On Wednesday against Everton, Arsenal entered the last quarter of the season. The victory and results elsewhere meant that after the first game of the final fourth of the season, we occupy third place, six points separating us from the mega-rich but fifth-placed Blues and one point ahead of the Lilywhites. And with Tottenham and Chelsea to play in the early match Saturday, if we can get three points against Aston Villa, we have a chance to consolidate or extend that lead. (Obviously, we could also blow it, but let’s not go there right now.)
Things are looking pretty decent for the Arsenal, you’d have to say. That statement would have seemed patently absurd in August and the 8-2 at Old Trafford (or the September 4-3 loss to Blackburn, where we scored five of the goals). It might have sounded slightly more reasonable in later fall after a good run of form. Then absurd again after the debacles of January, the FA Cup exit and the annihilation at the San Siro. Now eminently reasonable again. It has been a crazy, roller-coastery season, with Robin van Persie almost singlehandedly pulling the whole team along. When we had an all-centerback back 4, fourth seemed a pipe dream. And now to be in third? What’s a level up from a pipe dream? An industrial-strength morphine-drip dream?
Aside from the recent (awesome) habit of coming from behind to snatch crucial victories, one of the most encouraging pieces of data is in the area of Arsenal’s former shame—goal difference. It took a while to shake off the -6 from Old Trafford, added to other negative takes from Liverpool and other early-season opposition. Still miles behind the Manchester clubs (United, 46; City, 50), Arsenal at 19 leads Tottenham (18) and Chelsea (15). This is good. Robin still scores nearly all the goals, but the defense has stanched the flow of goals against us.
Yet there are still 9 games to go and 27 points to play for. Everything may yet change. To not expect some wrench in the works after the wrenchliness of this season would be naive. Spurs may no longer seem a lock for 3rd, but they can still pull it together to retake 3rd or fight for 4th. Likewise, Arsenal are not a lock for a Champions League spot, but in light of Wednesday’s results, top 4 is now looking more realistic than not.
Arsenal host Villa on Saturday at 11am EST, directly after Chelsea and Spurs face off at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal now have their fate in their own hands. They can focus on their own matches. Win matches, take points and 3rd or 4th is theirs. They don’t need anyone to drop points other than the immediate opponents on the pitch on any given day. Of course, if Chelsea and Spurs can both see fit to drop points and Arsenal can grab another three points tomorrow against the Villans, it may be possible to begin breathing full breaths again. Right now, it’s still too close. Heart in throat is still the order of the day.
Perhaps Liverpool or Newcastle will go on a tear, but at the moment, it seems like the trio of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea are the contenders for the two non-Manchester Champions League spots. And while any of the three teams would gladly take 4th, nabbing the automatic CL group-stage position (3rd) could be huge. Arsenal very nearly could have missed out on the CL this year, rubber-duckily squeaking past Udinese when our squad was in major transition mode. Loss to the Italian side would almost certainly have meant one or more of the deadline-day incoming players would have stayed put at their former clubs. (Think: no Arteta, no Mertesacker. And say what you want, Benayoun and Santos have put in good shifts on their days. Park…I wish I could include you here. I’ve honestly barely seen you play. Sorry that you got bamboozled, but congratulations on your military service reprieve!)
Of the top ten teams, Arsenal have only City (4/8) and Chelsea (4/21) ahead, both at home. The Chelsea match in particular could prove very important in the fight for fourth. A tricky tie away at Stoke (4/28) could also prove a clutch match, with the bad blood of recent times (and the fact that Stoke can pull out some good results).
So, do we hope Chelsea takes all 3 points against Spurs, to better our chances for third, or hope for the draw that sends both a little further back if Arsenal takes the full three? A Chelsea win would make things too congested. The prime directive for Arsenal is to keep going forward and to keep ahead of 5th place at all costs. Spurs may be the more traditional enemy, but Chelsea is further back and finishing in the top four is crucial. Third is nice but not essential. Fourth is essential. And knocking a mega-rich club out of the top four is preferable to my eyes than the Spurs bragging rights. Spurs is a good team, and they have imploded just as the Gunners would have wanted, which was really quite neighborly of them. If we take fourth, no more, personally I’d prefer we kept Chelsea out. Roman may lose interest, send the club spiraling into administration and we’d finally have one fewer superpower in the Premier League.
It’s too early to call corners turned, bends bended or anything remotely inside of any bag. But for those wondering, “what changed?” here are some partial comments, if not an all-encompassing Unified Theory.
RVP—He never stopped performing, but fortunately he maintained his incredible shotmaking with such consistency that when the rest of the team got it together it all went firing ahead together. He has led as a captain throughout, added hat-tricks to his personal arsenal and drove Tim Krul to frothy near-fisticuffs with a simple phrase to the extent of, “Not so eager to time-waste now, are you?” Twenty pages could be written about van Persie, and in fact they have already been written elsewhere. He’s broken the calendar-year scoring record for the club, second behind Shearer for league record. Single season records await. Will he stay with the team? More than at other point this season, it seems possible. If we make the top four, and especially if it’s third of four with talk of incoming big names, it may just happen.
Thierry Henry—Some have said that Henry’s return and goal against Leeds in the FA Cup showed the players first-hand the kind of adulation a club legend gets. Henry’s return did that, and in addition to the Leeds winner he scored another crucial late goal against Sunderland that won us the match. He was there for the drubbing at Milan, though, and a bit of a low period to boot, so the turnaround is not due to the Thierry Henry Show alone. But it was great having Titi back in the fold, and as mentioned two of his three goals proved the matchwinners.
Theo Walcott—The current day 14 has been a target of the boo-boys all season. He’s got pace, which works wonders when the opposition gives him space. Except they know this as well, so they’ve stopped giving him space. One could have played a game of Most Unpopular Player a while back and it would have been between Theo and Andrey Arshavin. Now Arshavin’s off to Russia with Zenit and Walcott is playing well. He played out of his skin against Spurs and has been putting in good shifts of late. Whether it’s inspired by Ox envy or whatever, who cares. Theo is playing well. And if we don’t tie him down to a contract there now really are many who would. (And not just Liverpool, who love blowing wads of cash on iffy English lads.)
Wojciech Szczesny—Another for the “good all season” files, the ‘keeper kept the goals-conceded tally as low as he could in the early season and of late has been adding more clean sheets to the mix. The Everton game was won by a team-wide defense. Time was, Szczesny would have had to repel wave after wave of attacks, but in the second half, he was essentially coasting, because the rest of the team didn’t let the threats get close to him. (That said, bad luck to Drenthe for the disallowed goal in the first half.)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—What a breakout season for the teen winger (and occasional attacking midfielder). The “Theo with brains” is also the Theo with brawn. He’s tough, quick, humble and badass. Perhaps he’s really the un-Theo. The substitution of Arshavin for him against Man United in January provoked a response so unbelievably poisonous and vitriolic, it seemed that Wenger’s time at the club had to be over. And yet here we are, with supporters mumbling apologies to the Professor and one of the brightest talents in soccer happily bedded into the team. And of course, since he’s British, he’s got all that slobber to deal with, too. Good on you, Ox. (And good luck to you re: the UK media hype machine.) Looking forward to seeing you and Theo weave side to side with the quickness that causes defensive heads to explode. For years to come.
Tomas Rosicky—Tomas already had a contract extension in the works, but the timing of his revival coincided almost perfectly with its announcement. No goals in two years, and suddenly he’s scoring, assisting and showing the young’uns how it’s done. Perhaps he and Robin used the time spent on adjoining injury tables to mastermind this stage of the proceedings.
Thomas Vermaelen—After a long, long spell on the sidelines, Vermaelen returned and provided some more solidity to the central pairing, except that he got conscripted to left back during the fullback crisis. He did well enough, but it’s clearly not his best position. In a CultFootball dispute a while back in the Fall, it was mooted, “How many Arsenal players could get into the Spurs starting XI?” The questioner thought “maybe Sagna, maybe van Persie in his current run of form.” The maybes were of course absurd, but a main source of contention arrived in the topic of Vermaelen. To me, Vermaelen is a better defender than any Spurs centerback. And he scores! Vermaelen has scored 5 this season, despite all the months on the sidelines. Vermaelen rules.
Alex Song—Going back to the T-ham argument, Scott Parker was deemed better than Song. I still don’t believe it. When I remember some of the perfect passes to van Persie, his versatility on the park, switching to centerback, if needed, there’s no comparison. Parker was a coup of a buy for Spurs—inexpensive, experienced, talented—but he does not measure up to Song who, like van Persie, maintained his form throughout the season and was similarly waiting for the rest of the team to play out of their funk.
Fullbacks—For a long stretch of time, all the fullbacks were out and an unusual Arsenal surplus of centerbacks (and Coquelin) filled in. Djourou flailed, Miquel and Vermaelen did better but not remarkably, Coquelin did well. But now with Bacary Sagna and Kieren Gibbs back in the midst, we have the old system of marauding, overlapping full backs with pace and wingerish attack-mindedness to go with their core defensive work. If any one thing is the “reason” for the comeback, I’d say it’s the return of the specialized fullbacks. Why so far down the list? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to remedy by singling out how awesomely Sagna played against Everton on Wednesday. He won nearly every header and asserted his command in every way possible. Theo is a better Theo when Sagna has his back. With Djourou, not so much.
Centerbacks—After all the hullaballoo about needing quality central defenders in the past few years, this time we had surplus to requirements at the exact right time to plug the fullback holes. Per Mertesacker was a great signing. Some will say he’s too slow. They can say it as much as it pleases them. I don’t think he’s good because of speed, I think he’s good because of the way he reads players and positions himself. Laurent Koscielny has asserted himself as the main man in Vermaelen’s absence and the main main to pair Vermaelen when he’s fit. Excellent season for the French Pole. And Vermaelen…oh right, already waxed present-tense nostalgic about the Belgian.
Midfield—This year was to be Wilshere’s year, until it wasn’t. Fortunately, Ramsey has put leg-break fears behind him and formed a good partnership with Arteta and Song. Arteta has provided goals and a cool head–he probably deserves his own standalone entry, in fact. One wonders how things could have been different if Arteta had played alongside Fabregas for the latter’s final seasons in the red and white. Although Frimpong and Coquelin did not really play a part in the “turnaround,” per se, they most definitely broke out this season and helped maintain focus during the dark months, helping hugely in the resurgence of the fall. Without those points then, there wouldn’t be the points total of now.
Think about this team, plus players like Podolski, Vertoengen, a creative midfielder/playmaker and no exits aside from those we want (Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, possibly Vela and Djourou). Wilshere returns eventually. Santos re-enters the matrix soon. Jenkinson looked promising until his injury troubles. Presumably Diaby has a role to play yet. Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Miquel all made the most of their first-team shots and should be seeing plenty more playing time in the season ahead. (Get well soon, Frimpster and Le Coq.)
The final 9 games will decide much with regard to our pulling power with newcomers and our retention rate with the best performers we have currently.
May all the games that remain be filled with Arsenalian brilliance. And good day to you.
League games that remain this season:
Mar 24 Arsenal v Aston Villa
Mar 31 Queens Park Rangers v Arsenal
Apr 8 Arsenal v Manchester City
Apr 11 Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal
Apr 16 Arsenal v Wigan Athletic
Apr 21 Arsenal v Chelsea
Apr 28 Stoke City v Arsenal
May 5 Arsenal v Norwich City
May 13 West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal