William Cowper once said that ‘variety is the spice of life, that’s what gives it its flavour’, a phrase you’d have a hard time disproving. Everyone has a favourite food, but eat that food every day and it won’t be long before you’re sick of it. Music. We’ve all played that song five, fifteen or even fifty times in a row, but eventually you move on until you’re reminded of it two years later after sticking your iPod on shuffle. Wearing the same clothes, working the same job for a number of years, never decorating a room – there comes a time where it all becomes a bit stale.
This season, whether it be down to injury, others not taking their opportunities or just a feeling of ‘we’ve been here before’, Arsenal have gone through the early stages of 2016 lacking identity and energy. It’s all just been a bit stale. However, with the side in its worst way approaching March, three faces have come in with a spark, a freshness and an enthusiasm, like a breath of fresh air.
Mohamed Elneny, a £5m signing from FC Basel during the January transfer window, was virtually unknown to the majority of England as YouTube compilations blew up and the desire for scouting reports intensified. He scored a screamer in the Europa League and he’s got great hair. So what? Mr Cheapo himself, Arsene Wenger, lacking ambition and accepting mediocrity (that’s how it goes right?) yet again.
Not quite! The Egyptian has taken very little time to settle in London, helping to restore the balance of the side with Aaron Ramsey briefly reverting back to the right, not to mention his incredible stamina and care in possession which have gone a long way in filling an ironically large Santi Cazorla shaped hole in midfield. Already averaging a 91% pass completion rate and with 13 interceptions to his name, Elneny has been the superglue that the broken pivots in the centre have craved since November. Let’s just hope his shooting is more Barcelona than Burnley in the future.
It would also be an understatement to say that Arsenal have struggled for goals over the past few months. While Theo Walcott’s early displays as a central striker bore promise, his technical limitations and anonymity throughout matches has seen him fall largely out of favour. Olivier Giroud, prolific until January has also seen his confidence in front of goal shattered after only scoring two goals in 15 appearances since bagging a brace at Anfield. Step forward Danny Welbeck, who after ten months out with bone bruising to the knee, has slotted back in as if he were never away.
Welbeck’s goals against Manchester United and Watford, although in vain, highlighted his considerable penalty area presence, while his well taken goal against Everton at Goodison Park put a few concerns about his finishing momentarily aside. Who knows how crucial his late winner against Leicester could prove to be as we approach the season finale?
A static and predictable front line now has a player in Welbeck who can use his impressive physique to hold the ball up and drop deep to link the play in midfield, but also offer the side the ability to play on the counter, with strong running and intelligent movement in behind – particularly on the flanks. The fact that he has quickly become so important tells you a lot about our fortunes going forward of late, but thankfully, rustiness has not been an issue as his rehabilitation goes from strength to strength.
Finally, everybody loves a youth product don’t they? Someone you can brand your own, in a culture of spending for those exotic names from abroad. Someone you can identify with. Someone ingrained with the culture and the history of the club. Step forward, Alex Iwobi. Did you know he’s the nephew of former PSG and Bolton player Jay-Jay Okocha? It hasn’t been mentioned much.
According to Arsene Wenger, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and after Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin before him – Iwobi has been the latest youngster to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. Starting in the absence of Mesut Ozil against Sunderland, Burnley and Hull, the low socked teenager did not look out of place, with his assured first touch, calmness on the ball and deceptive speed impressing not only the home crowd, but his manager. Never looking rushed and often making the right decisions, these are skills which are found on a seasoned veteran rather than on the shoulders of a player only just promoted to the first team.
His confident performance at the Nou Camp saw him earn a Premier League debut against Everton, in which his 86 minutes on the field were topped off with a debut goal and plaudits aplenty. It’s always difficult to tell with young players who burst onto the scene if they will have it in them to maintain their form, as opposition managers and defenders will now know to plan around them. But with his silky stride, an impressive awareness of those around him and an evident work ethic, Iwobi has demanded creative responsibility and delivered when called upon, which can only excite us for the future.
Unlike most, I will not call Olivier Giroud not good enough, I will not demand that Theo Walcott be shot, or Aaron Ramsey be sold on the back of a patchy season. But the truth is, when we really needed them to step up, they haven’t done so. It’s not just those three, with the whole team (bar Ozil, Cech and Monreal) deserving of the blame. However, as we know so well in football, when one door closes, another one opens and Elneny, Welbeck and Iwobi more than deserve their first team places at the moment.
Arsenal are exciting to watch again, and hopefully the desire for those who have lost their places to earn them back will breed competitiveness throughout the squad. Because despite the Champions League and the FA Cup unfortunately being beyond us, there are still 24 points up for grabs and we need those hungriest out on the pitch battling for every single one of those until they can do so no longer.