Tom Oldfield

Arsene Wenger promised his team would show the substance to accompany the style this season – and so far his players have backed him up big time.

Arsenal began the season as outsiders to win the Premier League after finishing a distant fourth last year and Wenger was not exactly busy in the transfer market over the summer, making Ajax’s Thomas Vermaelen his only major signing.

Yet the Gunners have produced a string of explosive performances, providing reminders of their free-scoring glory years. With Cesc Fabregas leading by example in midfield, Arsenal have smashed six past Everton and Blackburn, adding four-goal masterclasses against Portsmouth, Wigan, AZ Alkmaar and Wolves. They are on course to set the record for league goals in a single season.

And while there are eerie similarities with their bright start to the 2007/08 campaign that turned sour in the final three months, Wenger clearly believes the current group are made of sterner stuff. The Gunners boss recently told the media: ‘Do we have enough? I say yes. I’ve said that since the first day of the season and it won’t change now. We want to show consistency and intelligence and that is not easy. I believe we have the opportunity and it will be down to our attitude.’

While the likes of Fabregas and Robin van Persie have rightly taken the bulk of the praise, there have been numerous unsung heroes in the Arsenal fold. One of them is Bacary Sagna, who continues to make the right-back slot his own with consistent, solid displays.
The Frenchman’s rise has been rather dramatic. He got his big break at Auxerre, where he burst onto the scene in 2004, before catching Wenger’s eye and moving to London in 2007 for £6M. It has proved to be a shrewd signing, with Sagna instantly finding his feet and winning over the Arsenal fans with his committed, action-packed playing style. Their title bid wilted, though, from late February onwards as Sagna found himself in what appeared to be an increasingly-dispirited dressing room.

His importance to the team was emphasised in a critical fixture away to Chelsea in March 2008. With both teams chasing leaders Manchester United, Sagna rose to head the Gunners into the lead but then limped off with an ankle injury. A minute later the Blues levelled and then ten minutes later Chelsea had netted their winner. The defender had left the action with 18 minutes to go but it was long enough for Arsenal to collapse in his absence.
After the joy-turned-disappointment of 2007/08 – Sagna’s first season in the Premier League – the defender was powerless to stop the Gunners slipping back into bad habits, with defeats against Hull, Stoke and Fulham during an inconsistent first half of the campaign. He and his team-mates turned things around after Christmas but were then blown away by United in the Champions League semi-final.
No fingers were pointed at Sagna, who has reportedly extended his contract at the club until 2014, but he knew this was not what the Arsenal fans had come to expect from their team. This season, the back four looks steadier – and happier. William Gallas seems to have put some of his grievances behind him while Vermaelen has given the defence a more secure look. And with defensive midfielder Alex Song shielding the rearguard, Sagna and Gael Clichy have license to roam forward. Both Frenchmen have the pace and energy to support the attack and they do so effectively, especially at the Emirates.

Sagna’s performances under Wenger have thrown his name into the hat at international level too. After several seasons with the under-21 squad, the defender made his senior debut in August 2007 in a friendly with Slovakia before appearing in his first competitive fixture in mid-October. Since then he has gone from strength to strength and, though he missed Euro 2008 due to injury, he is a certainty to be on the plane to the World Cup next summer after his country’s dramatic and controversial playoff victory over the Republic of Ireland.

For now, though, his focus is back on Arsenal, despite rumours of interest from Serie A. With van Persie out injured for four to six weeks, Arsenal’s squad depth will be tested. The beautiful passing moves, which so often lure the overlapping Sagna into the final third, will surely continue but it is all about the end product. Others must step up. Many still feel United and Chelsea are better equipped to compete over a 38-game league season and now is the Gunners’ chance to prove them wrong.
The approaching winter months will be pivotal for the Gunners as they attempt to avoid a repeat of their fading campaign two years ago. And Wenger can take comfort from the fact that Sagna’s performances will remain rock steady, as always.


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