Can Arsenal get back into the top-four race?
From out of the darkness comes light, and so of course Arsenal are looking up the table again.
After a horrendous start to the season, Mikel Arteta has guided his side to three consecutive Premier League wins for the first time in 2020/21 and only the third time since he replaced Unai Emery in December 2019.
Talk of a relegation battle, which always felt premature, has been put behind them with the Gunners now 11th, 12 points clear of 18th-placed Fulham. In fact, sitting on 23 points, Arsenal are now just six adrift of rivals Tottenham in the fourth and final Champions League spot, while they’re only nine behind Leicester in third.
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So, could Arsenal really drag themselves back into the race for European football’s elite competition? Let’s take a look at the form, fixtures and fitness of their squad to find out.
Even including the substandard results, one of the most frustrating parts of this season so far for Arsenal fans has been the lack of time on the pitch for Thomas Partey, their big summer arrival. The Ghana international established himself as one of La Liga’s most effective holding midfielders during his time with Atletico Madrid, and his ability to advance the ball efficiently was key to Diego Simeone’s side. So impressive was Partey that Arsenal triggered his £45m, causing great excitement around the Emirates.
The only problem since then is that we’ve hardly seen him as he has been battling with a thigh injury that has limited him to just 280 minutes of Premier League action.
In the wake of Arsenal’s 4-0 win over West Brom on Saturday, Arteta suggested that getting Partey — who could return against Newcastle in the FA Cup next week — back to fitness would effectively be like making a new signing in the January window, such is his potential importance to the north Londoners.
“Absolutely, we are in January and I think he has played two-and-a-half games. That’s all and he was our main signing,” Arteta replied when asked whether Partey could resemble a mid-season signing.
“We’ve been missing him. He brings something different to the team. He’s a player with an enormous talent, but as well someone who can transform the team the way we want.
“If we can have him, keep him healthy, I think he will contribute in a real positive way.”
Partey’s return doesn’t guarantee results. After all, Arsenal have managed just one win and one goal during the four Premier League games he’s started in so far, going down to Leicester City (0-1), Aston Villa (0-3) and Tottenham (0-2), with Arteta singling Partey out for some criticism for the way he tried to hobble off the pitch injured during the build-up to the second goal against Spurs, instead of going down on the field.
However, it’s also important to remember Arsenal have sustained that sort of form throughout the season so far, failing to score in six of their Premier League games and picking up just 14 points from their 14 matches prior to the current winning streak.
There are also plenty of qualities on both sides of the ball which Partey could bring to Arteta’s team to make them more progressive and harder to break down.
Partey’s defensive abilities were well known ahead of his arrival at the Emirates and, indeed, the 27-year-old ranks first among Arsenal players for tackles per 90 minutes (3.25) this season, while he has won possession in the middle third of the pitch 4.55 times per 90 minutes — second to Dani Ceballos (4.65) but ahead of the likes of Granit Xhaka (3.8) and Mohamed Elneny (2.99) in his position.
What was perhaps less obvious prior to Partey’s move to Arsenal was his ability in possession. The Ghanaian was one of the safest ball-players in Europe during his time with Atletico, press-resistant and ambitious with his passing. Already this season, Partey has completed more take-ons per 90 minutes (2.6) than any other Arsenal player, while he ranks fourth for completed passes into the final third per 90 minutes (13.65).
A favourable run
Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day was impressive, even taking the form of Frank Lampard’s side into consideration. However, the 1-0 and 4-0 away triumphs at Brighton and West Brom are results you would expect an in-form Arsenal side to pick up under normal circumstances.
Following their FA Cup third-round tie at home to Newcastle, the Gunners host the Magpies again on January 18th, just four days after hosting Crystal Palace. That’s back-to-back home games against the Premier League’s 14th and 15th-placed (at the time of writing) teams.
Arsenal’s next five Premier League fixtures…
- 14/01/21: Crystal Palace (H)
- 18/01/21: Newcastle (H)
- 26/01/21: Southampton (A)
- 30/01/21: Man Utd (H)
- 02/02/21: Wolves (A)
Even winning those games could throw Arsenal back into European contention given how competitive the Premier League is right now but wait, it could get even better. After Newcastle, Arsenal travel to Southampton — a side just three points above them in the table and against whom they’ve lost just one of their last 10 Premier League meetings — before facing Man Utd at the Emirates. The Gunners are unbeaten in their last five league outings against their old rivals, winning three during that run, including the last two without conceding a goal.
So, is a top-four run on the cards?
Perhaps looking as far ahead as the United match is a bit much. After all, Arsenal’s three-game winning streak came off the back of a seven-game winless run during which the Gunners managed just two points and three goals.
Things can change very quickly in the English top flight.
Although, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggling to find the net, Alexandre Lacazette has emerged with four goals across these three wins, while Bukayo Saka has a goal and two assists. Arsenal are learning to lean on others beyond their captain.
Three wins have propelled them away from the bottom three and within just one victory of the likes of Chelsea and Aston Villa, who seemed lightyears away just a couple of weeks ago.
With his side getting back among the goals, Partey nearing his return and a favourable run coming up, the stars seem to be aligning for Arteta, who will now fancy his chances of firing the Gunners right back into the race for Champions League football, against all (and we mean all) the odds.