The season, so far

Arsenal have endured a fairly interesting start to the season. The Gunners are struggling to advance to the knockout phase of the Champions League competition following three losses out of four matches played in the group stage. Defeats away to Dinamo Zagreb and home to Olympiacos put tremendous pressure on Arsenal to get results in both matches against German giants Bayern Munich. One win and one loss against Bayern has kept the Gunners at the bottom of the group with two games remaining.

The north London club also suffered an early exit from the Capital One Cup.  While they did beat rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the tournament, Arsenal were sent packing after a shocking 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday (it must be said, however, that manager Arsene Wenger generally likes to give his younger players time on the pitch during these matches).

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While those two competitions have been disappointing, the Gunners are still very much alive in the Barclays Premier League title race.  After a dozen league matches, Arsenal have only lost two games and are currently sitting in second place in the table – tied with Manchester City in points, but behind on goal difference.

Morale has fluctuated quite a bit during the current campaign.  Although I don’t believe the Capital One Cup loss hurt the team too badly, the disappointing Champions League results have certainly had a negative effect.  Nevertheless, the players have not let their hiccups in the European tournament impact their Premier League run.

The road ahead

Arsenal has nine matches on the schedule between now and New Year’s Day.  Of these games, seven are league matches and two are the last Champions League group stage fixtures.  The Gunners are going to need some help from Bayern Munich if they are to advance to the knockout phase.  Bayern need to beat Olympiacos on Nov. 24, and then Arsenal need to record a victory over Dinamo and thump Olympiacos away from home by at least two goals.

Arsenal does not exactly have a stellar record facing Olympiacos in Greece over the last six years.  The Gunners have played the Greek side three times away from home since 2009 and have lost all three matches.  However, the north London club have gone into these three matches having already advanced to the knockout round and have thus not always sent their best players.

In the Premier League, Arsenal have just one out of their next seven league matches against an opponent currently in the top six of the table, and five of these clubs are 13th or lower at the moment.  Due to the upcoming fixture list, the Gunners should be able to sustain their current position in the standings for the time being.  A visit from Manchester City on Dec. 21 will be the club’s toughest match until the January transfer window opens and could determine which team will be top of the table heading into 2016.

On the injury front, the Gunners have encountered their annual “crisis,” as they previously had nine first team players on the sidelines due to injury at the beginning of the month.  However, club captain Mikel Arteta and backup goalkeeper David Ospina have already returned to action, and the trio of Hector Bellerin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey could be fit enough to feature in the club’s next match on Nov. 21. Having these three back is a major boost to the team. and forward Theo Walcott should also be returning to the pitch later in the month as well.

Come January

With the fixture list looking the way it does and important players coming back into the side from injuries, Arsenal should be able to finish the calendar year on a strong note. Not only are the four aforementioned players set to rejoin the club, but the team’s three long-term injured players could be ready by the time January rolls around. Tomas Rosicky, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere should all start to receive playing time sometime during the first month of the year.

Looking ahead to the January transfer market, the club’s interest in bringing in new talent will most likely depend on the fitness of their players. Arsenal are currently a bit thin in defensive midfield and the center forward position.  Francis Coquelin is a superb player in the middle of the pitch, one of the top players at his position in the league, in fact; however, if he were to go down with an injury, the Gunners could be exposed for not having a capable player to step into the Frenchman’s shoes.

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Up front, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott are competent strikers, and when you factor in the return of Danny Welbeck, Arsenal will have the numbers that they need to make a run at the title.  Nevertheless, bringing in a top center forward in January could be what the team needs to overtake their biggest challenger this season, Manchester City.  

Although Arsene Wenger will surely be on the lookout for a world-class center forward, it will most likely be tough convincing another club to sell one of their stars midway through the season.  A move for a promising young prospect or two could very well be the direction that the manager goes if a top established player is not available.

With nine total matches over the next five-and-a-half weeks, much of the success of the Gunners will boil down to fitness.  The Christmas period is tough on every club in the Premier League, due to the rigorous fixture list; however, Arsenal have a talented club and should challenge for both the league title and the FA Cup, if they can stay healthy.