When Arsenal deservedly lost to Spurs in the north London derby earlier this month, many Gunners fans responded with an air of remarkably calm acceptance. Yes there was frustration, anger in some quarters too, but overall most supporters took defeat in a measured, even-tempered way. All things considered.
Why? It’s because they know, despite what some doom-mongers continue to preach, that Arsene Wenger has assembled the strongest squad in place at the club for a decade. Based on what they’ve seen there is genuine confidence that Arsenal will finish, at worst, in third place this season. The reaction to that chastening loss at the Lane came from a position of known strength, not panic.
This belief is well founded in my view. Things are beginning to fall into the place for the Gunners.
To start with, their squad now has under-rated depth. There are at least two quality players vying for each position, with other names including Mathieu Flamini, Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Yaya Sanogo and Chuba Akpom left over as spares. This stiff competition for places all over the pitch is a big, fat, overwhelmingly important positive. No one can afford to coast.
Wenger has needed those options too. Only THREE players have featured in 70% or more of their Premier League season so far; Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez. Among those who have spent less than half the campaign in action are Mesut Ozil, Mathieu Debuchy, Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.
Being two points off third, and seven points away from second place, doesn’t seem so bad when you think about that; especially with many of the toughest fixtures already out of the way.
Arsenal’s Strength In Depth Could See Them Field Two Pretty Good XIs…
READ: James McNicholas (a.k.a.@gunnerblog) on the wonder that is Santi Cazorla
Tactically, progress has been made too. The big away game, so often their nemesis, need not hold any fears for them moving forwards. The forthright way they balanced defensive resolve, without sacrificing counter attacking intent at the Etihad a month ago, proved they have a Plan B that works, and the personnel to pull it off. Talk of soft centres and mental fragility won’t wash anymore. They’ve proven what they’re capable of.
The flow is back in their game as well. Earlier on this season performances were often stodgy and disjointed, but they’ve discovered a lovely groove to their football at the moment. When you compare Arsenal’s fluency to Manchester United’s, it’s like they’re playing two different sports.
There’s also a pleasant blend of craft and pace. Cazorla, Ozil and Tomas Rosicky are gliding through matches, teasing the opposition to death, while the speed and purpose of Alexis, Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck provides balance, and another string to the team’s attacking bow.
Any frustrations the fans had with Arsene Wenger’s use of a 4-1-4-1 system has been made redundant, especially now that Francis Coquelin - a solution the manager stumbled upon - has laid the foundation for others to thrive. Having an athetic, defensively minded holding player has released those around him to excel.
Seeing off their top four rivals in the coming weeks won’t be a walk in the park. You could make a case for any of them finishing the season strongly. Yet what would happen to Spurs if Kane and Eriksen stopped firing? Is Liverpool’s defence really strong enough? Do Southampton have enough depth? And will Manchester United ever look cohesive under Louis van Gaal?
Question marks hang over all the contenders, while at the Emirates, weak links and obvious deficiencies do seem in shorter supply.
This Arsenal side is by no means perfect. They make too many defensive mistakes, they haven’t concentrated well enough for long enough to string a run of victories together, and to progress to the next level, upgrades in goal, at centre-back, defensive midfield and centre forward might be required.
However, Arsenal’s class of 2015 is in better shape than they’ve been in previous years, and the supporters sense that too.
I’m optimistic that third place is a shoo-in. Next season they will be ready to compete for the title.
Read more from Adrian Clarke