Since that beatdown on Manchester United a couple weeks ago, it’s been hard to avoid the sense that this just might be Arsenal’s year. With Chelsea’s continued horrendous form so far this season, United’s unimpressive performances undermining their point total, Liverpool’s lack of consistency, and Manchester City dropping a little closer to Earth after looking like they might pull a Bayern Munich and more or less win the title by October, Arsenal were perfectly set up to give a real chase for the title. The United result not only put them up three more points on their only real competitors for the right to challenge City, the way they went about it suggested that this was no fluke.
Since then, Arsenal have been given multiple opportunities to Arsenal it up. Their next league match, a couple weeks later following an international break, was away to Watford, just the kind of seemingly easy game you could see them slipping up in. Instead, they toughed out what was a close match for the first hour and ended up winning by three. A couple of days after that Bayern came into town, ready to paste the Gunners and end their hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout rounds for good. Instead, Arsenal pulled off a shockingly convincing 2-0 win. After that they beat Everton at home, then lost to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup—but even then, no one faulted them much for going out of by far the least important competition they’ll play in this year.
This was the setup going into Saturday’s game at Swansea. The game felt like an echo of the Watford one a couple weeks earlier, one that the Arsenal of recent vintage would stumble on while looking forward to the crucial away trip to Bayern on Wednesday and the North London derby next weekend. Swansea may have fallen off after an impressive start to the season, but still stood as formidable opponents.
Not only did Arsenal have their hands and minds full with the fixture at hand and the ones coming down the pipeline, they also had to deal with that most Arsenal problem: injuries. In the past couple weeks, the club has lost Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to injuries. That is practically Arsenal’s entire attacking midfield depth, wiped out in a matter of weeks.
Rather than succumb to their wounds on a difficult away trip ahead of a couple huge games, Arsenal gutted out another win. Again resembling the Watford game, the Gunners didn’t put together their most complete 90 minutes of the season, but kept at it and in an improved second half took their chances and got the win.
The old saying that championship-quality teams find ways to win games when they aren’t playing their best is an overused cliche, but it’s also true. Even the best teams in the world don’t cruise to 5-0 wins on the backs of intense, fully-committed, faultless performances every week of the season. Often what separates title winners from also-rans is the ability to squeak out a couple more 1-0 and 2-1 wins against inferior teams than their competitors do.
This is precisely the trait Arsenal have failed to exhibit during their EPL title-free decade. Usually it’s right when they start to convince you that things may be different this time when a couple midfielders pop their hamstrings and Arsenal go ahead and drop points to bottom-half teams in consecutive weeks. If they keep on grinding out wins against teams should beat like they did against Swansea, though, and if Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil continue tilting the scales in Arsenal’s favor in the more even matchups, there’s no reason to think Arsenal won’t rise way higher in the table than they’re used to en route to a most impressive second-place finish.
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