Why Arsenal Will Not Win the Title
I would like to preface this article by clarifying its purpose as a counterweight to the excellent and uplifting article Joe wrote here about how Arsenal are still on track to win the title. What I offer are some reasons that necessitate we stay grounded as we round the stretch into the crucial period; some things to keep in mind before we start printing the title shirts.
Here we are, in the midst of a title race that we are very much a part of. It has admittedly been a strange season to this point. If there’s ever been a case for increasing parity in the Prem, this season will portray itself as a shining example of just that. Many of the results this season show that no team is safe, including (and especially) Arsenal.
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that we would be three points off the top coming to the close of the January window, I’d have been ecstatic. Well, here we are and yet, I’m not. That isn’t to say that I don’t feel that the first half of the season was lackluster or subpar. It has more to do with the road ahead and the potential pitfalls that make me wary about our title chances. I cite three factors that could cause the Gunners to fall short yet again.
Quality of the Competition
Taking a quick glance at the top of the table, it’s a tight race. Only five points separate the top four, comprised of Leicester, Man City, Arsenal and Sp*rs. An assessment of the competition doesn’t do well to fend off my title worries. Tottenham are currently the in-form team, taking 13 points out of their last six games. Surging forward and nipping at our heels, they are very much a threat which should not be taken lightly, especially since we still have to make a trip to White Hart Lane. It is shaping up to be a crucial fixture that could just as easily be a stumbling block as an opportunity for separation.
Currently level on points with us are the ever-potent Man City. They’ve tallied the most goals this season and are another side that is very in-form. We were able to capture three points at home in December, but we still have to travel to the Etihad in May. This could prove to be another one of those vital “six point fixtures” that happens to come dangerously late in the season.
And then there’s Leicester, this year’s Elephant atop the tree. However, I don’t believe that they can fairly be classified as an Elephant any longer. The Foxes have legitimized their position with some resilient performances, spearheaded by the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Leicester play the way that a small club must in order to succeed in the Premier League. They operate six inches away from your face and supply the work ethic to back it up. While they may have had a slight drop of form as of late, they are still on top of the table and will look to stay there, as they only have league competition to worry about for the rest of the stretch.
The fact that we have many key players coming back from injury all around the same time is obviously great news. The healthy few weathered the storm and made sure that the Gunners stayed relevant. It’s fair to say that the Arsenal lineup has been a bit patchwork when you see Gibbs come in on the left flank and Chambers find some time in the midfield (at least as of late), but Arsene will surely be glad to welcome back the likes of Sanchez, Coquelin, Rosicky and possibly Wilshire, Cazorla and Welbeck a little ways down the road.
However, as is usually the case when dealing with long term injuries, the recovery period extends past physical fitness and bleeds into the chemistry of the team. As these key players ease back from the medical bay to the training ground, and ultimately to the pitch, it will most likely take them some time to get their legs back under themselves and their minds re-sharpened. Would I love for Coqzorla to surge back into the eleven firing on all cylinders while Alexis runs rampant in the final third? Absolutely. I think that can be said for all Gunner fans.
But even when the legs are back and fitness levels are up, it will take some time for these players, who have been out for months at a time, to get re-acclimated into the flow of the team. The timing of the runs, the pressing patters, the anticipation of first time flicks and one-two exchanges; these are all aspects of the game that are dependent on mutual understanding between players, developed over a consistent run of games. There’s a lot to be said about long-term chemistry, however one cannot expect there to be no residual loss to said chemistry when pieces of the Arsenal cog have been missing for so long.
I would anticipate that (at least for the first couple of games) we see a much more direct/assertive Sanchez, who will positively be looking to make up for lost time. How will Ozil adjust to this? Does Giroud behave differently to accommodate Alexis? What about the deep midfield? Coquelin isn’t used to pairing with Ramsey or Flamini, who both play differently than Cazorla. It will take some time to establish these partnerships that wouldn’t have likely existed if we had a healthy eleven.
Inconsistencies in player tendencies cause discord, and I feel like we would be remiss as astute fans to neglect the possibility that this discord could result in some dropped points. Let’s just hope that the returning players can adjust quickly to minimize the disconnect.
It is well-known that Arsenal have a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot. We saw it (much too recently) in the Chelsea game. At the risk of a massive understatement, Chelsea have not had an ideal year. Coming into the game, I felt that we were the better side. I was confident that we would come away with at least one point. But 18 minutes in there’s a lapse in the defense and all of a sudden Mert is walking to the dressing room as Diego Costa writhes on the ground. It was a very un-Mert-like thing to do, as it was only his second booking of the season. A few minutes later Cech was digging the ball out of the back of the net due to a defensive miscommunication in the box.
For the 70 minutes after that, I felt that it was quite clear that we were the better side. We maintained a fair share of possession and had some great chances while being a man down. But the result is the only thing that truly matters when it comes to a side’s title chances. What stuck out about that game were those two moments where the defense switched off. We may have been the better side for the majority of the game, but those two instances proved to be the difference and ultimately cost us the points.
We don’t have to look too far back to see other examples of this. The late Joe Allen goal against Liverpool and our earlier meeting this season with Chelsea both indicate times when we have dropped points due to our own missteps. Title winners have to have killer instincts, and killers don’t switch off and they certainly don’t make things unnecessarily harder on themselves. In a title race that is this close, we cannot afford to keep following this trend.