The October Interlull comes at a good time for a little Arsenal introspection -- we've seen enough of the season so far to get a sense of our possible fortunes come springtime, but not so much that we're either reaching exultant foregone conclusions or have entered into Sunderland levels of jaded hopelessness.
We decided to field some questions about the season's first quarter (and what lies beyond) and answer them. (By the way, we're not looking ahead to the January or summer transfer windows. There will be time to contemplate that as we get closer to Christmas and as Nabil Fekir recovers from knee surgery maybe we've said too much let's move on already.)
To the (first three of five) questions!
How do you feel about Arsenal's Premier League campaign to date?
Thomas Wachtel: Mostly positive, with a couple of annoyances. Every time I look at the table I still add in the three points we probably should have gotten off of West Ham on opening day, and I remain slightly perturbed that we got shafted on Aaron Ramsey's goal against Liverpool (and two more points). But over the course of the season, things like that happen. They happen even to the best teams. Hell, pretty much everyone (aside from the delusional homers at The Short Fuse dot com) had Chelsea as title favorites, and look where they are right now. It's 16th place.
For me, I'll take second place and two points out right now. We're in position. How we've gotten there doesn't really matter now. So overall, I feel pretty damn good.
Travis King: I'd feel better if we signed Derek Jeter.
Phil West: Aside from not being able to slay the Chelsea dragon again, it's been satisfying, overall. Losing to West Ham looks a lot better now than it did at the time -- they're currently sixth in the league -- and though the scoreless draw to Liverpool was pretty dreadful, the occasional fart game is going to happen. The away wins at Palace and Leicester will look better over time.
FBJ0: Overall, I'm pleased. We're positioned to make a title challenge still which is all I really ask for. Plus, the dismantling of Manchester United was probably the best and most fun win Arsenal have had in the league in maybe a decade. The West Ham and Chelsea losses sting, but I prefer to fall into recency bias so I'm quite happy.
Ted Harwood: I feel sort of like when you bite into a cheap hot dog and hit a crunchy bit that shouldn't be in the hot dog but then you spit that out and keep going and you are all like "hot dogs are amazing".
pdb: Well, sample size is a thing, so I don't really have any sort of feel for the season overall this early, except that it feels like a kid learning to ride a bike without training wheels. First your parent holds on, then your parent lets go - and once the parent lets go, you wobble and weave a lot, you fall a couple times, then - all of a sudden, like someone flipped a switch - something clicks, you get it, and before long you're tearing down the street doing wheelies, jumping curbs, and trying to impress everyone. Arsenal still seem to be in the "learning to get up after a fall" stage, so the future is pretty bright.
So, that Champions League group stage has been surprising so far -- how come, and is there hope?
FBJ0: The how come is simple: we didn't play well. There is hope though. Like we showed most notably against Manchester United Sunday and Manchester City last season, this Arsenal squad, with counterattacking maestros such as Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Theo Walcott, is probably better conceding the lion's share of possession. If we can be clinical in our chances, we might just be able to nick one off the German champions which is all but necessary considering the predicament we put ourselves in. We'll also need to hope Zagreb and Olympiakos split some points in their two head to head matchups. After falling into depression after last Wednesday's result, I'm actually pretty optimistic we'll once again make the round of 16.
Ted: We just played badly. I'm tempted to say we didn't take the talent of our opponents very seriously, and didn't focus, but who knows. I have hope only because we seem to turn it on against very good or great teams, and I feel like we can maybe steal one against Baye [sounds of chainsaws, doors breaking down, screams, muffled pounding].
Phil: I'm just going to say that I'm re-evaluating that whole David Ospina endorsement from last year.
Thomas: Champions League? What's that?
Travis: Well, the reason it's surprising is that Arsenal lost two matches everyone expected them to win. Ideally, the plan would be to squeak out seven points in the remaining four matches (a draw in one of the two Bayern Munich matches, plus winning at home versus Zagreb and away at Olympiacos). Assuming Munich wins their two other group stage matches after our encounters with them, that would leave Arsenal in second place and, miraculously, back in the Round of 16. Given our recent league form, that's not the most preposterous thinking ever, but it requires a) stealing a point versus, arguably, the best club team in the world, b) defeating two clubs who straight up punked our asses, and c) Arsene Wenger fielding the strongest team possible - regardless of looking ahead to the weekend league matches.
So while I have slight hope, I'm not exactly expecting all the moving parts to properly align themselves to solely benefit Arsenal.
pdb: I have to start this answer with a disclaimer. I usually hate when people cite intangibles as reasons for why things happen - not because they don't exist, but because they're not measurable and they shouldn't be relied on as a metric for anything.
That said, I don't think Arsenal were mentally ready for the CL this season. Wenger's famous for hiring smart players and letting them play, but the CL is a different level of play that may require more tactics and more focus than a typical Premier League game. That lesson may have been learned a bit too late this year.
Who has your Arsenal Player of the Year been so far, and why?
FBJ0: This one is tough. The easy answer here is Alexis Sanchez due to his recent form, but I think I'll go outside the box and say Gabriel. Due to Per Mertesacker's long-term illness and Laurent Koscielny's injury niggles, the Brazilian has featured a lot more so far than many would have expected and has probably been our best centerback this season. Comfortable playing either Koscielny's more aggressive or Mertesacker's more restrained role, Gabriel has really been a revelation this season. The current "Arsenal haven't allowed a league goal when Gabriel's on the pitch" stat is cool while obviously not entirely due to the Brazilian's play. It does show that Arsene Wenger has three top centerbacks he can mix and match, which will be important throughout the rest of the season.
Ted: Nacho Monreal. Dude is a rock, and probably the only player who's had consistently good-to-great performances for the entire season.
Phil: While Alexis is the flashy, goal-scoring choice, I felt and hoped that this would be Mesut Özil's breakout year, and I'm feeling better about that with each successive performance. The alley-oop pass to Alexis in the Leicester game is my favorite play of the year so far, and I'm not sure what's going to top it, unless there's another ninja Giroud-to-Wilshere goal on the horizon (and we get to play Norwich twice, so totally possible).
Thomas: Theo Walcott. I know this is a slightly weird choice, but he's finally been given what he's always wanted – the center forward spot – and he's done better there than most suspected. He's not all the way there yet, but he was one of the better players in the biggest game of the season so far (against Manchester United) and was a huge reason why we won that game. If we're to win the league he will need to score more goals, but he's already done what most people thought Arsenal needed in order to contend for a title – he's made Olivier Giroud an extremely competent backup. And he has the talent to push on from there.
Travis: Mesut Özil. He's the engine and brains behind our attack, and without him we'd struggle to get deep in the oppositions' half, let alone score.
pdb: Theo Walcott for me as well, and for the same reasons Thomas cited. Dude stole my work. Except he didn't. I was just late to this.
(Answers to questions four and five will be posted on Monday. Enjoy the Interlull!)