LONDON — The only good news for Arsenal after their humiliating 3-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby was that, despite the celebratory scenes among the home supporters at the end of the game, Champions League qualification remains in the hands of Mikel Arteta and his squad.
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It probably didn’t feel like it as Gunners captain Martin Odegaard led his humbled teammates towards their supporters to apologetically thank those who remained until the end, but the mathematics are clear — if Arsenal win their final two games away to Newcastle United on Monday and at home to Everton six days later, the Emirates Stadium will host Champions League football next season for the first time since 2017, regardless of what Spurs do in their home finale against Burnley and concluding match at Norwich City.
“The disappointment shouldn’t take over the great opportunity of the two games we have in front of us,” Arteta said after Thursday’s loss. “We can’t wait to play on Monday, this is how I feel, and that’s all I want to say.”
But if Arsenal are to beat Spurs to the finishing line in the race for fourth, they must overcome a test of nerve and character to achieve their goal and we still don’t know whether this Arsenal side possesses the necessary qualities to do that. And with centre-half Rob Holding set to miss the Newcastle game through suspension after being sent off for two yellow cards — both for fouls on Son Heung-min — and Gabriel almost certain to be sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained in the final stages against Spurs, Arsenal have crucial defensive issues to address.
Arteta can patch up his defence, however. The Arsenal manager can deploy Granit Xhaka at centre-half and hope that Ben White’s hamstring injury is recovered sufficiently for him to start at Newcastle. The former Brighton defender was on the bench at Spurs, but Arteta chose not to risk his fitness with the game a lost cause by halftime. But while Arteta can reshuffle his team, results this season suggest that he will travel to St James’ Park with no idea whether his players will rise to the challenge against Newcastle and then Everton.
Will they do what they did at Chelsea and West Ham United in recent weeks by responding to the pressure with a confident, attacking performance that delivers three points or will they revert to the panic-stricken side which lost successive games against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton last month?
Arsenal has a core of young talented players but a lack of on-field leadership could see them miss out on a top-four finish. James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images
That question, in a nutshell, has been Arsenal’s problem for too long and it pre-dates Arteta’s arrival as manager, following the dismissal of Unai Emery, in Dec. 2019. They blow hot and cold and their inconsistency and fragility is why they now have to go to Newcastle and win. Those three defeats against Palace, Brighton and Southampton — games Arsenal should have won — may yet see them miss out on Champions League football once again.
Odegaard’s selection as captain in recent weeks when regular skipper Alexandre Lacazette is out of the starting line-up highlights the obvious shortcomings in Arteta’s side — a lack of seasoned experience in key areas. Arsenal still lack a player, or players, who can sense danger in games and know when to alter the tempo to suit their own objectives. Xhaka has too often proven himself to be too reckless to lead the team properly, while Lacazette, when he plays, is too focused on his game to lead others.
So the captaincy has fallen onto the Odegaard’s talented shoulders, even though the former Real Madrid midfielder is just 23 and still making his way in the senior echelons of the game. The Norway international is a very good player, somebody who will be a central figure in Arsenal’s future, but he is not yet experienced enough to lead a club such as Arsenal.
Yet Arteta will have looked around his squad and seen that he had few other options for the captaincy and that was borne out during the performance against Spurs, where the likes of Holding, Gabriel Martinelli, Cedric Soares, Bukayo Saka and Odegaard needed a wiser, older head to guide them through a difficult experience against a team which had far more top-level experience.
Spurs, in contrast, were packed with players who have performed at the highest level for years — Son, Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Eric Dier all showed their experience in this game, while coach Antonio Conte has also been around the block far more times than Arteta.
Arsenal’s problem is not unique — Manchester United are another major club struggling to find the right characters to knit the team together — but Arteta has a promising group of emerging players who just need some on-field guidance to help them take the club back to where it needs to be. But missing out on Europe’s top club competition could send Arsenal around their vicious cycle for another spin. It would deny them the opportunity to recruit top players with Champions League money — a potential move for City’s Gabriel Jesus could be hit if they end up in the Europa League — while the likes of Saka and Martinelli could prompt interest from the likes of Liverpool and City, who could offer elite-level football and the financial uplift that comes with it.
So it is a big week for Arsenal. They are in a better position than a year ago, when they finished eighth and missed out on Europe altogether, but the priority of returning to the Champions League is now in the balance after the defeat at Spurs. The odds are still slightly in Arsenal’s favour, though, so now is the time to silence the doubters by proving they can deliver when the heat is on.