Two matches, two points, and now the race to the finish line is too close for comfort. Arsenal have been their own worst enemy at the most inopportune time of the season, and now doubts have begun to creep in like old bad habits with 7 matches to go and a Premier League championship on the line. A comfortable cushion has turned into a hair’s length lead over Manchester City, and the ghosts of bottlers past are being conjured by pundits left and right.
Recent matches away at Liverpool and West Ham were great until they weren’t. Both matches followed the same script, as the Gunners were frustratingly brilliant in the opening 20-30 minutes leading to a 2-0 lead. They played their opponents off the pitch with the trademark ease that put Arsenal in the driver’s seat for the title race back in September. They made their dominance look effortless and practically perfunctory.
And then, as if like clockwork, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin. The hosts, against the run of play, magically found their own form, clawing back from 2-0 down to end it 2-2 with the Gunners feeling every bit like they lost the match and, potentially, their shot at the title.
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice. Surely, it doesn’t strike three times. Right?
When the Gunners welcome bottom of the table Southampton to the Emirates on Friday night, the unexpected high stakes and high tension of the match will draw plenty of intrigue. In what has now become the most important match of the season (until the next one), Arsenal fans will expect their team to nab all three points, while rivals and neutrals will be eager to see if the Gunners can find new and exciting ways to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory for a third straight match.
More importantly, it will be the last chance for Arsenal to shake off the rust and rekindle their rhythm before next Wednesday’s title-defining match at the Etihad. If Arsenal want a shot at leaving Manchester with a victory, their first step is a win on Friday.
It’s hard to say what exactly is rotten in Denmark. We’ve seen one loss turn into two in seasons past, after all, but this side has been of such better quality that the current skid feels massive. This is the first legitimate title race the Gunners have found themselves since well before any of the current roster even played for Arsenal. Are the stakes, and the pressure, perhaps too high for the abundance of youth in the side who have never been here before? Maybe. But when you realize that this side has recent champions in Gabriel Jesus and Alexander Zinchenko, and players like Granit Xhaka and Leandro Trossard have won titles in other leagues, surely it can’t be all mental.
Then there’s the physical toll. Injuries and knocks have been piling up at the Emirates as fast as the draws have, with the loss of William Saliba due to a back issue the most profoundly felt absence. On Sunday, the Arsenal back line without Saliba and ZInchenko looked neutered, as Kieran Tierney and Rob Holding tried, and failed, to emulate the success of those players ahead of them in the pecking order. When Arteta has his first choice players available, his system is a thing of beauty. But if there is one element that he has to improve upon going forward, it’s finding the pieces to build depth that can endure those setbacks and not miss a beat.
Soton are…bad. And I’m not saying that to be mean. It is a true, factual statement of who they are right now, and who they have largely been all season. They are dead last in the league with 23 points and have had nearly as many managers (4) as they have had wins (6) this season. A loss on Friday doesn’t necessarily secure their relegation, thanks to more than a few other clubs being also bad, but a loss puts at least one more nail in what is almost certainly the relegation coffin. They are four points from a safety, and they will need the win just as badly as Arsenal. The Gunners know this. Everyone who follows the PL knows this. It’s up to Arsenal to keep that from happening.
Arsenal should know better than to overlook the Saints. The first match against Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium was a prequel to the last two matches - Arsenal came out strong, looked commanding, found an early goal, but could get little else going, with the hosts nicking a goal in the second half and escaping with a draw.
The name of the game for Friday is consistency. After two matches that started with a bang and ended with a whimper, the Gunners need to dictate the match for a full 90 minutes and leave little room for doubt about who will win the match. I’m not even going to entertain the idea of a draw or a loss. Not because they aren’t possibilities, but because either of those outcomes could effectively mark the end of Arsenal’s title run, and I’m not sure I can stomach that idea.
A Friday night match at the Emirates following two draws should be abrasively, unrepentantly loud. Arsenal’s last three matches at home were all resounding wins in front of electric crowds. The players deserve the same intensity down the stretch that the fans have brought all season, and vice versa.
Arsenal are down, but far from out. Remind them - and the rest of the league - why you have been the team to beat all season. Come on, you Gunners.
For discussions about lineups and score predictions, make sure to check out Nathan’s post.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Southampton
WHEN: Friday, April 21st, 3pm EST/12:00pm PST/8:00pm BST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast live on the USA Network. Streaming live on NBCSports.com
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