It's been a great couple of months for the Arsenal faithful. They are still top of the league and there have been some very remarkable results. Beating Dortmund in Dortmund. The first half hour of the Napoli game at the Emirates was one of the best displays of football this season. Beating Liverpool and keeping a clean sheet when it was widely predicted that Sturridge and Suarez would have a field day. For the low points, there have been mitigating circumstances. The United game where the team was decimated at short notice by the flu. Losing to Chelsea in the League Cup in a second string game where an evidently unfit Nicklas Bendtner was strutting his stuff. The game against City where despite being beaten outrightly, some very questionable calls suggest the referee had a nightmare. Yes, I am fully cognizant of the fact that in football, as in life one has to be ruthless and steer far from the comfort of falling to excuses.
My writing this is inspired by a question I saw posed wondering if Arsenal came third and ended trophyless, could it be classed as a successful season. Unequivocally Yes! Take your mind back to the summer. The consensus before a ball was kicked being that this would be the season Arsenal dropped out of the big 4. Michael Owen, a man who serves as evidence that playing football at the top level and winning some laurels is no guarantee of a sound knowledge of the game had them at 5th. In November, despite evidence to suggest contrary he still stood by his prediction. Short man syndrome at work. The Guardian's group of writers also predicted they would come 5th. As did the BBC's Phil McNulty and motor mouth, Joey Barton. In fairness, the narrative was in their favor. The much mooted Gonzalo Higuain deal fell through and it made a very awkward experience to hear him booed when Napoli were in town for the Emirates Cup. The first game of the season saw them losing to Villa. Even the more sensible Arsenal fans I know were upset that at a time when they could have looked to steal a march on their rivals who all had to deal with some upheaval were annoyed that it had it come to meltdown season. Spurs weren't going to be competition though. As Roy Keane, a wise man said recently "Tottenham would always disappoint you".
Even if the title isn't won this season, it would go down as an unmitigated success. It was unimaginable that they could have the best defence in the league at this point. The feeling being that, despite being a very talented team there was a habitual tendency to suffer brain farts and give away very avoidable goals. Last season, Arsenal made individual defensive errors every 93 minutes. This season, it's risen to one every 127 minutes. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are the premier centre back combination. Aaron Ramsey showed signs of progress in the second half of last season but he has come onto his own this term. He has 6 assists, amongst a group of players with the 3rd most in the league. He has scored 8 goals in the league this season. The only non forward with more being the beast that is Yaya Toure. Until his recent injury layoff, he was the most prolific tackler in the league bettered only by purely defensive players like Lucas Leiva, Mile Jedinak and Claudio Yacob. Last season, there was no Arsenal player in the PFA team of the season. This season, it is likely that a core of Gunners would be in. Wojciech Szczesny and Mertesacker can lay claim by holding the highest number of clean sheets in the league. Ramsey has grown to a master of universality to channel the words of statistics blogger, Michael Cox. Assist champion, Mesut Ozil is 2nd on the assists chart and could also be featured. These are all marks of improvement that Arsenal fans can take joy from.
Moreover, when one compares them to the teams they are competing against, it appears a greater achievement for them to still be in the conversation. Taking one approach propagated by the sports economist, Stefan Szymanski the most accurate predictor of a team's league position is its wage bill. His finding stemming from studying data between 1978 and 2010. As at, April 2013, Arsenal had the 4th highest wage bill in the league. This would suggest that last season, they finished where they should have. For them to be top at this stage means they have significantly over performed thus far. Using another approach to highlight the resources of the teams challenging for the title, I decided to add up the transfer value (the amount for which they were purchased) of the most featured 11 players relative to their positions in the team and the formations they play ( For instance, the two centre backs with the most appearances, Man City using 442 etc) . The figures are below:
Manchester City: 182 million
Arsenal: 107.27 million
Chelsea: 190.05 million
City have no youth team product featured, Arsenal have 3 (Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs) whilst Chelsea have just one in John Terry. Based on the evidence I provide, it is clear that this season has been one of improvement for the Gunners. On one Jay Z tune, rapper Jay Z says "This sh*t weird/ We ain't even supposed to be here" referring to the idea of two men from two of the more deprived communities of America being in Paris hobnobbing with the fashion glitterati. Jay Z, reputed to be an Arsenal fan might as well have been speaking on their presence at the top of table. They haven't done this well in a very long time. It is to the credit of Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould and that is something that should gladden their fans. It suggests that should this title challenge be too soon, they would be better equipped next season. And it would be the first time in a while, they would be going into the coming season with some optimism.
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 EPL Index, Arsenal Season so Far Review
 Michael Cox, 'The Masters of Universality', ESPN FC
Mean Lean's Response
Good article, thank you.
We have progressed this season and that is what any football club should ask for when coming into a new season. There is a good reason why we are not the favourites to win the title this season and that is obvious. It is also obvious why Chelsea and Manchester City have gone from average Premier League teams to some of the strongest in Europe. We cannot compete with them financially just as the likes of Swansea cannot compete with us so you have to beat those teams in other areas. Whether that be coaching, planning or whatever. Even though it is still insanely difficult to overcome teams who are able to hoard players and send them on loan just because they can. When it comes to injuries, suspensions and rotation teams like Arsenal and Liverpool simply cannot compete.
Credit must go to Arsene Wenger, Steve Bould and the coaching staff for putting us in this position in February as it will be the next time we play again. The route we have to take to get a team close enough to compete with those rich clubs is far more difficult and far longer to execute. How much would an Aaron Ramsey of today cost on the market? how about a Jack Wilshere or a Kieran Gibbs? It is why I've always said, keeping our players has been more important than buying new players in the past.
Luckily we are in a better position to keep our players now thus having greater stability. Is it a coincidence that since the new commercial deals we have been able to keep our players, buy Mesut Özil and be involved in a title race for the first time since 2011? You'd have to be pretty convincing to convince me otherwise.
While I accept that this is as good a chance as ever to win the league with big changes happening at all of our rivals, the good news is that Arsene has a squad built to improve. So many of our players are within a similar age group and are young enough to have good scope to develop individually as well as the team unit.
Let's hope the quality of our excellent manager can continue to bridge the huge financial gap.