After their victory in Belgium last Wednesday, back-to-back home wins were the perfect medicine to chase away the Manchester blues as Arsenal comprehensively brushed aside Wigan on Saturday and then a mixture of second-stringers and youngsters comfortably dealt with high-flying Championship leaders West Brom in the Carling Cup last night. All three wins were a great response from the squad to the two disappointing reverses at the hands of United and City.
If there had to be any criticism of the performance against Wigan it was that the margin of victory should have been greater. Only taking a one-nil advantage in at half-time belied the Gunners dominance and there was a sense that they were making hard work of a match that should have been over by the break. As it was, within three minutes of the restart, Thomas Vermaelen added to his first-half headed goal with a fabulous second - stroking the ball into the net from just outside the area. It was a strike that ended the game as a contest and from then on it was a cruise to three points as Eboue and Fabregas added a third and fourth respectively.
Vermaelen certainly had Arsenal fans at "hello" with his performance and goal in the first match of the season up at Goodison Park. Since then, he has gone on to prove that display was not a flash in the pan. He looks more and more accomplished with each appearance and the fact he has chipped in with four goals this season (making him the club's top scorer this term) underlines what an asset he is to the squad. What is most heartening is the understanding he has already developed with William Gallas. Gallas is a defender who has always seemed to prefer to drop off and sweep up behind his central defensive partner. With the Belgian seemingly happy and keen to go and attack potential threats, the two of them appear to have complementary styles and they have seamlessly gelled as pairing.
On the evidence so far, Vermaelen’s acquisition has strengthened the back four following the sale of Kolo Toure. If Arsenal still look a little too vulnerable at the back it is more to do with the lack of defensive cover they get from midfield and the fact that Manuel Almunia can be brilliant some days and considerably less than brilliant on others. Gallas and Vermaelen aside, in Gael Clichy and Bacery Sagna the team has two full-backs that fit the Arsenal system perfectly. Though Clichy can be prone to the occasional clanger, what he provides in aggression and fighting spirit more than makes up for any errors over the course of a season. Since joining the Gunners as a virtual unknown in England, Sagna has proved himself to be one of the most dependable players in the squad.
Supporters have been calling for the signing of a central defensive midfielder for some time now and that still does appear to be the key deficiency in Arsenal’s defences. Looking back to when Wenger joined the club, he inherited a legendary back four but had the sense to then put Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit in front of them to help negate opposition attacks before they even reached the last line of defence.
In today’s squad, most of that responsibility is shouldered by Alex Song. Although the Cameroonian has become a much improved player over the past twelve months, one senses that he cannot be left with the sole responsibility of enforcing Arsenal’s midfield. Arsene Wenger appears to be relying on that responsibility to be shared across the midfield – and, of course, no player should be exempted from having to track back and defend. Whilst this has definitely been a feature of this season, it does seem that the team still is in need of a player who can break up opposition play effectively and allow the likes of Fabregas, Rosicky and Nasri to do what they do best - create.
Last night's Carling Cup tie continued in the same vein as recent seasons as the younger up-and-coming players were given a chance to show what they can do and, yet again, it was a highly enjoyable night at Ashburton Grove. With Mikael Silvestre and Philippe Senderos being the only two recognised experienced players in the line-up, the youngsters more than matched a West Brom side who are going well this season under Roberto Di Matteo - particularly after the dismissal of Jerome Thomas reduced the Baggies to ten men just before the interval.
Both teams had their chances in the first half and, just as the tie seemed to be tightly deadlocked at nil-nil in the second period, Sanchez Watt pounced on a rebound from a Carlos Vela shot to give the Young Guns the lead in the 69th minute. Seven minutes later substitute Mark Randall was unlucky not to score as he lobbed Dean Kiely with an imaginatively sublime chip from outside of the area that was straight out of the Dennis Bergkamp scrapbook. The ball hit the underside of the bar and bounced out. Fortunately, Carlos Vela was alive to the opportunity and reacted quicker than the Albion defence to tuck home the loose ball and seal the match. It was another memorable Carling Cup scalp for the Arsenal youngsters.
The victories over Liege, Wigan and West Brom will have restored a lot of belief and confidence amongst the players. On Saturday they travel to Craven Cottage to face Fulham and will be looking to build on the work of the last week with an away win. Last season’s trip to Fulham epitomised everything that was wrong with last season’s Arsenal team. It was a lazy and complacent performance and the Gunners were made to pay for their shoddy display with Fulham taking all three points. If the team are to prove that they have learned lessons from last year, and made the necessary improvements, then Saturday’s match will be a good time to start proving the point.