Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is hoping to guide his young Gunners to Premier League glory this season. Many had written off their chances following their second defeat in as many games against Chelsea. This followed a humbling at the hands of Manchester United.
But the horizon looked rosier a few days later, as the Gunners beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Emirates Stadium and both Chelsea and United stumbled in their respective fixtures.
This resulted in chunks of the media saying that Arsenal were ‘back in the race’, but the reality is, Arsenal were never out of the race.
That might seem a strange conclusion, before the midweek fixtures, Arsenal were nine points behind Chelsea and seven behind United. These gaps have closed to six and five points respectively.
The landscape can change quite quickly if Arsenal were to drop points, but this in itself shows the fickle nature of judging contenders based on a weekly analysis of the gap between rivals. How can the gap be too big one week yet surmountable the next?
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons Arsenal can be contenders for the title this season.
It’s been pointed out many times already, but Manchester United managed to win the Premier League last season without performing spectacularly against their rivals.
There are a few good reasons why you’d like to do so; it gives you a psychological edge, it generates doubt in the minds of your rivals, and–most importantly–you guarantee a three point jump on your opponent.
If Arsenal had won both games against Chelsea and Manchester United, they would currently sit top with 58 points, Chelsea would be second with 55, and United would be third with 54.
In a way, it almost suits Arsenal not to be in this position. The last time the Gunners were in pole position in the Premier League they blew their lead. Through a combination of injuries, complacency, and the pressure getting to them, they collapsed to eventually finish third in the 2007/08 season.
This time around they will have to take every game as it comes, chipping away at both United and Chelsea to claw their way back to the summit.
Besides, if you exclude the fixtures against Manchester United and Chelsea, Arsenal have only failed to win 6 times this season (Chelsea and United have both failed to win eight times) and four of these were draws. Both losses were away fixtures, against Sunderland and Manchester City.
Granted, it’s a big exclusion, but the point is that Arsenal only have to play the rest of the pack to win the Premier League–and so far they’ve actually done a better job than both of their rivals.
Something to think about.
This day will probably change to Sunday 4th, but if Arsenal win the Premier League chances are they will look back at this weekend with a smile. Chelsea travel to Old Trafford to play Manchester United in a crunch tie.
Meanwhile, Arsenal play at home against Wolverhampton Wanderers. This will be a prime opportunity for the Gunners to catch up to their rivals.
A draw would be a perfect result, allowing Arsenal to cut the gap on both rivals by two points (assuming Arsenal deliver the goods against Wolves, of course). Looking at their fixture list between now and then, every game is winnable for Arsenal, and the pressure on both teams would be massive if the Gunners were breathing down their necks.
Indeed, even if the game isn’t a draw, not all is lost for Wenger’s side. This could well be the weekend Arsenal emerge as the main contenders to the league leaders
The Blues won’t have it easy on their way to the title. They have to play the likes of Manchester City and Aston Villa at home, as well as the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool away, while also having to travel to the aforementioned Old Trafford.
It seems inconceivable that Chelsea won’t drop points along the way, indeed, if the Blues were to collect maximum points in these fixtures then they would be more than deserving of the Premier League crown.
Added to the mix are a couple of potentially tricky basement ties. West Ham United and Bolton Wanderers travel to Stamford Bridge while Chelsea have to go to Fratton Park to play Portsmouth. They also play Wigan Athletic on the last day of the season, who could be fighting for survival.
This is Carlo Ancelotti’s debut season in the Premier League, and he may not fully appreciate the extent to which teams at the bottom of the league will fight to ensure their survival. Although he should learn quickly, it may cost his team a valuable point or two in the process.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a lot more experienced than his Chelsea counterpart and will know what to expect from this stage of the campaign. That doesn’t mean he will find it any easier to handle, with some especially tough away fixtures.
The Red Devils have to travel to Everton, Aston Villa, and Manchester City before the season is up. They’ve also got home games against the likes of Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea.
Again, the idea that United won’t drop points during this period is unimaginable. That’s before you throw in the ‘relegation factor’ that haunts Wolves, Bolton, and Sunderland. United face away fixtures against all of these opponents.
You’d back United to collect maximum points against most of these lower league opponents, but they could get turned over somewhere, and that’s all Arsenal will need.
Fellow BR Featured Columnist Illya McLellan wrote a great article on this subject, highlighting that there are a sleuth of teams that have little to play for as the season peters out.
Arsenal have a fair few games against teams in this ilk, with fixtures lined up against Stoke City, Birmingham City, Blackburn, and Fulham on the last day of the season. West Ham could be out of trouble by the time they travel to the Emirates, and the Gunners have been quite fortunate with their away games.
Although Birmingham, Stoke, and Blackburn are away games, they don’t have much left to play for, and Wigan aren’t the most physical side in the division. The toughest games appear to be against rivals Spurs at White Hart Lane and Hull City at the KC Stadium.
Even if the Gunners didn’t come away unscathed from these games, both United and Chelsea could potentially drop a swath of points over the remainder of the campaign, so Arsenal could still be alright.
Wenger’s side might not even need to win all of their games to lift the Premier League trophy in May.
Each of the three teams have received worrying injury news in recent days. Ashley Cole underwent surgery on a broken ankle yesterday and will be out of action for at least six weeks, while Ryan Giggs broke his elbow and will be out of action for around a month.
Arsenal didn’t escape the bad news, with reports emerging that both Andrey Arshavin and Alex Song have picked up injuries. The Russian’s is thankfully only short term, and he should be back for the Sunderland game. There has been no news about Song, who suffered medial ligament damage to his knee.
A similar injury to Chelsea’s Michael Essien has left the Ghanaian out for two months, but there have been no noises coming out of the Arsenal camp that Song’s injury is this serious. Fans will be hoping Song is back as soon as possible.
Undoubtedly injuries will play a part in the title race, and Arsenal’s squad is a lot stronger than in recent seasons. Tomas Rosicky came off the bench to create Abou Diaby’s goal against Liverpool on Wednesday, and both Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner are returning to full fitness after lengthy layoffs.
Even with injuries to Eduardo and Robin Van Persie, Arsenal now have legitimate options in attack, and Wenger can make substitutions that can change his side’s impetus going forward. This is something that couldn’t be said in years gone by.
The title may well be decided by a side’s ability to carry injuries and being able to continue winning games. Although Arsenal do still have some vulnerability, they have a much deeper squad than in the past.
In comparison, Salaar Shamsi wrote an interesting article about Manchester United’s reliance on Wayne Rooney, while the return of Essien could be key for the Blues.
Although Arsenal didn’t help themselves against Manchester United and Chelsea, the main reason for these defeats was defensive errors on the part of the Gunners. Yes, Arsenal struggled to break down both defences, but they still created chances and were playing against two of the best teams in the league protecting a lead.
The solution isn’t to panic buy a forward in January, or dismantle the side in the summer. The solution is to maintain discipline, concentrate, and to defend properly. When you play against the best teams in Europe they will punish your mistakes, will West Ham and Wigan?
Wenger has already said individual errors are easy to fix, and Arsenal looked much better at the back against Liverpool. The challenge for these young players will to remain consistent in the coming weeks, and respond positively as they did against Chelsea in the second half.
Cesc Fabregas came out this week and said age cannot be an excuse for failure, while Arshavin has let his feelings be known. It seems that Arsenal are more resilient and they have already responded positively to adversity this season, first with the injury to Van Persie, then to the first Chelsea defeat.
Now they have to do the same and go on a run of wins, if they can go undefeated until Apr. 3 then they will have a huge chance of being named Premier League champions.