The Race Is On: Can Gunners Still Make The Top Four?

Talk of replacing the manager in the past was always met with derisory comments about Arsenal’s European history before Arsene arrived at Highbury. It was comparing apples and pears; similar but completely different.

The old chestnut of two decades of uninterrupted Champions League qualification was triumphantly compared to two seasons of Champions Cup football. Mention different qualification rules and it was a failure to claim top four finishes. At some point, we knew the party would end but the claim was always that Arsene’s successor would be the one who dragged us, not the man himself.

That one is coming home to roost. The Champions League, assumed by many to be our birthright, is slipping out of sight. Tantalisingly so; this is Arsenal, of course. Our recent history sums up the current situation perfectly: success – relatively speaking – is within our grasp but we’re just going to blow it.

Yet back-to-back Premier League wins at Middlesbrough at home to Leicester, raised the prospect of a top four finish once more. A certain bullishness surfaced; Liverpool’s recent woes added to that and at the weekend, City and United’s draws left them within touching distance. ‘Could’ is a powerful word, though. Full of hope and opportunity but hiding the darker side of failure within its’ meaning.

The victory over Leicester was unusual. We had the lion’s share of possession – usually a precursor to defeat – and took three points when made odds-on favourites. Sunday’s demoralising defeat at White Hart Lane proved that.

An abject performance underlined recent betting data from Betway Insider which conclusively proved we only seem to win when the odds are indeed stacked in our favour. Arsenal are flat-track bullies, beating small clubs but taken apart too often by peers and betters. We’re the biggest kid in the primary school playground, going into senior school and learning the hard way that we’re small fry again.

Top Four Or Four, Tops, If You Prefer

Despite the defeat, Arsene clings onto the mantra that the top four is not out of reach. The run-ins of the teams third down to seventh underline that we are very much underdogs to claim a top four berth. The table below shows how difficult our remaining fixtures are compared to the three other teams we’re fighting against.

Even allowing for improbable wins over United and Stoke, we are reliant upon Liverpool and City dropping unlikely points. Both have made a habit of it this season but it seems unlikely in the remaining games. The ‘Mourinho Effect’ is still in play while Stoke are Stoke, even if they play with more guile against everyone else. Mark Hughes Blackburn side were not known as Blackeye Rovers without good reason.

The reality is we loaded the shotgun and gave our feet both barrels in the past ten games. Three wins, one draw and six defeats, is not the form of a team looking to win titles or even make the top four. The blow-up when it came, was at the wrong time and in the wrong places.

Get Ready For Wembley and Next Season

Recovery is possible. Until the mathematics rules out a top four finish, the manager and players efforts will focus on rectifying the mess of their making. The remainder of this season is preparing for the FA Cup final and honing the 3-4-2-1 formation. The players are still feeling their way, still uncertain of their roles.

Leicester gave a warning on Wednesday night of what to expect from the remaining opponents. None will play expansively, bar Tottenham yesterday. United’s season is built on boring opponents into submission and that won’t change. It is Mourinho’s philosophy, after all.

No discussion of missing the top four is complete without reference to the abysmal performances against Europe’s elite in recent years. Debacles are too common and from a competitive viewpoint, dropping into the Europa League offers more chance of success. We are a Champions League team in name only. We’re unlikely to ever challenge for the trophy itself. Our moment came and went in 2006.

Winning the Europa League could do squad and manager the world of good. Remember Wenger is the only manager to have never won any European competitions while losing all finals in all three club competition. However, with his view on the League Cup makes me question whether he will take the Europa League seriously or view Thursday Night Football as an inconvenience to get out of as soon as possible.

The assumption that Arsene will continue to be in charge underpins all the supposition. It keeps the squad on an even keel, without any shock negatively impacting performances. Is that the reason for the club’s silence over his future? Change is viewed at Arsenal as unnecessary, even if it is by the better.

Stan and Ivan like to call it strong and stable leadership. From a flat-track bully? It’s very much in vogue at the moment. Arsenal aren’t the only ones being led over the cliff.