The Premier League title race is about to get real for Arsenal. For the first time since Arsene Wenger’s “Invincibles” won the club’s last title in 2003-04, Arsenal feel like a team that can go all the way and take the trophy to the Emirates. But manager Mikel Arteta’s side have only done the easy part so far.
Make no mistake: to be five points clear at the top of table, having suffered just one defeat in 14 games, is a genuine achievement for Arteta and his young team. Arsenal deserve to be leading the race as the Premier League resumes after six-week pause for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but their impressive start to the season is now just money in the bank. We are about to see how far it will take them.
Since the Premier League began in 1992-93, there have been 30 completed seasons and the team that sits top on Christmas Day just has the edge. Sixteen teams have been top at Christmas and ended up as champions, with 14 clubs failing to go the distance. Arsenal were second to Manchester United on Christmas Day 2003 and went on to be champions.
It is a slightly skewed historically statistic this time around, with Arsenal only having played 14 games due to the World Cup shutdown. By now, teams have usually played 17 games, so it is perhaps unfair to burden Arteta’s team with the pressure of having to live up to the “Christmas leaders” tag. But by starting so well and maintaining their form, Arsenal are unquestionably in the title race.
Reigning champions Manchester City are still the favourites with every bookmaker, despite being five points adrift of the leaders, yet Pep Guardiola’s team will have little margin for error if Arsenal continue as they left off. This is the challenge for Arsenal, however, and the picture is no longer quite as clear as it was when they wrapped up for the World Cup with a 2-0 win at Wolves in mid-November.
The biggest concern for Arteta will be the loss of striker Gabriel Jesus, who could be sidelined for up to four months with a medial ligament injury he suffered with Brazil at the World Cup. The 25-year-old has scored five goals for the Gunners since his £45 million transfer from Man City in the summer and while his strike rate may not be hugely impressive, it is his contribution as a team player and the winning mentality he has brought from his time at the Etihad that make him so important to Arteta’s team.
Without Jesus, Arsenal have to find a way to make their forward line function just as well — and that won’t be easy.
How defender Ben White performs after leaving England‘s World Cup squad early for personal reasons will be another key question for Arteta. White’s versatility and consistency, both at full-back and centre-back, have been crucial this season, so Arsenal will need him to return to the form that earned him that call-up for Qatar.
On the flipside, winger Bukayo Saka had an outstanding World Cup with England, and fellow wide attacker Gabriel Martinelli is reportedly close to signing a contract extension at the Emirates after returning from the World Cup with Brazil. So amid the concerns, there have been positives for Arteta to build on.
The Arsenal manager knows that a tough period lies ahead, though. With more players than any other club — nine — having registered more than 1,000 Premier League minutes this season, fatigue could become a factor as Arsenal (and every other team) start to play catch-up in league and cup play following Qatar 2022.
“We are going to be playing every three days,” Arteta said. “The congestion and the amount of games we have to play is going to be incredible. We are going to have to have more resources and more players to be able to do that.
“We have the confidence we are on the right path, but as well, we have the red lights and alarms, because what is coming in the second half of the season is something unprecedented. And we need to be ready for it.”
Arsenal’s run of fixtures between now and the return of European football in mid-February will give us a clear indication as to whether they can sustain their title bid or will fall by the wayside, with serial winners City benefiting from the depth and experience of their squad to overhaul the Gunners.
A home game against West Ham on Monday is the start of the tricky run, followed by a difficult trip to Brighton and the visit of in-form Newcastle on Jan. 3. And in the space of a month, after an FA Cup third-round trip to Oxford United, Arsenal must play Tottenham (away), Manchester United (home) and Manchester City ( home), so it is certainly a testing period ahead for Arteta and his players.
Some title winners — Leicester (2016), Blackburn (1995) — have started well and harnessed a wave of momentum all the way to the end of the season, but many others have run out of steam. We’re about to find out which category Arsenal will fall into this season.