For the last decade, there has been a familiar feel to every Premier League season. Chelsea or one of the Manchester teams lifts the trophy. The little teams battle in the relegation zone. And Arsenal finishes third or fourth.
But with this season almost half over, a look at the standings prompts a double or triple take. The Christmas leader is Leicester City, which was 14th last year after 10 years in the lower divisions. And lurking 2 points behind is Arsenal, which is bidding to win its first league title since 2003-4.
Leicester’s performance is so unlikely that few seem to believe it. Despite its lead, it is about 10-1 to win the title with English bookmakers: Their favorite is Arsenal.
Arsenal has recently been known for being a model of consistency rather than a winner. In addition to 10 straight third- or fourth-place finishes, Arsenal has advanced to the last 16 of the Champions League for all 13 years of the current format. (That continued this season, as Arsenal produced a 3-0 victory at Olympiacos on the final day of the group stage when that was required to keep the streak alive.) But the titles have not come.
Things finally started to improve two seasons ago when Arsenal ended a nine-year trophy drought by winning the F.A. Cup, and it repeated last season.
This season, the elusive league title, which seemed almost permanently out of the Gunners’ reach, is finally a very realistic possibility, especially after a 2-1 win over Manchester City on Monday brought Arsenal right up behind Leicester in the table.
The rise of the Foxes, led by the much mocked manager, Claudio Ranieri, and a striker, Jamie Vardy, who was playing for Fleetwood Town in the fifth tier of English football only a few years ago, is truly astonishing. If Leicester comes back to earth, as everyone expects it to, Arsenal may be best positioned to capitalize.
The odd thing is, Arsenal is sending out almost the same team as it did last season. And it has lost the services of several key players to injury including Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and, more recently, the Chilean striker Alexis Sánchez.
The one major acquisition of the off-season was goalkeeper Petr Cech, 33, whom Chelsea dropped for the younger Thibaut Courtois. Cech, who spent much of last year on the Chelsea bench, has given up only 14 Premier League goals, tied for the best mark in the league, behind an improved back four.
Last year, Arsenal’s top scorer in the league was Sánchez with 16, while Olivier Giroud had 14. This year, Giroud is in rare scoring form, with 10 Premier League goals, while Sánchez has six despite missing some time.
Even more noticeable has been the wondrous play of Mesut Özil, who has a superhuman 15 assists in 17 games, with Giroud the prime beneficiary. (The second ranking player in the league has seven assists.) Özil recorded both assists in Monday’s victory.
Still, the team does not look miles better than last season’s. Arsenal has 36 points and projects to finish at 80, only 5 more than last season. Over the last four years, the winner of the league has scored 86 to 89 points — Chelsea won with 87 last season — but this season may be more like 2010-11, when it took just 80 points for Manchester United to lift the trophy.
Arsenal is benefiting from chaos all around it: Chelsea’s disastrous start (the Blues are in 15th place) led to the firing of Manager José Mourinho last week; Manchester United may be priming itself to fire Louis van Gaal after a string of disappointing results; and Liverpool and Spurs have settled into their usual “nearly there” roles.
The biggest danger to Arsenal is probably the ultratalented and ultraexpensive Manchester City lineup, which has been slow to jell this season, especially defensively. City may soon be pulled into the rumors that it, too, is headed for a coaching change, with Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola reportedly set to take over for Manuel Pellegrini after the season.
Arsenal has some tough games to come, but Gunners fans must be loving the way the season is going so far.