Arsenal had a chance to get back into the race for fourth place at Southampton, but they spurned that and now have difficult matches to come.
The business end of the season is upon us and things are about to get trickier for Arsenal. Having lost four of their last five matches, the final chase for that last Champions League place is coming into view and the fixture list has cursed Mikel Arteta with a challenging run of fixtures to kick it off. Four of their next five opponents are in the top seven. It is not encouraging reading when their last three defeats came against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton, three distinctly mid-table teams.
Over the coming three weeks, Arsenal have to play Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham United and Spurs, with only a home match against Leeds United looking likely to provide much relief from an otherwise gruelling schedule. After the twin disappointments the previous weekend of losing at home to Brighton and then witnessing Spurs put five goals past Newcastle, Spurs’ desperate performance against the Seagulls in the Saturday lunchtime match should really have been all the encouragement Arsenal needed. They had to put some colour back into the cheeks of an increasingly exasperated fanbase against a Southampton team coming off the back of a confidence-sapping 6-0 home defeat by Chelsea.
But sometimes it just feels as though Arsenal gotta Arsenal. A first-half goal from Jan Bednarek was enough to put Southampton in the lead but, a series of excellent saves from Fraser Forster notwithstanding, these were three more points thrown away by a team that is supposed to be showing its Champions League credentials. For the third match in a row, all against teams that should theoretically have little to play for in the league, Arsenal misfired. The costs of this are entirely tangible; maximum points from Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton would have put them a point ahead of Chelsea and into third place.
Arsenal will have to overturn a bad run of form against mediocre opposition to improve against stronger opposition if they’re going to get their season back on track. This isn’t impossible. It’s not difficult to imagine us all sitting here in three weeks with the (highly volatile) barometer of opinion concerning Arteta having swung back towards adoration again. But it’s not going to be easy either. And it’s the sort of test that Arteta needs to come through if he’s to be the coach he presumably wants to be.
Arsenal have played eight matches against teams from the top seven this season and won just two of them: at home against West Ham and Spurs. When we consider that Spurs were plumbing the depths of their brief dalliance with Nuno Espirito Santo at the time in September, it’s not exactly a run against the stronger teams which suggest they’ll be picking up anything like full points from these forthcoming fixtures.
And they matter to the manager, too. Arteta has been in charge of Arsenal since December 2019 and progress since then has come in fits and starts. He ended his first half-season with an FA Cup and then picked up a Community Shield the following August, but since then the silverware has dried up and the team seems no closer to a Champions League return than before. Both of his seasons have ended with Arsenal in eighth place.
His contract expires in the summer of 2023 but the overall lack of improvement makes it entirely plausible that he could be gone before his contract comes up for renewal. Eddie Howe remains the bookmakers’ favourite to replace him, yet considering that the odds given against this happening are 9/2 and that the second favourite is Thierry Henry, it seems reasonable to conclude that no-one really knows exactly what does happen next at Arsenal should Arteta be relieved of his duties.
While Chelsea are getting ready for new owners, Manchester City are preparing for the next phase of their domination of the galaxy and Manchester United are selecting yet another stooge for the poisoned chalice-shaped managerial hot seat at Old Trafford, Arsenal remain trapped in a state of inertia. It says something when your team captain is giving interviews to the press about how he’d love to be playing in the Champions League again and telling the media that he is in “discussions with a lot of clubs”. It says something else when the club’s supporters read these reports and shrug their shoulders at the prospect of him leaving on a free transfer when he becomes a free agent on July 1.
Since the departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Barcelona in January, Alexandre Lacazette has been the team’s main attacking focus. Small wonder Arsenal’s two highest goalscorers – with ten each in all competitions – are Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, both of whom are attacking midfielders. But should Lacazette leave during the summer, more questions are raised. Do Arsenal actually have somebody lined up to replace him as centre-forward or captain? Because they certainly didn’t have one for Aubameyang and he was also… the centre-forward and captain.
Chelsea v Arsenal is always important, but this one matters for reasons beyond mere London rivalry. A win ties Arsenal with Spurs again – albeit below them on goal difference, unless they can rattle in 11 goals at Stamford Bridge – with the two teams still to meet at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in their penultimate match. For Arsenal as a club, a return to the Champions League is likely the first big step towards getting back to where they believe they should be. Defeat at Stamford Bridge would make that considerably more difficult. And for Arteta, it might even mean the difference between having a job in the summer and not.