Maybe our rivals will be weaker?

On the 21st April 2019, I went to the Landseer Arms just off the Holloway Road for a few pre-game beers. I sat outside with friends basking in the glorious sunshine, chuckling at Sp*rs’ defeat to City the day before and eating pizza. I remember this very well because I spilt tomato sauce all over my new jeans. Then Everton kicked-off against Manchester United and via our phones we found out they’d raced to a two-goal lead. How we cheered when Walcott grabbed the fourth before setting off for the Emirates in high spirits. 

On a 10-game winning streak at home and up against a mid-table Crystal Palace with nothing to play for, it looked like Unai Emery might just deliver on his ambition of qualifying for the Champions League. Everything was within our grasp. And then we fucked it up. A weakened side played like they were the ones on the beers, we lost 3-2 and the rest is history. 

When I look back at that game, I put it in the same bracket as the 2-2 draw with Birmingham in February 2007 when Eduardo broke his leg. I knew that day we wouldn’t win the league and, similarly, I knew this result would kill our top four ambitions. Some games just do more damage than others and it was no surprise when we went on to collapse at Wolves and Leicester. Chelsea dealt with us in a similarly ruthless fashion in Baku, by which point everyone seemed to know Arsenal were doing a roaring trade in BOGOF goal deals. 

Unai Emery can’t afford for that to happen again. Simply put, if he doesn’t qualify for the Champions League this year he’ll lose his job. The pressure is really on him, especially as the squad at his disposal is arguably weaker than that which started the last campaign. Yes, we might sign a couple of players before the transfer window closes, but we’ll still have lost a keeper who started last season as first choice, our captain, our best midfielder and an auxiliary striker…all for next to nothing. 

So how are we going to finish in the top four? I’m probably clutching at straws here, but I’m hoping our rivals might be weaker. Well a few of them, anyway. 

As depressing as it is, we might as well admit that we’re not going to get anywhere near Liverpool and Manchester City next season. I fully expect the title to be a two-horse race and, like last year, it could all come down to their clashes at the Etihad and Anfield. 

Could we close the gap a little? Possibly. They both had stellar campaigns last time out and maintaining that level of performance would be seriously impressive. Honestly, and I don’t want to sound too defeatist here, as long as they beat Chelsea, Sp*rs and United, it’s not so much of a problem if they tonk us too. These are the three clubs we’ll be focused on. United were four points behind us last season, our neighbours one point ahead and the Blues one point ahead of them. We need two of them to slip up next season. 

At the same time, I’m very wary of the threat posed by those sides just behind us. Last season, Wolves, Leicester and Everton all took points from us and they look like they are growing in confidence and stature. 

I decided to ask a few mates (and YouTuber @StevenMcinerney), supporters of other top six sides, what they think of their teams chances this season to get a sense of who looks stronger on paper. 

It’s hardly scientific, but I’ve got to get to my word quota somehow…

Manchester City

Last year they became the first side in the men’s game to complete a domestic treble and everybody reacted by posting that meme of Alan Partridge shrugging his shoulders. It seemed like the only reasonable response to a side who were so robotically slick. What’s more, while we can all appreciate Pep Guardiola as a visionary football coach, one that we should have brought to Arsenal when we had the chance, he’s also a bit of a cock, isn’t he? Anyway, I’m waffling. They are a top side, one of the best in Europe, and they’ve strengthened with two Spaniards; defensive midfielder Rodri from Atletico and left-back Angelino. It’ll be tough for Liverpool to overhaul them, but the Reds might have a chance if City go hell for leather in the Champions League (before they get banned). 

Fan insight by @StevenMcinerney: “I think we’re just about stronger than last year. We’ve bought a long term solution and genuine potential star in Rodri and fortified our left-back slot with a returning academy player in Angelino. On top of that we potentially have our best player, Kevin De Bruyne, back for a full season fit and raring to go. The one main cause for concern is the loss of some big personalities in the changing room. No one more so than Vincent Kompany. Yes – he was getting on a little, but he’s Vincent Kompany isn’t he? I definitely think Liverpool will give City another run for their money, but I can’t help but feel confident that we’ll win the league again. I don’t mean to sound arrogant with this, but I just feel our squad depth is absolutely astonishingly good, and with Guardiola being almost incomparable when it comes to domestic domination, then I really can’t see past that top spot again.” 

Verdict: Stronger 

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Liverpool

Fresh from winning the Champions League, Jurgen Klopp seems relatively content with the state of his squad. The only addition has been a 17-year-old Dutch defender and none of their departures, Alberto Moreno, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings, will be missed. How they commanded a £20 million fee from Southampton for the latter I’ll never know, but apparently, you don’t have to let people run their contracts down or have them force their way out on the cheap. Who knew? As we all know, the Scousers haven’t won a league title since 1990 so they’ll be chomping at the bit to end that drought having run City so close last time around. I’m hoping the involvement of Salah and Mané at the African Cup of Nations and Firmino at the Copa America might take a toll as the season wears on, but that’s not much to hang my hat on. 

Fan insight by David Shaw: “I think we’ll be stronger, but we can’t afford a slow start. It looks like we may be relying on Shaqiri, Origi, and untested youngster Rhian Brewster in the opening games. There has been scant progress on the transfer front but we’d be foolish to question Klopp given the season we’ve just had. 18 months ago our weakness was our defence, but the purchases of Van Dijk and Allison have seen to that. My only worry is a lack of creative spark when confronted by teams who play deep and pack the midfield. I’m hoping Naby Keita can supply the blend of dynamism and ingenuity we lacked at times last season and I also have high hopes for Oxlade Chamberlain. That said, City have so many more options going forward than we do, so I’ll settle for second and live in hope.” 

Verdict: As strong as last year

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Chelsea

Their European title-winning manager has moved to Juventus, they’ve hired the Derby coach, their best player finally left for Real Madrid and they are banned from signing any new players. On so many levels, Chelsea should be weaker this season and yet the romantic return of Fat Frank seems to have sparked the imaginations of Blues supporters. I can’t see Christian Pulisic being on the same level as Eden Hazard or the ageing Giroud and perennial loanee Michy Batshuayi terrorising defences. Moreover, their two-best English players, Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek both ruptured their Achilles in May. Surely, we have to have Chelsea in our sights?

Fan insight by Ollie Fahey: “It’s difficult to argue that we won’t be weaker without the best player in the league [Eden Hazard]. That said, the positive atmosphere that Lampard has so far delivered could help to make up some of the ground. He’ll introduce younger players who will be fiercely motivated to prove themselves – a hunger that has been lacking at times. I expect Kepa, Jorginho and Kovacic to improve, Zouma will be like a new signing and big players will return from injury to make an impact mid-season. I think there’s just enough quality to finish fourth. That said we cannot finish chances at the best of times and it’s hard to see how we replace Hazard’s output right now.”

Verdict: Weaker

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Sp*rs

Brave Champions League finalists. Winners of the most recently finished stadium award. Purveyors of good football on a budget. Coached by the beautiful game’s most-wanted coach. They are basically Arsenal circa 2006…but without an era of trophies behind them. Everything points to Sp*rs being stronger this year, they’ve started signing players again, they don’t have the stadium move hanging over them, their squad will have had an actual pre-season, they’ve sold Kieran Trippier and even managed to retain Cristian Eriksen. It makes me nervous. That said, they lost 13 games in the league last season and seven more in the cup competitions. They are flaky on the road, their new surroundings remain relatively unfamiliar and when United sack Solksjaer before Christmas you can be sure Pochettino’s name will be on their shopping list. Overly optimistic? Perhaps. 

Fan insight by Josh James: “We’ll be stronger this year, mostly because we’ve added to the squad, we don’t have the headache of the stadium move and Arsenal and Chelsea look weaker. I’m expecting big things from [Tanguy] Ndombele. Realistically, we’re challenging for third. If Kane gets injured, Ndombele isn’t better than Kante and we sell all our full-backs without replacing them, I might have to reassess.”

Verdict: Stronger

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Manchester United

It all appeared to be going so well for United once they’d shorn themselves of that sociopathic hotel-dwelling Portuguese. Ole was at the wheel, they knocked us out of the FA Cup, went on a run in the league, beat PSG in the Champions League and looked a decent bet to sign Pochettino and finish in the top four. Then they made that madly impatient decision to hire Solskjaer on a long-term contract and things fell apart again. So far this summer they’ve signed Daniel James from Swansea and spent £50 million onPalace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia have both left, Romelu Lukaku is expected to do the same and Pogba has made it clear he’d like out. They also have a Mesut Ozil-sized wage problem in Alexis Sanchez. If they re-sign De Gea and sign a centre-back they might have a reason for optimism but I’m fully expecting their fans to be grumpy by Christmas and there’s a strong possibility of another mid-season coaching change. 

Fan insight by David Young: “I think we’ll be stronger, the mentality of the club seems to have changed for the better. But we’re still lacking quality in key areas. If we complete the signings of [Harry] Maguire and [Bruno] Fernandes and keep Pogba I’ll be a great deal more optimistic. Realistically, I think we need to accept that third behind Man City and Liverpool may be the best we can expect. It could go wrong if we don’t sign a centre-back, leak goals in our opening fixtures and Pogba starts to sulk. That could lead to Ole getting sacked, Mourinho smugly saying ‘I told you so’ and Steve Bruce arriving as interim manager.” 

Verdict: Weaker

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I’m not going to go into detail on Leicester, Wolves and Everton. I’d be surprised if they closed the gap enough to properly challenge for a top four place but I do think they’ll make life very complicated for us and the other top six. 

Time will tell whether Brendan Rodgers’ decision to drop £70 million on Youri Tielemans and Ayoze Perez was a good idea and they could yet lose Maguire to United. The whole league will be more wary of the dangers of Nuno Espirito Santo’s side (please don’t let them sign Diego Costa) and Everton look to be experiencing the growing pains that come with splurging on quite good players who then won’t leave. 

For what it’s worth, I definitely feel like a fourth-place finish is achievable for Arsenal. Over to you Unai. 

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Right, that’s me done for today. I’ll be back tomorrow to review the Real Madrid friendly; a match I might actually watch.

And you never know, by then Arsenal might have actually, officially, properly, 100 per cent confirmed the signing of a couple of players. I bet you can’t guess who they are. 

Until then, I’ll be pottering about on Arseblog News catching up on everything that happened while I was asleep.