Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.
Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.
However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.
Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.
Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.
Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.
United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.
Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.
Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.
The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.
Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.
Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.
Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.
The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.
Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.
Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.
To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.
This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.
Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.
In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.
This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.
Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.
So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.
Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.
If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.
- You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89