Arsenal’s first season under Unai Emery has been an interesting one. There have been no shortage of ups and downs, of exhilarating performances and excruciating opportunities missed. The ebb and flow of a team’s success can be tough to predict, but right now it appears as though the Gunners’ wave of momentum is cresting.
Over the past three matches across all competitions, the Gunners have scored 10, conceded once, and have found themselves back in the top four of the Premier League table. Mesut Ozil appears to have rediscovered the form that made him one of the most potent creative minds in the game. Alex Iwobi and Henrick Mkhitaryan are starting to cement their roles on the team, contributing greatly on the wings. Both strikers have found their shooting boots. Through 28 games, Arsenal have 56 points, a vast improvement over last season’s 45 points at this same point.
Despite the glow around the Gunners as of late, they are still in a precarious position. With Manchester United a mere one point behind the Gunners and Chelsea three points behind with a game in hand, Arsenal are by no means safe. If the stars are aligning for the Gunners, though, it couldn’t be happening at a more crucial time, as the next two weeks may be the most important stretch of Arsenal’s season. It might be hyperbolic, but the next four fixtures could ultimately define Emery’s first season at Arsenal and have massive ramifications on the club’s Champions League aspirations.
It was at nearly this same point last season that Arsenal’s top four hopes took a critical hit. With consecutive losses to Tottenham, Manchester City, and Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal’s chances at finishing in the top four of the Premier League were effectively dead in the water. Arsene Wenger was forced to place the club’s Champions League hopes, and his future at the club, on winning the Europa League. Sadly, neither campaign bore fruit, and Arsenal’s season was eventually defined by their failures.
Arsenal are certainly looking to avoid a similar fate this season, but must weather four very critical matches in order to do so. Between Saturday, March 2nd and Thursday, March 14th, Arsenal’s schedule features:
· Away at Spurs on Saturday 3/2
· Away at Stade Renne (Europa League) on Thursday 3/7
· Home against Manchester United on Sunday 3/10
· Home against Stade Renne (Europa League) on Thursday 3/14
On Saturday, Arsenal face their traditional cross town rivals Tottenham at
the shiny and new, totally built according to schedule White Hart Lane Wembley Stadium for the second North London Derby of the Premier League season. While Arsenal’s star is rising, Spurs are finding themselves in a tailspin of sorts after having lost successive matches in the Premier League. Before losing to Burnley last week, Spurs were a mere two points off second place Manchester City and three off league leaders Liverpool. Yesterday, Tottenham imploded spectacularly and handed Chelsea a lifeline for their own top four hopes as Spurs lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge while conceding an own goal for the ages (with an assist from a Mr. Olivier Giroud).
Arsenal’s home win against Spurs in December was certainly the pinnacle of the first half of the season for the Gunners. Arsenal have not pulled a league double against Tottenham since 2007, but their chances of doing so may not be any better than they are right now. With Spurs in poor form and manager Mauricio Pochettino awaiting his punishment for abusing referee Mike Dean after their Burnley loss, things are tense ‘round Tottenham way. If Arsenal want to prove they belong in the top four, they will need to pounce on a wounded Spurs team and put them to the sword for a second time this season.
What’s at stake? Aside from pride and bragging rights, an Arsenal win will have effectively narrowed the gap from 7 points two weeks ago to just 1 point, putting serious pressure on Spurs as they are now undoubtedly hearing the footsteps of Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea all making up ground behind them. And with matches against Liverpool and Manchester City still on their schedule, Spurs still have plenty of chances to lose points down the stretch.
Let’s paint North London red once more this season, shall we?
STADE RENNES, 3/7 & 3/14
If you’re like me, you probably know next to nothing about Stade Renne. The French side, currently 9th in Ligue 1, are a team that, regardless of their lack of perceived pedigree, have fought their way through the Europa League to earn their place in the round of 16. Finishing second in group K, they drew Real Betis in the round of 32 and defeated them with an aggregate score of 6-4 through two legs.
Much like BATE Borisov, Arsenal cannot afford to sleep on the competition or look ahead to their fixture against Manchester United. Teams still relish the opportunity to beat Arsenal at home, and Arsenal should expect for Rennes to be up for the match. With a squad comprised of players few of us have ever heard of, the lone name of repute on Rennes’ squad is Hatem Ben Arfa, who played under Emery at PSG and did not part on good terms with his manager.
A win in the first leg needs to be an absolute priority. With an Arsenal win, the next week will be that much easier for the Gunners. A win in the first leg means that the second leg does not have to be the win-or-go-home ordeal like it was against BATE. A win in the first leg also means that Arsenal can put more emphasis on their match against United. A win means that the pressure is firmly on Rennes, who are already taking the first leg seriously, as evidenced by Ligue 1 allowing them to postpone their own match this Saturday in order to prepare for their match against the Gunners.
While a draw in the first leg wouldn’t be the worst case scenario, there’s no good reason for the Gunners to slow their momentum and accept anything less than a victory. Although Arsenal should view this match-up as theirs to win, they will need to keep their focus amidst the important slate of matches.
MANCHESTER UNITED, 3/10
It seems like a lifetime ago that United were underperforming majestically under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho. After mercifully canning Mourinho on December 18th, United have been a team reborn under interim manager and former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, much to the chagrin of everyone not in the red half of Manchester. In their eleven Premier League matches since The Special One’s firing, United have not lost a match. Their lone loss across all competitions was two weeks ago at the hands of Paris St. Germain in the Champion’s League, one of the few teams in the world whose pockets run as deep as United’s.
Arsenal have faced this side twice this season. Pre-Solskjaer, Arsenal managed to fritter away a golden opportunity to beat United at Old Trafford in December in an awfully sloppy 2-2 affair. In the FA Cup in January, United pantsed the Gunners at the Emirates to the tune of 3-1 for Solskjaer’s 8th win as United’s manager. While United have not slowed down since, the wear and tear of their new manager’s training regimen has caught up to them, as evidenced by recent injuries to several key starters such as Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford. Many anticipated that, if there was a chance for United to slip up, it would have been during their midweek trip to Crystal Palace. However, United rested 10 players and still managed to leave Selhurst Park with all three points. Under OGS, the Red Devils are seemingly in great shape.
As tough a match-up it may appear to be, there is one glimmer of hope that could work to Arsenal’s favor.
Ahead of this pivotal Premier League fixture will be United’s incredibly important Champions League match against Paris St. Germain on March 6th. After losing the first leg 2-0 at Old Trafford, United will need to throw everything they have at PSG in hopes of making up the gap if they plan on staying in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Whereas Arsenal can potentially gamble on playing some reserve players in their first Europa League match, United does not have that luxury against PSG, nor can they afford to look ahead to the Arsenal match.
Regardless of the outcome, a four day turnaround is tough for any team. To make that turnaround after such an important match to then travel to a rival while in the middle of a tight top four battle? That might be tougher than anticipated. United will have to hope that they emerge from that match with a win and a healthy roster. If not, Arsenal could have a great opportunity in front of them.
So what is a reasonable expectation for the upcoming two weeks? I think that, as far as the Europa League goes, the expectation should be a victory across both legs. Arsenal are the better team and are in great form. Having reached the semi-finals of last year’s contest, they should accept nothing less in this year’s campaign.
In the league, Arsenal cannot afford anything less than 4 points out of the next two matches. While 6 points are available, winning all 6 points would require two of the best performances of Arsenal’s season, and while it may seem attainable given the circumstances of Spurs and United, the odds of winning both are slim. My best guess would be a victory at Spurs and a draw against United.
With their league fate directly in front of them, the Gunners seem as ready as they have ever been this season. Now it’s time to prove it.