Gunning for the title

Gunning for the title
Arsenal Player Mesut Oezil.
PHOTO: Reuters

Mesut Oezil is better than Eric Cantona. Discuss.

The sentence reads like a provocative exam question, but the facts are incontestable.

Opta’s men with the clipboards have compiled a list of every player with at least 20 assists and the German sits pretty on top. He has 21 assists in 57 Arsenal matches, creating a goal every 2.71 games. Cantona is in second place with 56 assists in 156 EPL games (a 2.79 average).

The silent assassin sums up his ominously quiet side at the moment. The Gunners are the whispering contenders, sneaking up on the silverware while others are distracted with meandering Manchester derbies.

Jose Mourinho’s meltdown, Liverpool’s bore draws and the mediocrity in Manchester pull focus as Arsene Wenger’s men push on.

They played Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup this morning (Singapore time) and few people noticed.

Like a duck to water, it’s calm on the outside as rhythmic limbs propel them forward beneath the surface.

 

 Puzzle in place

 Much was made in pre-season of Wenger’s failure to sign outfield players to accompany new boy Petr Cech, glossing over the fact that much of the work had already been done.

Continuity is key to Arsenal’s initial success. They are first in, best dressed. They already look the part.

Solid victories against Leicester, Manchester United, Watford, Bayern Munich and Everton underpinned Wenger’s progress.

With the stealth of a silicone gun, he’s filled holes with minimal fuss.

Remember when the Gunners’ annual lament involved the absence of a decent goalkeeper, centre back, holding midfielder and striker?

The vacancies are now just about filled.

Cech, Gabriel Paulista and Francis Coquelin satisfy their respective job descriptions and Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud are fashioning a competent goal-scoring machine between them.

Wenger’s fallow period in the transfer market has the makings of a masterstroke, his foresight magnified by the Manchester Derby.

Much was made of the collective price tag of the assembled talent at Old Trafford, but the issue isn’t one of talent. It’s about timing. Like precocious starlets in a new creche, they are still being bedded down.

Arsenal are established. The first 11 strut onto the team sheet each week, with the only bone of contention being Walcott or Giroud up front.

As the surge to the summit continues, the Gunners drift away from a vintage Wenger side, morphing into something that Jose Mourinho might approve of.

Such a comparison would irritate the Frenchman, but Chelsea’s title-winning side always had familiar faces in fixed positions.

 

Stability

 Rotations were minimal until the silverware was assured, a classic Mourinho trait that neatly fits the boom -and-bust cycle imposed on every club.

Wenger always favoured a more cerebral, sustained approach in the past that avoided destabilising busts but didn’t come with too much boom either.

The pitfalls of such an approach are obvious. The clue is in the title. A settled, regular first team may tire and bust.

If all the eggs are in one basket, what happens if the basket breaks?

Aaron Ramsey has already succumbed to injury and Christmas promises a wintry trudge for Sanchez, who played through the summer in the Copa America.

Arsenal’s customary collapse during the festive season has long been an occupational hazard for Wenger, but this campaign feels different.

First, the fixture list is in his favour. Apart from Tottenham early next month, the Gunners do not face a really thorny contender again until they host Manchester City on Dec 21.

With Swansea, West Brom, Norwich, Sunderland and Aston Villa to come before then, there is every chance that Arsenal could top the table when they head to the billionaires’ banquet at the Etihad.

Fortitude is the other factor to consider. In the past, Arsenal’s effete trendies were often accused of displaying less mental strength than a Parisian street artist crying into his palette.

They battered the bottom feeders, but timidly surrendered on their travels or to heftier opponents. The Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb losses suggested that the glass jaw was still in place, but the backbone has since stiffened.

Wenger is less a coach than a chiropractor, repairing a brittle spine and allowing Arsenal to see off Tottenham, United and Bayern Munich in different venues, tournaments and circumstances.

 

Wizard of Oezil

 And Oezil has been pivotal throughout.

He lacks Sanchez’s bullishness, Eden Hazard’s swashbuckling running and David Silva’s elegance, but his enterprise is clinically effective.

He wins without the window dressing.

Oezil might not be better than Cantona, but he’s the best around at the moment.

Just like Arsenal.

 

Gunners' next fixtures

 Sat: v Swansea (A, EPL)

Nov 4: v Bayern Munich (A, Champs Lge)

Nov 8: v Tottenham Hotspur (H, EPL)

Nov 21: v West Brom (A, EPL)

Nov 24: v Dinamo Zagreb (H, Champs Lge)

Nov 29: v Norwich (A, EPL)

Dec 5: Sunderland (H, EPL)

Dec 9: v Olympiakos (A, Champs Lge)

Dec 13: v Aston Villa (A, EPL)

Dec 21: v Man City (H, EPL)

Dec 26: v Southampton (A, EPL)

Dec 28: v Bournemouth (H, EPL)

 

By the numbers

 7

Mesut Oezil has seven assists in 10 EPL games this season, more than any other player.


This article was first published on Oct 28, 2015.
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