow.

Mikel Arteta is only in his third season at Arsenal, but said afterwards the first half was the best performance he had played in: "We faced a team who know what they're doing, and that's why we deserve credit.

Some people were writing us off, saying we hadn't played a really big, big game yet. Now we've done it, we've proved were ready for it."

Arteta was at the heart alongside Mathieu Flamini, forming a resilient midfield foundation of the sort Arsenal have lacked recently. Arteta, who completed 75 of 76 attempted passes while Flamini made 66 of 73, praised his new partner: "He is an intelligent player, and he knows what he is doing. He works hard for everyone as well. We will have a good understanding."

The damage was done in front of those two, where Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey played either side of Mesut Ozil, about whom Arteta was thrilled. "It gives you a step forward quality-wise, to have someone else on the pitch that can decide the game by himself," he said.

Ozil, Ramsey and Rosicky were switching positions, giving Arsenal more fluidity and imagination than they have had in years. Certainly, since the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in 2011, but probably far longer than that.

Last time Arsenal challenged for the league, in 2007-08, they had Fabregas and Flamini in central midfield with Rosicky, Walcott and Alexander Hleb in wide positions, and Gilberto Silva, Alex Song and Abou Diaby in reserve. A good combination, but even with Fabregas probably less incisive than the Ozil-Ramsey-Cazorla-Wilshere range they have now.

The last time Arsenal had a better midfield was 2003-04, the famous Invincibles season. Then, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto anchored in the middle with Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires on the wings, while Dennis Bergkamp dropped in between midfield and attack.

Asked whether the current stable of midfielders was that good, Arteta demurred, but he did say the fight for places was good for everyone.

"I don't think we are at that level yet. Competition makes everyone work harder. It is a great thing, it raises the level of training, and that will raise the level of games. No Arsenal midfielder can afford to rest or let his level of performance slip. If you don't perform for one or two games, you get dropped.

"And we have a few to get back, like Santi, like Abou, a few others. So it's going to be really tough but that's what we wanted. Arteta was particularly keen for Arsenal to sign big in the summer, and is delighted they did.

"It was a great message from the club, and he [Ozil] lifted everyone. Not only us, but also the crowd."

- Independent

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 19 Sep 2014 05:32:58 Processing Time: 494ms