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    Is this Arsenal's year?

    Written by Antony Martin

    “We won the league in the calendar year”. It is a phrase uttered frequently by every Arsenal fan, young and old. Are you as bored of hearing this as I am? What does it actually mean? It has no relevance or importance to the outcome of the actual Premier League standings, yet Arsenal fans seem to take great pride in this so called ‘achievement’. It probably ranks up there just behind their most important trophy - 4th place. As we kick on into 2016, questions have already been posed as to whether or not Arsenal have what it takes to win their first league title for twelve years, and i’m not so sure they have answered them.

    Tricky away fixtures at Liverpool and Stoke within the space of four days in January is always a good barometer of how good a football team really is. Now, you could argue that on the face of it two draws would be a good return. Then you look a little deeper and see a 90th minute equaliser was conceded against a very much under-strength Liverpool side, and Stoke were without their star man Xherdan Shaqiri. The draw at the Britannia was definitely an improvement from years gone by for Arsenal, but you can’t help but feel these are the sort of games you need to win if you are to win the league. Let us have a look at Arsenal’s chances of winning the Premier League, and if they have actually made any genuine improvements from years gone by.

    Arsene Wenger made one of the best signings of the summer, bringing in the trophy laden, serial winner Petr Cech from rivals Chelsea. He really has transformed the Gunners back-line, bringing solidarity where there used to be disharmony and calm where there used to be panic. In spite of this you feel as though Wenger missed a massive chance to really make this side great. They were crying out for a holding midfielder to compete with, or play alongside, Francis Coquelin. The suitable names were snapped us as the summer went on until the top level talent pool had run dry. Morgan Schneiderlin was the one who would have been perfect for Arsenal. Quick off the mark, incisive in the tackle, combatant, great with his feet and a sharp distributor of the football. He would have complimented Santi Cazorla perfectly, and would have been a great partner for Coquelin in the tougher away games. This never materialised and Arsenal were again left with a threadbare holding midfield department. It was only a matter of time before the over-used Coquelin would break down. This eventually happened in November away at West Brom with the Frenchman being ruled out for around three months, and Arsenal have not looked the same since then. It is hard to imagine a title winning side having an aging Mathieu Flamini as their midfield enforcer. With the evolution of Premier League football, power, pace and stamina are three key ingredients for the modern midfielder. Schneiderlin has all of these, so does Victor Wanyama. Sami Khedira was snapped up on a free transfer by Juventus. Asier Illarramendi went back to Real Sociedad for a snip at £15 million. Why were all these players over-looked? Or did Arsene Wenger genuinely believe they were not better than the back up options he already had in Flamini and Arteta? He may prove us all wrong at the end of the season, but you seriously have to question the Arsenal manager’s thinking behind his recruitment policy. 

    Olivier Giroud is a very good Premier League striker. He would probably be first choice striker at every other club in the league bar Man City and Tottenham. Man United would love a player like Giroud to lead their front line. In spite of all this, questions will still be asked of the big Frenchman. Is he good enough to lead Arsenal to the league title? As good as he is, many people (myself included) would say no. It is in those tight games like the one mentioned at Stoke where you have once chance to win your team the game. It is the difference between a draw and a win. Two Points could be huge come the end of the season, and it is those chances that Giroud often misses that could end up costing Arsenal. Through on goal with only Butland to beat, he smashed the ball into the on-rushing goalkeeper rather than dinking it over him, and Arsenal left the Potteries with one point rather than three. Some would say it is harsh pointing the blame at Giroud, but the reality of Premier League football is harsh. The margins of success and failure are so closely aligned. These margins are where someone of the ilk of Sergio Aguero, or Luis Suarez can make the difference. It is my thinking that Wenger should have gone for someone of this calibre in the summer to send out a huge message to world football that Arsenal mean business. Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Antoine Griezmann or even Zlatan Ibrahimovic could have been brought at the right price, and would not only have provided stiff competition for Giroud, but would also have been an upgrade in the striking department. Again, Wenger chose not to pursue any striker targets and stuck with what he had, claiming he already has world-class front men in Giroud, Walcott, and Welbeck. Make of that what you will.

    One plus point for Arsenal fans would be the fact that Wenger seems to be analysing the opposition much more than in previous years. There used to be a culture and a way of thinking at Arsenal that if they play their best football they will beat anyone. The trouble with this theory is that it is not possible to always be at your best. Jose Mourinho was the master of analysing opponents weaknesses and capitalising upon them. You have to wonder if it is the arrival of Petr Cech that has brought this thinking into the manager’s mind. You hear a lot of Arsenal players now talking about preparing for games by analysing their opponents. Laurent Koscielny and Per Metersacker are two of the more senior figures who claim there is analytical work being done this year that maybe wasn’t so prevalent in years gone by, and the results against the bigger clubs are testament to this. Home wins against Man United and Man City, an away win at second placed Leicester City, draws with Liverpool home and away and a draw at home to rivals Tottenham seems like a sound return. They have only lost twice to teams inside the top ten - West Ham and Southampton. This is a vast improvement on previous years when playing arsenal was seen as an easy three points for the big boys.

    Another huge plus for Arsenal is the amount of players they have had out on long-term injures set to return in the second half of the season. Wilshere, Welbeck, and Rosicky haven’t kicked a ball all season whilst Sanchez, Cazorla and Coquelin have been out since November. Add to that the losses of Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey for a month in October, and you have to say Arsenal have done extremely well to be where they are at the moment. The real test awaits them though, with tough away games at Man City, Tottenham, Man United, Everton and West Ham still to come. They will need a full compliment of fit players to have any chance in the run in. This is their best chance to win the league over the last ten years or so, and with a fully fit squad to choose from, they have every chance. It is a season where the mid-table clubs have used the television money to strengthen their teams dramatically. It is a much harder league to win now than it was ten years ago. A lower points tally will be needed to be crowned champions than in years gone by with so many of the so-called smaller clubs taking points from the big boys. It could easily be Arsenal’s year, you just hope that Wenger doesn’t end up regretting not signing that world class striker or that strong, gritty ball-winner in the middle of the park that could have made the difference. Next up for the Gunner’s is Chelsea at home, and isn’t it just symbolic of this years topsy turvy Premier League that the Blues need the points to steer clear of relegation rather than to stamp their authority on the title race. In the most unpredictable of Premier League campaigns, wouldn’t it be so predictable of Arsenal to fold against one of their arch enemies. Whereas three points here against one of their bogey teams would go a long way to suggesting they are mentally up for the fight. Whatever happens, you can be assured of great viewing, a department that Arsene Wenger’s team have never let us down in, and as May approaches, will it be Wenger, or the media saying, “ I told you so”.
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    Item Reviewed: Is this Arsenal's year? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Antony Martin
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