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Is The PL The Toughest League In The World?

They say the Premier League is the toughest domestic league in the world.

It may be hyperbole scripted by the TV Execs to justify exorbitant subscription fees, but there may be something in it.

Looking at the top European leagues, the usual suspects duke it out season after season for the top honours. In Italy, Juventus have won countless consecutive Scudettos. In Spain, if your name isn’t Barcelona or one of the Madrid’s, you aren’t welcome in the VIP section. Ditto for PSG, Ajax, PSV, Dortmund and Bayern in France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Of course, there are exceptions. FC Twente in the Netherlands, Monaco in Ligue Un, Leicester City and the odd guest appearance in the Champions League from a surprise runner means that there is indeed depth that on the surface appears to be non-existent.

But in the Premier League, the true fact is that every single one of the twenty teams that take part in the Premiership is capable of gunning down one another. Every weekend, the so-called ‘Big6’ go into their respective fixtures with a healthy degree of respect for their opposition. No matter if they are Premier League debutants or top-flight veterans, every club has the chance of ruining an accumulator.

The fact that it is now a ‘Big6’ rather than the already established ‘Top4’ shows that there is no room for error when fighting for the summit. It means that there are opportunities for those who invest wisely the ridiculous sums of money doled out for TV rights.

That brings us to a salient point for us Gooners.

Are we able to maintain the gap between us and the chasing pack?

 

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We have spent wisely in the summer and purchased players that will enable us to go the distance a little easier than last season, which saw us crawl over the finish line rather than kick on and claim our top four spot.

Then again, the peloton that is breathing down our necks have also strengthened significantly, and have owners more than willing to back their Managers to the hilt with regard to transfer activity.

Leicester City, West Ham, Wolves and Everton have been backed by their investors. They have been active and purchased players that wouldn’t look out of place in our squad, or even City’s and Liverpool’s talent pool.

The Foxes have made a strong start to this season, and the additions of Youri Tielemans, Caglar Soyuncu (from the previous season) and Dennis Praet mean that along with the likes of James Maddison and Jamie Vardy, boss Brendan Rodgers has all the pieces required to assemble a challenging squad.

West Ham have been very active, and spent heavily on Sebastian Haller up front and the highly-sought after Pablo Fornals in midfield. The Hammers now have a squad littered with top class names – enough to seriously trouble our hopes of re-entry to the Champions League.

Wolves, led by the tactical nous of Nuno Espirito Santo, went mightily close to piercing the Top 6 bubble. Up top they have the prolific Raul Jimenez who is ably assisted by Diego Jota. In midfield, Joao Moutinho rolls back the years and Connor Coady does the mucky stuff, and with Matt Doherty in defence providing a constant outlet, they have a spine that will continue to push bigger teams.

Everton have some serious wealth behind them. Their owners are not shy in their ambition, and that means Marco Silva has spent on some big name players. Moise Kean, Fabian Delph, Yerry Mina  (from the previous summer) and our Hale End product Alex Iwobi join an already dangerous squad, with Gylffi Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Adrien Gomes, Bernard, Michael Keane, Lucas Digne, Seamus Coleman and Theo Walcott showing that the Toffees are justifiably excited for this season.

While we have our eyes very much upwards, it means that points that were normally a lot easier to grab will now be a slog, and squad’s will have to rotate, but it will be difficult for manager’s who rotate heavily.

The same goes for the likes of Champions City, Liverpool and our top four rivals. No more points bagged as soon as the game is kicked off. These teams can not only hurt them, they can run for the majority of the season’s distance.

When the likes of Crystal Palace are beating United, promoted Sheffield United drawing with Chelsea and Burnley and Bournemouth doling out slip-ups on the regular, every game will need meticulous scrutiny before the game begins.

It means some trophies may have to be sacrificed, with our promising youth filling the void as our established players take a breather.

All of this makes for palpitations, and also is the perfect league to watch week in and week out.

Emery’s Second Season

It eventually came down to the finest of margins.

Our last two matches in the Premier League and the Europa League final.

After more than fifty matches throughout the season, it boiled down to how we would perform in 270 minutes.

If we won all three?

It would mean a return to Champions League football at the first time of asking from Emery – and a big shiny European trophy to boot.

We would be competing in the summer for the European Super Cup, we would have banished our European hoodoo and announced our comeback to the big stage in the best possible way.

Instead, we were treated to an insipid 1-1 draw at home to Brighton, followed by a win over Burnley (too little, too late by this point) and then a calamitous performance in Baku where we were sent back to London with our tail between our legs by Chelsea.

From where we sit now, looking back, hindsight really does bring things into focus.

We could be remembering what constituted to be a wonderful season, culminating in a win over our London rivals on a European stage, lifting the Europa League.

We could be looking forward to a return of that famous Champions League anthem and more importantly, the extra clout and transfer budget that comes with inclusion of the European Cup.

Unai Emery would be looked upon as taking us in the right direction, instead of doubts on whether he is the right man for the job.

Never mind a little common sense – we missed out on all of the above because of our own failings!

It would be fantastic if everybody could take the equivalent of a mental cold shower, and look at things from a different perspective.

Yes, it is our own fault that we are in what is now a compromising position thanks to missing out on the Champions League.

However, have we not closed the gap?

Has Emery not made progress on where were when he took over – with largely the same squad that Arsene Wenger had?

 

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Woah there, gib me a shance!! 

 

We missed out on the top four by a solitary point. We missed out on the top3 by two points. Despite us picking up just one win on the home straight, we still only fell short by the finest of margins.

Jurgen Klopp, the buck-toothed, bespectacled coach heralded by all as a genius, finished in eighth spot in his first season.

Granted, he was then awarded a wad of cash to spend to revitalise his squad, but it shows what margins a new coach can bring. Klopp didn’t manage to do much in his first season, other than probably the most important factor – one that isn’t instantly tangible.

The roots of his tactics, his famous press, the demanding fitness ability that all players had to adhere to? That was instilled in that disappointing first season. The window of transition from where they were, to where they can now adapt their formation and tactics dynamically? That takes time.

Emery too, needs the time to ensure his tactics are bedded in. That press we saw in the games we flickered to life? The wins over Chelsea, spurs, United? That is what we can now expect next season, albeit a lot more frequently.

We dropped off constantly last season, our defence struggled to adapt to new instructions, plus last season began with two tough fixtures, which in turn put pressure on subsequent games.

Emery will be under no illusions regarding who he needs in and shipped out in order to strengthen and carry out his formulas into battle. The list will already be drawn up, and pre-season will see us again begin to hit the cardio emphatically in order to maintain the lung-bursting orders from Emery. The very same orders that will see us improve once again.

Our fanbase needs a dose of realism. Emery, nay, all coaches, need a window of time to instil their own virtues. Even the mightiest of oaks still need years to flower.

Yes, our transfer activity may not be as it should be for a club of our standing, but as we are self-sustaining, we can only spend what we make. We cleared around £40m last season?

Well, that’s how much we’ve got to work with.

Fear not though. Emery’s expertise will start to show next season. His excellent pedigree wasn’t obtained in a cereal packet, he earned it and if given time, he can show us how.

We have to support, rather than call into question everything.

At the end of the season, when the dust settles, let’s see where we are.

 

Skipper On Our Shopping List

The summer transfer window may cure some ills for Arsenal, but at least one of our failings may well be carried over into next season.

It will require targeting from our recruitment team to rectify the situation, otherwise our next campaign we will still be bereft of a true captain.

Unai Emery changed much in his first season, and one of the myriad of variants he brought in to dispel the old era was to appoint five nominated skippers. All five brought a little something different to the table and perhaps combined, they made one true leader.

Mesut Ozil brought a true example to look up to for the younger players, and his ice-cool temperament is a skill that many could need.

Petr Cech is a born winner and has been victorious in every club competition he has entered.

Granit Xhaka is a motivator, rallying the troops vocally and attempting to rouse the warrior within them all.

Aaron Ramsey is the consummate professional and is the prime example of where hard work can take a young prospect as the Welshman is the purest evidence of this.

Then there is Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman has been at Arsenal for eight years and has put his injury-ravaged body on the line every time he has put on the shirt. He is still probably our best defender at a tender 33 years of age and the squad look to him for a mixture of all of the above.

Next season is a different story though. At times we have missed a captain of the ilk of our previous luminaries. Players who can grab their teammates and the match itself by the scruff of the neck and change things.

Koscielny deserves the armband, but is he vocal enough? Does he have the right mixture of fear, adulation and respect?

Only the squad can answer that, but at times last season we looked a little rudderless, games slipping from our grasp because of our sloppiness, mistakes that could have been weeded out by a captain who makes sure everyone is accountable.

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When was the last time we had a skipper who gave the team that 5% that lifted them above the ignominy of another poor show?

Previously, we awarded the armband to our stars as a makeweight of sorts, another thing to add to the plate that is offered to a star that is looking at pastures new; “Instead of leaving, please stay, you can be the captain of the team.”

Patrick Vieira then, was probably the last time we had someone who was the embodiment of a captain, someone who naturally has an air that lends itself to turning heads, opening ears, inspiring performances.

Koscielny is the nearest we have to that in our squad. He never lets the side down, he gives his all. Those are mandatory for the captain, they need to show the level that is expected.

We may need to look for a player in the window that has the DNA strand that is true leadership though. With Koscielny on his last legs and Rambo no longer a Gooner, we are in more need than ever of a player to take the armband.

Our rivals have players of that ilk, or at least captains who can scream a player into playing a little better. Cesar Azpilicueta and Vincent Kompany especially are true leaders and give their sides that little extra when they struggle.

Now Raul Sanllehi and Emery must put someone on their shopping list that isn’t weighed down by the armband. Instead, they see it as an honour and use it to eke everything than can out of themselves and their comrades.

Arsenal’s Home Comforts

We know a home crowd has a huge effect on players. We know it changes the course of decisions for referees – home teams are nearly twice as likely to get a big decision than the away team.

Is it truly the 12th man though?

It seems that way for Arsenal right now, and last season too for that matter.

The contrast between our home and away form is quite startling. Since December (this is written in the aftermath of our 1-0 loss to Everton at Goodison) we have won a solitary game away from The Emirates in the Premier League. That victory was at bottom of the table Huddersfield, and we have had five away wins since the start of 2018 – Cardiff, Newcastle, Fulham, Bournemouth and Huddersfield.

Add to that our lack of a clean sheet away from home – the ONLY team to not have one this season – and you have a severe case of travel sickness.

It would be a case of relegation if it weren’t for our impressive home form. Only Manchester City have more home points banked than us, and it has seen us stay in contention for the top four.

Is our home crowd that vociferous that we need it to buoy us? Even Lacazette has twice as many home goals than away. Does our team require the home crowd more than we think?

As good as we can be at home sometimes, our crowd at The Emirates is probably not the answer. So why do our teams come out and play like artists at The Emirates, and yet fingerpaint away from home?

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Losses against West Ham, Everton, Southampton and draws against Brighton, Tottenham and Manchester United have all been games where we have failed to show up, or failed to push home the final blow.

The Hammers, Gulls, Saints and Everton results were devoid of anything remotely Arsenal-esque, and all shared the same fact – Our star-striking duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t start simultaneously alongside Mesut Ozil. Against United and Tottenham, our attacking threat was enough, but we failed to put away our chances, and it cost us.

When all three start, our results have been staggering, without loss this season. Mesut Ozil took his time to adapt to the ways of Unai Emery but has recently been involved in the starting eleven with increasing frequency.

Ultimately, that is down to the Manager and his selection.

It appears as if Emery favours attack as the best approach when at home, with our star three playing more often at The Emirates. When it comes to away from home though, one of our two strikers is usually selected, with Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and / or Ramsey behind them. Emery is going conservative, trying to keep things a little tighter and emphasize the focus on closing down spaces rather than all-out attack.

The thing is though, when we do go for it at home, no matter the calibre of opponent, we create so much that we invariably have enough chances to win the game. We may concede a few – although in 2019 we have conceded less than all but Manchester City – but we seem capable of outscoring the majority.

Our knockout phase wins in the Europa League highlight the disparity of our home and away form.

Away from home against BATE Borisov, we fell to a 1-0 loss – the first English team to lose in Belarus.

Bring them back to The Emirates, we take them apart easily 3-0.

Same with Rennes – 3-1 loss in France, 3-0 win at The Emirates.

Let’s be straight here – these two clubs shouldn’t be able to hold a candle to us home OR away, yet they defeated us and left us to rely on our home advantage.

It seems then, that our malaise is down to a different approach, a lack of confidence to replicate our sizzling home form, and quite simply not playing well.

For this to carry over from last season shows that we need to change something, although there have been plenty of changes since Emery took over. The very fact we are still in with a shout of the top four shows we have improved from Wenger’s last season.

We have to hope we find the answer soon, otherwise it could cost us dearly.

Any ideas?

 

Who Will Win The Top4 Race?

There was a time when making the top four for the hallowed Champions League spots was much maligned.

 

When Arsene Wenger performed miracles on a shoestring budget by squeezing his Gunners side into the top table of European football season after season, instead of being lauded he was ridiculed for valuing the financial merits of making the Champions League.

 

Now though, making it into the top tier of club football is a huge deal, and one that six teams not only desire – but in order to maintain their standing and financial clout – they also need.

 

This season looks to be the toughest to call in regards to who slips into the top quartet of the Premier League. Manchester City and Liverpool have gone from strength to strength as they propel each other in their title fight, but the other two spots?

 

That is a straight fight between four teams.

 

As you can see in the graph on this page on the Premier League odds, the current odds on which team will get into the top4 is an ever-changing landscape, and no team can be sure of where they will stand at the end of the campaign. Tottenham were shaping up to be a third player in the title battle only two games ago, and now they are looking nervously over their shoulder with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United breathing down their necks.

 

It is even closer between Chelsea, United and Arsenal, with one point separating the trio – should Chelsea win their game in hand.

 

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So who has the advantage in the run-in? Who is nearer to pocketing the 70-100m of readies for Champions League involvement?

 

Arsenal

 

Much will depend on their next two games. Fixtures against tottenham and United are huge games and neither can be confidently predicted..Once those are out of the way though, the key is the away games for the Gunners.

 

From the remaining eight games after the United match, Arsenal have four games on the road. With Unai Emery’s men far from convincing on their travels, they will need to take advantage of the fact that they will have played all of their games against their fellow top6 colleagues.

 

United

 

United have three fixtures left against their top6 rivals, and a key spell will be April 24-28, which will have United host City and Chelsea in the space of four days.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made his team resurgent after the dour tenure of Jose Mourinho, and their climb up the table has been remarkable.

 

One thing to watch is their injuries, especially after three players were replaced in the first half in  their 0-0 draw with Liverpool recently.

 

If they can keep their big men fit, they will be there at the end. The likes of Pogba, Lindelof, Rashford and De Gea are vital to their cause.

 

Chelsea

 

March is crunch time for Chelsea. A London derby at the start of the month, then a trip to Anfield, a tough game against Burnley and then closing out the month with an away game against United.

 

Chelsea are also hugely reliant on Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante. Without those two and the Blues lack the proper world class to change games.

 

Maurizio Sarri has had a perplexing first season. On one hand, he has earned some big wins, and on the other hand, they have looked insipid at times, mocked by their own fans for their unimaginative substitutions. There have also been the odd blip – huge losses to Bournemouth and City made them look ordinary.

 

If Sarri can muster the better end of the blues performances, then they can keep pace with the pack.

 

So, to surmise, it is going to be ridiculously tight to call.

 

One thing is for sure, every match will be unmissable.

Pro’s and Con’s of a Winter Break

If you can make it in the Premier League, you can make it anywhere.

The lack of a festive break for footballers in the world’s most watched domestic league means that imports from other countries will face a baptism of fire when it comes to December.

While their compatriots will be sunning themselves in some far-flung destination, relaxing their weary bones, Premier League players will be going through the most gruelling spell of fixtures in the whole season.

Let us take our club for instance.

With European competition and domestic cup action, we have nine games to navigate our squad through, in 31 days. It is little over a game every three days.

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Even without European competition, and let’s throw an early exit in the Carabao Cup, it leaves every club with a bare minimum of seven matches.

December represents the toughest stage, and once through this imposing gauntlet, you know there are no more tests like it. There will be months that the going is tough, but none amount to the sheer physical exertion that nine games brings.

Does the festive schedule need to be binned? Some are of the opinion that because of the lack of a break, the England international team will always fall short. While their national rivals can call upon reserves of stamina, England will always be flat out, running on fumes and desperate for a rest.

However, Christmas and football are close bedfellows. Attending and watching games with family and friends is an institution, one that does need to be guarded to protect it for fans.

Could there be a compromise from the league that would fit everyone?

Probably not. Sky and TV companies hold the Premier League by the short and curlies, and can make it dance to whatever tune they wish. Abandoning the current status quo would seriously harm revenue, as figures over Christmas will be higher than any other time. It’s a captive audience, families indoors, watching the game with a box of Matchmakers.

The barometer for success can be found in European competition. The lack of success from English sides is tangible, while Spain reigns supreme. That means that Italy and Germany are also without any real progress, but they too enjoy a winter break.

A lot of this can be put down to the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but without them, Italy and Germany have had ever presents in the latter stages, where Chelsea, United, spurs, Liverpool, City and Arsenal have let the side down from time to time.

Can this be attributed to a lack of a winter rest?

Perhaps not, but it is probably a factor.

However, fan power does still have a part to play, at least in this situation.

If the festive schedule was taken away, and add to this the liberal peppering of international friendly breaks, supporters would not exactly be supportive of this. It would also cause a fixture scheduling hell, with clubs compromising fitness with games coming thick and fast for longer spells.

At this moment, it is just December that is packed full of games, but with a winter break, these nine games would have to be sandwiched unceremoniously throughout a season.

From a fans point of view, let us enjoy the many opportunities we are getting to see our side, and let our club, with their many resources, deal with the physical exertion.

Promises and Savouring the Journey

The season, Unai Emery’s first and the beginning of a new era of Arsenal, is in full swing.

 

The football is in a transitory stage, and when the dust settles, an Unai Emery modelled team will indeed make us a far tougher outfit than before. We can already see the seeds of Emery’s free-flowing attack in flashes – the non-stop movement and team-built moves that were the foundation of his success with Sevilla.

 

We also have a squad that is better equipped than in previous seasons. Defensive inequities remain, but this isn’t down to the personnel like in years before.

 

The future is bright, but for some, the future isn’t good enough.

 

Success is never quite close enough, glory always on the horizon but never within grasp.

 

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We are filled with promises from politicians that carry as much weight as the flakiest pastry, it is becoming the norm where someone’s word is worth nothing. So is it really surprising that we hold no optimism where the future is concerned?

 

Unai Emery will be painfully aware that he needs a modicum of success if he is to etch his name permanently into the annals of Arsenal. If he fails then he will be just another managerial casualty.

 

The requirements are simple, far simpler than at the majority of clubs. Do what Arsene failed to do in his last two seasons – reach the Champions League.

 

This means ousting two from Man United, Chelsea, tottenham, Liverpool and City. the Champions. Seeing as two of these teams look to be ahead of the chasing pack, that leaves two teams from four, including us.

 

The League is getting tougher and tougher to get at those pesky top four spots, but Emery’s prime objective could be fulfilled another way.

 

As aforementioned, our squad has been bolstered beyond what means we had for our last foray into the Europa League. We reached the Semi-Final then, with a tired team that couldn’t fully motivate in what was Wenger’s last season.

 

We now have a coach who is somewhat of a specialist in this competition. Like it or not too, if we were to lift this trophy, it would be our biggest European triumph. If Emery were to recreate his winning with Sevilla, it would be more than enough to sate the doubters and also the Board.

 

The Top4 may be a big leap, and so is the Europa League, but fighting on both fronts is a must. Emery is equipped to bring glory to the team, but his first season is a building effort. Targets may be in place but we must also realise that if we fall short, there are reasons why.

 

We aren’t where we need to be. We are building, pushing towards an accumulated effort which takes time.

 

We could lift a cup, we might not, but we need to enjoy the journey, as we are on the right path and progress is being made. If it doesn’t happen this season, we can at least rest assured that this is a lesson we need to learn to achieve more.

 

Patience is indeed a virtue, but we need to stop being so short-sighted and only see the struggle. Obstacles make the journey more exciting and for once, we need to have faith in the promises being made.

 

The struggle is real, but so are the words being spoken. We are on our way to silverware again.