The doubters are ever so quietly beginning to subside, yet they still lurk. After almost 10 years without a Premier League title and having rarely seriously threatened to end that run since, some will take yet more convincing of Arsenal’s credentials to lift the trophy come May.
But, while he responded with agitation to the skeptics this week, Arsene Wenger’s central concern will be that the doubts are eradicated from his own dressing room. It has been nine years since Arsenal hoisted silverware aloft of any kind and the players at the club, with one exception in the form of Mesut Ozil, have grown accustomed to Champions League qualification being the limit of their ambitions.
Quality and squad depth are all crucial parts of a successful title run, but just as valuable is a winning mentality. As is being shown under David Moyes, Manchester United did not have the best squad last season, but under Sir Alex Ferguson they were by far the strongest group of players mentally. When Jose Mourinho rolled into Chelsea the first time around, his first trophy was the League Cup, a mere afterthought on his roll of honors. But it gave his largely medal-barren squad the belief in their ability and desire to win more.
Arsenal have done little wrong so far, but the next month will be the crucial test for whether they can turn their current four-point lead into an advantage come the business-end of the campaign. It is not just the difficulty of Arsenal’s fixtures, but the frequency of them that will test the Gunners to the full.
In 31 days, Arsenal will face seven matches, starting with a home match on Sunday against an Everton side that lie in fifth place and come into the contest on the back of a memorable victory at Old Trafford. Immediately following the visit of Roberto Martinez’s side, Arsenal head to Italy to take on Napoli, still needing to avoid a heavy loss to guarantee making it to the knockout phase and requiring a point to clinch the valuable top spot in their group.
Next come back-to-back matches against the sides that look set to be their closest challengers for the title. First Arsenal face what has been the toughest proposition in the Premier League this season: Manchester City at the Etihad. While there are signs that Manuel Pellegrini’s side are emerging from their slump on the road, they have been imperious on home soil -- winning all seven games and scoring 29 goals in the process.
Their only truly tough test away from home in the Premier League so far this campaign resulted in a defeat at Manchester United. It was a performance where Arsenal were not outplayed by the champions, but something was missing from the Gunners, be it their belief that they could impose their game at Old Trafford or whether it was simply fatigue from having won at Borussia Dortmund earlier in the week. Arsenal will have to show that they hold no fear when going to City. Emerging with a positive result of any kind will be a huge statement of intent.
Chelsea and Mourinho then follow in a match that will be both a mental and physical examination. In their barren years, no side exposed Arsenal’s fragility more than Chelsea, as personified by the scoring record against them of Didier Drogba. Mourinho is still trying to give his current Chelsea squad an identity, but he will likely try to roll back the years when facing the club whose title he took in his first season in England.
There will be little time for either celebrations or recriminations with the hectic festive period on the immediate horizon when Arsenal play West Ham, Newcastle United and Cardiff City in the space of seven days. One of the main question marks over whether Arsenal can maintain their current form concerns their relative lack of squad depth. That is a particular worry for a club that has regularly had an above average number of injuries in recent years.
Wenger rolled the dice with rotation for the first real time this season in making five changes against Hull City. On that occasion, it proved highly successful with Olivier Giroud, in particular, able to rest, and watch Arsenal still put on a fine display to maintain momentum. Still, further and tougher examinations of his strength in depth await.
It is this period that is likely to inform Wenger of whether he needs to delve into the transfer market in January and will also give both pundits and his own squad a much better idea about whether Arsenal can truly maintain their soaring early pace.