Arsenal; The Fragile Title Contenders
Nine games into the 22/23 English Premier League season and The Gunners are league leaders, who would have thought?
Yet, Arsenal have won eight of the nine games they have played, losing once and drawing none; they are on 24 points, 1 ahead of defending champions and favourites, Manchester City. This makes for good reading and have made the world of football notice the work Mikel Arteta and his charges are doing in North London.
Their forward line of Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, THE PROPELLERS, have contributed 52% of the team’s goals in the premier league with 12 goals combined and a further 9 assists. They are the propellers of this team with their tireless work rate and clinical finishing.
The midfield of Thomas Partey, THE ANCHOR, as a single Pivot acting as both a destroyer and a deep lying playmaker, he seems to be their most indispensable player at the moment because no other member of the squad has his skillset. Sambi Lokonga is his natural replacements but always looks out of sorts when played and might favour a more advanced role in midfield. Jokes are made about how Arteta wraps him in cotton wool, locks him in a box on Sunday evenings and only brings him out on Saturday mornings.
Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard, THE ENGINE ROOM, playing in the half spaces as central midfielders, dropping to help in defence when needed, moving the ball with crisp passing through the thirds and supporting the attack with 5 goals and 4 assists in the premier league so far. From the eye test, it is too obvious what Arteta has turned Xhaka into: an all-action midfielder, providing support to Partey to shield the defence and making late runs into the box to exploit the spaces created by the fluid movement of the forward three resulting in him scoring double of what he scored in the whole of last season and reducing his affinity for yellow cards with the somewhat reduced defensive duties. And in the defensive phase, the Swiss forms part of a double pivot with Partey in a 4-2-3-1 block.
The back line: Ben White, Saliba and Gabriel; THE HULL, usually supported by either Zinchenko or Tierney at left back, they form a strong base for the others to thrive. They have conceded a total of 10 goals in the league despite playing against Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool. The defence having Ramsdale in goal has kept three clean sheets out of nine games this season, in a season where goals are not lacking, these statistics should not be underrated…
Mikel Arteta, THE CAPTAIN, has built a team in his own image one would say. After three years in his role as head coach and manager, Arteta with the help of Edu has put together the youngest squad in the league with an average age of 23.7 and plays the most exciting brand of football some would argue. His team is built on positional fluidity and spatial awareness. On paper Arsenal lines up in a 4-2-3-1 formation but when they attack, the shape changes to a 2-3-5 with both CBs at the back, inverted fullbacks (current trend), Xhaka and Odegaard occupying half spaces and looking to rotate positions with both the wide forwards and the full backs. Even though the Spaniard is a student of the Tiki-taka master Pep Guardiola, he has added sides to his game like quick transition instead of playing the extra pass to build possession, this was evident in their first two goals against Liverpool.
There is so much to be hopeful for with this Arsenal team, but their history as title contenders and injury-laden-mid-season-syndrome makes it seem like “an elephant on a park bench”, they will crumble.
Stat attack: The last club to start the season with 8 wins from the first nine games and not win the title was Arsenal 07/08 before that it was Arsenal 04/05.
History: In 07/08, we witnessed one of the most tightly contested EPL seasons, with 2 points separating Manchester United (87) in first place and Chelsea (85) in second place, and another 2 points between Chelsea and Arsenal (83) in third place. The season started better than this one unbeaten at GW10 with 9 wins and 1 draw, continuing their fine form till February when the window closed. Having lost once and drawn 6 in 26 games, they would go on an abysmal run of form with one win in eight games, losing 2 and drawing 5. At a period when rivals were heating up and amassing points, Arsene Wenger’s side couldn’t keep up the pace with multiple competitions and injuries to deal with, having a similar season to that this year would be seen as success for this young Gunners. As with many other seasons where they have fallen short of their targets due to an inherent lack of belief within the whole club, we are yet to witness a crisis or a poor patch and their reaction to it.
Squad depth and injuries: The level of the first team is miles ahead of the second team, if anything happens say injuries or suspensions to key players like Partey, Xhaka, Jesus, Martinelli or Ramsdale; their replacement would be a step down too low and would drop the level of the entire team. Kudos to Arteta for his job well done so far, but he needs better squad players to mount and sustain a title charge, whether January window or next, but this season seems a little wishful.
Fixtures: Having enjoyed a mixed run of games so far, the games get easier between now and the GW16 when the league breaks for the World Cup. But it gets trickier for the Gunners when they return from Qatar to face Westham (H), Brighton (A), Newcastle (H), Tottenham (A) and Manchester United (H) consecutively between December 26th and January 21st, 2023. And their worst run of fixtures comes from GW30 to GW36 where they will play Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Newcastle and Brighton in 5 out 7 games at the business end of the season when games will jampacked and teams would be stretched to the limit, this Arsenal team do not look big and strong enough to weather that storm.
Other teams: Arsenal have played three of the traditional top six teams in Manchester united, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, losing away to Manchester united and winning at home to the others. The other fixtures have been somewhat favourable, not to take anything away from Arsenal, they have played 2 of the newly promoted sides in Bournemouth and Fulham; and also played out of sorts Leicester City and Aston Villa, two teams whose managers are odds-on to be sacked before January. Liverpool might find their feet, Chelsea and Manchester United will adapt better under new managers, City will most likely beat everyone and everything as usual, Spurs remain Flat-Track-Bullies, unless Edu and Arteta pull rabbits from hats in January and the new signings hit the ground running, there’s not much to suggest Arsenal will outdo these teams in the long run.
Writer’s verdict: There’s genuine hope for a title charge by Arsenal Faithfuls, based on what we have seen this season. But this writer thinks it is rather too early to hope, as we have not seen enough character, and the writer suggests a decrease in expectations and advises Gunners fans to target a top four finish instead.