An Arsenal title challenge, Too soon to tell? Or a welcome reality?

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Top of the table, 2 points clear of second placed Chelsea and Liverpool and unbeaten in their last 8 games, Arsenal are setting the early season pace in the Premier League, but are they genuine title contenders?

Having shifted much of the so called “dead weight” out of the club during the summer, and having added a couple of quality players in German midfield maestro Mesut Özil and the no nonsense tough tackling Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal look a different team this season. After the opening day defeat to Aston Villa, many fans were of the opinion that this season was going to be like the previous three, start poorly and end up playing catch up, and instead of challenging for trophies, battling the likes of Tottenham and Everton for the last Champions League qualifying place. Settling for Champions League qualification was a harsh reality for Arsenal fans in recent seasons, especially with the departure of world class players such as Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie, but this season, silverware looks a genuine possibility.

With only two losses since the start of the season in all competitions, and an unlucky loss to Dortmund at home in the champions league, Arsenal look like a force to be reckoned with this season. Starting at the back, Arsenal look strong in the area where they have looked the weakest in recent seasons, the goalkeeper. Wojciech Szczesny has cemented his spot as Arsenal’s number one, and it is difficult to realise that he is still only 23 years of age, and to think keepers peak at around 30, it is exciting to think how good he can be. It seems being dropped last season for Lukasz Fabianski has done him good. Fabianski might think he is unlucky for not being Arsenal’s number one after some good performances last season, especially against Munich away. He looked like a different keeper to the one seen in recent seasons as “Flapianski”, he was cool and calm under pressure and looked really mature. Emiliano Viviano, the Italian Keeper signed from Palermo in the summer on loan, has a good reputation and it Italy’s number 2 behind the legendary Gianluigi Buffon. He hasn’t featured for Arsenal this season, but he might get his first start against Chelsea in the League Cup on Tuesday. What a debut it could be for the Italian.

The pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has become one of the strongest centre back pairings in the premier league. Mertesacker arrived at the Emirates as one of Wengers “Panic Buys”, but the 6 foot 7 German International has proved himself to be an intelligent reader of the game, a skill that has made up for his lack of speed. He has become an important part of Arsenals team, becoming a role model for the younger professionals and filling in as captain in the absence of either Thomas Vermaelen or Mikel Arteta. Then there is Laurent Koscielny, the man who seems to improve every season. Since his move to the Emirates from Lorient in 2010, Koscielny has come on leaps and bounds. For a long time he was fairly inconsistent and the likes of Vermaelen and Djourou were chosen ahead of him. His worst moment in an Arsenal shirt is no doubt the Carling Cup Final of 2011, where he tried to clear the ball but missed and allowed Obafemi Martins in to score. It was looking bleak for the French centre back, and also Arsenal’s defensive problems, the thought of having a solid defense again like the invincible days were optimistic. Then last season he showed what he was really made of, clearly with the memory of that blunderous incident at Wembley two years ago, Koscielny formed a solid partnership with Mertesacker, with his speed and athleticism complimenting Mertesacker’s awareness and intelligence, he stood out from the rest in the games against Bayern Munich at the Allianz, Manchester United at home and then scored the goal that would secure a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds against Newcastle on the final day of the season. He makes rash decisions less often and looks more composed on the ball next to the tall German

. The only criticism of arsenal’s defense, is while the team has been winning games, they haven’t completely shut out the opposition, for example 3-1 against Fulham, 4-1 against Norwich, 2-1 against Marseille and 1-1 against West Brom. If they can keep clean sheets more consistently then they definitely have a chance at silverware this season. The real tests will come against bigger teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, City and Liverpool.

Midfield, possibly the best in the Premier League, with talented players such as Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, lukas Podolski and Mathieu Flamini. They are all regulars for their respective international teams apart from Flamini, but he has featured for France before. That gives you an idea of the quality of the midfield. The signing of Özil has definitely lifted the gunners and he has already scored 2 goals and has 3 assists in 6 Premier League games already this season. The sum of 42.5 million pounds is already looking like a fantastic deal for the Gunners (Especially with Gareth Bale struggling to find his feet at madrid) and also the revival of Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey looked like another talent that would be wasted after his unfortunate leg break against Stoke in 2010. He struggled to get back to his best immediately, but who can after the trauma of a broken leg? Jack Wilshere seemed to be the young midfielder everyone was raving about, especially after his famous performance against Barcelona at home when he was just 19. Ramsey was then loaned out to Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, and it looked like he might have followed in the path of other young promising players that would have played for lower league teams such as Jeremie Alliadiere and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. Aaron Ramsey is the ideal role model for young aspiring footballers. When in the face of adversity, Ramsey simply got his head down and gave 110%. In every game you could see he was giving everything even if it wasn’t coming off, it seems now, Wengers faith in the Caerphilly born midfielder is being restored; he is the joint top scorer at the club this season along with Olivier Giroud and also has 4 assists.

The only problem for Arsenal at the moment is injuries. With Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Walcott, Flamini, Sanogo and Diaby all injured, it means that the Arsenal first team are slightly stretched, with some players having to play a few more games than they should. This is also a positive in that it gives players such as Serge Gnabry a chance to play, and further his development. It would be good to see other youth players such as Chuba Akpom, Ryo Miyachi and Nico Yennaris given a run out as well.

Up front Giroud has improved vastly on his first year in English football, scoring consecutively in his first 4 games of the premier league, and scoring against Dortmund and Crystal Palace last week. He looks like a top striker this season, and he is unselfish which is very uncharacteristic for a forward. Arsenal are relying heavily on him this season, and if anything were to happen to the former Montpellier man, they would be in trouble especially with the injuries to Podolski, Walcott and Sanogo. They could play Akpom, but it is too soon and not fair to thrust Arsenal’s need for goals on the shoulders of the young English striker. Nicklas Bendtner is slowly coming back into the team, but it is hard to see a future for him at the club after the comments he has made in the past, and his attitude towards the club. Following the Wet Bromwich game in the league cup however he seemed to be fairly humble, a characteristic not associated with the big Dane. It is up to Wenger what to do with him.

So Arsenal have started the season well, top of the Premier league, top of their Champons league group and have a league cup tie against Chelsea to look forward to. To succeed they will need three things, consistency, less injuries and luck. Could this be the year that the dust on the Arsenal trophy cabinet is finally blown away?
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Photo by Ronnie Macdonald