By Josh Clarke
Conventional analysis suggests that the opener to Arsenal’s 15th consecutive Champions League campaign will hardly rank among the Gunners’ finest European nights.
Indeed, if life were fair Montpellier would have probably walked away from their Champions League debut with three points in hand.
However, for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, the hard-fought yet arguably undeserved 2-1 victory in France bears several promising hallmarks – with a growing, pragmatic solidity at the heart of the team first and foremost.
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Podolski further underlined his increasing importance to the team with a clinical first-time finish – his third goal in three games – that immediately drew the Gunners level after a sluggish start best epitomised by the needlessness of the ninth minute penalty conceded by Thomas Vermaelen.
The ruthless nature of Podolski’s effort provoked an assured Gunners response, with Gervinho’s subsequent initiation and conclusion of a sweeping counter proving isolated yet decisive moments of high quality for the visitors.
What makes Podolski such an important acquisition for Arsenal is that the winger marries moments of quality in the final third with industry and team ethic.
In recent years wingers in Wenger’s side have been too often characterised by whimsical performances, with Theo Walcott and Gervinho the culprits who spring to mind. Even if his finishing were to be off-song, it is hard to envision a game where Podolski would not be a positive and forceful influence.
After taking the lead it was hardly vintage stuff from the Gunners as they weathered wave after wave of Montpellier attack, yet the evidence from last term is littered with examples of these kinds of circumstances costing Wenger dearly.
Steve Bould will rightfully be identified as the chief driving force behind a markedly more resilient Arsenal rearguard but the contribution of Mertesacker should not be understated.
The towering centre-half came under fire last season, perhaps unfairly derided for a series of poor defensive displays that, in retrospect, signified problems with the whole, rather than the individual.
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This season Mertesacker has thrived off the meritocratic selection of Arsenal’s back four with his partnership with Vermalen producing consecutive clean sheets early on to keep Laurent Koscielny, the club’s best defender last year, without a sniff of first-team action.
Mertesacker already looks better equipped to deal with both continental and domestic attacking threats and the defensive stability that has so far characterised the Gunners’ start to the campaign provides a stark contrast to last season’s shambles.
After the 6-1 mauling of Southampton at the weekend, Wenger was quick to draw attention to the archetypal ‘Spanish’ qualities brought to the team by the season’s early stand-out performance Santi Cazorla.
It would be interesting to hear the French boss’ take on what specific characteristics Mertesacker and Podolski offer his side.
The duo may not take the breath away but their dependability has been the cornerstone of the Gunners’ unbeaten start to the season.
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