And so 2015 ends just as it began for Arsenal. A defensively resolute outfit frustrates an attacking Manchester City side, before countering at the other end with ruthless efficiency. The 2-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in January lifted the Gunners to fifth and boosted their Champions League hopes; the 2-1 win at the Emirates on a crisp December evening will render them title favourites in the eyes of many. Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment for Arsene Wenger and his side.
Mesut Ozil will take his portion of the plaudits, assisting both goals to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 16 league games, while Olivier Giroud continues to defy his critics with his 10th Premier League goal of the season, but this was an Arsenal win crafted through teamwork. The defence kept the visitors – the second-highest goalscorers in the league – at arm’s length, the makeshift midfield impressed once more, and the attack was at its devastating best. When Arsenal are on song, few sides are capable of matching them.
With Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin still to return, and Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck perenially on the verge of their own comebacks, this is an Arsenal side yet to boast a full quota of players all season. City may have been missing talismanic captain Vincent Kompany, but injuries have left the Gunners short in all areas. Despite that, only Leicester and Spurs have lost fewer league games, and no side has won more.
To not discuss the Foxes would be tantamount to wilful neglect. However unfathomable, Claudio Ranieri’s men pose Arsenal’s biggest threat to the title. In a season where consistency is the most valuable commodity, these two sides boast it more than any other. Aside from Leicester, the one side with a longer unbeaten run than Arsenal currently is Bournemouth. Isn’t this season bloody brilliant?
What is more worrying for Arsenal’s closest rivals is the reinforcement of the theory that this side can play more than one way. Plan A remains a style based on quick interchanges, sharp passing and a dominance in possession, but plan B is just as effective when needed. On Monday evening, Wenger used it to perfection. City enjoyed 62.9% of the possession throughout, and made 266 more passes than their opponents. Yet the hosts were comfortable. So often the Gunners have fallen foul to compact, defensive sides despite boasting most of the ball, but now City join Bayern Munich in being Arsenalled this season. It will be interesting to see just how they approach Barcelona in the Champions League.
Another historic weakness which has prevented Arsenal winning the Premier League since 2004 has been their inability to beat their closest challengers. In 37 games against Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham since the start of the 2010/11 season, the Gunners have won 10, drew nine and lost 18. This season alone, they have beaten City 2-1, United 3-0, and drew with Spurs. One obvious anomaly marrs such a record, but as good as Wenger’s calendar year has been, defeat to Jose Mourinho is unavoidable.
The most impressive facet of this victory must be the manner in which Arsenal defended their lead against adversity. They controlled most of the game from a winning scoreline, before the most Yaya Toure finish imagineable promised a typical collapse in front of a baying home support. Typical mentally weak Arsenal, failing at the first sign of pressure.
Except they didn’t. Against a City onslaught, Arsenal stood firm. They defended as a team, and repelled a resurgent City. The sight of Giroud completing inch-perfect slide tackles in his own area will have struck as much fear as joy into the hearts of the Arsenal faithful, but it encapsulated just how different this feels for the Gunners. There is a togetherness, a unity, a consistency that rarely emanates until the second half of the season, until it is a campaign too late to rescue. There is a feeling, be it within the club or amongst the neutral, that this is finally Arsenal’s year. Mind you, we’ve been here before.
Arsenal’s starting XI on Monday comprised £105.3million worth of talent; City boasted a bench worth £111million, and a starting line-up with a transfer value of over £270million. But Arsenal were never the underdogs heading into this fixture. Where a clash against a fellow title challenger usually signals the end of their hopes, this was a chance Arsenal relished. The gap between the two sides is now four points, but the swing in momentum represent the biggest victory.
But this offers an altogether new opportunity for Wenger. The funds are there to strengthen this side heading into the January transfer window, and the Frenchman has no excuse not to spend. Wenger’s admittance that his side “are short” due to injuries, and are “open-minded” about making signings represent a familiar promise, but one that is broken each year. An inability to bring in reinforcements this season would be unforgiveable. But as is the common theme, this feels like no typical Arsenal season; Wenger seems to finally realise the importance of upgrading, even if it is as the expense of his precious cohesion.
In a Premier League season where Leicester are top by two points after 17 games, Crystal Palace and Watford are pushing for the Champions League places, and Chelsea are battling relegation, the strangest outcome could be a conclusion in which Arsenal lift the trophy. Just as victory over City last January precipitated a run of form which saw them rise into the Champions League places, this win could be of utmost importance come May.