One more round of matches to go and the international break really is over. Most of them are pointless; the number of nations who are already in the playoffs is staggering.
Not only that but Group D is eye-rubbing; Gibraltar are eliminated but Denmark, Switzerland and Georgia are all in the playoffs at the very least. Only the leaders Ireland, are not assured of anything.
There’s nothing like a UEFA qualifying competition to be overly complicated. And the very definition of madness. Take the Europa League.
Cluj knocked Celtic out of the Champions League qualifiers. The Romanians then lost the next round of qualifying so find themselves drawn in the same group as the Scots in the Europa League.
It’s nuts; there’s no other way to describe it. And the ECA wants everything but the price of sugar counting in a new Champions League qualification regime.
Soon, finishing in the top four won’t mean anything. It’s all about centralising football power and neutering domestic football. That’s what UEFA wants; the envy over the Premier League riches will only be sated when the money flows through the Zurich coffers.
The current circus continues for another couple of years so the top four continues as the minimum requirement for Arsenal each season. Which puts added importance onto the next four Premier League matches.
From late October, there are four uninterrupted months of club football. Form during that time fluctuates so taking maximum points in this phase of the season is vital.
And looking at our fixtures – Watford (A), Aston Villa (H), Manchester United (A), and Bournemouth (H) – there’s no reason why we shouldn’t get 12 out of 12.
Well, OK; we rarely win at Old Trafford even when they have as poor as side as they do now.
Ten points out of 12 would be a good return and one which stands us in good stead as autumn turns to winter. Chelsea and Tottenham, our two realistic rivals for the remaining top four places, face tougher games, notably involving Leicester and Wolves.
Manchester United could sneak into the frame as well; this year looks tougher than last. I’m not convinced it is all down to the mid-table pack catching up in terms of quality. Excluding City and Liverpool, I think the rest of the big six is slipping as well.
While clubs like Everton spend money like water, others such as the Foxes and Wolves take a far more rounded approach to squad building. I don’t think the Scousers have a bad squad but it’s hard to see that it was built with the same focused approach as the two Midlands sides.
The astute among you note I am confident we will finish in the top four. It’s the natural arrogance which comes from supporting a big club. And it is time we regained the swagger big clubs possess or ought to at least.
City and Liverpool walk onto the pitch almost certain of victory. They ought to given their squads or in Liverpool’s case, the starting line-up. However, we can be equally confident in most matches as well.
What holds us back? There’s an element of nervousness brought over from last season. We mock Mustafi but he wasn’t the sole cause of our disastrous end to the season. Not by a long shot.
Combine that with new players still bedding in and there’s the potential for a regular supply of material for Denis Norden’s new series: It’ll Be Alright on the Night from Beyond the Grave.
Standing Room Only
This is where Unai’s footballing philosophy steps into the limelight. I like that he wants the team to be a “chameleon”; it’s a sea-change from Plan A moving to Route One.
However, there’s a real danger that the chameleon changes its’ colours so often that it forgets its basic shape. There are a lot of times when we seem caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
While most teams are susceptible to the counter-attack, we seem more vulnerable than a team at our level ought to be. Maybe I’m over-estimating our level; perhaps we are just the mid-table pack punching above our weight. If that’s the case, Raul really did outsmart the market this summer.
Of course, we’re not but we defend like one of those teams. It’s not just the back four at fault, this is down to the whole team. It’s not just Xhaka being ill-suited to a defensive midfield role. But it is something Emery must address very quickly if we are to succeed, even relatively speaking.
We do, it seems, defend on the pitch like every game is a cup-tie. We’re constantly pushing forward, chasing a goal, leaving gaps to be exploited which even the bang average football sides find a way of punishing.
Therein is our problem which when solved will improve our standing. This is the season to do that with so many other rivals seemingly in various states of disarray.
The question is whether Unai can do that. The answer will soon be revealed.