The cynics have been waiting for the day when the Arsenal title challenge grinds to a halt, November was meant to be the month where the wheels finally came off but Wenger’s men continue to flourish.
They have taken the Premier League by storm so far, and there was a point this weekend where the gap at the top was as wide as 7 points. Those that had Arsenal down simply as early season pace setters and nothing more have had to seriously re-evaluate their position, the Gunners are no doubt major title contenders.
Having a world-class midfield is almost taken as a given with Arsenal, the Gunners continually dominated the middle of the park throughout their darkest days under Wenger. The difference now is that they have a rock-solid defence to back up this attacking menace. The back four of Sagna, Mertersacker, Koscielny and Gibbs has been an almost constant feature this season, 5 clean sheets last month is a testament to this newfound solidity, add to this the bonus of an ever more competent Szczesny and you can start to understand the reasons for the new solidity.
This isn’t a trait picked up over-night, Arsenal’s impressive run to pip Spurs to fourth place was characterised by defensive rigidity above all else. This is all the more important given that Arsenal appear to have that same attacking incision as before, a particularly powerful combination.
But how long can it all last?
Arsenal’s lack of depth has been a hot topic, a failure to bring in the necessary resources last summer has left Wenger with a strong first XI but with very little else. The teams around Arsenal all have the necessary depth to carry a title challenge throughout the season, a Chelsea second choice XI may well contain the likes of Ashley Cole, Willian and Juan Mata to name but a few. Contrast this to an Arsenal bench that has seen the likes of Gnabry, Zelalem and Sanogo upon it in recent weeks and you can start to understand the problem here. Arsenal’s title challenge is precarious, and without management and possibly investment it could well become unachievable.
Arsenal’s depth in midfield isn’t a major concern, with Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain still to return there is increasing support going into the winter months. The problem though is in the defence, the bedrock of a title tilt. Wenger has persisted with the same back-line for 14 of the clubs 20 league and Champions League fixtures this term and as a result those waiting to enter the fray are lacking that match sharpness to compete.
When injury and fatigue catches up with Arsenal will the likes of Vermaelen and Monreal be able to answer the call?
It is a concern for the club, the festive period means midweek fixtures and a definite need for rotation, the worry being that Arsenal may lose the cohesion that has made them so successful to date. This test starts against Hull with Jenkinson moving in to deputise for a suspended Sagna, and the possibility for more rotation given trickier fixtures ahead. Wenger won’t want to upset the balance too much, but he will also know that keeping his defensive unit together is also unrealistic.
Arsenal do have some cover at the back, club captain Thomas Vermaelen has been forced to miss out for much of the season, something Wenger clearly feels quite bad about:
“It is a difficult decision,” he said of Vermaelen, “because of his attitude, influence at the club, and because he is a top-class player. He certainly suffers but he handles it with great dignity and great professionalism.”
Everton at the Emirates this coming weekend and then crucial trips to Naples and Manchester; Wenger is going to be forced to shuffle his defensive pack. The gulf between the starting line-up and bench is growing and in my opinion could well prove detrimental to the clubs chances in the next few weeks.
With other clubs rotating with ease, will Arsenal’s inadequate squad finally catch up with them this December?
A title challenge that has been built on firm defensive foundations, for me the next few weeks could well be Arsenal’s undoing as Wenger is forced into rethinking his defensive outfit.