Monday, February 4, 2008

Does Arsenal Have What It Takes To Win The Title?

Arsenal went to the top of the Premier League last weekend after defeating Manchester City and watching Manchester United slip up at Tottenham.

The win took Arsene Wenger's team to 60 points in 25 games, two points ahead of last season's champions United and six ahead of title-challengers Chelsea. With 13 league games left, anything could happen. Does the Arsenal squad have the necessary depth, belief, and skill to sustain its title charge for until May? Let's take a closer look:

Depth: Arsenal's squad is not the biggest, but the quality of the club's second-tier players is more than enough to make up for an apparent lack of numbers. Wenger has often been criticised for his seeming reluctance to splash cash during transfer windows. This January was no different as Wenger failed to bring in a single player despite losing Lassana Diarra to Portsmouth and Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, and Alex Song to the Africa Cup of Nations. The Arsenal manager claimed that he did not want to burden his squad with too many players when his African stars returned from international duty.

Despite the outcry of Arsenal fans who wanted to welcome a center-back to replace Toure, Arsenal have won three of their four Premier League games since Toure, Eboue, and Song departed. With only one more league game to play before the African trio returns, it seems as though Philippe Senderos, Justin Hoyte, Armand Traore, and Johan Djourou provide enough cover for our defence in case of injury.

The Gunners also have one of the deepest midfield line-ups in the league. The recent form of Mathieu Flamini has been enough to keep Brazil captain Gilberto Silva from starting many matches, and Neves Denilson, Eboue, and the improving Abou Diaby are all ready to cover for Alex Hleb, Cesc Fabregas, and Tomas Rosicky.

Up front, Emmanuel Adebayor has proved his worth at the right time. The departure of Thierry Henry and a long-term injury to Robin van Persie could have been a major crisis, but Adebayor's brilliance has lifted the squad. With Eduardo beginning to settle in and Nicklas Bendtner showing his potential, van Persie's absence is barely noticeable and Theo Walcott's mediocrity can be forgotten.

Although Arsenal's official website lists only 25 numbered first team players, the Arsenal squad has a strength in depth enough to make up for any number of potentially dangerous injuries.

Belief: Arsenal's youngsters have the mental strength necessary to win the title. Skipper William Gallas, along with a large number of his players, have often stated their desire to win the title this season, and often show their aspirations on the pitch. They always seem capable of pulling the game round even on the rare occasions when they concede early on. In fact, 20 of Arsenal's 52 league goals have come in the final 15 minutes of a match.

One of the most exciting games of the season was a 3-2 Carling Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers, in which some of the Gunners' younger players showed their mental and physical endurance. Early goals from Abou Diaby and Eduardo saw Arsenal 2-0 up within half an hour of the start, but a goal from Roque Santa Cruz grabbed one back for Blackburn before half time. Santa Cruz bagged his second around the hour mark to force Arsenal into extra time. However, despite the mental fatigue of having surrendered a two goal lead and the physical fatigue of an added 30 minutes of play time, Arsenal went on to win the game when Eduardo scored his second.

Just as the squad never gives up on a game, not a single one of Wenger's boys will give up on the title challenge. Arsenal are the comeback kings, and having regained the lead last weekend, they are sure to show their amazing belief required to challenge for the title.

Skill: Although they are young, Arsenal's players are some of the most skilful in the league. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy have both proved to be rock-solid in defending. Their offensive capabilities are what makes them the best full-back pair in England. While neither has scored a goal for the club, the Frenchmen have confounded defenders and assisted their strikers in scoring goals, while shielding the Arsenal goal.

Flamini's box-to-box action has finally earned him the respect of Arsenal fans. The 23-year-old's pinpoint tackles have often prevented opposition goals and Flamini has even added a few goals of his own to the mix. Fabregas and Hleb are two of the most accurate passers on the planet. Hleb's skill with the ball at his feet and Fabregas' newly-discovered penchant for scoring goals makes the pair invaluable to Arsenal's cause.

Emmanuel Adebayor has improved dramatically since last season. No longer a wasteful finisher, the Togolese striker's incredible leap has added a number of headed goals. His silky control is incredible for such a tall footballer and his powerful shot has seen him contribute 18 league goals this season.

Arsenal's starting XI is one of the most skilful groups of footballers in the world, and with the depth and belief to back up their footballing prowess, they should be taken as contenders, if not favourites, to win the 2008 Premier League title.