The Season So Far
The kindest thing we can say here is that Arsenal never do things the easy way.
Having recovered their position as one of the Premier League’s powerhouse buying clubs, the Gunners have failed to establish a uniformly high level throughout the squad and now find themselves embroiled in a nervy and inevitably bitter battle to keep hold of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, and a similarly unpleasant separate struggle to qualify for the Champions League. It doesn’t look likely that they’ll succeed on either front. Worst of all, they’re going to finish below Tottenham for the first time since 1995.
It’s gone wrong on so many fronts for Arsène Wenger it’s hard to believe. No step forward, nor giant leap, comes unaccompanied: there’s always another step back, or an embarrassing pratfall. Every time it looks like things are finally on the up, the Gunners come crashing back to Earth, and each impact hurts more and leaves a bigger mark than the last.
Having successfully integrated several promising youth products into the first team, Wenger finds himself wondering whether Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are ever going to justify the hype with Premier League medals (spoiler: they don’t).
Having finished ahead of all of their traditional rivals last season only to be trumped by Leicester City, the Gunners have once again crumbled under the weight of tactical naivety, mental weakness and plain arrogance, and instead of mounting a title push as promised, their second half of the season has been dominated by the battle for fourth.
While fans of lower league clubs will never see why Arsenal fans complain so much about literally everything, it’s undeniably frustrating to see the same mistakes made so many times in succession, with so much promise repeatedly squandered – if finishing second, third or fourth every year can be defined as ‘squandered’.
The Final Few Games
Fourth place is still up for grabs and there’s the small matter of an FA Cup Final against Chelsea to deal with too, so there’s plenty to play for. While future PSG megastar Alexis Sánchez and future Bayern Munich tactical problem Mesut Özil will presumably be evaluating their futures after every game, the rest of the squad knows they have to prove that they deserve to be kept on. Not many seem to be winning the fans over – even the immensely popular future Barcelona right-back Héctor Bellerín has fallen foul of the Arsenal Fan TV brigade in recent weeks.
Looming large over absolutely every other issue at the club is the future of Arsène Wenger, whose contract expires this summer and who has yet to commit his future to the Gunners. Of course, the Wenger Out brigade has been steadily growing in number over the years and has arguably now reached critical mass, but noises from within the Emirates indicate that The Artist Formerly Known As The Professor intends to extend his contract for two more years. Gulp.
As anyone who’s ever watched football anywhere in the world knows, Arsenal are a sleek passing machine sloppily designed to score lots of extremely pretty goals and every so often 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 by Chelsea.
For the first time in what seems like a million years, however, Arsenal have sprung a tactical surprise in recent weeks. While it’s always possible Wenger will revert to type and use the loose, generic 4-2-3-1, Spurs should prepare to face a 3-4-2-1, similar in type that Chelsea and Spurs have pioneered this season, and which everyone else has copied.
The system gets the best out of lots of Arsenal’s players: Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal look much better in a back three, with less space to cover and fewer decisions to make; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been reborn as a marauding, Dani Alves-style wing-back; Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin look more assured with three central defenders behind them; Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez both get to play in their favoured free roles behind the striker.
The pace of Arsenal’s attackers is always their most obvious threat and even after the recent tactical change this is still the case. Alexis Sánchez, Theo Walcott, Héctor Bellerín and Oxlade-Chamberlain are capable of covering the length of the pitch in no time, and Spurs will never be able to be comfortable, regardless of how far from their goal the ball is.
Although everyone knows they’ll probably never win the league under Wenger again, there’s no denying that, as long as they’re not crumbling under the slightest hint of pressure, Arsenal remain generally excellent at what they do. They know how to hog the ball and they’re also really creative with it, recording an admirable 57% possession average, 12.4 successful dribbles per game and making an average of 0.6 chances per game with a throughball, all among the Premier League’s highest figures.
They know how to pin teams back and pick them apart: no team averages more possession in the opposition third of the pitch and no team takes a higher proportion of their shots from inside the box. They’re very dangerous when transitioning from defence to attack, and can cut through opposition sides in a few seconds: only four teams have created more chances on the counter this season. They even know how to mix it up and use height and aerial power to score goals: no Premier League team has scored more headed goals this season.
As well as knowing what to do when they have the ball, they know what to do without it: 18.1 tackles per game, 15.2 interceptions, 10.4 fouls per game and 8.1 passes blocked per game are very decent figures indeed for a team which usually has the lion’s share of the ball.
Also, to reiterate, they’re almost all absolutely rapid.
Their most obvious weakness is increasingly a part of Arsenal’s identity. Just when it’s most inconvenient, the Gunners suffer the most humiliating of pratfalls and go to pieces, destroying their confidence in one fell swoop and derailing months of good work. In the immediate aftermath everyone shakes their heads and mutters “oh, Arsenal” for the millionth time, while the more unhinged fans seek out the Arsenal Fan TV crew and scream insanities into a microphone for the whole world to see.
Too often, when the chips go down, their opponents don’t have to beat Arsenal – Arsenal will simply beat themselves. The annual defeats at Stamford Bridge and OId Trafford or the Etihad are accepted, but the more catastrophic results like home defeats to Watford and thrashings away to Crystal Palace have left the Gunners deflated and even more psychologically fragile than usual. For Spurs, the final White Hart Lane derby has come at the perfect moment.
Finally, as much as their new 3-4-2-1 look seems to fit with many of their players, there are others who don’t look too at home. Theo Walcott is neither a striker nor a floating number ten type and isn’t an intelligent enough player to adapt quickly enough to shine in either role. On the left flank, Kieran Gibbs is not Roberto Carlos and never will be. Meanwhile, the sense that Gabriel, Koscielny or Monreal are on the verge of doing something unpardonably reckless is never far away.
Laurent Koscielny is a doubt with a knee problem but seems more likely to be risked than rested. Rob Holding will step into the (sizeable) breach if needed. Shkodran Mustafi is still out, but Héctor Bellerín could be recalled to the side at right-wing-back. This may mean a change of role for Oxlade-Chamberlain, and a place on the bench for Francis Coquelin, whose stupidity has long since gotten old. Or Wenger could simply pick Aaron Ramsey. Up front there is a big, Theo Walcott-shaped problem to be solved – a surprise recall for Olivier Giroud may be in store.
Spurs are slight favourites here but a derby is a derby and while Arsenal are heavily weakened by months of low morale and bad results, they can never be written off. If Mauricio Pochettino’s team do win, it’ll be by the narrowest of margins. Expect a dramatic, passionate, often unbelievable high-scoring draw.