Following the last gasp Welbeck winner at the weekend, Arsenal are back to being the bookies’ favourites for the title, but despite hope, can we hand on heart agree with them?
Post game Arsene described the victory as passing “a serious mental test”, (despite Martin Atkinson’s typically schizophrenic display) and it was a long overdue big match turnaround victory, but despite the warm glow after the final whistle, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. As Arsenal fans have got to know only too well in recent seasons.
Looking ahead to the season’s remaining league fixtures, Arsenal still have away trips to teams with title or top four aspirations in Spurs, Man Utd and Man city, as well as visits to Everton, Sunderland and West Ham, whose own desire for pride, survival and local bragging rights present potential banana skins. Under any normal circumstances, twelve points or more from those four fixtures would be seen as a decent return, but with both Spurs and City battling for the top spot, things aren’t quite so simple.
Arsenal’s home fixtures look more promising, with Swansea, West Brom, Watford, Crystal Palace, Norwich all currently in poor form compared to early season promise, and with a final day rubber against an Aston Villa side full of players looking for an escape route from next year’s Championship dog fight.
As such, 25-30 points out of the remaining 12 games in the Premier League seems entirely do-able, especially with the likes of Welbeck and Coquelin back. In the reverse fixtures Arsenal gained 29 points, so such optimism is not misplaced. This is despite taking into account the Premier League’s fixture computer pulling its annual trick of making us visit Old Trafford after Barcelona in the Champion’s League, and giving us just two days rest after our seemingly inevitable glorious failure in the Nou Camp before sending us for an early kick-off at Goodison. Of course, as the FA Cup progresses, there may be more congestion of challenging fixtures to come, but that cannot be worried about in advance.
The real question is: Would 76-81 points on the 15th May see us crowned as Champions?
Our nearest and dearest rivals (in every sense) Spurs have tricky trips to Chelsea, Stoke, West Ham and Liverpool to come, as well as hosting ourselves and Man Utd, but will fancy winning their other remaining fixtures against a selection of relegation battlers.
With Fiorentina in the Europa League to come, it could be touch and go as to whether they depart Europe at the same time as us, and on current form, they’ll be confident of getting past Crystal Palace in the FA Cup this weekend. As such, they are very slightly better placed in terms of fixtures than ourselves and of course possess a superior goal difference. Combined with their incredible run of no injuries (bar Vertonghen for a few weeks) and their incredible run of farcical penalty decisions in their favour in one goal games, Arsenal either need them to suffer a change in fortune, to take three points as visitors to White Hart Lane or hope that somehow they find a way to ‘Spurs it up’, otherwise the unthinkable might be possible.
Crucially though, we can influence this outcome ourselves. Also of significance is the fact that despite the apparent weakness of some forthcoming opponents, Spurs only collected 18 points in the reverse fixtures this year.
Bringing up the rear in the four horse race, Man City remain prodigiously talented and mentally fragile to a level that makes Arsenal look stable. With Liverpool, Chelsea and Southampton away, and Man Utd and Arsenal to visit the Etihad, they have some testers to come, and with potentially winnable fixtures against Dynamo Kiev in the Champion’s League and an impossible to call FA Cup visit to Wembley, not to mention the League Cup Final at the end of February, their fixture calendar looks likely to be busiest of the challenging foursome.
To me, their mental fragility and their awful record against the better clubs this year make me think that top spot may be beyond them, but I for one would feel a lot happier visiting the Etihad on May the 7th with them confirmed in fourth spot, too far behind Arsenal to catch us and too far ahead of whoever is in fifth to be caught. With City taking 23 points against the same opposition so far this year, this could well be possible.
This brings us, of course, to the recently vanquished league leaders, Leicester City. While we’ve all been waiting for the bubble to burst, they have kept on accumulating points more efficiently than their rivals, and as such, have to be taken seriously. Particularly on the basis of their levels of performance in recent fixtures. Despite their dodgy penalty and eventual defeat at the Emirates, they were still very compact and impressive in their transition play on Sunday, and of course comprehensively put Man City to the sword the week before.
Looking ahead, they have by far the least challenging run in. With no FA Cup or European commitments, and only trips to Manchester United and Chelsea (on the last day of the season) as remaining fixtures against ‘big’ clubs, maintaining recent form levels could see them realistically take 27-30 more points over the rest of the season if they maintain their peak form and avoid injuries. After all, Leicester took 32 points from the same opposition earlier in the season.
Of course, the mental pressures of being top of the table increase the closer to the end you get, but realistically we find ourselves relying on them dropping points against weaker opponents as they did against Bournemouth and Aston Villa. Particularly as having taken six points off them already, we cannot influence their results in any way.
So looking just at squad health and future fixtures, it has to be said that as of today, the greatest likelihood is that the table will finish as it currently stands.
Of course, we all know it doesn’t work like that, and each of these teams will face difficulties based on their own psychological strengths and weaknesses, and on events yet to come.
Arsenal have the immense pressure of the 11+ (title drought) and a recent history of falling apart when well placed, added to by an impatient and desperate fan base, where ticket prices increase expectation.
Tottenham have virtually no medal winning experience, a very young squad, and a massive over reliance on Harry Kane’s goal-scoring, not to mention a history of over half a century since they last finished league runners up, let alone as champions. Although their fan base is characterised by manic hopeless optimism and a pathological obsession with beating Arsenal, they surely have to feel the fear at some point?
Man City‘s current squad could write the book on mental fragility despite possessing the best collection of players, and with the manager ‘Dead Man Walking’, it’s going to be hard to get the players to go the extra mile. It also doesn’t help them that their three best outfield players are all capable of picking up a significant injury at any moment.
Leicester‘s challenge is different. Having never won a League title (with a best as runners up in 1929), and having spent 18 months of the last decade in the top flight, the club, fans and players are almost all in totally unknown territory, with only Huth and Ranieri with any experience of such footballing altitude in the UK, and then very briefly. As such there is a total absence of pressure. But equally there is an almost equally total absence of knowing how to deal with the kind of pressure that will mount as May gets nearer. While their Championship title in 2014 and miracle escape last season will hold them in good stead, no observers of their squad, internal or external can really have any idea of how they might react. A wild card in every sense.
The net result of this is that a season characterised by incredible unpredictability will ultimately remain as such, due to the number of variables involved. For the neutral it is amazing, and fans of teams not involved directly are loving it.
From an Arsenal perspective, it may be Spurs that we are all scared of losing out to (and with good reason – imagine how long they would live off that for), but ultimately Leicester remain the team to catch… and in all likelihood this will only be achieved by beating Spurs at The Lane of Broken Dreams on March fifth.
In the light of all this seriousness, I’ll leave you with a thought of more levity.