After weeks of inactivity, it’s now all systems go for Arsenal. Perhaps it is the scheduling of English football, rather than the sheer number of games, that makes it so hard for the England national team (and the other home countries’ national teams) to do so well in summer tournaments. Certainly, the scheduling of the season for Arsenal seems to prove that English football is either feast or famine.
After so many games at Christmas and New Year, which clearly shocked Unai Emery as it does so many foreign managers, the games rapidly begin to decrease in number (especially after an early FA Cup exit), until we are in the frankly ludicrous situation in March where Arsenal have not played a game at all for nearly three weeks. However, that is all about to change dramatically, as Arsenal approach the end of the season and a maximum of 13 games in the Premier League and Europa League that will determine whether Emery’s first season in charge is regarded as a success or a failure.
It’s All Systems Go For Arsenal
The Sunday-Thursday Grind Will Begin
Put simply, Arsenal are about to enter the Sunday (and occasionally Monday), then Thursday grind that is so often used to characterise the scheduling for English teams in the Europa League and that arguably does so much to hinder their chances of domestic success, including qualifying for the Champions League by reaching the top four. It all begins tonight, of course, with the visit of Newcastle United to the Emirates. Then there is a relatively long breathing space until the Gunners travel to Everton on Sunday, and then it really is all systems go, with three matches (one at home and two away) in a week, as Arsenal travel to Watford either side of their two legs against Napoli in the Europa League quarter-final.
In some respects, the recent international break (the term that precisely conveys how most football supporters regard international football, namely as a ‘break’ to or interruption of the all-important club season) for World Cup qualifiers came at the wrong time for Arsenal and for Emery. That was because they had just produced arguably their two most impressive performances of the season so far in quick succession: first, beating Manchester United (a fellow top-four contender) 2-0 in the Premier League; then, clawing back, with relative ease, the two-goal first-leg lead that they had conceded to Rennes in the last 16 of the Europa League; and, most surprisingly of all, somehow keeping a clean sheet in successive games for only the fourth time this season, and the three other occasions had all come against far less dangerous sides than Rennes or Manchester United.
Arsenal will obviously hope to make it three wins and three clean sheets in a row tonight against Newcastle, who traditionally struggle to make an impression on away visits to London, especially at the Emirates, where their only win in recent times came courtesy of an Andy Carroll header nearly a decade ago. It is obviously good that Arsenal are ‘restarting’ their season at home, and against a team who are still not out of the relegation dogfight (especially if they lose tonight), but of course, the sternest challenges ahead will, as always, come away from home.
Away Form Will Be The Key
It is often said that the true test of a team’s form is its away form; Alan Hansen, for one, always maintained that a team’s away form was the real litmus test of its ability. On that basis, Arsenal have certainly not been a very good team in the last two seasons. In 2017/18, which turned out to be Arsene Wenger’s last season at the club after 22 years, Arsenal only won one game away from home in the Premier League in the second half of the season, at Huddersfield Town on the very last day of the season, and they ultimately went out of the Europa League when they lost away to Atletico Madrid after only drawing with them at home in their semi-final. After an initial upturn under Emery this season, the away form has again been far poorer than the home form, with Arsenal’s last away win in the Premier League coming at Huddersfield (again) at the start of February and the last two Europa League away ties resulting in 1-0 and 3-1 defeats against BATE Borisov and Rennes respectively.
After defeating Manchester United in the Premier League (fortuitously, it has to be said), much was made of Arsenal’s run-in being far easier than those of other Champions League contenders, as, unlike all the other top-six sides, they do not have to play a fellow member of the elite again. However, as last season proved conclusively (and as this season has done little to disprove), away from home Arsenal can lose to anyone and there are at least three remaining Premier League away-days – at Everton, Watford and in particular Wolves – that look anything but straightforward.
Equally, in the Europa League, Arsenal’s luck finally ran out, as the presence of Chelsea in the quarter-finals necessitated the switching of Arsenal’s home match against Napoli, such that the Gunners will now play the second leg away. Post-Sarri and in particular post-Higuain (who, of course, is now at Chelsea on loan from Juventus), Napoli are not the force that they have been in recent years, namely the second-best team in Italy after Juve. They may still be second to Juventus in Serie A, but they trail the seven-times-in-succession champions by a massive 15 points. Nevertheless, a trip to the San Paolo stadium on a European night is always a test of nerves: Arsenal themselves failed it nearly six years ago, when they lost their last Champions League group stage match to Napoli, and Napoli proved against Liverpool in the Champions League group stage this season that they can still trouble the best. Having beaten Liverpool at home in Europe, they certainly will not fear facing Arsenal.
Improvements In Attack And Defence
Surely the key for Arsenal to be successful in these forthcoming away matches (and indeed in the remaining games at home in both the Premier League and the Europa League) is to concentrate on getting things right at both ends of the pitch. That is to say that Emery must surely continue with his very attractive and attacking formation whereby both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette start games together, with their very different skill-sets (Aubameyang’s speed and finishing, and Lacazette’s hold-up play and harassing of a defence) complementing each other perfectly. Equally, Emery must ensure that the recent, and very surprising, improvement in Arsenal’s defensive play continues. Ultimately, that will surely depend on Arsenal’s captain, Laurent Koscielny, staying fit to the end of the season, when Arsenal must finally address the gaping hole at the heart of their defence that Koscielny’s absence leaves.
If ‘Aubamazette’ (as Arsenal’s new pairing of strikers will surely be shortened to, although if they stop scoring it might be changed to ‘Lacabang’) can continue scoring, and if Koscielny can defy age and an increasing number of injuries to remain fit, then Arsenal have a chance of both making the Premier League top four and winning the Europa League. If that happens, Emery’s first season in charge at the Emirates can undoubtedly be considered a success. However, if the goals dry up and if Koscielny gets injured again (as he has done at the end of the last two seasons), things could be very different indeed.