Arsenal armed and dangerous in top-four fight

Date published: Monday 7th August 2017 3:21

Like that awkward moment when you realise that you fancy the same person as your ageing parent (the stare, the glance, the shame), it feels bizarre to find yourself agreeing with Glenn Hoddle.

While Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were being questioned by Jake Humphrey about Liverpool’s chances of reaching the top four, no query was raised about neither placing Arsenal in their projected Champions League places. Just months after the Gunners had ended the season in the best form of any Premier League side, finishing just a point behind Liverpool and winning the FA Cup, their top-four chances were not even a topic for discussion.

Then Humphrey turned to Hoddle and laughed heartily at his attempt to crowbar five clubs into his top-four predictions. Finishing behind Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United – according to Hoddle – would be Arsenal, assuming that they kept hold of Alexis Sanchez. That his caveat allowed for Tottenham to replace them is irrelevant; Sanchez will stay. Spurs have a stronger starting XI, but Arsenal’s ludicrous squad strength makes them perfectly placed to compete both in the Europa League and Premier League.

Against Chelsea at Wembley, only five of their starting XI would have ranked in an XI of Arsenal’s most-picked players from last season’s ultimately disappointing league campaign. This was a side shorn of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and two members of their first-choice defence, and yet they looked far sharper than the champions. In Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi, they boasted the game’s most dynamic attacking players and yet neither would expect to start more than half of Arsenal’s Premier League fixtures this season.

The one advantage of Arsene Wenger’s infuriating/endearing refusal to sell his fringe players is that there are a hell of a lot of fringe players, which should excuse his key men from European duty in the first half of the season. Mertesacker. Elneny.¬†Iwobi. Welbeck. Walcott. Giroud. That is the spine of an excellent Europa League side. That alone should move them ahead of Liverpool and Tottenham and their numerically challenged squads in the race for Champions League places.

No fool would predict a title challenge on the back of a Community Shield victory on penalties, but it would be equally foolish to assume that one season spent in the shadows of Tottenham should lead to eternal darkness. Arsenal boast quantity like no other Premier League side, and they have also added quality in Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac. While Chelsea have arguably strengthened with replacements from the transfer market, Arsenal have inarguably strengthened with a sharp, hungry striker and the already loveable unit that is Kolasinac.

Clearly, the real strength is in the 3-4-3 system that now seems so blindingly obvious that we should all feel slightly embarrassed that we weren’t calling for its introduction years ago. Just a few competitive games into its use, it is now so ingrained that Arsenal ended the Wembley clash with two left-backs in their back three and a right-winger at left wing-back and everything still looked absolutely hunky-dory. Granit Xhaka certainly looks more comfortable in this formation, and the willingness of Lacazette to drop deep dovetailed perfectly with the exuberance of Welbeck and Iwobi. It works.

All of which makes it bizarre that the bookmakers and the pundits still make them odds-against to finish in the top four. You need only see an Arsenal squad list, never mind watch a weakened side beat Chelsea, to see that this is a set of players capable of a far better Premier League season without the distractions of Europe’s top table. Wenger’s biggest weakness could yet prove to be Arsenal’s strength.

Sarah Winterburn


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