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Can Arsenal’s Best XI Endure?

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An excellent 2-0 win at the Emirates stadium against Liverpool set Arsenal up nicely for what will be a very testing series of fixtures in the coming weeks.  Liverpool were far from their fluid best in the late game on Saturday, but in reality they were convincingly stifled by Arsenal’s work-rate and overall discipline and organization.

 Suarez and Sturridge in particular were left isolated from a struggling Liverpool midfield and any attempts to infiltrate the final third were largely nullified by the outstanding Mikel Arteta. Wojciech Szczęsny has matured noticeably this season and dominated his penalty area with authority – pulling off one particular impressive stop with his feet to deny Luis Suarez an equalizer. Kieran Gibbs, until he was withdrawn injured, and Bacary Sagna were the epitome of consistency, ably supported in defense by the increasingly indispensable Koscielny-Mertesacker central partnership.

The fact that Mesut Ozil was the least talked about midfielder of the day will tell you all you need to know about Carzola, Rosicky and Ramsey’s performances.  Olivier Giroud was once again the fulcrum up front and repeatedly showed selflessness, tenacity and tactical awareness in the build-up play.

Even Arsene Wenger commented after the game that it was difficult to single out any one of his players for praise, such was the team nature of the performance.  It will be a refreshing change of conversation for the Arsenal manager, with recent seasons being dominated by accusations that his sides have been overly reliant on singularly talented individuals such as Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Interestingly, Wenger himself noted the difference in enjoying a settled squad since the beginning of 2013 has made – a welcome luxury following consecutive summers of high-profile departures:

 “We have plenty of other big games coming up and this will help us to deal with them. It’s down to consistency and we have been consistent since the first of January 2013. Ten games and 25 points is a respectable number. The players know each other better and have improved individually and collectively.” concluded the manager.

 With Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United, Napoli, Chelsea and Manchester City are on the horizon and so many column inches devoted to Arsenal’s perceived lack of squad depth, Wenger will be wondering how many minutes his preferred starting eleven can endure before inevitable fatigue forces squad rotation.

If there are any concerns with Arsenal’s impressive start to the season they have centered around the lack of clean sheets and narrowness of formation following injuries to Podolski, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. With an exceptionally demanding schedule for the remainder of the year Arsenal, more than any other team with aspirations of silverware, will need to prove that they have the steel to tolerate the rigors of playing twice a week.

 At the moment, the starting Arsenal eleven essentially picks itself.  Yet in addition to the aforementioned injuries, the North London team may well be missing Mathieu Flamini and potentially Jack Wilshere for the critical games ahead.  So outside of the core players that have secured the top spot in the English Premier League, questions remain as to what this Arsenal team is capable of when missing key personnel.

If Gibbs’ withdrawal against Liverpool was anything more than precautionary, Nacho Monreal has shown enough in cameo appearances to suggest he will be an able deputy.  Similarly, Arteta’s quality and assured performances will cause selection headaches when Flamini is fit.  With an embarrassment of riches in midfield, Arsenal’s Achilles heel lurks in central defense and in the forward positions.

 Giroud may never be the type of forward that consistently challenges for the golden boot, but his link-up play and unselfish inclination to ensure his teammates prosper has been priceless.  If there was any doubt, Nicklas Bendtner’s insipid display in the same position in the Capitol One Cup against Chelsea provided a timely and sharp contrast to the Frenchman’s abilities.  That Bendtner is the only other fit and recognized striker currently in the first team squad will be cause for alarm.

In the event of a long-term injury to Giroud, Arsenal may well need to resort to a Barcelona-esque ‘false number nine’ formation.  If Sanogo, Podolski or Walcott were fit, each would make an argument for inclusion up front.  While they languish on the treatment table, Ozil is the obvious candidate to occupy the space in front of the midfield, having already done so with considerable aplomb for Germany.

In central defense, only Thomas Vermaelen is proven at this level but has yet to convince the Arsenal faithful that he has recovered from injury sufficiently to warrant the captain’s armband.  With either or both of Koscielny and Mertesaker unavailable, Wenger will be digging deep into the youth team for replacements, or may have to opt to move Sagna out of position and trust that Jenkinson will finally take the opportunity to establish himself as a first-choice right back.

Arguably, Arsenal’s form this season has been born from stability and becoming, as a team, greater than the sum of its parts.  How Arsene Wenger’s men weather the inevitable storms ahead may well be the ultimate litmus test to his philosophy that great teams are indeed built and not bought.