There is not much that can be said that has not already been discussed about Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United, and Arsenal. Each club has been disappointing in the dying weeks of the Premier League season. The race for the last two Champions League spots has become a farce. The new tag line associated with these four teams is “who even wants to get in to the Champions League?” Each team has had copious opportunities to take advantage of their competitors’ misfortunes and each club has consistently failed to cement their place in the top-four. This weekend saw each side drop points. Normally a battle amongst four giants in the Premier League for two coveted spots would be riveting, but these past few weeks have simply been tough to watch.
Tottenham lost their first match at their new home against West Ham United where viewers bared witness to one of the oddest goal celebrations in history by Michail Antonio. Arsenal suffered their third successive defeat in embarrassing fashion to a Leicester City club that looked better suited for a top-four challenge. Manchester United dropped two crucial points at home to Chelsea, but at the same time, the Blues were unsuccessful in stamping their place on Champions League football next season. Of all these teams, only Tottenham can say that they are in the ascendancy over the course of the past two seasons.
Arsenal have undoubtedly improved this year under Unai Emery’s tutelage. The players have become more formidable in the midfield. The high pressing was working in the Gunners’ favor when the tactic was being regularly implemented. The atmosphere surrounding the club is no longer hostile and Emery’s vision is beginning to take shape. There is still work to be done, and nobody expected all of Arsenal’s problems to be solved in one season. In fact, very few commentators, journalists, and even fans expected the club to be challenging for a spot in the Champions League.
Unfortunately, this fact only serves to put more salt in the wounds for Arsenal supporters. The club is fighting alongside Chelsea, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and should be judged on how the side is performing to date. One cannot help but feel utterly befuddled with Arsenal squandering a great set of circumstances to jump start their rebuild and repair what can only be described as a damaged reputation.
Arsenal needed a win against Leicester. A draw would have been acceptable to keep them in the hunt, but a win would have put the fate of the season in their own hands. Instead, Arsenal were embarrassed. Yes, being down to ten men, resulting from two questionable yellow cards given to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, made it a lot tougher for Arsenal to get a result. The way Arsenal played, however, left viewers with very little reason to believe that a full squad would have fared better.
The Arsenal defense was horrendous. Mustafi and Sokratis looked afraid of Jamie Vardy’s pace and were not confident in their ability to shut him down. Leicester City dominated possession, shot totals, and pass success. Arsenal had a meager 64% pass success compared to Leicester City’s 84%. An Arsenal strike force of Lacazette and Aubameyang failed to record a shot on goal. Rather it was Alex Iwobi who registered the only shot on target for the Gunners with a pedestrian strike that failed to challenge Leicester City keeper, Kasper Schmeichel.
It is tough to question a player’s heart and desire to win. You do not become a professional athlete without having the heart to work hard and stay determined to perform at the highest level. What can be scrutinized, however, is the quality of the current talent at the club. Come the end of the season every player is exhausted and banged up from playing sometimes over fifty games across ten months. Players’ mental faculties are now strained and the fight to run just a bit quicker or close down a sprinting attacker is just a little bit more challenging. The current Arsenal squad was simply not of the depth and quality to be meaningful competitors in this year’s Premier League.
The defense has not gotten statistically better with the addition of Sokratis in the back line or Lucas Torreira as an imposing central defensive midfield. The side has given up 49 goals this season with two games remaining. That statistic is more than the 44 goals let in by Manchester City and Liverpool combined. Last season with Arsène Wenger in charge the Gunners’ capitulated a top-six worst, 51 goals, across the 38 game season. Major changes are needed over the summer and the club will need every bit of that Champions League money to make those adjustments.
Unai Emery has clearly shifted his focus to the Europa League over the past week in order to secure Champions League football next season. The recent lineups suggest that his best squad may be left for the fight against Valencia in the Semi-Finals. Emery has also abandoned his high pressing tactical approach that was ever-present in the first part of the season. Today, the Gunners sat back and absorbed the pressure from Leicester City and tried to make their move on the counter-attack, which became a lot more demanding when Maitland-Niles was sent off.
At the end of the day, Arsenal still have a chance to get in the top-four. The side is only two points back of Chelsea for fourth. Arsenal are also still favorites to advance over Valencia even though the La Liga club are no easy foe. Former Gunners, Gabriel and Francis Coquelin, will make their return to the Emirates while Mustafi will pay a visit to his old home in Valencia. The top-four race will likely go down to the last day of the season, but Arsenal could have claimed their spot in the Champions League if they took advantage of a favorable situation and put their away form troubles to bed. They failed in this endeavor and reminded us that this rebuild will take time.