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Column: Arsenal, the real deal without Van Persie

SHARE Column: Arsenal, the real deal without Van Persie

Sshhh! Don't say this too loudly, but early signs this season point to Arsenal being a genuine Premier League title contender.

Gervinho, the forward so mediocre in his 2011-2012 debut for the Gunners, is scoring goals.

Santi Cazorla, the midfielder hired from Malaga in August, was surely one of the best summer buys by any Premier League team.

And the spongy, leaky Arsenal back four has, in perhaps the biggest surprise so far this season, been transformed into a defense finally worthy of that name.

Which, when the trophy is handed out next May, all might still amount to nothing, yet again.

A trip to Manchester City, the defending English champion, looms next Sunday. Arsenal then hosts Chelsea, the European champion, the weekend after that. Losing to both those sides could knock much of the stuffing out of Arsenal before its season has begun to build any meaningful momentum — just as its 8-2 surrender to Manchester United did early last season.

This time 12 months ago, "we were already out of the title race," manager Arsene Wenger acknowledged this past weekend.

So to shout any firm predictions now about Arsenal's title prospects is foolish. They can only be whispered, at best. But equally foolish were the premonitions of doom and gloom for Arsenal when it sold Robin van Persie to Manchester United in August.

Although Van Persie scored 30 of Arsenal's 74 league goals last season, his departure could actually be a blessing. Arsenal was over-reliant on him and his leadership as captain. Without him, Wenger can field a more balanced team that isn't so focused on one man and can tell his remaining players they all must now shoulder more responsibility and do more heavy lifting.

Gervinho, for example, seemed at times last season to have all but given up belief that he could score himself. Too often, the winger went for a pass instead of the goal. He was energetic and keen but dithered and couldn't finish. Four goals and five assists in 28 league appearances were nowhere near enough. Nor, for that matter, was Arsenal's goal total of 74 — 19 fewer than City's and 15 shy of runner-up United. Van Persie's eye-popping season as the league's top scorer simply helped to mask that not enough of his Arsenal teammates competed at his level.

But playing more in the center of attack against Southampton on Saturday, Gervinho was like a new man, dangerous and effective. For the first of his two goals, he invited a sublime chipped pass from Mikel Arteta by sprinting into space behind Southampton's defense. He then coolly sized up goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, shooting between his left post and outstretched left hand. It was incisive and convincing — everything Gervinho wasn't last season.

It also was against a team that played in English football's second tier last season and, promoted this season, has the most porous defense in the Premier League, conceding 14 goals in losing its first four matches. Two of Arsenal's six goals on Saturday were scored inadvertently by Southampton players. In short, one shouldn't read too much about Arsenal's fortunes from the tea leaves of this one, admittedly impressive, performance.

Still, shifting Gervinho off the wing is an interesting experiment from Wenger. He is tearing a leaf out of his own book, because he did similar with Thierry Henry, who became Arsenal's record scorer, and Van Persie. Gervinho is dozens of goals short from being even half the strikers they turned out to be. Still, watch this space. Olivier Giroud, hired to replace Van Persie, will need to start scoring, too, if Arsenal is to have sustained success this season. But until that happens, as it will, Gervinho looks like a useful stopgap and perhaps more.

"We transform all wingers into central strikers and all the strikers into wingers!" Wenger joked. "He is such a great mover and he is so quick. So when he is central, once he gets ahead of the central defender, it is difficult to catch him."

Even more remarkable is that Arsenal's defenders haven't conceded. Arsenal's only goal-against in four games was a gift from 'keeper Wojciech Szczesny. He dropped a Southampton cross into the feet of Daniel Fox, making his goal a formality. That blip aside, Wenger seems to have absorbed the lesson that a team which is confused and erratic in defense can't succeed, no matter how exciting it is to watch when going forward. This season, there is more purpose, discipline and concentration in Arsenal's defending.

As to be expected of seasoned players, Cazorla and forward Lukas Podolski look like they have been playing with Arsenal for years, not weeks. By hiring the Spain and German internationals, and Arteta and defender Per Mertesacker in 2011, Wenger sent reassuring signals that he recognizes the value of experience, even though he also prides himself on identifying and nurturing young players, in part to keep down transfer costs. Because of Cazorla's cleverness and passing from midfield, the departures of Cesc Fabregas and then Alex Song to Barcelona no longer seem like such damaging losses to Arsenal.

In short, the vibes from Arsenal so far look good.

Or, as Wenger put it, they are "interesting."

City and Chelsea will tell us if they're more than that.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester