December is the usual month of joy and hope for Arsenal. Last season, they ended December four points clear of Manchester City at the top of the league table. This season, they have winked in the month stretching the lead at the helm to five points, though fellow contenders City and Liverpool both have a game in hand. But a relatively hassle-less run till the end of this month — a trip to the intimidating Anfield aside — means Arsenal could head to the break as leaders.But the Arsenal faithful would still be guarded in nursing hopes of landing their first title since the Invincible season of 2003-04, for such has been their storied hory of freezing in the home stretch.Notorious second-half slump
There is no better example than last season, Arsenal helmed the league for 248 days. playing a simple yet vibrant brand of football. In mid-January last season, Mikel Arteta’s men enjoyed an eight-point cushion over City, yet the latter not just surpassed them but kissed the title with three games to spare. There were several reasons — fatigue crept in, intensity creaked, pressure kicked in, even as the supremely-willed City strung together 11 wins in a row, whereas Arsenal dropped nine points in four games across 17 days in April.
Some of the seasoned, fate-hardened Arsenal supporters could feel hory repeating cruelly. Arsenal featured four times in the l of losing the premier league title after leading the table for more than 125 days (2002-03; 2007-08, 2013-14 and 2022-23). So their hope and optimism is guarded, even though Arsenal is exuding the mettle of champions in eking out points over the past few weeks.
Setbacks would only toughen good teams. Last season, Arsenal’s twinkle-toed youngsters, for their immense wealth of skills, were unused to the burden of being chased a masterful City, pursuing their third title on the spin.
But the nucleus of the Arsenal side would have only emerged wiser from the experience. It’s already showing, with them scraping and scratching through wins, pinching several points in the dying minutes of the game. Apart from Luton Town the winning goals against Brentford and both Manchester Clubs, beside the equaliser against Chelsea have all arrived deep into the game. Against Luton, Wolves and Brentford, there were long phases where they looked slack and sloppy, accentuated a lethargic goalkeeper and a disorganized backline.
But they showed incredible character to cling on and nail the full points. It was not always football that purred, but no team has even won a league always operating at peak form. Stutters and stumbles are normal, and these were exactly the sort of games Arsenal contrived to squander points last season.
But this season could be tougher than the last. There is obviously City whose manager Pep Guardiola, in a rare instance of sounding boastful like Jose Mourinho, claimed his side would win the league this season. Ravaged injuries, they are yet to hit the high notes of seasons past, but it’s post February that they usually get their act together, when they morph into an unstoppable force, making the title race look like a one-man stroll. Already playmaking centre-back John Stones has returned to the bench from his injury, and at some point in January, talisman Kevin de Bruyne would return to induce familiar headaches for opposition defenders.
As formidable a force would be Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp’s side driven a devil-like defiance to reach the promised land once again. Retooled and rejuvenated, though with flaws like City and Arsenal, they have been feeding off a wave of energy (and madness) that has seen them, at times, descended into chaos at times. If not now, then never seems to be their guiding force.
Neither can Arsenal ignore the mercurial neighbours Tottenham Hotspur—despite more than half their regulars on the injury, they remain unbent in their commitment to playing free-flowing, at times mindlessly Bielsa-like attacking football. Newcastle United, Aston Villa and even the dozy Manchester United are no easy meat. A lot will depend on the steam, will and depth of Arsenal.
A question of depth
Though the Arsenal bench is not as crammed with talent as City’s, they have more depth of game-changing talent than last year. All their major summer recruitments have begun to fire, including Kai Havertz. Some like Declan Rice have been transformational. But some key positions still remain feeble.
It’s unimaginable of Arsenal sustaining the title race, if they are to lose Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice or William Saliba (whose robustness they missed at the end of last season). Moreover, the physical and mental expenditure would only swell as they would have Champions League and FA Cup engagements too to fulfill.But whether they combust or soar, it would form a fascinating narrative.