By Chris Harris
Top of the league. Still unbeaten. Is this really the same Arsenal which finished well off the pace last season and was tipped for a further slide down the table this term?
At a recent press conference Arsène Wenger was asked to put his finger on the reasons for Arsenal's renaissance after their fourth-place finish in May. "I don't know," the Frenchman replied. "That would be a good question for a journalist to examine."
We've taken Wenger's advice and canvassed the opinions of some of Europe's leading sports journalists - Martin Samuel (The Times), Patrick Barclay (Sunday Telegraph), Amy Lawrence (The Observer), Philippe Auclair (L'Equipe, France) and Inigo Gurruchaga (El Correo, Spain).
Read on for their views on why Arsenal have defied the doom-mongers to keep Tottenham and the rest of the Premier League at arm's length.
A FLYING START
Eight wins in their opening nine Premier League games - plus a strong start in the Champions League - gave Arsenal the self-belief and momentum they needed after being left behind in last season's title race and losing their talisman, Thierry Henry, in the summer.
"They started well and they got a degree of luck in terms of the match against Fulham," said Samuel. "It was in the balance until quite late, and had that gone the wrong way there would have been more pressure - they'd lost Henry and a lot of questions would have been asked of them.
"Had they not got a good start to the season, that could have been a problem and it could have gone the other way. But where they had a run of very good results and won games quite late, I think the confidence grew and the players grew into the idea of proving they could do it without Henry."
There are no 'easy' games in the Premier League but there are degrees of difficulty and Wenger's side probably benefited from a fixture list which was top-heavy with home fixtures and devoid of 'Big Four' opponents in the opening two months.
"Arsenal had a kind start to the season in terms of a lot of home games and a lot of games against teams who are not perhaps expected to do that well," said Lawrence. "That has enabled this young group of players to really find each other, find out how to express themselves and gain that all-important confidence which perhaps they missed in the last year or so."
COPING WITHOUT HENRY
At his best Thierry Henry is probably peerless; no wonder alarm bells rang in the summer when the Club's record scorer left for Barcelona. But his former team-mates have risen to the challenge and to turn the departure of arguably Arsenal's greatest player from a negative into a positive.
"When you lose a player like Henry I think other players have to step up to the plate and I think it's an opportunity," said Samuel. "They had a lot to prove this season and the main thing they had to prove was that they weren't a one-man team. They had some experience of it last year when Henry was out for such a large part of the season. They didn't do badly then and I think that gave them a bit of confidence."
Gurruchaga agrees. "With Henry gone, there is a more collective sense in the team," he said. "Everyone has had to first abandon the idea that the ball had to go to Henry whenever possible, and they had to take more responsibility. That has produced a more compact team, a team more self-assured and more reliant on their own performances."
Lawrence says the young players have emerged from Henry's shadow. "It was always easy to 'hide' a little bit behind the aura and stature of Henry because he was held in such great awe, not just by his own club but by other clubs as well. I think it was obvious when he was given standing ovations on away grounds by other team's supporters.
"The fact that he had this larger-than-life status meant that it probably was a little intimidating for other players but now they have no choice, they have had to stand up for themselves and say 'look at me'."
VARIETY AND RUTHLESSNESS
In the past Arsenal have been accused of an over-reliance on Henry and profligacy in front of goal. Both those problems have been solved. Wenger's exciting young team can vary the point of attack and, most importantly, are clinical where once they were wasteful.
"The first thing that comes to mind is that Arsenal have more variety," said Barclay. "There is height and heading ability in the attack which is provided by people like Adebayor and also Nicklas Bendtner, which just gives that little bit more encouragement to the wide players to whip in crosses than there was before."
Auclair agrees. "There are changes in the system of play with Adebayor as the lynchpin of attack. He is actually more comfortable receiving the ball with his back to the goal than Henry was, he can keep it and people can play off him from his pivotal role in the middle.
"I think statistically one of the most impressive things is the change in the conversion ratio of chances to goals. It was a huge problem last year when Arsenal would sometimes get 15 shots on target but still found it difficult to finish teams off.
"This season there is a new ruthlessness, a greater willingness to take chances. I don't just mean the shots from distance but also the scrappy goals, like the one Robin van Persie scored at Blackburn. Arsenal didn't score goals like that before but there have been a few of those."
Still only 20, Fabregas now rivals Patrick Vieira as Wenger's most astute signing. The Spaniard dictates the tempo of Arsenal's attacks with a maturity which belies his tender years and, after a frustrating season of bad luck and missed chances, is regularly finding the net. Player of the Year? Quite possibly.
"The main factor behind Arsenal's success is the consistency of Cesc," said Barclay. "It's something I don't think I've ever seen from a young player before. No other youngster I can think of has had so many man-of-the-match performances in a row. Even Wayne Rooney, the other great prospect in the Premier League, doesn't quite achieve the same consistency of team contribution as Cesc.
"The other thing about Cesc is he inspires other players to the same consistency as he achieves. If you look at Mathieu Flamini for example, I think he's been excellent this season as well. It's that consistency and extra variety which has helped the team."
Gurruchaga knows just highly Fabregas is regarded in his home country; what impresses the El Correo journalist is his compatriot's humble attitude. "Fabregas is very sensible and wise to refuse the tag of 'superstar' because he is a collective player," said Gurruchaga.
"He's a midfielder who looks for colleagues, makes combinations, he needs people running around him, playing one-twos, he needs Flamini sitting behind him to allow him to get forward. He's not a Maradona, he's a collective player but he makes Arsenal tick."
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
Arsenal's back line looked vulnerable at times last season but mistakes have been eradicated, the team defends from the front and the partnership between Kolo Toure and new captain William Gallas gets better and better. Gallas was a surprise choice as captain but, according to Lawrence, Wenger's decision has been vindicated.
"Gallas was a controversial choice according to some supporters but he has really shown what he's worth this season," she said. "William felt he wasn't quite himself last season, he wanted to show people the real William Gallas this season and we are seeing that.
"He's relishing being a leader and his partnership with Kolo Toure, which some people worried about because they might have been too similar, they are really working well together. Bacary Sagna also deserves a lot of credit too."
Auclair believes the strikers and midfielders have played their part. "The team defends much, much better than it used to as a unit," he said. "You get it from the top because Adebayor tracks back a lot.
"Hleb has been magnificent this season but I don't think his defensive work has been highlighted enough. If Hleb loses the ball, which is quite an event in itself, you can be sure he will do absolutely everything to close down the person who has nicked it from him. He will make sure it doesn't harm the team and that is an important attribute. All in all there is a far greater maturity and consistency."
While pundits and fans screamed for new signings in the wake of a humdrum season and Henry's departure, Wenger rode out the storm and stuck to his guns. His faith in his young Arsenal squad has, so far, been repaid. As far as Barclay is concerned, the Frenchman deserves immense credit.
"The question asked quite seriously in the media, not only by me, is whether he is the greatest manager there has ever been in British football," said Barclay.
"I think we have to wait for the answer, we can't rush to judgement, but you can see the quality of his management in terms of not only producing first-team performances but also in encouraging the development throughout the club. I think Arsenal is a model to any club across the world on how to run your business."
Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 21 Nov 2007