Arsenal boss has points to ponder even if they beat Everton to fourth place
- Credit: Archant
As they approach the finish line, Arsenal appear on course to rack up their highest points total for six years.
Two more victories from their remaining three Premier League fixtures will usher the Gunners to a platform of 76 points, their best return since the 2007-08 campaign.
With Everton still hot on their heels, that might not be quite sufficient for a top four finish and the chance to extend Arsene Wenger’s proud record of Champions League qualification into a 17th season.
Yet, having negotiated an awkward hurdle at Hull on Sunday, Wenger’s side will surely fancy their chances of taking maximum points from the trio of games that await them.
Newcastle would be near the top of anyone’s list of preferred opponents at the moment, while West Brom and Norwich are both flapping limply in their attempts to avoid being sucked into the bottom three.
Three wins… fourth place secured… job done, surely? In Wenger’s eyes, yes – his well-documented view is that another year of Champions League football represents the Holy Grail.
The manager could justifiably regard a points total of 79 as clear proof of progress – it would be an increase of six on last year, nine on the year before that (when Arsenal finished third) and 11 on their efforts of three years ago.
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And of course, having narrowly held off the challenge of Tottenham for fourth place in recent years, it will please supporters that the gap between the Gunners and their neighbours seems to have begun widening again.
At the same time, there are other reasons why Wenger should not feel too satisfied, even if Arsenal win those three games and see off the challenge of their Merseyside rivals.
This season has seen a dramatic change in the established power balance of the Premier League, with defending champions Manchester United plummeting to an unexpected seventh place in the table.
The misfortunes of the Old Trafford side opened up a void that Arsenal, perhaps, might have been expected to fill by fighting tooth and nail with Chelsea and Manchester City for the title.
Instead, it is Liverpool – Champions League exiles in recent years – who have soared past them and are now poised to reclaim the English crown for the first time since 1990.
The last time Liverpool were serious contenders was in 2009, when they were runners-up and the Gunners finished 14 points behind them but well clear of fifth-placed Everton.
A year earlier, Arsenal had taken third place, only four points adrift of the champions United and seven ahead of Liverpool. Manchester City, it is worth remembering, had yet to begin their Emirati-fuelled rise to the top.
While City’s new owners began throwing endless wads of cash at their ‘project’, Arsenal’s budget was somewhat more limited as they paid off the costs of their move to Emirates Stadium.
So it was hardly surprising that the Gunners faced a battle just to retain their place among the elite. But this year was supposed to be a different story.
This was the year that Wenger’s chequebook was given a serious airing, with the club almost trebling their previous transfer record to bring Mesut Ozil to London for more than £40m.
A serious title bid finally seemed to be in the making as Arsenal stormed to the top of the table, a position they were still occupying as recently as February.
However, it all unravelled – partly, it must be said, due to an unfortunate run of injuries. But mainly because of Arsenal’s tendency to start games badly and, as a result, collapse in startling fashion against the top teams.
Torn apart at Anfield, they produced a repeat performance at Stamford Bridge – and, despite Wenger’s complaints relating to Chelsea’s third goal, his side were already two down inside 10 minutes.
Neither did Arsenal appear to have learned from that experience as, just a fortnight later, they were thoroughly outplayed at Everton, with a lack of character and battling spirit again deeply evident.
The chances are that the Gunners will still squeeze past Everton to take fourth place. But, whatever Wenger thinks, that in itself is no cause for celebration.
Maybe he still does not realise how urgently his side need to beat Hull again when they meet at Wembley next month. Unless that happens, this season will go down as one of wasted opportunity.