When Jermaine Jenas declared on Saturday evening that Arsenal are now his pick for the Premier League title, a few moments of awkward silence fell over the Match of the Day studio as Ruud Gullet and Gary Lineker expressed mild disbelief through their facial muscles – and not because of the retired midfielder’s ties with local rivals Tottenham.
It’s not very fashionable for pundits to actively express support for the Gunners. Most would prefer to focus on the club’s limited spending during the summer and how sharply it deviates from the Premier League norm, or the apparent naivety of Arsene Wenger’s overtly attacking tactics, or their admittedly poor performances against Olympiacos last month and Sheffield Wednesday last week.
Consequentially, a common narrative has developed from the Premier League’s punditry alumni, claiming that regardless of form or results or any other factor suggesting otherwise, history will inevitably repeat itself in north London and Arsenal will finish the campaign as nearly men once again.
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It’s what the media, pundits and even the Premier League table has told us for the most part of the last decade, so perhaps the uniformity in that belief shouldn’t be so surprising. Having inevitably slipped away from the unassailable heights of the Invincibles, Arsenal are always a bit of an easy target when criticising for criticism’s sake.
But unpredictability is the beauty of football. Chelsea’s miraculous decline from champions to potentially managerless relegation battlers is mesmerising because it has been completely unexpected; so if even Jose Mourinho’s fortunes can plummet between the course of May and August, why can’t the reverse be true for the Gunners? It’s time the pundits started taking Arsenal a little more seriously, judging them on the present rather than the past.
As I have been arguing for the last few weeks, there is something subtly yet intrinsically different about Arsenal at the moment – something only noticeable if you watch them closely for a full ninety minutes rather than depending upon the abbreviated analysis of Match of the Day. They’ve become craftier, more pragmatic and more ruthless since the start of the season, once again evident during their 3-0 win over Swansea City on Saturday.
3-0 is the perfect score line for any title-contending side. It requires the attacking threat to score thrice, the defensive organisation to claim a clean sheet, the quality to dominate an opponent yet the maturity to not waste energy or take unnecessary risks in pursuit of a more self-indulgent score line.
So Saturday’s result makes it three 3-0 wins in four Premier League games for Arsenal, intriguingly enough against three different calibres of opponent in lower-mid-tablers Watford, upper-mid-tablers Swansea City and fellow title contenders Manchester United. Each side required a different strategy and each match took its own unique course of events, yet Arsenal ended up with the same score line – the perfect score line – every time.
Furthermore, a telling pattern has developed throughout these three fixtures. Against the Hornets, the Swans and the Red Devils, Arsenal’s three goals all came in 15-minute to 25-minute bursts. Rather than simply attacking from the first minute to the last, the Gunners waited for the match’s momentum to swing in their favour before allowing their predatory instincts to take over. That’s something we’ve all known Arsenal are capable of for a long time – but it’s the balance, organisation and restraint they’ve demonstrated in the remaining 65-odd minutes that suggests this Gunners side varies from its predecessors.
No doubt, we are looking at a different Arsenal this season – a more precise, calculated, balanced and focused Arsenal. Whether that means Jenas’ title-winning prediction is correct remains to be seen. After all, the Gunners lack the depth of current favourites and table-toppers Manchester City, who lead them on goal difference, and there have been disappointing performances this season in the Champions League and the Capital One Cup.
But if the north London outfit don’t claim this season’s English crown, it won’t simply be because history has condemned them not to, as pundits continually seem to imply. This Arsenal team have indisputably improved; it’s now a question of whether they’ve improved enough.
Either way, unconvinced sectors of the media need to start accepting Arsene Wenger’s side as genuine title contenders – or they could look incredibly silly come the end of May.