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It's time to take Arsenal seriously as title contenders

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Teams don't top the table in November unless they're really good.

Laurence Griffiths

All season long, there have been questions about whether or not Arsenal are the real deal. Top of the league more than a quarter of the way into the campaign, the cloud of recent history is hanging over the Gunners' collective heads. The footballing world so used to seeing Arsenal as a spent force -- an academy for the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United -- that, when presented with evidence of a resurgence in their fortunes we look for ways to disbelieve.

Their schedule hasn't been strong enough! Borussia Dortmund beat them at home! They've been knocked out of the League Cup! All of those things are true, obviously, but they don't invalidate the idea that this Arsenal side are set to make a serious impact on the Premier League this year.

The Chelsea loss, for example, is clearly a red herring. It's impossible to treat any game featuring Nicklas Bendtner as competitive, and a half-strength Arsenal side losing at home against the Blues is hardly cause for panic. Neither is getting narrowly beaten by Borussia Dortmund, one of Europe's premier sides. Average sides get crushed at home by BVB. Arsenal didn't. And while the strength of schedule matters in the way we assess the team, the Gunners haven't exactly been playing against minnows the whole time -- Tottenham Hotspur, Napoli and most recently Liverpool all represent very respectable scalps.

Here's a list of the teams who topped the table a week into November over the past five seasons:

  • 2012/13: Manchester United
  • 2011/12: Manchester City
  • 2010/11: Chelsea
  • 2009/10: Chelsea
  • 2008/09: Chelsea

Three of those teams went onto win the league; the lowest any of those sides finished was third. Arsenal's five-point cushion at this point is a meaningful figure -- it's not something we can handwave aside. The performances have matched the results. Apart from disaster on the opening day against Aston Villa, the Gunners have been playing some excellent football, and they have the players to seriously compete at the business end of the table this season.

Mesut Özil might not have addressed Arsenal's most pressing need in a tactical sense, but he's a genuinely world class footballer, one of the best in the Premier League. His presence has allowed the side's other playmaker, Santi Cazorla, to play with more freedom. It's much more difficult to shut Cazorla down now that defences have to keep Özil in check as well. The German's transfer has also changed the mood around the Emirates, signalling an end to the days when spending significant money on acquiring (or keeping) elite players was regarded as a sin.

But Özil hasn't been Arsenal's most important player so far this year. That honour falls to Aaron Ramsey, who owns an astonishing ten goals and five assists already. His emergence as one of the league's elite midfielders is the payoff for years of patience from Arsene Wenger, and at least partially vindicates the club's much-mocked youth policy.

It's easy to forget just how good Ramsey was supposed to be. Arsenal's most recent boy wonder was one Jack Wilshere, but before Ramsey received a broken leg at the hands of Ryan 'definitely that kind of player' Shawcross, he was a better prospect than Wilshere ever was. More than three years after the incident at the Britannia, Ramsey's finally reaching the heights predicted when he was a teenager.

Two elite players and a strong supporting cast might not sound like much, but it's more than the zero Arsenal fielded last season. Yes, it's just one big buy and one kid breaking out, and the Gunners can't be expected to actually win the league this season thanks to a lack of depth, but so far this season is evidence that the turnaround at the Emirates has already happened.

Arsenal are once again on the rise.

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