Some things never seem to change in sport. Patterns emerge and never really seem to falter.
One of those patterns is Arsenal’s inability to win the Premier League: each season there is a smattering of hope and a brief belief that this year could be different, then Arsene Wenger’s side find a way to capitulate. They fall short with such regularity that they haven’t maintained a realistic title challenge in a decade.
As bad as 2016 has been universally, it’s ended pretty brightly for the red and white portion of England’s capital. The hope is yet to vanish, the dreams are living on into the second half of the Premier League campaign and Wenger is on course to receive the grandest of farewells.
For all the tedious noise around the Champions League draw, Arsenal were not as unfortunate as they have been in the past. Bayern Munich are not perfect opponents, but Carlo Ancelotti’s spluttering Bayern (assuming they’re in a similar state come February) are a different animal. Dangerous, yes, but much more fallible.
Onto domestic action, then. The Premier League is living up to its billing this season. Marketed as the most competitive league on the planet, the title race is still gaping. Any of five teams have a very real chance of winning the title, even though it’s almost Christmas. That’s how exciting this season will be, and Arsenal are not the optimistic outsiders this time, they are right in the heart of the race. They are currently the team charged with hunting down Antonio Conte’s runaway blue train.
Dreaming is okay. When you’ve been hurt by optimism so many times, it can be hard to really have faith that this could be the year it all changes. Each victory is qualified in some way, corners of the TV media will always question Arsenal’s credentials, but the Gunners have everything to be the real deal this year.
Central defence, deep midfield and centre forward have been the long-running concerns for the Gunners; they have all been answered emphatically. A brief lay-off for Shkodran Mustafi is only a minor concern, especially with the form that Rob Holding has shown. Granit Xhaka is growing into his role in the side more and more with each game and Alexis Sanchez is flourishing as one of the world’s best number nines. In Lucas Perez, Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wenger has quality in depth in his forward line, rather than calling upon Marouane Chamakh or Gervinho as he’s had to in the past. In midfield, Mohamed Elneny has proven himself as a worthy deputy, too.
Squad-wise, Arsenal are set. Both their first XI and replacement players are as good as any in the Premier League this season. Wenger, then, could be the decisive factor. So often bemoaned for quizzical team selections or tactics, he must find a way to manoeuvre his Arsenal side past Conte’s Chelsea, Klopp’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s Manchester City. For all his failings, though, Wenger has done this before, he is as desperate for one more title as the irate Gunners on Arsenal Fan TV.
Forget the defeat to Everton, forget the Champions League draw, Arsenal are a different unit this season. Defeats will happen, but it is how they react to setbacks like this one that will make the campaign. The way they responded to disappointing performances against PSG, Tottenham and Middlesbrough was refreshing for any Gunner. If they were to crumble this season, it’s likely it would have happened during a challenging November. There will be bad runs and patches of indifferent form, but Arsenal are in this title race for the long haul and they have as good a chance as anyone of winning the whole thing.