Smith Rowe and Saka spearheading an exciting young side, a formidable home record and a lighter fixture list… can Arsenal finish in the top four for the first time since 2016 or will an unsettled Aubameyang and old failings ruin Arteta’s ambition?
- Arsenal moved into the Premier League top four by beating West Ham 2-0
- The Gunners have not finished in Champions League spots since 2015-16
- Mikel Arteta’s team are clearly improving with exciting young players leading
- They have a very good home record this season and are more consistent
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being stripped of the captaincy has upset things
- And Arsenal still struggle with an inferiority complex in the bigger matches
It’s certainly been a while. Not since 2016 have Arsenal finished a season in the Premier League top four, a startling indication of their decline as a force in English football.
Placing 5th, 6th, 5th, 8th and 8th since then has shown how the mighty have fallen, coming off the back of 20 consecutive top four finishes under Arsene Wenger.
Even during the course of a season, the Gunners usually find themselves locked out of the Champions League places.
Emile Smith Rowe (centre) celebrates with Bukayo Saka (second left) and Eddie Nketiah (right) after scoring in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over West Ham on Wednesday night
Manager Mikel Arteta was pleased with another home win as their season gathers momentum
Since the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, they’ve spent just 144 days in the top four. By comparison, Man City have spent 1,094, Liverpool 1,043, Chelsea 872, Leicester 567, Man United 532 and Tottenham 439.
But now there are clear signs Arsenal may finally be good enough to return to those elite placings. Wednesday night’s 2-0 win over West Ham served to confirm their gradual improvement under Mikel Arteta, taking them above the Hammers into fourth ahead of the weekend.
Despite the best efforts of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to disrupt things after he was stripped of the captaincy earlier this week, the mood is generally positive around the Emirates Stadium for the first time in a good while.
Arsenal leapfrogged the Hammers to move into the top four – they haven’t finished a Premier League season in the Champions League places since 2016
The win came in the absence of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was stripped of the captaincy earlier this week after his latest breach of discipline
Former Arsenal defender and Sportsmail columnist Martin Keown is backing them to achieve a top four finish.
‘They still need to score more goals, it’s been a difficult period, but they are in the top four. Why can’t Arsenal make it?’ He said on BT Sport.
‘I do feel the quality is there and the belief is there.’
So will Arsenal finish the season in the top four? We present the reasons for and against.
WHY THEY CAN FINISH IN THE TOP FOUR
Young Gunners firing
It was always going to be a slow and sometimes painful rebuilding job for Arteta at Arsenal but the manager deserves immense credit for placing so much faith in young players.
That optimistic vision of shaping a talented and capable Arsenal team for the next decade is starting to bear fruit.
With Gabriel Martinelli, 20, and Emile Smith Rowe, 21, on target against West Ham, it means 10 of Arsenal’s 23 Premier League goals this season have been scored by players 21 or under – more than any other top-flight club in 2021-22.
Gabriel Martinelli celebrates scoring Arsenal’s opener as they beat West Ham to go fourth
And since Arteta’s first game in charge on Boxing Day 2019, players aged 21 or under have contributed 28 Premier League goals – again, more than anyone else.
England duo Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are enjoying excellent seasons, with the latter putting his Euro 2020 final penalty heartache firmly behind him.
With Martin Odegaard, 22, also showing his talent at last, there’s a youthful energy and ambition about Arsenal’s play that makes them exciting to watch and could propel them a long way.
Midfielder Martin Odegaard is starting to show his class for the Gunners this season
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Leeds United (A)
December 21 Sunderland (H)
Carabao Cup quarter-final
December 26 Norwich City (A)
December 28 Wolves (H)
January 1 Manchester City (H)
January 9 Nottingham Forest (A)
FA Cup third round
Wednesday night’s win was helped by Vladimir Coufal’s red card midway through the second-half but it was nonetheless a fifth consecutive home league win.
Arsenal have lost just once at the Emirates all season – to Chelsea back in August – and no team has collected more points at home than their 22 (leaders Man City also have 22 home points).
Last season, Arsenal lost seven times at home – including to Burnley, Wolves and Everton – but this time around they get on the front foot from the outset and are less of an easy touch at home.
The last four home games have also seen clean sheets, which will be just as gratifying for Arteta given Arsenal’s leakiness and sloppiness in the past.
Games such as the West Ham one could easily have gone against them in the past couple of seasons but they produced an assured performance and got the job done.
If they can just marry that strength in their own back yard with better form on their travels – and Arsenal travel sickness isn’t exactly a new phenomenon – they’ll be nailed on for the top four.
The Emirates Stadium has been turned into a fortress this season with 22 points picked up
Finishing eighth last season and failing to qualify for Europe for the first time since 1995 was a disappointment at the time.
But the other side of the coin is that Arteta has the luxury of a full week on the training ground between pretty much every game.
It has accelerated the development process as Arteta, who has weathered quite a few storms already in his two years in charge, imparts how he wants his team to play.
Covid is another factor. As more and more Premier League games are called off, with some managers calling for a pause in the season to let the Omicron variant settle down, there will likely be a big fixture pile-up in the closing weeks of the season.
Arsenal’s lighter fixture schedule has afforded Mikel Arteta more time on the training ground
That will have a knock-on effect with European competitions for pretty much every one of Arsenal’s top four rivals. Just look at the faff around rearranging Tottenham’s Europa Conference League game with Rennes – Arsenal have dodged a bullet by not qualifying for that competition.
They will be able to come into their games with fresher legs and it could be a telling factor in another tiring campaign.
WHY THEY’LL MISS OUT AGAIN
Their most reliable striker is unsettled
The Aubameyang affair this week was a reminder that big clubs like Arsenal are often one ongoing soap opera.
The Gabon striker saw the captain’s armband taken away after he returned late from an authorised trip to France to collect his sick mother, the latest in a series of indiscretions.
It did show Arteta’s ruthless streak and a commendable commitment to high standards of conduct in his squad.
But it came with the risk of unsettling the player who is Arsenal’s leading goalscorer this season, as he was in two of the last three campaigns.
Arteta hasn’t been impressed by Aubameyang’s behaviour and removed the captaincy
Aubameyang played no part in the win over West Ham but will return to training and could feature against Leeds United on Saturday.
The big question is whether he will be in the right frame of mind to perform and supply the goals that Arsenal will certainly need from him.
Aubameyang could depart the club either in January or next summer anyway but the very public way in which this has played out has devalued the striker.
Arteta didn’t miss his goals against West Ham but it could easily be damaging to ostracise their most reliable striker for the rest of the season as he searches for the exit.
Aubameyang is one of Arsenal’s most reliable goalscorers but may be frozen out of the side
The other factor is the risk of a leadership vacuum. Alexandre Lacazette responded well to taking over the armband on Wednesday, despite seeing a penalty saved, but he’s only a stand-in.
Options don’t exactly abound for the manager. Lacazette can do it but will it distract from the important job of supplying goals. Granit Xhaka has ‘history’ in the role, while it may be too soon for someone like Kieran Tierney.
As Unai Emery discovered, a ‘leadership group’ may sound nice and democratic but doesn’t work too well in practice. It’s a headache for Arteta.
Alexandre Lacazette wore the captain’s armband for the match against West Ham
Big games remain a problem
If Arsenal want to return to the Champions League, ultimately they will have to win one of their meetings with the teams around them.
Beating West Ham was a good start and they’ve already got the better of rivals Tottenham this season but too many of the big games go against them.
That worried opening to the campaign saw a 2-0 loss to Chelsea and a 5-0 hiding at Man City. They were also thumped 4-0 by Liverpool and went down 3-2 to Manchester United.
The gap is narrowing but remains considerable between themselves and the three title contenders – Chelsea, Liverpool and City. To lose so heavily to them just proves how far back Arsenal have slipped.
Lacazette, Thomas Partey and Albert Sambi Lokonga look dejected during the Liverpool loss
But winning key games against the likes of West Ham, Man United and Spurs will determine whether they finish fourth and return to Europe’s elite competition or end up in the Europa League or Conference League.
There’s been a long-standing inferiority complex about Arsenal in such fixtures, almost bowing to the inevitable defeat before the game has even started.
Arteta has claimed the odd scalp – they beat Chelsea home and away last season – but overall it remains a tale of woe.
They are improving defensively but this hasn’t yet translated into meetings with the very best opposition.
The Gunners were also thrashed 5-0 by Man City during the opening weeks of the season
They still need to be more consistent
‘We want to find consistency. This league is absolutely ruthless and whatever you do today, tomorrow is different.’
That was Arteta’s view after the ‘statement’ win over West Ham and it remains elusive for his team.
Again, it’s something that has come on under his stewardship. Last season, they could barely string two wins together for the most part and were simply unable to pick up any momentum.
This season has been better. They recovered from a disastrous start that saw them briefly prop up the table to go eight undefeated in September and October before crashing at Anfield.
Arsenal still need to be more consistent with their results but the general trend is upwards
Since then they have been beaten by Man United and Everton before bouncing back with back-to-back wins over Southampton and West Ham.
Arsenal just aren’t as good as the teams above them in stringing together a lengthy winning or unbeaten run. City have won their last seven league games and Liverpool their last five.
That’s what Arsenal need to be aspiring to. It helps that Arteta can be consistent in his team selection, naming the same starting XI in the league for the first time since April 2016.
The signs of progress become clearer by the week. Whether it enough to carry Arsenal back into the top four remains to be seen.
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