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Mind the gap: Arsenal’s quest for the top four

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What’s at stake as Arsenal fight their way back into Champions League play.

2018 EPL Premier League Football Swansea City v Arsenal Jan 30th Photo by Paul Jenkins/Action Plus via Getty Images

12 matches. That is all that remains in what has been a whirlwind of an English Premier League season peppered with compelling storylines. Manchester City has beaten the brakes off of nearly every club en route to effectively wrapping up the league title by the season’s halfway point. Club after club have broken the bank while shattering transfer records at an alarming rate. The January transfer window saw nearly as much action as the summer window that preceded it.

And, once again, Arsenal are struggling to keep pace with the rest of the big-name clubs at the top of the table. As with last season, Arsenal find themselves in an unsavory and alien position for a team that, for 20 seasons, managed to qualify for a berth in the Champions League. After last season’s failure to qualify, Arsenal are perilously close to being left out of the world’s most coveted club cup for a second straight season.

MONEY TALKS

Fourth-place trophy jokes aside, the incentives to finish in the top four and earn a CL berth have never been more important. There is, obviously, the prestige that comes with playing against the best of the best of Europe’s major leagues. There is the acclaim that comes with success in the competition. The money, however, holds just as much weight as any other noble incentive for qualification.

In this bananapants era of spending, Champions League money is absolutely crucial for teams to remain competitive. With how absurd transfer fees have become in such a short amount of time, traditional power clubs have found themselves essentially required to break club transfer records each window in order to secure the signatures of the game’s best players. Champions League money has never been a more crucial part of this equation, as the difference between Champions League money and Europa League money is night and day. According to UEFA, the distribution of their revenue is as follows:

The estimated gross commercial revenue from the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League, 2017/18 UEFA Europa League and 2017 UEFA Super Cup will be approximately €2.35bn. Of that estimated gross commercial revenue, the total amount available for distribution to participating clubs in 2017/18 will be €1,718.7m – of which €1,318.9m will go to clubs in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Super Cup, and €399.8m to clubs in the UEFA Europa League.

By those numbers, the Champions League and Super Cup account for nearly 77% of the available revenue, while the Europa League is guaranteed only a paltry 23% of revenue.

Broken down further into simpler terms, as Metro has done, it paints a much more grim picture:

The most the winner of the Champions League could walk away with is €57.2m whilst the absolute most the Europa League champions can win is €15.71m.

That’s right. The most a team can make in the Europa League is barely more than teams earn for participating in the group stage of the Champions League (€12.7m). That is a bitter pill to swallow for a club that is doing it’s best to tread water in a sea overflowing with clubs that have more spending power than Arsenal. Another season in the Europa League means another year of lost revenue, and if Arsenal have any intentions of being competitive in the transfer market, then they cannot afford another season without Champions League money.

PATHS TO QUALIFICATION

Earlier today, The Guardian posted an article on the odds for each of the Premier League’s top six teams not named Manchester City earning a Champions League berth at season’s end. From the perspective of Arsenal fans, the outlook is not favorable. There are four points between sixth-place Arsenal (45 points) and fifth-place Spurs (49 points). In front of them, only two points separate third place Liverpool (51 points) and Tottenham, with Chelsea between them at 50 points. While “must-win” is a term thrown around far too often with this year’s Arsenal squad, this weekend’s North London Derby is indeed that. If Arsenal can replicate their astounding form the first leg of the NLD at the Emirates, they will find themselves one point behind Tottenham. If they lose, the gap grows to a painful and potentially insurmountable seven points. No pressure, right?

While the road ahead is murky, it is not totally unnavigable. So, what must Arsenal do in order to ensure Champions League football next season? Outside of every team in front of Arsenal imploding and losing points at an historic rate, Arsenal would have to finish somewhere in the neighborhood of a bare-minimum point total of 71 points, which is the average point total for Arsenal’s seven 4th-place finishes since the beginning of the Premier League.

Remaining Fixtures

The upside of Arsenal’s remaining fixture list is that, outside of the three upcoming top-six matches, the rest of their toughest tests are behind them. With the only remaining away matches at Spurs, Brighton, Leicester, Newcastle, United, and Huddersfield, only two of them present an away match against a top-six club.

  • February 10th at Tottenham (previous match 2-0)
  • March 1st vs Manchester City (previous match 1-3)
  • March 4th at Brighton & Hove Albion (previous match 2-0)
  • March 11th vs Watford (previous match 1-2)
  • March 17th at Leicester (previous match 4-3)
  • April 1st vs Stoke (previous match 0-1)
  • April 7th vs Southampton (previous match 1-1)
  • April 14th at Newcastle (previous match 1-0)
  • April 21st vs West Ham (previous match 0-0)
  • April 28th at Manchester United (previous match 1-3)
  • May 5th vs Burnley (previous match 1-0)
  • May 13th at Huddersfield (previous match 5-0)

Of the 12 upcoming fixtures, Arsenal’s record in the first leg stands at 6 wins, 2 draws, 4 losses, very close to Arsenal’s ratio of 50% wins (13), 23% draws (6), 27% losses (7) through 26 matches so far this season. Should Arsenal mirror those totals in the second leg, that gives Arsenal 20 points out of a possible 36, putting Arsenal at a woeful 65 points for the season, well below the estimated 71 point average for a 4th place finish.

So what does Arsenal have to do to ensure Champions League football next season?

Scenario 1 - Win out

LOLOLOLOL nope.

Scenario 2 - Europa League or Bust

This route eschews the EPL and allows Arsenal the same back door that Manchester United utilized last season to secure their CL berth. However, there is an obvious danger in committing to this path in favor of fighting for a top 4 spot in the league, as one slip-up would summarily end all chances of Champions League football next season for Arsenal. Currently in the round of 32, Arsenal would have to survive three more knockout rounds to find themselves in the final, and considering Arsenal’s success in knockout rounds, there is considerable reason to be trepidatious about this scenario.

However, it does also provide Arsene Wenger the opportunity to finally secure a piece of European hardware, which is one of the few accolades he has failed to achieve during his otherwise successful tenure at Arsenal. Whether or not personal accomplishment would determine Wenger’s investment, there is also the money to consider. As mentioned before, winning the Europa League comes with a moderate purse. Even if it is a pittance compared to what can be made in the Champions League, this piece of information shouldn’t be forgotten in the grand scheme of reasons for pursuing this route.

Scenario 3 - EPL & Europa Balance

This scenario, although the safest bet for Arsenal’s ability to guarantee a Champions League spot, is also the one that stretches Arsenal thinnest. If Arsenal continue to pursue a top 4 spot in the league and a Europa League title, they will be facing a congested fixture list that will put a strain on their roster. Granted, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is cup tied to Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League and therefore available solely for the Premier League campaign, other first team stalwarts such as Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Ozil could find themselves being run into the ground in pursuit of a Europa League title and top 4 finish. And the less we mention about the defensive depth, the better.

Scenario 4 - League of Extraordinary Fortune

I want to briefly preface this section. While it’s easy to talk about what could or could not happen with other clubs ahead of Arsenal, we won’t spend any considerable time on what could or could not happen with their schedules, because ultimately Arsenal are the only ones in control of Arsenal’s destiny, for better or for worse, and Arsenal is of course the team we are focused on. Plus, there are too many webs to navigate in order to properly suss out which of several scenarios best benefits Arsenal. Therefore, I will be focusing solely on the remaining 12 matches for the Gunners.

Arsenal currently find themselves at 45 points, with roughly 26 points to earn out of 36 if they want to find themselves in the (typically safe) 71 points range. At that rate, Arsenal would have to improve their 50% (yeesh) winning percentage to 75% for the homestretch. 9 wins from 12 is the golden number for the Gunners - while not easy, it is not out of reach, and allows for ever so slight room for error. 10 wins or more is, for this squad, a reach. 8 wins or less is almost certainly disaster.

While no game is a gimme in the Premier League, of the remaining 12, I would file the following under “extremely favorable” for the Gunners: Brighton, Southampton, Newcastle, & Huddersfield. These four teams occupy three of the bottom six positions in the table, and these four fixtures are match-ups where, considering the circumstances and Arsenal’s previous performances against these clubs, Arsenal cannot afford to drop points.

Expected wins: 4

Expected draws: 0

Expected losses: 0

Expected points: 12

The following I would file under “favorable”: Stoke, Watford, and West Ham. Stoke is in a downward spiral, but are never an easy match for the Gunners. Watford, aside from a 4-1 thrashing of tailspinning Chelsea, are in the midst of an average run of form. West Ham are a quintessential mid-table team. Arsenal underachieved against all three earlier in the season but could have easily gotten a result had they played even remotely like they did against Everton this past week.

Expected wins: 2

Expected draws: 1

Expected losses: 0

Expected points: 7

The next group are “manageable”: Leicester, Burnley. These two teams, when on their game, can be a handful. However, Arsenal have had good fortune against both in recent history. While both teams will make Arsenal work for their points, they are both teams that can and have been beaten by Arsenal this year.

Expected wins: 2

Expected draws: 0

Expected losses: 0

Expected points: 6

Finally, that leaves us with the “contenders”: Man City, Man United, and Spurs. These games will be massive if Arsenal can manage a result in any of them. One win from three would be good. Two would be excellent. Three would be unreal. Three losses, however, would be devastating, but not wholly unpredictable. I anticipate an even split in these three major remaining matches.

Expected wins: 1

Expected draws: 1

Expected losses: 1

Expected points: 4

Total wins/draws/losses (points) for the final 12 matches: 9/2/1 (29)

If Arsenal can manage to live up to these expectations, there could be an outside chance that a top four finish is still in the cards with a season total of 74 points.


Whatever happens in the next 12 games, Arsenal are not out of the running yet. The path is narrow, and the stakes are high, but the Gunners have pulled a rabbit out of their hat in the 11th hour before, and I believe that there is a chance that they can do it again.