When the season kicked off in August, few would have thought that it would be Arsenal leading the chasing pack as we enter 2014, particularly after that humiliating 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa on the opening day.
But since then, with the exception of a couple of disappointing results, it has been a consistent joy for the Gunners who have emerged as genuine title contenders, for the first time probably since 2008. The importance of Mesut Özil’s signing simply cannot be understated; not only has he brought his own personal quality to the side, but his arrival lifted the entire club. Supporters have been given fresh optimism, and the German’s teammates seem to have been inspired to raise their game to his level.
Whilst Arsenal have long been dubbed the league’s great entertainers, they have perhaps been overshadowed in that regard by Liverpool and Manchester City, whose swashbuckling style has earned them plenty of plaudits this season. There have, of course, been times in recent months when Arsenal’s football has been glorious (Exhibit A: Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich), but the stand-out feature of their game, and the difference between this team, and the ones of seasons past, is their ability to grind out results, as we’re so often told is the hallmark of champions.
The bedrock of that is the central defensive partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. For so long Arsenal have been derided for their inability to defend, and whilst there was an element of truth in those accusations, it was blown well out of proportion, and the Gunners have actually been sound at the back for a while now. Confidence is, again, a by-product of this – Wojciech Szczesny is more comfortable with a settled back four in front of him, and vice-versa. Likewise, the midfield have more freedom to express themselves knowing they’ve got statistically the meanest backline in the division behind them. The foundations really are there for a title winning team. There’s no doubting their quality – what the second half of the season will define is whether they have the consistency, and the bottle, to lift the Premier League trophy for the first time in a decade.
Player of the season (so far): Aaron Ramsey
There are plenty of candidates for this accolade; Olivier Giroud, whilst perhaps not scoring quite as many as Gunners fans would like, leads the line exceptionally well and is fundamental to Arsenal’s attacking play. The aforementioned pair of Mertesacker and Koscielny are equally worthy, as is Özil, but none have shone quite as brightly as Aaron Ramsey this season. A broken leg in 2010 curtailed his impressive progress and, despite promising glimpses upon recovery, he never really hit the heights he reached before his injury, and plenty wondered whether he’d ever manage to forge a good career for himself at the Emirates. A solid run of form at the back end of last season appeared to be the start of something for Ramsey, but I don’t think anybody would have expected the magnitude of the Welshman’s explosion onto the scene this year. 13 goals have made him the Gunners’ top scorer, and many of them have been match-winning strikes.
It’s not just the art of putting the ball in the net that Ramsey has perfected, though. His energy is invaluable, meaning he can be doing defensive work on the edge of his own box one minute, and slotting the ball home with aplomb up the other end the next. His range of passing is exquisite, meaning he can occupy a deep-lying playmaker when requited. He’s already one of the most complete box-to-box players in Europe at the moment, and at 23, the frightening thing is that he can get even better.
Most improved player this season (so far): Wojciech Szczesny
Ramsey could easily have won this, too, but that would have been something of a copout on my part. They say you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper, and Arsenal’s Polish custodian still suffers from bizarre rushes of blood to the head. At Newcastle, with five minutes remaining, he inexplicably struck the ball against the on-rushing Loic Remy, and watched the ball, thankfully, trickle inches wide of the post. It sounds like scant praise, but the fact this incident stands out is indicative of Szczesny’s consistency between the sticks.
His blunders certainly seem to be far more infrequent than some of his fellow members of the famed Goalkeepers’ Union, and perhaps more importantly, far less costly. Szczesny wins Arsenal far more points than he jeopardises (which I appreciate is part of your average footballer’s job description) with crucial saves and a command of his box not seen since the halcyon days of David Seaman. He’s improving year on year and rapidly becoming one of the finest goalkeepers in the world.
A long-term injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who many expected to really come of age this season, on the opening day was and is a huge disappointment, but it’s difficult to say whether Arsenal would have been significantly better off with him in the side than some of his teammates who have been outstanding in the first half of the campaign. More disappointing, in my opinion at least, were the displays in Manchester. Although Manuel Pellegrini’s City are absolutely rampant at home, and Arsenal managed to score three times themselves, conceding six goals against anyone is embarrassing, and the Gunners’ humbling at the Etihad goes down as a low point in a fine season thus far.
Perhaps more so, however, was the defeat at City’s rivals United in November. With four league defeats at home as of New Year’s Day, Old Trafford clearly isn’t the fortress it once was, and one of Arsène Wenger’s biggest regrets will be that Arsenal were so flaccid and uninspiring against the poorest Manchester United side in living memory. No matter how far the Champions have fallen this season, victory there would have created quite the statement.
Activity required in winter transfer window:
With Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner both apparently out for large portions of this year and Giroud probably running on empty, a striker is absolutely essential if Arsenal are serious about winning the title. Supporters dream of someone top-drawer to allow them to properly compete on the continent as well as domestically, but this is of course easier said than done. Atlético’s free-scoring Diego Costa has been linked but with the Spanish side going strong both at home and abroad, it’s hard to see any kind of deal materialising. Elsewhere, Wenger has rejected rumours of a move for Fulham’s Dimitar Berbatov.
Prediction for position at the end of the season: 2nd
As loudly as my heart screams that Arsenal will win it, and they certainly can, my head can’t help but feel the quality of Manchester City will prevail, although a congested fixture schedule for Pellegrini’s side could prove tricky to negotiate. The Gunners will certainly be in the hunt until the last, and I quietly fancy them to win the FA Cup as well.