Over the past few years Arsenal have had some exceptional players. For all the bemoaning of the lack of trophies, there has remained a bountiful supply of top talent strutting their stuff at the Emirates – Cesc Fabregas remains the best young midfielder in Europe, one we kept for seven years, and we have more that could be labelled ‘amongst the best in their position, or for their age‘ – the likes of Vermaelen, Van Persie and Wilshere can certainly be counted in those categories, with others knocking on the door. Even the likes of Nasri and Adebayor had golden patches with us, even if they may end up joining the long line of those who wished they’d never left (hello, Hleb!).
When you reel off the names, the six year trophy hunt is a little baffling. We aren’t Liverpool – look at their teamsheet and ‘mediocre’ is the word that pops out. Against Fulham, their midfield contained the less than inspiring names of Adam, Spearing and Henderson – hardly a frightening force, even when you take their respective visages into account. We genuinely have had world class players, but for whatever reason something hasn’t clicked since the Invincibles disbanded.
This year, a case could be made that the overall quality of our squad is down – it is certainly an argument the pundits make. Personally, I’m not convinced – we may have lost Cesc and a bottler, but we’ve gained in other areas, particularly defensively, and the added experience of many of the younger players bridges that particular gap. However, it is probably fair to say that man for man, our individuals may not scare teams as they used to.
Yet something feels more positive. The atmosphere around the club is much improved from the poisonous nature of a couple of months ago (of course we are winning, which helps, but something more fundamental seems to have changed), there is a greater unity within the club, and the players are less inclined to wallow in the more negative moments – we’ve conceded the first goal a few times of late, only to come back impressively, a trait that we lacked up until recently.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has made the players seem more driven, more positive and more willing to fight, and also why the fans are suddenly so much calmer and able to forgive the bad moments. Six weeks ago, the Fulham draw would have resulted in a cacophony of boos, but was instead met with an understanding shrug. Quite the contrast. And I think I know why.
For all the talent in the club, there has been a feeling over the last few years that some players haven’t known the value of pulling on the Arsenal shirt, or at least they haven’t always shown it on the field. They may be motivated players, talented players, but that stops a little way short of what we have now – fans playing for the club.
Consider our spine. Szczesny hadn’t made his Premiership debut this time last season, yet is now a firm favourite with every one of us. Antics such as leading the crowd in a song last weekend, and his constant Chelsea and Spurs baiting on Twitter certainly help, but you can also see the pride he takes from being Arsenal’s number one, and how it hurts him personally when we’re struggling. He cares. It makes him feel like one of us, because in a way he is like one of us. Only better at football.
In front of him you have Vermaelen, who is furious when we concede a late goal in a 5-1 victory, and passionate enough to be determined to haul us back into the game after he scores an own goal. He simply refuses to lose, to give up, or to give anything less than his maximum for the club. And he doesn’t tolerate excuses, from himself or anyone else.
Further forward, and you find more of the young players who grew up with Arsenal in their blood. Jack Wilshere has been with the club from the age of eight, and without wishing to coin a painful phrase, has Arsenal DNA coursing through his veins. He also happens to be the brightest English prospect of a generation. And ours. But you don’t have to be English to be emotionally tied – for evidence of that, take one Emmanuel Frimpong. Ghana-born he may be, but he is Arsenal through and through – he joined the club when he was nine, and has progressed all the way through the youth ranks, determined to represent the club he loves. His anger at Nasri’s behaviour shows where his loyalties lie.
At the tip of the spine, we have Robin Van Persie, the most freescoring forward outside the unbalanced Spanish league. Feyenoord may be his first love, but Arsenal is his second, and unlike the Cesc situation, a return to his homeland would not be the final step to the top of the mountain. Right now, he is adored by the fans of a club he fights tooth and nail for, and one he is proud captain of. It still annoys me that many doubt his commitment, despite every one of his actions countering that assertion.
When fans get the feeling that the players do not care, or are going through the motions, we get angry. We yell at them and cannot understand why anyone in such a privileged position would give anything less than their all. But it is different with the current crop – for many of these players, success would be less sweet if tasted anywhere other than at home. And their home is the same as our home. The Arsenal.
We love them. They love us. The ties are stronger.