The foundations of Arsenal’s title fight date back to the previous capitulation.
On May 19 this year, Mikel Arteta felt compelled to point out some local truths during a meeting at his team hotel before the penultimate game of the season at Nottingham Forest.
Five days earlier, the Spaniard saw his team implode at home to Brighton, a result that effectively ended Arsenal’s title dream.
But it was not that result or that performance that had Arteta goat. The mood at the club’s London Colney training ground after that harrowing loss was clearly somber. It is said that the sessions lacked intensity. Arteta felt a deficiency of spirit.
Who could blame the players, who were heartbroken after that docile surrender to Roberto De Zerbi’s team. But that was not a problem for Arteta. That week he didn’t recognize his team and told him so before the game against Forest.
Arsenal lost 1-0 at the City Ground, a result that mathematically ended their title challenge.
Arteta knew it. But have they learned? Sunday’s euphoric victory over Manchester City has fans dreaming of the title once again. Can they last the distance?
Here, Mail Sport looks at why Arsenal’s title challenge is stronger this year and where it could fall again.
Arteta may reflect on City’s victory with pangs of “what could have been”. Saliba was imperious at the weekend and dealt mercilessly with Erling Haaland. But if only he had been available for the clash at the Etihad on April 26.
City dispatched Arsenal 4-1 to deal a fatal psychological blow. For all intents and purposes, that was the day City won the title and they did so by ruthlessly destroying Arsenal’s soft centre. Saliba could only watch in frustration, as a back injury ruled him out.
Arteta was vague on the details of Saliba’s ailment, publicly refusing to describe what the injury was or set a timetable for his return. The lack of transparency was because Saliba felt he could play. But the structural damage to his back was such that doctors could not clear him for return.
Many at the club believe that Saliba’s absence for the final 11 games of the season cost Arsenal the title. There is certainly credibility in those claims. Injury problems continue to persist.
Saliba has been playing for several weeks with a painful foot injury, a problem that led him to withdraw from the French team this week. Arteta hopes the problem goes away soon because he has seen first-hand the impact on his team when Saliba is absent.
Arsenal signed Kai Havertz and Declan Rice this summer, who are 6ft 4in and 6ft 1in respectively. It has been a deliberate strategy by Arteta and sporting director Edu, who agreed that the team lacked physicality at crucial moments last season.
They moved efficiently to address those perceived flaws and appear stronger. The victory at Crystal Palace in their second game of the season was a good example.
Far from their best, Arsenal clung to a 1-0 lead despite finishing with 10 men after Takehiro Tomiyasu’s red card in the 67th minute.
That night it was noticeable how strong the Gunners were in defending their own area under an aerial bombardment from Palace in the final minutes.
Arsenal, due to their attacking capabilities, will play against off-field teams, but thanks to a very specific recruitment strategy, they may also have a tough time.
£105m has been well spent. Rice will captain Arsenal one day, at least Arteta believes he will. It could well be the biggest difference to Arsenal who fell short in the title race last season and emerged triumphant this campaign.
Already one of the leaders of the Arsenal dressing room, it is very clear why Arteta made him his all-or-nothing signing of the summer.
Arsenal paid more than they expected and the club believed they could get him for £90 million. But the Gunners have not overpaid. If he continues on this trajectory, he will be a bargain. Rice brings control, drive, poise and tenacity to central midfield.
When Thomas Partey returns to full fitness, Rice will be freed up to take his talents further up the pitch. Rice, Partey and Martin Odegaard: is there a better engine room in England?
Toney in January?
Gabriel Jesus, Eddie Nketiah and Havertz (as a false nine) remain crucial to the Arsenal set-up. But doubts remain over whether Arsenal need someone who can score between 25 and 30 goals a season.
It is a shortcoming that Arteta and Arsenal’s recruitment team are taking very seriously. One name comes to mind: Ivan Toney. A striker that Arsenal are coveting, big time.
Toney is understood to also covet Arsenal. At first glance, Toney is a perfect fit for Arsenal. Goals are a clear selling point, but Toney’s character and physique set many requirements for Arteta.
But having spent more than £200m in the summer, is there enough in the bank to make another substantial outlay (probably around £80m) for Toney in January? If they do, it would affect his spending next summer.
Jurrien Timber will be out for most of the season due to an ACL injury suffered in the season opener against Nottingham Forest. Arsenal have already lost Bukayo Saka, Partey and Gabriel Martinelli for matches this season.
It is a testament to the team Arteta has built that they have managed without key players.
But take Rice, Saliba or Gabriel out of the team and the fans would worry. Arteta places a lot of emphasis on players being durable. For all of Saka’s brilliant attributes, his durability – his ability to play through pain – is the trait Arteta admires most.
Arteta’s regime is harsh. Training is intense, that can take its toll on the body. If Arsenal can keep their best players on the pitch then they will be City’s closest rivals.
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