The Season Just Gone
If ever there was a season to end their league title drought and bring a close to the era of constant angst, rage and in-fighting amongst their especially rabid fanbase, 2015-16 was it. Defending champions Chelsea self-destructed in an almost unprecedented fashion; Manchesters City and United were nowhere to be seen in the title race, both collapsing under the weight of their own bloated expectations and fragile egos; Liverpool were never even in the running. It was all set for Arsenal, the last remaining superpower of English football, to waltz to an unbelievably comfortable triumph, and put the agony of the "oh, Arsenal…" years behind them.
Even when it seemed impossible for the usual combination of mental fragility, injuries, individual blunders at both ends and pure bad luck to cost them the title, the usual combination of mental fragility, injuries, individual blunders at both ends and pure bad luck cost them the title. Having dramatically defeated Leicester City on February 14th and closed the gap at the top to two points, Arsenal promptly lost their next two games and completely bottled their home straight, eventually finished ten points off the Foxes.
For Arsenal fans everywhere, it was another slap in the face from the hand of Arsène Wenger, a manager who pockets £7-8m per season and delivers the same impossibly frustrating results every year. For Wenger himself, it was a hugely frustrating blow and an indictment of several key players, in whom he had placed all of his trust. For the Arsenal board, it was a hugely lucrative campaign which justified their continued policy of milking their fans dry while underspending compared to their closest rivals, thus pocketing the proceeds themselves. It was ever thus.
The Season Ahead
Given that Wenger has seemingly shown it to be impossible that he’ll ever win the Premier League again, having been beaten by absolutely every conceivable rival since his last title win in 2004, there is little hope at the Emirates Stadium that things will be any different this time around.
Everyone knows Arsenal have one of the best teams in the division, with frightening levels of technical ability, creativity and raw pace across the board; at the same time, everyone also knows that 1. they’ll shit themselves and implode the first time the going gets tough, and 2. they’re a mean bastard of a centre-back, a top-notch holding midfielder and a clinical striker away from being a team capable of bulldozing its way to victory the way Wenger’s best teams used to.
Once again, a meek title challenge will fritter away due to the usual reasons and Arsenal will end up in third or fourth. Once again, the fanbase will leave the internet awash with all manner of cringeworthy reactions. Once again, with success such a distant prospect at his club, Wenger will face a fight to keep his best players.
The only difference this time is that Wenger’s contract expires at the end of this season. He’s fully expected to sign a new one, but the longer his deal goes unsigned, the more his age, his lack of recent success and the availability of more exciting, young, innovative managers will be discussed, and the more likely it will seem that he’ll finally call it a day.
Same old, same old: Arsenal aren’t as one-dimensional as they were seven or eight years ago, but the basic template of "hog the ball, walk it towards the goal, occasionally get done on the counter" is more-or-less the same. As everyone who’s ever watched football anywhere in the world now knows, Arsenal are a sleek passing machine loosely designed to score lots of extremely pretty goals and every so often concede extremely embarrassing ones.
As always, they’ll use their generic 4-2-3-1, with attacking full-backs, one playmaker alongside a more combative tackler and a pure number ten flanked by rapid inside forwards. In the absence of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sánchez has been used as a number nine, with mixed results. Recent recruit Lucas Pérez could be preferred up front given his more natural fit for the role and his midweek goalscoring exploits, but given the magnitude of the game, it would be a surprise. Either way, Gary Cahill and David Luiz (gulp) will have to be at their quickest, both physically and mentally, if Chelsea are to get anything from the game.
Although everyone knows they’ll probably never win the league under Wenger again, there’s no denying that Arsenal remain very good at what they do. They still boast one of the highest possession averages in the Premier League (55.6%) and the second highest pass completion average (85.2%). Indeed, so far this season they’ve played more accurate short passes per game than Pep Guardiola’s increasingly sexy Manchester City ensemble. In short: they know how to keep the ball.
They’re also really creative with it, racking up an enormous 14 successful dribbles per game and making an average of 1 chance per game with a throughball – for context, the next highest rate is 0.6 per game, and eight teams still haven’t created a chance with a throughball in the entire season so far.
As well as knowing how to use the ball, they know how to win it back: 18.8 tackles per game, 18.2 interceptions, 11.4 fouls per game and 10 passes blocked per game are high figures for a team which boasts so much of the ball. In short: they’re good at pretty much everything they need to be good at. Furthermore: Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla are sensational and Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Hector Bellerín are pretty handy too.
If there are weaknesses besides the obvious – and we’ll get to the obvious in due course – the most striking is that their shooting stats aren’t as dominant as usual. This can be somewhat attributed to their extremely bizarre start to the season, in which they had basically no fit senior central defenders, a few other key players injured and several others recovering post-Euros/Copa América. This culminated in them getting thwacked at home to Liverpool and a fresh round of anti-Wenger outrage swiftly followed, but more relevant here is that they didn’t play to anywhere near their maximum potential for a few weeks, and consequently the numbers have yet to take their usual form.
That said, going into a new season with no fit central defenders and a host of unavailable or unfit stars is just so Arsenal it’s unreal, and this is their most obvious weakness: just when it will be most inconvenient, they will suffer the most humiliating of pratfalls and everyone will shake their heads and mutter "oh, Arsenal…" yet again. For the last decade, Chelsea have basically built an identity on being fully aware of this and mugging Arsenal off twice a year en route to winning the trophies Arsenal could have won were they not so unremittingly stupid. The only difference now is that Chelsea are nowhere near as good as they used to be.
Post-Cup action midweek, Lucas Pérez and Cesc Fàbregas will be staking claims to start, but we should expect both managers to go for their tried and tested starting elevens here. For Antonio Conté, this may not be such a good idea.
Although Arsenal are Arsenal and Chelsea’s underlying statistics are considerably more convincing than their performances have been this season, this writer has a sneaky feeling Arsenal are going to play against type and nick it 2-1. Chelsea’s defence is so slow and generally untrustworthy at the moment, and the midfield so worryingly easily bypassed at times, that Arsenal should be able to do enough to get over the line.