Arsenal are once again title contenders halfway through the season. Unlike previous years, can they keep their challenge up till the end? This season, there’s enough reason to be hopeful.
With victory over Manchester City on Monday night Arsenal went two points off the top of the table and four clear of their biggest title rivals. With the general assumption, rightly, being that Leicester will drop off in the second half of the season, Arsenal are in a significantly strong position to win their first League crown in 12 years, and became the bookmakers favourites with their 2-1 win. At this point, with optimism building, cynics will argue that Arsenal have been in similar positions before, only to blow it.
There’s a lot of weight and history behind their claims. Just two years ago Arsenal topped the league in January, only for a chastening 2nd half of the league campaign, which saw the club drop as low as 5th in the Spring before the customary successful fight for fourth. Look back further and Arsenal’s trophy dreams were stalled in all four comps in the spring of 2010/11, while the 2009/10 side took just four points from the final five games to fall 11 points short. Perhaps most painfully though, however, in 2008 Arsenal let a five point lead in late February disappear and ultimately finished 3rd.
So will Arsenal suffer the same fate they did in previous seasons, or will this year be different? There is obviously a large amount of uncertainty in any predictions, but there are a few signs that Arsenal’s early challenge this season is more genuine and one which they can sustain down the stretch. Lets look at the reasons why.
Arsenal are better now
One of the odd things about the 2013/14 season is Arsenal weren’t expected to be title challengers at all. Optimism wasn’t high at the start of the season, and despite the signing of Mesut Özil on deadline the day, the squad was only halfway there in it’s rebuild post Fabregas, van Persie et al. Flash forward a couple of years and Özil is now in his 3rd season and stronger, new additions such as Petr Cech, Alexis Sanchez, Gabriel and Hector Bellerin have emerged, while improvements, ranging from slight to extraordinary, have been seen in Olivier Giroud, Francis Coquelin, Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny. Few would argue that the squad as a whole is as strong as it’s been for a decade, with traditional trouble areas such as goalkeeper now a strength.
The team are also performing on the field at a much higher level this season than they have for years. Early 13/14 featured a lot of scrappy, narrow wins, during a not too difficult schedule. The club rode some early finishing heights from Giroud and Ramsey, the feel good factor after Özil arrived and the couple of months they got of a fully fit Walcott, which all evaporated by the late winter and early spring. Overall they weren’t the attacking threat Arsenal are now, in fact the team only scored more than three goals in a game in any competition once, the 4-1 defeat of Norwich at home in October.
That season, Arsenal averaged 13.8 shots per game, the ninth best in the league, and four shots behind the average of the teams that made up the top three that season. In the Champions League things were worse. Albeit in a difficult group, Arsenal went through the Champions League group stages taking 8.7 shots per game, the joint lowest in the whole 32 team group stage. Yes, even below the likes of FC Copenhagen and Austria Wien. Borussia Dortmund, who topped the group, were ranked 4th with 16.
Arsenal have been on an upward curve since, and this season have been 2nd in the league for shots taken, with 16.2 per game, one less than Manchester City. But dig a little deeper and things are even more encouraging. Arsenal have taken the most shots in prime areas – centrally in the box – and have also created the most “big chances” which Opta defines as a chance a player should reasonably be expected to score, most usually one on ones or cutbacks. On the defensive side of things, Arsenal have also allowed the least shots in prime areas and big chances in the league. Arsenal are both creating and preventing top quality chances better than anyone else in England’s top flight.
There are many predictive models that use numbers such as those mentioned to try and predict the outcome of the league season. These same models that were skeptical of Arsenal’s 13/14 edition are very positive this year, and have them as significant title favourites at the moment for said reasons.
EPL title projection. This Arsenal should win the title world in which we live in… it's weird. pic.twitter.com/VXBbhXgegz
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) December 21, 2015
The much talked about “big games” have also seen a major improvement. So far this term, Arsenal have already handed out defeats to Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, with only extraneous circumstances at Stamford Bridge bringing about a disappointing big game defeat. In total Arsenal have faced their big four rivals from the previous season eight times in all competitions in 2015, and have come away victorious five times, with just that one defeat at Chelsea.
Unlike previous seasons Arsenal are not only getting more points than their title rivals in the early stages, they’re also performing like the best side in the league, at both ends of the pitch, against the smaller sides and the bigger ones. Yes, Arsenal’s performances could dip, but generally the number of shots sides take tends to be pretty sustainable, with the converting of said shots having the largest fluctuations, which we already saw in the goal drought of August, a month where Arsenal took more shots than anyone else, but excluding own goals found the net just once.
Have Arsenal already bore the brunt of their annual injury crisis?
What makes those aforementioned numbers impressive is that they’ve been accumulated despite Alexis and Walcott missing matches through injury, two of the best shot makers in the league. Unlike in previous seasons, where Arsenal’s early form has often been on the back of a very strong period of health, Arsenal have already seen a number of key players struck down with injuries, and have so far managed to cope impressively. Of course some key players such as Cech, Monreal, Özil and Giroud have been fine, but it’s still been a tough couple of months on the fitness front.
We’ve seen in previous seasons Arsenal go on runs of form when injuries have dried up in the second half of the season, and this could yet be a similar case, with the very important difference of it being from a much higher base. Certainly they’ll be hope that the likes of Alexis, Wilshere, Rosicky, Welbeck, Coquelin and Cazorla can return at some point down the line and provide a boost to the already performing squad.
The title chasing pack is smaller
In both 2013/14 and 2010/11 Arsenal had hopes of winning the league, but ended up finishing 4th. I think finishing 4th shows in hindsight that title ambitions were a bit off the mark. When there are three other sides batting for the league, it makes winning it that much harder than if there are simply one of two title rivals. 13/14 was for a while considered a three horse race, but Liverpool topped the league on Christmas Day and were proving a threat throughout the campaign. With three sides to compete against, only one of those has to go on a great run and winning the league is virtually impossible. A lot has to go right for all three to stumble and a major opportunity to arise.
This season it’s not a four horse race, it’s arguably a two horse one. Chelsea are in tatters, Liverpool and Tottenham don’t seem quite there yet in their development, Manchester United’s problems are well documented, and it would be a significant surprise if Leicester are to keep their pace into the spring. Which leaves just Manchester City competing with Arsenal (FWIW the same Michael Caley model has it as a 1/10 chance that neither City or Arsenal win the league).
Maybe even a January boost?
Despite the positives mentioned so far, Arsenal still need strengthening. With Francis Coquelin out till late February at the earliest, Mikel Arteta basically a coaching intern at this stage of his career, Mathieu Flamini too busy saving the world’s energy resource crisis and, you know, not actually being that good at the whole football thing these days, and Callum Chambers still being a wet round the ears centre back who might still be a right back, Arsenal are seriously lacking in holding midfield. A wide playmaker would also be a useful addition given the consistent injuries to Wilshere and the uncertainty surrounding Welbeck.
Wenger doesn’t exactly have a solid reputation for getting the business done during the transfer window, but I think there’s enough history to suggest he’ll do just that. Arsenal are short at the moment and making a signing could be the difference between winning the league or not. There’s also long term incentive, with Arteta and Flamini’s contracts running out in the summer, and the possibility that Cazorla heads back to Spain in the summer, Arsenal will be short of central midfield options next season if someone isn’t brought in. Arsene has made depth signings in most January windows lately, Gabriel last season and Monreal three years ago; and he signed Arshavin in 2009 when he felt the team needed a boost. The club have obviously been looking for a top holding midfielder for a while, he just hasn’t found someone he’s been completely convinced about and thus hasn’t pulled the trigger. But he’s equally shown, when needs must, he will buy someone, even if he’s not sure about them, as he did with Danny Welbeck in the 2014 summer when Giroud was injured and Alexis and Yaya Sanogo were Arsenal’s only centre forward options. This situation has a similar feel to it.
A lot can happen from now till may. Özil (God forbid) could break his leg. Manchester City might not lose another game. Arsenal might actually beat Barcelona and get too distracted trying to win the Champions League. But unlike previous years, Arsenal’s title challenge is certainly not fictitious. Arsenal have had many false dawns when it comes to winning their first Premier League since 2004, but bar the 2007/08 season, there have always been overwhelming reasons why Arsenal were never likely to come out on top. That season eight years ago was tainted by Eduardo’s horrific leg break and elimination in the later stages of the cups. Hopefully, this season has no such unaccountable factors. If it doesn’t, logic suggests it could be a great one.
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