Arsenal have played the top half of the table four times and the bottom half of the table nine times and in the month of December, Arsenal will play Chelsea, Man City, Everton, Newcastle, and Hull Tigers — all top ten teams and only West Ham from the bottom of the table. To say that the month of December is probably the title decider for Arsenal might be a bit of an overstatement but it is a crucial group of games.
Kieran Gibbs doesn’t mince words about the period from now until Arsenal play Cardiff again on January 1:
(Cardiff) was a massive win for us. We have some big games ahead of us and it was important to get off to a good start. The Christmas period is coming up soon and we have put ourselves in a good position. The next eight or so games could decide our season so it is important we keep it going.
Gibbs is absolutely right, Arsenal’s win over Cardiff was a complete performance and follows a string of complete performances. Or at least a nearly complete string of complete performances with just one small interruption when Manchester United got lucky.
Arsenal have shown a variety of styles of play in the last month. Sometimes they settle into games, soaking up pressure, sometimes they pound the enemy box with a relentless assault. But the key to all of these games has been that Arsenal are hugely efficient at the moment. It’s a theme I banged on about during the Suarez transfer saga: why would we target a player who was so clearly inefficient when the team seemed to thrive on efficiency?
No matter, that’s behind us now and instead of Suarez, Arsenal got Mr. Efficiency himself: Mesut Özil. I keep reading about how his form has dropped and even Wenger hinted that there’s more to come from the young Turk. But right now, he’s playing like a ninja, Özil just ghosts in, tosses a couple shuriken at the opposition, and then ghosts back out. And even when he’s not getting assists, what he brings to the team is something extra, almost like having a 12th man on the field, his reputation and talent make him a must-mark player which frees up the others around him, guys like Ramsey. It is no coincidence that Ramsey is having the season of his life playing beside Özil. So, beyond the fact that he’s got 6 assists and that he almost never makes a poor pass in the opposition final third, just having him on the field makes the other players around him better.
The other player who is at the top of his game at the moment is Wojciech Szczesny and he came up with another important save on the weekend with the scoreline at 1-0. Szczesny’s reflex saves are certainly in among the best in the League right now and he showed that when Cardiff got a free header from point-blank range. The ball was nodded down, hard, but Szcz got down and saved.
Part of the reason why Szcz looks chez magnifique is that the Arsenal defense is pressing high up the pitch at the start of every defensive possession and then if they don’t win the ball back right away they are dropping deeper into a more solid formation. You can see this in Jack Wilshere’s defensive dashboard against Cardiff. He’s back covering for Sagna (whose only defensive stats on the day were four clearances) and makes three tackles in the backfield and then he’s pressing high up the pitch where he gets two interceptions in dangerous areas.
Jack had a magnificent match against Cardiff and it follows on the heels of several top-notch performances from the young Englishman. Wilshere mopped the floor with Marseille, scoring two goals in just 75 minutes. And against Southampton he was unlucky hitting the post instead of getting a stunning chip that would have had all of England talking.
And that’s the state of Arsenal right now. There are three or four midfielders at this club who can dismantle a team on their own: Ramsey is top of the list for player of the year, Özil is pure class, Wilshere is on fire at the moment, and Cazorla (who was last season’s best player at Arsenal with 12 goals and 11 assists) is showing signs of recovering form.
It’s the perfect time, then, for Arsenal to face this challenge. Arsenal start by playing Hull Tigers City, who just beat a lackluster Liverpool side 3-1. Hull didn’t put in a special performance, rather Liverpool with one-dimensional and that one dimension was Suarez who is a waster. From there it’s Everton at home and the return of the Lukaku — another very efficient team at the moment thanks almost entirely to the Belgian. And then a crucial match away to Napoli which will determine if Arsenal are to continue in the Champions League. I expect that Napoli match to completely drain Arsenal, unless we can get a couple early goals again.
Then, the match of the season against Man City at the Etihad where the Oil Barons are destroying teams having scored 29 and only allowed 2 in 7 matches. TWENTY NINE… TWO… Hands down, that will be Arsenal’s biggest test this year. City have a squad so deep and so rich that Smaug would be envious. Worse, their attacking play at home is the best in the world right now. Even Barcelona has only scored 25 goals at home, and they have allowed 5. It’s kind of a shame that Arsenal have to play them right after the Napoli match, I’d love to see what Arsenal could do there fully rested.
If you sense that I’m “excuse making” I will admit that perhaps some of my good old fashioned doubt is creeping in. And if so, I should banish it back to the depths. Look back up where I said that this was the perfect time to take on this challenge. There will always be times like this in any title charge. March is a similarly testing time when Arsenal will face Tottenham, Chelsea, City, and Everton with Champions League and FA Cup matches sprinkled in there for good measure. And what you can hope for is that your team is in good form when those times arise.
Dare I say it?
Never in Doubt.