I was listening to the Guardian Podcast yesterday when the topic of the race for fourth place came up. Barry Glendenning laid out an argument, which I think is shared by many pundits, for why he wants Everton to beat Arsenal to fourth place. Now, I like Barry, I find him delightfully cantankerous, so I say that not to pick on him, he is a pundit and they are paid to have an opinion. Rather, Glendenning is just one example of many pundits who all seem to want the same thing: Everton to beat Arsenal to 4th place. The pundits all have their different reasons but they mostly come down to wanting to see some new blood in the Champions League. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt.
But for the first time in a long time there is very little between the two teams vying for the 4th Place Cup: Arsenal are on 64 points after 32 games (2ppg), Everton are on 60 points after 31 games (1.94ppg); Arsenal have a goal difference of +19, Everton +18; Arsenal’s leading scorer (Giroud) has 13 goals and 7 assists, Everton’s leading scorer (Lukaku) has 12 goals and 6 assists; and the list goes on*. Granted Arsenal should be doing better but we aren’t and I’ll get to that in a bit. The fact remains that despite our rather large differences in transfer and salary spending, both these teams have very similar records at the moment.
If you’ve been paying attention you will note that Everton are just 4 points behind Arsenal and with a game in hand. This has the pundits (and some rather strange Arsenal supporters) thinking that if Everton can beat Arsenal tomorrow, they will be within 1 point and might could pip Arsenal to the 4th Place Cup.
Arsenal’s final 5 games of the season, though, are against some of the easiest opposition you could hope to face: the relegation fodder and middle-teams who have nothing left to play for. And before you say “yes but Norwich are in a relegation battle, they will fight!” Of course they will fight, so will West Brom, and Allardyce loves to get one over on Wenger, and Hull might even be an FA Cup final preview. But you couldn’t ask for better opposition to play for the final 5 games of the season because these are some very weak teams. For example, Arsenal beat all 5 of them last season, except Norwich who are significantly worse this year than last.
Everton, on the other hand, play Man City, Man U, and Southampton along with Sunderland, Palace and Hull to finish the season off. I feel like Everton might get 11 points from those games whilst I am expecting Arsenal to take all 15. Arsenal should finish 5 points clear of Everton, even if the Toffees win tomorrow.
I don’t think anyone would disagree if I said that Everton do have a slight advantage tomorrow and a win for the Toffees wouldn’t be a far fetched result. I’m not predicting a win, loss, or draw (draw is the most likely result I come up with) but rather just stating what I think is the obvious: If you look at Arsenal’s injury record and current form (P10 W3 D4 L3), along with Everton’s lack of injuries, current form (P10 W6 D1 L3), and home advantage wouldn’t you offer up the draw before kickoff?
And injuries have hit Arsenal hard this season. Insanely hard.
Few predicted that Aaron Ramsey would be the stud that he was at the start of the season. In the first 18 game, Ramsey scored 8 League goals and added 6 assists. That’s good enough to make him Arsenal’s third best goal scorer and playmaker, despite missing the last 14 games. It is impossible to predict how many goals he would have scored or assists he would have laid on but 3 goals and 2 assists more wouldn’t have been at all unreasonable.
More than just goals, Arsenal also missed Ramsey’s work rate: his constant movement meant he was available for the ball and the result is that he led Arsenal in total passes and was third in passing percentage. His defensive work all through the midfield is another key indicator of his work rate, he was first in tackles per game.
Perhaps even more than Ramsey, Arsenal have missed Theo Walcott. It’s common among Arsenal fans to ridicule Walcott as “Unlucky Walcott” but the truth is that it’s been “unlucky Arsenal” to not have him. Last season, Walcott scored 21 goals and had 14 assists on 111 shots, 55 of which he got on target. And this season he was already off to a start that looked set to repeat the feats of last, 6 goals, 4 assists on 53 shots, 23 of which were on target. All in just 18 appearances!
Moreover, the whole team missed Walcott. All of Wenger’s great teams have been built on pace: Overmars and Henry had it in bags and their pace won Arsenal trophies. So, it makes sense that Wenger has groomed Walcott over the years to be the next wide player burning defenders on counters. He’s progressed nicely as a finisher despite what many think and he’s also the kind of play who has grown in terms of creating his own shot, contrary to what you read other places.
Walcott also offered players like Özil, Ramsey, and Wilshere a target man to send through behind the opposition defenses and I literally (literally figuratively) have lost track of the number of times I have heard people say that they wished Arsene had bought a player to do exactly that.
How much have Arsenal missed these two players? You can never really know how much a player would have contributed. But I really feel like Arsenal would be challenging for the title right now had both stayed healthy all year.
It’s a big game for both teams tomorrow and I expect they are going to give everything that they have to win. Arsenal might not have as much to give owing to injury but Ramsey will be on the bench and might even get a cameo at the end depending on the score. After that, Arsenal have to stay clear headed and try to win the double: both the FA and the 4th Place cups are still up for grabs.
*Even in the top 7 mini-league, both these teams are very similar: Arsenal have a -10 GD, and have earned 1.18 PPG and Everton have a -6 GD and have earned 1 PPG. After Sunday’s match that will change but Arsenal are done with top teams and Everton will have two more left to play.