Arsenal Begin Long Title Run-In With Reinforced Squad

Arsenal squad huddle before a game

No fast bowler or even long-distance runner ever had a long run-in such as the one now facing Arsenal. With half the Premier League season still to go, it may seem absurd to say that. However, because the Gunners are facing a Manchester City side bidding for a hat-trick of titles (and five in the last six seasons) who are capable of winning every league game they have left, it is actually a statement of fact.

In The Season of Two Halves, Arsenal Begin Title Run-In

This (hopefully) unique World Cup season has been the season of two halves. Although the Premier League campaign officially resumed on Boxing day, just over a week after Argentina’s triumph in Qatar, it is arguably only now, in early February, that full league hostilities are recommencing. That is partly because of the further interruption to the league provided by two rounds of the FA Cup in January. From now on, though, with 19 Premier League matches to be played in less than four months, the league action will be relentless.

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Fortunately for Arsenal, Mikel Arteta has obviously digested the agonising lesson of last January’s transfer window, when his failure to replace the recently departed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with another striker, let alone reinforce the squad in other areas, ultimately meant that the Gunners did not have the necessary firepower to sustain a top-four challenge. And that should stand the team in good stead for the even greater challenge they face this season.

Seasoned Campaigners Rather Than Young Stars

Having finally created a first team capable of competing against any other team in England, as was proven again last weekend when a depleted side lost narrowly away to Manchester City in the FA Cup fourth round, Arteta spent this January reinforcing his squad. Although he was unable to secure his first-choice additions, Mykhailo Mudryk and Moises Caicedo, because of the hugely inflated fees that their clubs were demanding for talented but largely unproven young players, the Arsenal manager has compensated by bringing in a trio of experienced campaigners, two of whom are already proven Premier League players.

After the injury to Gabriel Jesus at the World Cup, the absolute priority for the squad was to sign another striker; indeed, even if Jesus had not got injured, adding a third striker to supplement him and Eddie Nketiah was probably a necessity. And although Leandro Trossard is by no means a world-beater, neither is Mudryk, at least not yet. Consequently, the relatively cheap addition of the Belgian marksman might eventually prove to be a far shrewder signing than the incredibly expensive purchase of a Ukrainian winger who is not as equipped to play through the middle of attack as Trossard is.

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Similarly, although there was fanciful talk of the North London side making a major bid for Declan Rice to add to Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka in central midfield, such a transfer was never going to happen mid-season. That was especially true given that West Ham are simultaneously fighting against relegation from the Premier League and dreaming of winning the Europa Conference League, in which they are one of the biggest clubs left.

By contrast, the deadline-day acquisition of Jorginho from Chelsea looks, like the signing of Trossard, to be an extremely intelligent bit of business, especially coming so late in the transfer window. Although it is unlikely that Jorginho will replace Partey and Xhaka in central midfield, he might just prove to be the perfect replacement for either of them should they miss matches because of injury or suspension.

Many Arsenal fans are naturally wary about signing yet another “Chelsea Pensioner”. However, it is worth remembering that Jorginho has not only been a first-team regular at Stamford Bridge this season but a little over 18 months ago he won both the Champions League with the Blues and Euro 2020 with Italy. He is a proven winner, who may also have a point to prove after being sold.

The Long Title Run-In Begins at Goodison

Along with Jakub Kiwior, the young left-footed Polish centre-back who Arteta has acquired specifically to provide cover for Gabriel in the heart of the Arsenal backline, Trossard and Jorginho will be needed throughout the coming months, beginning at Everton this weekend. Buying these three players at relatively bargain prices represents good transfer business for the Gunners and immediately makes their squad look considerably deeper than it did at the start of January.

The relative paucity of Arsenal’s squad compared to that of The Citizens was again exposed in the Cup game between the two sides at the Etihad last week. In comparison with City, who have a stacked bench, the league leaders had only a stool. Now, in Trossard and Jorginho they have experienced and hopefully still-hungry players (Trossard because he has never won anything in England, Jorginho because he has won everything in England except a league title) who can provide crucial cover in the key positions of central attack and central midfield.

There is no doubt that City’s squad, assembled at enormous – indeed, eye-watering – cost over many years, remains far deeper than that of Arsenal, even with the three new players that the Gunners have signed. However, it will arguably need to be, because, in addition to the arduous league campaign that lies ahead, Pep Guardiola’s side are likely to play more matches and – crucially – higher-intensity matches in other competitions than Arsenal will, which could have an effect on their title challenge.

One of the biggest bonuses for Arsenal from their stunning first half of the season is that it has removed some of the pressure for them to do well in the Europa League, the main attraction of which is that winning it grants entry to the Champions League. In the Premier League, they are currently 14 points ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, with two games in hand. Consequently, even if they are ultimately unable to withstand a City fightback in the second half of the season to claim the title, there is every chance that they will still secure their primary aim at the start of the season, which was qualifying for the Champions League.

In contrast to Arsenal, who will now be able to field weakened sides in the Europa League because they can be confident that they don’t have to win it, City’s main aim, regardless of what Pep Guardiola might say about the primacy of the Premier League, must be finally winning Europe’s biggest club competition. Consequently, even though they have a deeper squad than Arsenal, it will be stretched by the need to compete on two fronts, both domestically and in Europe. And that is without even considering the big games that the Manchester side might face later in the FA Cup, not least against arch-rivals Manchester United, who are also still in the competition and might be contemplating a domestic cup double after reaching the EFL Cup Final this week.

Can Arsenal Make It A Mighty Hat-Trick of Giant-Killings?

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Having said all of this, almost all Arsenal fans would still acknowledge that City remain favourites for the title, not least because Arsenal face such a back-loaded end to the season with away games at Liverpool, Newcastle and the Citizens themselves in April and May. It was a similar pile-up of tough away matches against Spurs and Newcastle at the end of last season that ultimately saw them miss out on Champions League qualification.

This time around, however, Arteta, the players and the fans will hope, and more importantly believe, that things can be different and that the team can finish the campaign strongly.  That is not only because of the reinforcements that the manager has made to the squad in this recent transfer window.

Arteta has always celebrated the history of Arsenal, a club that he played for before managing it. As a keen historian of the Gunners, he will know that in the relatively recent past Arsenal have faced similar, if not even greater, challenges to the one they face this season.

Arsenal, the original “giant” club in England after winning five titles in the 1930s (which also made them the world’s first world-famous football club), may never have reclaimed that dominant status since. However, they have excelled at being giant-killers, against Liverpool (in 1989) and Manchester United (in 1998). If they can somehow withstand the deeper squad and even deeper pockets of Manchester City this season, they will make it a mighty hat-trick of giant-killings.