Before Arsenal’s 5-2 victory over Tottenham in the North London derby two weekends ago, Arsene Wenger announced that his minimum requirement would be a top four finish in order to qualify for the Champions League.
The Gunners have been inconsistent to say the least this season, producing convincing victories over Spurs, West Ham and Liverpool, but have come up short against Norwich and Fulham, as well as Premier League big boys Chelsea and Manchester United. Currently, the North Londoners sit in sixth place, ten points off league leaders Manchester City, suggesting they wont be launching a title bid any time soon – even if Arsene Wenger breaks the habit of a lifetime and buys big in January.
But considering the performances of Everton and West Brom, in fifth and third place respectively, not to mention competition from old rivals Tottenham and high-flying West Ham, would finishing in the top four prove to be a successful season for the Gunners?
It’s certainly very close in the mini-league between fourth and eighth place. West Brom are currently third but it would take a brave man to bet they will finish there at the end of the season and will most likely drop down at least one position in the coming weeks as Chelsea, City and United reassert their dominance over the Premier League.
Steve Clarke has tweaked his inherited team to make them even more efficient as they rack up the points. Their game against Chelsea on November 17th was very much the prequel to that famous 3-0 Champions League defeat to Juventus that cost Roberto Di Matteo his job, and the Baggies have made light work of lower table opposition this season. But whether Steve Clarke can maintain his team’s good form will depend on crucial six pointers against those surrounding West Brom in the league, including when they face Arsenal in two weekends time.
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Everton too are considerable rivals to getting into fourth spot. Bucking the trend, the Toffees have started well for once, but have perhaps missed out on achievable points since their fantastic form at the beginning of the season. But the mood has somewhat changed at Goodison Park. Usually, Champions League qualification is somewhat of an idealist fantasy, the kind of half-joke you make around this time of the year to your mother about getting you a PS3 and a HDTV to play it on for Christmas.
This season however, the players and the manager appear much more focused on making it a reality. Marouane Fellaini – the man running the high-flying Everton team and who could soon be on his way to Chelsea – has told the press he wants to get his club into the Champions League before he moves on, and similarly David Moyes has put pressure on himself by resisting the urge to sign a new contract until he has a better idea of whether Everton can make it into Europe’s top competition. At the start of the season, Tim Howard commented on how the current Toffees squad was the best he had seen in terms of first team quality and depth since signing from Manchester United in 2006.
Arsenal’s closest rivals Tottenham have tended to be their main competitors for fourth spot, and last season missed out on Champions League qualification to the Gunners by a single point. Despite the traditional local and league rivalry, Everton and West Brom could prove to be a bigger stumbling block than Spurs this season.
The new boss at White Hart Lane has failed to take the club forward, as Tottenham continue to struggle to take points against top four teams and it seems the chances of Spurs breaking into the top four are about as likely as they have ever been, despite being level on points with Wenger’s side. A £20 million January kitty could change all that however as Andre Villas-Boas drafts a shortlist of Europe’s rising stars to turn around Tottenham’s fortunes – Christian Eriksen, Joao Moutinho and Willian to name a few – and the Portuguese coach will soon have Moussa Dembele back at his disposal.
Arsenal themselves have had to forge a team out of the ruins of the old one, losing Robin van Persie and Alex Song in the same transfer window. Then again, claiming Arsenal are in a transition season seems to be an all too repetitive analysis since the club last lifted the Premier League trophy. In my opinion, Wenger has bought well; Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have all proved to be decent signings, but then again, the latter two are yet to perhaps live up to the hype initially surrounding their transfers in the summer. Both men contribute well but have also been found lacking in certain fixtures, whereas Santi Cazorla along with Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are a formidable midfield three that are as capable as any other in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s problem is clearly depth. When the surface is scratched away, the Gunners are left with a string of consistent under-performers in Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, Sebastien Squillaci and Andre Santos. Despite Wenger’s money-clutching ways, I believe the Frenchman will try to bolster his squad in January, especially if Theo Walcott continues his refusal to sign a new contract.
So all things considered, Arsenal fans should not turn their noses up at a fourth spot finish, even if it is one place backwards from last season. The stars have gone, and their replacements are decent but are by no means world beaters. Furthermore, until the board splash the cash on some top level quality, it would be wrong to assume the squad can naturally improve.
In the league, Arsenal face truly stiff competition from Everton and West Brom, and although the latter club’s form may fall away, beating both to fourth spot and batting away Tottenham, despite being Wenger’s minimum requirement, will be no easy feat.