Halfway There: The Arsenal Renaissance

A pitchside view of an empty Emirates Stadium
Ayman Ahmer

Sixteen wins. Two draws. One Loss.  Premier League followers would typically identify the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool to be displaying this sort of form at the half-way stage of the season. However, this year has proved that it is not the standard two-horse race between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Arsenal’s emergence as Premier league leaders has broken the mould of recent campaigns – Ayman Ahmer looks into the Gunners’ season in more detail.

The significance of Arsenal’s victory over Manchester United 

On Sunday 22nd January, Arsenal defeated bitter rivals Manchester United 3-2 in dramatic circumstances to maintain their five-point buffer over Manchester City. Mikel Arteta’s men put on a show for the Arsenal faithful, showcasing not only their fluid, free-flowing football, but also their resilient and steely desire to gain three points. Prior to the match, a revitalised and in-form United posed a threat to Arsenal’s immaculate home record this season. Erik Ten Hag had seen his team win five of the last six matches, defeating Manchester City in the derby along the way. 

United took the lead in the 17th minute after Marcus Rashford took advantage of Thomas Partey’s sloppy give-away of possession. Rashford’s lightening strike arrowed into the back of the net, seeing the league leaders fall behind for only the third time in the season.   

A clamour of positivity echoed through the stadium

In previous years, there would be a sense of pessimism floating around the Emirates, but there were categorically no signs of that. As captain Martin Ødegaard encouraged his surrounding players, a clamour of positivity echoed through the stadium. The Arsenal players reacted in an assured manner, confident in their game plan. They came in waves of attacks, cramping United deep into their own half. Eddie Nketiah’s headed equaliser seemed somewhat inevitable, prompting Arteta to jump around in characteristic style. 

The second half of the match was well poised for more drama. Arsenal came out of the dressing room with the bit between their teeth, picking up where they had left off before the interval. United seemed afraid of Arsenal, unable to apply sufficient pressure on opposing players in the final third. Bukayo Saka’s sterling instincts enabled him to capitalise on this, piercing the ball into the far corner of the net, resembling something out of Arjen Robben’s highlight reel.  

It was as if Arsenal viewed drawing this game as a loss and seeking vengeance on United as a major priority

Undoubtedly, Arsenal had sticky moments throughout the game – defending and communication was not as sound as it often has been this season. This was perfectly illustrated through Lisandro Martinez’s lofted header which levelled the game at 2-2. The equaliser was a watershed moment in the match. It was as if Arsenal viewed drawing this game as a loss, and seeking vengeance on United as a major priority.  

The Gunners continued to build pressure and stationed themselves in United’s half for almost all the remaining time. Ødegaard continued to dictate play spraying passes around the pitch in his majestic and graceful manner. Not for the first time in the match it seemed that a goal was not far away. Eventually, Arteta’s men found a fitting climatic conclusion to an enthralling match via Nketiah’s inexorable last-minute finish. 

By defeating Tottenham and United in consecutive games […] Arsenal have continued to prove these doubters wrong

Victory against United was of paramount importance as it acted as a statement of intent. Wins of such nature are title defining. After the World Cup, critics heavily undermined Arsenal – arguing that their form was unsustainable, especially with the news of Gabriel Jesus’ injury. However, by defeating Tottenham and United in consecutive games and failing to succumb to the pressure of Manchester City, Arsenal have continued to prove these doubters wrong.  50 points from 19 games sees Arsenal sit fifth in terms of all time in Premier league points at the half-way mark of a season, with a serious chance of winning the title.  

A new Arsenal? 

Arsenal’s winning goal against United should not be viewed as an isolated moment this season. On several occasions, they have demonstrated their resolve and calmness in finding a winner, most notably against Liverpool. Their ability to attack in numbers suffocates teams, forcing them to drop deep and concede.  

It is about time people should see the similarities between Arsenal and the Liverpool side of recent years, namely the confidence in their own ability. There is also a uniqueness to Arsenal which is refreshing for spectators to see. Mikel Arteta has constructed a hybrid team of flair and steel.  

Perhaps this is influenced by his failure to win a league title as captain of Arsenal. The Arsenal team that Arteta played in was littered with nimble, skilful players such as Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil. However, those sides were criticised for lacking a strong central defensive midfielder with the ability to break lines.  

In Thomas Partey, this current Arsenal side has found exactly that. Partey’s tenure at Arsenal has been filled with ups and downs as a result of recurrent injuries, but his recent run of form has underpinned how crucial he truly is for this side.  

There is a clear vision and identity at Arsenal to reach the top of the football pyramid

While Arsenal have been heavily criticised for their recruitment in previous seasons, signings in the last two years have significantly improved his side. Unlike previous executives, Sporting Director Edu had a clear strategy in signing players aged between 22-25. The incomings of the Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale and Martin Ødegaard have transformed the side. These players have embraced the principles and values of the club which Arteta places great importance on. Additions of ex-City title-winning players in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksander Zinchenko have instilled a winning mentality into the side. There is a clear vision and identity at Arsenal to reach the top of the football pyramid.  

Arteta’s reign at Arsenal has admittedly not been an easy journey – there have been several hardships he’s faced along the way. Critics note how recent finishes of eighth and fifth prove Arsenal’s ability to collapse at different points of the season. However, from a non-biased standpoint, proponents of this view are simply ignorant to Arsenal’s progression under Arteta. The Arsenal job was never going to be easy for any manager inheriting a squad weak in mentality and poor in quality.  

Nevertheless, Arteta steered Arsenal to an FA Cup glory in 2020 through pragmatic management. This trophy often seems to go under the radar when analysing Arsenal’s form in recent years.  It was always going to take time for Arsenal to be challenging, especially against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool who have raised the quality of the league into another dimension.  

It is fair to say that Arsenal are ahead of schedule this season. However, this should not be a reason to think they will not win the league. At the halfway stage, Arsenal have proved to be on the same level of the best title winning teams in previous years. They have succeeded in almost every challenge faced defeating the likes of United, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Chelsea. While fans may be anxious about still needing to face Manchester City twice in the league, they have no reason to fear them. This is a refreshed, vibrant and electric side which has the capability to beat anyone on current form.  

Ayman Ahmer

Featured image courtesy of Nelson Ndongala via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 1 courtesy of @arsenal via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

In article image 2 courtesy of @arsenal via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

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