The Word is “Character”

Despite the managerial change, it was the same old trip to the Reebok on Sunday afternoon. Bone-crunching tackles, frustration taken out physically, and slightly questionable sportsmanship, yet Arsenal persevered and showed great character in a match that was much harder-fought than your average 2-nil victory.

Bolton’s place in the table notwithstanding, no one could have expected this to be an easy fixture despite Arsenal’s recent record against the club. In fact, it is delusional, whether on the part of fans, commentators, or pundits, to think there is anything resembling an easy match in the Premier League, even for the Big 3.

However, with Fabregas just returned from injury, a debutant in a central midfield that was missing its lynchpin and enforcer, and a third-string left-back, Arsenal turned out a gritty performance and secured maximum points. It’s even more impressive because the club comes into this home-and-away with Bolton knowing that two wins with a goal differential of 4 will tie them for top of the league.

As expected, the match got a bit testy and a bit dirty at times, and Bolton surely created enough chances to come away with a point. Yet, Arsenal took their chances, including an inspiring one-two capped off by Cesc Fabregas’s 10th league goal of the season (in 16 matches) and even better-taken goal by our supposedly want-away youngster.

Despite a few bad turnovers in midfield, Diaby showed the increasing presence he has developed this season, as he uses his strength and build to his advantage making him one of the hardest players to dispossess. Eastmond made accepted debutant mistakes but, overall, looked calm and confident. Armand Traore, once again,  struggled in the defensive third as Bolton tried to exploit our biggest defensive weakness reminding us why he was switched to playing left-midfield in the reserves last season. On the other hand, Gael Clichy looked fairly sharp on his return, even playing a more advanced position to afford Traore a bit more help on the left than he had received for most of the match.

But the day belonged, once again, to the little Spanish maestro. Early on in the match, the commentator called Cesc “just below world-class.” I don’t know who he’s been watching but if Cesc’s form this season isn’t world-class, no one’s is. 10 goals and 12 assists in 16 Premier League starts? Give me a break! He is 8th in the league in goals-scored, but all 7 ahead of him are strikers. And none even come close to being able to dream about his assist total. I know many English fans have an ingrained aversion to statistics, or doubt their ability to quantify a game like football, but these numbers tell the story. But, perhaps, not the complete story…

Cesc’s contribution to this club cannot be measured in goals and assists alone. One must consider his brand of leadership as the side’s captain. He doesn’t say “Do this because I’m telling you!” Rather, he says, “Do this because I do it!” No one worked harder on the pitch yesterday than Cesc. With the one-nil lead and Cohen just about to rip a shot from just outside the box, Cesc slid in front, taking the hit, to block the shot as if it was a cup-final. THAT is how you lead by example.

Cesc’s outstanding form, and his performance in the Villa match, has led to some pundits questioning whether or not Arsenal are a one-man side. But even when Cesc was out, we still got results. When Liverpool are missing either Gerrard or Torres, they fold like house of cards. Arsenal, rather, continue to grind out results and got big performances from the now-injured Aaron Ramsey during the captain’s absence. Any world-class player is missed when he is not on the pitch, but to say that Arsenal are over-reliant on Cesc is wrong.

The ineffectiveness of the front-line continued but, as they have all season, the midfield picked them up. It’s almost the same dynamic as earlier in the season when the forwards weren’t scoring.You get the feeling that we can’t go on like this for too long, but the goals keep coming. Sooner than later, Bendtner and Walcott will be back and Vela’s role should grow as the season goes on. If this team actually does on to win the league, despite missing their best goalscorer for most of the season, and I truly believe we can, it would be an awesome achievement.

One wonders if the stories in the papers about Fran haven’t forced Wenger into giving him enough time on the pitch to make a final decision on him. He looked nervy when he first came on, with a few errant passes, but gradually grew into the match, and was into it enough by the last ten minutes to be in the right place at the right time and execute a collected finish.

Arsenal are now a win on Wednesday away from being level on points with Chelsea. We are a 3-nil victory away from being clear top of the league. The media and other supporters laughed at us after the Chelsea match, when Arsene and many optimistic supporters, claimed that we were still in the title race. The team has proven those of us right. I just could never see Arsene giving up on this side or the players giving up on themselves.

Both the players and the supporters have come too far and been through too much disappointment in the last few years to just walk away because of one defeat or even a double-digit deficit. That is not the Arsenal way.