Has the pace changed in the top four this week?
The race in the Champions League was to lose to Arsenal. But as the Premier League enters its last six weeks, the picture suddenly looks very different.
Two defeats in three Premier League games, including a terrific 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday night, put Mikel Arteta’s team in a real fight to get back into the top four.
It is now the Gunners’ arch-rivals Tottenham – who are in form after three wins in the bounce – now hold a tempting fourth spot that will allow them a place at the top of European football next season. Arsenal have a bit of a luxury in the hands of the Spurs, although the task of winning at Chelsea later this month feels much less comfortable.
That crucial game at Stamford Bridge on 20 April marked the start of a tough race for the Gunners, with the game quickly in hand after a home clash against Manchester United, before the clash before traveling to West Ham in early May.
This turned Arsenal’s next two matches – at home to Brighton and away at Southampton – into easy wins. But with stress, scrutiny and injury issues mounting, how did the Gunners get into this sticky scene?
There was a push at Crystal Palace on Monday evening over bad outing formbooks – but a closer look at Arsenal’s recent performances suggests similar results are coming.
Artetar’s team failed to get into a tough Selhurst Park environment, their first shot aimed at the last kick of the first half, the Gunners lost 2-0.
Clinical finishing, especially from open play, has been a concern for Gunners in recent weeks. Their problems have been highlighted by the fact that they have failed to score a single goal in their last four matches in a no-set situation, since March 6.
Arsenal have averaged just 3.75 shots per game in their last four Premier League games, so they are not taking huge steps to test the opposing goalkeeper. Despite making 52 overall shots during this period – only Tottenham and Brighton have managed more.
Against this weak finishing palace was as clear as day. Within minutes, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegard missed a clear chance to bring Arsenal back into the competition with a 2-0 lead. After a while, the Eagles paid for them by adding a third through Wilfred Jahar’s goal.
Arsenal have been guilty of similar mistakes in the past. In one of their games against Liverpool last month, Odegaard missed a glorious chance to give the Gunners the lead from Thiago’s loose backpass – but failed to convert former goalkeeper Allison. Minutes later, Diego Jota put Liverpool ahead and Jurgen Klopp’s side won 2-0.
And on New Year’s Day against Manchester City, Gabriel Martinelli missed the goal with a goal difference of 1-1. The significance of that missed opportunity was further heightened 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 shots and 20 shots on goal.
Although this deficiency can be attributed to individual faults, it may be related to the lack of fire power up front. Arsenal failed to replace Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the January transfer window, leaving only Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Enketia as their only recognized forwards.
Lacazette has shown this season that he can bring options other than scoring goals in the role of center forward. In 10 league games since Aubameyang was snatched from the Gunners’ captaincy before leaving the club, he had three goals and seven assists for Arteta’s squad.
But the Frenchman has scored in just four leagues this season, and half of them from penalties. Arsenal are battling for goal-scoring chances and they have no central option to create chances from scratch – a wide range of options for attacking influence rely on top scorers Bukayo Saka and Smith Roy, both 21 and under.
Compare Arsenal’s plight with Tottenham’s flight to the goal. No team has taken more shots for Antonio Conte – on or off goal – since Arsenal last scored in the open. The data further shows that Spurs are creating better chances in front of the goal in the same period.
This offensive motivation shows why the Spurs are threatening to steal a match in the top-four race – and why the pendulum is swaying.
The pain of injury
To make matters worse for Arsenal, their injury problems continue to grow in this crucial part of the season.
The build-up to their Crystal Palace defeat on Monday was hampered by left-back Kieran Tierney’s injury, with Arteta describing the scandal as “not positive” for Scotland International’s timely return for the season run-in.
That means 22-year-old full-back Nuno Tavares has been named in the squad as a replacement for Tierney for just the seventh league start of the season, and his lack of minutes has been evident this season as he was partially guilty in the first two of the Eagles – half-goal.
Tavares was beaten in the back post by Joaquim Andersen, the opener of Jean-Philippe Matea, while his inability to track Jordan Ayur’s run allowed the Ghanaians to double their Palace advantage. At half-time, Arteta fired him, marking the decision as “strategic”.
The Portuguese full-back has endured some tough outings in Arsenal shirts in recent months, especially outside the home. He showed the same level of slope in the loss to Everton in December before leaving just 35 minutes later for strategic reasons after losing the FA Cup at Nottingham Forest.
Statistics show that although the figures for Tierney and Tavares are similar, the latter is more defensively sloping than Scott’s, which would be a big miss if left out for the rest of the season.
Arsenal have other options in that left-back role, including Cedric Suarez and Granit Zaka – but both were used in the role last year, and the Gunners’ season is different. Arteta can’t happen again, so a quick-fire solution is needed.
For the extra salt in the Gunners’ wounds, stunned after pulling a muscle for Thomas Party Palace’s third goal, Arsenal’s No. 5 is expected to miss another significant.
The absence of the Ghanaian midfielder earlier this calendar year due to Africa Cup of Nations duty and suspension was another dark time for the Gunners. Arsenal failed to score in the four matches missed in January. When the midfielder returned to the team in February, Arteta’s team started winning again.
The latest Gunners injury means Arteta’s thin, young squad – which was created this way because of the lack of European football to fight this season – is now incredibly small. The Palace’s alternate bench has three academy products this season, except for one-minute first-team action. The bench’s inexperience is likely to re-emerge from now until the end of May.
Shortly after the defeat of the palace, Arteta said, “All we have is our number.”
“We will continue to try our best with our players from the beginning of the season, but we have never had a big squad so we can’t find any excuses. Today we have to look at ourselves and I am the first because I repeat myself, it was not good enough. “
Again, Arsenal’s injury problems are strikingly comparable to Tottenham’s fitness problems. Harry Kane and Hyung-Min Son have appeared to avoid their annual ‘winter hit’, while Christian Romero and Eric Deer have returned from the sidelines in time to run-in.
It’s not just luck that the Spurs got in the way. The white half of north London was more active in the January transfer market, bringing in Rodrigo Bentankur and Dejan Kulusevsky to make Tottenham more “complete”, according to Conte. Arsenal, on the other hand, have stubbornly decided not to bring in anyone, including a center forward.
This January’s decisions could be crucial in determining which North London postcode will host the next Champions League football.
Arsenal was there before.
There has been no ambition to compete in the Champions League at the Emirates Stadium in the last two seasons, but Arteta may be looking at Arsenal for the last time to join the race with anxiety.
Unai Emery’s Gunners were on the verge of a top-four finish in the 2018/19 season, with the club finishing third in April of that season with just a few matches left. But seeing a terrific run-in, everything went awry – and the defeat to the palaces triggered the fall of the season.
The Eagles’ 3-2 home loss in April marked the start of three consecutive league defeats for Arsenal, which suddenly dropped out of the top four. A 1-1 home draw with Brighton – and a Europa League final loss to Chelsea – that ambition for that season disappeared.
Brighton, coincidentally, Arsenal’s opponent this weekend, the Seagulls themselves are suffering from the same problem. They have scored just one goal in the Premier League since 12 February – and failed to find the net from 29 shots in their goalless draw with Norwich on Saturday.
Tottenham win and pressure mount ahead of their Saturday night football clash at Aston Villa, live Sky Sports.
But another slip-up and the current tensions could escalate again and lead to annoying consequences in their top-four fights.