No one expected Arsenal to be here with 10 games to go at the start of the season. Mikel Arteta’s side are eight points clear at the top of English football, albeit with a game in hand against their title rivals Manchester City.
The Gunners’ sensational season so far came after a disappointing end to the last one, blowing their chance to qualify for the Champions League after losing back-to-back games against Tottenham and Newcastle United.
So, will this season end similarly? Will the pressure of a title race make them stutter and run out of steam? Or will they claim their first title in 19 years since the famed Invincibles?
One thing that may answer if the Premier League trophy will be coming to The Emirates Stadium is the fixture list. Arsenal’s remaining 10 fixtures are split evenly between home and away.
For the matches at home, they face three sides in the bottom half of the table, Southampton, Wolves and Leeds, one midtable side, Chelsea, and European hopefuls, Brighton & Hove Albion. Considering their opponents’ quality, it will be expected that Arsenal will pick up at least 12 of the available points.
However, their away trips are a lot more daunting. Mikel Arteta’s side will have to travel to four grounds that they lost at last year, Anfield (Liverpool), St James’ Park (Newcastle United), The City Ground (Nottingham Forest) and most importantly of all, they have to face their title rivals at the Etihad, Manchester City.
The crucial showdown against last year’s champions will come with just five games to go. One bizarre aspect to consider with the Premier League run-in is that Arsenal have been better on their travels than at home. Of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale’s 12 clean sheets, nine have come on the road.
Arsenal’s superior away form may be explained by the pictures you could see of their most recent victory on the road against Fulham. In the background of the celebratory dressing room, you can see posters in red and white and a replica of the iconic Highbury clock.
It seems that manager Mikel Arteta wants his players to feel at home in every one of the 19 away grounds. With their away form in mind, Arsenal could very well hold onto their eight point lead over Manchester City.
However, as the game weeks start ticking down to the final one on May 28th, the pressure will inevitably ramp up. Arsenal have the youngest squad in the league, so it will be interesting to see how they react to the pressure of being in a title race.
Last year, the Gunners crumbled in the crucial games to qualify for the Champions League. Tottenham hammered Arsenal 3-0 in the third last game, seeing them close the gap to just one point.
Spurs would then move into fourth over the weekend with a win. The Gunners had to win their game against Newcastle on the following Monday to reclaim pole position against their arch-rivals.
However, the pressure got to the young squad as they fell to a dismal 2-0 defeat at St James Park with their opponents dominant. In his post-match interview, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka suggested that some of his teammates weren’t ready for the game and should not have been there, saying “If someone isn’t ready for the game, stay at home.”
Yet, this season, Xhaka’s teammates have shown that they are ready to embrace the challenge of a title race. In February, Arsenal suffered a mini-crisis, failing to win three games including a loss against Manchester City which put Pep Guardiola’s side top on goal difference.
However, last season seemed to have matured the squad, as Arsenal responded with six wins in a row in the Premier League and now have a handsome lead now coming into the run-in.
One advantage Arsenal have over City is that the Premier League is the only competition they are currently in. The reigning champions must juggle catching Arsenal with exploits in the FA Cup and more importantly, the Champions League.
In the latter, Guardiola will have to face Bundesliga kingpins Bayern Munich in the coming weeks and squad rotation will be necessary. Tired legs and weaker teams being put out in the Premier League may result in the Citizens dropping further points.
Everything seems to point to Arsenal retaining their lead at the top of the table and being crowned Premier League champions in May. However, football is never that simple, and extraordinary things tend to happen in the high-pressure final third of seasons.
We’ll have to see if Arsenal’s young squad can prove their maturity over the coming weeks.