April curse leaves Arsenal with same old here-we-go-again feeling
April defeats have derailed Arsenal's top four challenges the past two campaigns and could put paid to their hopes this season too. But under Unai Emery, the Gunners still have two avenues open to qualify for next season's Champions League
A dispiriting sense of deja vu fell over a sun-kissed Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Not so much because Arsenal lost at home; it had been a long while since that happened in the Premier League. It was not so much that lax defending against set-pieces cost them the points in the 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace; these sort of dead-ball lapses are seemingly programmed into the club’s defensive DNA.
No, the here-we-go-again feeling came from knowing that, with fixtures running out, Arsenal had failed to secure their position in the league’s top four, and must travel to Wolves Wednesday knowing the margin of error if they are to qualify, via their Premier League spot, for next season’s Champions League, has diminished. They are fifth, with a game in hand on fourth-placed Chelsea, but three of their four games in the run-in are away.
The echoes are too loud for comfort. Two seasons ago, an April defeat to Palace endangered top-four hopes, and Arsenal ended up fifth. Last season, in mid-April, they lost to mid-table Newcastle United to end a sequence of fine form, a result that consigned them to an eventual sixth place, by which time Arsene Wenger, their manager for almost 22 years, had deemed it time to say farewell. His shadow suddenly seemed longer as symptoms of end-of-season jitters returned under Unai Emery’s watch.
Emery understands very clearly that his debut campaign in English football will be assessed in direct comparison with Wenger’s swansong years. Improve on those, and a benevolent view will then be taken about whether, some time in the longer-term, he might be compared to the brilliant, dynamic Wenger of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Right now, the balance is fine. Emery’s Arsenal are in the semi-final of the Europa League, just as Wenger’s Arsenal were 12 months ago. They are in better shape to reach the top four of the Premier League, but another loss would alter the outlook radically.
“It is in our hands,” Emery pointed out, as if to highlight a detail that distinguishes the Arsenal of late April 2019 and of this time last year. But he admits the ambush by Palace left him “frustrated.” A central pillar of his rebuild has been dented: Until the weekend Arsenal had shared with Manchester City, the champions, the strongest home record in the Premier League.
That testified to the purposeful approach Emery has taken to tackling the bad and the good of Wenger’s vast legacy. The Emirates, opened in 2006, may wait well into its third decade to host the sort of sustained success its predecessor Highbury enjoyed but if Emery can at least make its elegant curves into a fortress, he will have initiated a substantial gain on the late-Wenger malaise.
And if he can have Arsenal playing with flair at the Emirates, he will make it a happier place. And indications are that Emery, after some cautious, exploratory testing, has become bolder in lining up his most talented attacking players together.
When he embarked on the job, he seemed reluctant to line up both Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the chief goalscorers, in the same starting XI; he was quickly looking sceptically at Mesut Ozil’s work-rate, too. But the high-points of the last two months - victories over Manchester United, and Europa League triumphs at home to Napoli and a 3-0 win overcoming a two-goal first-leg deficit against Rennes - featured a bold quartet of Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Aaron Ramsey from the kick off.
If the Lacazette-Aubameyang partnership was belatedly cultivated, so delicate issues over Ramsey - now missing from Emery’s immediate plans because of a hamstring problem - and Ozil have been addressed. Ramsey’s decision not to renew a contract that expires this summer - the Welshman will join Juventus - meant he was sidelined for a period; Emery then took the pragmatic view that the player’s last four months at Arsenal should be made the best use of, even if the difficulties of replacing him next season looks a bigger and bigger task.
As for Ozil, a series of apparent stand-offs between superstar and manager in the first half of the season have given way to a more productive co-existence. Emery’s concerns over Ozil’s level of industry remain, but the manager appreciates the penetration the German can offer.
And there are still two routes open to the 2019/20 Champions League, via the top four; or via the Europa League, where Valencia, the club where Emery first made his reputation as a high-class, elite coach by winning some personal battles and making some compromises. The next four weeks will tell Arsenal if his judgements under tightening pressure are as shrewd now as they were then.
Updated: April 24, 2019 12:17 PM