Arsenal's unlikely, yet viable roadmap to an improbable Premier League title
One of the disappointments of this Premier League season is the race for the title effectively has seemed over since September. Manchester City dropped seven points in its first five games, and the team, considered the only legitimate threat to a Chelsea side that had properly reloaded in the key places, never really recovered.
The defending champs had one good run of form midseason and briefly pulled atop the table, but the remaining schedules still conspired against them and another poor stretch soon after ended any realistic hopes. City's form has been so uninspired since that Monday's 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace actually dropped it all the way to fourth place, such that if things end this way, the Citizens would require a playoff round to qualify for Champions League group stage.
The related downer is that the lack of a true challenge has not brought out the best in Chelsea, which has looked to be operating in third gear for much of the season, giving up sloppy goals and control of games that never would have happened during Jose Mourinho's first run with the club.
The general level of satisfaction with Chelsea's performances were well defined by a segment during NBC's excellent post-match studio show, where the Robbies (Earle and Mustoe) were discussing 'What's wrong with Chelsea?' as a graphic showed the Blues were unbeaten in nine league matches.
That run now stands at 10 after slipping past Stoke City on the weekend, with 24 points earned from a possible 30.
So, that's it then. The coronation a mere technicality as the league peels off the final seven matchdays and the only real intrigue is at the bottom, to see who falls out of the league for next season.
At least probably. But what about Arsenal? Is there room for one final, dramatic turn, ironically fueled by a club and manager derided by its fan base as annually happy with fourth place?
In our midseason breakdown, it was noted that Arsenal's underlying advanced stats profile was much better than the team's on-field results had been to that point. The Gunners were controlling the flow of their games and had a total shot ratio much closer to that of Chelsea than the rest of the contending posse. The Gunners hadn't been as clinical in finishing their chances, and had dropped a number of points as a result, but the data suggested this was quite a formidable side who had been somewhat unlucky, statistically-speaking.
Well, things have balanced themselves out. Arsenal has now ripped off 10 wins in its last 11 league matches, including seven in a row, elevating itself from deep in the perceived dogfight for the final two UCL spots into second place, now a point ahead of Manchester United and two ahead of City.
Even so, it remains improbable that Arsenal–or anyone else–will catch Chelsea.
The Blues are listed as 1:25 favorites–basically a mortal lock, at this point–by SkyBet, with Arsenal a probably-not-generous-enough 22:1 to catch the Blues, who lead by seven points and have a match in hand. But could it happen?
It's hard to believe anything less than running the table will be enough to make up anywhere from seven to 10 points on a team that's only lost twice all season. A 14-game winning streak to close things out sounds daunting, but Liverpool had a similar run down the stretch of last season, and Arsenal has the slate left with which to take a run at it.
Arsenal would have to go to Old Trafford and win on the penultimate day of the season. Beyond that, the Gunners have four matches remaining against the current bottom seven, as well as a home date with Swansea that is very winnable. Most importantly, Arsenal still hosts Chelsea, on April 26, so gaining three of the necessary points is directly in its control. Arsenal currently sits seven goals behind the Blues in goal difference, but winning seven more in a row and having Chelsea drop the necessary points very well could flip that in Arsenal's favor.
So, assume the Gunners do hand Chelsea a loss at the Emirates. Is there enough in the Blues' somewhat indifferent form and the remaining schedule to make them sweat? There are still home dates with both Manchester United and Liverpool. If Chelsea draws both of those matches–and Mourinho has shown that he doesn't mind a draw in don't-lose matches–that would be seven points dropped. Then Chelsea's margin becomes the game in hand.
The rest of the slate is soft, and Chelsea only has dropped seven points all season to teams outside the top seven, but with some pressure to grab results that hasn't really been on it all season...
You're right. It's most likely a pipedream, as the current odds and the way the season has played out thus far suggests. Unlike Arsenal, which has an upcoming FA Cup semifinal vs. Reading to navigate in addition to league aspirations, Chelsea only has Premier League title for which to play, and this chart from Statto.com says everything you need to know about this season and Chelsea's position in it.
But for a league where unexpected twists and turns feels like the norm, we haven't seen much of that. There's been just enough lack of pressure to allow Arsenal to find its best form, and likewise allow Chelsea to casually stroll toward the finish line, claiming points by the bundle but in ways that suggest at least a touch of vulnerability.
Arsenal scaring Chelsea, let alone catching it, seems improbable. But impossible? It feels like we're still a couple of matchdays away from that.