Football is a sport never shy of hyperbole but this weekend’s meeting with Leicester City at The Emirates is a must-win match if Arsenal are to realise their title ambitions. There’s a piece on today’s Mirror website that provides an ‘alternative’ Premier League table, one which shows how it would look if the “bookies favourites” had won every match. Arsenal are fourteen points and three places worse off in reality.
Most teams are, with the exception of Leicester and West Ham, until you get to mid-table. It underlines the missed opportunities this season. The alternative reality has Arsenal winning 72 points; reality has us between five and ten points behind the leaders at the same stage of the previous five or six seasons. Whichever way you cut it, Arsenal have slipped up this season.
There’s general astonishment at Leicester’s performance so far, ratcheted up a notch after their win in Manchester last Saturday. Few expected the crushing scoreline but it happened and Arsenal must expect the same intensity of performance from The Foxes this weekend.
They are seen as the torch bearers of the new Premier League. New money, the theory goes, has improved the competitiveness of the Premier League. That’s one way of looking at it but to me, this season is more about the continuing decline in standards of the top clubs. You’ve only got to look at the performances in the last five or six Champions League tournaments for evidence of that.
Since Chelsea’s win in Munich, how many English clubs have reached the last eight? I can only recall Chelsea doing so when they fell to Atletico in the semi-final. We expect Arsenal to exit early but all English clubs? Money isn’t producing the results it ought to.
But that’s a wider question that will only really be answered at the end of the season. With a dozen or so games to go, the title can be won by any of the top four but the pressure is on for the chasing teams. Any defeat whilst Leicester are picking up points is going to seriously damage their title hopes.
Arsène will be hoping that returning players reinvigorate the challenge. He has some big questions to answer in his own mind over the coming weeks, not least in the centre of defence. Per Mertesacker’s dismissal against Chelsea highlighted his lack of pace. It’s no surprise but has been covered by his positional sense previously. Not any more and his omission against Southampton and Bournemouth suggests that Wenger thinks it is a liability now.
Certainly it’s hard to see him reinstated to the XI this weekend for any reason other than injury. Leicester have relied upon counter-attacking at pace this season – why would anyone believe they will change against Arsenal on Sunday? They won’t and whilst the partnership between Gabriel and Koscielny has yet to settle down, it’s hard to believe Arsène will break it up, particularly as the (unchecked) stat doing the rounds last weekend is that we’ve kept clean sheets in seven of his ten appearances this season.
It doesn’t automatically mean Mertesacker is finished at the club. God knows we’ve seen enough injuries this season to be sure we’ll suffer more next. Possibly even later this campaign as well although you hope not. Or not to the extent we’ve seen so far.
Is it the changing of the guard? Football is cyclical and the fashion for ‘lesser’ clubs will be to follow the Leicester model for success. Their tactics will be copied, adapted and defenders with a lack of pace will be targeted as a weak point. Southampton did recently (twice), Diego Costa certainly did; it’s inevitable that Mertesacker will drop down the pecking order. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad player – far from it – simply that it is a chink in the armoury that is being exploited. Adapt and survive.
Arsenal will be strengthened by the return of Francis Coquelin. Arsène said that he didn’t play at Bournemouth because “he wasn’t quite ready”. You can be sure that City’s capitulation at home played into that decision. Wenger knows we could be ruthlessly exposed with the Flamini and Ramsey partnership against Leicester and wanted to make sure Coquelin was ready. Whether Elneny will drop in beside him with Ramsey moving out to the right is the question Arsène is grappling with. I doubt that change will happen, by the way.
And whilst we see Arsenal’s weaknesses, we mustn’t lose sight of the strengths. That is what has kept us (just about) in touch with the top but we are at a crucial phase of the season. The Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup: all three could be gone by the end of this month if we’re not careful. I expect Europe will be, there’s no question Barcelona are overwhelming favourites over the two legs.
Domestically? An FA Cup exit to Hull will be disastrous but the Premier League? I really couldn’t say with confidence how we will fare. That’s the legacy of the season so far.