Arsenal appear to have turned a corner, and Saturday’s match with Chelsea may have come at a perfect time as the Gunners remain undefeated after five Premier League matches and have looked particularly sharp.
For a club that has been burdened with questions about their form and their direction, there is reason to be optimistic at the Emirates Stadium.
The defensive unit might be the biggest reason Arsenal have gotten off to solid start. The only two goals that the club have conceded thus far came on strikes that goalkeepers Wojciech Szczesny and Vito Mannone probably should have handled better.
In previous seasons, manager Arsene Wenger had been let down by players like Emmanuel Eboue, who made embarrassing flops and some brutally silly errors, or by the baffling ineptitude of Sebastien Squillaci. Eboue has since moved on to Galatasaray for £4 million, while Squillaci barely sees time playing in League Cup action.
Laurent Koscielny was fortunate against Manchester City on Sunday when his poor clearance in the penalty box went straight to Sergio Aguero, but the Argentine forward delivered a sharp strike that just went wide of the far post.
Koscielny’s mistake ultimately didn’t cost Arsenal, and represented a rare error on the part of the France international. Earlier in the match at Etihad Stadium, the center back delivered a fierce shot that looked it was delivered by a seasoned striker rather than from a defender with just five goals in his Premier League career.
Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker looks much improved from last season, and Thomas Vermaelen, who returns after illness, remains a consistent contributor. Arsenal’s center backs appear to be building towards the stable force that the club once boasted with Tony Adams and Sol Campbell.
The fullbacks might be the bigger story. With Bacary Sagna sidelined with a broken leg, and Andre Santos relegated to the bench, Wenger has received more than acceptable production out of youngsters Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson. Both have had their share of injuries in their brief careers, but not only are the duo playing in good health but they have made few mistakes and appear very comfortable within Wenger’s system.
More of the club’s recent success can be attributed to a pair of Spaniards. When Arsenal lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to summer transfers in 2011, the Arsenal midfield appeared to have been absent of not only talent but depth.
But reinforcements showed up with the addition of Mikel Arteta, and the Gunners boast one of the biggest bargains of the summer of 2012 as Santi Cazorla has received high praise for his exceptional passing and dribbling skills.
For roughly £17 million, Cazorla has proven to be a better value so far than the £24 million Manchester City paid for Nasri, and the £35 million that Barcelona paid for Fabregas.
Also capable of playing out wide, Cazorla has been a revelation playing in a central creative role, supplying the likes of Lukas Podolski and Gervinho.
Arteta has done a more than serviceable job in his time with the Gunners, and his consistency has been a relief for a squad that is often in flux due to injuries. A quiet performer, Arteta rarely turns the ball over, and is an asset on free-kick situations.
Wenger may have the enviable problem of balancing time for his stacked midfield when Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky recover from injuries. The midfielders have exceeded expectations this campaign and might be due for even better play once they receive proper rest and time to prepare.
Young midfielders like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, and Francis Coquelin continue to show signs of improvement, and the more experienced Abou Diaby is finally making his presence felt after a considerable absence due to injury.
The attack might be a work in progress, with Olivier Giroud still finding his feet after arriving from Montpellier, and Gervinho continues to be hamstrung by inconsistency. Podolski, however, has looked confident and has showed the prowess needed to handle a rigorous schedule in the fast-paced Premier League, couple with midweek Champions League outings.
When the Gunners host Chelsea on Saturday, it will offer a challenge of facing a squad that has also been on top of their game. The Blues have four wins and one draw, and have also only conceded two goals.
But Chelsea have not faced stiff competition this season, and will be tested themselves against an Arsenal side that are proving to detractors that they have moved beyond the departures of Robin van Persie and Alex Song, and remain the type of club that are eager to make a statement this season.
Of Chelsea’s nine goals, three have come from penalty kicks, and the only road matches the Blues have played were against lower-tier clubs Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers.
Roberto Di Matteo’s squad won’t underestimate Arsenal, but their match on Saturday is also a test of their own ability to succeed against quality competition. In a home match against Juventus in Champions League group play, the Blues conceded two unanswered goals in the draw and let the Serie A club take 17 shots.
Arsenal will likely be prepared in their first serious home test this season. Despite the absence of Wilshere, Sagna, Szczesny and Rosicky, the Gunners have a collection of quality players who are thriving as a unit, and should not be intimidated by Chelsea’s high-priced contingent.
For a club that often makes headlines for the wrong reasons, Arsenal have reason to adopt a positive attitude about their future.
Grade After Five Games: A-