Arsenal’s top-four push is something that should not be surprising given the stature of the club.
Despite that, the north London outfit greatly struggled in recent seasons to secure a Champions League place. After consecutive eighth-place finishes in the league, Arsenal clearly needed a rebuild. Oftentimes, major names and potential signings avoid these extended rebuilds. Therefore, Arsenal faced an uphill battle in the fight to get back into the top four.
Currently, Arsenal sits in fourth. However, securing a Champions League spot is anything but guaranteed. Regardless, the club’s current position in the table surprises many fans and pundits. Few “experts” picked Arsenal to be in a position to possibly secure a top four finish based on their full opening day squad. Plus, the team also overcame three significant issues throughout the season.
Arsenal’s surprising top-four push
1. Youth Movement
With an average age of just over 24, Arsenal have the youngest squad in all of the Premier League. In fact, the youngest starting XI that Mikel Arteta fielded during the current campaign was an average of 23.8. Those youngsters played to a scoreless draw with Burnley. Of the starting players, only Alexandre Lacazette and Rob Holding exceeded the age of 24. Along with the starting players, the substitutes also had an average age of just 21.7 as well.
That Burnley game, however, was not an outlier with this Arsenal team. The north London outfit currently have the 19 youngest starting XIs in the Premier League this season. Arsenal’s key players carry the load for the Gunners. These include Bukayo Saka (20), Gabriel Martinelli (20), Emile Smith Rowe (21), Martin Odegaard (23), Aaron Ramsdale (23), and Takehiro Tomiyasu (23).
Normally, relying on younger players is a massive gamble in such a grueling competition like the Premier League. Nevertheless, Arteta depends on the kids. This pays dividends in a major way considering Arsenal’s position on top of some rivals in the table.
2. Striker Issues
Arsenal entered the current campaign with two high-profile center forwards: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Most envisioned the historically dynamic duo leading the overwhelmingly young 2021/22 squad. Fans, however, did not expect both of the players to essentially be the weakness throughout the season.
Aubameyang managed just four Premier League goals prior to being left out of the entire squad by Arteta. Eventually, he departed to Barcelona on a free. Lacazette also scored just four league goals. That being said, he is still in the squad and featured in 27 total Premier League matches this season. The Frenchman does have value with his link-up play and passing. Yet, 22-year-old Eddie Nketiah pushed Lacazette out of Arteta’s starting XI. Nketiah began the season as Arsenal’s third or even fourth option up front.
Arsenal’s struggles from the center forwards are not due to a lack of chances. The young creative Gunners have the fourth-most shot-creating actions (24.2 per game) and the third-most key passes (11.1 per game) in the entire league. Despite this creativity, Arsenal have just 56 total goals in league play, good enough for seventh best.
Arsenal built a very solid squad, although they are a bit thin in depth. Arteta and Technical Director Edu created a backbone in defense and a midfield base. This core is extremely capable of keeping clean sheets. Moreover, it can provide the impetus via progressive passes to more offensive teammates.
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This backbone of Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Gabriel, Kieran Tierney, Thomas Partey, and Granit Xhaka is essentially guaranteed to be in Arteta’s starting XI each week if available. However, injuries disrupted any plans to get these players into any sort of rhythm together.
These seven instrumental players managed to start just six total games together in all competitions this season. The Gunners won four of these six games. Arsenal fans can only wonder just how comfortable the team might be in the standings if this septet in particular would have stayed a bit more healthy throughout the campaign. It is reasonable to think Arsenal’s current dramatic top-four push would not be as necessary or unpredictable.
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