05 February 2016

Will Arsenal have to struggle for another fourth place finish?

Ugh, I could barely drag myself to the keyboard to type this out. I said a prayer or two, but each time, Fraser Forster popped up out of nowhere to paw it away. So it goes. Arsenal have now slipped to fourth. Worse, Tottenham have risen to second. Even worse, everyone in the race won their midweek fixtures...except Arsenal. An all-too-familiar sensation is sinking in, as Gooners suffering various degrees of PTSD from previous seasons relive the perennial struggle to stay in the top four— a sensation exacerbated all the more by a feeling of what could have or should have been. There's still time to convert those conditional perfects into a future-perfect...but time's running out. Let's get to the actual rundown, shall we?

Leicester City
● Position: 1st
● Record: 14W, 8D, 2L
● Points: 50 (69.44%)
● Total at this rate: 79.2
● Form: DDWDWW
● Last match: Leicester 2-0 Liverpool
Confounding expectations, Leicester continue ride high and have managed to avoid losing anyone in the transfer-window, suggesting that this squad will remain intact through to the end of the season. Oh. That's the exact-same sentence I used last time through. Leicester thumped Liverpool rather convincingly, continuing a string of results in which they've wedded a new-found commitment to defense (five clean sheets in their last six) with continued commitment to scoring (five goals in their last two, sixth-lowest goals conceded overall). Their slate of fixtures is now down to just fourteen—no League Cup, FA Cup, or European commitments to distract them. While we're waiting for the other shoe to drop on their entire season, they continue to lace up those shoes and play. With each passing week, they not only find points; they also quiet their critics. If they can emerge from their next two (visits to the Etihad and Emirates) with two points, well, I hesitate to finish that sentence.
● Significant injuries (return date): Schlupp (2 February), James (no return date).
● Next match: Saturday at Manchester City.

Manchester City
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 14W, 5D, 5L
● Points: 47 (65.3%)
● Total points at this rate: 74.4
● Form: DWDWDW
● Last match: Sundeland 0-1 Man City
Aside from an indifferent away-win over Sunderland (who seem to seek relegation as soon as can be arranged), the biggest news regarding Man City would have to be the apparent hiring of Pep Guardiola. Proving once again that all of the money in the world cannot rent or buy class, Pellegrini will be deposed. Apparently, finishing second twice and winning the Prem once in three tries isn't quite good enough. Fancy that. More to the point, the hiring of Guardiola has at least one eye on improving City's performance in the Champions League, where they've underperformed rather embarrassingly. What impact will this have on the current squad? Will its members write off the current Prem season on the blithe assumption that Pep will guide them to the Prem's Promised Land and the Champions League's, um, chalice (sorry, alliteration is a bit chancey)? A sense of urgency has frequently been found lacking from this squad; it's an open question as to whether Pep's peregrinations will help or hinder in that regard.
● Significant injuries (return date): Navas (no return date), Delph (6 February), De Bruyne (16 April), Mangala (6 February), Bony (14 February), Kompany (14 February), Nasri (2 April).
● Next match: Saturday vs. Leicester

Tottenham
● Position: 3rd
● Record: 12W, 9D, 3L
● Points: 45 (62.5%)
● Total points at this rate: 71.3
● Form: WDLWWW
● Last match: Norwich 0-3 Tottenham
The Prem's most in-form squad bravely announced its arrival in the top four with a trouncing of those perennial powerhouses from Carrow Road. Rarely if ever has one avian-based club ousted a feathered-friend in such dramatic fashion. More to the point, however, Pochettino's poultry are now the second-most prolific squad in the Prem, (44 goals to Man City's 46) and are the prime preventers of goals as well (just 19 conceded). That's a recipe for success that we've rarely seen from White Hart Lane, and if these trends continue, Tottenham will stake a claim to its best finish in recent memory. By contrast against Leicester, Tottenham have done well to defend and deny but have struggled to score. Under Pochettino, we're seeing a more-open attack that is complemented by a more-stable defense. Their goal difference is best in the Prem (+25). That's a problem that this poultry haven't presented in ages. These capons are no more chickens running about with their heads chopped off. They know what they're up to...
● Significant injuries (return date): Allli (6 February), Vertonghen (no return date), N'Jie (5 March), Mason (6 February).
● Next match: Saturday vs. Watford.

Arsenal
● Position: 4th
● Record: 13W, 6D, 5L
● Points: 45 (62.5%)
● Total points at this rate: 71.3
● Form: WWDDLD
● Last match: Arsenal 0-0 Southampton
Hey, we're fourth! Destiny delivered (or is it fate fulfilled?). For the fourth straight match—fifth, if you include the sphincter-squeezer against Burnley—we've sleepwalked our way to an indifferent, disappointing result. For most of the priors, we could point fingers, pointless though they may be. There's a certain less-than-comforting irony to the last few weeks: even as we've grown closer to playing full-strength XI's, we've shrunk away from playing at full strength. We've now scored just zero goals in our last three Prem matches, and even the returns to fitness of Alexis and Coquelin were apparently not enough to earn us three points at home against Southampton. Even if Fraser Forster has used up his birthday wishes through 2019, we have to find a way to score goals. When even West Ham are outscoring you, you know you've got a few issues to sort out.
● Significant injuries (return date): Cazorla (three weeks), Wilshere (one month). Rosický (one month),
● Next match: Sunday at Bournemouth.

It would be all too easy to look at this recent string of fixtures and write ourselves off as also-rans. Leicester continue to defy gravity, Tottenham seem to have figured out how to play proper football at both ends of the pitch, and Man City continue to have more resources available to them than anyone in any conflict ever. Meanwhile, Arsenal seem to have rediscovered an all-too-predictable pattern of dropping points wherever they're offered. It's almost enough to make a Gooner wish for a 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League. As if that kind of result has ever resurrected anyone's hopes. Hell, for all of this sturm und drang, we're still just five points off the pace of the flavor of the month and two points off the pace of the jaded mercenaries. That's not quite the same as saying "we'll win the Prem anyway", but it's still a far bit better than saying "we'll finish fourth no matter what".