Arsenal's Strengths and Weaknesses This Season
No one can deny that Arsenal have improved tremendously this season.
Last May, the players excitedly celebrated the "accomplishment" of scraping into fourth place, but after a very turbulent and contentious summer, Arsenal have surged to the top of the Premier League.
Four points separate the Gunners from the next-best team and they sit atop the group of death in the Champions League with one game left to play.
None of this would have been conceivable with recent Arsenal teams. Let's look at exactly what has contributed to—and detracted from—their success this campaign.
In past years, Arsene Wenger was unable to rotate his squad during key periods when fixtures came in rapid succession. This worsened key players' performance levels over time and created a mood of complacency about the team, as there was no competition for places.
Now Wenger has more than one viable option in almost every position.
Wojciech Szcesny can, and has, been dropped for Lukasz Fabianski. Club captain Thomas Vermaelen routinely rides the bench and is eager to steal the spot of Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny, and the same situation exists with Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs.
This weekend, we can expect significant rotation in midfield, with all of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey available.
Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are still out, but the fact that their absences have not been felt is a massive difference from recent seasons.
Whereas Arsenal's young players used to have to learn the ropes themselves without guidance from older players, this generation can lean on the expertise of seasoned, exemplary professionals.
Who better to guide the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny and Serge Gnabry than the likes of Mikel Arteta, Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky?
These men know how to control games and prepare for opponents of all types, excluding the possibility that smaller teams will be taken lightly and discounted, as they used to be. When pressure arrives, these older heads can calm things down and provide invaluable guidance.
Even the "young" players have gotten older. Ramsey, Walcott, Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs have all made a substantial amount of appearances for the club and should be past the initial transition period.
Injuries to Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have left Arsenal without wingers for almost the entire season, creating a lack of width that has been severely limiting at times.
Forcing Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey to play on the right (and, to a certain extent, Santi Cazorla on the left, but he is more effective there) puts a tremendous strain on Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna, as they have to take on two roles to make up for the drifting of those in front of them.
The result is an Arsenal side that is limited to playing exclusively through the middle, unable to flare the ball out wide effectively so crosses can be whipped into Olivier Giroud.
This is done, of course, but not with the incisiveness provided by Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott. Arsenal are also less threatening on the counter-attack with slower players in wide positions.
Weakness: Only Having One Credible Striker
Arsenal fans are well aware that if serious injury befalls Olivier Giroud, the entire team is in serious jeopardy.
While Nicklas Bendtner is not the unmitigated disaster some believe him to be, he is incapable of effectively leading the line for even remotely long periods of time. The Dane does not possess a modicum of Giroud's power, technical ability or shooting skill.
Consequently, the Frenchman has played almost every one of Arsenal's games and every non-Capital One Cup fixture. Luckily, he is a fantastic striker and the glue that holds the Gunners' attack together—but that just attaches more risk to a body that gets fairly bruised during every match.
Hopefully Arsenal will act to remedy this problem in January, although the extravagant solutions proposed during this past summer are obviously not needed now.
Strength: Ability to Win Close Games
The old adage about a team's ability to pull out tight results as a barometer of its title credentials long ago entered the realm of cliche.
But Arsenal's remarkable ability to do so this season has earned them many of the points that put them at the top of the heap.
On several occasions this far, Arsenal have not played at their best against decidedly subpar opponents, but in a remarkably Manchester United-like fashion, always seem to receive a fortunate break or make the decisive move at the correct time to steal the points.
Much of Arsenal's ability to win close games stems from their extraordinary defence, which has served as the bedrock of the club's sterling run. Whereas past Gunners' sides crumbled under pressure late in games, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker can be trusted to maintain their composure and see things out.
The intensity will mount as the season progresses, but this has been the most promising sign in a season of many for an ascendant club.