Arsenal fans may want the Premier League title, but a top four finish is the best we can hope for.
Realism can often be a nice way to dress up pessimism, but I don’t believe I’m being pessimistic in suggesting that the Premier League title is, realistically, beyond Arsenal this season.
That’s not to say that fans shouldn’t have lofty expectations for the club. However, there are a number of factors that will inevitably hinder a title challenge: inconsistency against the lesser teams, an inability to beat the top teams, a busy schedule that will stretch and test the squad’s depth, and the strength of the competition.
With five other teams competing at the top of the table, consistency against the rest of the league is more important than ever. In a game against a Tottenham, Chelsea or Manchester City, dropping points should be within expectation even if it is incredibly disappointing. The commonly held belief is that it’s those results that always damage Arsenal’s season. Of equal importance, though, are the points dropped to the so-called “Bottom 14” of the league.
Liverpool are the best case study for this.
They boast one of the best records around against the top sides in the Premier League, and have developed a reputation under Jurgen Klopp for being able to blitz the best defences. Yet, they’re just as likely to drop points to sides like Watford and Burnley than they are to stick three or four goals past Arsenal or Manchester City. That lack of consistency prevents them from sustaining a title challenge.
Arsenal aren’t quite as bad against the lesser teams but are susceptible to dropping points in games they shouldn’t. Last season, for example, Arsenal lost to West Brom, Crystal Palace, Watford, and Everton, and drew at home to Middlesbrough. Had Arsenal picked up a maximum 15 points from those games, they would have finished four points behind Chelsea instead of 18.
This season, Arsenal have already lost to Stoke, and already have little room for error, especially with their poor record against the bigger sides. The hope will be that a more ruthless striker in Alexandre Lacazette will help us dispatch the rest of the teams in the league, but Arsenal’s problems in those games are so often with the defence, and not the attack. There are few signs this season so far that that has improved.
The Europa League and the Thursday-Sunday schedule complicates the issue further.
Arsenal are no stranger to mid-week fixtures, having spent so long in the Champions League, but the short turnover between games has proven to be a challenge for teams in the past. That Arsenal had to field a number of teenagers against BATE Borisov is evidence of the strain the competition is already having the squad just two games in.
By and large, not a great deal has changed at Arsenal.
For all the noise that surrounds the club, it goes through the usual phases. The chaotic start to the season is followed by a period of recovery leading up to winter, which is followed by a decline of form before another recovery in the final months of the campaign.
So far, we’ve been through our chaos stage, and are now in the recovery phase, having won five of our last six games.
The season is playing out as it usually does, and until there’s evidence of improvement, I suspect it’ll end as it usually does, too.
Whether we end up in the top four or not will depend on how benevolent our rivals are.