We're a little short of a quarter of the way through the season and Arsenal are in second place in the Premier League table, 2 points behind Citeh. Objectively, that is a healthy position, but it hasn't felt like good times until the recent 3-0 blitz of Manure. In truth, most teams have been inconsistent, hence only 4 points separate the top six. Last season, the comparable spread was 10 points and Arsenal were 11 behind the leaders, lurking in 7th place. Together with Citeh, Palace, the Spuds and Watford, we have conceded the least number of goals, 7, which is 1 fewer than Chelski as table-toppers had conceded after 8 games last year. No one is talking about a golden age of defending. I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that we will get over 80 points by season-end, for the first time since 2008, though it's impossible to tell whether that will be enough to clinch the title. I suspect 2nd is a more likely outcome. Of the competition, Citeh look best equipped to finish as champions, and Manure have rediscovered the knack of collecting points through modest performances against modest opponents. I suspect a "newbie" may end up in the final top-four, if only because I really want to see Chelski finish 5th or lower, with a frothing Mourinho blaming "dark forces".
On the pitch, the gradual improvement in Arsenal's form has owed much to Sanchez finding his groove, not so much in scoring goals but in being more judicious and effective in his dribbling. In early games, with both Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the side, we tried too many dribbles in unpromising positions, which slowed the game down and compressed space in the opposition penalty area. As the victory over Manure showed, we are most potent when we pass quickly and out-manoeuvre the opposition defence, creating space in the area for a pass or shot (that the first two goals were both passed into the net was noteworthy). The relegation of both the Ox and Giroud to the subs bench, in favour of Ramsey and Walcott, shows that Wenger is trying to release the handbrake. The Ox is capable of playing a faster game, so he will get more appearances, but the increasingly-forlorn Giroud looks like a player whose peak may have come and gone as opponents counter his aerial ability with two centre-backs (one jumping early to block his leap), safe in the knowledge that he can't turn away and beat them both for pace if the ball breaks.
One of the persistent criticisms of Arsenal under Wenger is that the team is too predictable, which is variant on the ever-popular "no plan B" trope. Zoran Mamic, the Dinamo Zagreb manager, was the latest to air the criticism after the Croatian side's victory in the Champions League, stating "they did exactly what we agreed they would do". Of course, knowing what your opponent will do is not necessarily an achievement in itself. All teams are predictable: the issue is whether you can counter what you know they will do. I'm sure Gordon Strachan and Martin O'Neill warned their players that Robert Lewandowski would be Poland's danger-man. Arsenal's problem is not that they do what is expected, but that they too often don't do it well enough, sometimes even going so far as to indulge in self-sabotage, e.g. Giroud's red card in the Zagreb game. That said, the players' naivety against Monaco last season and Olympiakos this was reminiscent of Benfica in 1991, which should remind us that a glass jaw is not a speciality of the Wenger era.
The most successful teams are those that can improvise a solution when they are initially thwarted, and who can also pace the game to prevent the opponent building up a head of steam. Wenger's modus operandi has been to improve what individual players are good at, instill trust and "belief", and encourage that improvisation, rather than stick to a rigid game plan or specific tactics. This is arguably an approach more suited to a club that buys "galacticos", capable of individual game-changing interventions, yet Wenger has made it work with more limited players during the years when money was tight, largely through an emphasis on ball-retention as a way of regulating the match. The purchase in recent years of players like Ozil and Sanchez is clearly geared to adding spontaneity, but it has also led to a reduction in ball possession. I think this is deliberate, and I think it throws light onto Wenger's decision to not re-sign Fabregas, who has always been more suited to slower build-ups. Similarly, Welbeck appears to have been bought more for his speed in transitions than his strength in holding-up the ball.
Having reached a peak in the 2011/12 season of 60.1%, our possession has been steadily dropping since and was down to 55.7% last season (the 3rd highest in the league). I'm not suggesting that the atypical 38% at home to Manure this season will be a new norm, as that obviously owed everything to racing into a 3-0 lead, but there are signs that we are reverting to a more counter-attacking style for periods of the game, which was perhaps best exemplified this season in the 2-1 away victory at Tottenham in the League Cup. Subsequent to the home defeat by Benfica, George Graham took Arsenal to two European finals (and one trophy) playing a more defensive game reliant on breakaway goals by Ian Wright. Wenger has also employed a more counter-attacking style in the past, notably in the run to the Champions League final in 2006. The current incarnation appears to be more counter-attacking by design, rather than the product of circumstance, which is why the fast passing and improvisation of Ozil and Sanchez is key to the team's makeup.
The theme of the summer for the Premier League as a whole was "big money, small names". Wenger clearly wants to buy top-quality, and I'm sure another centre-forward is still part of his plans, but is probably right that the very best simply aren't available at present. Brendan Rogers departure has been accompanied by much chuntering about the large sums spent on players who failed to replace Suarez, Gerrard and Sterling, but the lesson from this surely is that players are over-priced in the EPL, not that Rogers (or the now-infamous Liverpool transfer committee) is a poor judge of a footballer. Talking of the new fella, I've never understood the attraction of Jurgen Klopp for many Arsenal fans, beyond the air of continental sophistication and the charming patter. His pressing game and "heavy metal" attacking looks remarkably like the sort of gung-ho that Arsenal are criticised for when they concede a late breakaway goal in Europe after turning the dial up to 11 in the closing stages of a must-win match. The worry for Liverpool fans must be that he is a one-trick pony whose game-plan now lacks the element of surprise.
The story of the season's first quarter has been Chelski's travails. Mourinho's "specialist in failure" barb has rebounded as he has shown himself to be paranoid and petulant when confronted with a failing situation: he is the opposite of a specialist in failure, but not in the way he meant. As will no doubt be proven at Sunderland, the English league's current top specialist in failure is Sam Allardyce. It could be argued that Mourinho doesn't stick around clubs for very long precisely because he is unable to handle setbacks. He can only do one thing well (squeeze the life out of a match and bully a goal) and denied the right circumstances he is adrift. Over the years when funds were being diverted to the new stadium, Wenger showed himself to be a specialist in avoiding failure by meeting minimum reasonable expectations - i.e. a top-four finish. "A specialist in modest success" is perhaps too subtle a dig to expect from the Portugeezer, but his binary worldview - you either succeed completely or you fail utterly - appears to reflect his own anxieties more than a reasoned opinion of others.
After a setback, Wenger looks like a disappointed prune, whereas Mourinho looks like a man about to go postal. Thank heavens Ashley Cole took his air-rifle to Rome with him. Wenger's selective vision is a standing joke, but (as with Ferguson) it shows a determination not to be mastered by events but to instead retain his strategic independence. This is not denial (you can be sure he will see the event from multiple angles when he pores over the video) but resistance to the agenda of others. In contrast, Mourinho grapples with the event to the point of embarrassed silence as he tries to refashion reality - e.g. his absurd defence of Diego Costa. I expect Chelski to sort themselves out and start to climb the table. However, I also expect them to remain vulnerable to defeat, because their defence is shallow in quality and both Terry and Ivanovic look like they're entering a swift decline, so I suspect (or hope) that they will fall short of the redemption of a top-four finish, which may be sufficient to launch the special one on his next adventure.