Is this the week where the momentum in the top-four race shifted?
The race for Champions League football was Arsenal’s to lose. But as the Premier League enters its final six-week period, suddenly the picture looks very different.
Two defeats in three Premier League games, including Monday night’s horrific 3-0 defeat away at Crystal Palace leaves Mikel Arteta’s side facing a real fight to get back into the top four.
Now it’s the Gunners’ arch-rivals Tottenham – who are in form after three wins on the bounce – now holding the coveted fourth spot which will permit a seat at European football’s top table next season. Arsenal do have the slight luxury of a game in hand over Spurs, though the task of going away to Chelsea later this month needing a win feels a lot less comfortable.
That crucial game at Stamford Bridge on April 20 marks the beginning of a tricky run for the Gunners, with a home clash against Manchester United swiftly following that game in hand, before a trip to West Ham at the start of May following that clash.
It has transformed Arsenal’s next two matches – at home to Brighton and away at Southampton – into simply must-win fixtures. But the pressure, scrutiny and injury problems are beginning to mount, so how have the Gunners got into this sticky scenario?
Monday evening’s poor outing at Crystal Palace was a shock in terms of the formbook – but a closer look at Arsenal’s recent performances imply this type of result was coming.
Arteta’s side failed to get going in a tough Selhurst Park atmosphere, with their first shot on target coming in the final kick of the opening half, with the Gunners 2-0 down.
Clinical finishing, particularly from open play, has been a concern for the Gunners in recent weeks. Their troubles are highlighted by the fact they have failed to score a single goal from non-set piece scenarios in their last four matches, dating back to March 6.
Arsenal have averaged just 3.75 shots on target per game in their last four Premier League matches, so they are not making massive strides to actually test the opposition goalkeeper. This is despite creating 52 overall shots in that period – only Tottenham and Brighton have managed more.
This poor finishing was as clear as day against Palace. Within the space of a few minutes, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard missed clear-cut chances to haul Arsenal back into the contest at 2-0 down. The Eagles made them pay by adding a third through Wilfried Zaha’s goal shortly afterwards.
Arsenal have been guilty of making similar errors in the past. In one of their game in hands against Liverpool last month, Odegaard missed a glorious chance to give the Gunners the lead from Thiago’s loose backpass – but failed to convert past goalkeeper Alisson. Minutes later, Diogo Jota gave Liverpool the lead and Jurgen Klopp’s side ran out 2-0 winners.
And against Manchester City on New Year’s Day, Gabriel Martinelli missed the target with the goal gaping with the scores at 1-1. The importance of that missed opportunity grew in significance when Rodri scored in stoppage time to give City the win. Similar concerns were raised during Arsenal’s 0-0 draw against Burnley, where Arteta’s side failed to score from 75 per cent possession and 20 shots on goal.
While this lack of profligacy can be put down to individual errors, it can be correlated to a lack of firepower up front. Arsenal failed to bring in a replacement for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the January transfer window, leaving just Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah as their only recognised forwards.
Lacazette has shown this season that he can bring other options than scoring goals in the centre-forward role. In the 10 league games after Aubameyang was stripped of the Gunners captaincy before his departure from the club, he had three goals and seven assists for Arteta’s squad.
But the Frenchman has mustered just four league goals this season, and half of them from the penalty spot. Arsenal are struggling to score goal-scoring chances and they do not have the central option to create chances from nothing – there remains a reliance on wide options top scorers Bukayo Saka and Smith Rowe for attacking influence, both aged 21 and under.
Compare Arsenal’s plight to Tottenham’s flight in front of goal. No team has made more shots – either on or off target – than Antonio Conte’s side since Arsenal last scored from open goal. Data also shows Spurs are creating better chances in front of goal in that same period.
This attacking impetus shows why Spurs are threatening to steal a match on the top-four race – and why the pendulum is swinging.
To make matters worse for Arsenal, their injury issues are piling up during this crucial part of the season.
The build-up to their Crystal Palace defeat on Monday was marred by an injury to left-back Kieran Tierney, with Arteta describing the setback as “not positive” with regards to the Scotland international returning in time for the season run-in.
It meant 22-year-old full-back Nuno Tavares was drafted in as Tierney’s replacement for just his seventh league start of the season, and his lack of minutes this season clearly showed as he was partly at fault for the Eagles’ two first-half goals.
Tavares was beaten at the back post by Joachim Andersen for Jean-Philippe Matetea’s opener, while his inability to track Jordan Ayew’s run allowed the Ghanaian to double Palace’s advantage. He was hauled off at half-time by Arteta, who branded the decision as “tactical”.
The Portuguese full-back has endured some tough outings in an Arsenal shirt in recent months, particularly away from home. He showed similar levels of sloppiness in the defeat away at Everton in December, before being taken off after just 35 minutes for tactical reasons in the FA Cup loss at Nottingham Forest.
The statistics show that while Tierney and Tavares’ statistics are similar, the latter is sloppier defensively than the Scot, who will be a big miss should he be out for the rest of the season.
Arsenal do have other options in that left-back role, including Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka – but both were used in that role this time last year, and the Gunners’ season fell apart. Arteta cannot risk that happening again, so a quick-fire solution is needed.
In additional salt to the Gunners’ wounds, Thomas Partey limped off after pulling a muscle in the build-up to Palace’s third goal, with Arsenal’s No 5 expected to be another significant absentee.
The Ghana midfielder’s absence at the start of this calendar year, due to Africa Cup of Nations duty and suspension, was another bleak period for the Gunners. In the four matches Partey missed in January, Arsenal failed to score a goal in that time. It was only when the midfielder emerged back again in the team in February Arteta’s side started winning again.
The latest Gunners injuries mean Arteta’s thin, young squad – which was manufactured in that way as there was no European football to contend with this season – is now incredibly short. The substitutes’ bench at Palace contained three academy products without a single minute of first-team action this season. The inexperience on the bench is likely to reappear between now and the end of May.
“It’s what we have, it’s the numbers that we have,” Arteta said immediately after the Palace defeat. “We’ve lost Kieran and we’ve lost Thomas now and that’s it.
“With the players that we have we will keep trying like we have since the start of the season, but we never had a big squad so we can’t find any excuses. Today we have to look at ourselves and I’m the first one because I repeat myself, it wasn’t good enough.”
Again, Arsenal’s injury woes compare strikingly to Tottenham’s fitness issues. Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son have appeared to avoid their annual ‘winter injuries’, plus Cristian Romero and Eric Dier have returned from the sidelines in time for the run-in.
It’s not just good luck that has fallen Spurs’ way. The white half of north London were more proactive in the January transfer market, bringing in Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski who have made Tottenham more “complete”, according to Conte. Arsenal, on the other hand, stubbornly chose to not bring in anyone, including a centre-forward.
Those January decisions could be crucial when determining which north London postcode hosts Champions League football next term.
Arsenal have been there before…
Challenging for Champions League has not been an ambition at the Emirates Stadium in the past two seasons, but Arteta may look at the last time Arsenal were involved in this race with concern.
The 2018/19 season saw Unai Emery’s Gunners lie on the brink of a top-four finish, with the club sitting in third spot in April of that season with just a handful of matches to go. But a horrendous run-in saw it all go awry – and a defeat to Palace started the end of season collapse.
The 3-2 home loss to the Eagles in April was the start of a run of three straight league defeats for Arsenal, who then suddenly dropped out of the top four. A 1-1 home draw to Brighton – and a Europa League final loss to Chelsea saw those ambitions vanish for that season.
Brighton, coincidentally, are Arsenal’s opponents this weekend, with the Seagulls suffering from similar issues themselves. They have scored just one Premier League goal since February 12 – and failed to find the net from 29 shots on goal in their goalless draw with Norwich on Saturday.
Win and the pressure mounts on Tottenham ahead of their Saturday Night Football clash at Aston Villa, live on Sky Sports.
But another slip-up and the tensions that currently exist could mount again, and it could lead to troublesome consequences in their top-four battle.