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Arsenal should reset expectations about the Champions League

Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

For the second time in a week, Arsenal players collapsed to the turf at full time. Perhaps it was the combination of fatigue and disappointment, but whereas on Thursday, Arsenal’s players were spent at the end of a 2-0 defeat that saw the end of a Cup run, on Sunday, Arsenal had actually gained a point. That, of course, removes some context: Arsenal had the chance to go into 4th and put a little bit of distance between themselves and the chasing pack. Instead, last weekend’s 0-0 draw means Arsenal remain part of the chasing pack. It was undoubtedly an opportunity missed, but also perhaps speaks to greater expectations.

It is, of course, not too long ago when Arsenal were bottom of the table. Since the first three games of the season, Arsenal have collected 36 points from 18 games, the fourth most in the Premier League, and the third best in points per game after Manchester City and Liverpool. If you had told Arsenal fans that on the final day of January, Arsenal would be in sixth and just two points out of fourth place, most fans would’ve taken it

Of course, the situation now is different to the beginning of September. Arsenal have spent a decent amount of the season looking like a capable football team. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been further disappointments—the week where Arsenal lost against Manchester United and Everton despite being ahead in both stands out—but Arsenal have raised their level.

That, coupled with the weakness of some of Arsenal’s traditional Big 6 rivals, as well as Leicester City, has raised expectations. Before the season, getting back into Europe was Arsenal’s priority, be it, optimistically, the Champions League, or, more realistically, the Europa League. We may scoff at the Europa League, but it offers a realistic avenue into the Champions League (after all, Arsenal, who have been relatively poor, made one final and two semi-finals in the last four seasons). And, definitionally, making the Europa League after missing out last season would be tangible process for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta—indeed, it’d require finishing higher than Arteta has before, and the highest finish since the 2018/19 season.

Yet, Arsenal have 4th place very much in their sights. And in that sense, it should reshape expectations. Expectations changing on the basis of improvement is healthy; it’s how the club maintains high standards.

The resetting of expectations puts pressure on Arsenal. And it is also clear that Arsenal will not finish in the top 4 without making a tangible improvement at centre forward, if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Arsenal career is over, as it looks. This is both to improve on Alexandre Lacazette, as well as support him, as he cannot play multiple games a week, and also to add tactical variation.

Quite simply, teams are starting to figure Arsenal’s moves out. They know Lacazette will drop deep and create space for Martinelli and Saka. If Arsenal move the ball quickly and at pace—i.e. if they are at their best—they can still outperform teams. But that won’t always happen, as we saw against Burnley. And, teams are starting to double up on Saka and Martinelli, knowing if they do so, they can blunt Arsenal’s other attacking weapons and attack.

Simply put, Lacazette doesn’t run behind enough. There are some games where he needs to offer a threat in behind, to create space for Saka and Martinelli, to offer more of a forward presence for Ødegaard and Smith Rowe. And Arsenal need that tactical variation; the best teams have multiple ways that they can hurt you, which is the next step for this Arsenal team to develop. That should be the expectation, because Arsenal have tangibly gotten better this season. Now the challenge is to make the next step, because it is very much possible.