Arsenal reaping the benefits of stability

Posted by James McNicholas

Stuart MacFarlane/Getty ImagesArsene Wenger's team face Napoli and Man City in quick succession.

The change in Arsenal's fortunes between this season and last has been dramatic. At this stage in 2012-13, the Gunners had already fallen off the pace in the title race. This time round, they're leading the pack. Arsenal look a team transformed: their physical and psychological vulnerability has been replaced by a growing sturdiness.

And yet, this Arsenal team does not look radically different to the XI that took to the field last season. In terms of major signings, only Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini have arrived. Aside from that, the personnel are almost identical.

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The truth is that this transformation began back in the spring. The germ of a title-challenging side was present in Arsenal's run to secure Champions League qualification. Over the summer, instead of ripping the team up and starting again, the Gunners chose to focus on their strengths and build according to those. They have undergone a process of evolution rather than revolution.

The wheat was separated from the chaff. Players who had under-performed were sold off or released. Arsenal bade farewell to the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Sebastian Squillaci and Gervinho. However, for the first time in several years, Arsenal were able to keep hold of all their key players. Even captain Thomas Vermaelen, relegated to the substitutes' bench, opted to stay and fight for this place.

The majority of the playing staff remain. The manager is the same, as is his backroom team. Arsenal are reaping the benefit of their stability.

This is the season in which continuity is truly king. The benefit of consistency is evident throughout the Premier League table.

Down in the relegation zone, the struggles of Sunderland and Crystal Palace are a warning of the dangers of a scatter-gun acquisition policy. No Premier League club bought more players during the summer than that pair -- 14 each -- and yet the influx of supposed talent merely unsettled their squads. Both clubs have already been forced to remove their managers and take a different direction.

Arsenal's interests are primarily at the other end of the table. In the chase for the title, Arsene Wenger is hopeful that he can take advantage of the fact that many of his rivals are currently undergoing a period of transition.

At Manchester United, David Moyes is facing up to the enormous task of attempting to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. Across the city, Manuel Pellegrini is adapting to the specific difficulties of the Premier League. In London, Jose Mourinho is reacquainting himself with a bloated squad littered with luxury purchases, such as the infrequently used Brazilian playmaker Willian.

Perhaps the most instructive example of the dangers of rapid turnover comes from Arsenal's neighbours, Tottenham. Having lost their talisman, Gareth Bale, Spurs brought in a whole fleet of new talent. All in all, they signed seven players for a total outlay of over 100 million pounds.

However, they simply haven't clicked. The Tottenham team have not yet developed the instinctive understanding that can only be forged by time and match practise. All too often passes fail to match runs, and frustration has mounted as the once free-flowing Spurs turn in increasingly turgid performances. Having assembled a galaxy of stars, Andre Villas-Boas is now facing a fight for his job.

Arsenal's players, by contrast, seem to play with an almost telepathic understanding. They are blessed with tactically intelligent players, certainly, but they have also grown familiar with their respective strengths, weaknesses and habits.

The spectacular goal Arsenal scored against Norwich earlier this season was the perfect exhibit of their burgeoning understanding. Flicks and passes were executed in an instant, with barely a glance exchanged. Olivier Giroud's final dink around the corner to find Jack Wilshere's run was the culmination of hours playing together on both the training ground and Premier League pitches. Other clubs can only watch on and marvel: those heights simply cannot be hit by a group of near-strangers.

The most consistent presence around the Arsenal squad is Wenger himself. Now in his 18th year as manager of the Gunners, his philosophy courses through the veins of this team. He has educated many of these players to his own exacting standard. It is a team and a club built in his image.

A new contract for Wenger would surely only increase the sense of security at the club. Amid the tumult of top-flight football, Wenger stands unbowed. He is progressive yet permanent; adaptable yet enduring. He is the consistent force which binds together this Arsenal team and gives them this season’s crucial advantage: stability.


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