Keep Calm And Laugh At Tottenham: Arsenal Will Be Playing Champions League Football Next Season...
Last summer I received an incredible email - “Season Ticket Offer at Arsenal Football Club”. It had been more than seven years in the making. Time momentarily froze as I digested the words in front of me. Then came the rush of adrenaline as I fumbled around my flat in search of a phone. It is a memory that will remain with me forever. The timing though, as with most things in life, could not have been much worse. It was a fortnight before my wedding and my finances were in tatters. I envisaged all the home made lunches and tins of beans I would need to survive on in the coming months. I decided there and then that there was only one course of action - to take the plunge and purchase the ticket. Nine months have since passed, and what a great decision it has turned out to be. The opportunity to watch your boyhood team is something that many fans would chop an arm off for. I was therefore quite dumbfounded this week when a friend of mine announced that he intended to rent his ticket out for next season. The rationale behind his decision? “I don’t want to lose my season ticket, but I refuse to pay the current price without Champions League football to look forward to”….
Before you ask “is this guy a real fan?” or “has he fallen on hard times?” think again. He is both a life-long fan and financially solvent. In my view, the decision he made reflects a much more widespread issue at the club; an on-going malaise which no-one seems capable of arresting. In a microcosm it is one example of the rampant pessimism permeating through the mindset of many Arsenal fans these days. I disagree strongly with such an outlook, and I am going to argue that not only is the decision of my friend (and no doubt many others at the club) a sad one, but that it is based on an unlikely premise – a season without Champions League football. It is irrational and counter to historical precedent to argue that Arsenal Football Club will finish this season outside the qualification zone for Europe’s elite competition.
First of all let’s take a quick look at some hard, cold stats. In our most recent Premier League game on 16th March we beat Swansea 2-0. This means that there are nine matches remaining in the current campaign. Across the final ten matches in the history of the Premier League, Arsenal average 1.92 points per game. Our average number of points per game over all other matches stands at an inferior 1.86. The conclusion from this is fairly straightforward - historically we finish strongly. Furthermore, in each of our previous three League campaigns when we found ourselves in fifth place with ten games remaining (1999/00, 2005/06, 2008/09) we still managed to achieve a top four finish AND scored 25, 25, and 27 goals respectively. Compare these goal tallies to the average across all other games in our history (18.3), and it becomes abundantly clear that not only do we finish strongly, but we also finish most strongly when the stakes are at their highest. On this brief historical analysis alone, what on earth are the fears of many Arsenal fans based on? How can they be justified in such a sensationalist if not apocalyptic fashion?
Returning to the present, there are other factors to consider– not least the fixture lists of our nearest rivals Chelsea and Tottenham. Let’s begin with the blues – Southampton away on Saturday 30th March is a potential banana skin. The Saints' recent home form against the big boys has been impressive, beating both Manchester City in February and Liverpool in March by 3-1. The strength of Chelsea’s squad ought to prevail, but let’s not forget many of their players featured in World Cup Qualifiers and friendlies over the past week. The risk of injury aside, fatigue is an inevitable by-product of such exertion. The Blues then face Manchester United on 1st April in an FA Cup replay - the one remaining domestic competition that Chelsea still have a chance of winning. This will be a dog fight of a game. Furthermore it represents the beginning of an eight game run for Roman’s legion in April, which includes fixtures against Liverpool, Tottenham, and two Quarter-final Europa League ties. The Tottenham clash interests me most as considering the current gap of 1 point between the two, the magnitude of the result cannot be understated. From the perspective of an Arsenal fan it is also particularly tantalising as it is likely to knacker the pants off both teams. Then, before Chelsea fans thought it could not get any worse their team must travel to Old Trafford on the 4th May. Let’s face it, United have bagged the title already but Fergie has distilled a mindset of steeliness and focus in his players that will prevent a repeat of last season’s mini-collapse. I predict a heavy win in favour of the Red devils and with it potentially the end of Chelsea’s Champions League dreams.
How about Tottenham Hotspur? Well, their run-in is not quite as severe as Chelski’s, but nonetheless tough, especially for a team whose squad depth remains questionable (yes, Bale is worth the same as two strikers, a central midfielder and a winger, but his recent injury concern whilst on International duty represents a possible grey cloud for Tottenham’s European ambitions). Having said this, they also have two Europa League ties to deal with as well as fixtures against Everton (on a scintillating high after their recent win over Manchester City), Manchester City, and a revived Wigan Athletic undergoing their usual end of season Houdini act.
Arsenal on the other hand have an arguably easier/ run of matches. Reading at home on 30th March won’t be as straight forward as if we were playing them earlier in the season (their recent narrow defeat away to Manchester United suggests a battling quality) but it would be extremely surprising (if not exasperating) if we were not to book three points here. The away game at West Bromwich Albion on 6th April should be another three points. The Hawthorns has not been a fruitful place for anyone to travel to this season – only the two Manchester clubs have registered more home wins than West Brom, but it’s important to note that the majority of these (6 out of 9) were banked before the end of November. Based on recent form three points ought to be ours for the taking. Norwich at home on 13th April has 3 points written all over it – the Canaries have only managed 6 points from their last nine League matches. Our third match in April however could prove a pivotal moment in our season – home to Everton on 16th April. Having comprehensively beaten Manchester City 2-0 in their last league game, Everton ought to be firing on all cylinders. They have an extremely competent man at the helm in the figure of David Moyes, and as a club they will continue to knock on the door of Champions League qualification in the coming years. It’s too early to make a call on how significant this game could be as Everton still have tough games away to Spurs and at home to a desperate QPR in the interim, but my money is on it being a huge one!
The conclusion we can take from this? Both Chelski and Tottenham have a fixture log-jam to contend with (the latter less so, but whose squad depth is unable to cope with such a program), and Arsenal do not. Both Chelsea and Tottenham will drop points in a number of key games, and this will prove a catalyst for us gaining a top four spot. In fact when considering the pain that awaits both our nearest rivals, our recent exit from the Champions League and the mid-winter Cup defeats to Bradford and Blackburn appear to have been a blessing! We now have a relatively fresh squad, focussed and running on the back of recent strong results, with a fixture list that is comparatively accommodating. One aim, one target, one inevitable outcome.
One other factor that does deserve a mention, although it could well form the basis for a separate article in itself, is the impact of the recent shift in attitude within management. Arsene Wenger has made some bold decisions in benching Szczesny in favour of Fabianski, giving Vermaelen a rest in favour of a Koscielny/Mertesacker combination at the heart of defence, and also playing Jenkinson ahead of Sagna (whose heart I do not believe is in it any longer). There is now a renewed focus within the squad. Everyone realises the extent of what will happen if they fail to produce the goods from here on in – no guarantee of a starting berth (or indeed a future at the club) and no Champions League football. There is simply no margin for error – a situation which based on the great history of Arsenal Football Club suits us just fine in our quest for Champions League football.
This piece originally featured on Rouge London by Joshua Newton