A year ago this weekend Arsenal had just lost to Manchester City to leave the club in sixth place, 21 points behind leader Manchester United. The Gunners were on a run of three games in which they picked up only one point.
Five months ago nearly to the day Aston Villa defeated Arsenal 3-1 in as depressing home match as I can remember, and I’ve been to a few – Watford at Highbury on Easter Monday April 1986 was one - in which a mutinous crowd fed up to the back teeth of ongoing mediocrity, in place of a managerless team turned on Peter Hill-Wood. The atmosphere at the end of the opening game of this season was comparably toxic, as fans turned on the club, on Wenger and on the board.
Last night we took on Villa in the return fixture. The intervening months have not been kind to the Birmingham club. Their fans have accused them of lacking ambition and playing defensive football. Christian Benteke, so lauded last season has been a shadow of his previous self and the team has been mired in mid-table mediocrity that threatens to spill over into a relegation battle.
Arsenal on the other hand – although completely written off by any number of so-called pundits – have regularly led the Premier League, have smashed their transfer record, have bolstered by goals from players in the form of their life who had been routinely criticised last season, and the team itself has looked far more cohesive and unified.
They have also showed what any number of so-called pundits, because they lack the wit or articulacy to describe it in any other way, for want of a better phrase: ‘bottle’.
Fresh on the heels of picking up points in Newcastle against a resurgent Geordie team – incidentally I wonder what rant Pardew would have let rip at Wenger, although his recent Pellegrini effort was nothing short of majestic in its sub-standard Danny Dyer crassness (‘Shut your noise you f*cking old c*nt’ is surely only a close second to someone mouthing ‘shut it you sl*g’ in faux cockney speak) – this Arsenal side again showed character, a willingness to battle for each other, a propensity to bawl one another out if needed (witness the BFG’s response to Santi losing the ball for Lowton’s cross) a defensive discipline and a general tenacity that has been sorely missed for the last few years.
We are certainly one of those clubs that never make it easy for ourselves. After coasting for 75 minutes we invited the Villa to bombard us with renewed belief after conceding Benteke’s first goal since September. Where we differed from previous years was the fact we hung on. Even Rosicky, a player of finesse and skill was willing to get involved in the cause, suffering ‘an injured nose’ after a speedy but ultimately ineffectual Agbonlahor used his elbow.
I do a few bits and pieces for the Evening Standard - for what it’s worth here are my player ratings for last night - but the fear I had during those last 15 minutes of a Villa equaliser was palpable. Mind you so was my pride in the team in securing three vital points to propel us back to the top of the league. Quite simply this Arsenal vintage is ready to show its undoubted steel to go with the passing and movement we have always had. It is a good combination to have.
Twelve months ago Arsenal were nearer in points to QPR than the top of the table.
A year later we lead the most open title race in years.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the season – bearing in mind the powerful squad Manchester City possess (don’t forget to send those cards of condolence to Samir Nasir on his injury Gunners fans) and the fact that when Chelsea won the league in 2005 they didn’t concede a league goal from November to February and are starting to look ominous in their form and tactical discipline again - we should all be very proud of what Arsenal Football Club, Arsene Wenger and the team have done over the last five months.
We now have a nucleus of home-grown and promising British youngsters signed to long contracts who actually take pride in playing for the club – are you watching Hleb and Song, RVP et al?
Ally this with the skills, technique and flair of Ozil, Santi, Arteta; the hugely improved Giroud – is there a better player in the Premier League at holding the ball up with his back to goal and playing the direction he is facing? – and place alongside the persistence of Flamini and the defensive solidity of the BFG and Kos; not to mention Chesney proving to us what we all knew he was capable of, namely being a very good, solid and commanding keeper, the future looks bright. Not just for this season but for the next few years. And that’s without mentioning the return of the Ox or the undoubted promise of Gnabry. Or Theo for next year.
So whatever happens in the next few months – and that’s not to say we won’t be challenging ‘When Spring Turns To Summer/ The First Week Of May’ because I think we will - we should remember where were and how we felt a mere five months ago after the opening game of the season.
I’m sure Villa fans do.
Follow Layth on Twitter, @laythy29
Apart from being a regular contributor to Sabotage, Layth has written for When Saturday Comes, World Soccer Magazine, Four-Four-Two, The Gooner, The London Evening Standard, The Sunday People, In Bed With Maradona, The Football Pink and The Inside Left.