The Guardian football writers have Arsenal coming in sixth this year. I would love to disagree but am not sure that I can. When you consider that Arsenal have
- good but not great goalkeeping;
- uncertainty along the back line (at least after Koscielny, whom I expect to be excellent again);
- uncertainty about whether Xhaka in defensive midfield will improve on his horrific first season, and whether Coquelin will return to the form he showed season before last;
- uncertainty in central and attacking midfield;
- profound uncertainty in attack given Alexis’s manifest unhappiness, despite the welcome addition of Lacazette;
— then it’s hard, for me anyway, to get too excited. Especially since both Manchester clubs should be significantly better, as should the Liverpool clubs: I very well might put a fiver or so on Liverpool winning the league this year, despite their defensive eccentricities, and Everton with their recent signings now look to be a stronger side overall than the Gunners. I expect Spurs to come back to the pack a bit this year, but they were considerably better than Arsenal last year and I don’t expect that gap to close significantly this year. So, yeah: sixth seems likely. Maybe fifth.
What would it take for Arsenal to get a place in the Champions League?
- A significantly improved defense, probably through a full season of playing a back three (with Rob Holding emerging as a consistent defensive force) with a stable defensive midfield (probably featuring Xhaka and Ramsey);
- some unexpected creativity in midfield, maybe from one or two of the heralded youngsters;
- keeping Alexis and Ox, and keeping them happy;
- Alexis and Lacazette finding that they can work together in a front-line partnership;
- avoinding the emotional drama that afflicted the side so much of last season;
- no major injuries.
Plus at least two of the following:
- Pep’s purism overcoming his pragmatism, and his side finding themselves unable to play just exactly as he wants them to play;
- Mourinho finding a way to thwart and frustrate the creativity of his bounty of dynamic attacking players;
- Liverpool continuing to be unable to defend, especially from set pieces;
- Everton not succeeding in replacing Lukaku’s scoring;
- Spurs coming way back to the pack, most likely through injury (they’re not the deepest squad among the top six).
So: it could happen. Arsenal could get back to the CL. But I’m probably not going to bet on it.