Is Champions League Qualification a Reasonable Target for Arsenal?
By James Whiffing
After a poor start to the season with losses against Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal have since gone on an impressive 10 game unbeaten streak in all competitions. The Gunners’ recent good form has sparked conversation about a potential top-four finish amongst fans, pundits and journalists alike – but how do Mikel Arteta’s side compare to other challengers to the Champions League spots?
West Ham are a side who have gone from narrowly escaping relegation to Champions League contenders all within the space of two years. The Hammers have continued their red-hot form from last season in the Premier League, currently finding themselves in third place, just three points off leaders Chelsea. In his second spell at the club, David Moyes has constructed a team that is difficult to break down defensively whilst also being precise and deadly on the counter and from set-pieces; the Scotsman deserves immense credit for the job he is doing at West Ham, completely transforming a side who were scrapping in the relegation zone to a team that can compete in Europe and go toe-to-toe with the likes of Liverpool and Man City.
That being said, there are a few factors that could hinder the East London side’s chances of getting top four this season. Firstly, their squad depth is very shallow; this, when coupled with their participation in the Europa League, could damage their top four campaign. Additionally, their over-reliance on players such as Declan Rice and Michail Antonio could prove to be their downfall should they get injured or suffer from a congested schedule. If Antonio was to get injured, be it short or long-term, West Ham don’t have any natural strikers who can perform to the Jamaican’s level; that would be their biggest goal threat gone. Given Antonio’s injury record, it is something that West Ham fans should be worried about.
Despite their poor form and speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future, Manchester United still have one of the best squad's in the league, so it's difficult to write them off, even if they aren’t playing to the level expected of them. The Red Devils have lost five of their last ten games in all competitions, which certainly isn’t form you'd expect from a group of players blessed with talent.
Manchester United’s main issues are undoubtedly at the back end of the pitch. This is best evidenced in their 5-0 hammering at the hands of Liverpool, who ruthlessly exposed the Red Devils’ defensive frailties, targeting the likes of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, who have so far failed to emulate their form from their Euro campaign with England in the league for United. Furthermore, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inability to bring the best out of what is clearly a very talented group of players (particularly offensively) has been a major area of concern for United fans. It seems that the Norwegian has been losing the dressing room as of late, with some of the players hinting at the fact that they do not feel he is the man to take the club forward; this obviously will not aid the Red Devils in their pursuit for Champions League football, and a change of manager seems like the most important thing that club can do at this moment in time.
Another potential challenger to fourth place this season could be Tottenham. Although they have had a torrid time thus far, sacking Nuno Espirito Santo after he managed just 17 games in all competitions, the acquisition of Antonio Conte is unfortunately a superb signing for the club. The Italian boasts plenty of experience across the Premier League and Serie A, as well as in Europe, so he should be able to build the club back to challenging for European spots within the next year or so.
That being said, I don’t feel like Spurs will be as big a threat to the Champions League places as West Ham and Manchester United. Talisman Harry Kane has struggled since his summer move to Manchester City collapsed, scoring just one goal, and it looks unlikely this disconnected player will return to his former self. Spurs fans will hope that the Englishman’s recent form for his country will help boost his confidence and performances for club too, but it could be that the Summer transfer saga is playing on his mind when playing club football.
Another factor is the side’s lack of quality in certain areas and their reliance on the likes of Son-Heung Min and Kane. Although they have brought in a world class manager, Spurs still need a big rebuild of their squad, with players such as Eric Dier still starting games for the club despite consistently proving that he is not good enough; several windows will be needed for the side to rebuild their squad and start to challenge again.
These three clubs will most likely be the three biggest challengers to the 4th place spot along with Arsenal. The biggest test for Arsenal is to maintain their solid form for as long as they can and keep the team morale and confidence high. One issue I do see for the Gunners would be their inability to score enough goals. Although he has enjoyed a very good start to the season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is ageing and seems to have slowed down slightly in the goal-scoring department; the same could be said for his teammate Alexandre Lacazette, who looks likely to leave in January or at the end of the season anyway. Players such as Smith Rowe have shown a clear improvement in their ability to find the back of the net, and the team have improved drastically with their offensive set pieces, but scoring from open play remains an area that Mikel Arteta will have to keep improving on throughout the season if the Gunners are to really push for Champions League football.
One huge positive that Arsenal have over the other three challengers I have mentioned, is that they don’t have Europe to worry about, therefore their full focus can be on the Premier League and the other domestic trophies available.