Arsenal had a chance to get back into the race for fourth place at Southampton, but they turned it down and now have tough games ahead of them.
The commercial end of the season is upon us and things are going to get more complicated for Arsenal. Having lost four of their last five matches, the final chase for that final Champions League spot is in the offing and the fixture list has cursed Mikel Arteta with a challenging run of matches to begin with. Four of his next five opponents are in the top seven. Not encouraging reading when their last three defeats have come against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton, three clearly mid-table teams.
Over the next three weeks, Arsenal have to play Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham United and Spurs, with just one home game against Leeds United likely to provide much relief from a grueling schedule. After the twin disappointments of the previous weekend of losing at home to Brighton and then seeing Spurs score five goals over Newcastle, Desperate performance of the Spurs against the Seagulls in Saturday’s lunchtime game really should have been all the encouragement Arsenal needed. They had to put some color on the cheeks of an increasingly exasperated crowd against a Southampton side coming off a 6-0 loss at home to Chelsea.
But sometimes it feels like Arsenal has Arsenal. A first-half goal from Jan Bednarek was enough to put Southampton ahead but, despite a series of excellent saves from Fraser Forster, these were three more points wasted by a team that is supposed to be showing its credentials in the Champions League. For the third game in a row, all against teams that should theoretically play little in the league, Arsenal failed. The costs of this are completely tangible; Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton’s top points would have put them a point ahead of Chelsea and into third place.
Arsenal will need to turn around a poor run of form against lackluster opposition to improve against stronger opposition if they are to get their season back on track. This is not impossible. It’s not hard to imagine us all sitting here three weeks from now with the (highly volatile) barometer of opinion on Arteta returning to worship. But it won’t be easy either. And it’s the kind of test Arteta must go through if he wants to be the manager he presumably wants to be.
Arsenal have played eight games against teams from the top seven this season and won just two of them: at home against western ham and spurs. When we consider that Spurs were plumbing the depths of their brief dalliance with Nuno Espirito Santo in September, it’s not exactly a race against the stronger teams suggesting they’ll pick up full points from these upcoming matches.
And they also matter to the manager. Arteta has been in charge of Arsenal since December 2019 and progress since then has been uneven. He finished his first half-season with an FA Cup and then picked up a Community Shield the following August, but the silverware has since dried up and the team seems no closer to returning to the Champions League than before. Both of his seasons have ended with Arsenal in eighth place.
His contract expires in the summer of 2023, but the general lack of improvement makes it entirely plausible that he left before his contract was renewed. Eddie Howe remains the bookies’ favorite to replace him, but considering the given odds against this happening are 9/2 and the second favorite being Thierry Henry, it seems reasonable to conclude that no one knows exactly what will happen next. at Arsenal in the event that Arteta is relieved of his duties.
As Chelsea prepare for new owners, Manchester City prepare for the next phase of their domination of the galaxy and Manchester United are selecting another stooge for the managerial hot seat in the form of a poisoned goblet at Old Trafford, Arsenal remain stuck in a state of inertia. He says something when the captain of your team is giving interviews to the press about how he would love to play in the Champions League again and tell the media that he is in “discussions with many clubs”. He says something else when club supporters read these reports and shrug off the prospect of him leaving on a free transfer when he becomes a free agent on July 1.
Since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s departure for Barcelona in January, Alexandre Lacazette has been the team’s main focus of attack. Not surprisingly, Arsenal’s two top scorers, with ten apiece in all competitions, are Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, both attacking midfielders. But if Lacazette leaves for the summer, more questions arise. Do Arsenal really have someone 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 the captain.
Chelsea-Arsenal is always important, but this one matters for reasons that go beyond mere London rivalry. A win draws Arsenal level with Spurs again, albeit below them on goal difference unless they can score 11 goals at Stamford Bridge, and the two teams are yet to meet at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in their penultimate game. For Arsenal as a club, the return to the Champions League is probably the first big step in getting back to where they think they should be. Loss at Stamford Bridge would make it considerably more difficult. And for Arteta, it could even mean the difference between having a summer job or not.