“Arsenal will keep falling away in the title race” seems to be the familiar refrain from so many pundits. Yet as we enter the second half of the season, the Gunners top the table ahead of more fancied and highly touted sides. What exactly has Arsene Wenger done this season so well? From the looks of things, Arsenal has a team spirit, and a fighting mentality that the North London club has so often lacked in the past.
“When winter comes, Arsenal crumbles” has been easy analysis for critics the past several seasons. Yet that avoids the reality that the Gunners problems lay largely with uneven performances particularly away from home and an over reliance on slick passing football.
This season Arsenal has fixed both, consistently getting tough results on their travels, including an impressive 1-0 victory at St James Park over Newcastle United last week. The team has also demonstrated a pragmatic ability to defend with numbers and take a direct approach if needed to stimulate attacking options.
What has been even more apparent is the fighting mentality of the Gunners, a side often lamented as being “too soft” to compete at a high level. The fight has been on display since the second matchday of the Premier League season.
As has been the case over the course of the past several seasons, Arsenal has suffered far more serious injuries than the other top sides. Additionally, much like those seasons, the Gunners lack of depth has been used by detractors to illustrate why Arsenal is not a legitimate title contender.
But beginning in August when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta and Lukas Podolski all were injured, the Gunners have shown a willingness to dig deep and push themselves beyond the perceived limits of their abilities to achieve a truly remarkable record in the first half of the season.
For this, the credit must be given to Arsene Wenger. The fighting mentality of this Arsenal side, and the willingness of players to sacrifice repeatedly for the cause is a trait we associate with Ferguson’s Manchester United or Mourinho’s Chelsea. However, this season the Gunners have been the most resourceful side in the division and have shown strength in character at the top of the table, which is rare in this age of the types of highly paid mercenaries that litter the Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United squads.
Wenger has gone out of his way to only sign a certain type of player. Instead of competing for overpaid players with inflated egos that have dominated the recent signings of title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City, character and ability to positively influence a training session or dressing room are traits Wenger looks for.
While being mocked for not competing for the top transfer, Wenger has carefully analyzed the compatibility of each transfer target with his side, both from a playing and a mentality standpoint. That has created a side that might have less depth and less quality than the other title aspirants, but is in fact more unified with a single purpose in mind. This mentality has been on full display in repeated matches where the Gunners have defended in numbers or have rallied late to get a result, something we did not often see from Arsenal in past seasons.