New signings are helping Arsenal to combine style with substance as title contenders show their credentials
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After seven league games, it’s pretty safe to say the Premier League table is now taking shape. There is a long way to go before the jigsaw is completed, but the pieces are being arranged into neat enough piles.
Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool will be among those at the top, while Sunderland, Hull and Swansea – who visit the Emirates this Saturday - will probably be near the bottom, and those in the middle will jostle around until May without pushing for Europe or flirting with relegation.
So what about Arsenal? They’ll be near the top, sure, but after five top-flight wins on the bounce is there a genuine chance of a table-topping finish, or should Gooners brace themselves for a familiar seasonal slump and a scrap for fourth?
There are reasons to be cheerful as the weekend approaches and Wenger’s side prepare to face a Swansea outfit who will have a new manager in the dug-out, having swapped Francesco Guidolin for the former United States boss Bob Bradley during the international break.
The manner of recent wins has been mixed, from the storming triumph over Chelsea which featured some of the best football seen at the Emirates to the archetypal ‘win-when-you’re-playing-badly’ scrap at Burnley.
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Of course, things would be more positive if every victory was as convincing as the one over Antonio Conte’s men, but no side can play as well as that every week. In fact, the win at Burnley says more for Arsenal’s title credentials than any other performance this season.
We know they’re capable of brushing teams aside – see Manchester United and Manchester City at home last season – but how often have we seen Arsenal drop points in games like the one at Turf Moor in their last outing? Too often in the past few seasons. That last outing, though, was a classic ‘mark of champions’ performance and result.
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Encouragingly, the new signings played a huge part and are beginning to show their value. Shkodran Mustafi has physicality, leadership skills and seems to have a winning attitude. The German is apparently a vocal presence too – perfect to offset the more reserved leadership of Laurent Koscielny, especially with Per Mertesacker injured.
And, although Granit Xhaka had gone off by the time Arsenal nabbed the winner at Turf Moor, his assuredness and athleticism in midfield ensured the Gunners weren’t overrun by the home team’s energy.
In previous years Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta or (going back a bit more) Denilson would have struggled to keep up with the demands of the game.
With the top six sides looking strong this will probably be a season when the best squad prevails, rather than a side that displays incredible teamwork and builds up momentum, such as Leicester last season.
And, when we consider that Arsenal were without Olivier Giroud, Lucas Perez, Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Mertesacker at Burnley, it highlights the depth of options available to Wenger.
The bench didn’t look particularly inspiring before the game but, of the subs that were used, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a hand in the goal (or was it Koscielny?) and Mohamed Elneny is always an imposing, comforting presence in midfield.
With Ramsey and Coquelin set to return, the game-changing options are looking plentiful – so fingers crossed there’s no Arsenal-esque plague of injuries.
The main regret is the way the season started. The new signings look good but they came too late to do anything about those two winless games in August.
Points now are as good as points at the end, so why the boss chose to go into the opening games against Liverpool and Leicester with a squad as thin as it was, rather than getting the signings done early, only he knows.
Arsenal fans will just hope it is not still a source of regret in May.
Follow me on Twitter @joejtyler