Mathieu Flamini key to Gunners' improvement
18 January ~ Arsenal go into today's Premier League clash with Fulham looking to extend their 100 per cent record in 2014. The one negative point from their last home game, the 2-0 FA Cup win over Spurs, was the injury to Theo Walcott. Damage to his left anterior cruciate ligament means that he will be sidelined for up to six months, effectively ending not only his domestic season but any chance of him appearing at the World Cup. For both Walcott and Arsenal, the lay-off comes at a particularly unfortunate time.
The 24-year-old had missed two months of this campaign already after abdominal surgery but, since his return in November, he had been in sparkling form, scoring five goals including a match-winning double over West Ham on Boxing Day. However, Walcott's injury presents others in the Arsenal squad with a great opportunity. German teenager Serge Gnabry in particular has impressed in recent weeks and he played an important role in the 2-1 victory away to Aston Villa which saw Arsenal return to the top of the league on Monday evening. Early signs suggest that Gnabry possesses greater technical ability than Walcott and he should retain his place for the visit of Fulham.
As an Arsenal fan, what has been most pleasing to see this season is the solidity and grit that has been added to our game. We have come to expect attractive attacking football at the Emirates, but this season a steely resolution has emerged which has backed our rise to the top of the table. Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud have rightly won plaudits but it has been especially good to see our defensive core getting the praise it deserves.
Mathieu Flamini's return from Milan has been a revelation. More than just a shield for the defence, he provides a level of maturity and experience that Arsenal have been lacking in the centre of the pitch. As viewers of Arsenal’s last few games on television will testify, every time the camera cuts to a shot of Arsenal’s No 20 he is talking – instructing others, shouting orders and a far cry from the quiet Arsenal midfield of recent years.
Arsène Wenger has also finally found a firm defensive partnership in Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. The pair complement each other's play; Mertesacker reads the game very well, while Koscielny is an outstanding athlete. In addition they provide an aerial threat from set-pieces, something which has not been common in Arsenal sides of recent years. Wojciech Szczesny has also matured into a more commanding goalkeeper, and his reflex shot-stopping is much improved. This new-found consistency in defence now mirrors the success of our forward players, meaning in matches that in seasons gone by we would have drawn or lost, we are now getting positive results.
Rene Meulensteen's side travel to the Emirates Stadium on the back of a 3-0 FA Cup defeat of Norwich City, which provided some respite from the run of dismal league performances, and boosted by the return of captain Brede Hangeland from injury. The Norwegian started for the first time in 13 weeks in Tuesday's win over Norwich and it is no coincidence that Fulham recorded their first clean sheet in over a month with him at the heart of their defence.
Arsenal will be looking to pick up nine points in their next three league games, against Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace, before a tough February with matches against Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. For Fulham, coming away from the Emirates with a point will be a big achievement, but the chances are they will end up with a goal difference that looks more damaging to their hopes of survival. Owen Morgan