Arsenal lost for the second match in a row against Chelsea on Saturday. The Gunners are now in fourth place, with Liverpool and Manchester United close behind. Will this be the season Arsene Wenger finally misses out on the top four? In our weekly roundtable, FanSided’s soccer staff share their thoughts.
Arsenal will finish top four
Michael Harshbarger, @TimHalpert
Will Arsenal finish in the top four?
I say this mostly because that’s what Arsenal do. To be more specific: Arsenal always play great for a while, sometimes even past New Year’s. The Gunners will look primed to challenge for their first league title since they went unbeaten in 2003-04. And then they’ll do things like lose to Watford and settle for their normal spot from second to fourth.
In the past six seasons, Arsenal have finished second, third, fourth, fourth, third and fourth. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Arsenal have finished in the top four every season since their last Premier League title. No matter how promising they look, or how bad their patented second-half-of-the-season-breakdown is, they always manage to circle back toward fourth place.
Over the last month, Arsenal fans have resigned themselves to yet another top four finish this season. On Jan. 3, the Gunners drew away to Bournemouth. They then managed a couple of league wins before losing to Watford on the final day of the month. Did I mention it was at the Emirates? It was at the Emirates.
So instead of coming into their match Saturday against Chelsea with an opportunity to cut the leader’s lead to four points, Arsenal were nine points back and licking their wounds. They didn’t play all that poorly against the the Blues, but nevertheless suffered a 3-1 loss that served as a garbage compactor to their title hopes. For Arsenal supporters, this soul-crushing realization has occurred annually for over a decade, like a horrible holiday. It’s bizarro world Christmas.
To add to the misery, Tottenham and Manchester City leapfrogged them in the table after wins this weekend. Only a shock Liverpool loss to Hull allowed to Arsenal to stay in the top four. The Reds trail them by a single point. Manchester United, in turn, are only a point behind Liverpool in sixth place after beating Leicester on Sunday.
Given the strength of the top six, the stakes feel higher for Arsenal this season — the teams around them are good enough to capitalize if and when the Gunners slip up.
But here’s the thing: they’re a good — really good, usually — side with a lot of very talented players. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and the like are too talented to let a short term blip turn into a longer term decline. They just aren’t talented enough to break the championship drought, apparently.
Arsenal have already played Chelsea twice, but they’ve still got games against Spurs, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs. They’ll get enough points from those contests to finish at least fourth, even though they’ll surely draw or lose to a few more Watford types along the way (the trip to Crystal Palace on April 8 looks a likely candidate).
Arsene Wenger and his squad probably don’t deserve to be allowed to finish in the top four after doing so for so long without winning a title. But it’s the above-average purgatory Gunners fans are confined to. Arsenal don’t look to be escaping it, in either direction, anytime soon.
Arsenal won’t finish top four
James Dudko, @JamesDudko
Arsene Wenger knows his chance of winning this season’s Premier League title has gone after two defeats in less than a week, including Saturday’s 3-1 loss to leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
But now the Gunners boss must worry his streak of finishing in the top four will also come to an end.
Arsenal have never finished as low as fifth in two decades on Wenger’s watch. But you
shouldn’t bet against it finally happening in 2017. Not when the fight for Champions League qualification is more intense than any other time during Wenger’s reign.
The Gunners find themselves competing for their familiar finish amid a top six comprised of England’s biggest clubs. This isn’t like those years when Arsenal only had to stay ahead of a Tottenham club still getting its act together, or Everton and Aston Villa teams punching above their respective weights.
Now Wenger is up against moneybags Manchester United helmed by Jose Mourinho. He’s still the master of engineering big results in the clutch months of a season.
Spurs are now an efficient outfit with genuine match-winners in Harry Kane and Dele Alli. Manager Mauricio Pochettino has also given Spurs a resiliency for the big games.
Manchester City are beginning to look more like a Pep Guardiola creation. With Gabriel Jesus making his mark, the Citizens are playing the most exciting football in the division.
Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool endured the January from hell, but the Reds can still score goals for fun and usually raise themselves for the bigger occasions.
This level of competition, coupled with a look at the fixtures list, spells trouble for Arsenal’s top four chances.
Chelsea away may have been the toughest remaining game facing the Gunners, but there’s nothing easy about hosting both United and City, or traveling to Liverpool and Tottenham. The Wenger boys will have to negotiate those challenges while facing a host of problems.
Chief among those issues will be keeping an increasingly fractious-looking squad together. The sight of Mesut Ozil taking Alexis Sanchez and Nacho Monreal to task immediately after the Chelsea defeat spoke volumes about the rising tensions among Wenger’s players. A manager whose contract expires this summer may start to look like a lame duck to stars not needing many more reasons to give up the fight.
Speaking of Sanchez, he looks increasingly like a man playing for himself and his next move, while fellow contract rebel Ozil continues to sleepwalk through crunch games.
Arsenal’s problems aren’t even limited to the form of their marquee names. There’s also a wafer-thin midfield beset by injuries and suspensions. Santi Cazorla, Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey are all crocked, while Granit Xhaka is suspended. Picking a central pairing has become tricky business for Wenger.
Things are also built on quicksand at the back. Shkodran Mustafi has gone from composed leader to an accident waiting happen. Meanwhile, the accident has already happened for goalkeeper Petr Cech. And it keeps on happening, again and again and again.
A squad with this many holes, struggling with the natural low of being out of the title race by February, is ripe for the taking in the top four race.
It was a good run while it lasted.