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Arsenal's depth should not be an issue for 17 upcoming 'cup finals'

By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)

After two and a half weeks of stress free life, the Arsenal return tomorrow as Mikel Arteta's men travel to the West Midlands to face Bruno Lage's Wolves.

The two week hiatus involved a highly contentious end to the January transfer window, in which we let go of 6 players and brought no-one in, and a warm weather training camp in Dubai in which the remaining 4 players at the club got a much needed rest. The squad should now be fresh again ahead of the second half of the season, of which the outcome could have a substantial impact on how both the project and the manager are perceived. Top four has turned from almost a pipe dream at the beginning of the campaign to an expectation for many.

Personally, I'm not one of these ludicrous people suggesting finishing in the Champions League places is make or break with regards to the future of Arteta. Ultimately, final league position should not bare more weight than the signs of progress. If we just miss out but there are evident indicators of the team improving in several aspects, then we cannot deem that a failure of a season. The tangible expectations before the season began were to be in and around the top six, with any higher exceeding those expectations. Just because Manchester United have massively underperformed, it doesn't mean our expectations for our own side should be hugely adjusted.

And as I said, those were the tangible expectations. The non-surface level expectations, such as the metrics improving, our own feeling around watching us improving and the young players developing, are perhaps more important in the long-term. At this stage of the season, I'd say we are on course to meet these less tangible expectations. They are in tact.

This extract from my season preview, written two days before our season opener against Brentford, depicts how we should evaluate the season when it's over:

"Expectations around making a return to Champions League football are perhaps unreasonable, but qualifying for Europe's second rate competition is very plausible. Top six should be the minimum expectation for a team that will have the liberty of few midweek distractions and thus extra time afforded to work on the training ground.
However, perhaps more important than the concluding league position is tangible signs of the process in motion. If Arsenal were to finish 7th but the metrics were better, the football was nicer to watch, we scored more goals and our young promising player all made big strides in their development, we could make our peace with it. A 5th place finish where not many of these things happen and I'd be far more concerned. We're at a part of the evolution of this team where actual signs of the 'process' and more sustainable indicators are far more important than the surface level indicators".

Obviously, top four should absolutely be our target and we can feel disappointed if we don't manage it. It's just, I'll be able to logically compartmentalise not attaining it, and will certainly not be losing my rag if the other things I talked about are achieved.

What we can say is that the minimum expectation for the rest of the season is now that we are there or there abouts come May. None of our three rivals for that coveted 4th position are exceedingly superior to the rest and none of them will run away with it. If we're not at least in and around them then it means we probably haven't met our intangible expectations, which would concern me.

So, we face 17 'cup finals' in the next 3 months which will decide our European fate for next season. The stress of having 17 consecutive cup finals is daunting, but that is essentially the position we're in.

There appears to be alarm bells ringing across the internet surrounding our supposed lack of depth. Yes, we let go of six players last month, and yes, we're reliant on 20 senior players to fill 20 squad positions each week, but that is not remotely as concerning as it sounds. The combined Premier League minutes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Pablo Mari, Sead Kolasinac, Folarin Balogun and Calum Chambers following our opening three games in August totals 249 minutes. That's 248 minutes for Maitland-Niles and a single minute for Sead Kolasinac.

So, after that chaotic opening trio of fixtures where we were missing several key players, these squad players that we have parted ways with played a very minimal role in our upturn in form. Yes, they all got minutes in domestic cup competitions, but we are no longer in them. There are 14 and a half weeks until the season concludes, and we have 17 games left to play. There aren't going to be many midweek games and we will have an abundance of recovery time between matches.

For more context around Maitland-Niles' minutes, those 248 minutes were out of a possible 1,620. He hardly played any role, and although the timing of his departure was costly as we were left without a midfield for 3 games, the departure itself cannot be heavily disputed.

Of course, I have to address the elephant in the room. Mr Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Indeed, he played over 1,000 minutes of Premier League football for us this season and scored 7 goals in all competitions. To completely dismiss the void he's left in the striker department would be silly. Relying on a fragile Alex Lacazette and a departing Eddie Nketiah is far from ideal, but it's also not massively concerning. An injury to Lacazette is frightening and could derail our season significantly, even if he's not been within 20 metres of the opposing goal in 8 months, but ultimately we've played our best football with him deployed in his false 9 role.

Aubameyang didn't play a minute after our 2nd December trip to Old Trafford, and after that game and the following dismal display at Goodison Park, we went on a run of 5 straight wins in all competitions, scoring 19 goals. We can certainly cope without him, as long as Lacazette remains fit.

So admittedly, the lingering anxiety over the possibility of having to deal without Lacazette is concerning, but the rest of our squad will suffice. People have had concerns over us now only possessing 3 available senior centre-backs. However, as aforementioned, both Mari and Chambers didn't play a minute of league football between September and January, so unless Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes sustain injuries at the same time, this shouldn't be an issue. Even if that extremely unlikely scenario does pan out, we can always partner Rob Holding with Takehiro Tomiyasu. But worry not, Benjamin Blanco never gets injured.

There's also been concern about what would happen if Tomiyasu was to pick up a knock. Cedric is far from sufficient against even slightly competent opposition. However, this again doesn't particularly worry me. As shown in games against Norwich and Burnley of late, White is very capable of filling in there to a high level if needed. It would mean bringing Holding in, but that's ok. At the end of the day, it is the inevitable nature of football. Your back-up players are going to represent a drop off in quality to your first choice players. This is the case at basically every team in the league, barring perhaps Manchester City and Chelsea.

Aside from a drastic injury crisis across several areas of the squad, which is unlikely given our scarcity of fixtures, we should be ok. This team got us to this position and should be capable of keeping us at least close to this position come the end of the season. Have faith.

That's it for this rambly piece, my second consecutive one in this more bloggy style. Hope you enjoyed. Bring on Wolves.

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