Peerless Wenger’s masterplan still on track despite latest Old Trafford reversal
Despite this setback resurgent Arsenal remain capable of lifting the Premier League title
Robin van Persie of Manchester United celebrates at the end of the Premier League against Arsenal. Photograph: by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger had described him as “an Arsenal man”, but Robin van Persie celebrated his goal at Old Trafford yesterday like a Manchester United-supporting child with a big point to prove.
You can imagine the trembling lip and the watering eyes of the little boy in van Persie had his old club beaten his new one, and led them by 11 points after 11 games. So the shouldered effort that flew over the head of Kieran Gibbs was one of the most important goals of Van Persie’s career.
Manchester United’s win means the Premier League title race is as unpredictable as it has ever been at this point in the season. Six points separate the top eight, with the pre-season favourites, Manchester City and Chelsea, struggling to find their rhythm.
The Chelsea manager is finding out why his predecessor, Rafael Benitez, left John Terry on the bench for much of last season. Manchester City’s sloppiness in losing four of their first 11 games suggests some of their players are now more focussed on the Champions League than the premiership. The sense remains that City, despite their giant payroll, are not yet a club for whom the best players are excited about playing for. Meanwhile Liverpool, with their brilliant strike pairing, and Southampton, with their hyperactive pressing game, have capitalised on the disorder to move up the table.
The field is more open than anyone expected. The big question now is whether Arsenal really have grown out of their glass-jawed, budgie-hearted ways to become genuine title contenders.
The point has been made here and elsewhere that if you compare Arsenal’s league results with the same fixtures from last season, they’ve actually taken three fewer points this time around. This logic overlooks the psychological importance of putting all those good results in a row to make such a strong start to the campaign. If Arsenal keep playing with the confidence they showed in Dortmund last week, they’ll start winning the games they lost last time.
The biggest apparent reason for Arsenal’s resurgence has been the transformation of Aaron Ramsey, who, with 11 goals in all competitions so far, has already equalled his tally from the previous five seasons combined.
The remarkable thing about Ramsey’s achievement this season is that he has found his way into so many goalscoring positions despite playing relatively deep in midfield, rather than in an attacking position out wide or behind the striker. His knack of appearing in those positions owes something to the fact that he covers more ground than any other player on the pitch, making him impossible to mark.
It seems, however, that the change in Ramsey has less to do with measurable technical factors than with mysterious psychological processes. Last month, Cesc Fabregas gave an interview to Sid Lowe of the Guardian in which he speculated that his departure may have been the catalyst that enabled Ramsey’s emergence.
“I wonder: how did someone like Ramsey look at me?” said Fabregas. “I watch the way Ramsey is playing now, how he looks so liberated, and I think maybe I blocked his way. Maybe I was an obstacle. Sometimes you need someone to leave for you to step forward and say, ‘I’m here’ . . . It’s the concept I’m talking about, the idea of stepping up. That mental unblocking is so important.”
Fabregas seemed to have given the subject considerable thought. And you suspect he might see some similarities between how Ramsey and Wilshere related to him while he was Arsenal captain, and how he now relates to his superiors in the Barcelona midfield, Xavi and Iniesta.
Whether Fabregas is correct that his departure was the key moment, it does appear that some blockage in Arsenal’s psychological plumbing has been shifted. It could be that Wenger is experiencing a rush of liberation with the retirement of Alex Ferguson, who had come to loom like an ogre.
Certainly, Arsenal’s manager must be feeling a quiet sense of vindication. Just when the critics decided he’d lost it, here he is presiding over one of the great comeback stories.
However, the critics were right about one thing: sometimes it helps to sign a really good player, even if he costs a lot of money. The arrival of Mesut Özil was the turning point in Arsenal’s story. As Roy Keane remarked on ITV: the important thing was not the positive impact Özil would have on Arsenal fans, but the effect he would have on his team-mates.
In Dennis Bergkamp’s recent book, Stillness and Speed, Tony Adams and Ray Parlour talk about how Bergkamp’s arrival encouraged every other player to raise his game. His focus and quality set a new standard in training. With Bergkamp they became convinced they could be part of something special.
It’s too early to suggest Özil could be a new Bergkamp. Real Madrid sold him because they thought hewas inconsistent, and at Old Trafford he failed to impose himself. But even Bergkamp didn’t perform every week. Arsenal teams, in which he played, also lost at Old Trafford. And even in defeat, Arsenal remain five points clear of United. The chance remains for them to advance and say: “I’m here.”