The new Premier league season has seen an unlikely leader- Arsenal. With the lack of transfer activity for large parts of the window, fans were getting restless and a terrible opening day loss at home to Villa only worsened things. However, it has all been smooth sailing for Arsenal since then, with the team pulling out great football, a lot of wins, and some excellent signings like Flamini and Ozil to find themselves leading the pack in October. However, before we begin to wax lyrical about the Gunners and their prospects, we must all remind ourselves that this could be classic Arsenal, terrific start, but mess ups at key moments. And of course, one or two signings cannot really paper over the cracks of a squad that just about managed to finish 4th last season, or can it? Which leads us to the topic of the latest installment of our debate feature: Can Arsenal win the Premier League?
The biggest accusation hurled at Wenger this season has been related to a perceived lack of squad depth. Apparently, Arsenal don’t have the resources to compete with the top teams over the course of a season where factors like fatigue and injury become a major factor. However, we must understand that there is a difference between being adequately covered, and having a bazillion reserves for each and every position. Arsenal probably have squad depth if the former definition is taken into account. Jenkinson is fair understudy for Bakary Sagna, and can also cover at centre back along with the Frenchman. At centre back, the starting duo have Vermaelen to back them up too. The competition at left back is pretty intense too, with the poor Andre Santos sent away and replaced by the impressive Nacho Monreal, who will deputise for Kieran Gibbs. The variety of options for central midfield and attacking midfield need not even be discussed, and this part of their team is probably the best in England. On the wings, the impressive Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are the key personnel, with the likes of Rosicky and Ozil also capable of putting in a shift. The younger Serge Gnabry has also come in and impressed. The only area that’s weak is the striker position, where Bendtner serves as back up for Giroud. But here too, Arsenal can call upon the services of Theo Walcott. The lack of squad depth at Arsenal is just a myth!
In a season where all the other contenders are in a state of flux, Arsenal are the only team that can say they’re still enjoying an element of stability. Arsene is the longest serving manager in the league, and the core of their team has been retained. The improvement of the individuals has led to the growth of the team, and one can easily see a sort of synergy present in their play. You don’t score goals of the variety that Wilshere did without playing together for a while. We can already see the other teams, like City and United struggling for results, and teams like Spurs, struggling to find coherence and fluidity in the build up play. Arsenal, on the other hand, have faced no such trouble.
They say that the key to winning matches are your strikers, but the key to winning titles are your defenders. The stats also point to this, with David Sally and Chris Anderson proving that a clean sheet gets you about 2 points on average, while a goal gets you 1. In this regard, Arsenal are doing quite well. They conceded the least amount of goals in the League last season, and have only allowed 11 into their net this season too. The defence bears a settled look, with the likes of Mertesacker and Koscielny doing well in front of Sczcesny. The Pole has also developed into a fine goalie. On the other hand, City and United have both looked shaky at the back at times this season, with a number of individual errors leading to goals. Only Chelsea are starting to look like they’ve got their defence right.
The French manager is probably the greatest asset Arsenal have in their challenge for the title. The Professor has been there and done that, and certainly knows how to get the best out of his players. He may not have won trophies over the last 8 years, but with an escalation in spending power for January, and a tight knit and maturing unit, Wenger has a fine opportunity to make a real claim for the title, and he more than anyone knows this.
If we’re talking purely in terms of quantity, very few teams in the seemingly cash rich Premier League have a threadbare squad as such. However the distinction between the haves an have nots can be made in terms of the quality of the players on the bench. As the old cliche goes, the Premier League is a marathon and not a sprint. Arsenal have already played 16 competitive games this season and will play a minimum of 33 more games (assuming they fail to progress to the knockout stage of the Champions League knockout stage and get knocked out in their 1st game in the FA Cup). In reality you’d expect Arsenal to play 55-60 games this season by no means a small number. To add to that, Arsenal have potential weak points in 2 key areas of the squad. Mertesacker and Koscielny have formed an impressive partnership in the heart of the defence but the only other recognizable centre back is Vermaelen. Yes Sagna and Jenkinson are both capable of filling in but come the business end of the season and the pressure it brings (more on that later) I, for one, would definitely prefer to have 2 recognized centre backs in the team. Going back to Vermaelen, with the World Cup coming up he’ll have to review his options. If he does move on then it becomes even more important for Arsenal to reinforce their defence in January to sustain their title challenge. The other end of the pitch gives rise to the same problem. I’d expected Giroud to start the season running but he’s far surpassed any of my expectations. The problem is the only real back-up is Walcott. Bendtner is a decent striker but he’s nowhere near as good as he thinks and not good enough to be a 2nd choice front man for a title winning team. Beyond him the duo of Yaya Sanogo and Chu-Young Park are more for the future rather than short term solutions.
Squeaky bum time, business end of the season, the home stretch, call it what you want but you can be sure of 1 thing; come the last couple of months of the season the pressure goes up a notch especially in a season where everything seems to be pointing to a close race at the top. In the Premier League era, only 5 teams have lifted the coveted trophy (2 of which have won it only once and I don’t think Blackburn will be adding to that tally anytime soon). Arsenal’s much publicized trophy drought has been a point of consternation among the fans and we need to travel as far back to the 2003-04 season for the last time they were named Champions. Not that they haven’t looked the part over the years. Emirates has been home to some lovely football over the years and their consistent Champions League performances are a testament to how well they’ve done despite competition from teams who’ve thrown around indecent amounts of money. But for various reasons, Arsenal falling away from the race come March/April is something we’ve all seen before. Battling 1-0 wins in April with the chasing pack breathing down your neck is a feat much easier said than done. The finest of margins can be the difference between ecstasy and agony. A run of the right results could build up momentum and secure the title, conversely 1 bad result and it could all fall apart. Arsenal fans of course will remember the horror of the 2-2 draw against Birmingham in the 2007-08 season and more recently Manchester United will pinpoint the loss against Wigan as the start of the slide in the 2011-12 season which saw them give up a 8 point lead with 6 games to go. There’s been a lot of talk about Arsenal’s maturity this season. A true estimation of their progress can be seen only in the next calendar year.
It’s still early days in the Premier League season and Arsenal have played the the most impressive football but they haven’t really run away with it. Liverpool and Chelsea (my title favourites) are well within striking distance and will be poised to take advantage of any potential slip up. Indeed, Arsenal’s next 2 league games are against Liverpool and Manchester United with the small matter of an away trip to Dortmund sandwiched in between. It’s too early to seriously treat the league games as hugely important but over the course of the next week Arsenal’s squad will certainly be tested. Ideally they would’ve liked to have entered this spell with a bit more of a cushion. City and United have both endured slow starts to the season and languish 6 and 8 points behind Arsenal but they both possess squads capable of a resurgence and a title challenge of their own. Spurs, Liverpool and perhaps most pertinently Chelsea are within touching distance of Arsenal. My point, which I’m getting to in an excruciatingly circuitous route is that the team who finishes top come May would’ve warded off challenges from a number of teams unlike the run of the mill Premier League season where there are only 2-3 teams left standing during the latter stages. The openness of the Premier League this year is what gives Arsenal such a good chance to kick on and mount a serious challenge. However this is a double edged sword as a by-product of more contenders is that there are potentially more of the ‘6-pointer’ games at the top of the table; games in which Arsenal didn’t cover themselves in glory with last season. They garnered only 2 out of a possible 18 points against the top 3 of last season – a shockingly low return. If Arsenal are to win the Premier League then they can ill afford a similar record this time around.
So what do YOU think? Can Arsenal finally break their barren run and lay claim to the Premier League title? Let us know by leaving a comment below!