The race for top four in the English Premier League has again become uninteresting. Hopefully this will only be the case for a week or two. That all heavily depends upon what the two Manchester clubs are able to do with their remaining fixtures.
Will Manchester City, currently fourth, recover from their recent dip in form? How will Manchester United, who have won five EPL matches in a row since losing to Swansea City back in February, handle playing City and Chelsea in consecutive weeks? Does their remaining schedule, which also includes Arsenal in the second to last week of the season, allow Liverpool to creep back into the Champions League conversation?
I have my own opinions, but of course no guarantees. However, this isn’t about Manchester, whatever title race pundits want to construct as we enter the stretch run, or any of that. This is about Arsenal, a club that under Arsène Wenger wins when they have to year after year in order to maintain relevancy in Europe.
Way back in November when the Gunners were off to a less than stellar start, I suggested a change, that being Wenger. I believed that maybe not right away, but soon something had to be done at the top of the club to shake things up. After all, qualifying for the Champions League on a yearly basis is wonderful, but winning just one trophy over the course of the decade—not to mention failing to get out of the prestigious competition’s round of 16 in three consecutive seasons—is less than ideal.
Still, Wenger’s prolonged run of success spanning almost two decades at the North London club is notable for multiple reasons: they don’t spend a lot of money, they don’t have the superstar names that you’re accustomed to seeing at clubs like Chelsea, City, and United, but he and his club simply get the job done when others cannot. This happens every year. They get off to a shaky start, the fans revolt, it’s the end of the world, and Wenger should be sacked. If you’ve ever checked Piers Morgan’s Twitter account, you know what I’m talking about. Take a minute to go back and look and how many times he loves and hates that club over the course of 24 hours.
Sure, winning trophies is the be-all and end-all, and Wenger hasn’t won many for a long time. Perhaps that is why a change is eventually needed—someone to take the Gunners to the next level again and make them not only consistent in the UCL but also intimidating. Maybe that’s what they’re missing, but at the same time can you assume this club would do from the beginning under new management what they’ve done for so long under Wenger? No.
Since losing to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on Feb. 7, they’ve won all seven of their EPL fixtures, most notably their 4–1 thrashing of Liverpool over the weekend. Tottenham on the other hand, have dropped multiple points, and in the process again displayed why Arsenal are where they are while Tottenham are where they are.
A loss to Liverpool, a team they need to beat if they want to take Champions League qualification seriously, coupled with draws to West Ham and this past Sunday Burnley—a club still fighting relegation. Those are points you cannot drop, but they do it every season when it matters most. They struggled to a 4–3 victory over Leicester, but one week prior got dismantled in the opening half hour against United, ultimately losing 3–0.
Then there’s Liverpool, who carried an impressive Premier League unbeaten streak through March 22 to start the new year, but fell in consecutive weeks to two clubs that they needed to at least take a point from. 2–1 and 4–1 defeats to United and Arsenal respectively, have left them seven points out of fourth behind City, a club that has played one less match than all but three sides: Chelsea, Crystal Palace, and Leicester. A win against Palace on Monday would put them 10 points up on Liverpool, and even still United would hold an eight-point advantage.
Meanwhile, while the race for top four has all but slipped away from the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton, Arsenal find themselves in second place—albeit seven points off of table leaders Chelsea (who like City, also have a game in hand). Second place isn’t a trophy, and to many that’s what matters most, but second place means relevancy. Every season, Wenger has kept Arsenal relevant. Facing similar issues each season—a lack of depth, multiple injuries to their best players, and more often than not a stingy budget—the Gunners are consistently competitive.
If they want to reach that next level again and start threatening in European competitions, not to mention actually challenge for the league title, a change at the top may be needed still. For the time being, however, there’s no reason for a revolt. The world is not ending, Wenger isn’t an atrocity, and so on. The Gunners are who they are. They have an identity. And at the end of the day they’re more successful than not. This past weekend showed just that. When clubs like Tottenham, Liverpool, and Southampton all dropped points, the Gunners won soundly.
The thing is, that’s Arsenal in the Premier League down the stretch. At this point, the last thing their run of form should be is surprising.