By Ben Church, CNN
(CNN) — Things seem almost perfect at Arsenal at the moment.
The players are young, talented and look hungry to win the club its first Premier League title since 2004. The manager, Mikel Arteta, has seemingly addressed the soft underbelly which has plagued the team in recent years and the fans, in large part, have been convinced to trust the process.
The new-look Arsenal was there for all to see in its dramatic 4-3 win against Luton Town on Tuesday, a game which saw the Gunners move five points clear at the top of the table.
Declan Rice secured all three points with a 97th-minute headed winner which sparked frenzied scenes among players, staff and fans alike.
In truth, it was a match that the Arsenal of old could have quite easily lost. Luton’s Kenilworth Road is an intimidating place for players to visit; the stands may be small, but the fans are close to the pitch and create a cauldron-like atmosphere to which Luton’s players usually respond.
But even when they were up against it, the majority of Arsenal’s players stood up to the pressure and demonstrated a promising mentality that would-be champions must possess.
The last-gasp winner, though, does mask an obvious issue for Arsenal, a problem which is largely of its own making.
A dilemma in goal
Goalkeeper David Raya was brought to the club at the start of this season, after the Spaniard had impressed during his spell at Brentford.
It was a signing that raised eyebrows across the soccer world given Arsenal already had Aaron Ramsdale as its No. 1.
The England international was a fan favorite and, from the outside at least, seemed one of the pivotal players in this new, exciting chapter at the club.
Despite Ramsdale doing very little wrong, Arteta replaced him with Raya as the first-choice goalkeeper for the league earlier this season. It’s a decision that has not yet paid off.
Raya’s form has been questionable at best. He’s made a multitude of mistakes already and was at fault for two goals against Luton on Tuesday.
He was too weak for Luton’s second of the night, failing to catch a corner ahead of Elijah Adebayo who was allowed to head the ball into the open net. The Spaniard then let Ross Barkley’s effort squirm under his body as the host took a second-half lead.
Fortunately for Raya, Kai Havertz equalized shortly after and Rice’s winner dug him out of a very deep hole which would have piled yet more pressure on both him and Arteta.
There can be little doubt of Raya’s qualities. He was fantastic at Brentford and garnered interest from a plethora of top clubs before his switch to the Emirates. He’s part of a new-breed of goalkeeper, usually so comfortable with the ball at his feet – a quality which is becoming so important in the modern game.
But Arteta’s handling of the goalkeeper position, along with his churlish responses to questions about it from the press, has heaped pressure on both Raya and his under-study.
Although he must have been surprised by the decision, Ramsdale has maintained a positive attitude, at least publicly, since being dropped from the starting lineup and seems to have a good relationship with Raya, putting the manager’s vision above his own personal interests.
But the Englishman himself looked short of confidence when he was asked to stand in for the ineligible Raya against Brentford last month, making mistakes which could have quite easily led to a goal.
With both goalkeepers clearly out of form and struggling with the scrutiny, it leaves Arteta with an undoubted problem in a department which, on paper at least, looks so strong.
The manager refused to provide a serious answer when asked about Raya’s performance after the game against Luton, a response which perhaps shows how much he’s struggling with his decision.
“I am so happy with the team,” Arterta said awkwardly when asked by Amazon Prime about Raya.
“I have spoken with all of them and they are all jumping, they are so happy. I’m a really happy manager today.”
Is this finally the year?
Away from the goalkeeper debate, there certainly is cause for Arteta to be a really happy manager.
His other summer signing, Rice, has been superb for Arsenal’s midfield. Although he had a quieter night against Luton, the Englishman lent steeliness to the team which has been yearning for such a player for years.
His last-minute goal, along with the subsequent celebrations, showed just how together this Arsenal team is and how serious the Gunners are about finally winning a league title ahead of the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.
In truth, many still hold reservations about whether Arsenal can keep this form up for the entirety of the season, but that’s more to do with a number of false dawns in recent history. Last season, for example, Arsenal was eight points clear of Manchester City but ended up finishing five points behind in second.
“I feel like we’ve learnt a lot as a group,” Rice told Amazon Prime when asked about his team’s title credentials.
“There are so many good teams in this league this year and anything can happen. It’s just about us, not worrying about anyone else.”
Arsenal faces tough challenges in its next three Premier League fixtures. It travels to face the impressive Aston Villa on Saturday, before a home tie against Brighton and a trip to Liverpool.
If it comes through those games unscathed, this Arsenal team will have convinced yet more people that this could finally be the year that it silences the doubters.
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