We have entered the final month of the year and it’s shaping up to be a defining one for Arsenal.
The penultimate month of 2021 turned out to be what many would have expected for the Gunners before a ball had been kicked for their three Premier League games in November.
Either side of a humbling 4-0 loss away at Liverpool – which ended their 10-game unbeaten run across all competitions – Arsenal recorded routine home wins over Watford and Newcastle United.
Anything more than six points from a possible nine would have been regarded as a bonus, but the manner of the defeat at Anfield did serve as a reality check for Mikel Arteta’s side.
Currently, outside the Champions League spots by virtue of an inferior goal difference, it’s safe to say the Gunners have benefitted from not being in Europe this season in terms of results as performances still leave a lot to be desired.
But things are about to change.
December is going to be busy for the north London outfit and the Spaniard won’t have the luxury of free weeks in the calendar to do more work on the training pitch with his players.
Starting with Thursday night’s trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United, Arsenal will be in action eight times across all competitions in the space of 26 days which means Arteta must make full use of his first-team squad.
Make no mistake about it, come January 1, 2022, we will know a lot more about what this Gunners side can achieve during the second half of the season.
Man Utd test and European credentials
Of the eight games Arsenal will play this month, seven are in the Premier League and three of them are against teams around them in the table.
The big one is, of course, the Man United clash where a win would open up an eight-point gap between the two sides and perhaps convince doubters that they are genuine top-four contenders.
Having already suffered heavy defeats away at Manchester City and Liverpool this season, the Gunners need to make a statement in a big away game – even if Old Trafford is no longer the fortress it once was.
Even if Champions League football is out of Arsenal’s reach this season, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in the Europa League and Europa Conference League mix which places greater importance on home games against West Ham United and Wolves.
Under David Moyes, the Hammers are a really solid side who can cause problems at the Emirates, whilst Wolves remain a tough side to beat with an impressive defensive record.
Going into December only three points separates the trio in the table and the picture could look very different at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Everton away is always a hard fixture regardless of their current form, it’s been two seasons since the Gunners beat Southampton at home, whilst trips to Leeds United and Norwich City won’t be easy given their positions in the table.
From the corresponding fixtures against Everton, Southampton and Leeds last season Arsenal took two points from a possible nine.
You get the feeling that total won’t be enough this time around if the Gunners’ European credentials are to pass the test.
Dream Carabao Cup tie
It’s the return of the Carabao Cup this month and Arsenal have been handed a ‘dream tie’ at the quarter-final stage.
The Gunners’ reward for beating Leeds United in round four is a clash against League One side Sunderland at the Emirates Stadium on December 21.
It will be the third time in the competition this season that Arsenal will face a side outside of the Premier League, and therefore they will be favourites to reach the semi-final.
Not only does this competition provide Arteta with a chance to lift a trophy, but it’s also an alternative route into Europe next season.
As explained by the Premier League, The EFL Cup (Carabao Cup) winners qualify for the play-off stages of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
This route may just be the most attractive option, especially when taking into consideration that both Manchester clubs have already been knocked out of the competition.
Granit Xhaka is ‘one step closer’ to making his return for Arsenal.
The midfielder sustained a serious knee injury during the 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur back at the end of September – his first game back after serving a three-match suspension – and was expected to miss at least three months of action.
However, Xhaka is on course to be available at some point in December and has already taken to Instagram to share his excitement.
“One step closer,” he wrote. “Cannot wait to get back on that pitch.”
This comes after Arteta delivered an encouraging update on the 29-year-old.
“Hopefully he will be a little bit sooner than expected, he’s training and pushing himself and all the staff so hard like he always does and he’s in a good place,” the Spaniard said when asked if Xhaka could be available for the festive period. “He’s evolving well and hopefully, we can have him a little bit earlier.
“We have to see, it’s still a bit early to decide that.”
Arteta’s treatment of Xhaka over the past couple of seasons makes it clear he views the midfielder as one of his untouchables so to have the Swiss international available again will certainly be a boost.
As one first-team player is on course to return later this month, four could depart and perhaps not return until the start of February.
The Africa Cup of Nations returns to its original format in the new year as the delayed 2021 edition takes place in Cameroon and will be staged from January 9, 2022 to February 6, 2022.
Therefore, Mikel Arteta is facing up to the prospect of losing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny and Nicolas Pepe.
And he might lose them almost two weeks before the competition starts.
FIFA regulations, as per the Guardian, stipulate that players must be released by their clubs on 27 December – 13 days before the tournament’s first match. This means the Gunners quartet won’t be available for the Wolves clash a day after.
Although there is a possibility that some could be given dispensation to join up with their national squads at a later date depending on what can be agreed with their clubs.