“Nobody expected this”. Even manager Mikel Arteta is surprised at Arsenal’s Premier League season so far.
The Gunners have secured top spot of the Premier League over the Christmas period for the first time since 2007. A points tally of 37 points from a possible 42 is their best ever start to any top-flight season. All of the previous teams to have amassed the same points tally have gone on to win the title.
Not even their biggest critics can deny that Arsenal are now title contenders, but the question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they maintain this excellent start after Christmas?’
Those critics will point towards ‘no’ due to the topic of squad depth. “The difference between Manchester City and Arsenal is that City can lose a few players and play exactly the same way and can afford to rotate,” said Sky Sports pundit Micah Richards in October.
“If Arsenal lose Gabriel Jesus, an Oleksandr Zinchenko or a Thomas Partey, all of a sudden they become a different team.”
After all, a lack of squad depth derailed Arsenal’s end to last season. The loss of Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney in the spring meant Arteta juggled his back-up options at left-back and central midfield.
Arteta could not decide between Granit Xhaka, Cedric Soares or Nuno Tavares to replace Tierney, indecision which created inconsistency and instability. The Arsenal manager also went with Albert Sambi Lokonga as Partey’s back-up before dropping him for Mohamed Elneny after poor performances. In the first three games after Partey and Tierney’s injuries, Arsenal lost three games on the bounce.
It is clear that Arsenal have a preferred starting eleven under Arteta this season. The Gunners have played the same line-up in their first three games of the campaign, the north London derby victory over Tottenham and the last two games before the World Cup break. When everyone is available, that is Arteta’s strongest and most trusted team.
But last season, the Arsenal manager was made to pay for not having enough in reserve to support his first-team regulars. So, do the same depth issues remain as they gun for the title?
Most concern: central midfield and right wing
After no European football last season, it was imperative for Arsenal to beef up their squad over the summer with their spot in the Europa League confirmed – especially considering that injury curses tend to hit the Gunners on an annual basis.
And Arsenal’s summer business hints at there being two positions where the north Londoners are still short.
A Transfer Deadline Day move for midfielder Douglas Luiz failed to materialise while there was reported late interest in Wolves winger Pedro Neto. Failure to get the two targets means central midfield, more specifically Partey’s role, and right wing look like areas of concern for Arsenal.
There is reason to plan around a potential Partey absence. Before a run of eight straight league starts to end this first part of the season, the midfielder had only featured in 58 per cent of Arsenal’s Premier League games since arriving from Atletico Madrid in October 2020, meaning he is not reliable enough to be considered available every week.
Lokonga has already deputised for Partey’s injuries already this season, but Arteta’s team has more control when the Ghanaian starts, conceding nearly twice as many goals without him compared to with him – while their attack is also enhanced when he plays.
Meanwhile, too much was asked of Bukayo Saka at right wing last season. The England winger was left without any real competition capable of challenging him for a starting spot, leaving him as the only Gunners player – and one of just four in the top flight last season – to feature in all 38 Premier League matches.
The goalscoring exploits that Saka has now – five goals and six assists in his last 12 Arsenal starts – faded away towards the end of an exhausting campaign last term, with zero open play goals and two assists in the final 10 league games of the season.
Should Saka succumb to injury during this campaign, then new signings Fabio Vieira and Marquinhos are the only real options, alongside Reiss Nelson. That’s if Arteta wants to keep Jesus in a centre forward role, instead of the wide position he often found himself at Manchester City.
Even then, Vieira – like Jesus – is most comfortable as a central player while Marquinhos, 19, who has enjoyed some promising Europa League starts in recent weeks, might be considered too raw.
Nelson, meanwhile, showed his potential with two goals in Arsenal’s 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest at the end of last month, but he has only been trusted with one minute of Premier League football since then.
‘Amber’ concern: striker, centre-back and goalkeeper
The impact of Jesus at Arsenal following his £45m move from Manchester City has been clear to see both on and off the pitch.
Many in the Arsenal squad have spoken about how the Brazilian striker and Zinchenko have brought a “winning mentality” from City over the summer – while Jesus, as a centre forward, has been the Gunners’ player for the big moment with five goals and six assists in his opening 14 games.
But if Jesus was to start missing games for Arsenal then it would fall on Eddie Nketiah to take up the mantle up front. With five goals in seven league games at the end of last season, the 23-year-old showed that he can start regularly for the Gunners – but he has struggled to challenge Jesus for a starting spot since the summer.
Nketiah has managed three goals in seven non-Premier League games so he hasn’t lost his sharpness, but he is yet to find the net in 12 Premier League games from the bench.
While an impressive Saturday Night Football cameo against Fulham in August – where he played alongside Jesus in a front two – demonstrated the English striker’s the ability to impact games, the No 9 position is another area where Arsenal cannot afford to lose their top talent.
At centre-back, Saliba and Gabriel have been ever-present, with Ben White pushed out to a right-back role and impressing.
The opportunity to move White back into the centre gives Arsenal some flexibility should one of Saliba or Gabriel need a rest or a spell on the treatment table, especially with Arsenal having so many options at right-back.
But should Arteta want to keep White on the right, then only Rob Holding lies in waiting to come in at centre-half. While Holding is an experienced option having been at the club for six years, he doesn’t have the quality that his other centre-back team-mates have. Holding’s red card against Tottenham in May’s north London derby shows the risks that come with the 27-year-old.
In goal, Aaron Ramsdale has an excellent record when it comes to avoiding injury in Arsenal colours but the Gunners have downgraded in their back-up shot stopper department this year.
Last season, Bernd Leno took on the gloves when Ramsdale was unavailable last season and while Matt Turner has enjoyed a run in the Europa League, question marks still remain over how comfortable he is with Arteta’s possession-based style at the back.
Areas for optimism
Arsenal appear to have plenty of options at full-back, meaning a repeat of the problems caused by Tierney’s absence last season is unlikely to occur.
On the right, White’s emergence as a right-back option means Takehiro Tomiyasu’s minutes can be managed better, with Cedric Soares available as additional full-back cover.
On the left, Zinchenko’s arrival means Tierney has been forced to share playing time so far this season, while Tomiyasu and Cedric also have experience of covering on the opposite flank if required.
Arsenal will see eight of their ‘regular starting XI’ head off to Qatar for the World Cup, but they will also be boosted in some ways by the mid-season break, with Emile Smith Rowe due to return from injury to add numbers in midfield and attack.
After the World Cup, Arsenal will also have the January transfer window to address any depth concerns that could arise.
It is difficult to predict with any certainty what affect the mid-season tournament in Qatar will have on Arsenal or any of their Premier League rivals, purely given the unprecedented nature of the campaign. Manchester City and co will have their own contingent in the Middle East, although Erling Haaland will not be there.
With Arsenal failing to win the title in the last five seasons where they have spent Christmas Day at the top of the table – and one of the best teams in the world keen to usurp them at the summit – the Gunners may need a bit of good fortune, as well as good planning, if they are to be named champions.
Arsenal’s post-World Cup fixtures
West Ham (H) – Premier League, December 26 – 8pm kick-off
Brighton (A) – Premier League, December 31 – live on Sky Sports, 5.30pm kick-off
Newcastle (H) – Premier League, January 3, live on Sky Sports, 8pm kick-off
FA Cup third round tie – weekend of January 7/8
Tottenham (A) – Premier League, weekend of January 14/15
Manchester United (H) – Premier League, weekend of January 21/22
Potential FA Cup fourth round tie – weekend of January 28/29
Everton (A) – Premier League, weekend of February 4/5