When Juan Mata slotted home in the 68th minute, Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. Mourinho once again seemed to have the upper hand on Wenger. Old Trafford was bouncing. The home fans expected more United goals. Something strange then happened. Arsenal didn’t capitulate. They stood firm and then battled back. Instead of going on to lose two or three nil, Giroud scored an equaliser in the 89th minute. Mourinho took the blow with his usual good grace: “So finally I lost against Arsenal. Finally I lost against Arsene.”
This steel that Arsenal now show can perhaps be traced back to their FA Cup triumph in 2014. The burden of not winning a trophy in 9 years was lifted. Their 3-2 extra-time triumph over Hull City was a release for Wenger and the players. They would go on and secure another FA Cup the following season. Last year, progress came in the league with a late 2nd place finish.
A major reason for Wenger’s initial success at Highbury was the presence of strong leaders within the team. Upon joining in 1996, Wenger could look to players like Tony Adams, David Seaman, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour. Fast forward to the 2003-2004 ‘Invincibles’ season, there were new leaders stepping up. Patrick Viera, Jens Lehmann, Kolo Toure and Henry gave the side a sturdy spine. In 38 games, that spine would not be broken.
Arsenal have not won the league since going the entire 2003-2004 undefeated. That is a weird fact in itself. As that golden team was broken up over the years that followed, the leaders were not adequately replaced. During pivotal moments in games, there would be an inevitable collapse. There was also a noticeable lack of bite in their defensive approach. Tough tacklers like Gilberto and Viera were long gone. Teams, like Stoke playing “rugby”, knew Arsenal didn’t enjoy a physical encounter.
Arsene Wenger can be more confident this season as he’s nearly rectified both concerns. In the ‘tough-tackling’ midfielder area, he can turn to Coquelin, Elneny and Xhaka. Even Ramsey chips in with some crunching tackles. In terms of leaders on the field, the spine of the team looks stronger again. From Cech to Koscielny to Sanchez, there are players willing to step up when the going gets tough. So, have Arsenal finally found their bottle?
Their newfound strength has been reflected in some mature performances this season. No more so than in the Champions League. Yes, they’re now likely to finish second in their group but it will be on the finest of margins. PSG look to have pipped them to first, but the silver lining is that they will definitely avoid playing Bayern. Drawing away to the French champions was an impressive result. However, their comeback against Ludogorets Razgrad showed that the Arsenal of old was dead. Conceding two early goals away from home would have been disastrous a few years ago. Now, Arsenal maintained their composure and hit back. Winning a game 3-2 after falling two behind was a clear sign that this side has come on leaps and bounds.
Wenger has two more objectives before retiring. The first is to win the Premier League again. It will be difficult, but not impossible, this year. Chelsea, Arsenal, City, Liverpool and perhaps even United have all recently strengthened in their managerial departments. There will be no fairy-tale victory this year. It will be a slog, and this Arsenal side is mentally and physically better prepared than in previous years.
His other objective will be to win the Champions League. The top European honour has so far proved illusive. In recent years, there has been many disheartening moments. While becoming the champions of Europe may prove a step too far before Wenger retires, the club’s annual loss in the round of 16 is no longer considered inevitable. As they showed against one of the favourites, PSG, they’re now able to compete again with Europe’s top sides.
While Wenger has obvious flaws, it does appear that he’s managed to build a strong, competitive side once again. Neutrals enjoy watching their attacking talents on show. However, true fans will be more relieved to see Coquelin winning a 50/50 tackle or Cech showing a safe pair of hands in injury time. They’re the moments where an attractive, attacking Arsenal side become genuine title contenders.
What do you think? Have Arsenal finally found their bottle, and can they go on to win the Premier League this year?
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