Much to the displeasure of the neutral supporter across the land, there seems to be a consensus/resignation, that while the current form of Arsenal and Manchester Utd may make for an interesting title race next season, their respective improvements on the pitch have come too late to impact the inevitable resolution of this year’s campaign. It’s a fact that even if we were to lose both of our next two matches against Wenger and Van Gaal’s teams, we would still be favourites to finish top of the table.
It does feels, though, as if these games will play a key role in determining whether this squad will be remembered as deserved champions; as worthy, accomplished winners of the division, or as merely the least poor of a fairly mediocre vintage of Premier League sides. Draws in both matches would probably be good results, yet somehow, at least one convincing victory I think feels almost necessary, in order to vindicate the status we’ve established over the season, as the best side in the country.
Looking ahead, firstly, to this Saturday’s game against Man Utd, I think it’s hard not to be impressed with the work Van Gaal has done to turn their season around; it’s also hard however, not to wonder what the hell took him so long to come up with such a simple solution to the tactical problems, which in hindsight, were really his own doing. Reflecting back on the start of the Dutchman’s reign, his formations and game plans distinctly resembled the formulations of a man trying to be too clever in dealing with the problems the imbalance of his squad created. Almost nobody in the team seemed to be comfortable or to really understand his role. Now though, with Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao out of the team, and everyone else moved into a more familiar role, they’ve begun to play once again with the ruthlessly effective simplicity which was the hallmark of their success over much of the last decade, with Juan Mata in particular in the best form of his career since the end of 2013.
In fact, it’d be hard to argue too strongly against anyone who might think Man Utd are favourites for this weekend’s clash. Since the beginning of March they’ve looked a lot fitter and sharper than we have. Coming off the back of impressive wins over Tottenham, Liverpool and Man City means they bring more confidence and momentum into the fixture than we do – I think this will be our toughest game against our traditional domestic rivals since our last defeat to them back in 2012. With a top four spot all but sealed for them, the virtual non-existence of any kind of pressure to pick a result may well work in their favour also. Having only lost three games all season however, and having never really even looked close to losing against a fellow ‘top four’ side in a league match for at least two years, I don’t expect us to roll over. I think it should be a grippingly close game (and probably a draw).
As for next weekend’s opponent, there is something oh so familiar about Arsenal’s current end of season surge, but there is admittedly, something which feels rather different about them too. Their win at Burnley last week means they have won their last eight consecutive league games (their longest streak since 2004). With Wenger enjoying the rare luxury (for him) of having an almost entirely fit squad of players to pick from, the depth and quality of his options looks as ominous as it has done for almost as long as I can remember. The variety of systems which he has used and been successful with over the past few weeks has been impressive as well. It’s beginning to feel as if they could mean business once again. And if my worst fear comes true and they’re able to sign Petr Cech this summer, along with a midfield player of Morgan Schneiderlin’s quality, I think they’ll be more than just title contenders next season.
Perhaps the most important reason not to lose against Man Utd this weekend, would be the extent to which it would fire up Arsenal the following Sunday to inflict a second consecutive loss upon ourselves, stoking the currently very dim fires of hope that may exist in their fan base at the moment. Even if it won’t lead to a league title however, it feels as if this impending fixture could be Wenger’s best chance yet to end his so far fruitless pursuit of a victory against a Jose Mourinho team. There are still some long standing questions with regards to the resilience and the fortitude of this Arsenal side which the Frenchman has yet to answer, and a thirteenth consecutive failure to defeat Mourinho’s Chelsea will hopefully remind everybody of them, and all but wrap up the Portuguese’s third Premier League title in the process. I’d struggle to think of a more satisfying way to end a season than to stamp out any faint aspirations of league glory that the Gunners might possess. London football is blue, and shall remain so.