The Season So Far
Arsenal’s 2017-18 has been a unique campaign in recent Premier League history. Never before has a top side been so obviously good and yet so obviously far from sufficient. Never before have we been simultaneously able to admire and pity a team of such elite quality. Never before have we seen such a big, modern stadium with such obscenely high ticket prices and known that the fans are handing over such gigantic oodles of cash to watch inevitable, embarrassing disaster.
Despite having shaken off the shackles of post-Emirates financial constraints and regained the ability to pay top dollar to top players, Arsenal haven’t been this far off the pace in the Premier League since the mid-1990s. Sixth in the table, five points off a Champions League place, and a whopping 24 points behind top-of-the-table Manchester City, the Gunners’ season has been almost entirely irrelevant to the rest of the division and their relegation to also-ran status beggars belief when one thinks of the money that’s been spent and the quality they have on show.
As ever, their undeniable talent has been tempered or indeed cancelled out by bone-headed management at boardroom level, tactical stubbornness of the worst kind on the part of Arsène Wenger and a long-running civil war in the dressing-room. All of this has culminated in woefully inconsistent, flimsy and cowardly performances, especially away from the safety of the Emirates, and the overdue January departure of Alexis Sánchez, who swapped places with Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Sánchez’s move to Manchester was yet another transfer which only serves to highlight how irrelevant the Gunners are becoming in the title race: not only are more powerful clubs in the Premier League cherrypicking Arsenal’s best players, as they have been for far too long, they’re now happy to swap them for the squad players they themselves have run out of use for.
Despite such upheaval and near-total collapse, Arsenal have emerged from January as ‘the winners of the transfer window’, which is apparently now a thing and means more to some supporters than lifting minor silverware. Although Alexis and beloved handsome specimen Olivier Giroud departed, their positions were filled by the aforementioned Mkhitaryan, who is far more an Arsenal-type player than Alexis ever was, and the undeniably exciting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is frankly sh-t-hot. More importantly still, Mesut Özil committed his future and the rest of his prime years to the club, signing a new contract which put him on parity with the highest earners in England.
Such a swashbuckling megaspend suggests that Arsenal will indeed return to being a force to be reckoned with in the near future, and that despite everything, they will be dug out of their current hole by the financial power provided by the Emirates and the Gunners’ status as the highest-earning London club. Incredibly, there is a mood of buoyant optimism among Gooners once again.
This is not good news for Tottenham, especially with their own seriously lean spell of spending coming with the completion of the <Insert Name Of Corporate Sponsor Here> Stadium.
The Season Ahead
Failure to qualify for the Champions League would put a dent in the Gunners’ ambitions going forward, but if Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang hit the ground running, and if Wenger can finally find balance tactically and protect his side from massacre in the big games, and if the players can stop bickering and find unity now that Alexis is gone, Arsenal are more than capable of blasting their way back into the top four and back into future title races.
If their domestic away form remains as tragic/hilarious (delete as applicable) as it has been all season and the top four really does turn out to be completely out of reach, Arsenal can always prioritise the patented José Mourinho Back Door Entrance Into The Champions League: they are currently second-favourites with the bookmakers, behind Diego Simeone’s rocky Atlético Madrid, to win the Europa League and return to Europe’s top table via a relative technicality.
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 almost never having had a great number nine; and handing their opposition vitally important goals at critical moments with slapstick individual errors.
Even though Wenger has experimented with a 3-4-2-1 at times during the last year, he has returned to a back four of late and we should probably expect that shape to be favoured here. They’re still abominably disorganised in possession when compared to other sides in the top six, and they’re still especially vulnerable when it comes to defending counters. They’re still prone to overcommitting in attack and vacating the midfield, thus finding themselves overrun at transitions. They’re still prone to bizarre lapses of concentration and catastrophic individual errors at key moments.
Nonetheless, their attack is scarier than spending a stormy night in a haunted house populated only by a thousand antique porcelain dolls, and Tottenham can’t take anything for granted.
For all the jokes about Arsenal’s flaws, the pace and intricate interplay of their attackers is always their most obvious threat and they can obliterate any side in the world. Mesut Özil is probably the best pure number ten in the world not named Lionel, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan must be close behind in third. Aubameyang is among world’s deadliest finishers and while questions hang over his attitude and his professionalism, his movement and composure aren’t in doubt. Aaron Ramsey returned to form with a very well-taken hat-trick last weekend and they’ve got Alexandre Lacazette to come off the bench.
Of course, with such technical quality throughout the side, Arsenal still have an admirable command of possession, holding the second highest average in the Premier League (59.2%) and the second highest pass accuracy (84.4%). 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 very dominant and very good at all of the stuff that Wenger’s Arsenal sides are supposed to be good at.
Their most obvious weakness is now not just a weakness but a fundamental pillar of Arsenal’s identity. It’s equally as ‘Arsenal’ as the marble halls at Highbury, as Tony Adams, as Thierry Henry: just when it’s most inconvenient, the Gunners will 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 flow of a game and give his players one final shove towards glory or away from defeat, he pulls the carpet out from under them and sends his players tumbling into the abyss.
The examples are far too numerous to mention but we can take the most recent: struggling away at Swansea City, drawing 1-1 in driving rain and howling wind and desperate to establish a foothold in the game, Nacho Monreal falls asleep on the ball, dallies over playing a simple, routine backpass and allows the Swans to commit men to a press; where the was no danger, there is now considerable pressure, and yet Arsenal’s other defenders go high up the pitch, anticipating a simple hoof down the field from their goalkeeper; exposed and rattled, the previously unflappable but now completely Arsenalified Petr Čech crumbles and shanks a horrific miscue straight to Jordan Ayew, who scores and condemns Wenger and his men to another shocking away defeat.
Where Arsenal are concerned, a suicidal misunderstanding, born out of complacency and misgiven trust, is never too far away.
The only debates are over Arsenal’s midfield and whether they’ll seek to balance it and protect themselves or whether Wenger will go gung-ho and open the floodgates for Spurs. I’m going to be naïve and predict a conservative tactical choice.
This is the first real test of the new, post-Alexis Arsenal, and Arsenal rarely fail North London Derby tests. A shock away win is on the cards. 2-1.