Winning the Premier League has been quoted as one of the most difficult awards a team can win— if not the most difficult.
I won’t try to downplay what is takes for a team to win a trophy like the Champions League, especially given how European accolades have eluded Arsenal. But lifting the Premier League trophy in May takes a level of consistency that only top, top sides are able to produce.
Every week, from August to May, is worth precisely the same amount and a team has to produce match-winning levels of performance across all of it. In today’s Premier League climate, those results have to math out to roughly 90+ points to even have a chance. Manchester City have raised the demands and set the tone, yet Arsenal are not only matching that pace, they are outstripping it and five points clear.
Retaining that consistency all the way across the finish line? A hurdle this team readies to leap. With 11 matches to play, Arsenal have only the league to contend with, and many fans are just fine with that. A chance at a 14th First Division title, and 4th Premier League title, is on the line. But simply retaining their 2.44 points per game pace isn’t the only component as play.
“It’s 11 games to play for,” said Arteta, “11 Premier League games, and a big final against Crystal Palace. The focus has to be there, the energy has to be there and learn from tonight.”
To do so, Arsenal will have to contend with a late rise in fitness issues in a different department, and a challenging slalom of matches in April. Before they can get there, a cornered and struggling Crystal Palace will have to be contended with.
Crystal Palace have fired their manager Patrick Vieira, leaving the touchline for the interim Paddy McCarthy to command.
“We’ll try and implement an aggressive style out of possession in different ways,” says McCarthy. “We’ll look to be aggressive when we don’t have the ball, and we’ll look to progress the ball up the pitch in possession.
That obviously said, we’ve only got a short amount of time to implement a few ideas, so I don’t want to flood the players with too much information. But ultimately, at this football club, part of our identity is that we’re aggressive out of possession, and certainly quick and fast in the attacking third.”
Crystal Palace with plenty of players known for their devastating flair, flicks, and ability to dribble defenders to create will feel like a caged animal that’s had the door left open. McCarthy will try to tap into the dynamic play of stars like Zaha, Olise, and Eze to let them run rampant with the ball in transition. Hoping to capture the space Arsenal’s high line leave and create a few chances to punch back or win fouls.
It will demand a diligent performance from Arsenal’s backline and a mentally switched on team willing to transition hard for 90 minutes. That defense could be without one of its strongest cornerstones, William Saliba. Unconfirmed officially, resports from L’Equipe suggest Saliba could be out for ‘several weeks’ after his injury versus Sporting.
In any circumstance, this would be a blow. But the devastation goes a little deeper given Arteta will be unable to reunite last season’s central pairing, Ben White and Gabriel, with Tomoyiasu at right back because of Tomiyasu’s injury just a few minutes before Saliba’s.
Conventional wisdom suggests this will mean Rob Holding is selected at the right center back for tomorrow, but that doesn’t preclude Arteta from getting creative with a solution that sees some alternate usages of Zinchenk and Kieran Tierney. The problem with that creative solution will be the lack of time to actually work on this look at London Colney.
Arsenal don’t have much breathing room to get things wrong, especially on their home soil, so all eyes will be on how they overcome this defensive challenge and get the three points they are expected to collect versus a team that has hardly managed to muster much of anything since the new year.
Gunner Thoughts’ Keys:
Resist the Bounce
The “new manager bounce” not only exists in football, it seems to rise up like a viper and bite Arsenal in the ass too frequently for anyone’s liking. Although, some of the feeling may more overstated. Earlier this season Arsenal were beaten by an Everton side managed by Sean Dyche for the first time, but that was just their first loss to a new manager in eight previous matches versus them. Up until they loss, they had won 6, drawn 1, and lost none.
A few weeks after that, Arsenal did avenge that loss emphatically by beating Everton 4-0.
Here’s another opportunity to overcome the curse and remind Palace that their problems go much deeper than Patrick Vieira.
Obviously, as I just spent much of this blog talking about the backline, it’s going to play a huge role, and all eyes will be on their levels of play. Arsenal’s backline is instrumental on both sides of the ball. They are the foundation of Arsenal’s build-up play, their suppress teams with their high line and pen them in, and they win a lot of duels in space and isolation when play beats the counter press.
Saliba has proven this year that he is exceptional at all the three of these aspects, especially on the ball. But how this side deals with the crafty dribblers and face-paced play of Palace attackers likely to be unleashed will dictate much of the affair.
Midfield Control and Partey mobility
Arsenal will do themselves a lot of favors if they can put on a performance that sees them control 65+% of the ball. They are more than capable of it, and it generally means the opposition is forced into a lower block.
McCarthy talks about wanting to push up the field and be aggressive off the ball, but if Arsenal can deny that ability with the levels of. technical security that saw them control 80% of the ball versus Bournemouth that can smother the fire that Palace may be carrying. Force them into a shell and refuse to concede possession in those central areas.
When Arsenal do turn the ball over, Partey’s ability to be “everywhere” as he so often is, will help prevent defenders from being as isolated in defense. If Rob Holding is selected, the less he has to stretch himself and the more he can simply play his game, they better it will all go.
Although he is less mobile, this may also go for Granit Xhaka who could be seen in a slightly more defensive role than the goal-getting, assist producing Granit that played with Jesus in the first half of the season.
An aspect of Arsenal’s game that has dissipated since Gabriel Jesus went down injured has been the rampant counter press that annihilated so many team’s attempts to transition and hit the ball into space. Nothing went contested or closed down and it put center backs in easier situations to clean up and reclaim possession.
Knowing that Palace will want to hit the outlet pass into Zaha’s feet, how Arsenal counter press and close down players when there is a change in possession must be watched closely.
I won’t be surprised to see Jesus start the match, although he might not finish it, which means setting the tone early and often is a must. Counter press, counter press, counter press.
Eleven matches left. Eleven cup finals.
Getting off the right foot here and finishing this section of the season, before an international break, is key to morale. No one wants to spend the next few weeks knowing that City have been given the control of their fate back and dwelling on this team.
Everyone will be spending it pouring over the news for Saliba updates anyways, so finding a way to be eight points clear — even with an extra game played — will make the whole ride into the home stretch feel a lot lot lot lot lot lot lot better.