Compared to this time last year, the vibe in the Red side of London is markedly off. Sure, Arsenal are 2nd in the league and only 2 points off 1st place Liverpool at the halfway point of the season, but they are limping into the end of a calendar year that started off so superbly. The goals from open play have dried up. The attack looks repetitive and predictable. And then there’s just the plain dumb luck that has gone against them in recent matches.
December has been the most frustrating month in some time for Arsenal. The Gunners have earned 3 Premier League wins from 6 matches with one left to play. It could have easily been 2 wins if not for a last second header over Premier League debutants Luton Town to keep from dropping points. Only one match - the 2-0 victory over Brighton - felt comfortable. And yet, the Gunners are only a few better shots from sitting on potentially 5 victories. That’s how it breaks, sometimes.
The Gunners now head to Craven Cottage for one last London Derby and hopes of some fireworks of their own to cap off 2023.
Here are five talking points ahead of Sunday:
Back to Basics
Arsenal have become a supremely dominant side this season when it comes to controlling the match. That’s all well and good, but all of the possession and control in the world doesn’t amount to much if they can’t find the back of the net. The Gunners are in a drought that is not for lack of opportunity. They simply have become their own worst enemy in front of goal, often complicating an attacking series with one too many touches, hesitation, overthinking, or plain poor finishing. Compounding issues is the fact that the entire starting front three have simultaneously fallen into a funk. Mikel Arteta is a keen tactician, but will he get away from the tedious attacking build up play that has made scoring goals harder than it has to be?
Shake Up to Wake Up
With a three day turnaround following Thursday’s match, the trip to Fulham on Sunday could be a great chance for Arteta to rest some of the starters and let fresh legs come in. At this point, it may do the side some good to change things up. Kai Havertz will all but certainly be in the starting lineup after missing Thursday’s match while serving a one match ban. His presence was sorely missed against West Ham. Leandro Trossard had a shift to forget in the 8 against the Hammers, but considering Gabriel Martinelli’s poor form, he may be a solid option to start on the wing.
A part of me wouldn’t mind seeing Havertz in the 9 with Emile Smith Rowe, who has looked bright in his recent cameos, in the 8. Martin Ødegaard might need some new targets after seeing one of his more productive creative matches lead to zero goals from his attackers. Another part of me absolutely expects to see the same lineup in the attack.
What’s Eating Oleksander Zinchenko?
It’s time to have a conversation about the Ukrainian defender. His mistakes have become more glaring in recent matches, and the injuries to Jurrien Timber and Takehiro Tomiyasu have only magnified them. His contributions in the attack aren’t as impacting as they were last season, and he has been a walking liability defensively. Against Liverpool, his generous marking allowed Mo Salah to get enough space to score, and his awkward collision with Gabriel on Thursday while attempting to clear the ball directly led to West Ham’s opening goal. Jakub Kiwior is the only option at left back available, but I’m willing to believe his defensive abilities couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have been seeing recently.
It’s been feast or famine for Fulham in December. They started off scoring 13 goals in the first three matches of the month, but have since had three straight shutout defeats. Fulham’s slump has coincided with the three match ban of Raul Jimenez who was sent off against Newcastle. He is now able to return to the lineup, which I assume Fulham will see as a massive opportunity to take it to an out of sorts Arsenal, especially when they were able to nick a point off the Gunners at the Emirates earlier this season. With both clubs desperate for goals, I’d expect this match to be more open and exciting.
It’s not over till it’s over
There has been a noticeable amount of handwringing by the Arsenal fanbase following Thursday’s match. The loss, while wholly avoidable, stings. But let’s not forget that Arsenal have consistently been one of the best teams in the Premier League for the last two seasons. Now, they just have to play like it (remember, folks, you’re getting this type of high-level analysis for free). Despite a series of frustrating results, the Gunners have been the better side in every match they have played this month bar maybe the Liverpool match. We believe in them. A decent amount of pundits do. They just need to believe in them, too. This side is lacking in confidence, but the sky is far from falling.
New Years Eve is all about reflecting on the past year and taking stock of things while looking toward a fresh start. I’m choosing to work on being more optimistic. For all of the recent frustrations, Arsenal are still a solid side that are far from out of the race for the PL. It’s easy to let recency bias overshadow the larger picture, which is why I’m not concerned (yet) by the state of the attack or some of the results. The club has come an incredibly long way in four years under Mikel Arteta, and I still believe the best is yet to come.
Happy New Year’s, folks.
WHAT: Arsenal at Fulham
WHEN: Sunday, December 31st, 9:00am EST/6:00am PST/2:00pm GMT
WHERE: Craven Cottage
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming live on Peacock
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