Crunch Time For Arsenal

October 23, 2013 in Europe, Premier League by Louis Baxter

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I thought Arsenal were unlucky to lose 1-2 to Dortmund at the Emirates last night. Dortmund looked quite a way off their best, perhaps missing the midfield presence of Ilkay Gundogan more than they would likely want to admit. Dortmund’s game looked slightly off what it could be. Their pressing still made Arsenal uncomfortable for large portions of the game, but their attack looks much more splintered then it did at this point last season. Given this performance and the loss to Napoli, I’d be surprised to see them in the Champions League final this season.

OzilArsenalNapoli

Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to be a psychologically fascinating team. Capable of both incredible mental fortitude and incredible mental fragility depending on what side they get out of their bed. Arsenal played well, but also didn’t look like a team that was going to conquer all before it this season, as some over-excited pundits and fans have claimed. This an improved Arsenal, and unlike the last couple of years, I don’t think their top 4 status will be in doubt this year. But they still have weaknesses. Their opening eight Premier League games have seen them play seven sides currently in the bottom half, teams they deserve credit for beating but nonetheless don’t represent the pinnacle of Premier League opposition. That kind start also means that over November and December, Arsenal will play all of the league’s top sides nigh on consecutively. If they remain top of the league at Christmas, than they will almost certainly end the year as champions in my opinion.

Jack Wilshere also looks a little out of place in the team since the much vaunted signing of Mesut Ozil. Wenger has even experimented with playing him out wide against West Brom, a game he was very poor in despite scoring. With Ozil and Cazorla more creative players, Flamini a more disciplined holding player, and with Aaron Ramsey’s current excellent form, Wenger might have to start asking himself some serious questions about Wilshere’s place in this team. Where does he go? How does he get the best out of him? Has he gone from being Arsenal’s only hope to being their midfield’s weak link? Probably not, but the pace and goal-scoring acumen of Walcott will give this Arsenal team something they don’t currently have.

Wilshire

The loss to Dortmund has left Arsenal in a difficult place in the group with three games to play. They, Dortmund and Napoli all sit on six points, and they have two difficult away games against Dortmund and Napoli, and to qualify, they are going to have to take something from one of those games. Napoli away is looking like the key fixture, and Wenger can feel reasonably confident given the degree to which Arsenal outplayed Rafa Benitez’s team at the Emirates. But nonetheless, in their supposedly transformative season, the year where they return to the big boys’ table, an early Champions League exit will almost certainly rain on their parade (though it will also give them an excellent opportunity to break their eight-year trophyless run with the Europa League).

I genuinely think Arsenal can challenge for the title this year. Their midfield is the best in the league, but there are probably questions about their defensive play that remain - Aaron Ramsey’s almost comical attempt to skin two Dortmund players on the edge of his own box cost them the opening goal last night, and those kind of mistakes are clearly still in their DNA - as well as the fact that Giroud is their only top forward; after him comes Bendtner. They need to sign another striker in January, preferably one of proven quality, and in my opinion, should sign a sure thing centre-back. Benzema seems unlikely to me, unless Real Madrid themselves sign another striker in January. So perhaps going all out after the player that condemned them to defeat last night, Robert Lewandowski, represents the best option for Wenger.

Lewandowski

Last night was a cruel loss, but it should also serve to bring Arsenal back to reality, something that may not be the worst thing for them in the long run. This season, the Premier League title is up for grabs, with big boys Manchester United, City and Chelsea all in transitional seasons. This is Wenger’s best chance in quite a long while, perhaps something he sensed when he brought in Ozil, and the next few weeks really will show if this team has the mettle for a title win, as almost every fixture they play will be difficult. Be it away CL ties, Capital One Cup games against Chelsea, or the entire top eight in the Premier League. Time to step up.

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