This calendar year has been a good one for Arsenal. They’ve had the most wins, clean sheets, won the most points, scored the most and conceded the fewest. They’ve accumulated 78 points, ten clear of Man City. They were equally impressive through 2013 and showed spells, if not quite as sustained, of brilliance in 2014; which included the most time spent at the summit of the Premier League.
It’s a strange phenomenon to be good over two half seasons, rather than an entire August-May campaign. A league will generally reward the most consistent performers as they deserve. Maybe they do need a winter break. Alexis last season dropped off towards the end of the year and the beginning of 2015, Özil looked physically drained. That affected the team, no doubt, but the problem goes beyond that.
Arsenal’s achievements between January and December are augmented by sensational performance against the mid-to-lower tier clubs and struggling against opposition of their calibre. (However, they are breaking that trend through adaptability against top teams) These strings of impressive runs exhibit quite how good Arsenal are if conditions suited them and teams played into their hands. But now they’ve become battle-hardened and realised that they can’t bend opposition to their every demand. They aren’t good enough to do that.
The match against Man City last season at the Etihad was the perfect example. They held a deep line, something that they wouldn’t previously do – partly out of naïveté and plain disorganisation. Yet they still managed to play to their strengths when on the ball. Santi Cazorla started in midfield and dribbled through waves of pressure and Giroud held the ball up as well as ever.
Bayern were pulled in by Arsenal’s extended reach on the counter. Ruthless and precise, against Europe’s most balanced side, they were fortunate in cases but did enough to deserve the win. Arsenal are taking to the pressure and have developed a very mature mind set amongst a team with some young heads guided by experienced campaigners. The team is reaching the top of a cycle that has taken it through some tough learning curves, great victories and invaluable, intensive camaraderie building.
This comes at an excellent time for Wenger, when his main opposition are weakened or disoriented. I suppose that sentence doesn’t apply to Leicester because they cannot be considered serious title challengers (I would very much like to eat my words and weight in Walkers if they pull it off). Dismissing them may seem callous even at this stage considering they have the most coherent and consistent attacking line up in the league. However Claudio Ranieri’s men are riding the crest of a wave that will surely collapse. His side’s level of performance has increased with confidence but a spell on the sidelines for one of his key players is inevitable over such a hectic schedule.
In this article, Michael Caley shows that teams shallower in squad depth and with a lower wage bill (money is a good indicator of talent in football) tend to do worse during the festive period than the more established clubs. That cannot negate Leicester’s form but does draw concern over the quality of replacements for the likes of N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez.
In comparison, Arsenal have suffered huge losses to their starting XI and a thinning of their bench, but still are powering forward and keeping in contention for top spot. A likely theme that’s produced an unexpected resilience. The likes of Campbell and Flamini have stepped up and that was evident in their critical stress tests against Olympiakos, under the burden of pressure, and against City, under the expectation of a home crowd.
Arsenal no doubt limited Manchester City but the Mancunians’ shortcomings were evident. Silva was nowhere near his serpentine best, Yaya Touré had a decreasingly uncharacteristic lazy game until he scored, Agüero was allowed little space because Arsenal are comfortable marking tight and Otamendi was fragile. Pellegrini’s side has been contaminated with an erratic edge. They can be so unpredictable and that’s a huge hindrance in a league, especially with a middle-class on the rise. That’s why the knockout nature of the Champions League, allowing them to focus on any single opposition, may be an advantage to them. And if it is, they’ll take European nights more seriously than Saturday kick-offs because proving themselves their will show more tangible evidence of progression.
Across town, United currently cannot tell their elbows from their arseholes and Louis van Gaal is embarking on a serious mission of reinvention. The time he takes to get their gears in place, they may be too far adrift from the top to challenge for the league. This is why, purely in context of competition, this is Arsenal’s best chance to end a twelve year league drought.
This is the culmination of years of work by Wenger. He’s built the side to his specifications – he chose not to strengthen in the summer and that decision has stood the test of injuries to key players. February is normally the time it all unravels for the North London side but that’s when Wenger will have a fully fit Alexis and should mark the return of the Coquelin-Cazorla partnership. Arsenal have provided us with enough evidence to suggest they can hurdle their annual obstacles and there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to do so.