The latest chapter of the North London Derby will be written on Saturday as Tottenham Hotspur hosts Arsenal at Wembley Stadium. Spurs sit four points above their rivals and could vault themselves into the top 4 with a victory. Arsenal are looking for some new life in that same race and three points Saturday means clawing their way back into things and maybe not having to rely on Europa League to get back to the Champions League. Stopping by this week for Know Your Opponent is our old friend pdb from The Short Fuse. I had a bunch to ask him, so sit back and enjoy.
CFC: Alexis Sanchez has moved on and Arsenal managed to get Henrikh Mkhitaryan for him. It seems like a good swap, but I can’t help but feel Arsenal should have gotten some cash along with the deal. What are your thoughts on Alexis’ time with Arsenal and getting Mkhitaryan in return?
TSF: I’m actually really happy with the deal as it went down, and really excited to see what Mkhit can do at Arsenal (we’ve already seen some really good stuff in only two games). I am, however, markedly less happy with the fact that the deal wasn’t done last summer, when Arsenal could, and should, have gotten a ton of cash for Alexis. They, however, chose to call Alexis’ bluff and hold on to him despite his desire to leave (there was some effort to get him to City then, but Arsenal couldn’t land Lemar or another replacement, so those talks died), and once September 1st rolled around, any leverage they had in Alexis’ next move evaporated. So the fact that they got Manchester United to give up a player like Mkhitaryan, even if no cash changed hands, is pretty much the dictionary definition of “making the best out of a bad situation”. Arsenal did well to heal that particular self-inflicted wound, and I hope in future they don’t do anything remotely like it again.
Mesut Ozil surprised just about everyone by signing a new contract with Arsenal. Granted, his new wage of £350k/week is a pretty damn good reason to stay, but he seemed out the door like Alexis. Surprised with him signing?
Not really, although the number at which he stayed was quite surprising. Özil has been a lot more polarizing among the fans than he has been at the club, if that makes sense - he’s always seemed happy, and unlike his Chilean ex-teammate, is well liked and well respected in the locker room. So while the “he didn’t sign so he must be agitating for a move” narrative kicked into overdrive, Özil himself never fed it - he just kept his head down and kept doing what he does, and the fact that that state of affairs will continue at Arsenal is probably the happiest thing to happen in January, even though it didn’t get the press of all the other moves.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has now joined Arsenal after a weird three way rotation of players that saw Arsenal mainstay Olivier Giroud head to Chelsea and the Blues sending Michy Batshuyai to Dortmund. PEA is a good player, there’s no question, but it feels like there were bigger needs for Arsenal to fill other than another attacker, right?
Well, this kinda gets to the heart of a bigger issue at Arsenal right now. The Arsenal squad on January 1 was desperately in need of an overhaul, in many areas, and with nine players leaving and only three arriving, this January could be seen as the start of said overhaul. The thing about a teardown/rebuild like that, though, is that you can’t really tear all the way down - you have to give fans something to latch on to, something to hang their hopes on while the multi-window process of completely rebuilding a squad happens. Thus, enter both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
If Arsenal were in a better position in the league, I don’t think you’d see either of those signings - attacking players pushing 30 aren’t really what a team in the title race are clamoring for, after all. But for Arsenal, right now, they’re great signings - they’ll both give the club probably two very good seasons, during which the club will continue to evolve and improve with every window. Arsene Wenger is no longer a one-man club; Arsenal now have a Director of Football, Sven Mislintat. His official title is Head of Recruitment, but he’s essentially a DoF. They also brought in Raul Sanllehi, Barcelona’s former DoF, as “head of football relations”, whatever that is, but Sanllehi and Mislintat are working together to recruit and sign players now, instead of Wenger doing everything from scouting to recruiting to signing. So while Wenger is still the manager, which is another story, he’s no longer in charge of absolutely every little thing, and that can only be to the good for the club as a whole.
How weird is it to see Giroud playing for Chelsea?
I can’t answer this question intellectually without first having a big, long ugly cry while I mourn the loss of the most beautiful footballer to ever wear an Arsenal shirt. But once those tears dry up, I mean, Giroud is 31 and was largely relegated to a backup role even before the arrival of Aubameyang. With this being a World Cup year, I can’t blame either him for wanting to move or Arsenal for moving him. He was a great sub, don’t get me wrong, but I think our collective love for all things Giroud (HE’S JUST SO DREAMY DAMMIT) clouded us to the reality of who he is as a player at this point. I do wish he hadn’t gone to Chelsea, though, because seriously f**k those guys.
Better chance for Arsenal to get back into the Champions League: Race for the Top 4 or pull a United and go all out for Europa League?
This is the million dollar/pound/euro/peso/ruble question. And I can’t say I have a good answer. My gut says the Europa League, but there’s also a much smaller margin for error there - Arsenal have to win it. But by focusing on that, they’re almost sure not to finish top four, or potentially even top five. My personal preference is that they win the Europa League, because, while all the cool kids disdain it, it’s still a trophy, and winning trophies is fun (trust us on that one). Wenger has never, in his long and illustrious career, won a European trophy, so I’d like to see it for that reason as well. Also: I highly doubt they’ll be top four this season.
Is there a fear of Arsenal sliding into the mid-table if they miss another year of Champions League play and it becomes difficult to sign more players?
Honestly? That fear exists this year. There’s 12 league games left, and Arsenal threw away their margin of error in, like, November. Fortunately, they have a relatively easy league run-in, with Saturday, the 3/1 game at the Emirates against City, and the 4/28 trip to Old Trafford being the hardest tests left on the schedule. The main problem, obviously, is the existence of other teams in the league - the only way for Arsenal to guarantee a top four finish is to win their last 12 games, which even I can’t type without also performing the biggest spit-take you’ve ever seen. Given that that’s not gonna happen in this reality, they’ll need a lot of help from a lot of teams, and I really don’t see that happening. So the best Arsenal can hope for is....
Arsenal defeated Spurs at home back in November, but the Gunners find themselves four points behind their North London rivals and five points out of the top four. With a rough schedule coming up, is this a must win to stay in the top four race?
...that Arsenal win this game, and then take somewhere between 23-26 points the rest of the way. Since the dawn of the Premier League, Arsenal’s fourth-place finishes have been at a level of, on average, 71 points. That is 26 points away, and even that 71 point total may not be enough to crack the top four this year (Chelsea are on 50 right now, Liverpool in third at 51). But if Arsenal can hit that 70-71 point mark, they will have done all they can to put themselves in position to finish top four, and since they can’t control what other teams do, that’s all I can ask. This will, in all likelihood, be the second straight year of no St. Totteringham’s day. Only 19 more to go to catch up, Spurs fans!
What do you expect from Arsenal on Saturday, lineup wise?
The biggest doubt, and the scariest for Arsenal, is that the rapidly-declining Petr Cech hurt himself against Everton, and thus may be replaced in goal by the not-good-enough-to-warrant-a-decline-phase David Ospina. However, Wenger said today that Cech “may be ready”, so hopefully that’s one crisis averted. Otherwise, it should be a similar setup to Everton, suchlike:
(Keeper TK); Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles; Özil, Mkhitaryan; Aubameyang with Bellerin and Xhaka playing fairly deep and in effect creating a back five. Or back four plus Xhaka because let’s face it Xhaka is terrible right now.
I am so bad at these things. The Arsenal blogger in me says 5-2 Arsenal, because banter, but the realist in me says that your 3-1 to Spurs is probably closer to reality.
As always, we want to thank pdb for stopping by ahead of another NLD. I answered some questions for him over at The Short Fuse, so if you get a chance, read up on what they asked me regarding Spurs remainder of the season.