In trying to sum up the year so far, with all of its trials and tribulations, the same little tidbit comes to mind.
Arsenal have played 27 competitive fixtures so far this season. They’ve lost by two or more goals in only one of them, and that was a League Cup game in which none of Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil or Alexis Sanchez played a single minute between them.
I say this, because despite their league position at the moment, Arsenal have had a more than decent start to the season. Yes, they’re fourth, nine points behind the leaders, Chelsea. Is that an ideal place to commence a title run from? Of course not. But since Chelsea lost at the Emirates, they’ve won twelve Premier League games in a row. TWELVE! They deserve to be ahead of anyone after a run like that, but are they nine points better than Arsenal? No.
Arsenal are in a slightly false league position at the moment, due largely to all of their main rivals (and Tottenham) winning on each of the three occasions that Arsenal lost. The talent gap between the best six teams in the league and everyone else is as large as it has been in years, and when all of them win when you lose, it’s almost a double jeopardy effect. A loss isn’t just one six-pointer now, it’s four or five.
But even with that in mind, Liverpool scored more goals in this calendar year than they have since 1985, and Arsenal are only three points behind them. Manchester City are only two points ahead of Arsenal and still have to play at the Emirates, and have an inferior goal difference too. Despite losing twice in the space of five days last week, Arsenal are still a point ahead of Spurs and four ahead of Manchester United. I can think of far worse situations to be in than the one Arsenal face at the moment.
It also needs to be pointed out that Arsenal’s rivals are about to find some serious roadblocks in their way. Liverpool will lose Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations, plus they have a two-legged League Cup semi-final to deal with. We’ll see how all the running they’ve had to do to keep Jurgen Klopp happy will affect them after that, along with having to play United, City and Chelsea in January.
Chelsea have to play Liverpool, Tottenham and Leicester next month, and all of them are away from Stamford Bridge. We saw at the Emirates what happens to that side when they start doubting themselves, and we’ve seen how they so effortlessly downed tools to get rid of a manager they didn’t like that whenever they don’t fancy playing, they just won’t. All is well at the moment, but they will definitely lose one of those three fixtures, if not more. After the game at Anfield, is a game against Arsenal. That nine point lead can become a memory in a heartbeat.
Of course, Arsenal would need to string a few wins together of their own in order to gain back the ground that they lost before Christmas. But the fixture computer must have been Arsenal’s secret Santa, because this is what they gave the Gunners for January:
EPL 01-01-2017 Arsenal vs Crystal Palace
EPL 03-01-2017 Bournemouth vs Arsenal
FAC 07-01-2017 Preston vs Arsenal
EPL 14-01-2017 Swansea vs Arsenal
EPL 22-01-2017 Arsenal vs Burnley
EPL 31-01-2017 Arsenal vs Watford
You couldn’t ask for a much kinder schedule that that. Five teams in the bottom eleven of the league, two of them with very recently appointed managers, and an FA Cup tie against a Championship side who have only won three of their last ten games. The hardest game on that list is the game in Bournemouth, but they can’t play their best midfielder because he’s still contracted to Arsenal, so squad rotation for them will be even more difficult than usual.
Arsenal will have rotation issues of their own, most notably Koscielny, but Rob Holding deserves a chance to show he’s the future at centre-back, plus Shkodran Mustafi is only a week away from returning to the side. Aaron Ramsey is available again to give one of Granit Xhaka or Francis Coquelin a breather, and Olivier Giroud is the best back-up striker in the league.
No. Seriously. He is.
We may not play to his strengths as much as he’d like us to, but when given quality service this season, he’s been more than effective. It took Arsenal 86 minutes to figure out how to deliver a good cross last weekend, but he only needed one good cross to score from. He’ll always look like a traffic cone in the penalty area whilst Arsenal have two wingers playing either side of him that like to cut inside rather than deliver balls in from the wings, but when Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain return, that problem will ease itself considerably. We might even see Danny Welbeck soon, too.
I know that it’s easy to be fretful about Arsenal at the moment, what with Özil and Alexis’ contract situations looking no closer to being concluded yet, and there being a sizeable gap between them and the league leaders. But so far this season, Arsenal have beaten those same leaders convincingly, have finally figured out how to get the best out of Alexis Sanchez, and won their Champions League group.
It could be better, for sure. But it could be a hell of a lot worse.
Happy new Year.