Arsenal’s character now comes up against a tough looking run of fixtures.
The same story has persisted all season long. Manchester City and Chelsea have better squads. Yet, it is Arsenal who have topped the Premier League table for most of the season.
They are definitely not defying logic, but at the very least, it is a defiance of convention. The expected perception is that by now, Arsenal should have fell off the trail, rolled off the bandwagon and gone from early leaders to perennial followers. That has not been the case.
With every passing game, Arsenal has picked up vital points and continued a good run of form. Constantly exposed to trying tests, the Arsenal of this season has occasionally prospered.
It is easy to see why many had prophesied doom upon the Gunners. Ever since the 2003-2004 Premier League season where they went the whole League season unbeaten, their League story has followed a similar trend. A good start --- though not good enough to see them set the pace at the top --- and a strong finish to ensure they finish within a Champions League place. It is in between that there have always been inconsistencies and unconvincing displays.
It is this period of the season that has always been most gruelling. The return of Champions League, the run in the FA Cup and maintaining Premier League form has in the past seen the North London side crumble.
It is generally around this time that the Arsenal juggernaut encounters a torrid run of losses in different competitions to render their season virtually trophyless. That sort of pattern has been repeated so many times that it has seemingly formed a pre-conclusion in the mind that Arsenal winning a trophy is a far off venture.
And yet, this season has been so much different. Arsenal’s form has been so good as to sustain itself at the top. Relying on the sustainability that was challenged by the managerial changes at the three clubs that finished above them, Arsenal has taken the opportunity to kick on where they would otherwise have been kicked in.
Adding onto that was the realisation of the dream that was conceived by the decision to move to a new stadium. That decision, and the financial burden that came with it has begun reaping rewards when in the summer transfer window, they possessed the financial capacity to sign Mesut Özil.
That signing galvanised belief and raised the mood. It brought about a competitive edge to the Gunners omni-attacking fluency. That has replaced stagger with swagger, and Arsenal have been more confident in games.
Of course beyond their attacking ingenuity has been defensive consistency. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have struck a reliable defensive partnership that has hardly been breached. The two probably epitomise the most eye catching quality about this team.
Individually, neither Mertesacker nor Koscielny is as good as club captain Thomas Vermaelen. Yet the two together complement each other so well that the talented Belgian has to do with a place on the bench. It is this that exemplifies why for the most part they have led the table ahead of the more
individually talented squads of Manchester City and Chelsea. As a collective, Arsenal have such spirit and cohesion that they very well believe that they can overcome anything.
That cohesion and spirit will be tested to the full in what now represents a ridiculously tough looking fixture list between February and the end of March. It starts with a trip to Liverpool before welcoming Manchester United to the Emirates four days later. Then comes the FA Cup fifth round tie against Liverpool at home before European champions Bayern Munich visit the Emirates for the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie.
After that, they host Sunderland before visiting Stoke City, and three days before their return leg with Bayern Munich is a Premier League clash with Swansea City. Then comes the North London derby at White Hart Lane and the trip to Stamford Bridge before the month of March ends with hosting Manchester City.
This run of fixtures will tell us more about Arsenal’s character. In a way, it is a tad bit harsh. While you generally meet the best clubs over the course of a season, rarely are such fixtures piled up in such a consecutive train.
How Arsenal come out of this will define their season. One thing they must take credit for however is that they find themselves in a genuinely good position going into this tough run. As such, it signifies the one truism that has always held over the past seasons. No matter how bad it has been, never has it stooped to such low levels that it became critical.
With that, it has meant that Arsenal this season have shown more resolve. That resolve has brought about a defiance of perception. It is that defiance that now faces its toughest test yet.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald