As 2015 ends and 2016 begins, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are in position to accomplish something they haven't done in more than a decade. After climbing to the top of the table in their final fixture of the calendar year, the Gunners and their manager appear better placed to win the Premier League title than at any time since their last triumph, in 2003-04.
For this reason, Wenger's New Year's resolution for 2016 must be to take every opportunity to ensure that this—finally—is Arsenal's year.
Granted, the Gunners have made the odd flirtation with a championship run in the years since the Invincibles campaign. In February 2008, the Gunners held a five-point lead atop the table as they traveled to a match at Birmingham City. The title appeared to be within reach, but a horrific broken leg suffered by Eduardo da Silva derailed Arsenal's ambitions.
Ultimately, the consequences of what happened at St. Andrews extended well beyond the end of the 2007/08 season. Arsenal’s collapse set a precedent that has lingered around the club for the last seven years. Over the last seven years, Wenger’s side have shown a troubling tendency to choke at the finish line. The Eduardo incident appears to have been the genesis of that unfortunate psychological trait.
The Gunners made another run in 2013-14, staying atop the table for most of the season before falling out of first place permanently with a 5-1 loss at Liverpool on Feb. 8. Further defeats at Stoke, Chelsea and Everton doomed Arsenal's faltering challenge, with the latter two combining with the Liverpool defeat to demonstrate that Wenger's men couldn't compete with their closest rivals.
Again, Arsenal fell away from the top of the table, taking fourth place behind champions Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Despite spending 128 days in first place, the Gunners finished a disappointing seven points off the pace.
The current campaign should already give supporters hope that Wenger has learned his lesson from 2013-14. In contrast to that season, Arsenal have compiled a good record against the other teams currently in the top four. They have beaten both Leicester City and Manchester City and have managed a draw with Tottenham Hotspur.
Familiar questions about Arsenal's mentality surfaced after a 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day, but to their credit, Wenger's men recovered with a 2-0 victory at home to Bournemouth just two days later—a result that took the Gunners to the top of the table heading into 2016.
So what can Wenger do to ensure Arsenal finish the job this time? The most obvious option is to strengthen the squad during the January transfer window. In recent seasons, Wenger has declined to become involved in the market, often citing inflated fees and the lack of quality players available. This time, however, the stakes are too high to remain on the sidelines.
And Wenger apparently knows it. As far back as November, the Arsenal boss pledged to strengthen his midfield once the window opens. “We are in a position where we want to do something,” he said, per David Hytner at the Guardian. “If I find the right quality, I will do something.”
More recent reports suggest he's found a target in Basel's Mohamed Elneny. With Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere all sidelined by injury, Arsenal's options in midfield are limited. Signing Elneny in January would, therefore, be a wise move.
And as Michael Yokhin wrote at ESPN FC, it would also represent a perfect fit:
Covering a lot of ground is definitely not Elneny's only asset. He is excellent at ball distribution; orchestrating the play from behind. The Egyptian might not be sending Andrea Pirlo-style through balls every five minutes, but he very rarely misplaces his passes, and sometimes it is much better to keep things simple.
Yokhin also noted that Elneny has improved his shooting and long-range passing this season. At Arsenal, where attacking talent permeates the squad, he would not be required to show those skills often, but they would be nice to have.
In addition, Yokhin's analysis indicated that Elneny is a strong tackler but one who commits few fouls.
If, as the Daily Mail has reported, Arsenal can obtain all those skills for the modest price of £7.4 million, it would be a fantastic deal. The signing would represent good value, but more importantly, it would strengthen Wenger's midfield. If the move can be concluded quickly, rather than at the deadline, Elneny could start contributing immediately.
But even if the fee were much higher, Wenger should not hesitate. Not this time. With the right dealings in the transfer market this January, the Frenchman can accomplish something special.
While it's true that Arsenal's cushion atop the table is mere goal differential, something about this season feels different. At the halfway point of the Premier League campaign, no team has dominated, and that power vacuum means Arsenal have a golden opportunity to reclaim the title for this first time in 11 years.
Results against their closest rivals have already improved, and while Arsenal might still face questions over their mentality, no team appears better placed to lift the trophy. Wenger, therefore, must make the right signings to strengthen his squad for the title push.