The Season So Far
It’s been a very Arsenal start to the season: there have been comfortable home victories and sumptuous football; there have been devastating away collapses due to mental weakness and naïve, complacent tactics; there has been one encouraging away performance to a title challenger, giving Gunners fans hope that Arsenal Have Turned A Corner; there have been poisonous atmospheres and near-mutinies at the Emirates, and a tumultuous AGM on top of that, as the soul of the club is torn apart by infighting and indifferent ownership.
The sense of drift is prevalent. No-one at all expected Arsenal to challenge for the title this season and it’s no surprise whatsoever that by mid-November the Gunners are twelve points off first place and no longer even mentioned when it comes to the best sides in the Premier League. If anything, they’re seen as a combination of cautionary tale and hard-luck case: a side which had an admirable, long-term project once upon a time, but one which was torpedoed by the unforeseen arrival of oligarchs and sheikhs, and one which absolutely failed to adapt to football’s new landscape.
In Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, Arsenal have two attackers that would walk into almost any side in Europe, but neither is putting in maximum effort this season as both prepare to abandon ship - their contracts expire at the season’s close and Alexis may even force a move in January, having very nearly joined Manchester City in August. In Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal have a £53m striker who doesn’t start in the big games. In Arsène Wenger, for so long a uniquely divisive figure, Arsenal have a once-great coach who has long overstayed his welcome and now stands as an immovable barrier to his club’s progress.
The Season Ahead
It’s going to keep on as it is now: the Gunners will win their home games against the Premier League’s also-rans as the gulf in quality between them still hasn’t closed despite Arsenal’s decline, but they’ll be comfortably the weakest side of the top six. They’ll look stupid against their supposed title rivals and they’ll endure the occasional embarrassing away day. The fans will argue amongst themselves over whether or not Wenger should be assassinated and replaced with a more modern manager. Sánchez and Özil will cross off the days until January and the day when they can negotiate contracts with clubs which actually deserve them.
As anyone who’s ever watched football is well aware, Arsenal are a sleek passing machine sloppily designed to score lots of extremely pretty goals and concede equally embarrassing ones. They specialise in: dominating possession despite not having a coherent midfield; scoring lots of goals despite not having a great number nine; and getting done on the counter.
Even though Wenger has moved to a 3-4-2-1 this season, there’s little to suggest that this change has solved Arsenal’s long, long, long, long, long, long-standing problems. They’re still abominably disorganised in possession – their approach has been memorably branded as ‘anti-positional play’ – and especially when it comes to defending counters; they’re still prone to overcommitting in attack and finding themselves overrun in the middle; they’re still prone to bizarre lapses of concentration and catastrophic individual errors at key moments.
There’s little to suggest that the game won’t have a very similar appearance and result to Tottenham’s epochal victory over Real Madrid at Wembley: one side has all of the possession but lacks intensity and looks useless and complacent, while the other looks physically dynamic and bursts forwards into the acres of space and scores lots of goals on the counter.
For all the jokes about Arsenal’s flaws, the pace and intricate interplay of their hugely talented attackers is always their most obvious threat and they can trouble any side in the world. Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey would form a truly formidable front four were they at all structured, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi packing a powerful punch off the bench.
Arsenal still have an admirable command of possession, holding the second highest average in the Premier League (58.4%) and the second highest pass accuracy (84.1%). Only three teams have taken more shots than Arsenal, only two have had more shots on target and only three have a better Expected Goals ratio. They’re still largely dominant and good at all of the stuff that Arsenal are supposed to be good at.
Their home form is also stellar: Arsenal have won every home game this season and since the opening day goal bonanza against Leicester, they’ve only conceded one goal.
Their most obvious weakness is now a fundamental pillar of Arsenal’s identity. Just when it’s most inconvenient, the Gunners suffer the most humiliating of pratfalls and go to pieces. Just when they need to show grace under pressure, they lose their minds and derail months of good work playing like headless chickens. Just when Wenger needs to show strong leadership and change the dynamic and give his players a shove towards glory, he quietly carries on doing exactly what he’s doing and Arsenal quietly carry on doing exactly what they’re doing.
Frankly, they’re the weakest, least inspiring, most hopelessly mismanaged elite side that has ever existed. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Guardian this week: “Tottenham may not yet be the club Arsenal could have been but Arsenal are the club Tottenham don’t want to become.”
Wenger could decide to beef up his central midfield by adding Francis Coquelin alongside Granit Xhaka, moving Aaron Ramsey forward and using Alexis Sánchez as a false nine. This strategy is sound on paper as everyone knows Ramsey can’t be trusted to hold a position and leaving Xhaka all alone in midfield is not a good idea. However, playing Coquelin went very wrong away to Manchester City. We should expect what is theoretically Arsenal’s strongest XI on paper with an attacking, devil-may-care, please-oh-please-oh-please-murder-us-on-the-counter strategy.
While there have been many false dawns for Spurs over the years – they have been declared “better than Arsenal” so many times before, only to lose the derby – but this really should be an instantly iconic Tottenham win, and another nail in Wenger’s coffin.