The Season So Far
Those who have read my writing about Arsenal before will know that I like to refer back to this explanation and categorization of Arsenal seasons:
Since the construction of the Emirates Stadium, there have been two kinds of Arsenal season. The first, which we will call Type A, sees them challenge for top spot in the Premier League until February or March, when a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility leads to a complete collapse and an eventual fourth-placed finish. The second, Type B, sees a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility lead to a complete collapse which means they are out of the title race by October. In the second half of the season, however, they have a sustained spell of good form which suggests their eventual fourth-placed finish will become a challenge for honours in the next campaign.
Despite several signs suggesting that Arsène Wenger’s boys had turned a corner, 2015-16 has been a typical Type A, and the cycle continues.
The Season Ahead
Already out of the Champions League, despite not yet having been officially eliminated, and with their procession to the title in tatters, Wenger is arguably under more pressure than at any other time in his tenure. This time, one suspects, finishing in the top four and winning the FA Cup is not going to suffice.
It’s quite simple, really: too many Arsenal seasons in recent memory have been over before spring, and the supporters and the media are absolutely sick of it. Yet another meek midweek collapse at home to Swansea saw the Emirates empty long before the final whistle was blown, and the criticism in the days since has been merciless.
In short, this match is Arsenal’s season: win at White Hart Lane and their title push is back on and they have something to play for. Draw and they’re just about alive, but the anger at what could have been will remain. Lose and it’s all over: the next two months may as well not happen. No pressure, lads
As ever, Arsenal line up in a typically conventional 4-2-3-1, with attacking full-backs, inside forwards and an abundance of creative midfielders. The focus, as always, is on dominating the ball and playing as close as possible to the opponents’ goal for as much time as possible.
They press to win the ball back quickly, albeit with very little positional co-ordination, and use rapid passing combinations on the edge of the opposition area to break down the crowded defences they usually face. They play pretty freely in comparison to most other contemporary giants, which usually allows their talented playmakers to flourish, but often leads them to get into bad positional situations.
Without wanting to be overly critical, it’s increasingly baffling how little their tactics change. Wenger’s substitutions, in particular, rarely lead to new questions being asked of their opponents. It’s almost always like-for-like and too late to make a real difference.
Although their recent performance in goal has been less than stellar, their attacking numbers across the whole of the season have been positively scary: they’ve taken a total of 399 shots, the Premier League’s 4th highest total; 145 of those have been on target, which is the 3rd highest number; 299 of them have been from within the box, by a long way the most of any team. There’s absolutely no way to stop them making chances – your only real hope is that they miss them all (more on which later).
Further to their shot totals, the high level of talent throughout their attack allows them to do the difficult parts of the game relatively easily: 12.7 dribbles per game is the highest number in the league; 1 chance is created per game with a throughball, again, the highest figure.
They’re also surprisingly dominant at attacking set pieces, something that hasn’t been said about Arsenal since the George Graham days: 3.5 chances are created per game with crosses, 1.4 per game with corners, and 0.6 per game with free-kicks – no team beats them in any category.
Their output in attack makes them strong in defence, too: 56.1% is the highest possession average, and it enables them to play far from their own goal. Further to that they do a lot of good work off the ball: 19.3 tackles per game, 19.1 interceptions per game and 9.1 fouls per game are very good numbers for a team that dominates the ball. Petr Čech has also got the league’s highest save percentage with 82.1%, but he’s out after injuring himself (hilariously) on Wednesday night.
To Arsenal [something] (verb) 1. To f**k something up at the worst possible moment and as embarrassingly and irredeemably as is humanly imaginable.
Arsenal is now a club inseparably associated with the notion of disaster, and with the existential dread that comes with knowing that disaster is inevitably approaching. No top-level football team in history has had such a remarkable tendency to commit such calamitous errors at such inopportune moments. No other team makes so many chances in so many big games and so spectacularly fails to convert any of them. No team has come to personify choking quite like Late-Era Wenger's Arsenal.
As Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho realised about ten years ago, their opponents in big games usually have to do nothing but keep things tight and wait, and then Arsenal will self-destruct. Wenger still hasn’t reacted sufficiently to this weakness becoming readily apparent.
As ever, injuries have limited Wenger’s selection somewhat, and even though the entire midfield and attack bar the brilliant Mesut Özil seems to have lost all form, the Arsenal manager has shown little willingness to mix things up.
Alexis Sánchez looks absolutely exhausted but keeps playing; Olivier Giroud is in the middle of the worst run of his Arsenal career but playing Theo Walcott up front was even worse; Danny Welbeck has just returned from a year-long absence and isn’t quite ready to play ninety minutes in the centre-forward’s position; Aaron Ramsey is playing horribly but literally everyone else bar Mathieu Flamini is injured.
At the other end, David Ospina will start in Čech’s absence and Laurent Koscielny’s injury means Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista will continue in central defence.
Every sign in the world points towards a Tottenham win, even after such a shocking performance by Spurs against West Ham, so presumably Arsenal will nick it 1-0.