Starting Lineups: Arsenal Rises


Arsenal has faced its fair share of criticism over the past eight years. A trophy drought of that length for a club that ended 2004 with an unbeaten Premiership record, the legendary “Invincibles” team, is simply unfathomable.

After a 2013 that saw the Gunners not only exit the Champions League early, but also struggle to qualify for the 2014 tournament, derision from Arsenal supporters reached an all-time high this summer. Buy a striker they said. Buy a defender they said. Spend any money they said. Get rid of Wenger they said.

But the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Robin Van Persie and Samir Nasri weren't walking back through that door. Neither were invincibles Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and his holiness, the demigod Dennis Bergkamp.

With rival clubs Chelsea, Manchester City and even the hated Tottenham Hotspurs picking up top talent from all over Europe, the outlook for this season looked pretty bleak for North London's favorite club.

An opening-day loss to Aston Villa did little to quell the storm of vitriol raining down from the Emirates bleachers. Panic on the streets of London, indeed. As a wise man once said though, that was then, this is now. And now if you look at the Premier League table you will see the same Arsenal Football Club at the top with 15 points out of a possible 18. The Gunners have rampaged through their last six league matches, dispatching Fulham, Spurs, Sunderland, Stoke City and Swansea City along the way. Three of the wins came on the road.

While the fixtures have been rather kind — out of Arsenal's five wins only Spurs, in third, is in the top half of the table — no one expected Arsenal to be sitting atop the league after six games.

In addition to their domestic success, the Gunners have breezed through their early Champions League challenges as well. The club qualified for the group stages comfortably with a 5-0 aggregate victory over Turkish side Fenerbahce. They followed that performance with an away win over a tough Marseille club before dismantling Serie A stalwart Napoli 2-0 at home. Gooners everywhere are on cloud nine.

Much of Arsenal's fast start can be attributed to one man: deadline-day signing Mesut Ozil. After halfhearted attempts to coax Luis Suarez away from Liverpool and a failed effort to grab Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid, Wenger shocked the soccer world by landing Higuain's former teammate at Madrid, attacking midfielder Ozil. Since that late summer day, Arsenal is unbeaten in all competitions. Ozil provided two assists on his debut and added three more in the 3-1 victory over Stoke. Against Napoli this past Tuesday, Ozil scored his first goal for his new club.

Of course, the German has had plenty of support from an improving cast of teammates. Aaron Ramsey has been an attacking revelation thus far. It seems he finds the back of the net in every important game. Striker Olivier Giroud has been similarly on point. In years past the French frontman has received criticism for his inability to finish goal-scoring chances. Now he can't stop scoring.

Arsenal's fast start bodes well for its 2014 prospects, but maintaining this early-season pace will be difficult. The absence of injured stars Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has left Arsenal with virtually no attacking depth. Matches against the other top teams in England, not to mention two Champions League showdowns with last year's runner up Borussia Dortmund, loom in the not-too-distant future.

What Arsenal has that its chief rivals don't, though, is stability. Out of the big four clubs in England (always changing but let's just consider the top four finishers from last season, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal), only Arsenal retained its manager from the previous season. Wenger has always insisted on playing an attractive, attacking style of soccer. With Ozil in hand, coupled with the rise of Ramsey and Giroud, Arsenal may finally present a squad capable of matching the triumphs of a decade ago.

And now for today's reading:

An excerpt from the book the NFL doesn't want you to read - Sports Illustrated

And now, the Mets' rebuilding plans depend on J.P. Morgan Chase - Capital New York

Qatar World Cup construction 'will leave 4000 migrant workers dead' - The Guardian

What's The Move For Mujica? - I-70 Baseball

Director's Cut: 'Baseball Without Metaphor' - Grantland

The Bayou Ballers - The Shadow League

The 25 best music collaboration sneakers from the past decade - The Smoking Section

Hockey diplomacy was Tripp Tracy's only hope to rescue brother - The News Observer

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