25 January 2014

The Ox talks up togetherness, a factor in the squad's success

After the FA Cup fourth-round win over Coventry, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who played 71 minutes, spoke about an oft-overlooked element that has been driving the club's success: togetherness. Speaking at the club site, Ox pointed out that "[t]he main group and the spine of the team has been together for two or three years so it’s starting to form that togetherness." I'll stop short of calling this togetherness a "new signing," but it's most-definitely a a crucial factor. For as much as we've enjoyed the arrivals of Özil and Flamini, the early-season form of Giroud and Ramsey, the unity and coherence of this squad has allowed it to grind out results. That element may not inspire headlines—"we like each other" is a bit less attention-grabbing than, say, "Arsenal agree to £45m deal with _________"—but it's hard to overestimate its importance.

As we all know, last summer was the first from several that didn't see key players depart. That speaks in part to the club's improved standing during last season's run-in, itself a product of a galvanized squad that found strength in each other after dispiriting losses to Tottenham and Bayern, the kind of losses that might have been so demoralizing as to see an entire season collapse. However, the spirit that Ox mentions must have already been there, nascent but ready to burst forth. Sure enough, ever since the start of the current campaign, the spirit and togetherness of the squad is hailed from almost every direction.

As Ox was talking, he was referring to a mistake he made that led to Coventry very nearly scoring to make it 2-1. Describing the response from Per, Ox had the following to say:
I gave the ball away and it resulted in them hitting the post. I knew what I did wrong there, and Per just gave me a friendly reminder. That's what you need; you need to keep each other's standards high, and we'll be doing it all season. But it's important that we do it in the right way, whoever it is. If it's Per, he'll have a shout, but then afterwards he will come and explain it to you, and that's what makes you respond to it. He doesn't do it in a negative way, and that's the way we go about it. We just keep doing things positively.
This isn't the first time Per has stepped up and lain into a teammate for a mistake, whether it was Cazorla's give-away against Aston Villa that did lead to a goal to make it 2-1 or excoriating Özil for failing to applaud the away-support after the loss at the Etihad. Ox's larger point about doing it "in the right way" is vital here, as a squad struggling for some kind of identity, cohesiveness, or form can't get into such issues without it looking and feeling like sniping, quarreling, or worse. It's not that winning gives players more leeway to launch into tirades or that losing paints everyone as a complainer; it's more that the spirit in the squad itself both drives a desire for success and an understanding of how to rely on each other to achieve that success.

There's something to be said for how harmony within the squad can bring out the best in each member—each player knows the others' abilities and preferences and can start to play to that, whether it's remembering that a teammate likes to receive a pass on a certain foot or that another teammate can be counted on to make a run or track back. Conversely, it can come from remembering that a certain player doesn't have the confidence or technique to use his left foot or is feeling a bit overmatched against an opponent. From the outside, it's difficult if not impossible for us to notice such ineffabilities, but they're there, and the lads clearly feel it and feed on it.

The transfer-window may yet close without Arsène signing anyone of note, at least not a flesh-and-blood player who dons a kit, but he's built a squad from top to bottom, a squad whose members are ready to go to war for each other, and that's beautiful to see.