Heading into the final furlong of the Premier League season, and the battle for the Champions League spots is well and truly on. It initially looked as though it would be a scrap between Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea for the final place, but a recent poor run of Premier League form has dragged 3rd place Spurs into the mix. The international break probably comes at a good time for all but the Gunners, whose recent turn around in fortunes following wins against United and Rennes have seen a renewed vigour around Arsenal’s season emerge.
A warm weather training camp in the Middle East for those who aren’t away on international duty should help bridge the gap until the next home fixture against Newcastle on 1st April; I’m already looking forward to the April fools jokes after a drab 1-0 loss. The ‘advantage’ is seemingly with Arsenal, as they don’t have to play any of their top 6 rivals, but the fixtures are not as easy as they seem on paper. 5 away matches, including tough matches against Wolves, Watford, Everton and Leicester, will provide the real litmus test as to how much Arsenal have progressed under Unai Emery. Perhaps the biggest advantage heading into this final stretch is the improved adaptability of the Arsenal side to Emery’s tendency to switching formation. Whilst in early parts of the season, the changing between a back 5 and defensive 4 appeared to confuse the transition between defence and attack, the time and effort put in on the training ground appears to be paying off. I think it is one of the main reasons why the Kolasinac overlap was such a prominent feature for much of the season when wingbacks were deployed; it is human nature to stick to what works, when you’re operating in a system that you don’t quite feel comfortable with. Now, there is much more variety in the Arsenal attack, which has made it much harder to shut out the many attacking options that have stepped to the fore.
This was typified by the Manchester United home performance. I think, astutely, Solskjaer identified the left flank as Arsenal’s greatest attacking outlet, and for the early stages of the game tried to position Pogba on that flank to stem the tide. In fairness to the Norwegian, I don’t think he could have predicted Emery would start Ozil, Ramsey, Lacazette, and Aubameyang together – the first time he had done so since 29th September 2018 – and the complete change in formation allowed Arsenal to have the better of the early exchanges. Once a somewhat fortuitous 12th minute Xhaka goal, the naturally more defensive shape that comes with a back 5 positioned Arsenal perfectly to set themselves up to play on the counter. Arsenal certainly rode their luck in that match, but to me it shone a light on what has the potential to give Arsenal the edge over their top 4 rivals as we enter the final few matches. Whilst earlier in the season, Emery’s constant changing of the starting XI was a source of ire for Arsenal fans, it has now become the team’s biggest strength.
Unpredictability. I think most of us can predict how United and Spurs will line-up, assuming clean bills of health, and there is literally no guess work when picking Chelsea’s team sheet. The same cannot be said for Arsenal. Emery has gone stretches of the season favouring a solo striker, with two inverted wingers and relying on width from the wingbacks to create low driven crosses into the box. More recently, following the reintegration of Ozil and Ramsey, the play has been more focused down the centre of the pitch. Torreira has become much less of a regular feature in recent weeks, with Emery favouring the more progressive abilities of Guendouzi. Iwobi, the ever-present for much of the season, has had to warm a seat on the bench in the past few games. Add to this a slight shift in style of play and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually feel a little bit confident about Arsenal’s chances of Champions League qualification. The famed overlap, whilst still an option, is combined with the wingers acting as secondary creators for the central strikers and midfielders. Rather than simply looking for the outside pass, they now cut inside to try to find a runner breaking from deeper, or beyond the defensive line. It is akin to how Emery first set up his Arsenal side, all those months ago, on the opening day of the season against Manchester City. Ramsey, bursting beyond the striker at the tip of midfield. I sense the contract situation had something to do with him not wanting to build his team around a departing player, but it now appears he is going back to the style with which he always favoured, and has combined it with the ‘plan B’ he has been developing through the rest of the season.
The dual threat of Arsenal’s attacking styles might, I say might, just be enough to cover for the glaring flaws at the back. I’m not just talking about the walking brain-fart Mustafi, although I certainly could be. Desperately defensively thin, with injuries to Bellerin and Holding limiting an already threadbare backline, solidity has been hard to come by in this quarter of the season. Even in the United game where Arsenal kept a rare clean sheet, they still allowed 14 shots on their goal, 2 or 3 of which would have gone in if it weren’t for the fine form of Bernd Leno. Whilst the defence certainly may not be up to scratch, no doubt in part due to the sacrificing of Torreira’s regular place in the team, the German’s excellent recent run of games has been a huge asset. Arguments could be made he was Man of the Match in both the Manchester United game and the North London Derby, where he produced superb reflex saves, showed excellent timing to rush out from his goal, and an improved confidence in aerial battles from set-pieces. His distribution has always been his biggest strength, and it continues to play a big part in Arsenal’s building from the back, but his overall game has improved noticeably in his short time in England. Even in assumed ‘routine’ wins like Southampton at home, he produced fine saves at pivotal moments in the match; had he conceded that chance to Redmond at 0-0, the game would have been very different.
Certainly there will twists and turns yet to come in the battle for the Champions League spots, much of which will depend on how the sides progress in Europe; the fact all 4 still remain in competitions adds an interesting dimension to the debate. Perhaps the recent good performances against Spurs and United have me donning my rose-tinted spectacles, but regardless of how Arsenal progress in the Europa League (facing Napoli, I suspect we won’t have to worry too much about that) I am more confident than I have been at any point of the season that the Gunners will secure that hallowed 4th place trophy. Inevitably, this will mean a 5th place finish and a Europa League final loss to Chelsea on penalties, where Terry somehow comes on and takes the fifth spot kick, Petr Cech rips off his Arsenal kit to reveal the famous Blue Samsung home shirt of days gone by to join the celebration, and Jose Mourinho tracking me down, shouting respect, before poking me in the eye as he knee slides out of my flat … It’s the hope that kills you, and all that.