By Ewan Roberts
For most sides, the prospect of back-to-back trips to the Stadio San Paolo and Etihad Stadium would be a daunting one. But not Arsenal. Arsene Wenger takes his men to Italy on Wednesday night to face a Napoli side who have lost just once at home, before meeting a Manchester City side who boast a 100 per cent home record in the Premier League. Neither trip will be treated with fear or trepidation, though. Not anymore.
The Gunners have lost just one of their last 17 away matches in all competitions, winning 15 of those encounters (including the Capital One Cup shoot-out victory over West Brom). They top the Premier League away form table this season, averaging 2.28 points per game on their travels, and boast the best away defensive record in the division, conceding just five times.
It all began at the Allianz Arena in March. Just as they were being written off - Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas remarked that they were on a "negative spiral" after losing the north London derby - and fresh from an FA Cup exit at the hands of Blackburn, they did the impossible and beat Bayern Munich in Bavaria.
|ARSENAL'S ALLIANZ AWAKENING
|AWAY FORM SINCE MARCH 2013
LEAGUE POINTS GAINED
POINTS PER GAME
Arsenal's success that night was built on a solid, uncompromising defensive display – of the 54 games that the treble winners played in 2012-13, it was the one and only time that they failed to score. It was also the first time that Wenger appeared to finally, unequivocally settle on his first-choice centre-back pairing and that meant that there was no place for club captain Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian had started 24 of 28 Premier League matches and been ever-present in the Champions League prior to the trip to Munich but was axed for Laurent Koscielny.
It is the partnership between the Frenchman, whose longest run of league starts that season prior to the toppling of Bayern was just three back in November, and Per Mertesacker that has formed the basis for Arsenal's dominance on the road. The duo - and the rest of the back five - look stronger than they have done for many, many seasons, in part owed to the hard work done by assistant manager Steve Bould on the training field.
Since, and including, the 2-0 win over Bayern, the pair have played together in 13 away games, never losing and only failing to win once – the single blotch on Arsenal's away form came at Old Trafford, a game which Mertesacker missed through illness. Together they have conceded a mere four goals and kept an astonishing nine clean sheets in those 13 matches.
|"Defensively we are a bit more stable and a bit more serene"
- Arsene Wenger
Though played at the Emirates, the pair's tussle with Romelu Lukaku on Sunday gave a perfect demonstration of their wonderfully complimentary partnership. Koscielny used his pace to thwart the Belgian, denying him the chance to latch onto balls slid down the channels and stepping up with supreme authority (he made an astonishing eight interceptions against Everton), while the talkative Mertesacker controlled the aerial side, contesting physically with the brute strength of the Chelsea loanee, while also marshalling and organising the backline.
Another key component of that newfound solidity has been the form of Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole was dropped for the last-16 tie against Bayern, with Lukasz Fabianski preferred instead, and many will remember Bould's incredulous look towards Wenger when Andreas Weimann netted a soft goal against Szczesny in February, appearing to mouth: "How many times?"
|KOSCIELNY & MERTESACKER
|THE DUO'S AWAY FORM SINCE MUNICH
AERIAL DUELS WON
That killer second goal typified the transformation of a side who, barely two years ago, went on an eight-game winless run away from home (which saw them concede 24 goals) – the longest drought that the club had experienced since 1988. Not only are Arsenal less vulnerable on the counterattack now, they are also more proficient themselves.
Olivier Giroud's 87th-minute goal was one of seven counters that the Gunners have launched away from home this term that have led to shots, while they have conceded just one shot on the break themselves in nine away ties – and that came against arguably the most devastating counterattacking side in Europe, Jurgen Klopp's quick-transitioning Borussia Dortmund. In their away drought of 2011, they allowed nine counterattacks that produced shots on goal.
The return of Mathieu Flamini has certainly helped, adding both greater protection in front of the back four and allowing the players ahead of him greater freedom. Arsenal have frequently used both the French enforcer and Mikel Arteta together, creating a much more orthodox 4-2-3-1 with two players sitting, rather than having one holding and two more advanced players in the trio of central midfielders.
As a result, Arsenal are less easy to penetrate though the middle; when they lost 8-2 to Manchester United, 35% of the Red Devils' attacks came down the middle. On the Gunners' most recent trip to Old Trafford, that figure was just 19%. That re-jigged midfield has also released Aaron Ramsey, who has been particularly devastating away from home. Seven of the Welshman's 10 goals in the Premier League and Champions League group stage have come away from the Emirates.
Flamini's inclusion also highlights a more pragmatic approach from Wenger. The side are more willing to sacrifice possession now, having just 41% of the ball against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium earlier this year, while the use of "game-killer" Nacho Monreal embodies that renewed caution. The Spanish full-back has replaced an attacker inside the last 20 minutes on 13 occasions in all competitions, usually with Arsenal holding only a narrow lead, and the side have won every single time.
There is no single defining factor that has transformed Arsenal's away form but an amalgamation that precedes even the arrivals of Flamini and club-record signing Mesut Ozil. The defence is more stable, the goalkeeper more consistent and there is greater solidity throughout the spine of the side. The club's away record will be tested to the maximum over the next four days but never have they seemed more capable of rising to the challenge.
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