Mesut Özil and Unai Emery celebrate their success. graphic by Conner Maggio

F.C. Arsenal becomes viable contender

Soccer journalist Chris Lierly details the causes and implications of F.C. Arsenal’s meteoric rise in the Premier League.

For many soccer clubs, the hardware won in a perfect season can end up setting the bar so high that every other season ends up getting compared to that historic one. For Liverpool, it is the 2004 year they won the Champions League, for Bayern Munich it is the 2013 year they did the same and most recently it is the 2016–17 Premier League campaign wherein Manchester City became title winners apparent around halfway through the season. In that run, the Citizens seemed to break records every other week, making them one of the most prolific teams in the Premier League since the Invincibles.

In the 2003–04 Premier League campaign, Arsenal went 26-0-12, meaning that they ran the intense gauntlet that is the Premier League without losing a single game. Arsenal’s former manager Arsene Wenger was the man who built and guided the team now dubbed the Invincibles, often deemed the best team in Premier League history.

The infamous manager was often believed to have only kept his job so long because of his run with the 03-04 team. However, with what has now been deemed a forcing out by the Arsenal brass this season has been the first for the North London club without their most defining figure and searching for a new identity as a club.

With the manager spot open at the Emirates, Arsenal needed to sign a new manager, but luckily, Wenger’s exit was almost certain before the season was 15 matches in. That should have given them plenty of time to scope out the field of unemployed and qualified managers to pick from once Wenger finally left at the end of the season in May.

Instead, they chose the former Paris Saint Germain manager Unai Emery. Emery’s replacement at the Parc des Princes by Thomas Tuchel was seen as a godsend for the Parisians, so it was hard to understand why Arsenal chose the embattled overly tactical Spanish manager.

For the past few years, the entire Arsenal system has been built around two attacking players, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil. The Chilean winger and the German attacking-mid gave life to a squad that were often on the outside looking in of the top teams in the Premier League since their arrival between 2013 and 2014.

All of that changed when, after multiple missed transfer windows, Sanchez got the exit to Manchester United that he wanted. Arsenal knew they had to reload their attack and bought Borussia Dortmund’s star striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Lyon’s goal machine, Alexandre Lacazette. Buying two strikers, with Aubameyang likely past his best years, like the hiring of Emery, seemed an odd move for a team desperately in need of a fresh start.

Despite those choices, which found criticism from pundits and a fanbase in need of something to remind them of the Invincibles season, Arsenal has fared much better this season than anyone could have expected. They currently sit fifth in the Premier League, behind Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, in that order. This means they lead Mourinho’s Manchester United and are within striking distance of their hated rival, Tottenham. Additionally, they trail the leaders by only six points, which is a much tighter race amongst the top five than last year at this point.

Arsenal has done the unthinkable by winning consistently. Week after week they have performed at a level that allows them to put away mid- and lower-level Premier League teams while also competing against the other top teams. Whether their current form comes as a result of their new tactics-focused manager, the new talent in the attacking area or just a lucky streak of fortunate play, as many have suggested, it looks like Arsenal have found themselves a place in the Premier League’s top teams for now.

Post Author: Chris Lierly