Andrew Mangan is one of the most prominent and well established Arsenal bloggers in the business, the founder of the magnificent Arseblog and a man whose mellifluous tones can be heard on the delightfully named Arsecast. So what does he make of Arsenal’s lofty position?
Top of the table at the start of 2016, with Chelsea nowhere, Manchester United struggling, Liverpool klip-Klopping their way through the season, and Leicester in second place – that’s a situation pretty much every Arsenal fan would have bitten your hand off to be in at the start of the campaign.
There have been some blips along the way, not least of which was the opening day defeat to West Ham when our ONLY SIGNING OF THE SUMMER, Petr Cech was arguably at fault for both goals. That was certainly not the auspicious start to a new season that everyone wanted, and when you consider that Cech remained the ONLY SIGNING OF THE SUMMER then the pressure was certainly on.
The FA Cup win was forgotten, the squad was too thin, we couldn’t buy that… (EDITOR’S NOTE – SNIP!) …bloke from Real Madrid and, lest we forget it, the £10m spent on the former Chelsea keeper was the ONLY SIGNING OF THE SUMMER.
Consider too that Jack Wilshere – poor brilliant-but-brittle Jack –managed to get through a pre-season without a scratch only to pick up an injury on the eve of the Community Shield after a tackle from a teammate in training. Danny Welbeck’s knee bruising was such that it required an operation. Tomas Rosicky, a man who measures his football age by the years he’s missed, was now 30 (coincidentally the same number of injuries he had). And captain Mikel Arteta’s calves were milk-fed, crated, and ready to breaded and served to diners as veal.
It’s been a season of consistent worry.
“We’ll be ok once Coquelin stays fit … ah bollix.”
“If Cazorla can keep that midfield ticking we can cope with … ah Jaysus.”
“It’ll be fine once we can keep Alexis up and running … FFS.”
Add to all that absences of weeks at a time for Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Theo Walcott, and it’s little wonder that Arsenal fans flinch at the very mention of the word ‘injury’, expecting it to be followed almost imminently by the word ‘setback’ and a hashtag that might include the letters #RIP.
And yet, something is happening. Despite missing lots of really good players for long periods of time, the league table tells us that there’s depth in this Arsenal squad. When your sixth choice right winger is a Costa Rican international who has played at the World Cup and turns out not to be that bad at all, then some might argue that as a squad it’s quite healthy (definitely no pun intended)
It speaks to a character and resilience, both physical and mental, within this group of players because a thin squad, which has been pushed to its absolute limits at times, has put in some cracking performances and achieved some great results.
It was the most Arsenal of Arsenal things to make such a mess of the opening games in the Champions League that qualification looked a distant possibility. Hang on, we’ll just beat this small side from Bavaria, then our next two games including a 3-0 win in Greece to make sure, and we’re through! Our reward, Barcelona. Still, you’d rather be there than not.
In the league at home there have been wins over Man City and Man United; some impressive looking victories away from home against high-flyers Leicester and a Watford side that have caused troubles this season; and in a season that some might dismiss as poor, but the more optimistic amongst us classify as more competitive than ever, the table tells you that there’s something about this Arsenal side as they sit top.
Mesut Ozil could assist an old lady across the road at the same time as sticking one directly on Giroud’s noggin; while after his West Ham calamity, the £10m spent on Cech (who we can’t forget was the ONLY SIGNING OF THE SUMMER), looks an absolute bargain. He’s saved points, and points make prizes. It’s a topsy-turvy season, and maybe Arsene Wenger’s side have been least topsy, or the least turvy, but they are where they are because they’ve won the points to put them there.
It’s hard not to worry though. To worry about further injuries depleting the squad to the point where it can’t cope. To worry that there’s always a defeat to snatch from the jaws of … er … a scrappy draw, perhaps. To worry that the business that could help boost the squad in January won’t be done, or done in time. To worry that some difficult away days between now and May may prove too much. And to worry that a Man City side with the brilliant Sergio Aguero (whose hamstrings I pray for every night but not in the way their fans might like), and Yaya Toure, might get themselves motoring.
However, I’d rather be worrying about it from the top of the table, rather than thinking about how on earth a points deficit might be made up. And although Arsenal fans know better than anyone that players coming back from injury are like new signings, what if the likes of Wilshere, Welbeck and Alexis can add fresh legs and impetus to a title challenge that is long overdue?
This time last season the Gunners were 13 points behind Chelsea, knowing there was no way of making up that amount of ground. This time they lead the pack. There’s a long way to go – ahead lie monsters and dragons and evil referees and good teams with good players, but they’ve given themselves a genuine chance this season.
Whether it’s enough to claim the first title since 2004 remains to be seen, but at least they’re in a good position to give it a go.
You can follow what will surely be an increasingly fretful Andrew Mangan on Twitter (@Arseblog)