What can Wenger do about Arsenal concerns which are re-emerging?

Arsenal have enjoyed a phenomenal few months and currently sit five points clear at the top of the Premier League and have safely progressed into the last 16 of the Champions League.

But Arsene Wenger’s team are in the midst of a crucial run of fixtures which could determine whether they have finally come of age as title contenders.

Following a tough workout in the 1-1 home draw with Everton on Sunday, the Gunners struggled in the second half against Napoli on Wednesday and were one goal away from being knocked out of the Champions League.

Mikel Arteta’s red card did not help matters as Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon’s goals put Napoli within touching distance of the knockout stages.

Now Wenger faces tough tests away to Manchester City, who have won every home league game this season, and at home to London rivals Chelsea.

These two matches are followed by potentially tricky visits to West Ham United and Newcastle United so if the North London club are still top of the pile come New Year’s Day, they will have done very well indeed.

The key to Arsenal’s success so far this season has been their renewed strength in midfield.

The £42.5m signing of Germany superstar Mesut Ozil provided a real confidence boost to the club as a whole, as well as an injection of world-class quality into a key area of the team.

But the renaissance of Aaron Ramsey and shrewd signing of former midfielder Mathieu Flamini, still only 29, have also been crucial factors to the Gunners’ free-flowing football.

Added to the skills of Santi Cazorla, consistency of Arteta and steadily-improving performances of fit-again Jack Wilshere, Wenger knows his team are heading in the right direction.

Ramsey’s transformation from the uninspired midfield passenger of the past couple of campaigns to the swashbuckling, goal-plundering, all-action athlete of this season has been nothing short of miraculous.

With Theo Walcott having returned from injury and Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not far behind him, Wenger will soon have some selection dilemmas after a period where Ramsey and Wilshere had been successfully operating in wide positions.

Yet as the performance in the Stadio San Paolo showed, Arsenal still have some problems to be addressed.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny made some rash decisions and while central defensive duo Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have been in inspirational form in the early part of this season, concerns remain over the latter’s mobility and the former’s big game mentality.

So far the club have bounced back well from their setbacks but defeats to Manchester United in the Premier League, Chelsea in the League Cup and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League show that this side is still a long way from the ‘Invincibles’ vintage of 2003/04.

When Bacary Sagna is missing, as he has been for the last two games, Carl Jenkinson is unconvincing in the right-back role.

But the biggest problem for Wenger to worry about is the centre-forward position.

Olivier Giroud has scored 10 goals in his 23 appearances so far this season and on paper that is not a bad return.

But performing as the lone striker in a team packed with creative talents like Cazorla, Ozil and Wilshere should result in many more goals, and it is clear the manager knows this is an issue.

His summer pursuit of Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Gonzalo Higuain were a clear attempt to address this, and with all three missed targets excelling with their respective clubs in this campaign, Wenger will be bitterly disappointed that none of them ended up at the Emirates.

With only the troubled Nicklas Bendtner, a player who Wenger lost faith in as far back as 2011, in reserve - Arsenal’s strike force does not compare to any of their major domestic rivals.

So the onus will be on the Gunners’ exciting midfield to stand firm throughout the festive period and see Arsenal into the New Year.

If Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and co can unlock the defences of Manchester City and Chelsea while Flamini and Arteta protect their own backline, it will be clear that Arsenal are back in the trophy hunt.

But if Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho can both outwit the Frenchman, then Arsenal may be forced to invest further in the transfer window.

Should Arsenal fail to claim silverware this season it will be nine whole seasons without a trophy, something which would have been unthinkable in the heyday of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and co.

But after years of finishing in third or fourth place and missing out in the cup competitions, the club know now is the time to push on.

With United, City and Chelsea all in various stages of transition, there is unlikely to be a better chance for Wenger to strike.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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