Friday, March 1, 2024

Beware, Premier League! Arsenal have found title-winning form

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Defeat at Craven Cottage on New Year’s Eve had a once ebullient fanbase questioning just how far Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal could go this season.

The Spaniard later described his side’s exploits in west London as their “worst performance” of 2023/24, with the Gunners failing to seize upon early momentum. The defeat meant Arsenal had won just one of their previous six in all competitions, and their woes were exacerbated the following week when Liverpool rocked up to the Emirates and progressed into the fourth round of the FA Cup having rode an early storm.

Liverpool’s triumph was seemingly symbolic of two clubs heading in alternate directions. While the Reds’ momentum persisted, Arsenal then appeared more likely to be a part of the top-four race as opposed to any title charge with silverware unlikely.

But now, a little over a month on from their FA Cup exit, Arsenal have returned to a position of ominous strength. We often talk about Manchester City finding an irresistible apex which they’re oh so tough to shift out of. Well, perhaps the Gunners have found their version of an imperious groove.

Mikel Arteta

In truth, Arsenal’s displays haven’t drastically altered since their Dubai reset during the Premier League’s winter break. Crucially, they’ve been far and away more efficient in the final third. Arteta’s men continue to dominate the xG charts – pointing towards long-term success – but they’ve also scored actual goals, and plenty of them in recent outings!

After scoring two in four between their draw at Anfield and cup defeat to Liverpool, Arsenal have netted 16 in four from an xG of 11.6. Their recent upsurge came to a head in east London on Sunday afternoon amid an utterly masterful display of all-out control.

While West Ham have struggled in 2024, teams simply don’t do that to David Moyes-coached outfits. The Gunners were on a different planet, with Arteta’s subtle tactical tweaks, as they did in the statment 3-1 win over Liverpool, paying dividends. There’s been a shift towards a box midfield with a pair of false nines/number tens operating ahead of a sound midfield pivot emboldened by Declan Rice’s steely presence.

Ben White took up a new role against the Hammers, drifting infield more than he’s accustomed to, with stand-ins Leandro Trossard and Jakub Kiwior impressing in the absences of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko respectively – two players key to their novel brilliance last season.

The once concerning trajectory in the wake of the FA Cup exit has been turned on its head entirely. With Arsenal discovering some verve in the final third, the sky may well be the limit for Arteta’s outfit, especiallty given the players they’ll have back fit by the end of the month. Arteta will need to utilise the extremes of his squad if the Gunners are to compete on multiple fronts down the stretch. A winnable Champions League round of 16 tie with Porto is upcoming and Arsenal certainly have the capacity should their current mood perpetuate to enjoy a deep continental run.

However, no matter how stellar Arsenal are the rest of the way, the standard of their competition means there’s far from a guarantee of success. Liverpool may not be able to monopolise control like the Gunners and Manchester City can, but Jurgen Klopp’s decision to leave the club at the end of 2023/24 has handed them a greater incentive to triumph. Mohamed Salah is back soon, too.

City, meanwhile, have long been able to reduce variance in a way that Arsenal are only just starting to master, but they’ve got the array of game-breakers currently bereft in the Gunners’ ranks. Bukayo Saka is very, very close, but no one can rival Erling Haaland and the recently returned Kevin De Bruyne when it comes to sheer destructive talent. Last season’s treble-winners have won six straight in the Premier League since being crowned world champions and will climb to the top of the table should they overcome Brentford on 20 February.

With three of their next four league outings arriving at the Etihad, it appears as if Guardiola’s side will continue to roll ahead of their trip to Liverpool on 10 March. Arsenal, though, have a ‘kind’ upcoming schedule which, for any title hopeful, should warrant maximum points.

What’s clear is that this is the best iteration of Arteta’s Arsenal, yet it might not be enough this season. That’s the harsh reality of what the Gunners are up against.

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