Chelsea take on Arsenal tomorrow night at Stamford Bridge, with the Blues, on a good run of form, looking to solidify our hold on third place and the Gunners, on bad run of form, looking to get back to it in the race for fourth. It’s always a big rivalry match, this, so we sat down with Nathan Reynolds of The Short Fuse to chat about Arsenal’s season so far, the job Arteta’s doing, and what we might expect on Wednesday. Be sure to check out reverse version of this Q&A, where we talk about Chelsea’s ownership situation and the road ahead for the club.
WAGNH: Arsenal look likely to finish higher than the back-to-back 8th places of the last two seasons. Does that alone make it a good season for you guys, or would you need at least a 4th to rate it that high?
TSF: At the start of the season, and after losing the first three matches with a lot of players missing, 4th seemed like a long shot. Finishing 6th or higher would probably be considered a good season, a step in the right direction, even if it’s hard to accept that at the moment because of how strong their case for 4th place looked a few weeks ago. There will definitely be disappointment if Arsenal can’t find a way back into 4th, but given the particular injuries over the past few weeks and the lack of depth we’ve had this year, it’s not completely surprising. This season was a step in the right direction and it’s been a while since that seemed a given at Arsenal.
WAGNH: Things still seem to be quite unsettled under Mikel Arteta, especially in terms of consistent performances. What’s the verdict on him as he finishes his third season (second full) as manager?
TSF: Prior to these last three matches, Arsenal had been on a really good run. Five wins in the previous six, with the one loss being against Liverpool. And ten wins over a stretch of 13 Premier League matches. If Kieran Tierney, Thomas Partey, and Takehrio Tomiyasu had all remained fit I think Arsenal get 4-to-6 points from the last three games and are still in 4th place.
I think big picture Arteta remains slightly above expectations and it would be shocking if he wasn’t the Arsenal manager next season. He and Edu have slowly improved the squad, getting rid of older players, making good signings, and building a younger team. They have a lot of work to do this summer, especially confirming new homes for all of the senior players on loan, but if they can replicate last summer’s transfer activity Arsenal will be in a great position to contend for the top four once again.
WAGNH: Arsenal appear to be getting together a very good core group of young players. What’s the plan for the summer to get them a slightly better supporting cast? What’s the biggest area of improvement that’s needed?
TSF: Forward is the main priority this summer. Aubameyang is gone, and Lacazette and Nketiah both are out of contract. The club will probably sign two new forwards, ideally one more experienced than the other but both in the profile of the rest of their attack and recent signings — 23-25 age range with potential to develop further at Arsenal. From there focus is on a new center midfield, a new right-back to replace Cedric, and determining if they will sign a new center-back or finally bring in William Saliba from Ligue 1.
WAGNH: Bukayo Saka. How about a trade for Ross Barkley, Danny Drinkwater, and an NFT from John Terry?
TSF: That’s a hard pass. Hopefully when June arrives so does the announcement that Saka has signed a new 5-year deal to stay at Arsenal. Everyone loves him, he is an academy product and has so much potential. I believe he really enjoys playing alongside Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard, and Martinelli.
WAGNH: Just how high is the red card bonus in Granit Xhaka’s contract?
TSF: Xhaka is a victim of the perception of Xhaka as much as his actual actions. It’s about one red per 50 matches for Arsenal, which is still more than you want. He has had 1 red card this season, 1 last season, and 1 in the League Cup. Prior to that, you have to go back to 2016-17 to find his only other red cards with the club. You probably wouldn’t expect three entire seasons to pass without a single red card based on how he is perceived. Often it feels like if every player was reffed the same as Granit there would be a lot more yellow and red cards across the Premier League.
WAGNH: What on Earth happened with the whole Aubameyang situation? You look away for a second, and he’s scoring for fun in Barcelona!? Weird.
TSF: His time had simply run its course at Arsenal. In retrospect, they would have probably been fine letting him go before the start of the season and adding a new striker. The fanbase loved him, he seemed to really enjoy being at Arsenal, and everyone will look back fondly on his time at the club. I’m happy that he is finding form at Barcelona and hopefully will continue that for them next season as well. Plus it helps Arsenal get closer to a fresh start up top for next season.
WAGNH: Final verdicts on the life and times of David Luiz and Willian in an Arsenal shirt?
TSF: David Luiz was a mixed bag, but I’d say overall fairly positive. He had some really good moments for Arsenal and also some brutal mistakes. But that’s kind of what most expected when he arrived. He was a great character at the club so I believe he left with goodwill from the fans. Willian was a complete bust. Reiss Nelson was coming off a solid loan season in the Bundesliga and it looked like he would split time with Pepe (2nd year). Instead, Willian was signed late, took the minutes, and failed to have any impact – 37 matches and 1 goal.
WAGNH: I hear we’re playing a friendly in Florida in the summer. Which is worse, Orlando in July or Spurs finishing higher in the table?
TSF: Spurs finishing higher in the table. Especially considering this year that could mean the Champions League. The weather can be brutal during the day in Florida over the summer, but the nights can be quite nice.
WAGNH: With four defeats in five, what’s the plan from Arteta for this game to stop the slide? Should we expect any tactical or personnel changes?
TSF: Outside starting Rob Holding as part of a back three and playing more defensively, there isn’t much else he can do. The squad is really thin. Expect four or five U23s on the bench for the third straight match. There isn’t anyone else that hasn’t been playing who could come in and make a big difference. He may opt to start Smith Rowe and put Martinelli up top, but for the rest of the season, the plan is likely to stick with these players, look for better results on the attacking end and focus on adding depth in the summer.
WAGNH: Care to offer a prediction?
TSF: I went with 3-1 to Chelsea in my prediction and I don’t expect any returning players at this point so I’ll stick with that. Arsenal has had decent results against Chelsea the past few years, but this will be a tough one without Thomas Partey, both fullbacks, and likely Alex Lacazzete.
Thanks again to Nathan for the chat; be sure to visit them over at The Short Fuse.