Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Stoke last weekend put them on top of the Premier League table (if only until Chelsea beat West Brom a day later) for the first time this season. Arsene Wenger was calm when speaking to BBC’s Match of the Day afterwards, saying there was still room for improvement but even he, with all his experience, must be excited at his team’s prospects this year.
Add the bonus of unexpectedly winning their Champions League group after Paris Saint-Germain dropped points at home to Ludogrets last Wednesday and Arsenal fans could be forgiven for thinking that this year may be different.
As someone who is not an Arsenal fan, it can often be quite humorous when Arsenal are extremely competitive pre-Christmas and fall away in the early Spring, only to come alive again at the back end of the season and finish in a Champions League position allowing them to ‘celebrate’ another ‘good season’.
This can also be rather frustrating, even to a neutral, who will watch Arsenal play some real scintillating stuff to sweep a team aside on one day and then not turn up in an important away match the next. As a perfect example, it was classically Arsenal to top the table at Christmas last year and then lose 4-0 at Southampton on Boxing Day.
However, this year there does seem to be a real difference. The Wenger sides of old were characterised by long unbeaten league runs such as the 30 game one in 2002 and a 49 game one across the 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons but it has been customary in recent years for them to just have a bad day. What has been equally most impressive and notable about Arsenal this year is their resilience.
To start the season with so much optimism, have it swallowed and spat out by a dominant Liverpool on the opening day and be surrounded by so much criticism must have been hard for the team. However, having added Shkrodan Mustafi to replace the below par and sometimes quite frankly useless Per Mertesacker in defence, they have bounced back to form an unbeaten league run of 14 games and counting.
Moreover, in particular games where they have had a bad day, they have not folded as they may have done in the past and have managed to take something from the game.
A particular example is Manchester United away where the team were absolutely woeful for 80 minutes but got a very late equaliser to draw 1-1. Of course, any serious title challenge (one that lasts until at least April) requires more than good form for a period of the season which is perhaps what Wenger is guarding against when speaking to the press but there does seem an infectious confidence that they are better than everyone they come up against at the moment.
Vital to maintaining their position in amongst Chelsea at the top is going to be the fitness and form of Mesut Ozil and, even more importantly, Alexis Sanchez (right). The former is wonderfully talented and so beautiful on the eye but has impressed me more than any other season because his anonymous performances are becoming fewer and fewer.
Since he joined Arsenal, he has become known somewhat as an ‘assist king’ which is all fine and good but he has really frustrated me because there are times when I’ve watched the Gunners and it has genuinely taken me 60 minutes for me even to realise he is on the pitch.
It is pleasing that so far this season, that has not been the case and this has to continue if they are to win the league. Sanchez is up there with my favourite Premier League footballers because of his attitude, work rate and unbelievable technique. It is absolutely vital that he does not get injured at the wrong time for Arsenal this time around.
After suffering a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Everton last night, they’ll be facing Manchester City this weekend desperate to get back to winning ways. Their form is the best for many a season and this normally difficult game comes at a time where Pep Guardiola’s out of form City are there for the taking. It would be typical for Arsenal to compound the defeat to Everton with another loss at the Etihad, but I’m backing them to win it and top the table this Christmas, and maybe even in May.