Arsenal’s away form inexcusable for a club with Champions League ambitions

For Arsenal to take all three points from Saturday’s North London Derby, they’ll have to do something they’ve managed just three times in the Premier League this season – win an away game.

It’s incredible to think the Premier League’s sixth-placed side with ambitions of returning to Europe’s pinnacle tournament have claimed less points on the road than Leicester, Burnley and Watford this season, and just one more than 16th-placed Newcastle United, but at this stage in the campaign it can’t be a mere coincidence or statistical anomaly.

Rather, Arsenal’s modest away form has been perhaps the only real constant of their turbulent season – one that Arsene Wenger has shown no real willingness to address and only given token explanations for in the media.

After losing three of their first four away games of the campaign, Wenger told reporters that his side simply didn’t score enough goals on the road; but after a scoreless draw with West Ham, he blamed a hectic fixture list instead. Back in September, meanwhile, when quizzed on Arsenal’s equally disturbing away record against the Big Six across several seasons, he said he couldn’t ‘accept or understand’ why playing away from home should make any difference to his players.

“The pitch is 105 metres long and 68 metres wide, everywhere, and never in my life I could accept or understand that it’s different away from home. It’s just a question of how much you want it, it’s about football, it’s a good opportunity to show that and that we have that quality.”

That’s a mind-boggling declaration for a modern manager to make, and one that simply doesn’t stack up against the statistics. Even Manchester United, the most dominant club in Premier League history, have averaged ten less away than home points per season over the last 25 years, while that gap expands to eleven for Arsenal. In fact, from the six clubs to feature in all 26 Premier League seasons to date, none have won more points on the road than at home.

Not that anyone would be surprised by that – after all, home advantage is a common, constantly justified adage in practically every sport, whether it’s Rafa Nadal on clay courts or Team GB excelling at the London Olympics.

But Wenger’s bizarre take on the fallacy of home advantage also explains why Arsenal haven’t made any obvious changes to their game-plan for away games this season in the face of damning returns on the road. From 13 away games in the Premier League, the Gunners have won just 23%, kept only three clean sheets, conceded 21 times, scored just 16, fallen behind eight times and thrown away eleven points from winning positions.

It’s not been a problem exclusive to the Premier League either – Arsenal’s most humiliating performance of the season was a 4-2 defeat to Championship side Nottingham Forest at the City Ground – and even their away victories in the top flight have come with caveats.

The 5-2 win over Everton was tellingly followed by Ronald Koeman’s dismissal, the 1-0 victory at Turf Moor owed to a last-second Alexis Sanchez penalty of huge controversy and a win at Selhurst Park was almost thrown away when Crystal Palace staged a late onslaught. In a nutshell, their only comfortable away win of the season came against a side that had previously picked up just eight points from their first eight games and immediately sacked their manager afterwards.

When contrasted with claiming the second-most home points and second-most home goals of any Premier League side this season though, Wenger’s dismissal of the differences between home and away suddenly have real relevance. After all, during this season more than any other, we’ve seen the rest of the league grind out results against the Big Six by any pragmatic means possible, regardless of the venue.

Although playing defensively at home would traditionally irk supporters, it has become something for them to champion in an increasingly polarised Premier League. And while Arsenal averaging 61% possession at the Emirates Stadium would inevitably feel like something of a besiegement for visiting opposition, the Gunners averaging almost exactly the same away – 58.4% – without actually breaking through the defence feels more like an active defiance for fans to rally behind.

Clearances and blocks are celebrated with similar jubilance as goals, and players inevitably feel more confident of picking off Arsenal on the counter-attack when backed by their own partisan crowd. Once upon a time, perhaps Arsenal could play in exactly the same manner home and away, but as the dynamics of the Premier League have steadily changed in recent seasons, the counter-attack becoming an increasingly potent weapon, retaining possession only plays to the hosts’ advantage.

But that doesn’t tell the full story, and the fact is Arsenal’s players have picked up some disturbing habits – the most detrimental being conceding early goals. Arsenal have conceded six first half goals in away games this season, while only scoring four, and conceded the first goal on five of eleven occasions – the remaining two being scoreless draws.

While that only further plays into the hands of sides counter-attacking at home as Arsenal look to level the scores, it also suggests a lack of focus amongst the players; it’s not as if the opposition are pushing them to the final few minutes and scoring when they’re physically and psychologically exhausted – they’re getting the better of Arsenal in the early stages. In some senses, the right motivation – especially for games like the 3-1 defeat to Swansea – harks back to Wenger, however it’s also a question of effort and professionalism.

Whether the manager or the players are to blame though, it’s Wenger who has ultimately failed to address a problem that traces back further than this season – at the end of last term, Arsenal lost four of their final eight away games in the Premier League. More pertinently, it’s Wenger who must find a solution if Arsenal are to beat Tottenham this weekend and gain some much-needed ground in the race for a top four finish.

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