Twelve games in, a quarter of the Premier League season gone, and Arsenal sit joint top with Manchester City, with 26 points apiece. Once again, seemingly inevitably, that same old question pops up: Does Arsenal have it in them to win the title?
It isn’t a question of whether they can do it, whether the overall quality is there, or even, as is often discussed, whether the squad has the striker needed to win the Premier League. As Gunners and opposing fans alike have realised by now, it is all about the mentality at a club that goes through tremendous highs and lows during a season just to always end up in that same spot, that familiar position.
Last season, Arsenal led the league on Christmas Day, only to wither away after a bad run of form, proving the detractors right that the North London club was barely a serious contender in the first place. Their downfall was only a matter of time. So as a result, this time around, optimism remains the exception, not the rule. This, even as the team have won 5 out of their last 6 matches in the Premier League and shown the resolve to fight back to get a valuable point in a North London they were largely outplayed.
Arsenal’s season began with a comfortable and dominant Community Shield win over an unprepared Chelsea. For Chelsea, the signs of their demise were already there for all to see. Their attack had gone stale, especially with key attacking figures going quiet (Costa, Fabregas, Hazard), alongside an uncharacteristingly poor defensive system that left lots of space for Arsenal to exploit.
The Community Shield was supposed to give confidence to a team that needed wins like that one in order to convince themselves of the possibility of actually capturing the Premier League. The club relies on resounding performances such as that one to prove their worth, as prior struggles against top teams in recent years have prevented this belief from coming from within.
This is why the unlikely but resolute 2-0 victory over Guardiola’s Bayern at the Emirates in the Champions League was so important. It meant a break with the past, a step away from the debilitating mentality plaguing the club. Yet, immediately after that, this fell by the wayside as Bayern got their revenge at home little more than a week later.
Instead of building on a solid Community Shield win over their cross city rivals, Arsenal’s season got off to a slow start, dropping the opener to West Ham and eventually reverting into an old uncompetitive mindset against a lethargic Chelsea in week 6, even though they already had beaten them earlier in the season and were well aware of Mourinho’s team struggles.
Since then, though, Arsenal’s response couldn’t have been any clearer. Led by the incisive passing of Ozil, and the chances created by the speedy former Masia man, Hector Bellerin, Arsenal have provided the attacking football a club of their stature demands and deserves while also fixing some of the defensive issues that have plagued them during big matchups in the past, as was the case with the authoritative 3-0 victory over Manchester United.
Current injuries aside, Wenger has successfully managed to alternate between Giroud and Walcott as the sole striker depending on the opponent, offering a different player profile according to specific scenarios. These different dimensions add to Arsenal’s attack and prevent the club from becoming predictable.
In fact, it can be argued that Arsenal are a bit like their best player of the season so far, Mesut Ozil: nimble, mobile, entertaining when in form, and capable of delightful passing, though often vehemently criticized when things go wrong because of a supposed lackadaisical and halfhearted response to adversity. The German’s style of play is languid, and many seem to find joy in his failures and inconsistency, faulting him for lack of effort since the quality and the ability is obviously there. Needless to say something similar has been the case with Arsenal in recent years.
Arsenal Football Club are also reflection of their manager: sophisticated and philosophical but weighed down by a tremendous anxiety surrounding the uncertainties of the future. Few managers in the game suffer more than Arsene. And few supporters suffer more than Arsenal. This special sort of suffering has yet to be lifted, FA Cup victories and all.
So who are Arsenal competing with? Chelsea show no signs of exiting the depth of their self-inflicted sorrows and even though Ranieri has Leicester City just one point behind them in the table, Leicester competing for the title seems like a bit of a stretch. That leaves the teams from Manchester. City still look vulnerable behind their double pivot while Louis Van Gaal’s possession game can’t seem to convert those advantages into enough meaningful goal-scoring chances.
Given a more open Premier League race, some optomistic gunners truly believe that victory is possible, insisting that this time is different. Others, more dejected and with less patience, are getting ready for the disappointment that the past has told them they should already expect. For Arsene and for Arsenal, it is only a matter of time. For now, Arsenal doesn’t see an opening or an opportunity. They see their recent past. More than competing with United or City, they are competing with themselves.
Premier League Record: 8W 2D 2L
Key players so far: Mesut Ozil & Hector Bellerin
Key to success: Coquellin and whether he can stay healthy and keep the side balanced.