The steeple chase for the fourth Premier League berth features three imperfect candidates in Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United. They are imperfect in slightly different ways. Manchester United are a hot mess but in Cristiano Ronaldo, they have one of the most magnetic individuals in world football.
Blowing a two-goal lead at home to Norwich only to win 3-2 thanks to a Ronaldo hat-trick is the perfect encapsulation of the United project- a faltering team who have not been constructed with any sense of coaching in mind just about doing enough thanks to an individual feat.
Tottenham are more structured than United but they too are being propelled by a couple of star attackers in Son and Kane. Kulusevski has proved to be a good counterweight to that duo but, frankly, the third wheel on that particular car is less important. Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn and Gareth Bale have all performed that compere role well enough in recent seasons.
Arsenal are very different in that you can really see the personality of the coach imprinted onto the team. You can see the structure and all of the angles but they miss that star power in the final third. In fact, very generally speaking, players that have brought that sense of individualism (Özil, Aubameyang, Guendouzi) have possessed personalities that Arteta has not cared for.
Manchester United have no system whatsoever but great individuals. Spurs have a system that is propelled above its function by a pair of star crossed forwards. Arsenal is almost pure, 100% uncut system. It’s system crumbled into a fine powder and mainlined straight up the garden hose.
There is an irony in Arsenal’s recent stumble, which largely disintegrated due to the absence of key individuals but it is the importance of Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney to the system that has led to their absences being keenly felt. Tierney’s absence has been problematic because it means the Gunners have lost both of their first choice full-backs and it has impacted their balance.
In the defeats at Southampton and Crystal Palace, Arteta used Cedric and Tavares and the balance of those full-backs together is incorrect. Both are overlappers. Arteta’s system requires one full-back to tuck in and create a back three in possession, while the other full-back bombs on.
Ordinarily, Tomiyasu performs this function in the team while Tierney powers forwards. With Tomiyasu missing, that balance was flipped, Cedric was given license to perform his “repeatedly bashing F1 on the control pad” trick and pile forward and spam crosses.
The problem has been that Tavares and Cedric are too similar. Against Brighton, Arteta opted for the more conservative Xhaka at left-back but it robbed Arsenal’s midfield of too much presence. At Chelsea, Arteta benched Cedric, moved Ben White to right-back and allowed Tavares to do his thing from left-back.
Opting for White at right-back was not just about correcting the balance of the full-backs, however. It was about freeing Bukayo Saka, the closest thing Arsenal have to a Kane or a Ronaldo. Chelsea and Arsenal played a high stakes game of cat and mouse on that flank and the margins went in the Gunners’ favour.
Both of Chelsea’s goals emanated down Arsenal’s right side as White was largely left alone to deal with Chelsea’s overload of Alonso, Mount and Werner. It’s no accident that Chelsea overloaded this flank. They didn’t “pick on” Tavares, they focused on Arsenal’s right. I don’t think it’s because they thought Ben White would play at right-back or because they thought Cedric would play and sought to target him.
The tactic was about trying to nullify Bukayo Saka and force him backwards, it was attack as a form of defence to shield Chelsea from Arsenal’s best player. That gives you an insight into how special a player Saka is. Not many 20-year-olds preoccupy top class coaches like Thomas Tuchel like this in the Premier League. Just look at the average position maps for the game and compare the position of Saka compared to Mount, Alonso and Werner. (Maps taken from this article on Total Football Analysis– Chelsea are in red and Arsenal in blue).
Despite giving up two goals on that flank, Arsenal were brave and backed Saka to win that trade off and he did. Saka ate Alonso and Sarr for breakfast. The game was illustrative of Arteta and Arsenal’s struggle for the remainder of the season. They probably don’t have that centre-forward who is going to shoot them into the Champions League in the manner that players like van Persie and Adebayor have in the past.
I realise that sounds counterintuitive- possible even uncharitable- after a game in which Eddie Nketiah scored a match winning brace. Nketiah is a better striker than a lot of us probably realise with a good eye for a goal scoring chance. He has rarely, if ever, been afforded a run in the team and his brace on Wednesday night is the first step towards earning that shot.
He averages 0.67 goals per 90 across his Premier League career for Arsenal which is a good record but the sample sizes are bitty due to the cameo like nature of those minutes. He has earned his shot. However, it is unlikely (not impossible) for him to have a Kane or Ronaldo like influence for the remaining games of this season unless he hits a real hot streak (it’s happened to lesser players before).
Realistically, what Arsenal can hope for in the centre-forward position is that Lacazette and Nketiah combined can contribute to a good level. Arsenal’s actual star power though is mainly concentrated in Bukayo Saka’s precocious feet. That does not mean that he has to be burdened with the task of single handedly shooting Arsenal into fourth place.
He has a good, if young, supporting cast around him. Arteta’s task is to tweak the system so that it juices the best from his star talent. After some tinkering, Arsenal were able to do that on Wednesday night. Saka moved to the left flank for the final section of the game when Cedric Soares came on and focused his footballing ire on Cesar Azpilicueta and, well, you can see how the experience stressed one of the Premier League’s most seasoned defenders.
15 minutes of chasing Saka melted Azpilicueta’s brain and he finished the night by fumbling Saka to the ground in the penalty area before embarking on a fight with one of the four Chelsea fans left inside Stamford Bridge at the final whistle. The fourth place will likely be won by the team that is best able to balance its structure with its star power. Strap yourselves in, folks, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.