Back in August, I wrote a pretty scathing review of how Arsenal had conducted its transfer business this summer. Things had started well, with Granit Xhaka’s acquisition from Borussia Monchengladbach in May an encouraging start, but the weeks of inactivity that followed seemed to indicate at best a gross incompetence with regards to transfer dealings, and at worst a total lack of ambition from the club’s hierarchy. Our rivals were getting their business done in a far more efficient manner than we were, and yet again it looked like an inability to go and sign the players needed to fill gaping holes in the squad were going to cost the club once more. These fears looked to be confirmed when a ruthless attacking display from Liverpool saw us humbled at home yet again on the opening day, and after only two games played we found ourselves five points behind Chelsea and the Manchester clubs already. You didn’t have to be a particularly pessimistic fan to fear that our title rivals would soon disappear over the horizon, not to be seen again, with the season still in its infancy.
In the final days of the transfer window, however, the club finally got out it’s chequebook and signed off on deals that saw Valencia’s Shkodran Mustafi and the Spanish striker Lucas Perez move to north London. The marquee signing of a world class striker, speculated heavily about as it has done for a number of summers now, never came, but the arrivals of Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez (as well as Rob Holding) did at least see the spine of the team significantly strengthened. Nonetheless, concerns remained about the decision to allow the likes of Joel Campbell and Jack Wilshere out on season-long loan deals, and whilst the window had ended up being far from the catastrophic failure many fans (including myself) had feared it might be, it was safe to say that significant doubts over whether the club had done enough to really make itself a genuine title challenger for the season to come were valid. It was still difficult to escape the feeling that the disappointing end to last season’s title challenge, in which Arsenal were unable to take advantage of the fact that champions Chelsea had completely imploded and both Manchester clubs were well off the pace themselves, represented a failure to capitalise on the club’s best chance to win the league title in years.
Over the past couple of months, however, Arsenal fans can be excused for allowing themselves to believe again. Since the defeat to Liverpool on the first day of the season, the club have won seven and drawn two of its next nine league games, with the 3-0 battering of Chelsea the indisputable highlight. In Europe a point was earned at the Parc de Princes and both Basel and Ludogorets have been dispatched in style. At first it was a case of the club just getting back on the right track, with wins against the likes of Southampton and Burnley being earned with some difficulty, but when you consider the manner in which the club have performed this season, it’s difficult to be anything but hugely encouraged. Alexis Sanchez has revelled in a new role as the spearhead of the Arsenal attack, scoring eight and assisting six in all competitions already, whilst the limp and lacklustre Theo Walcott of 2015/16 has transformed into one of the most effective attacking players in the league. Even Mesut Ozil has started scoring on a regular basis, with the six goals he has scored between August and October only two behind the total he managed throughout the entirety of last season, whilst in the defence Mustafi has already established a fantastic partnership alongside Laurent Koscielny. Arsenal’s big guns have been firing on all cylinders over these past two months, and it’s been a pleasure to witness.
It is not the individual performances of Arsenal’s star names that have most pleased me this season though; instead, it is the fact that the squad, quietly but surely, has evolved to become arguably the best the Premier League has to offer, and the manner in which Arsene Wenger has managed it thus far. Over the past few seasons, the team have enjoyed periods of fantastic form (most notably at the start of the 2013/14 season and the end of the 2014/15) with a selection of players performing at their peak, but there’s something about this current run of games that seems different. As fantastic as the likes of Alexis, Walcott and Koscielny have been, just as pleasing has been the way in which some of the club’s lesser-heralded players have acquitted themselves. The truth is though that even naming names seems like doing a disservice to those I fail to mention, and what has been the most encouraging aspect of this unbeaten run is that it feels like virtually every player, from the star men to the rotation options, have been pulling their weight. The squad as a whole is performing at a consistently high level, and this means that even when interchanging a few players on a game-by-game basis, it does not feel like we are losing much as a team. Notably, it also does not feel like we are in any way being “carried” by one or two players, much like Ozil did last season, or Alexis did in the season before that, or Ramsey in the one before that, or Cazorla in the one before that, or van Persie in the one before that…
There’s no doubt that some players are playing better than others, but that is inevitability in a squad of 25 or so players. The question you have to ask is whether or not each individual player is meeting the expectations assigned to them, and across the board the answer is an emphatic yes. Our star men – Alexis, Ozil, and Koscielny – are playing at a level their reputations (and salaries) demand. Other first-teamers who are expected to play consistently well – Cech, Bellerin, Walcott, Cazorla – have been doing as much. What is also happening, which is absolutely crucial over a nine-month long season, is that the players who aren’t guaranteed a spot, who have to fight for every opportunity, are doing their bit as well. This weekend’s victory over Sunderland was a prime example of this squad-wide ability to perform, with Kieran Gibbs playing superbly in the absence of Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doing well in the absence of Theo Walcott. Some fans may take issue with this praise of the England winger, but when I look at him, I ask myself what is being asked of him and whether or not he’s fulfilling that role. As someone who is clearly a squad player, he is expected to perform in European and cup games when called upon and to put in a shift when injuries and rotation are needed in the league, and with five goals and three assists to his name already – and with his delectable cross for Alexis’ first goal at the weekend fresh in the mind – I’d argue that he is currently meeting the expectations that have been set for him. If the same applies to the rest of the squad, and mostly it does, then you’re onto something good.
It would be naive to think that there won’t be occasions where players suffer from bad runs of form this season, but with the depth and competition that now exists within this Arsenal squad, players currently featuring in the first-team know that a noticeable drop off in levels of performance will see them replaced. This is the case from the back of the Arsenal team to the front – Petr Cech knows that David Ospina’s impressive European displays make him a serious contender for the number one jersey, whilst Olivier Giroud’s two goals off the bench to seal the three points at the Stadium of Light is a clear reminder that other attacking players could make way for his inclusion. Many fans are now calling for Gibbs to replace Monreal after the Spanaird’s consistency has dropped off this season, whilst Aaron Ramsey’s return from injury now gives Wenger the headache of how he accommodates the Welshman back into the team with him also having Elneny, Cazorla, Xhaka and Coquelin to call upon. For the first time in the Emirates era, Arsenal do not have a clear weak point in their team, both in terms of the quality of their club’s best XI and the squad’s depth. Whilst any long-term injuries to the likes of Alexis, Koscielny and Ozil would be extremely worrying were they to come, it finally feels like the manager would actually be able to mix things up to accommodate for their absence, rather than being forced to proceed on with a gaping hole in the first team.
The big question is now if Arsene Wenger can actually extract enough from the formidable squad he has assembled to finally bring the Premier League title back to the club’s trophy cabinet. The quality and the depth is undoubtedly there, and there is little doubt in my mind that this is a group of players who are more than capable of winning the big prize, but with 28 games still to go so many hurdles will need to be overcome. More often than not is not the prolonged spells of winning games that determine if your team are worthy of the title, but instead how you respond to adversity – bad decisions going against you, the inevitable poor result, injuries to key men – and it is those questions that will need to be answered if this Arsenal squad fulfils the potential that is undoubtedly there. Games on the horizon against Tottenham and Manchester United are some upcoming indicators, but our response to those games – win or lose – will be just as crucial. This season’s title race looks as competitive as it has ever been, and whilst it will be some time before glistening silver comes anywhere close to being within our grasp, it feels like a realer possibility this season that it has done for some time.
On we march.