Whisper it, but this may just be Arsenal's year. After over a decade of searching for that elusive follow-up league title to the Invincibles crown in 2004, Arsene Wenger's Gunners finally look ready to unshackle themselves from playing second fiddle to the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea in the title race and make this a season to remember.
When Slaven Bilic's West Ham landed a killer blow against Arsenal on the opening day of the season, with a 2-0 victory at the Emirates, the feeling was 'it's going to be another one of those years.' However, in the ten games following that early wobble, they've lost just once and boast the joint best defence in the Premier League. Every component in this immensely-talented group of players appears to be operating with sublime efficiency and they look hungry to chase Manchester City all the way this year.
Last season, Arsenal were good for long periods without ever fully hitting top gear and challenging Chelsea. This time round though, Wenger is nicely perched at the top of the table, level on points with City, while his arch-nemesis Jose Mourinho is wallowing in the depths of footballing despair, a familiar foe walking on dangerously thin ice. While Wenger never truly came close to being sacked at Arsenal, this time last year saw the Wenger Out campaign really gather pace as the experienced Frenchman felt the suffocating expectations on his shoulders.
One of the most enduring images from last season was the banner unfurled by away supporters reading 'Arsene, thanks for the memories but now it's time to say goodbye.' It was the release of pent up frustration from the supporters. Frustration at the persistent unfulfilling of potential. For so long, Arsenal have been the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch in the Premier League. Wenger has constructed a foundation built on quick-passing, attack-happy football, but apart from two FA Cups in the last two years, has failed to deliver a major trophy since the halcyon days of the Invincible era.
However, Wenger has finally listened to calls for bolstering his side's defensive solidity in recent transfer windows. In January, he shelled out £11m for Gabriel Paulista, who already looks to be growing into an adroit defender alongside the excellent Laurent Koscielny. Then, in the summer, Wenger resisted the urge to splash about large sums of money on attractive attacking talent in order to address the only problem position he could see; between the goalposts.
Bringing in Petr Cech was hailed as one of the shrewdest pieces of business during Wenger's illustrious career when he snatched him away from the clutches of Mourinho at Chelsea - and it's worked. Although Cech was at fault in his Arsenal debut against West Ham, he has been a portrait of consistency, experience and proficiency ever since. His commanding presence and winning mentality have guided Arsenal through an ultra-steady sequence that has brought six clean sheets in 11 Premier League games.
"The way he is commanding and vocal makes him vital. He is one of our leaders and he deserves it," said club captain Per Mertesacker. Cech's instant impact has been greatly appreciated - and they have reciprocated in keeping him guarded week after week.
That being said, the 33-year-old's smooth transition to life at the Emirates has been aided by some superb showings from the Arsenal rearguard. Koscielny has been in the form of his life in recent weeks and as already touched upon, Gabriel looks like he will be a more than worthy successor to Mertesacker. The consistent improvement of both full-backs, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, has completed an impressive period when the Arsenal defence has looked fairly impenetrable at times.
Of course, the pertinent question is; can Arsenal sustain a title challenge far beyond the Christmas period? Remember, the 13/14 season was going swimmingly for Wenger's men until they capitulated in frightening fashion against Liverpool in a 5-1 humiliation at Anfield. Having occupied top spot in the league for 20 out of 21 weeks before that defeat, the Gunners' title aspirations unravelled before their very eyes and it's a scar that remains raw for many of these players.
Conquering the fear of a derailed title challenge holds the key in keeping pace with Manchester City for Arsenal this season. They face Tottenham in the first North London Derby of the season on Sunday, but if Cech and his defence continue to exude the same manner of confidence and compactness as they have done for the majority of this season, they should find themselves well placed to finally hoist that Premier League trophy aloft in the Emirates Stadium.
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