The Premier League title is Arsenal’s to lose and if they continue to pass every test of their credentials, they will become champions for the first time since 2004. But Mikel Arteta’s team are not there yet and the looming shadow of Manchester City is beginning to envelope the club’s ambitions.
Sunday’s 3-2 win against Manchester United at the Emirates felt like a significant moment for so many reasons. Eddie Nketiah’s 90th minute goal turned one point into three, the win was a response to City beating Wolves 3-0 earlier in the day and the victory highlighted the strength of character within Arteta’s squad. But despite a five-point lead at the top, and with second-place City having played an extra game, Arsenal have only reached the halfway point of the season.
The six-week shutdown due to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar during November and December has understandably altered the tempo of this season’s title race and created a sense of the unknown over how teams will benefit, or suffer, from the lengthy pause in domestic action. But whichever way the numbers are crunched and historical precedent is presented, it is clear that Arsenal are in a strong position to win a first title in 19 years having amassed 50 points at the halfway stage. (Even the 2003-04 “Invincibles” only had 45 points at that stage.)
With their rivals, including a City side that have won four titles in the last five seasons, failing to match Arsenal’s incredible consistency this campaign, the ability of Arteta’s team to keep on winning has now made them favourites for the trophy. The players are, for now at least, enjoying the ride and playing with a carefree attitude that is contributing to their form.
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January was supposed to be a stern test of Arsenal’s prospects, with games against Newcastle, Tottenham and Man United, but they have banked seven points from those fixtures and done so in style, displaying no sign of the tension or nerves that can come with being at the top of the table.
A five-point lead at the halfway stage is by no means a key indicator of a successful title challenge, especially when you have still to play your biggest rivals home and away — the team most likely to deny you top spot at the end of the season.
Friday’s FA Cup fourth-round tie against City at the Etihad will be the first time the two teams have faced each other this season. But with Arteta and Pep Guardiola expected to make significant changes, it will only give us a slight sense of how the title race will play out and neither manager will put too much emphasis on the outcome in terms of the battle for the Premier League.
It is when City visit the Emirates in the league on Feb. 15 that it will get real for Arteta and his players. Everything building up to that game will be the undercard to the main event.
It is a game that will draw obvious comparisons to Manchester United’s 1-0 win at Newcastle in March 1996, when Eric Cantona’s winner triggered Newcastle’s collapse and signalled United’s charge to the title.
Why the similarities? Back then, Newcastle were the exciting new force, playing carefree, attacking football that had seen them build a 10-point lead after 19 games. United were the seasoned winners, searching for consistency, but with the knowledge that they had been there and done it before.
And that’s how it played out. United’s winning machine clicked into gear and Newcastle faltered. Free-flowing football was replaced by suffocating tension and Newcastle won just five of their last 10 games — United won eight of their last 10 — and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team topped the table at the end of the season by four points.
Arsenal simply have to avoid Newcastle’s fate and ensure that they don’t hand City the momentum next month. If they avoid defeat, the title race will be so much more straightforward, but a loss against the champions will ramp up the pressure and have fans studying the remaining fixtures in search of potential pitfalls, such as three games in quick succession at the end of April against City (away), Chelsea (home) and Newcastle (away.)
Of course Arsenal don’t have to be the modern-day version of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. They could emulate Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, who were six points clear of the pack after 19 games in 2016-17 and went on to win the title. They could also replicate the form that took Leicester City to a shock title in 2015-16, when Claudio Ranieri’s team stunned the football world to win the Premier League. (Though, after 19 games, Leicester were second on goal difference to Arsenal.)
When Arsene Wenger led Arsenal to the first of his three Premier League titles in 1997-98, the Gunners were 13 points behind leaders United at the halfway stage, with a game in hand, yet his team finished a point clear of United at the top. So one thing is clear: having a substantial lead at the halfway point can often lead to nothing. It is only a foundation stone for tougher times ahead and those tougher times are just around the corner for Arsenal.