Date: 23rd March 2009 at 11:55am
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Given that this is the first month of this season in which we have won all of our games (ergo the 1-0 defeat in Roma which yielded a penalty shoot out win), it is perhaps no surprise that this is the first month of the season in which I find myself with a plethora of candidates for Player of the Month. Whilst this season so far has had clear cut winners (January- van Persie, February- Gallas) and a few straw clutchers (November- Ramsey, August- Nasri). But as the Gunners have found rhythm and form, with the likes of Walcott and Eduardo returning, not to mention the arrival of Arshavin, the whole team has been lifted. To me that reveals that our squad is not experienced enough; because as experienced/ seasoned performers have come back into the team (or have been bought in from elsewhere) the younger players filed in the ‘potential` draw, such as Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner; appear to have lifted their respective games considerably. Indeed, Song and particularly Bendtner are worthy candidates for this award. Were it not for his profligacy against Blackburn, Bendtner might well have found himself astride the podium this month. Similarly, Song has become more creative with his game, more effusive with the ball. Another worthy contender this month would be Samir Nasri; who seems to have benefited from the arrival of Arshavin more than most. He has become liberated in recent games now that the burden has been eased. Wenger used the term “personality” to describe his performance against Blackburn and it does look as though he is finding his stamp on this team. But I note that Nasri`s only desperately average performance this month was out in Italy when Arshavin was cup tied. (Of course, Bendtner vastly outperformed Sami that evening, but still received the brunt of the brickbats in the post match write ups). Gallas and Sagna have been sturdy at the back but for one small aberration against Newcastle.

However, the March Player of the Month is going to our newest recruit. Andrey Arshavin has swept in to N5 and breathed spring into a place where the doom and gloom of winter appeared to have set up tent in the Marble Halls. Despite clearly lacking fitness in the games against Sunderland and Fulham, Arshavin showed something of a spark, an ability to produce moments of inspiration from nothing, an ability that only van Persie can realistically claim to match in our current squad. But this month has seen his fitness appear and he has begun to dovetail with the team perfectly, lifting the team and his team mates. In fact, his effect was so impressive at the beginning of March, that Arsene was afforded the luxury of leaving van Persie as an unused substitute for two consecutive matches. The month opened with an away encounter at West Brom which proceeded four consecutive goalless matches. He began upfront with Bendtner and the two formed an instant understanding, with Bendtner helping himself to two goals, whilst Arshavin bagged himself an assist with a delightful free kick into the area for Toure to score. He also nearly came away from the Hawthorns with his first goal after an intelligent run into the box and a fine cut back from Bendtner. Against Burnley, Arshavin started on the left, it took him twenty five minutes to swell his assist tally. He won the ball back on the left flank and played an instant through ball to Carlos Vela; which the Mexican dispatched with consummate aplomb. He almost grabbed another assist too; putting Walcott in on goal with another first time pass which split the Burnley rearguard. One of the most eye catching aspects of Arshavin`s ongoing adaptation period is his speed at releasing the ball, the instant vision and quick brain that characterises his all round play. Whilst he will still need tome to fully adjust to the hustle and bustle of Premiership football, his lightning quick decision making will serve him and the team well. (Take note Abou Diaby, you do not need to wait twenty seconds before you release the ball). It is also a much needed trait in an Arsenal team that had become far too contemplative and pretentious in its build up play, Arshavin has added some zest and pace to our attacks.

Arshavin of course did not play in Rome in a game where few Arsenal players impressed, particularly of the attacking vintage; chances were once again at a premium in his absence and the Gunners looked shorn of inspiration, van Persie was bordering on liability whilst Nasri plumped for plain old anonymity. Andrey`s arrival back into the side that Saturday heralded a four goal haul; albeit against weaker opposition at home. He was involved in the melee which bought about the first goal after great link up play between Bendtner and Walcott, so much so that Andre Ooijer`s own goal was originally credited to him by the stadium announcer. His vision and passing accuracy presented Bendtner with two of the four golden chances he squandered in the second half before cutting in from the left himself; shimmying past Danny Simpson and coolly lifting the ball over Robinson from an impossible angle. It was a piece of genius sorely lacking in the dreary drawy winter months. Similarly against Hull City, in a first half where the Gunners appeared to be bereft of attacking impetus, it was Arshavin who got hold of the game at the end of the first half with a triumvirate of efforts at the Hull goal, one in particular a spectacular improvised volley. He also bagged yet another assist after Bendtner`s good work on the right, Arshavin had the presence of mind to tuck the ball back to the better placed van Persie. It emphasised how Arshavin has, not so much fitted in with the Arsenal philosophy so quickly, but he has rekindled it. Unselfish play, intelligent runs, fast, incisive passing, all hallmarks of Wenger`s great teams forgotten in the current league of chin stroking artistes. It demonstrates not only a fast football brain, but the benefit of having a 27 year old in the crucial areas; the kind of sangfroid we have missed since Hleb departed and Rosicky was abducted by aliens. Arshavin did not have his most inspirational match on Tyneside, but he did grab yet another assist with another inch perfect free kick. He also ran powerfully at the heart of the Barcodes defence and smash a shot onto the crossbar from range. That sense of directness and willingness to strike that really only Rosicky has evident in his buccaneering play and delightful ball control.

Much of Arshavin`s play has been incredibly commendable, but it is not only what he has bought as an individual that has been so notable in our upturn in form. His qualities directly mimic all that we had lacked this season; his arrival lifted the entire club and has put confidence and ebullience into some of our younger charges. Bendtner appears to have formed an instant understanding with him, as has van Persie, the balance he has bought to the side with him and Nasri on the flanks has also benefited the team incalculably. He has sped the team up in the final third with his audacious first time passing. He has also lifted the supporters and whilst it is far, far too early to equate his signing with the likes of Campbell and Bergkamp, you could see this club was in need of an experienced, seasonal player of the highest quality just as we were in 1995 and in 2001. Whilst he will still require time to acclimatise to the physical nature of the game, a close up view of El Hadji Diouf`s x rated lunge at Almunia and the “treatment” dished out to him by Steven Taylor on Saturday will have given him a good idea of what to expect. He has still yet to face top drawer opposition, but the fixture run in will give him plenty of opportunity there. Most of Arshavin`s impact is a direct reflection of his quality, but some of it is unwitting on his part, just by functioning as he does, he has filled a huge chasm in the team. He will still find it tough going in some games yet; and we should exercise patience with him; players can also find themselves succumbing to “new manager syndrome” when results immediately pick up before the inevitable dip. Hopefully, the fact that he cannot play in Europe will give him ample rest and recuperation time and aid his adaptation. Arsenal did not score for four games in February and are missing a man who netted thirty times last season, yet nobody is talking about him and questions whether he will walk straight back into the team will be asked. That is how significant Andrey has been to this point. Let`s hope it continues.LD.