It’s that time of year again. The weather gets colder, the nights darker, shops get busier, Michael Buble gets his annual airplay in homes around the country and, in north London, Arsenal once again enjoy dominance near the top of the Premier League.
Just once in the past four years (2014/15) have Arsenal failed to be inside the top three come Christmastime. But, despite back-to-back FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015 taking the trophy pressure off Arsene Wenger, the long-awaited league title (missing for twelve years now from the club’s cabinet) still eludes the Gunners, despite them showing repeatedly that they can be in the right place (top of the league) but at the wrong time (December, rather than May).
But why is this year different?
Personally, I backed Arsenal for the division title last season. With both Chelsea and Manchester United out of the way, the stage seemed set for the Gunners to win their first league title in twelve years. In fact, if Leicester City hadn’t made the unimaginable leap from almost-relegated to champions then it would have been a two-horse race between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who did take advantage of the void of bigger clubs at the top of the table and managed to achieve a third place finish.
But, while I would be remiss in making the same prediction again (the term ‘broken record’ comes to mind), there seems to a sense of purpose this year with Arsenal. One of these is the ever-improving form of their two best players. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are playing the best football this season they had since arriving at the Emirates Stadium.
Alexis Sanchez has previously played either side of the central target man, usually Olivier Giroud, but injury has kept the Frenchman out of the side during the first part of this campaign, and Sanchez has benefited playing in a more attacking role, scoring eleven goals so far in the league compared to his total of 13 last season. He has also reduced his shot-per-goal ratio as well, from 3.6 to 3.1 which suggests he has put more thought into the finishing side of his play. But he hasn’t let the other part of his game rest, however, contributing one more assist already this term than he did across the whole of last season.
Mesut Ozil has been improving year-on-year since arriving in England in 2013. While he initially struggled against some of the more physical players in the Premier League, and also with the style of play, he has since adapted his play to become a pivotal player in the current Arsenal side. Last season he gave 19 assists in the Premier League alone, and his key passes have also shown improvement, with his first season standing at an average of just 2.9, but last season this rose to an average of 4.2-per-game. His initial transfer to Arsenal (and in particular the price paid) may suggest it was a panic buy toward the end of the transfer window for Wenger, but he has certainly proved worth his value so far.
And then there is Wenger. This is his 21st season in charge of the team, and, like with Sir Alex Ferguson toward the end of his managerial reign at Manchester United, there are now constant rumours regarding when he will retire, which won’t cease until he does. There had been speculation of him taking the England job next summer, but it is extremely unlikely he would consider another position in the game after Arsenal, and he would surely like to retire on a high. Ferguson departed United after gifting them the title in his final season, so perhaps Wenger is waiting for the same acclaim for his side before he walks down the tunnel for the final time.
There is no telling when Arsenal will finally regain the Premier League trophy. As competition appears fiercer and fiercer each year it could be assumed that their chances are getting worse. But they continue to show form in the first half of their season, and they continue to give themselves the best chance of achieving success. What is certainly true is that they have plenty of doubters to silence and only one way of doing it.
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