Throughout Arsene Wenger’s lengthy tenure at Arsenal, the club have often been defined by mini-eras that mould together to form a larger picture. His early years were about proving people wrong, changing the face of English football with stern views on science, diet and lifestyle, before winning a memorable double in his first full season. Then came La révolution française and the success that came from his knowledge of the untapped French market.
2003/04, the Invincibles – the first ever team to go a whole Premier League season unbeaten. Waving goodbye to Highbury and settling into the Emirates followed shortly after, which prompted a decade of great difficulty, underachievement and financial frugality.
But in 2013 that all changed. After another largely disappointing transfer window, Arsenal were on the verge of signing a genuine superstar in Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. The streets were lined with giddy fans, Wenger looked rejuvenated and after finalising a deal worth £42.5m – smashing their transfer record by nearly £30m in the process – there was a feeling that things had changed. Another mini-era was starting to unfold.
Capturing Alexis Sanchez after his sensational World Cup just twelve months later confirmed that sentiment, especially with Juventus and Liverpool both lurking, but progression came with a price. With power came scrutiny, and even though it was not the intention, the Gunners became a product of their two stars.
In isolation, this isn’t unusual because these are the big players, paid the big money, who make the difference in big games. Every side with a sense of ambition needs one or two major talents to build around and with Ozil and Sanchez this is clearly the case.
Arguably Arsenal’s most creative and incisive pairing, Wenger plays them both behind the striker in his new 3-4-2-1 formation which transformed his and the team’s fortunes at the back end of last season. However, there is a difference between two players standing out and two players casting a shadow behind them (intentionally or not), which has been the case of late as they head into the final year of their contracts.
Thankfully, the Community Shield presented an opportunity to focus on football, and forget about transfer rumours, agents being spotted in Paris and the nauseating thought of losing out to rivals on Bosman deals. Basking in the Wembley sun, the pitch was sheltered by shade for most of the afternoon, but for others it was a chance to shine in the absence of Ozil and Sanchez who missed out due to an ankle problem and a lack of match practice respectively – and shine they did.
Danny Welbeck, Alex Iwobi and new record signing Alexandre Lacazette made up the front three, impressing early on in particular. For all his inconsistency in front of goal, Welbeck was always a useful outlet on the left-hand side, strong and powerful when receiving the ball but also offering a threat in behind with his speed. Iwobi took on a ‘best of both’ role out on the right, combining his silky touch and interplay with craft and confidence in the final third, breezing past David Luiz in the penalty box was a moment that stood out. Lacazette lacked service but managed to hit the post with a curling strike from 18 yards, boasting some nice flicks and one touch play throughout which was encouraging.
Not only were the front three impressive, but the midfield pairing as well. Granit Xhaka – widely criticised last season – was almost faultless in his distribution and positional play, achieving a 100% pass completion rate having made 98 passes. His mobility when facing his own goal remains an issue, but in terms of overall influence, he is vital to this Arsenal side and would have scored a stunning goal had it not been for Thibaut Courtois’ lanky frame. Alongside him, Mohamed Elneny was energetic, available and ambitious in his passing, something which his game has lacked for a while now. The pairing played with a real sense of freedom and even though they won’t be first choice in Wenger’s eyes, have certainly staked a claim for the upcoming season.
This is not a criticism of Ozil or Sanchez, it is just a consequence of how events have unfolded. Both remain publicly professional and look to be staying despite that looking like a fantasy even two months ago. When fully fit and firing, they deserve to be in the starting eleven and are capable of influencing games for the side in ways others can’t. But amongst the drama and the ominous silence, their team-mates have been left behind and even though the silverware itself won’t count for much, having and taking the opportunity to prove themselves at Wembley against last season’s champions will do great things for the dressing room. Arsenal can beat the best without their two star men, and it’s time for others to grow into their role because they can’t afford to sink into the supporting cast.