Inevitably talk is turning to whether Arsenal can sustain a title challenge as January begins to remove its coat and hang it on the peg, Spring donning her attire ready to face the world. Eyes look forward to March and a fixture list that has trips to Munich, Tottenham and Chelsea before Manchester City visit The Emirates. Optimistically, the club still shows that game followed by the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals. Never say never.
It is a key set of fixtures although the first might be rendered almost irrelevant if Arsenal are caught in the headlights in the first meeting with Bayern. The Premier League fixtures are crucial but have a different stress on them. Far from being must-win games, the encounters with Chelsea and City are must-not-lose matches. Victory is important, it always is, but unless there is a deficit in points to be made up, the key element to the result is to not lose; damage limitation or ideally, no damage sustained to the Premier League campaign. I understand why some might feel winning either of those matches makes a statement, how it sends out a message of intent but frankly if you get to the end of March in contention for the title, that says all that needs to said.
As for Tottenham, the prospect of celebrating St Totteringham’s Day at White Hart Lane ought to be motivation enough. If anyone beyond the supporters cares about that venerable saints day.
For me the bigger test comes in February. It is easy to slouch into arrogance but progress in the FA Cup this week is expected. A potential banana skin? Of course it is. If Arsenal are contemptuous of Coventry City, there is every chance of a bloodied nose. Fortunately, the players are largely unchanged from those who slunk out of the competition last year at the hands of Blackburn Rovers. It is not an experience they will want to repeat. Progress to the Fifth Round and who knows what awaits beyond a game between the home matches of Manchester United and Bayern Munich. This after the trip to Anfield in a fortnight’s time.
The outcome of those fixtures will show a great deal about the progress made. We have enjoyed good form and fortune in recent trips to Liverpool. Our last defeat came as Peter Crouch ran amok through the Arsenal defence. That it was him tells you how long ago our last defeat was at what has traditionally been a ground where we were lucky to come away with the hub caps on the coach wheels let alone a point. Football is cyclical and Liverpool were on the crest of a wave for decades; Arsenal were not alone in returning home with nothing. Since then, the results have been – more or less – an equal mix of victory, defeat and draws with current form frequently turned on its head. Good Arsenal sides have lost, poor ones have taken three points.
Crucially, Liverpool have their own aspirations to saté. The title is most likely beyond them, six points adrift of third with sixth place a point away. Next week’s Merseyside derby has a touch more spice than usual in those circumstances. Even if they do not win the title, they have a direct influence on the outcome, hosting the top three between now and the end of the season. United, meanwhile, has been a horrible fixture for Arsenal in the past decade; even The Invincibles did not win the home encounter with Ferguson’s men. But he isn’t there any longer and United veer between the abject and the ordinary. When they come to The Emirates, no doubt they will discover the pride which was sorely missing from their performance at Stamford Bridge.
All this talk of Arsenal and not much mention of Chelsea or City’s fixtures. That is because they do not matter; I am not bothered by them at all. It isn’t that their results are irrelevant, of course they are not, but the first order of the day is how Arsenal perform. Then you start worrying about what the pair have or have not done. We have already seen this season that establishing a gap in points is fairly meaningless; they have come and gone with the wind. United are further behind Arsenal now than they were when the final whistle blew at Old Trafford; Liverpool led the table at Christmas and trail by eight points. Lady Luck is fickle this season.
Oh yes, City seduce, goalscoring teams always do and scoring a century of goals this early in the season is impressive but at the moment all it has achieved is a lot of downloads for their end of season review. There are no trophies yet and the first that they can win is double-edged. The price they pay for lifting the League Cup is guaranteeing Manchester United a place in the Europa League next season unless Sunderland can pull off an improbable aggregate victory in the semi-final this week. Is it lucky for a Black Cat to cross your path; David Moyes might know better come Wednesday night.
But Arsenal’s defence is their strength, the polar opposite of Wenger’s reputation. This weekend’s results mean that the back four is alone as the Premier League’s meanest; Eastlands is fast becoming consigned to the freakish results bin. The change this season makes it seem as if more focus is being put on the basics of the game, perhaps it is but the balance between defence and attack has been redressed. All his successful sides have been formed on the basis of a strong defensive ethic among the team, defending from the front and in Olivier Giroud he has the ideally selfless forward to fulfil that role.
And therein is the biggest weakness. There is nothing unusual in wanting another striker to come in this transfer window to offer depth to the frontline. Vucinic as the flavour of the month seems to have the right attributes but whether anything happens remains to be seen. At the opposite end of the pitch, Per Mertesacker is key. That pair keeping their fitness and form is crucial to Arsenal’s title hopes.
If the season ends with the shelf in the trophy cabinet empty and gathering nothing but more cobwebs, is this season a failure? I am not sure that is the case; progress has been made, the squad is competitive and with the desperate luck on injuries, that is very encouraging. A title is perhaps a step too far but the competitiveness shown is what was wanted. And with the results thus far, is Charles Dickens the only one with Great Expectations?