The last two weekends have thrown a pair of tricky fixtures at Arsenal after midweek games that they've navigated with an impressive level of discipline and composure. After a draining Champions League win over Bayern Munich last Tuesday, there was the real possibility that Wenger's side would struggle to find the energy and focus to beat Everton on the Saturday afternoon. However they started well netting twice from headers in the first half before showing good character and riding the excellent performance of Petr Cech to hang on for a 2-1 win.
This afternoon posed another tricky test. After a heavy defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup -in a game that was more disappointing for the injuries to Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain than the actual defeat- it was interesting to see how Arsenal would respond. While Garry Monk's Swansea have had a decidedly average season after going beaten in the month of August, they boast a talented and athletic squad capable of beating anyone on their day.
Arsenal just managed to get to half time level at 0-0 after being outplayed but found the breakthrough in the second half when Olivier Giroud headed home a Mesut Ozil corner. Laurent Koscielny scored for the second consecutive league game after ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Lucask Fabianski made a mess of a high ball into the box before Joel Campbell, getting his first league start because of injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade Chamberlain, rounded out the scoring.
It felt like a game the Gunners wouldn't have won in previous seasons. Throughout the last 12 seasons since Arsenal last won the Premier League, Arsene Wenger's teams have consistently been accused of lacking the ability to win when they aren't at their best. Their difficulties in cagier contests have been pinned on both a level of physical and mental softness and tactical naivety.
This season it feels like they may be turning a corner. They've shown the ability to score goals in bunches but have also shown an assuredness in defense they've lacked during recent seasons. Over the last two weeks it hasn't been rare to see them put ten men behind the ball and defend in deeper compact banks of four then pick their chances to break. Arsenal's 8 goals against means they share the league's best defensive record with Manchester United and Tottenham.
Two aspects of Arsenal's performances that have been noticeable thus far and should bode well for them as the season progresses is their defensive compactness and transition defending. Two seasons ago, with Mikel Arteta operating as the deepest midfielder, they left themselves way too open in the center of the pitch and conceded goals through opposition counters. These goals weren't always the fault of Arteta- he's not a particularly athletic player yet was forced to cover vast amounts of space as his center midfield partner Aaron Ramsey often took up positions high up the pitch.
The Santi Cazorla-Francis Coquelin partnership has provided greater balance. Cazorla offers the same ball retention abilities as Arteta and is better at keeping the ball when pressed while Coquelin has brought needed defensive ability and athleticism to the middle of the pitch. Unlike Ramsey who operates as more of a box to box runner that likes to get into the opposition box when deployed at center midfield, Cazorla prefers to dictate tempo from deeper positions. As a result, when Arsenal lose possession they have both Coquelin and Cazorla behind the ball to slow down opposition counter attacking opportunities. Because Ramsey would often make penetrative attacking runs beyond the ball, his center midfield partner would be left to defend the middle of midfield on his own against the counter when Arsenal lost possession.
Arsenal's transition defending has also been aided by the impressive displays of fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin. Rarely do you see opposition counter attacks started by playing balls into space behind the Arsenal fullbacks. Monreal is intelligent positionally. He doesn't possess the same blistering pace as Bellerin on the right side and therefore chooses his opportunities to push forward in attack more cautiously so as not to leave too much space in behind. He's also an impressive 1 v. 1 defender.
Bellerin offers important width in attack down the right as he's usually partnered with Ramsey (when the Welshman is healthy), whose instincts are always to take up extremely narrow positions. Bellerin provides the wide outlet in the final third which can lead space for the opposition to counter into down Arsenal's right side. However, the 23 year old Spaniards remarkable pace and work rate mean he's generally able to make recovery runs to get back into defensive position. He showed his remarkable recovery speed when he ran nearly 60 yards to tack Bafetimbi Gomis before he could tap in despite the French striker's 20 yard head start.
Injuries remain a major concern going forward. Upcoming fixtures at Bayern Munich and home to Spurs in the NLD without Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade Chamberlain will likely force Ozil, Sanchez and Giroud to play in both matches before another international break. Fatigue could therefore become an issue with two incredibly difficult, emotional fixtures in the span of five days. However, Wenger's side are beginning to show they have the game management abilities to navigate difficult stretches of the season.