Could this finally be Arsenal's year?

Petr Cech, who arrived at Arsenal from Chelsea in June, has brought added professionalism to a side who are hoping to overcome previous shortfalls.
Petr Cech, who arrived at Arsenal from Chelsea in June, has brought added professionalism to a side who are hoping to overcome previous shortfalls.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • To those who would suggest Premier League side Arsenal have never had a better opportunity to become champions of England again, Arsene Wenger had an interesting response.

"I've been here too many times before," said the manager.

Since last winning the title in 2004, Arsenal have forced their way to the front on numerous occasions, only to lose their nerve in the final third of the season.

On Feb 11, 2008, they were five points clear at the top but then won one of their next eight games and ended up third.

On Feb 23, 2011, they trailed Manchester United by a single point, but won just two of their final 11 league matches, finishing fourth.

On Feb 3, 2014, they were two points clear but they won two of their next nine games and again came fourth.

Wenger knows from bitter experience that sealing the deal is difficult. But there was a different feeling around the Emirates Stadium on Monday after Arsenal beat Manchester City 2-1 to become favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers.

Leicester City are still leading the race but there is a growing belief in the Arsenal dressing room that things are falling into place.

REFINED APPROACH

Arsenal will head to St Mary's on Saturday in far better spirits than they left on their previous visit on New Year's Day. On that occasion, they fell to a 2-0 defeat by Southampton. In the aftermath, which included Wojciech Szczesny being disciplined for smoking in the showers, Arsenal's players held a meeting in which they discussed the need to improve their focus and change their tactical approach.

Wenger listened to his players' concerns and began to adapt what had previously seemed a dogmatic, naive game plan. Two-and-a-half weeks later, they went to City and won 2-0 with a performance based on tight, disciplined defending and precise counter-attacking.

It was much the same when they beat Chelsea in the Community Shield, Bayern Munich in the Champions League and City again on Monday, content to soak up the possession and then hit them on the break.

"Last season, we played at City and showed a different kind of match plan," Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker said.

"That's what we had in the locker but, this year, we are more consistent and it makes us better as a unit.

"We are capable of doing different things, which makes it harder for the opponent."

MESUT OEZIL

After a slow start to his Premier League career, Oezil has been outstanding in his third campaign at Arsenal. He has created more chances (67) than any other player in Europe's top leagues and the two goals he set up on Monday, for Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, took his tally of assists to 15 .

"Mesut is vital for us, especially when we play that deep," Mertesacker said.

"We want to get him the ball in the final third. That is what we're trying to do every time."

As with the team in general, Oezil's improvement began in the final months of last season.

Wenger has been more committed this term to using him in a central position, building the team around him.

Mentally and physically, the playmaker now looks comfortable with that responsibility.

STEPPING UP

Again, Arsenal have suffered terribly with injuries but, for once, they have coped. Some of their less heralded players have been among their most impressive, including Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, the oft-maligned Giroud and the improving Walcott, a rare example, perhaps, of a quick, mobile player who has appeared to improve, adding more strings to his bow, since a cruciate knee ligament injury.

Fringe players such as Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell contributed well on Monday.

Arsenal looked fitter and hungrier than City.

The challenge will be to keep performing at that level during the congested holiday programme, particularly if their squad is still stretched by injuries.

EXPERIENCE

This is not a young team. Of the 11 who started on Monday, six - Petr Cech, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Flamini and Giroud - are 29 or older. Only Hector Bellerin (20) and Campbell (23) could be said to lack experience in the Premier League.

In Cech, they finally have a high-class, calm, authoritative goalkeeper, a figure who is lauded within the club not only for the assurance and organisation he has brought to the defence but also for the professionalism he has brought to the entire squad.

The Arsenal teams who saw title challenges collapse over the past decade always lacked experience, maturity, leadership and emotional control.

This side still have a certain flakiness but, unlike several previous seasons, they can look at their rivals - all of them - and see vulnerability. They certainly look like the team best equipped to challenge City right now.

Leicester City, that is.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Could this finally be Arsenal's year?'. Print Edition | Subscribe