For anyone connected to Arsenal Football Club this season, there is a general sense of expectancy and excitement about the current campaign. A slender but crucial two-point-lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League keeps their hopes alive of lifting a title that has served as a reminder of their eight-year drought in top-flight competitions. Now with Arsène Wenger’s men entering the business end of the season it remains to be seen if they can sustain their challenge against the two other contenders in this year’s race, Manchester City and Chelsea.
With a busy run of fixtures in the league coming up and a mouth-watering Champions League tie against the current holders Bayern Munich sandwiched in the middle of it all, here are some key observations that should be made.
The next few months are going to be vital if Arsenal are going to win any kind of silverware this season and they will need a solid back-line to get the results they need, even when they are not playing well. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been a revelation under Wenger, his decision to bring Steve Bould into the set-up two summers ago seems like a master-stroke now.
The pair have been phenomenal at the back, having never lost a Premier League match when they have played a full 90 minutes together, the last time they lost when playing in the same team was a 2-1 reverse fixture against Man City in January 2012, over two years ago. Since then they have played in 32 matches together with a record standing at 23 wins and 9 draws.
With good rotation options on the bench including club captain and Belgium international Thomas Vermaelen, the three will have their work cut out preserving a defence that has conceded 21 times in 24 matches, a defensive record bettered only by Chelsea. They have kept the likes of Luis Suárez and Robert Lewandowski subdued in crucial games this season so far and will need the same stability and strength in equal measure to keep their rivals quiet.
Injuries have always played apart in the wheels falling off the Arsenal charge in the past. With arguably their player of the season Aaron Ramsey sidelined for another six weeks and Theo Walcott sadly ruled out for the rest of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, it has left many pondering if the squad is strong enough to compete at this stage of the season.
Despite this though the team have ready made deputies such as the ever impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was excellent against Crystal Palace on Sunday, creating space for the likes of Santi Cazorla and Tomáš Rosický to exploit. His well-taken goals and overall build-up play will give Wenger some thinking to do ahead of the game against Liverpool this weekend.
With Jack Wilshere also looking to shake off a knock he picked up in training and Mikel Arteta in the reckoning, the future looks a lot more bright than it has done at this stage in previous seasons. Whether they can keep their French International striker Oliver Giroud fit until the end of the season is another question in itself, with many dumbfounded as to why the club did not bring in another striker to play alongside or support the Arsenal front-man in January.
The Özil effect – Can he help them win the title?
Last summer’s transfer window would have been agonizing for anyone connected to Arsenal worldwide. Their long-standing interest in Germany international Mesut Özil, seemingly futile, paid off on the last day of the window when they completed arguably the biggest deal of the summer and sealed his signature for a club-record fee of £43million.
The German’s first contribution in an Arsenal shirt was to bring down the ball with instant control, look up and square it beautifully for Giroud to tap in against Sunderland. With goals to come against Napoli and Norwich, it seemed like the club had delivered its promise of bringing in top class talent.
Since then the goals have dried up and the critics have said that he has often disappeared in matches, the stats however would argue against this. In the last five seasons, the German has had the highest assist-rate in the top five European leagues (72) and was La Liga’s highest assist maker in his last season with Real Madrid (25).
In Özil, Arsenal have a player that can turn a game on its head in an instant, his vision is second to none and he has already shown that in the league. The more time he has had, the more of an effect he is having on the English game, against Southampton he produced an incredible mazy-run in which nearly resulted in a wonder goal, only to see it hit the top of the crossbar.
His former manager José Mourinho, now at Chelsea, described him as “The best number 10 in the world” and if Arsenal are to keep his Chelsea side from pipping them to the title they will need Özil to produce the form that his price-tag warrants.
Champions elect, or the great pretenders?
The signs are certainly promising for Arsenal, but fans wont need reminding that this is an all too familiar sight. They have earned the right to be challenging for the title this season, their form has been outstanding, losing only one game at home this season and losing on both visits to Manchester.
However they will need to find it within themselves to beat the big teams when it counts, with home ties against Liverpool and Manchester United coming up in an unforgiving fixture list, they cannot afford to drop big points at home and allow their title rivals to capitalize.
Keeping their top players fit and firing till May will be the biggest challenge. They have often built you up to let you down, with many agreeing that eight years is a travesty for a club of this size and history, but this year something feels different. There is a togetherness and toughness that hasn’t been seen since the days of Keown and Viera, maybe just maybe its their year to finally be crowned as the Premier League champions.
In the next few months we will know exactly what this current crop of players are capable of, many will be hoping to have winners medals at the end of the current campaign but a repeat of previous seasons could see them scraping Champions League qualification again. An achievement in itself, but not the ambitions that a club of Arsenal’s stature should settle for.