Arsenal have fluctuated between looking indestructible and vulnerable at times this season, but a win over United next week would be an undeniable statement, writes Jonathan Wilson.
Arsenal have chance to truly silence doubters against Manchester United
Manchester United must look at the Premier League table with a sense of relief. This has been a difficult start to the season for them – even at Fulham on Saturday, they contrived to make a 3-1 win look far shakier than it should have been – and yet they stand only three points off second place.
The problem for them is Arsenal – whom they meet next Sunday – who are five points clear of second.
In this tightest of seasons in the top half of the table – second to seventh separated by a point, then United in eighth – that should feel like a potentially decisive lead, and yet it doesn’t.
Perhaps those eight seasons without a trophy have bred the sense that this is a side that lacks robustness. Perhaps it’s even the way they play – “like an orchestra” as the Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp put it this week – gives a sense of fragility.
Or perhaps it’s even just the memory of that sulphurous opening day of the season when they lost 3-1 to Aston Villa.
The condemnation of Arsenal’s transfer policy was almost universal. Fans were frustrated and journalists looked at a squad that looked desperately unbalanced and were unanimous in their verdict.
Has signing Mathueu Flamini and Mesut Ozil really changed all that?
Logic would suggest not, and the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup last week offered evidence that Arsenal’s strength in depth is less than that of one of their key rivals.
Add in the defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and a less than emphatic win over struggling Crystal Palace and it seemed the wobble was beginning.
At which Arsenal, without Flamini, produced a performance against Liverpool that, if not of exceptional quality, at least suggested they are of significantly higher calibre to Brendan Rodgers’s side.
It seems incredible that one act should have made such a difference, yet Ozil’s arrival seems to have acted as a catalyst for everybody else: there is a confidence about Arsenal that allows them to overcome the sort of hurdle they might previously have tripped over.
There seems also to have been a change in manager Arsene Wenger. He finished the game against Liverpool with the full-backs Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal in midfield – a very un-Wengerlike closing of the game down.
When Arsenal beat Napoli in the Champions League, much of the attention understandably fell on the devastating attacking football of the opening 20 minutes, but just as impressive was they way they shut the game out in the second half.
That suggests a pragmatism about this Arsenal, a return, perhaps, to Wenger’s early days at the club when there was a steel behind the filigree passing.
And yet doubts remain. What if Olivier Giroud, the only centre-forward, or Ozil, the totem, is injured? What if they have a couple of moments of bad luck and lose a game or two; have they the mental strength to recover?
Recent history means we won’t quite trust Arsenal until they have the trophy in their hands, yet a win at Old Trafford next week would put them 11 points clear of United – and all but rule David Moyes’s side out of the title race.