What a difference a year makes…
On the 2nd January 2013, after 20 games played, Arsenal were sixth in the table on 34 points, 18 points off the top. Any hope and chance of winning the league had long since vanished. All that remained was the prospect of an arduous winter ahead, scrapping with the likes of Spurs and Everton for the final Champions League berth.
Fast forward to the present and things could hardly be more different; Arsenal sit top of the table having won 14 out of their 20 games thus far (as opposed to 9 out of their first 20 games last season).
The summer signing of Mezut Ozil was a game changer. Whilst the German wizard is yet to reach top form, his arrival showed how serious the club were in their aspirations. It sparked a level of endeavour and belief not seen in years. Furthermore, the decline of Manchester United as the dominant force of English football has also presented a unique historical opportunity for us to end the trophy drought.
The question on many people’s mind however is, can Arsenal maintain their form and remain at the top of the table?
In order to win the Premier League, not only does a club require consistent performances on the pitch, but also (as importantly), a good dose of fortune. The timing and extent of injuries, as well as the random nature of the fixture list have uncanny tendencies to swing the momentum at any given time. The current 2013/14 season is no different in this respect.
Podolski, Walcott, and Oxlaide-Chamberlain have each spent significant amounts of time in the treatment room this season. However, the latest setback to Walcott is the most significant to date. His absence in itself does not mean a great deal (after all, the club built and maintained their lead at the top of the table without him), however when considering the context of injuries elsewhere, it becomes especially dangerous to Arsenal’s claim to the title.
The strain on Giroud – our one and only out-and-out front man – has been evident for some time now. He has run himself into the ground, offering a good outlet for the team as well as an aerial prowess (at both ends of the pitch). He cannot however, regardless of his endeavours, be described as ‘world class’. Bendtner, the supposed ‘like for like’ back up remains a squad player at best, who most probably will move on sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. Podolski, despite an impressive career record, is far from being an out-and-out striker (Wenger’s experiments to date are testament to that). He thrives against weaker opposition or in a partnership upfront, but lacks physical strength to be a target man.
Considering the make-up of previous Premier League winners, not one has done so without a world class front man or pairing. United, read RVP and Rooney. City, read Aguero and Tevez. Chelsea, read Drogba. The club has a serious weakness in an area of the pitch where our rivals exhibit strength. This represents, in my opinion, one of the biggest threats to Arsenal’s title bid.
I am not confident the January transfer window offers sufficient opportunity to fix the problem either. Some point to the contribution of our midfield, namely Aaron Ramsey with 13 goals so far, in asserting that 2013/14 can be different. I admire the positive mindset, but personally I am rather sceptical. No club can be expected to win the league without a world class striker.
The remaining fixture list also provides some cause for concern…
This season is proving to be one of the most competitive in memory. Just 2 points separate the top three teams, with only 7 points separating the top five. Mathematically, the league remains within reach for any of them. For me however, based on strength and depth, as well as current league positions, there are only three teams with a genuine shout this season – Arsenal, City, and Chelsea.
The nature of this particular season leads me to believe that the points spread between the three teams will remain tight until the business end of the season. This is when the league will be decided. Arsenal fans more than any should be aware of how important the tail-end of the season can be – without our strong finish last season, Spurs would be playing Champions League football, Bale would never have left, and we may never have attracted the likes of Ozil…
Let’s therefore take a cursory look at the final ten games of the season for the Big 3:
Manchester City reads as follows:
Manchester United, Villa, Hull, Fulham, Arsenal, Southampton, WBA, Palace, Everton, West Ham.
City’s run-in is a ‘mixed bag’; some easy, some crunch. The fixtures in bold, in my view, are their ‘crunch’ fixtures. United won’t have much to play for, but this is the Manchester derby after all. Arsenal is their biggest game by a country mile. Everton could be a banana skin, as no doubt they will be in the hunt for a Champions League spot. The remaining fixtures should on paper be 3 pointers.
Chelsea reads as follows:
Spurs, Villa, Arsenal, Palace, Stoke, Swansea, Sunderland, Liverpool, Norwich, Cardiff.
This is the easiest run-in of all three teams. Arsenal and Liverpool (again in bold) are their most significant fixtures. Mourinho will know that as long as Chelsea are within touching distance of top spot, then 3 or 4 points from these two games ought to place them very nicely indeed.
Arsenal reads as follows:
Swansea, Spurs, Chelsea, City, Everton, West Ham, Hull, Newcastle, WBA, Norwich.
Sandwiched between Swansea and Spurs is Bayern Munich (away). Arsenal’s run-in is without doubt the hardest of the three. Spurs should be points in the bag, although North London derbies are energy sapping affairs. The remaining fixtures (again in bold), are in direct continuation of each other in March and early April. In my opinion, this is where Arsenal’s season is likely to be determined; each of the opposition clubs have a sufficient number of remaining games to feel they have something worth fighting for (whether for the league title or a place in the top 4). It represents an extremely dangerous period for Arsenal.
As I have mentioned, there are many different factors that determine the outcome of a season. I believe injuries and the fixture run-in to be the most decisive ones. Based on the credentials of previous title winning sides, namely depth and quality upfront, as well as accounting for the importance of the final ten games of the season, I feel the odds are against Arsenal winning the title this season.
In order for the Gunners to have a chance, they must have lady luck on their side regarding player health. Most importantly however, they must under no circumstances surrender the lead they currently hold over their rivals (however slim this may be). If either (or worse, both) City or Chelsea surpass them by the time March/April arrives, then we can all forget about the dream of being crowned Premier League champions.
Josh @ RL