For the first time since Arsene Wenger’s departure almost four years ago, Arsenal can taste the top four. The Gunners have been tipped to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League, a competition they haven’t qualified for since 2015/16. For a host of significant reasons, however, this campaign feels different from previous years.
Three away defeats on the bounce at Anfield, Old Trafford and Goodison Park before Christmas, shipping nine goals in the process, seemingly had manager Mikel Arteta’s head on the chopping block. Demarai Gray’s 92nd-minute winner for Everton on December 6th left Arteta’s side languishing in seventh in the Premier League table.
Despite being just four points off fourth place, they looked a million miles away from being a Champions League qualifying team. After the dismal goalless draw at home to rock bottom Burnley on January 23rd, the polarising Piers Morgan, Arsenal’s most controversial super fan, warmed up his Twitter fingers. Writing for The Sun, he said that Arteta’s efforts to keep telling them to “trust the process” had worn off.
Morgan was also calling for the Spaniard’s head. He continued: “If we don’t make the top four this season, and even that achievement seems such a lowly ambition for a supposed big club, then he shouldn’t be given a pay rise, he should be sacked.”
You would imagine those strong words are being eaten by Mr Morgan as we speak. What a turnaround it’s been since that cold December night at Goodison.
Eight wins in the next ten games – the other two results being the aforementioned Burnley draw and an impressive performance albeit in a 2-1 home defeat to runaway leaders Manchester City, have fired the North London club into the top four. And not only are they in the top four, but they’re sitting there comfortably. They’re a point clear of Manchester United, who seem to be falling apart under interim manager Ralf Rangick, with three games in hand. West Ham are a point further back in seventh, whom The Gunners also have three games in hand on.
As well as their incredible form since Christmas, this year’s League Cup semi-finalists have a lot more than just the current season to be optimistic about. According to transfermarkt, they have the youngest squad in the Premier League today, with an average age of just 24.2 years. Famed for having an incredible youth academy, producing stars such as Cesc Fabregas and
Serge Gnabry, it seems that Arteta has finally turned to youth. His decision has been rewarded spectacularly.
Young England internationals Bukayo Saka, who has started every league game this season, and Emile Smith-Rowe will rightfully receive plenty of plaudits, along with fellow academy graduate Gabriel Martinelli. It seems that they have finally gotten their act together in the transfer market as well. Martin Ødegaard, Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Nuno Tavares and Albert Sambi Lokonga all arrived in the summer, with an average age of just 22. They were greeted by the Emirates faithful, maybe with the exception of Ødegaard, with raised eyebrows and angry social media posts. But, boy how they have proven their doubters wrong.
Arsenal’s run-in is particularly challenging though, and there are a few potholes left to conquer. Both Liverpool, gunning for a historic quadruple, and Manchester United still have to visit North London. They then have no less than three London derbies upcoming, all away from home. They face David Moyes’ in-form West Ham United on April 16th and will also be travelling to Stamford Bridge. Then there’s the small matter of facing Spurs in one of the most mouthwatering North London derby’s in recent history.
The finish line is in sight though, and with momentum on their side, it would take a brave man to back against The Gunners sealing a spot in the Champions League for the first time since 2016.