The Season So Far
The kindest thing we can say here is that Arsenal never do things the easy way.
Having recovered their position as one of the Premier League’s powerhouse buying clubs, the Gunners have failed to establish a uniformly high level throughout the squad and now find themselves embroiled in a nervy and inevitably bitter battle to keep hold of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil.
Having successfully integrated several promising youth products into the first team, Arsène Wenger finds himself wondering whether Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are ever going to justify the hype with Premier League medals.
Having finished ahead of all of their traditional rivals last season only to be trumped by Leicester City, the Gunners have once again arsed up their title push by February and been sucked back into the battle for fourth.
While fans of lower league clubs will never see why Arsenal fans complain so much about literally everything, it’s undeniably frustrating to see so much promise repeatedly squandered – if finishing second, third or fourth every year can be defined as ‘squandered’.
On the plus side, future PSG megastar Alexis Sánchez, future Bayern Munich playmaker Mesut Özil and future Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny have been sensational for long stretches of the season, while future Barcelona legend Héctor Bellerín has established himself as arguably the best right-back in the Premier League and future Big Brother contestant Jack Wilshere has done really well on loan at Bournemouth.
The Season Ahead
Lose this game and there is no more Arsenal league season so to speak – if anything, they’ll have to worry more about finishing above Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City than winning the title. Lose to Bayern Munich a week on Wednesday and a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit beckons, with all the Arsenal Fan TV madness that that entails. Lose against Sutton United in the FA Cup and the Gunners faithful will likely murder Arsène Wenger immediately after the final whistle.
Luckily, there’s no chance they’ll lose to Sutton and a favourable draw could see Arsenal go far in the FA Cup. That said, if (when) they find themselves in a battle for fourth, Wenger may decide he doesn’t care about Cup success so much. With winning anything almost out of the question, the rest of the season is all about convincing Sánchez and Özil to stay.
As anyone who’s ever watched football anywhere in the world knows, Arsenal are a sleek passing machine sloppily designed to score lots of extremely pretty goals and every so often concede extremely embarrassing ones. They specialise in dominating despite not having a coherent midfield, scoring lots of goals despite not having a great number nine, and getting done on the counter by Chelsea.
The Blues shouldn’t expect any surprises. As always, Arsenal will use their loose, 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. Alexis Sánchez has been used as a false nine for most of this season and although Wenger professes to trust Olivier Giroud until the ends of the Earth, a knock to the handsome Frenchman means Alexis should return further forward, primarily to lead Arsenal’s press, but also to flit around the pitch and leave Chelsea’s three centre-backs wondering who to mark.
The pace of Arsenal’s wide players is the biggest threat here, and Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso will have to be fully alert to the threat posed by Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi, Héctor Bellerín and Sánchez, wherever he pops up. Even with cover provided by César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, the wing-backs will be worked hard here.
Although everyone knows they’ll probably never win the league under Wenger again, there’s no denying that Arsenal remain generally excellent at what they do. They have a squad of high-level players who are competent at almost all aspects of football. They know how to hog the ball and they’re also really creative with it, recording an admirable 12.2 successful dribbles per game and making an average of 0.7 chances per game with a throughball.
They know how to pin teams back and pick them apart: no team averages more possession in the opposition third of the pitch. They know how to transition from defence to attack and cut through opposition sides in a few seconds: only three teams create more chances on the counter. They even know how to mix it up and use height and aerial power to score goals: no Premier League team has more headed goals this season.
As well as knowing what to do when they have the ball, they know what to do without it: 18 tackles per game, 16.7 interceptions, 10.3 fouls per game and 8.4 passes blocked per game are very decent figures for a team which usually has the lion’s share of the ball.
And, to reiterate, they’re almost all absolutely rapid. This is very important.
Their most obvious weakness is increasingly a part of Arsenal’s identity. Just when it’s most inconvenient, the Gunners suffer the most humiliating of pratfalls and go to pieces, destroying their confidence in one fell swoop and derailing months of good work. In the immediate aftermath everyone shakes their heads and mutters “oh, Arsenal” for the millionth time, while the more unhinged fans seek out the Arsenal Fan TV crew and scream insanities into a microphone for the whole world to see.
Too often, when the chips go down, their opponents don’t have to beat Arsenal – Arsenal will simply beat themselves. A catastrophic home defeat to Watford leaves the Gunners playing a Cup final at Stamford Bridge on Satruday. Fortunately for Arsenal, their record in Cup finals is good. Unfortunately for Gunners, Chelsea have basically built their identity for the last decade on being fully aware of Arsenal’s mental weaknesses and effortlessly beating them twice a season.
And, to reiterate, they genuinely haven’t struck a balance in midfield this season in any moment. It’s bizarre.
No surprises on either side.
You already know. Everybody knows.