Arsenal have been on the end of some heavy media criticism since Saturday’s loss against North London rivals, Tottenham – but the Gunners are still best placed to finish in the top four.
There’s no doubt Chelsea will finish in the top four, with many already saying they have secured the title. Manchester City, although struggling of late still look certain of securing a Champions League spot this season – so Manchester United, Southampton, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are set to battle for the two remaining places.
Southampton are statistically the best placed side, as they sit in third place. However the Saints lack of experience and quality is likely to stagger their challenge. Manchester United are currently fourth, but their performances have been less than convincing all season. Liverpool appear to be falling off the pace early on this season and that just leaves Spurs.
Arsenal’s rivals may well be their main rivals for the top four this season, as they are the form team of the Premier League. But despite being completely biased as an Arsenal fan, I am extremely confident of Arsenal finishing in the top four and above Spurs.
Twice in the past three campaigns Arsenal have trailed Spurs with 24 Premier League games played, and on each occasion Wenger’s men have clicked through the gears in the home stretch to break their rivals’ hearts.
In 2011-12 they rattled off seven wins from eight matches between late February and mid-April to seize third and leave Harry Redknapp’s faltering men vulnerable to Chelsea’s miraculous Champions League triumph in Munich, while the following season they followed defeat at White Hart Lane with eight wins and two draws from their final 10 matches to overturn a four-point deficit and edge fourth on the final day.
On both occasions Tottenham were complicit in their own demise, and there is plenty of cause to suggest that Mauricio Pochettino’s current crop are made of sterner stuff. No team has won more points from losing positions (15) or points with goals in the final five minutes (12) this season. Christian Eriksen is maturing into one of the Premier League’s most consistent match-winners and Kane is operating at a level few other strikers in the world can currently match.
Yet Arsenal remain within striking distance despite weathering a trademark winter injury crisis that slowly appears to be easing. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott are once again fit and firing in attack, Francis Coquelin is showing tentative signs of being a viable solution to Wenger’s long-standing problem at the base of midfield and January signing Gabriel Paulista is a long-overdue quality alternative to the settled defensive partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
Most importantly of all, Wenger will imminently be able to field Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the same team. The German’s injury problems have ensured Arsenal’s two most expensive ever signings have played over an hour together just four times since the livewire Chilean arrived from Barcelona in the summer – a sample size too small to reliably tell us how both of these supreme talents will be incorporated into the Gunners’ frighteningly creative attack.
Arsenal have players returning, an easier run in and a formation that the team is finally looking comfortable in. So often his downfall, Wenger’s stubbornness appears to have paid off with this seasons formation change – and he deserves credit for that. The poor performance against Tottenham aside, Arsenal have finally found their rhythm in this formation.
When you look at the quality in the team, only Manchester United can rival Arsenal out of the top four contenders. That is why I think both Arsenal and Manchester United will finish in the top four come May. It’s a long season with lots of ups and downs but normally overall quality is the deciding factor.
I think the Gunners are in good shape to not only finish in the top four, but finish third. It will take a bit of luck with injuries to negotiate the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup successfully, but with the squad we have I am confident it will happen.
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