Editor’s Note: This article was written by both Kurt Johnston and Emer Nolan, and their Premier League expertise will continue to be featured on our page, so tune in for more content!
There’s a song that is sung most weekends at London’s Emirates Stadium. Most Premier League fans know the tune: “And it’s Arsenal, Arsenal F.C., we’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.” Recently, Arsenal has strayed quite far from their fans’ admittedly high standards (for those unfamiliar, I encourage you to enlighten yourself with the dulcet tones of Troopz and DT on Arsenal Fan TV). This season, however, Arsenal are in a prime position to win their first Premier League title since 2004. The Gunners currently hold a 2 point lead over Manchester City despite one fewer game played. The title race comes down to whether Mikel Arteta’s new-look squad will expel their past demons or fall victim to familiar woes.
Arsenal’s recent history suggests they are more likely to lose the title than to win it. The last time they led the Premier League in the second half of the season was in 2016 — famously won by Leicester City. After 22 weeks, Arsenal and Leicester were tied with 44 points each. However, a loss to Chelsea (13th at the time) and a goalless draw against Southampton in consecutive weeks handed Leicester a decisive advantage. Later losses to Swansea and Manchester United doomed Arsenal’s title hopes, and Leicester City ran away with the league.
Since its collapse in 2016, Arsenal has been a shadow of its former self. In 2017, the Gunners finished in fifth place, their worst performance in the Premier League in over two decades. Despite an FA Cup win, Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1997. After more than a decade of sustained success, mediocrity has become the standard for Arsenal; in the last five years, they have finished sixth, fifth, eighth, eighth, and fifth. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s best player during this period, won the Premier League golden boot (most goals) in a season where his team’s greatest accomplishment was losing in the Europa League final. Lack of championship experience — particularly in light of their uninspiring recent record — will be Arsenal’s primary concern in the title race.
This season, however, the Premier League has seen an Arsenal that seems to have come alive again, playing with a kind of spark and passion the fans haven’t seen since the days the club still played at Highbury, Arsenal’s previous stadium, where they won their last league title in 2004. The 2022-23 season started with a bang for the Gunners, kicking off a run that saw 12 wins, one tie, and one loss before the league broke for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Since the season began, conversations have circulated around the club’s reinvigorated spirit.
Journalists, pundits, and fans alike have been trying to find what shifted within the club to create this new wave of optimism and hope for a title. For one, the team is younger. Arsenal, in the last decade, has largely been characterized by aging players serving up lukewarm performances, frustrating fans for many years. Today, however, both the starting lineup and the bench bear the fruit of Arteta’s youth project, resulting in a squad whose average age is 24.2 years old (the youngest in the league). Bright stars at the beginning of their careers like Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard, and others embody the fresh, exciting new playing style their manager has implemented, making the team more dynamic than it has been in a long time.
Beyond their youth, the most important development is the improved relationship the club has with the fans. The Emirates, a stadium where fans regularly watched their phones instead of the game being played in front of them, has become one of the loudest, most raucously positive stadiums in England. On match days, songs pour into the streets of North London. These days, when a player makes a mistake, the crowd rallies behind them and sings their name to inspire a response where previously, there would be a chorus of boos. This season, Arsenal’s relationship with their fans has never been better, and it has spurred them on in the face of both victory and adversity; although they hit a bit of a rough patch in terms of results in the past couple of weeks, the fans are still right behind the team and the manager.
While their performances have been excellent so far, Arsenal has greatly benefitted from the failures of teams that should be competing for the title. 2022 runners-up Liverpool is currently in ninth place, hampered by an aging squad and stagnant tactics. Chelsea — despite spending almost 400 million dollars in the January transfer window — has inexplicably been unable to score goals. New faces like João Félix and Mykhailo Mudryk may make Chelsea a more formidable opponent in the future, but their 2023 title chances are effectively nil. Arsenal’s North London rival, Tottenham Hotspur has been woeful defensively, conceding the sixth-most goals of any team in the league. Drops in form from players like Son Heung-Min have left Spurs 12 points behind the Gunners. Finally, Manchester United — sitting in third place — was hindered by a poor start and off-the-pitch distractions. Christiano Ronaldo’s exit may have contributed to a more cohesive squad, but not one that can challenge Arsenal or Manchester City. Thus, a two-horse race has formed, with reigning champions Manchester City hoping to spoil Arsenal’s fabulous season.
City has been the most all-around successful team in England, and perhaps Europe, for the past several years. Guided by the disciplined expertise of manager Pep Guardiola, City moved ahead of Arsenal to the top of the table with their 1–3 win in last week’s matchup (though a win and tie on Saturday for Arsenal and City, respectively, has restored the Gunners’ pole position for now). Having claimed four of the past five titles and boasting one of the most talented squads in Europe, City has dominated English football in recent years and is known for its highly technical and consistent playing style. From this point forward, the question will be whether Mikel Arteta’s Gunners can bounce back and regain their rhythm to finish the season on top or if City’s consistency will, as it has done in the past, see them collect the trophy again.
One extraneous factor exists in City’s ability to win the title this year: allegations of financial doping. The team has been accused of over 100 breaches of the Premier League’s rules, including not disclosing accurate financial information about player and manager salaries and sponsorship deals. The outcome of the case is highly uncertain — it may not be resolved this year — but possible ramifications include point deductions and even relegation from the Premier League. If this happens (and it is likely it will not), Arsenal will be the overwhelming favorite to win the Premier League. Even without a clear resolution, these allegations may create a distraction for the City players and fans, perhaps providing Arsenal with a much-needed psychological boost.
This season is a remarkable one for Arsenal for many reasons, but the most prominent is that no one expected it from them. Everyone believed Arteta’s project would take a few more years to come to fruition. Then, the 2022-23 season started the way it did, and fans began to hope that maybe this could be the year Arsenal regained its place at the top. After every win, reporters ask Arteta or whichever player they’ve pulled aside what they’re thinking about Arsenal’s hopes for a title push, and each time, no matter who is asked, they say they’re not looking that far ahead, that they’re not losing focus, and that they’re taking it one game at a time. That may well be so for the players, but everyone else is seeing trophies and hearing the echoes of victory in the distant future…
Image Courtesy of Kevin Hutchinson via Flickr