Arsenal enter December fixture pile-up in bizarre fashion: fit and rotated

After the win against Tottenham there were some worries that Arsenal would travel to Burnley and drop points. Both Arsenal supporters and Spurs fans said “it would be just like Arsenal to beat Tottenham and go lose to Burnley.” But a funny thing transpired in the Burnley match that I’m not sure many people noticed: Arsenal beat the Clarets through superior conditioning more than anything else as the Burnley players ran themselves into the ground harassing and pressing Arsenal for 75 minutes before dropping off dramatically and conceding what was clearly a tired legs penalty in the final minute.

It’s no surprise to me that Ramsey was the one shoved over against Burnley, he’s Arsenal’s most fit player and makes 30 yard sprints constantly when he’s on the pitch. Those sprints do annoy stupid pundits like me who want more balance in the Arsenal midfield but even someone as mentally vacant as me has to admit that his late surging runs are hugely effective.

Over his career he’s been the architect of many late-game heroics because of those sprints and the freedom that Wenger encourages. Just checking his stats I noted that he’s scored 15 goals and provided 13 assists in the last 15 minutes of games over his career – and that only counts EPL and UCL matches. In the FA Cup final he scored the 109th minute winner against Hull City and three years later he scored the 79th minute winner against Chelsea, again bringing home cup glory. Ramsey’s fitness is one of his many assets and by the evidence he knows exactly how to exploit it late in games.

Wenger has been criticized this week for pulling Lacazette off earlier than fans wanted. Again, I count myself among the silly pundits who want Lacazette to play every minute of every game but Wenger is sticking to a fitness regime in order to get the most out of this player rather than just running him into the ground. Asked about these subs Wenger responded simply,

“First of all I would like to say that in my job you sub strikers more than defenders, because they have to create, they have to provoke, they have to be incisive in every run. Secondly, I think he adapts physically to the Premier League and I’m very happy with the work he does for the team every time he is on the pitch, and thirdly I do that as well because I have other options on the bench who are fresh and can give us another variation in our attacks.”

Wenger has gotten his rotations and fitness regime spot on so far this season. Arsenal are heading into an insane December fixtures pile-up just as the team is hitting peak fitness. He’s used the Europa League to keep backup players and youth players fit and sharp. And he’s managed Laurent Koscielny’s chronic Achilles injury as well as he could. Arsene Wenger has long been criticized for his rotations, hammered for player injuries, and has been the subject of rumors about playing players “in the red zone”. But this season Arsenal only have one long-term injury and a full squad of players ready to play.

Which is a good thing because from December 2nd to the 29th Arsenal play 9 fixtures. In fact, starting tomorrow Arsenal basically play every three days until January 14th. That’s 14 matches in six weeks. This is the decisive period of Arsenal’s season. How well Arsenal play between now and January 14th will decide whether Arsenal are going to be a title challenger or whether they will drop out of the top four.


Wenger quote:


  1. Title challenger? Can’t agree with that. Even if we win every single game in December, we’re not catching City. This happens every fall. We go on a good run after some early season failures, have a decent December, fans start to think it might end well, and then it all collapses in February. This happens every, single season. I don’t expect this season to be any different. What I will say is that if we have a strong December, we might look good for a top four finish.

    1. Just for the record, December isn’t Wenger’s best month. That’s March. December is his 5th best month of the 10 month season. I think the November doldrums just make December seem better than it is.

      As for the “title challenge”… I think City is going end-to-end with this but It’d be nice if we stayed close in 2nd the rest of the way and that’s possible considering the schedule and lack of fitness problems. Considerably better than the 10th place I predicted this year.

      1. I will never believe that you predicted Arsenal finish 10 spot in May while sober , or not heavily medicated for some highly contagious and exotic virus CDC haven’t yet come up with a name for.

        No stats guru would pick Arsenal to finish on 50 points or thereabouts , which is where clubs in 10 spot historically have finished in the PL.

        Hell or high water, Wenger will get his usual 70 -75 points which should be again good enough for the top four or five.

        Nice try buddy.

    2. Have to agree. We haven’t been able to maintain the consistency necessary for a title challenge for well over a decade. But starting now, being in the Europa League should help us as our first eleven have played five fewer midweek games than all the other top six teams. This is where the exertions of Champions League football is really going to start to hurt one or more of Liverpool, Tottenham, and Chelsea.

  2. v. Man Utd – draw
    v. Borisov – draw
    v. Southampton – loss
    v. West Ham – win
    v. Newcastle – win
    v. Liverpool – draw
    v. Crystal Palace – draw
    v. West Brom – win
    v. Chelsea – draw

    It’s a pretty good schedule, all told. Mourinho never tries to win away from home, but I don’t think we’re strong enough to break them down if they decide to play for a draw. We always struggle with Southampton on the road. And I think fatigue will result in an unanticipated draw against either Crystal Palace or West Brom, the typical Arsenal switch off that inevitably happens. So…. I think we come out of December still in the top 4, given that Spurs and Liverpool have rougher schedules than we do.

    Thing is… I don’t care what Wenger says, if a good offer comes for either Ozil or Sanchez at the beginning of January, we’re selling. If word gets out at the end of December about imminent sales how will that affect performances?

  3. All fine until you said ‘title challenger’ at the end. Nobody is going to challenge city for the title season, not even Man U, and especially not arsenal. Challenging for the fourth place trophy is the only realistic goal for this team and this manager.

      1. I would be ok with that trophy. Also, I would be ok with a 4th place trophy this season. Tangential, but in the most recent “By the Numbers” piece, you mentioned the development of per100 touches as a replacement for per90 minutes. Where could I learn more about that?

          1. That’s why I want to know more. Tim mentioned it as a replacement for per90, so my guess is that it’s an individual metric

  4. Europa has been a blessing in disguise. Not for the egos of players like Giroud, who’s now part of what is a definite second XI, but for squad management. If we’d been in the Champions League, there’d barely be any rotation.

    Without the benefit of stats to back up my argument, it’s always felt like November is a baddish month, December is bad, and we completely lose the plot from mid-Jan to mid-Feb.

    The reason is that Wenger’s squads tend to be thin, and he has over-relied on key players at congestion time. Now we’re in a position where Jack, Giroud, Elneny and Iwobi can get starts.

  5. Sadly 12 points is probably too much to make up on City.

    My goals for the team for the season (in order)
    1. Beat City at home (to deny them invincibility)
    2. Finish above Spuds and in the top four
    3. Win FA cup
    4. Win Europa league
    5. Beat Mourinho home and away (because I hate him and to deny them a shot at the league) My dream would be to lay a historic beating on United, but I will settle for W’s
    6. Beat Spuds away (as above)

      1. United were great tonight against Watford. Best game I’ve watched so far this season.Can’t wait for our game with them.

    1. I think Dortmund and Athletico are dropping to Europa and they will definitely make it tougher for us to win Europa. My expectations were so poor this season that anything 4th or above in the leauge, and I’m a happy camper. I don’t see us winning the FA cup this year. I think it will go to one of United, City or Chelsea. Anything can happen with the FA cup obviously but barring us getting lucky with the draw, the FA cup this season will be tough to win. Agree with Claude that we are not beating Utd at OT.

      I would be happy with (in order):

      1. Top 4 finish
      2. Beating City at home
      3. Beating Utd at home
      4. A good run in the FA cup and Europa (semi-final and beyond)

    2. Your list of goals reads like a wish list.
      If Arsenal did all that, it would constitute one of the finest seasons in Arsene’s career and I would be begging him to stay on till he’s 90 🙂

    3. If the first XI is rested and fit, we have a shot at beating any team home or, away.
      This season is proving why we need a strong bench and quality players to call upon. Really counting on Santi to return next month.

  6. Tim, the fitness thing v Burnley is a simple insight but one I didn’t have, so thanks as usual.

    I’m staying steady on my prediction – 3rd or 2nd, depending on Utd. Sadly they are looking better rather than worse at the moment, but those two games against them are going to be massive for me.

    I’m confident we can beat Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool. I think we can catch Utd who have had easier fixtures than us, and if we beat Huddersfield tonight we are only 4 points behind them. I would love to catch City but of course it looks unlikely.

    With full optimism dialed in I can see a pathway to the title from the fixture list – we have played 5 of the other top 7 teams away from home already, plus Stoke. Only remaining difficult away fixtures are really Spurs and United (with the caveat that there is no easy away fixture in the premier league). City have to play United, Liverpool, Burnley, Stoke and us all away from home, with three of those games plus Leicester and Chelsea at home coming in their last 6 matches.

    And they have Champions’ League.

    If we are less than 10 points behind them coming into those last 6 games, and still have everyone fit, anything can happen.

    And for the long term I can’t really see any better possible backroom signings than Sanllehi and Mislintat, those two recruits are stellar – all those who worry that Arsenal do not have ambition should be well satisfied.

  7. My hope for this season is that Arsenal don’t leave me at the altar once again. Fail well if you must or better yet, win well and avoid mediocrity. That’s my ask.

    Odd though that we are relatively healthy in this period (yep, knocking on my wood desk). Also a bit odd that we are in 4th after dropping so many points so early but that is a pretty fragile 4th spot.

    We are 12 points from 1st place but only 4 points from 8th place with a poor GD of +7 when compared to the top teams. More than other Decembers in the past, our season truly does hang in the balance over the next 2-3 weeks.

    The hope as already mentioned by others, is that CL exertions will inevitably take their toll on last year’s top 4 but 3 of the 4 are already through to the group stage so any negative drag there won’t affect those teams until February or March and who knows where we’ll be in the table then?

    Powering on or dealing with another “beware the ides of March” implosion?

  8. The annually scheduled implosions have a lot to do with fatigue and their yin, injuries, so this article is very relevant. I have to wonder though, is there objective evidence that we are in better shape? have the players truly played fewer minutes, or is there evidence that they are running more sprints this year than this time last year? I would love for this to be true but I’m not yet convinced it is.

    I would also point out that it is harder to play Wenger’s preferred style of football in the death of the British winter. Joints and muscles are stiffer, the turf has less compliance and knocks and hits take more of a toll. The cold favors the clubs who want to kick Arsenal off the pitch.

    Finally, spare a thought for poor Santi Cazorla, the new Tomas Rosicky, a player everyone loves who is really good at football but has been so snakebitten by injuries he may never play again. Check out this tale of woe from the Guardian:

    Is it just me or does this type of thing keep happening to Arsenal players who get injured??

  9. I just want us to finish top 4 this season. Very concerned on players on the last year of their contracts. Ozil, Sanchez and Wilshere. Any of them could be gone in January. All could be gone at the end of the season. I we lose players in January, we’re in trouble.

  10. “I would also point out that it is harder to play Wenger’s preferred style of football in the death of the British winter” — agree. And I think this will also affect Man City too! While Arsenal have rotated well leading into the winter, Man City has plenty of firepower on the bench. Man U could also gain some points with their style of play.

  11. Of all the players to have come and gone since the Invincibles the wonderful Cazorla will last the longest in my memory. And Ramsey too for different reasons.

    At this point I’m just glad we had the Spaniard to light up the league for a couple of those years and brought us a great cup victory.

    Sad for him and our club and football in general that this special player didn’t give us many more of the moments he was capable of delivering because of his injury and its terrible complications.

  12. Took is a while to unlock Huddersfield Town after that quick opener but we’re puttin’ on a show in the 2nd half!

  13. So sad to read that Santi Cazorla’s treatment saga seems to have no end in sight at the moment.

    Arsenal did some very nice Arsenal type things today once they refocused in the second half. The combination play was just stellar between Ramsey , Özil, Sanchez, Xhaka, Kolasinac and Giroud. We are well set up to face Man U on Sat albeit without Lacazette who suffered the dreaded groin injury.

    1. A very Arsenal game that reminded me of the season opener in 2008 when we beat West Brom (then newly promoted) 1-0. In that game, new signing Samir Nasri opened the scoring after just 3 minutes but we became complacent and let the baggies back into the game and finished by hanging on at the very end.

      That’s the way this result felt was going to go until at last Ramsey (who else?) found the seam to release Ozil who squared for Giroud. Once again, it was a goal created by tired legs as both Mesut and Ollie were far ahead of their markers.

      What made the difference in this game, just as it did against Burnley, was that we could keep the door shut. The back 3 were individually excellent, always hugely important for a Wenger team.

      (relatively) Minor concern: the form of Bellerin and to a lesser extent, Kolasinac has dipped and they are playing a high energy role without a direct replacement.

      1. Pedant alert: it wasn’t Ramsey who released Ozil for the second goal but Alexis (but Ramsey had several other great through balls).

        Agree about Hector and Kola.

        1. Yes, you’re right. I had confused goals # 2 and # 4. Happy times when you can do that!

          Goal #2 was all about Ozil… that slipped touch to Kolasinac down the sideline made that whole move possible. He also was the one who pressed the opposition into making a somewhat hurried forward pass which Monreal then intercepted in front of the forward and the resulting ricochet came back at Ozil; he then used the speed of the ball to caress it to Kolasinac in space. Brilliant.

  14. I hope it’s not lost in our goalfest that Koscielny was once again, a f%&king BEAST. What. A. Player.

    1. We always talk about pressing by the front 3 but Koscienly is a master of pressing from the back in the way he intercepts passes into players. There is a youtube video of Koscienly consistently making players his biotch in the way he tackles and leaves them in a heap.

      1. This is actually a Wenger thing: he teaches his CBs to “step” aggressively. They typically lead the League in interceptions regardless of name. He also plays a 0ne-two system with them where one will be the hot-stepper and the other one will be the safety. This season, however, he has two aggressive steppers and it was actually Mustafi who won the most interceptions – almost half of Arsenal’s interceptions were by Mustafi.

    2. But he still can’t get into the Spurs team, according the Adam Crafton and the band of professional trolls at the Daily Mail.

  15. Tim,
    Going to say it-with 3-4 at back, same players game in game out, a much better D.
    Another clean sheet-yes, Cech made on hell of a save.
    Lather rinse repeat please

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