Arsenal are indisputably a markedly different side from those that walked onto the Emirates Stadium pitch for the last several years.
The differences are enormous, various and have been pointed out by many pundits, as the Gunners have remarkably held their position at the top of the table for almost all of the last 100 days.
It is true that Arsenal are a much more physical side than they have been in years past. Mathieu Flamini and Per Mertesacker have given the team an impressive robustness in the tackle and prevent opposing sides from thinking they can bully Arsenal off the pitch.
Even the likes of Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere, who were present long before Arsenal’s recent resurgence, lend the Gunners a hard edge that has allowed them to brave the challenges posed by domineering sides like Newcastle.
As was the case against the Magpies last weekend, close results are often determined by who most successfully blends grit with guile and panache with pragmatism.
Arsenal’s ability to find that medium, which was unattainable when past sides contained too many “soft,” technically skilled players—i.e. Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Sebastien Squillaci.
Note, too, that they had little experience in the squad and were led for years by very young players like Cesc Fabregas and even Theo Walcott. Now, Mertesacker, Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky can more than adequately replace the leadership of captain Thomas Vermaelen when the Belgian is benched.
A title-winning side needs this invaluable cache of experience to supplement the energy and natural talent of younger players. It is crucial to holding on in tight games and not conceding crippling late goals.
But notice how many names are listed above—and those are just the most experienced men in the squad. Look through the team and one finds remarkable depth at almost every position.
As we have seen so many times in the past, and as Arsenal have already seen this season, a title-winning—or even title-contending—side must possess the requisite depth to maintain an upper-echelon starting XI for an entire 38-game campaign.
Including FA Cup, Capital One Cup and Champions League matches, this total is closer to 60.
Arsene Wenger has rightly been criticized in recent seasons for not assembling a team that contains a sufficient amount of elite players to sustain an assault on the Premier League’s wealthiest sides.
And, because Arsenal only have three senior centre-backs and Olivier Giroud has played almost every Premier League game this season, the same refrains have resurfaced this year.
However, even the most cursory look at the Gunners’ squad rubbishes this old line.
Consider their midfield against Newcastle. Despite the fact that Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey—arguably the club’s two best midfielders this season—were injured, Wenger was still able to select a threesome of Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla.
He did so even while rotating his squad and putting Tomas Rosicky on the left wing. Consequently, Arteta was rested until Arsenal needed him later on and Lukas Podolski, who had shined in the previous game, did not play at all.
No longer must Wenger rely on a core group of about 13 or 14 senior players who are supported by thoroughly mediocre journeymen and youth team players.
Wojciech Szczesny has played every minute of Arsenal’s Premier League and Champions League campaigns in goal, but two experienced players—Lukasz Fabianski and Emiliano Viviano—are chomping at the bit to replace him.
Arsenal only have three centre-backs, which is an issue. But Sagna has performed excellently when forced into the role and Vermaelen hasn’t even gotten to play much because of the sustained excellence of Laurent Koscielny and Mertesacker.
At left-back, the Gunners have the best one-two punch in the entire league.
While Kieran Gibbs is a notch ahead of Nacho Monreal in the pecking order right now, their competition for the starting spot is very productive. When Wenger throws Monreal into the fray at the end of matches, he knows that the left side of the pitch will be shut down.
In midfield and on the wings, the manager is flush with options. Any of Flamini, Rosicky, Ozil, Wilshere, Arteta, Cazorla or Ramsey can play in any game for which they are fit.
This surfeit of talent and the versatility of almost all of these players allowed Wenger to compensate for the losses of Podolski, Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings.
Now that those three are back, competition for places has really ramped up and Wenger has a selection dilemma in every single game.
That is the best sort of problem a manager can have. When no one’s starting spot is assured, each player is forced to try their hardest and consistently be at their best
So Arsene Wenger can choose from an exceptionally talented, motivated bunch. Arsenal can cope with multiple, simultaneous injuries and adjust to give each player a rest during the long campaign.
Those are the characteristics of title-winning teams.