Can Arsenal Maintain their title challenge?
When non-Arsenal fans listen to passionate Gunners proclaiming that ‘this could be the season’ the almost irresistible temptation is to smirk patronisingly whilst saying ‘What, again?’ Even die-hard ‘Arsene knows’ types must have the honesty to admit that the situation we find ourselves in currently, a situation in which Arsenal’s title hopes are being positively talked up by pundits and other experts beyond the usual suspects (take a bow Ian Wright), is one which we’ve witnessed many times before. Many times, let’s remember, during an 11 year period in which Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea were taking it in turns to show Arsenal how it’s done.
There is undeniably a feeling, though, that this season could be different, that the title challenge which Arsenal appear to be mounting as we enter the hectic festive period is one with more solid foundations than that which, for example, crumbled during virtually the course of one match at St. Andrews during the 2004-5 season. There are various reasons for this, some in Arsenal’s hands and some not, but put them all together and you may well be looking at the season when the Emirates gets to host an overdue title winning party.
It’s an uphill climb (and a team that manages to beat Guardiola’s Bayern Munich 2-0 isn’t averse to the occasional miracle), but it looks as if Arsenal will struggle to make it out of the Champions’ League group stage. This needn’t be a disaster, however, since (as long as they avoid the poisoned chalice of the Europa League) it will leave them clear of the burden of having to play at least twice a week for the remainder of the season. Whilst ‘Free to concentrate on the League’ may have taken on the status of consolatory cliché for clubs knocked out of a cup, there are few who doubt that Liverpool’s near miss a couple of years ago was down, in large part, to the fact that they were free from European distractions( that and Suarez, of course).
Whilst the implosion at Stamford Bridge has undoubtedly left the competition for a top four finish more open than it has been for years, it has also opened up the race for the title. With Chelsea surely out of the running and Manchester United still seemingly in a state of transition, the battle for the EPL looks set to be between Manchester City and Arsenal. Whilst City have the better squad on paper, and the mental resilience of proven winners, they’ve already slipped up this season, losing at home to West Ham and being hammered 4-1 at White Hart Lane, and they rely hugely on the injury prone Aguero. With no single outstanding team in the Premier League, the situation could be ripe for Arsenal to take advantage of the undoubted slip in overall quality.
When managers start trotting out statistics based on results ‘over the calendar year’ you know they’re in trouble. Football is all about winning the right games at the right time, so the fact that Arsenal ended the last Premiership campaign so strongly shouldn’t really count for anything, since it was a push for the line which early season form had meant was necessary simply to cement a top three place. Two defeats in 18 games allied to the retention of the FA Cup is an impressive statistic, however, and the fact that they’ve picked up where they left off (opening day blip aside) would tend to indicate that winning is becoming a habit.
Mental fortitude presents perhaps the biggest obstacle between Arsenal and this year’s title. Everyone thinks that when the chips are down and results really matter, Arsenal will buckle under the pressure. More importantly, there’s always been a sense, in the years since their last title, that Arsenal themselves think this. A few things hint at the possibility that this may be changing. The first is the signing of Peter Cech, not only because of the defensive stability which a keeper of his abilities creates (as demonstrated by the fact that Arsenal have conceded the second lowest number of goals in the league this season), but also because of the mentality he brings with him – that of a proven winner. A couple of matches this season have suggested that the winning mentality learned at the knee of Mourinho may well be rubbing off on his team mates.
The first of these was the demolition of Manchester United at The Emirates. The first half display of Arsenal at their swashbuckling best was impressive, but the second half performance, when Arsenal closed ranks against a United that seemed to have figured out just how tactically woeful their first half display had been, was, if anything, even more eye-catching. It showed that Arsenal were able, and willing, to sit back and protect what they had, something which, even at 4-0 up, they hadn’t always been able to do in the past.
The second was the 1-1 draw against Spurs earlier this month. This match, it has to be remembered, came on the back of a 5-1 defeat against Bayern Munich which had onlookers debating the relative merits of the verbs ‘humbled’ and ‘dismantled’. It also featured a first half display which saw Spurs dominate Arsenal and go a goal ahead. In the second half, however, rather than capitulate, the hosts regrouped, scored and ground out the draw. The very fact that it’s safe to use the words ‘Arsenal’ and ‘ground out’ in the same sentence suggests that this may well, at long last, be their season.