Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge last year was as thrilling as it was unexpected. Few if any had predicted the Gunners to stand out as City’s main contenders last season but Mikel Arteta’s side silenced those doubters. While their eventual downfall came in heartbreaking fashion having stood atop the table for 248 days, nothing can be taken away from the immense effort of the players and the entertainment they provided us with over the course of the 38 games. While the end result will still sting and Pep Guardiola’s side ended up lifting the trophy come the final whistle, Arteta and his men walked away with invaluable experience from their first proper title charge in over a decade and the confidence to know they can challenge going forward. Their brand of football was easy on the eye and gave life to a title race that for the longest time pundits, players and fans alike labelled a foregone conclusion. Their points of 84 is the highest the club has achieved since the Invincibles won their last league title 19 years ago and further demonstrates the quality this team possesses across the pitch and nowhere is this quality more evident than in their midfield. The contributions of Arsenal’s engine room propelled the North London club into the title picture where many had expected nothing more than a top-four finish before a ball was kicked. Multiple standout performers enjoyed their best seasons to date so much so that Arsenal are close favourites behind City to clinch the title for 2023/24. But is the Gunners’ midfield the best in the league? And if not, whose is?
As disappointing as it was to watch Arteta’s side crumble under the weight of City’s relentless pressure, the Spaniard’s side would never have been in a position to challenge had it not been for the immense talents of his midfield. Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Granit Xhaka and Bukayo Saka led the way for Arsenal last season combining for 51 of Arsenal’s 88 goals in 2022/23 and 81 goal contributions in total. Each of them enjoyed their best campaigns in an Arsenal shirt to date last season and it’s no surprise that it culminated in a significant improvement from the previous season’s performance. As a result, new online bookies have Odegaard at 25/1 to register the most assists this season. Gabriel Jesus’ injury early on during the season could have so easily halted their momentum but they passed that litmus test with flying colours with each stepping up in the star striker’s absence to contribute with some vital goals at key stages and in big games. Their strength of character helped set the tone for last season and has seemingly carried over into this campaign too with the shift in mentality obvious to see from player interviews and press conferences. Jesus told ESPN following Arsenal’s preseason fixture with Manchester United that nerves might have played a part in the club’s inability to win the title last season but assured that they will use the experience and avoid that outcome again. He said: “I believe sometimes at the end of the season we were a little bit nervous as a team. This season we have experience of this and it will be different.” There is a confidence surging through this team and the addition of Declan Rice will only serve to make their midfield stronger. This midfield will be a tough nut to crack in 2023/24 and that begs the question of whether any other Premier League outfit can match up.
Out of the options from England’s top flight, two clubs stand out as potential contenders in this debate. One of them is Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United who push the Gunners close in that department. Since the arrival of Brazilian Casemiro from Real Madrid the Red Devils have taken massive strides. The 31-year-old may be entering the latter stages of his career but his performances last season show he can still perform at an elite level as he continues to make a big impact in Premier League matches. He provides the defensive stability at the back that allows more attacking players like Bruno Fernandes ahead of him to flourish. Speaking of the Portuguese international, the 28-year-old enjoyed one of best Premier League seasons to date last year, establishing himself as one of United’s most important players on the pitch. On his day he can be one of the best midfielders in the league with several aspects to his game, from picking the perfect pass to posing a dangerous goal threat. Alongside him is Christian Eriksen and now Mason Mount since completing his move from Chelsea this summer. Both offer something different and add depth to United’s midfield lineup which is one of the best in the league. The only minor criticism to be levied at their line-up is the slight drop-off when neither Casemiro nor Eriksen is on the pitch. If Mason Mount can help fill that void this season then they can be considered in the conversation alongside Arsenal.
The second club offering up a similarly formidable midfield is obviously the champions, City. The blue half of Manchester have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to their squad, let alone their midfield. Spanish international Rodri is one of, if not the best defensive midfield in the world, Kevin De Bruyne is probably the best passer in the world today, Bernardo Silva’s work rate helps glue it all together, and Phil Foden is one of the best young footballers of his generation and remains on course to become one of the best footballers in the world period. That’s before even considering Jack Grealish had a fantastic season last year and now they’ve strengthened further by bringing in Mateo Kovacic for the departing Ilkay Gundogan. Statistically speaking this team doesn’t match up to Arsenal’s numbers accumulated over the 2022/23 campaign but that is purely because of Guardiola’s preference for squad rotation. Nowhere else in world football does a team have such a complete lineup with immense strength in depth where a manager has the luxury of swapping out like-for-like replacements without any diminishing returns in quality. It’s this foundation that makes the Cityzens favourites for the title once again. However, Arsenal have strengthened too and while De Bruyne is out injured it is pretty much a level playing field. If Arsenal can gain the upper hand in the table as they did in the early stages of last season then this could finally be the Gunners’ year.
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