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Nov 14, 2010

Gunners learning to do the dirty work

Arsenal are not just challenging for the title. They are challenging preconceptions. It is one of a strange season's more unexpected trends that the southern softies appear more assured in the north than on the manicured lawns of the Emirates. Near the foot of the Fair Play League, the born-again bad boys are passing the stern tests and failing the simpler ones.

• Cesc targets Chelsea
• Team of the Week
• Saturday's round-up
• Premier League gallery

Despite defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle on their own turf, Arsenal have returned to second place, a position that is experiencing its own sort of squad rotation. That they have drawn at Anfield and won at Ewood Park, Eastlands and now Everton means Arsenal have 10 points out of 12 in the North West, English football's historic heartland, and the majority of their points have come north of the Watford Gap. Once deemed flat-track bullies, they now have the best away record in the division.

Bacary Sagna and Cesc Fabregas delivered the goals, but the entire team provided an example of resilience on the road. The sort of qualities that tend to be associated with Chelsea have, even if only temporarily, been borrowed by Arsenal. Admittedly, there was more than a touch of class about each goal and there were moments of exquisite quality but, by Arsenal's standards, there were times when they were grinding it out.

Think of Arsene Wenger's side and the images that spring to mind tend to be deft flicks, as Marouane Chamakh supplied for the second goal, and technically-perfect finishes, such as Fabregas' execution. Victories at places such as Goodison Park - with the exception of last year's improbable, unbeatable 6-1 triumph - tend to require other qualities. Arsenal displayed them.

Deep into injury time, Johan Djourou and Gael Clichy, who can seem the more fallible half of the defence, were flinging themselves in the way of shots. The delicate Tomas Rosicky was throwing his body in the way of the rather more direct Seamus Coleman to prevent the Evertonian crossing. Earlier, Alex Song contrived to head away a shot from Louis Saha and was greeted with the sort of reception that tends to be reserved for goalscorers.

Taking a pride in defending is something that the Arsenal of stereotype might disdain. Not on this occasion. This was sleeves-rolled-up, earthy endeavour. A willingness to get dirty is leading to accusations that they are dirty. They have been shown four red cards already this season and Evertonians were baying for a fifth when Sebastien Squillaci brought down Saha and again when Fabregas fouled Sylvain Distin. It wasn't quite an action replay of his challenge on Wolves' Stephen Ward on Wednesday. In this instance, the caution was definitely correct.

The physicality of Fabregas, Squillaci and Song, to name but three, is a sign Arsenal are becoming more assertive in their bid to prove they are not cowed by bigger or older opponents. They are endearing themselves to few among opposing supporters but plaudits have not brought prizes in recent years.

"We get a lot of encouragement from the way we play at the moment," said Wenger. "The most important qualities we have shown are discipline, commitment, togetherness, desire and 100% focus for 90 minutes. When you come here without that you don't get the three points."

And yet, doggedly as the rest of the team played, the win could be attributed to their resident enigma. Lukasz Fabianski, the Jekyll-and-Hyde goalkeeper, was in defiant form. In a week when Arsenal have been deprived of the services of the suspended Laurent Koscielny as well as the injured Thomas Vermaelen, his acrobatics were essential.

While Tim Cahill eventually defeated the Pole, a hat-trick of saves in eight, frenzied minutes ensured Jermaine Beckford, Steven Pienaar and Louis Saha did not join him on the scoresheet. "We needed a few good saves," admitted Wenger.

"I can't really say we deserved an awful lot," said an honest David Moyes. "I didn't think Arsenal were great on the day but I didn't think we were."

Arsenal, however, allied moments of quality to their graft. Sagna's first goal since March 2008 was a thunderbolt after Andrei Arshavin laid the ball back into his path, Fabregas' strike both a languidly classy finish and the culmination of an intricate, essentially Arsenal move.

The instigator was Denilson, brought on for Jack Wilshere at half-time. "I wanted a second holding player to win the second ball from headers," Wenger added. As the idealist sounded distinctly practical, another preconception went out of the window.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Samir Nasri - Descriptions such as "much improved" can tend to be reserved for players who weren't particular good to begin with. Nasri's talent has been apparent in his first two seasons in England, but the Frenchman is increasingly powerful and effective.

EVERTON VERDICT: The stirring, late rally was a product of Moyes' decision to go for broke and field Saha, Beckford and Yakubu at the same time. It almost paid off. Before then, Everton's most effective performers were Phil Jagielka, subject of a summer bid from Wenger, and their budding Bale, Coleman. The converted full-back acquires a real head of steam when he sprints along the touchline.

ARSENAL VERDICT: A week that began terribly, with defeat at home to Newcastle, has ended rather well. The sight of Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott on the bench, with neither deemed fully fit, indicates that they can get stronger and that Wenger will have enviable decisions to make in the attacking berths. One of the deputies at the back, Djourou, may not fully convince, but he hasn't let them down either.

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