Guest columnist Greg Francis gives his (thoroughly unbiased) run down on how the Gunners are placed at the midway point of the season:-
When Mr Sportsfreak asked me to write a mid-season review on The Arsenal, we were sitting pretty, 5 points clear at the top of the table. However, I knew we had games approaching versus City and Chelsea (the teams I tipped for the title) and thought it only fair to wait till after those two matches to see where we were at. So here we are, the day after Boxing day, still top of the table…..just, but boy it’s as tight as a nuns….cough.
As tight at the top as it is, if you had told me at the time of writing my ranting season preview that 5 months later we would be top of the table on Boxing Day and safely through the Champions League pool of death – after beating last years finalists away from home – while our $42m star signing would be topping the assists table, I would’ve begged for some of the drugs you were on – some real good hallucinogens.
Yet, here we are. Funny old game football.
I said at the time of the preview that I felt the team was developing well, but it was 2-3 top players short of being a more complete side. Namely, a WC striker and a proper defensive midfielder. The debacle over the Suarez ‘release clause’ put paid to that chase, but with the hindsight of the past 5 months, Suarez has shown that Arsene was absolutely spot on in going for him in the summer, when most didn’t want to touch ‘the bitey one’. We re-signed Mathieu Flamini on a free from AC Milan – who has proven a canny signing in the true deep-lying, protecting-the-back-4 role. Then on the final day of the transfer window, Arsene smashed the club transfer record by 3 fold, and pulled off one of the biggest final day transfer coups in the PL history. Signing Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. Our whole summer was saved in those final hours & potentially our season. The symbolic signing gave the whole team (and the fans) a much needed lift, a real confidence boost and new found belief (while simultaneously pissing off our North London neighbours as it all hinged on the back of the Bale transfer).
After the opening day loss to Villa at home, the club went on a 12 match unbeaten run in all competitions and surged to the summit of the league, a run which was ended by a loss at home to last seasons CL finalists – Borussia Dortmund. The new belief in the team was characterised however, when they went to Dortmund a couple of weeks later and beat them on their own turf, just a few days after beating in-form Liverpool.
These consistent early season results were even more impressive considering the horror run of medium/long term injuries that cursed the club in those early weeks of the season. We lost Arteta, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Flamini, Walcott and Cazorla all at once for a considerable period of time, plus long term patient Abou Diaby. It robbed us of all our wide-attacking options, and meant we barely had any back-up to Giroud up front. Arsene was forced to repeatedly start 5 central midfielders across the park, but they all stepped up and got the job done, with Aaron Ramsey in absolutely red-hot form. Thankfully Giroud was also in goal scoring form and the back four of Gibbs, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Sagna provided a defensive platform that was solid as a rock. Our young German – Serge Gnabry (one to watch) – also took his sudden promotion well and made some vital on-field contributions when given his chance.
The side-effect of this period however, is a small group of players have been physically thrashed in the first half of the season, with no chance of rotation. After playing late Sunday evening versus Everton, arriving back from Napoli at 4am Thursday morning and then playing early Saturday away versus City, the team looked absolutely knackered. This resulted in our worst performance of the season. Our midfield showed little ability to ‘track back’ against City’s fast counter-attacks and for the first time we had left huge holes and space in our defensive third of the field. After a much needed 9 day break, the team put in a vastly improved defensive performance against Chelsea, who albeit, showed little creativity on attack. Mourinho had come to The Emirates and picked a team very much with taking a point away in mind. After last night’s come from behind 3-1 win away at West Ham, I’m hoping we can bank another 6 points over the festive period versus the much improved Newcastle – who will prove a tough test away – and then the owner-induced ‘club in turmoil’ Cardiff. Consolidating our top spot over the crucial Xmas/New Years period would be quite an achievement.
We then have a month of matches versus Villa, Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace. A great chance to really bank some 3 pointers before the next period of tougher fixtures around February and March.
A few players like Ramsey, Giruod and Ozil badly need a rest. With Podolski returning after 4 months out to score versus West Ham while setting up another, and Walcott recently regaining a starting spot, we finally have a proper attacking front three again, as opposed to central midfielders covering in these positions.
It’s widely reported that Arsene has drawn up a 5-man shortlist of strikers for the January transfer window. We badly need someone to help lead the line along with Giroud. I doubt we can win the league without one. But it’s always very difficult to sign top quality players in January. I’d much rather we wait until the summer and go big on a WC striker, than just fill a gap in January. A decent loan would be perfect.
So lastly, can we win the League?? I’m not confident we will, but I think we potentially can if the squad stays largely fit, and to be top of the table at the half-way point is a great start. Been saying for the past few months, I think this will be a year that the team that concedes the fewest ‘upsets’ will win the league. Thankfully we’ve been very good at ‘banking’ our 3pts versus sides lower in the table. At the same time, there has been some big upsets involving the likes of City, Chelsea and United. We’ve also taken 7 pts from Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham to offset away losses to both City and United. So overall, we’ve probably been the most consistent team in the League thus far. I’m enjoying the ride after a fair few years where our title prospects were over by New Years Day, but have a nagging feeling we could hit a wall around March. 2015 could be the year for this team, but who knows – maybe a shock 30 million January signing of Diego Costa could change everything again, just like with Ozil. I wouldn’t rule anything out.
As always – Up the Arsenal.