So a New Year is now upon us and Arsenal are sitting pretty at the top of the league. It looks great, doesn’t it?
Their position at the summit was consolidated on Saturday by beating Newcastle 1-0 and this season’s surprise package Leicester City dropping points for the third game in a row.
Now two points clear in a season which many commentators say is Arsenal’s year, the expectation is that Arsenal will end their near eleven year wait for the Premier League title.
After Chelsea’s absolute dictatorship of top spot made last season’s league the most boring in living memory, this season has been anything but, with every team – bar Aston Villa – being more than competitive.
There’s now an exceptional quality of players across the whole league with the stand-out benefactors being Crystal Palace, Watford and Leicester.
Until now, the latter had been looking almost unstoppable. The dynamic duo of Vardy and Mahrez had set the league alight with their performances and results. Records tumbled.
The longevity of their ‘pluckiness’ was unprecedented. Never before had a team battling relegation the season before, been positioned at the top so far into the year.
In fact, it wasn’t until yesterday that Ranieri’s men were knocked off top spot out right, leaving Arsenal to fill that particular vacancy.
While a team that – aside from their own fans – were praised for their performances but ultimately written off as title contenders come May were top, Arsenal were able to go about their own business fairly quietly.
In fact, a team like Leicester being at the top of the table suited Arsenal perfectly.
Arsenal could play games without the unhelpful pressure of being top of the league, while at the same time being assured by the general concurrence that Leicester would drop off at some stage, let alone run away with the league.
It works the same in cycling. The leaders put in the hard graft throughout the race sheltering their main man from the oncoming wind only for them to emerge from the pack at the end to take the glory. And it was Arsenal being sheltered by Leicester.
Ever since that Invincibles team was dismantled and Arsenal lost the Champions League final in 2006, Arsene Wenger’s sides have been labelled as physically and mentally fragile.
There’s certainly less of that suggestion now with Arsenal clearly able to mix it up away from home (they had the best away record in 2015) and Wenger said after defeating Newcastle yesterday that it “tested the team on a mental front”.
However there’s still hints of fragility that linger. The likes of that 4-0 loss to Southampton just days after beating Manchester City in a supposed title decider.
The fear for Arsenal fans is that history shows Wenger’s teams don’t like leading from the front. In 2007/08 and 2013/14, Arsenal had long and clear leads and collapsed to third and fourth place respectively.
And now that the gunners are three points clear, the expectancy has gone up a notch. There is no Leicester City to protect them now.
For the next time they drop points, the headlines will read “Arsenal let their lead slip” or “Gap closes on Arsenal”. The intensity on the club and their long-criticised manager will only grow as the season’s end draws closer.
Instead of being in a position to win it, that squad of inexperienced Premier League winners (aside from Cech) are in a position where they mustn’t lose it. Only time and results will tell if they can stand the pressure, shrug off the labels of weakness, and stay the course.