Anyone who hasn’t done so already should accept that Arsenal represent a serious and legitimate threat to Manchester City’s Premier League dominance.
While 15 games into the season is far too early to make any grand, sweeping statements regarding the state of the title race, it is enough evidence to to suggest that – barring major accidents – Mikel Arteta’s side will be there or thereabouts come May 28 next year.
On Boxing Day Arsenal came from behind to see off West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium, establishing an eight-point buffer between themselves and City. While the Blues have played one match fewer and still have 24 games to catch their challengers up, it’s clear Pep Guardiola’s side are not going to have things all their own way this season.
It was something of a surprise to many that Arsenal headed into the World Cup break with a five-point lead at the top after winning 12 of 14 games. However, anyone that has observed Arteta’s work since swapping City for Arsenal in 2019 will have seen this coming; his project has required patience and trust, and now his team is playing how he wants it to.
On the pitch the influence of Guardiola on Arteta’s playing philosophy is clear. The student’s team is a bit more vertical, happier to play on the counter than the master’s, but there is undoubtedly an emphasis placed on possession-based, positional football.
On Thursday Arsenal’s title credentials were reinforced by the absence of Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian – who with Oleksandr Zinchenko left City for Arsenal in the summer – has led Arsenal’s attack this season.
As soon as he suffered a knee injury at the World Cup, critics questioned how his side would cope without him. But just as City did throughout last season, one player dropped out and another came in to great effect. Eddie Nketiah got the nod and finished off a brilliant team move for his side’s third goal.
There is something of 2021/22 City in 2022/23 Arsenal; no matter who dropped out of the team last year, it felt like whoever stepped up would get the job done. Now that a striker of Erling Haaland’s standing is the focal point of City’s attack, whenever he isn’t in the team it does feel like there is an inevitable drop off.
That is not to say that Arsenal are not overly-reliant on one player. Jesus contributes a lot, but he has only scored five goals this season. Martin Odegaard is the chief midfield creator, Gabriel Martinelli is a dynamic threat and Bukayo Saka is a superstar in the making. Even those – like Granit Xhaka – who looked destined for the exit have bought into the project and are thriving.
Arsenal have long had a tendency to self-destruct, but now they seem to be digging deep when they really need to. Even the notoriously fickle home fans are on-side – the atmosphere at the Emirates is loud, intimidating and supportive.
Arsenal’s league schedule in January consists of home games against Newcastle and Manchester United either side of a North London derby trip to Spurs. If they come through that they’re got a hell of a shout – and there are still two meetings between City and Arsenal to come too.
Of course, City can and must only focus on what they can do. Guardiola’s side dropped points in four of their opening 14 games; they can’t afford to drop many more. A group of players that have won four of the last five titles don’t need reminding of that.
People like to mock Arsenal’s near-two-decade-long title drought, but only a fool would continue to write them off now.