Christmas usually isn’t too merry for the Arsenal faithful. Over the years they’ve gotten used to seeing their side attain an impeccable position from which there is no hope of winning the title, even with half the season remaining; seeing their key players follow the footsteps of full-time hospital resident and part-time central midfielder Abou Diaby; or seeing their team get thoroughly dismantled against the other top teams in the English Premier League. And yet, the injury bit aside, the coming new year might well bring something to the Emirates trophy cabinet that the past decade hasn’t.
With their recent victory over Manchester City, the Gunners became the bookies’ favorites to clinch the title the next year, demonstrating yet again that they possess all the elements that define title-winning teams. Gone are the days when they’d let in goals which would make Shakespeare think of rewriting “The Comedy of Errors.” After a generation of stand-up comedians who were paid handsomely to play goalkeeper, Wenger finally seems to have found a true successor to Jens Lehmann in Petr Cech. The defense, comprising “the hare and the tortoise” duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, might not be as good as Tony Adams, et al, but they did manage to keep out the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.
Something else has changed in recent times – Arsenal’s transfer policy. Wenger is famous for trying to replace world-class players with the sheer force of 16-year-old youth and the vast experience of 38 year-old free agents (read Sanogo for van Persie; Kallstrom for Fabregas and Nasri). The recent signings of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexi Sanchez, however, show the Gunners’ true intent. Sanchez was Arsenal’s Player of the Year last season, while Mesut Ozil has gone from a “42 million pound liability” to a true talisman. With 15 assists in nearly as many games, and Man of the Match in half of them, the German World Cup-winner embodies a true no. 10 in every way but his jersey number.
What’s more impressive is Arsenal achieving this result without several key players, with approximately their entire first-choice midfield injured. This in turn has produced telling contributions from the otherwise fringe players like Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell. Campbell, in particular, has had a meteoric rise, similar to the feats of Francis Coquelin last year. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have been splendid at their fullback roles, both in defense and attack.
Arsene Wenger would know from his experience that it is too soon to write off any of Arsenal’s title rivals. And yet, a side that can beat Bayern Munich and destroy Manchester United within 20 minutes is anything but the Arsenal we are used to seeing. Perhaps it might be Le Prof’s season, after all.
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