Finally, Arsene Wenger has beaten Jose Mourinho, meaning that every Arsenal vs. Chelsea game will no longer be dominated by speculation about whether the Frenchman can get his first victory over the ‘Special One’; though the fact that the win came in the Community Shield will no doubt lead to even more tedious debate regarding whether it really ‘counts’, given that the match is really little more than a glorified pre-season friendly.
There are of course rather more important battles to come for both sides who, along with the two Manchester clubs, make up the collection of teams expected to compete for the Premier League title this year.
Louis Van Gaal’s rebuilding of Manchester United has continued apace this summer, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin arriving to add depth and quality in the centre of the park – with Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Marouane Fellaini already at the club, there will be serious competition to make the starting XI.
However, with Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao gone, there is a scarcity of strikers at Old Trafford, with Wayne Rooney and the inexperienced James Wilson the only players who prefer to lead the line.
With renewed speculation regarding David De Gea’s future and their options at centre-back as questionable as ever, there are also questions over the defence. Though United appear more formidable than last year and should mount a serious title challenge, it is this lack of depth up front and absence of a truly commanding centre-back which could ultimately cost them.
Meanwhile, Manchester City have raised eyebrows with their £49 million purchase of Raheem Sterling. Though overpriced, Sterling is a hugely talented player with enormous potential who adds an extra dimension to City’s attack; he brings more pace than Samir Nasri but more finesse than Jesus Navas, counter-balancing playmaker David Silva, who will be positioned either nominally on the left-wing or as an attacking midfielder.
However, City have done little to rectify their other problems. Like their neighbours they are weak at the back, and seem to be relying on Eliaquim Mangala adapting to the English game after a shaky first year at the Etihad. The once imperious Vincent Kompany has become increasingly error prone, whilst Martin Demichelis, viewed as something of a joke during his early months at City, has become increasingly crucial to their defence; however, now aged 34, he cannot maintain last seasons standards forever.
There are certainly goals in this City team, but a shaky back four, coupled with the inescapable feeling that Manuel Pellegrini is merely serving as a place-holder until Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich contract expires next summer, means it is difficult to see them winning back the title they won in 2012 and 2014.
This sense that two of their main rivals are not quite ready to be champions again presents an opportunity to Wenger and Arsenal. Signing Petr Cech is a sizeable coup. Cech is one of the most successful goalkeepers of the Premier League era and will bring an assurance to Arsenal’s defence that Wojciech Szczęsny never could.
That defence in question also looks strong. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are a strong partnership, and if their standards slip Gabriel Paulista and Calum Chambers are ready to step in. They are also well stocked at full back since the emergence of the exciting Héctor Bellerin.
Their midfield options are also strong. Francis Coquelin has gone from Charlton loanee to Arsenal’s midfield kingpin in the space of a year; alongside him, Santi Cazorla produced marvellous performances last season in a deeper role than he is accustomed to, his man of the match performance away to Manchester City a particular highlight; that day he combined the technical ability he is known for with a steely determination.
Wenger can also choose from Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, two of Britain’s most talented midfielders, and the veterans Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta can still be relied upon when needed; certainly their midfield options can rival United’s, and in terms of depth are superior to Chelsea or City’s.
Their attacking midfielders are equally exciting. Alexis Sanchez is a world-class performer, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott both possess electric pace and are capable of scoring goals. They will be serviced by Mesut Ozil. The German number ten has drawn criticism during his two years in England for his languid style, but when on form he is a sublime talent who has been tipped by Wenger, rather prematurely, as a contender for Football of the Year.
It is in the striking department where Arsenal fall short. Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck certainly have their qualities, but simply cannot compete with the strikers Arsenal’s rivals have. Rooney, Diego Costa and Sergio Aguero would walk into the Arsenal side.
Given their lack of heavy investment this summer, it is curious that Arsenal have not seriously pursued a top striker who could transform them from title contenders into favourites. Wenger seems to be relying on his midfield to produce goals, a not unreasonable expectation given the quality of the players there.
Having won the FA Cup in two consecutive seasons, the mood around Arsenal is positive, and their players are surely developing a taste for winning trophies. Like the FA Cup won by City in 2011, Arsenal must use these triumphs to spur them on to greater things.
Though Chelsea are clearly formidable rivals, they have their own issues up front – Costa appears to be suffering increasingly from injury problems, and there are questions over the quality of both Falcao and Loic Remy. Their defence appears as solid as ever, but they may occasionally struggle to break teams down when Costa is not available.
They are still a very strong side, and it will take a titanic struggle for Arsenal to wrest the title from them; however, if anyone is capable of preventing Mourinho from winning his fourth Premier League title, it is his old enemy Wenger.