My last post on Arsenal, in early December, suggested that we were likely to improve significantly over the coming months as the squad settled down and injuries abated. This didn't require a crystal ball. A bumpy start to the season was always likely, given the after-effects of the World Cup and the time required to integrate new first-choice players - a process made more difficult by the international breaks in October and November as well as the many injuries. It is no coincidence that this improvement has happened after the Champions League and Euro qualifiers went into hibernation, and may also owe something to our early exit from the League Cup. The team looks to be benefiting from more time on the training ground, with reports of Alexis Sanchez's appetite for work being emblematic of more than just the Chilean's personality.
Though we've had to accommodate new absences since the start of December (Wilshere, Arteta and Debuchy), they've been in areas where we have been able to backfill competently, while the returns (Giroud, Ozil and Walcott) have significantly improved our attacking options. The progress of Hector Bellerin has vindicated Arsene Wenger's decision to let Carl Jenkinson go on loan, while the recall of Francis Coquelin has shown that a loan spell isn't a one-way ticket, a point worth remembering in respect of Joel Campbell as well as the Gooner full-back (on the other hand, Lukas Podolski already feels a distant memory, despite his popularity among the fans). The young Catalan has quickly become a fan favourite, though this, like the improvement in Monreal's reputation, owes much to a more solid midfield providing cover and freeing up the full-backs to attack.
As shown against Man City and Villa, the side now has a balance that allows it to sit back more and safely cede possession. This is being hailed as "flexibility" by the pundits, the "plan B" having apparently gone out of fashion, though we shouldn't forget that Wenger has been routinely criticised for being inflexible in the past. The solidity of the midfield owes much to Cazorla's workrate in a central role, effectively dividing the job previously done by Arteta between himself and Ramsey. With Coquelin happy to sit deep, Arsenal look less likely to be caught by balls behind the full-backs. This suggests that Sanchez will come back into the side at the expense of either Ozil or Walcott, rather than revert the midfield from a threesome to a pair. Add in Oxlade-Chamberlain and you've got four quality players to perm for two positions. Giroud and Wellbeck (plus the eager Chuba Akpom) offers rotation up front. Altogether we're looking healthy at the sharp end, which explains the Campbell and Podolski loans and the sale of Benik Afobe.
Rosicky, Wilshere and Flamini provide alternatives for the central midfield three (with Arteta to come), and we now appear to have (touch wood) enough cover at the back with the addition of Gabriel. Though the simultaneous loss of Mertesacker and Koscielny remains a risk, we're no longer skating on such thin ice, not least because Monreal (and briefly Debuchy) have shown that gaps can be plugged. Calum Chambers, who has looked a bit of a square peg at times, is likely to benefit more from time on the training pitch now than from games. Though not a straight positional swap, Krystian Bielik looks like he may be the long-term replacement for Abou Diaby in the squad, though preferably on the pitch rather than the treatment table (you have to suspect the Frenchman's Arsenal career may end in the summer when his contract is up).
The one blemish over the last 8 weeks was the defeat at Southampton (the point away at Anfield was tolerable in the circumstances), which owed a lot to Szczesny's poor decision-making. The promotion of David Ospina appears to have had a calming effect on the defence, while prompting a bizarrely orgasmic chant from the crowd (which is already getting a bit wearing). The media focus on the crafty fag in the shower (which sounds idiotic on so many levels) is perhaps Wenger's way of making a deliberate point about the Pole's immaturity. Ospina's four straight clean-sheets ought to be even more salutary (Szczesny conceded in each of his last 7 games before being dropped). Wenger's willingness to put the Pole's nose out of joint is also a clear message to the rest of the squad that no one can coast. The undemonstrative Colombian, as much as the hyperactive Chilean, may be indicative of the new Arsenal.
There will no doubt be further cock-ups, but over the course of the next 18 weeks you'd expect our overall performance to be closer to the last 8 weeks than the preceding 16 weeks from August through November. The draw of Monaco in the Champions League gives us our best chance to progress beyond the last 16 since 2010, while progress in the FA Cup against Middlesborough looks achievable. I doubt both Chelsea and Man City will implode, and the gap of 11 points looks too much to make up over 15 games, so third is still a reasonable target, probably around 76 points. Manure have gathered points without playing well, but I can't see them playing worse, so it will be tight at the end. Neither Southampton nor Spurs look like they've got the legs to finish in the top four.
Overall, we're starting to see the promise visible last season bear fruit, while the squad reinforcements have provided greater flexibility and depth. We probably still need another couple of players next summer, bearing in mind that Mertesacker doesn't look like the sort of defender capable of continuing into his mid-30s at the top level (he'll be 31 in September), and I suspect that one or both of Arteta and Flamini are likely to be released within the next 18 months. Now that the money tap has been de-iced, buying proven quality looks well within budget. Expect rumours about Mats Hummels and Lars Bender to start circulating once the transfer window closes.
We may not win anything this season, and may finish with fewer league points than last - which could lead to more anti-Wenger ranting over the summer - however I think we're heading in the right direction and should be capable of mounting a serious title challenge before the manager's current contract expires. On the other hand, and indulging my inner optimist, this could be the season when we finally overcome the memory of Paris 2006. A final in Berlin against Bayern Munich would be fun, particularly if Ozil can spare us the need for penalties.