The Season So Far
Since the construction of the Emirates Stadium, there have been two kinds of Arsenal season. The first, which we will call Type A, sees them challenge for top spot in the Premier League until February or March, when a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility leads to a complete collapse and an eventual fourth-placed finish. The second, Type B, sees a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility lead to a complete collapse which means they are out of the title race by October. In the second half of the season, however, they have a sustained spell of good form which suggests their eventual fourth-placed finish will become a challenge for honours in the next campaign.
Were it not for the fact that Manchester United and Manchester City have been so rancid for large parts of the season that Arsenal are about to finish second instead of fourth, this would be the archetypal Type B season. Every key player bar Alexis Sánchez has at some point suffered serious injury and/or loss of form, they have lost games they deserved to win and their lack of strong on-field leadership has once again been a key talking point at various points in the campaign.
Despite this, they’ve had a stellar second half to the season, winning all-but two of their league games in 2015 and hopes for next season, when an injury crisis as bad as this one can’t possibly happen again (!), are high. Sunday’s game against Chelsea is billed as the latest chance for the Gunners to prove they’re the real deal, after victories at the Etihad and Old Trafford suggested that they’re finally canny and callous enough to once again go toe-to-toe with the Premier League heavyweights.
This might be an erroneous impression, but one can’t help but feel we’ve been here before – and that we’ll be here again: in twelve months’ time we’ll either be bemoaning another late-season Arsenal collapse, or talking them up as challengers based on another long succession of convincing wins when the pressure has long since been off. A second consecutive FA Cup will surely arrive in May, but whether or not that is a genuine sign of progress is open to debate.
Arsène Wenger is an obstinate man who will never change – so the popular idea goes, anyway. Tippy-tappy pretty football that goes nowhere. No defensive midfielders or English players. Centre-backs who pass like Gerard Piqué but defend like Titus Bramble. That’s the Wenger Way – always has been and always will be. Except that it’s not any more.
Arsenal’s average possession figure has decreased for each of the last four years. In the last couple of seasons, they’ve shown a willingness to play as the reactive side to get a result in big games, instead of stubbornly sticking to their proactive game-plan and taking moral victories instead of actual victories. Rather than trying to artfully walk the ball into the net, they’re relentlessly sprinting it in. They’re almost as good on the counter now as they were during the Invincibles’ heyday.
And they’ve done all of this while increasing their on-pitch British presence. Aaron Ramsey has blossomed into one of Europe’s best box-to-box players, the injury prone trio of Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs have come to the fore, and Francis Coquelin has made a real difference as the snarly, physical, authoritative anchorman that neither Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini ever really were. As if that wasn’t a dramatic enough break with tradition, they’ve even signed a centre-back who’d run through a brick wall if it meant they didn’t concede – Gabriel Paulista.
Of course, they’re still recognisably Arsenal: they still usually play possession football, they still miss an incredible number of gilt-edged chances and they still have a habit of cocking things up in the most spectacular fashion. That said, the current team is, on paper at least, the most complete in years: they can play any number of ways, attack from almost any number of angles and deal with almost any challenge that is thrown at them at the other end. Were it not for injuries, bad luck and mental fragility (!), they could genuinely have challenged.
Keeping the ball, as ever, is Arsenal’s big strength. In Santi Cazorla, they have one of the Premier League’s best midfield metronomes, and in Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey, three of the division’s best off-the-ball runners. As with all great possession sides, it’s less the passes they play and more the angles and runs they make that enable them to dominate the possession stats so effectively.
Hogging the ball allows them to take a lot of shots: their average of 15.5 per game is the second highest in the Premier League, while their figure of 5.8 on target per game is unbettered. Individual quality helps, too: no side even comes close to matching Arsenal’s 16.1 dribbles per game. In Alexis, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain, they have three of the division’s best ball-carriers, while in Ramsey they have the best midfielder at arriving late in the box since Frank Lampard.
Once upon a time it was a recognised truth that if you stopped Arsenal in open play, you stopped Arsenal full stop. No longer: only West Brom and Spurs have scored more goals from set pieces this season. This is just another example of their recent development and move towards a more pragmatic style of play.
At the other end, their defensive figures are very impressive. Only three teams allow fewer shots on their goal per game, while no team makes more interceptions. Regardless of whether they’re sitting deep or playing high up the pitch, their players are well-drilled in the art of closing angles and forcing bad passes. Additionally, no team plays more of its football in the opposition half than Arsenal and no team concedes fewer fouls per game. However…
...playing almost all of your football in the opposition half and not committing any fouls aren’t good ideas against a José Mourinho side, particularly one honing in on a title win and therefore completely unconcerned with aesthetics. The stage is set for Arsenal to walk straight into the most obviously placed trap since Chelsea’s last two games.
Of particular relevance in this game is the lack of width in the Arsenal attack. No side sends a greater proportion of its attacks down the middle and, at various points in the season, Wenger's suddenly favoured 4-1-4-1 formation has seemed to strangle the Arsenal attack rather than stimulate it. Ramsey, Özil and Wilshere have all suffered the indignity of playing in a nominal 'wide role' which blunts them as individuals and makes defending them rather too easy. Having no strength in wide areas and sending every attack down the middle of the pitch against an inevitably parked Chelsea bus seems to be a recipe for disaster.
This leads us onto the wider theme of Arsenal’s enduring habit of ‘Arsenaling it’. The strengths listed above are hardly unfamiliar. The Gunners have been much better than fifteen of the Premier League’s teams for years, but some way behind some other three. When the chips go down, they cock everything up. The list of big games in which they have folded under the slightest pressure is as long as it is infuriating, and the suspicion that another "oh, Arsenal…" moment is approaching is hard to ignore.
Whether it’s Olivier Giroud slicing wide when it was easier to score, or Per Mertesacker getting caught under the ball, or Laurent Koscielny brashly overcommitting, or whichever goalkeeper who plays dropping an inexplicable clanger, there’s no way Arsenal can shoot themselves in the foot that we haven’t already seen ten times before. The only question is which way it will be this time.
Arsenal come into the game with a relatively clean bill of health. Only Mertesacker and Oxlade-Chamberlain are listed as injured, but the likes of Mathieu Debuchy and Jack Wilshere probably haven’t been training for long enough to take back their places in the starting eleven.
Chelsea’s striker curse is alive and well – Loïc Rémy and Didier Drogba are both struggling for fitness, while Diego Costa remains injured. Cesc Fàbregas makes his first return to the Emirates since leaving and, though he almost certainly feels a considerable level of regret about returning in Chelsea blue, the fact that a Premier League winner’s medal is potentially two games away should cheer him up.
Chelsea to kill the game, pick Arsenal off on the counter, seemingly have three points in the bag and then concede a late equaliser.