Arsenal. Five points clear at the top of the table... Aaron Ramsey is in exceptional form... No Birmingham City to screw up their chances of winning something...
Surely the Gunners must be considered genuine title contenders? Well, actually no. Despite the result against Dortmund on Wednesday, this is why Arsenal will not win the Premier League title this season.
1. Big Game Mentality
Five of the eight teams Arsenal have beaten this season, are the current bottom five, and the Gunners are doing little more than matching expectations by taking maximum points. Effectively therefore, we are judging the side's title credentials on their ability to beat Swansea, Liverpool and Tottenham - the latter two at home. Arsenal have not been truly tested this season, and are yet to face any of last season's top three, and they have a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday.
Last season, Arsenal took just two points from six games against the top three sides. In four of those matches, they conceded inside the first twenty minutes. The team has not been strong enough on the big occasions and tends to buckle under the weight of expectation. This is not the mentality of a team which can win the title. Although I am a supporter of the job Wenger has done at Arsenal in general, his record of setting his team up for the important matches is poor.
Over the last six seasons, this is the number of points the Gunners have gained from the other three teams who finished the Champions League spots:
They have taken 37 points from 36 games. The equivalent of a point per game, or winning one and losing two. Only once in the last thirteen Premier League seasons, has the team who wins the league collected less points than the team who finishes second, from the two matches between them. Although Arsenal's title challenges have hardly gone down to the wire in the past, losing to your rivals always has a negative impact on team morale. On the flip side, winning big games breeds confidence, and Arsenal need to be able to do it if they want to challenge for titles.
2. Lack Of Strength In Depth
According to SkyBet, Manchester City and Chelsea are the favourites to win the title this season. Let's examine their basic first eleven, the squad players they have to potentially come in, and compare them with Arsenal's.
*? denotes secondary position
Oscar-Hazard-Schurrle (Mata-de Bruyne-Willian)
The striking theme which runs through City and Chelsea is quality in numbers. For almost every position, they have players who can come into the team to replace someone, and you will not notice the difference. In my opinion, there is only one weak area in terms of depth for either side. For Chelsea, Ryan Bertrand represents a gap in quality and experience from Ashley Cole at left-back. Regarding City, one might worry for them if Yaya Toure picked up a long-term injury, with Garcia and Rodwell not having the same physical presence in midfield. Other than that, the two clubs are more than equipped to handle an injury crisis, as well as the congested fixture periods. There will be a lot of games over Christmas and New Year, then in the second half of the season when the FA Cup and Champions League start up again. This is where having a strong squad will become much more important than it is now, in early November. So what does Arsenal's squad consist of?
Sagna-Mertesacker-Koscielny-Gibbs (Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Hayden, Monreal)
Arteta-Wilshere (Flamini, Ramsey?, Frimpong)
Walcott-Ozil-Ramsey (Cazorla, Rosicky, Podolski, Chamberlain, Gnabry, Miyaichi, Park)
Arsenal's first team relies a lot on unproven players, who you would perhaps not put in the same bracket as City or Chelsea's players, performing above the sum of their parts. In Sczcesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta and Giroud, Arsenal have a lot of players who people have described as 'underrated'. This is not necessarily a problem, because having a strong team ethos has been key to Manchester United's success over the years. Only Robin van Persie provided 'star quality' to the team which comfortably won the title last season, the rest worked very hard at grinding the results out. However, the difference is Manchester United had plenty of tight competition for places.
At Arsenal, there are many areas of concern. Firstly, the cover at centre-back. Thomas Vermaelen's injury-stricken Gunners career has continued this season, with just two games so far. If Mertesacker or Koscielny were to be sidelined, Arsenal would lack knowhow in central defence - Isaac Hayden is only eighteen and yet to make an appearance.
Flamini has been solid when given a defensive midfield role, yet his fitness is a worry. This may mean that later in the season, more defensive responsibility would be placed on Aaron Ramsey, who has flourished in a more progressive, advanced midfield role. In Rosicky, Miyaichi and Park, Arsenal have three poor attacking players, on reportedly high wages, who they simply need to get rid of.
Arsenal's striking options are questionable as well. While Olivier Giroud has scored an impressive eight goals this season, his back-up options see a deep drop in quality. Man City have Negredo and Dzeko as second/third choice strikers, Chelsea have Torres and Ba - Arsenal have Bendtner and Sanogo. Bendtner has done nothing to justify his place in the squad, having scored no league goals on loan at Juventus last season, and failing to enlighten in cameo appearances for the Gunners. Sanogo is only twenty, and too much of an unknown quantity to be relied upon for goals, should Giroud get injured.
The comparative quality and depth in certain areas of Arsenal's squad leaves much to be desired. The team's 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, against a team who made wholesale changes, can be seen as a measure of just how far off Arsenal's squad is. In defence, they have good backup players but not enough of them, while in the more attacking areas, they have too many who aren't good enough. There are many back-up areas within the squad which can be deeply scrutinized, while many members of their first choice side are arguably overperforming.
3. Aaron Ramsey might leave
On the 27th February 2010, I was watching Stoke play Arsenal in Saturday's late kick-off. I was absolutely furious with Ryan Shawcross for his horrendous leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey, as he looked to have ruined the career of one of Britain's (alright, Wales's) most promising young talents. I remember thinking Ramsey would never be quite the same again. How wrong I was.
Two and a half years later, Ramsey can be considered a world-class player, in scintillating form. His performances have been key to Arsenal's start, his passing was promising last season, although he was too often bullied off the ball by the more physically commanding midfielders. This campaign though, he has become a lot stronger, and his composure in front of goal has dramatically improved.
A lot of his finishes this season have come from a short lay-off from Ozil or Giroud, he would take a delicate touch to pass a helpless defender, wait for the goalkeeper to commit himself, and then curl one into the top corner. His goals have been a joy to watch, and it's a case of justice being served, after having spent so long watching on from the sidelines.
However, he may well need to leave Arsenal to reach his full potential, and the elite clubs in football seem to be squabbling amongst each other for the best creative midfielders. He will no doubt be thankful to Wenger and the backroom team at Arsenal for turning him into the player he is, yet for many an Arsenal player this never seems to be quite enough to stick around. Cole, Toure, Adebayor, Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie have all left Arsenal at their peak and as one of the club's best players, in search of more money and silverware. In his Gunners career, Aaron Ramsey has not been treated with the most respect by groups of Arsenal fans, so why should he feel any more loyal if a better offer came along?
There are rumours of Luka Modric and/or Sami Khedira leaving Real Madrid, and the Galacticos president Florentino Perez is always prepared to throw the club's cash around to bring in star names. If they get £20 million for either of the aforementioned midfielders, knowing the Madrid board, they will probably spend almost double to bring in a replacement. Surely a move for Ramsey is on the cards?
Fellow Welshman Gareth Bale would be able to help Ramsey settle, and vice-versa, with memories of the North London derbies in common. Ramsey would fit into Real Madrid's team like a glove, more so than Barcelona's. He thrives on the counter attack, sprays the ball out wide quickly, looks to shoot from range, but is a little hasty in the tackle. Alongside this, he has a lot of energy and will track back, which could be useful in the El Classicos, legs in midfield is vital against Barca's relentless passing game. A move to the Bernabeu may suit him.
Either way, Ramsey is arguably the most complete midfielder in the world at the moment, and any club would want to have him. If he leaves Arsenal, he will be almost impossible to replace.
4. They Always Bottle It
This eludes slightly to the first point about the team's lack of experience, winning mentality, knowhow, ability to handle pressure, spirit... It is really a mixture of these type of, massively underrated, characteristics within a dressing room that have made United and Chelsea a success over the last decade. You name me any successful side in elite football, and I will name you a side with a core of players who have been at the club for a long time and won trophies there.
It is no coincidence that since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal in 2005, they have not won anything. In the late 90s, Arsenal were built on the rock solid foundations of Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Keown and Winterburn. Each of those players had great experience, had played together for a while and provided a real unit at the back, on which Arsene Wenger could build with the flair of some exciting, exotic French players.
Wenger managed the transition of an aging defence well. Patrick Vieira kept the leadership in place when he replaced the retiring Adams as captain, Wenger gradually brought in Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole, who all contributed to the 'Invincibles' season. However, in the space of a few short years afterwards, the heart and soul of the team was ripped out, once Vieira left for pastures new in Italy. All of a sudden the club became overly egalitarian with it's wage structure, as the best players were leaving over contract disagreements, while fringe players coming in were handed too much. Unquestionably, the cost of building the Emirates stadium played it's part in this.
Arsenal no longer had these reliable, key players to build from and win trophies with. And so began a trend for young players to join Arsenal, develop themselves under Wenger for a few years, and move on to a bigger club. Over this period, ironically a club known as the Gunners became too soft, both in their letting top players leave, and in the way they approach important games on the pitch.
In the 2002-03 season, the team started March with an eight point lead over Manchester United, yet ended up losing the title by five points. In 2008, Arsenal became the first ever team to reach the sixty point mark in February and were five points clear. But the 2-2 draw away to Birmingham, a game remembered for Eduardo's injury and a late equalizing penalty for Blues, began a shocking run of one win in eight games for Arsenal. 2009-10, slip-ups at key times once again cost Arsenal the title. They lost all four contests against the top two, United and Chelsea. All but one of their seven defeats that season came in back-to-back games. They could not respond well enough to the pressure of having lost a match, and it was only when they lost another one that the expectation and pressure left them, so they could go on a decent run. As far as the title race goes, Arsenal have always been 'the chasers' applying the pressure on the top dog, yet never coping as the ones being chased.
Arsene Wenger deserves much credit for the job at Arsenal, but he also needs to take some responsibility. Part of having a winning mentality is simply keeping hold of your best players, yet part of it comes from the manager being able to motivate. Many times over the past decade, Arsenal have had a very promising team, but one that has not been able to deliver when it matters most. Without a core of experienced players to help the team across what will be a difficult run of games coming up to Christmas, Arsenal will not hold onto their five point lead. They will not win the title.