By Chris Harris
“There is not a big difference between second and third, apart from prestige, but that counts as well.” - Arsene Wenger
It should be third but it could be fourth - or even second.
Arsenal’s finishing position remains uncertain heading into the final weekend of the season but, thanks to a sublime lay-off from Olivier Giroud and a clinical finish from Alexis, Arsene Wenger does not need to rely on results elsewhere to seal an automatic pass into the Champions League.
That 2-2 draw at Manchester City means a point against relegated Aston Villa will be enough to secure third place. There’s the enticing possibility of pipping Tottenham to second should Arsenal win and Spurs lose at Newcastle, but that would merely soften the blow of Leicester walking away with the title.
“There’s a big job to do because there’s a difference between finishing third and fourth,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “We are guaranteed to be in the top four and part of that is because of the job we did at Manchester City.
“Now we can still finish second, we can still strengthen our position in third, and that definitely gives us a good potential in the Champions League. We want to achieve that and we want to finish well at home as well in front of our crowd.
“There is not a big difference between second and third, apart from prestige, but that counts as well. We finished third last year so [if Arsenal finish second] we would have moved one place forward. It’s minor but no matter what it is, we want to do as well as we can.”
Wenger will analyse Arsenal’s season once the final ball has been kicked on Sunday, but he doesn’t need to crunch the numbers to spot the most obvious trend of 2015/16 - Leicester’s transformation from underdog to top dog.
|Arsenal: Welbeck (knee), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Mertesacker (hamstring), Ozil (doubt - hip/thigh)Aston Villa: Veretout (hip/thigh), Gusted (groin/pelvis), Richardson (calf), Amavi (knee)|
Claudio Ranieri’s champions have bucked the trend, not least with their tactical route to title glory. Leicester will end the season with average possession stats of around 42 per cent; Premier League winners tend to have 55 to 60 per cent of the ball.
“Overall, it shows that the whole hierarchy is questioned,” said Wenger. “When you look at the passing [stats], nobody would have guessed that Leicester would have finished at the top of the league. After that, Tottenham have not been in the top four recently so out of the previous top-four teams, there was only room for two more.
“Chelsea have finished mid-table and Liverpool are far away, and I believe that next season will be even more surprising. We have to accept that every game will be a fight, more than ever. The uncertainty level has increased for everybody.”
Wenger expects others to try and adopt Leicester’s winning formula, but he doesn’t expect ‘reactive’ football to become the norm.
“We’ve had that debate many times in Champions League meetings,” he said. “When Barcelona win the Champions League everybody says that’s the way to play, but if Atletico Madrid win it everybody will say that you have to give the ball to opponents and counter-attack. But over 10 years, Barcelona are still a dominant team.
“It’s not only that, sport has to reward teams who take initiative otherwise it will become boring very quickly. Also, no matter what style you play, you need to have the players who have the quality to play your style. That’s what’s most important and most efficient.”
ONE TO WATCH
It would surprise no one if Mesut Ozil leaves for his summer break as the newly-crowned Arsenal Player of the Season.
But as the season draws to a close, Wenger was happy to turn the spotlight on those who attract fewer headlines over the course of the campaign.
Ozil leads the appearance stats with 45 starts but three defenders - Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal - are just behind him.
“First of all, you want to say the players who played most of the games deserve big credit,” said the manager. “Our defenders have played many games - Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal have all played many games.
“It is always the [defensive players] that are underrated because you don’t talk too much about Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny or Aaron Ramsey. The players who are more in the light of media are the more offensive players.
“But what is on my mind,” added Wenger, “is that the team has behaved remarkably well because we had some difficult periods and we always recovered. We always responded when people expected us to collapse.
“When you look around you, you say that some teams drop in the Premier League because they could not do that. What I keep in mind, is that the group of players have been remarkably strong and remarkably united and that for me is the most important.”
This time last year, Aston Villa were preparing for a rather more prestigious last game of the season against Arsenal - the FA Cup final.
|Arsenal have scored 14 goals without reply in the last four meetings in all competitions with Aston VillaAston Villa have lost nine of their last 11 meetings with the Gunners (W1 D1)Olivier Giroud has scored in each of his last five appearances against Aston Villa in all competitions|
It all went wrong for them at Wembley and it’s been going wrong ever since. Villa’s relegation fate was sealed some time ago and they go into Sunday’s fixture with just 17 points from 37 games.
Two managers have departed in 2015/16 - cup final manager Tim Sherwood and former Gunner Remi Garde - leaving caretaker manager Eric Black at the helm.
A run of 11 straight defeats was ended by a 0-0 draw against Newcastle last weekend and Villa have not won away since the opening day of the season.
All evidence points to a home win for Arsenal but Wenger knows that’s not inevitable.
“[Their threat comes] from the fact they have nothing to lose, from the fact it is the last game of the Premier League and they are expected to lose the game at Arsenal,” he said.
“They have quality players as well. They didn’t get the points at home. Overall, I believe they could take advantage as well of a lack of complete focus from us. That will be punishable from our side."
FROM THE ARCHIVES
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