Tottenham’s recent slump in form has more than opened the door for Arsenal to move back into a top four place in the top flight going into the home straight of the campaign, leaving room for suggestions that experience just as much as quality will be the defining factor between now and the end of the season.
Arsenal have clinched three straight league wins since suffering the ignominy of a north London defeat back in early March. Arsene Wenger has somehow managed to use that game as a springboard for another tilt at the Champions League qualification places when it looked as if all hope was lost, beating Bayern Munich away from home 2-0 before beating Swansea, Reading and West Brom. Normally, those are three games you’d expect Arsenal to win and win comfortably, but they’ve become an increasingly difficult to predict this term, robbed of the assuredness of a Robin van Persie goal or two.
Nevertheless, after spending the vast majority of the campaign lunging from one crisis to another, they are timing their run just right and with a favourable fixture list remaining, they are well in truly in the driving seat. They’ve picked up 22 points from their last nine games, and when you contrast this with Tottenham ( 16), Everton (15) and Chelsea (16), it’s little wonder that they’ve closed the gap so rapidly.
When taking a closer look at what has seen Arsenal become top four contenders again, what’s interesting is that while they’ve won only five of the 15 matches this season against top-half sides, which is a particularly poor record considering where they sit in the table, they have lost only once in 16 games against teams in the bottom half.
They have become the very essence of a flat-track bully. Judging their rivals by the same standard, though, has seen Tottenham drop points against Norwich and Fulham, who were then a bottom half side, while Everton drew with Aston Villa and lost to Norwich and Chelsea to Southampton and Newcastle and drew with Reading. Arsenal aren’t doing anything particularly flashy at the moment, certainly when you consider what they’re capable of when they’re on form, they’re just doing enough to grind out results and pick up momentum while those around them hemorrhage points against teams they should be beating.
In all honesty, while Everton may sit just four points behind Arsenal with seven games of the season left to play, they’re not serious contenders for a top four spot now, seemingly blowing their chances around the festive period with a string of a disappointing draws. David Moyes’ side lack the squad depth to continue to churn out result after result in the manner in which is required and overturn a six-point deficit on both Tottenham and Chelsea.
Lest we forget that Rafa Benitez’s side, under the guidance of Roberto Di Matteo last season, finished in a lowly sixth place in the league last year, forsaking any league commitments in the pursuit of a famous double. They have bundles of experience within the side, but they remain an incredibly inconsistent outfit, weighed down by a quite absurdly congested fixture list and in what could represent a very similar path to last term, they could suffer trying to win the Europa League of FA Cup.
The balancing act is going to prove very tricky, but you can hardly blame a man who has been told he isn’t going to be staying on beyond the end of the season for chasing a CV-boosting piece of silverware. Unfortunately, that’s what you get for employing an ‘interim’ manager and throwing out any long-term plan out of the window every six months.
When it comes to Tottenham, in full flight, they play arguably the most exciting brand of football of three and are a balanced outfit, somewhat reliant on the talents of Gareth Bale, one of the league’s true stars. The only recent experience they have to draw on, though, is throwing away a 12-point cushion over their north London rivals down the home straight under Harry Redknapp. The psychological scars will still be present, with the core of the squad largely the same and they still, like Chelsea and unlike Arsenal, have European football to contend with. Throwing away a seven-point advantage gained after the recent north London derby victory won’t rank quite on the same scale of recent league collapses, but it’s worrying to say the least, with Arsenal game in hand (which happens to be at home to Norwich), who have two wins in 16 games across all competitions since Boxing Day) enough to take them into fourth, leapfrogging them in the process.
At this stage of the campaign, it’s far easier to chase something than hold onto it and Arsenal have finished the last 16 seasons in the top four and you wouldn’t bet against them making it lucky number 17 this year. The entire ethos of the club may have become indoctrinated to accept second best, with Wenger regarding the top four as more important as a domestic cup silverware, but when he’s preaching the same spiel for so long, it’s no surprise that his players treat their bread and butter with such importance. At the moment, simply maintaining their consistency could be enough, which hardly says a lot about their energy-sapped rivals.
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