So what are this version of Arsenal? A team stiffened and settled by the acquisition of some gritty players, ready to challenge for the Premier League title? Or the same crop of supremely talented footballers prone to frailties in feisty situations?
As the Gunners get ready to take on Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it’s still not completely clear.
In Arsenal’s case, it’s understandable that plenty are hesitant to make the leap from title pretenders to thoroughbred contenders. History tells us, after all, this is a team that’ll thrill, engross and win a lot of football matches with swagger. But ultimately, they will come up short in pursuit of the massive honors in the game.
Those reluctant to consider Arsenal as potential winners of the Premier League will point to their 2-1 loss to Everton on Tuesday as evidence for their standpoint.
The Gunners failed to preserve control of the game against the tireless Toffees and as Goodison Park grew into a crescendo of raucous backing for the men in blue, the visitors, quite literally in the case of Mesut Ozil, cowered. Having been so cohesive and savvy so often this season, the exposure of a familiar soft underbelly will have rankled the Arsenal fanbase.
But those with a brighter outlook will suggest that surrender was a one-off for a much improved team. After all, this was the first time Arsenal had lost on the road in any competition since March and the first time they’ve had to stomach defeat since the first day of the season against another Merseyside club.
Wenger is clearly of that school of thought. “You can lose a football game, especially in an atmosphere like that tonight and especially when you play so many games,” he said after the Everton defeat. “We’ve played five out of six away from home and had to play the Champions League on Tuesday, a different game on Saturday then we have to come here straight away on Tuesday.”
For now, it’s easy to give Arsenal the benefit of the doubt. It’s evident there have been improvements made to this team, with Shkodran Mustafi, in particular, a fine acquisition; we’ve seen positive glimpses from Granit Xhaka, a scattering from Lucas Perez, but both have shown enough to suggest they can add a grittiness to the Gunners.
But that good faith will seep away on Sunday should Arsenal turn in a similarly passive display at the Etihad Stadium.
In the past, given City’s longstanding impeccable home record, this is a fixture that’s been viewed as a litmus test for the Gunners. Can they stand up to City’s attacking might? Can they be composed, concentrated and industrious? Can they take points off a formidable title rival? Can they hold out?
Yet there’s a different kind of pressure going into this key fixture for Wenger’s men, as it’s a game Arsenal really should win.
Despite a routine 2-0 win over Watford in midweek, there have been turbulent times at City as of late. The players who seemed to adapt so quickly to the principles of manager Pep Guardiola early in the season look muddled in their play, while the manager himself has come under scrutiny for his unbending belief in his mantras.
There are areas of huge weakness in the City team that will be in direct proximity to Arsenal’s strengths too.
Guardiola, in short, needs to restructure his entire defensive shape. The full-backs are aging, the centre-backs uncertain and without vocal presences like Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany in the XI, not to mention the absence of key shielding midfielder Fernandinho, there’s a clear lack coherence in their defensive play.
If Arsenal play to their peak, they will exploit that. Whether Wenger opts to utilize the vibrant talents of Alexis Sanchez or the muscular frame of Olivier Giroud up top, teams like Chelsea and Leicester City have laid down clear but different blueprints on how to beat the Etihad outfit.
And ultimately, that’s what champions do. They’ll locate a chink in the armor of a foe and exploit it ruthlessly. So far this season, overall, Arsenal have done that, in both the Premier League and in the UEFA Champions League. Sunday, despite the allure and quality City carry, is another chance to do so against a vulnerable opponent.
Should they, the voices of those in the “one off” camp after the Everton disintegration will be heard loudest. Regardless of whether Chelsea or Liverpool win this weekend and where Arsenal will subsequently sit in the Premier League table as a result, win on Sunday and the start to this campaign has to be considered a prosperous and progressive one of the Gunners.
But defeat will be followed by dissenting voices and those concerns that have lingered in the backs of the minds of many will become prominent. Despite the strong away form, tweaks in the system and the impressive away record in 2016, those who suggest we’ll see the the same old, same old from the north Londoners will have credence.
So what are this version of Arsenal? Ask again Sunday night.
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