Arsenal are currently sitting pretty among the group at the top of the Premier League table, with 35 points from 16 games, but finding a pundit that will actively back them for the English title this season is like doing your shopping on Christmas Eve – the top talking heads have already been claimed by Manchester City and Chelsea, and all you’re left with is Robbie Savage and Ray Parlour.
They’ve been dominant at times, resilient on numerous occasions and professional in Europe, barring their sloppy showing against Napoli.
Yet the elephant in the room remains the same. The Gunners always struggle in the heavyweight fixtures against the bigger teams.
Yes, they comfortably dealt with an in-form Liverpool side fuelled by the most prolific strike-force in the Prem back in November, inspired by high-quality goals from Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, in addition to a solid shut-out performance at the back.
And their 1-0 win in the North London derby earlier in the season was viewed as a great triumph, although Tottenham’s form since would suggest otherwise.
But taking on the truly big teams, namely the two Manchester monoliths, Arsenal have worryingly struggled. They simply didn’t turn up against United, conceding a relatively soft set piece goal to lose one-nil, and we all know what happened at the Etihad last weekend.
That’s why their top-of-the-table clash with Chelsea on Monday night could be the fixture that ultimately determines what the North Londoners are capable of this season.
It’s not just the three points at stake, that if they go the visitors’ way could see the Blues leapfrog Arsenal to pole position in the table. It’s not the fact that heavyweight affairs like these are often referred to as ‘six pointers’ because of the effect they can have on final standings come May-time.
It’s not even because one could accuse Arsenal of edging upon burnout; their squad depth is alarmingly thin in certain departments in comparison to their divisional rivals, and their 6-3 defeat to Manchester City was preceded by a home draw against Everton, where the Gunners were on the most-part outplayed and outwitted by the Toffees, and a sloppy performance against Napoli in the Champions League.
But rather, it’s the psychological effect losing yet another key fixture could have on the Arsenal roster, or perhaps more importantly, their divisional rivals.
You’d have to be fool to discredit the impact of psychology and confidence can have in the modern game, but in case you’re in need of some further evidence, just look at Manchester United this season.
Last term, the Red Devils lost three home fixtures all year and only against high calibre opponents, namely Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham. That was with the fearsome and imposing figure of Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, a manager whose monolithic reputation alone used to have United’s opposition quaking in their football boots.
But now the slightly more fresh-faced, far less threatening David Moyes is in charge, the likes of Newcastle, Everton and West Brom have all turned up at Old Trafford and pressed for the result, rather than getting ten men behind the ball, closing their eyes and hoping it’s all over quickly, as they had often done in the past.
You can point to the inadequacies of the Manchester United roster, and there’s certainly some weight to that argument, but it’s impossible to ignore the pure psychology behind the idea of the Premier League champions being intrinsically weakened by Ferguson’s departure as most influential factor.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting Arsenal’s form will hit a snag of the Moyes’-boys-in-eighth-place variety simply due to a hypothetical loss against a very competent Chelsea side.
But losing on Monday night will equate to three losses in a row against the three clubs that finished above the Gunners last season.
Admittedly, there’s a whole half-season for the Gunners to recover, including three opportunities to put City, United and the Blues to the sword. By that time however, the psychological edge will undoubtedly belong to their opponents.
Even Jose Mourinho, by far the most defensive manager in the top half, would have no hesitation to tell his Chelsea side to push, press, hassle and dominate the Gunners if they’ve already displayed a knack for getting quickly rolled over by the bigger teams.
It’s all very well dazzling a relegation-fearing Norwich defence with a series of one-twos and walking the ball into the goal, as Jack Wilshere did back in October. One could even argue that demolishing the lesser sides is how the Red Devils won the title last year.
But amid a campaign in which every top six encounter will undoubtedly have monumental significance on final standings at the end of the season, the Gunners need to start replicating their awe-inspiring form against the fellow table-toppers.
Failing to do so, and their glaring flaw will only expand into an open wound, that Premier League clubs will be more than happy to exploit.
The manner in which the psychological effect of yet another heavyweight defeat could seriously alter the balance of power at the Premier League’s summit, in addition to the fact bouncing back from a home loss to Chelsea would be a huge stumbling block for the Gunners roster, is what makes Monday night such a vital game in the Emirates outfit’s season.
A win may not be essential – it could cost Arsenal pole position on a temporary basis, considering Liverpool have an easy enough fixture against a potentially managerless Cardiff side this weekend and Manchester City take on relegation battlers Fulham- but a loss would be a monumental blow to the Gunners’ title bid, in more than a simple matter of points.
This is an avoid defeat at all costs occasion for the North Londoners, which rather worryingly, has never been their strong point. Gunners fans will also be concerned that Arsene Wenger is yet to get the better of Jose Mourinho in a Premier League fixture, which will undoubtedly play on their minds during the season-defining encounter on Monday night.