Arsenal Is Back In Control
11:37 AM EST on March 2, 2023
Things can change so quickly in the Premier League. Two weeks ago, for instance, I wrote about Arsenal's 3-1 loss to Manchester City, a loss that got the defending champions close to the driver's seat for this season's title race. Towards the end of that blog, I noted that Arsenal had a winnable slate of games before what looked to be the pivotal rematch against City on April 26. To have a chance at the Premier League title for the first time in 19 years and stave off City, Arsenal surely had to pick up as many easy points as it could. This wasn't high-level analysis, to be clear. It was just arithmetic.
So far so good: Since the loss to City on February 15, Arsenal has played three games and won them all rather convincingly, albeit in different ways. First, the Gunners played a wild first half against Aston Villa, going down twice in the first half hour before scoring three in the second half, including two in stoppage time, to win 4-2 at Villa Park. Then, Arsenal shut down Leicester City's already impotent attack in a 1-0 victory that felt a lot wider than that; the Foxes only mustered one shot, off target, in 90 minutes against the stout Arsenal defense.
And finally, there was Everton. In new manager Sean Dyche's first game with the Toffees back on February 4, Everton flummoxed Arsenal at Goodison Park, notching the biggest win of the season for the blue half of Merseyside. To say that Arsenal got its revenge on Wednesday is an understatement, as the Gunners welcomed Everton to North London and handed down a 4-0 walloping that probably had Toffee fans flashing back in horror to the Frank Lampard era.
As with most good things that happen for Arsenal, Wednesday's victory truly kicked off thanks to the efforts of Bukayo Saka. After a cagey first half left the score deadlocked at nil-nil after 40 minutes, Saka got to work. A beautiful pass from Oleksandr Zinchenko saw the ball land at Saka's feet in the box, albeit running away from goal and towards the touchline. No matter: the 21-year-old touched the ball from his left foot to his weaker right, then took yet another touch to set up what appeared to be an impossible angle on goal right up until the moment he rocketed it into the top netting:
That's the type of goal that goes on a highlight reel, and with good reason, but I personally preferred Arsenal's second goal, which Saka created about seven minutes later, thanks to both some rugged pressing and Idrissa Gueye's lackadaisical dribbling in his own defensive third:
There was a very close offside shout on Gabriel Martinelli at the moment Saka stole the ball from Gueye, but everything checked out, so let's focus some more on how aware Saka was in pressing the Everton midfielder at that exact moment. Just like that, after a quick one-two from Saka and Arsenal, this game was effectively over, and the Premier League title race was well and truly back on.
It helps the race that City had been floundering somewhat since the win against Arsenal and drew 1-1 to Nottingham Forest on February 18. (Pep Guardiola's men also drew RB Leipzig in the Champions League; that has no relevance to the Premier League, but perhaps City is just in a bit of funky form at the moment.) That draw, combined with Arsenal finally catching up on games played with the Everton rematch, means that the Gunners currently sit five points ahead of City with the same amount of games played.
What does that mean, in practice? Well, Arsenal could lose the rematch on April 26 and still win the league by two points, provided that it is perfect the rest of the way. That's not reasonable to expect or likely to happen, but any distance that Arsenal can put between it and City diminishes the importance of that late-season bout between the current numbers 1 and 2 in the table.
This is good news for the Gunners, of course; their destiny is in their own hands now, and will remain there until they falter at a moment when City does not. A five-point lead is nothing against City if the team with the lead doesn't perform at the highest levels of its performance; there's no easy way to win the Premier League. But what this gap does do is make the job straightforward for Arsenal. And if the Gunners were to draw City or even win that April 26 game, then the path would be all but set for the title.
No pressure and all that, but this current three-match win streak, and the way in which Arsenal has won those games, is exactly what the side needed to get back on track after running into the Manchester City brick wall. If there was ever going to be belief that Arsenal can win the league, it had to start with this bounce-back. Credit where credit is due: Arsenal did what it had to do to wrest back control of the season, at just the right time.
[Correction, 12:26 p.m. ET: Saka's right foot is his weaker foot, not his stronger. This has been corrected above.]