If you were diagramming the worst possible scenario (which, Arsenal being Arsenal, would double as the most probable forecast for their coming campaign) for the Gunners’ season this year, you would’ve had this year being one of woe.
Fresh off finally losing their favorite trophy—the highly coveted One Of The Best Four Teams In England title—after hoisting the thing every year for a solid two decades straight, this year threatened to be even worse. Their two best players, Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, wanted out and would either be sold in one of the transfer windows or released for nothing on a free transfer in the summer of 2018. Despite yet another one of Arsène Wenger’s trademark “Guys, we’re very serious about winning something real this year, so to that end I’m going to spend as much as needed in order to get better” spiels, the team would spend relatively modestly while their competitors all strengthened. And, finally, with a bloated but in fact very talented roster full of ill-fitting players organized in a tactical setup that doesn’t seem to get the best out of any of them, Arsenal would finish the season behind all or most of Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, and Liverpool, once again outside the Champions League places—another wasted season in the club’s long and painful process of drowning itself under the weight of its past.
But hey, maybe that won’t necessarily be the case!
Arsenal pasted Everton by a score of 5-2 this weekend, spanking those Toffee asses so soundly that the club could no longer pretend things were going to get any better and so they fired their manager. Sure, this was a great performance against a team that has played like steaming dog shit all season long, but there are legitimate reasons to believe that the way Arsenal played means their season doesn’t have to be a failure.
First and foremost, this is the first time all year that Arsenal have started what should be their ideal attacking lineup of Sánchez, Özil, and Alexandre Lacazette. Those three flat-out terrorized Everton, slicing through the opposing defense like a knife through a steaming pile of dog shit. Özil, in particular, impressed, ignoring all the talk about how he’s given up on Arsenal and plans to bide his time until he can possibly reunite with José Mourinho at Manchester United in the winter window and putting together his most engaged, confident, electric showing in ages.
When Özil plays like he did this weekend—gliding around all areas of the attacking third in search of space and the ball, flipping millimeter-perfect first-time passes around opponents and into the runs of his teammates, thoroughly dominating the attack with his passing, vision, and movement—he really is without peer. He hasn’t consistently looked like that for almost a whole year now, but if he can recapture that kind of form, alongside Sánchez and Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal should have one of the Premier League’s two or three most fearsome attacks.
It was mostly how seamless Arsenal looked in attack that could bode well for the rest of their season. Each of their four best attackers—Sánchez, Lacazette, Özil, and Ramsey—scored, and looked great while doing it. Traditionally, Arsenal under Wenger have been defined by the effortless grace and hive mind-like understanding his flair players exhibit when floating through defenses, which is exactly what they’ve missed for much of this year and last. If those four players all stay healthy and involved, you’ll see more attacking exhibitions like the one against Everton, and fewer of the stuffy ones their fans have suffered through of late. Arsenal will need to outscore teams in order to compete in the league this year, and there are worse bets than wagering on the Gunners’ Big Four to make that happen.
The other big thing in Arsenal’s favor wasn’t actually anything that happened inside Everton’s stadium. Instead, it was what did happen and has been happening in grounds all across England. Namely: it doesn’t look like most of Arsenal’s competitors at the top of the table are all that good right now.
Coming into the season, the title race looked like it would be all-out war. You had Mourinho in year two of his United tenure, substituting a still good but less effective Zlatan Ibrahimović with the world-class and prime-aged Romelu Lukaku. You had defending champs Chelsea spending big money to make the roster that ran away with last year’s title even deeper this time out. You had Liverpool bolstering their already terrifying array of attackers with yet another stud forward in the form of Mohamed Salah. You had Tottenham managing to keep all of the most important parts that have made them the best team in the league over the past couple years. And then you had Manchester City being even more unfair by writing Pep Guardiola yet another blank check to buy what he felt he needed in order to win. Arsenal already weren’t as good as the rest of the EPL’s elite, and those competitors (save Spurs, who didn’t really need to) all improved way more than Arsenal did.
However, most of the other teams making up England’s Big Six haven’t looked as good in real life as they did on paper. United literally can’t buy a goal when they need one, Liverpool can’t stop anyone from scoring, and Chelsea have stumbled out of the blocks probably mostly because of a couple key injuries. Tottenham have been really good and City have been almost perfect, but besides those two, no one has made all that convincing a claim for a spot in the top four. Proof of this being that, as unremarkable as Arsenal’s year up to this point has felt, they’re still tied on points in fourth place, just four points outside of second.
While the title is all but certainly out of the picture for them, Arsenal still should see a top-four finish as there for the taking. They haven’t been particularly good for most of the season, and yet they are right there in the mix still, and should feel buoyed with the knowledge that when they’ve got their best players all on the pitch together and clicking, they remain a force to be reckoned with. Fighting tooth and nail to maybe nab a Champions League spot to be spared the ignominy that is a club of their size futzing around on Thursday trips to Kazakhstan in the Europa League, praying to God not that their two big stars don’t leave in the summer but that when they inevitably do leave it doesn’t hurt the team too much, isn’t quite the post-new stadium future Arsenal fans would’ve envisioned for themselves. But it’s better than the alternative, of just accepting obsolescence as Arsenal become the new Liverpool. Avoiding that fate is something worth fighting for, and it’s something that Arsenal very plausibly could achieve.