In his first article for The False Nine, and in the aftermath of Arsenal’s clinical Champions League performance against Napoli, Jonny Singer eulogises about another German international, instrumental to Arsenal’s recent form…
Last night, Arsenal were brilliant. Not just quite good, not good in patches, but brilliant. Napoli, supposedly one of the best teams in Italy, barely got a foothold in the contest, limited to a fraction of the possession and a few optimistic long shots.
For the Gunners, just a few weeks ago the crisis club of England, the future looks bright. The signing of Mesut Özil has quietened the dissidents, inspired the players, and added much needed quality. They’ll probably go and win everything now – or so the mainstream media would have you believe.
But the progress Arsenal have made does not date from September 2nd, when the German superstar signed for a club-record £42m. They may have won 9 games in a row since he signed, but that’s part of a longer sequence that has seen the club pick up 19 wins, 2 draws and just a single defeat since March 13th 2013.
That was the night Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in Germany, not enough to keep them in the Champions League, but the turning point in this squad’s story. And it has not been down to the ‘wizard of Özil’ but rather built on the shoulders of another German – Per Mertesacker.
Before the game in Munich Arsene Wenger caused something of a stir, dropping his centre-back, and captain, Thomas Vermaelen. Laurent Koscielny was brought in to partner Mertesacker in a move seen as either a bold mistake or an admission of defeat.
But Koscielny and Mertesacker have formed a superb partnership, and are the bedrock on which Arsenal’s resurgence has been built. Vermaelen, still club captain, has not been a regular starter since – in fact, he has played just 10 minutes in the league so far this season.
It is quite a turn-around for Mertesacker – the big German has not always been popular, either with fans or the press. Despite his vast international experience, a global reputation and a small price tag, Mertesacker was largely mocked in his first year at the club.
Yet he has adapted to the English game, making up for his lack of pace with supreme positioning, dominating in the air and even scoring the odd goal from set-pieces. Arsenal look more solid with him at the back than they have since the days of Sol Campbell (the first time, let’s pretend to forget that ill-advised return) and Kolo Toure.
A settled defence has several benefits. For a start it allows Sagna and Gibbs, comfortable in the knowledge that they have solidity at home, to bomb forward, providing much of the width in an otherwise narrow formation (particularly since Walcott has been out). It also inspires confidence to the goalkeeper, and Wojciech Szczesny, another of those dropped in Munich, has certainly grown in the last six months.
But the major difference has been going forward. The solid base that Mertesacker and Koscielny (who despite his rashness in the first game of this season has been another stand-out performer in this Arsenal team) provide, and the introduction of Mathieu Flamini sitting in front of them, has given the Arsenal midfield a new lease of life.
Last season it was Rosicky, Cazorla and Ramsey (whose excellent form can also be dated to around that night in Munich), this year Ramsey and Özil have been the main beneficiaries. They are scoring goals, providing assists, and playing with more fluency than any Arsenal team since the first half of 2009, if not the Invicibles of 2004. Last night it looked beautiful, and it saw them beat a really good European team extremely comfortably.
All this has provided Olivier Giroud, who has started this season in inspired form, with more chances than he could have hoped for – and he’s responded to the task. He and Ramsey are getting the goals, Özil is providing them, and it is these three forwards who are taking most of the plaudits.
But the true foundation of this success lies not in the goals or assists of Özil and Ramsey, but in the platform they have been provided by the big blond German marshalling the defence.