Beginning on Wednesday (December 4) against Hull City, Arsenal will, in the next 13 games—comprising the middle half of the season—attempt to recreate the form, which has seen them finish the first 13 games at the top of the English Premier League table, a feat that has made nonsense of pundits' early predictions about the season's campaign.
How have Arsenal managed to defy the commonsensical opinion of pundits, informed by a survey of the squads of the so-called title contenders? Two things come to mind.
First, they have shrugged off their now customary sluggish start to the season to begin strongly, and although the specter threatened to manifest yet again, when they lost their first match of the season to Aston Villa—no thanks to the referee's less-than-desirable officiating on the day—they hunkered down, and with the determination that has characterized the final part of their campaign in the last two seasons, started churning out results, amassing points while their rivals stumbled.
This steady beginning has been put down to the club not losing its important players this time, as has been its habit in the last few seasons, where such important players as Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Alex Song have been lost just before the start of the season.
This conclusion highlights the importance of readiness at the start of a season. This includes, among other things, the strengthening of weak sections of the squad by adding new players and a good preseason where the squad works hard to attain match fitness before the season begins.
Factors that have led to the said sluggish start in the recent past have included the squad’s struggle to adjust to the demand of the now necessary preseason tour, aimed at generating both new supporters and commercial revenue, a task at which Arsenal have had to play catch-up to their rivals.
Arsene Wenger's preference has always been a few weeks of seclusion somewhere in Austria, undisturbed by the press or the demand of travelling around the world on promotional assignments.
After two seasons, Wenger seems to have found the proper mean for this new challenge, this necessary nuisance.
Another factor has been the financial constraint that has hampered Wenger's ability to buy truly top-class players, settling instead for bargain, if promising, purchases.
This season, though, the club threw off this financial shackle, spending a record amount of transfer money to sign Mesut Özil, a player acclaimed by many to be world-class.
Still another factor which follows from the foregoing is the fact that in the last few years, Wenger has been forced to rebuild the squad on the fly, an ordeal he didn’t have to face this time.
The second reason why Arsenal currently sit atop the league table has been a consistency that has overshadowed their rivals'.
If one enquired as to why this has been the case, an appeal to a new and pragmatic approach to the team’s manner of play—where defense has been emphasized and where from other elements have ensued—will both be canny and accurate.
This new pragmatism has included a collective approach to defending, whereby offensive players no longer shirk defensive duties but put in good shifts, employing sweat where flair is impractical. This has resulted in a compact and cohesive unit difficult to breach.
This contrasts with the past where an offensive player would lose the ball and then proceed to stroll back to his own half as though nothing were at stake.
The vaunted no-nonsense English approach to the game, whereby brawn compensates for flair has become more and more the hallmark of the current Arsenal squad. Flair, of course, continues to characterize the team, only now in proportional measure.
One other factor that has led to the success of the first 13 games spawns from the team's efficiency in terms of goals, a factor borne out of the team cohesion and understanding. (Note, for example, how some of Arsenal’s rivals have struggled on this count and have paid the price for it, too.)
One more factor has worked in Arsenal’s favor in these first 13 games: their relatively easier fixtures compared to their top-four rivals.
This is true.
But if you compare this with Manchester United, for example, you'd see that United have played all the top-five teams—Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs—whereas Arsenal are yet to play Chelsea and Manchester City.
This, though, does not follow—as some fallaciously imagine—that Arsenal have to win their matches against the top-five teams in order to be able to win the title, although, of course, dropping 15 points against them is as good as surrendering the title.
Insisting that winning against the top-five clubs is equal to winning the title is like saying West Bromwich Albion will win the title since they beat Manchester United, or that Newcastle or Cardiff City will do the same since both have respectively beaten Chelsea and Manchester City.
Someone might argue that neither Chelsea nor Manchester City have as yet played all the top-five clubs.
That is still true.
But what this underscores is the fact Arsenal have to do well against these clubs if they are to consolidate their position at the pinnacle of the league and if they are to justify their bona fides as true contenders for the title.
The big challenge ahead for them in the upcoming fixtures is a wicked series of matches that will surely prove challenging if not daunting.
Arsenal will play three top clubs in succession in the next five games—Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea—and this is not counting Napoli in the Champions League, a hurdle they must scale to secure their place in the last 16 of this competition.
What is worse is that they will not even have sufficient time to prepare properly for the Manchester City match but will be constrained to play the direct rivals in just about 48 hours or so after the Napoli game.
Should they survive this set of fixtures relatively unscathed, they would have put themselves in a strong position to win the title, although the beginning of the final dozen of matches will equally be challenging.
What is important, however, is that they approach this next set of fixtures one step at time while being wise and clever and all the while sustaining the belief that so far has brought them their current success.
What is also comforting is that all other teams will face the same hurdles as they will. The team that remains consistent through all the challenges will have the crown for its reward.