A good weekend of Premier League football became one to remember as Liverpool and Man City treated fans to the best game of the season and one of the best in the league’s history.
Arsenal’s top-four aspirations took another hit on Saturday, after their bitter rivals Tottenham sealed a 1-0 victory in the North London derby, courtesy of Harry Kane’s second-half header.
Kane came up big for Mauricio Pochettino’s men yet again in this fixture, netting his seventh league goal against the Gunners in his last seven appearances against them.
Players such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not have the same impact as they did in battering Everton the week prior.
Arsenal’s defensive frailties were again on display when Kane was the only Spurs player in the box surrounded by Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscienly to get on the end of Ben Davies’ brilliant in-swinging delivery.
With that loss, Arsene Wenger’s team are seven points behind fourth-placed Spurs, sixth in the league overall, with the race to secure Champions League football heating up as there are just 11 games left in the season.
On the plus side, the Gunners only have one more visit to a top-six side this campaign – at Old Trafford, when the Gunners take on Manchester United in April – and a seven-point gap is by no means an impossible differential, especially in the Premier League.
The French manager boasts an outstanding record when it comes to finishing inside the top four, doing so 20 times out of the 21 seasons he has had at Arsenal, with last season’s fifth place finish the only exception.
Arsenal fans nevertheless have argued for years that settling for a top-four position and failing to compete for major trophies since moving to the Emirates is simply not good enough.
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One of the Premier League’s big dogs, Arsenal should be competing with the best that world football has to offer.
In his post-match press conference after the derby defeat, Wenger said it was too early for his team to prioritise the Europa League ahead of the league. He also mentioned that United had decided to prioritise the Europa League once they reached the semi-final stage.
However, if results in the league do not pick up, Wenger may be forced to turn his attention to the Europa League, like Jose Mourinho did successfully last campaign.
But such an achievement would be a difficult task, given Atletico Madrid, Lyon, Marseille, AC Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Celtic and Zenit all remain in the final 32.
The Gunners had no trouble finishing top of their group, claiming 13 points, finishing ahead of FK Crvena zvezda, FC Koln and Bate Borisov. During that run, it was obvious Wenger favoured a second unit, giving valuable minutes to young players such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah.
Striker Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott were regularly present during the group matches, due to the pair’s restricted influence in the league. Wenger started Giroud in all six matches, while the English attacker started in five.
But Wenger does not have either one of them at his disposal, after selling both in January, so Wenger will likely call upon his more valuable assets.
Unfortunately, Aubameyang is not eligible for Arsenal in the Europa League due to his former club, Borussia Dortmund, being in the competition as well. This means the only recognised strikers available are the out-of-form Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck.
Mkhitaryan is available, as his former employers are currently in the Champions League, and the Armenian international played a massive role in helping United capture the title last season.
Arsenal’s next Europa League match sees them away to take on Swedish outfit Ostersunds FK on Thursday. Will the Frenchman keep giving minutes to the young talent that featured previously or look to add more experience into the line-up?
Wenger has found success in playing three at the back in the competition, electing for variations of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 in five of the six group games.
However, the Gunners have been playing four at the back in recent times, so it will be curious to see how he sets up his team now that they are into the next phase of the competition.
The club have two avenues that can claim them Champions League football, and at some point soon, Wenger will have decide which is most realistic.
For now, the manager will see how things play out and will no doubt be prioritising the league. He will hope not to be forced into choosing between the competitions, but given the team’s inconsistencies, it could happen.