Although Arsenal keep marching on, playing the same aesthetically football that Arsene Wenger has been a vigilant defender of all along, there is a certain reluctance to accept that they have a genuine chance at the title. The Gunners are four points clear of Chelsea at the top, and have distanced their arguably toughest opponents, Manchester City, by a gap of six points. Their defence isn’t letting in easy goals like in previous seasons, and the Arsenal midfield have finally burst to life.
And still, we are all reluctant to recognize their title credentials.
There is certain consensus that although they are looking solid at the moment, Wenger’s squad will eventually falter. Even Wayne Rooney said in a press conference that he was not too worried about the considerable gap because everyone at Manchester United have seen Arsenal be “top two until February or March and then faded away,” suggesting that the same will happen again. How genuine is this claim though?
If we look at the points gathered in 2013 alone, the gap at the top of the table is in fact bigger for Arsenal. Last season was ruined by a drop in form before new years, and Arsene Wenger’s men secured a spot in the Champions League with a late display of form. So far it seems like Rooney’s comments are either ill advised or simply meant to be an attempt on mind games – something few of us would expect him to excel at.
If Arsenal are to take encouragement from any recent season in particular, it should, funnily enough, be that of which has defined the career of Rooney himself. When Manchester United entered the only time space in the Ferguson era that resembled a trophy draft – between 2003 and 2007 – the retired Sir Alex faced much the same accusations as Arsene Wenger has had to deal with in recent years. With a squad that was slowly maturing, and young players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney growing into pillars of the team, Fergie eventually came out victorious. It sounds awfully familiar, don’t you think?
This year we have seen Aaron Ramsey in particular completely changing his game, giving possibly the best and most complete performances in the league. Now we also see Jack Wilshere realizing his importance to the rhythm of the Gunners’ game, as well as scoring goals. Meanwhile, Kieran Gibbs and Olivier Giroud are applying themselves, giving Arsenal the most strikingly apparent cohesion in the top flight.
When Fergie’s last great United team started down the path that eventually lead them to a Champions League victory, they were relying on the talents of player’s that had long been written off. At the end of last season, none of us gave Aaron Ramsey a flicker of chance to succeed at the highest level. 13 games into the season he looks like the PFA player of the year, and possibly one of Wenger’s greatest achievements in terms of nurturing.
Another component of Manchester United’s success when they won back the title in 2007 was Ferguson’s recognition of the need to exit the starting blocks like Usain Bolt driven by nitroglycerin. Fergie saw that his old strategy of starting slowly before gaining momentum in January and February was putting his team adrift when real title race started. The 5-1 thrashing of Fulham in the opening game was a resounding confirmation of the team’s intent. Although Arsenal lost their opener to Aston Villa in August, the momentum they have built since gives a clear indication of where they intend to be when the trophies are handed out in May.
It is about time we take Arsenal seriously in their campaign. Now that we enter the busy Christmas schedule, it is their rivals that need to sharpen their form should have any chance of closing the gap. They’ll be the bookie’s favourite by some distance when they take on Hull at the Emirates tonight, and to put their form into context they can potentially move 12 points clear of the reigning champions.
My biggest concern is this: are we prepared to deal with the size of Arsene Wenger’s French ego, should they win?