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Arsenal vs the top six: a season review

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Arsenal’s season is far from over, but the improvement has been evident

Arsenal FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

With eight matches left to play, Arsenal’s Premier League campaign is still far from over. Sunday’s 2-0 victory over rival Manchester United at the Emirates was significant, but not just for the result and its impact on Arsenal’s top four hopes. It also marked the end of Arsenal’s matches against the other five teams that comprise the top six teams in the league - Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, and United.

There was a time when Arsenal were all but guaranteed to finish in the top four of the Premier League. Those days now seem a distant memory, as the competition for the four coveted Champions League qualifying spots has never been more competitive for the Gunners. Their results against the top teams in the league have always been a useful measuring stick for Arsenal, but they have fallen short in the past few seasons.

After Arsene Wenger’s retirement from the club at the end of last season, many have been intently watching Arsenal under new manager Unai Emery to figure out whether or not he has what it takes to follow up one of soccer’s legendary managers. To be fair, it is still too early to make an accurate assessment of Emery’s first season at Arsenal, but that hasn’t stopped people from doing so, be it fair or not.

There are many objective and subjective measures of success for a club. From the broad perspective of wins and losses all the way down to more precise statistical measures like xG, there are seemingly endless ways for fans, bloggers, and pundits to nit pick the accomplishments of a team and ask “are they actually good?” Despite the remaining matches and myriad statistics available, the one meaningful area that can be assessed so far are Arsenal’s results against their top six rivals.

For a club like Arsenal, whose expectations are much loftier than that of, say, a Watford or a Cardiff, the magnifying glass under which they are placed is far less forgiving, but that is to be expected. The high bar that Arsene Wenger set with his title-winning sides is a genuinely good thing. High expectations are the result of previous successes, so teams should be flattered when they are placed upon them. Unfortunately, that also means that anything short of a competitive season resulting in a trophy or a Champions League berth is seen as a failure, and Arsenal has had their fair share of failures as of late.

Although there are still plenty of matches left to play, Arsenal can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that there are none remaining against the rest of their top six opponents. With those important matches officially in the rear-view mirror and a much-needed international break ahead, we can look back and assess how Arsenal performed against the best that the Premier League has to offer. But to understand Arsenal’s growth, we’ll look back at the previous seasons first.

2016-2017

The 2016-2017 season saw Arsenal miss out on Champions League qualification by a single point, finishing in 5th place with 75 points to Liverpool’s 76. After such a narrow margin, the season was rife with plenty of “what-ifs” about results that could have gone Arsenal’s way and amplified the voices that had been calling for Wenger’s ousting from the club.

Against the top six that season, Arsenal won 2, drew 3, and lost 5, scoring 13 goals while shipping 18. With only 9 points earned from a possible 30, Arsenal’s form against the top six competition was mediocre, and thus marked the first of two consecutive seasons that saw Arsenal fall outside of the top four, and the first time the Gunners had finished outside of it in 20 years.

Full results:

  • Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool (14 August)
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea (24 September)
  • Arsenal 1-1 Spurs (6 Novembers)
  • Man United 1-1 Arsenal (19 November)
  • Man City 2-1 Arsenal (18 December)
  • Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal (4 February)
  • Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal (4 March)
  • Arsenal 2-2 Man City (2 April)
  • Spurs 2-0 Arsenal (30 April)
  • Arsenal 2-0 Man United (7 May)

2017/2018

The 2017-2018 season was, by all objective measures, Arsenal’s worst, and eventually last, season under Wenger. Arsenal’s top four hopes were dashed by the beginning of March after losing three consecutive league matches, and the Gunners ultimately limped across the finish line in 6th with 63 points, a full 12 points behind 4th place Liverpool.

Against the top six, Arsenal’s form was dreadful. With only 1 win, 3 draws, and 6(!) losses, Arsenal scored 10 will hemorrhaging 21 goals, earning a meager 6 points from a possible 30. Arsenal’s lone win came against Tottenham at the Emirates as Arsenal defeated their North London rivals 2-0. However, while some losses were bad, some were truly horrendous. The Gunners lost to Liverpool by 4 at Anfield and to eventual champions City by an aggregate of 6-1 across both matches, a far cry from the previous season where Arsenal never lost by more than two goals to a top six side.

Full results:

  • Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal (27 August)
  • Chelsea 0-0 Arsenal (17 September)
  • Man City 3-0 Arsenal (5 November)
  • Arsenal 2-0 Spurs (18 November)
  • Arsenal 1-3 Man United (2 December)
  • Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool (22 December)
  • Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea (3 January)
  • Spurs 1-0 Arsenal (10 February)
  • Arsenal 0-3 Man City (1 March)
  • Man United 2-1 Arsenal (29 April)

2018/2019

Emery’s debut season could not have had a more difficult start, hosting the reigning champions Manchester City in the opening match and then traveling to cross-town rivals Chelsea for the second match. Although Arsenal lost both matches, they would thankfully not be a harbinger of Arsenal’s form against the top six for the remainder of the season.

Compared to last season, Arsenal’s success against the top six has been a noticeable improvement. Despite the early losses, Arsenal ended up finishing their fixtures against the top six with a record of 3 wins, 3 draws, and 4 losses, scoring 16 and conceding 19. The 12 points earned are double what Arsenal took from the same fixtures last season, and could have easily been 16 had they finished chances better at United and Spurs.

Full results:

  • Arsenal 0-2 Man City (12 August)
  • Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal (18 August)
  • Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool (3 November)
  • Arsenal 4-2 Spurs (2 December)
  • Man United 2-2 Arsenal (5 December)
  • Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal (29 December)
  • Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea (19 January)
  • Man City 3-1 Arsenal (3 February)
  • Spurs 1-1 Arsenal (2 March)
  • Arsenal 2-0 United (10 March)

Aside from the opening day loss to City, Arsenal were unbeaten at home, which cannot be overlooked. Away form, an issue that ultimately torpedoed Arsenal’s previous season, was only slightly improved, but could have been far more flattering with better finishing by the attackers at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford. and Wembley Hart Lane. Still, after last season’s horrendous showing, had Arsenal fans been told at the beginning of the season that they’d take 4 points each from Spurs and United, they’d have likely taken it with a grain of salt.

Despite the marked improvements, there were still some ugly, lopsided results. Arsenal were bested twice by Manchester City for the second consecutive season, this time by a 5-1 aggregate score. In fact, you would have to go back as far as 2015 to find the last time Arsenal bested City in league play. While City have undoubtedly been the class of the league for the last two seasons under Pep Guardiola, if Arsenal want to show that they belong with the elite clubs once again, they will have to do better against the Cities of the world going forward.

Regarding Liverpool, the less we say about the trip to Anfield, the better.

CONCLUSION

No matter how you dissect the results, one thing is plainly evident: under Unai Emery, Arsenal have improved against the Premier League’s best. Certainly there are plenty of other elements to be examined to measure the club’s true growth in Emery’s first season, but those trees will not bear fruit until the season has come to a close. Despite the countless measures that will almost certainly be dissected at season’s end, the first important measure has been positive, and certainly reason to believe that Emery has earned a second season with the club.