After a promising start, Arsenal’s fall off the boil was very typically Arsenal.
The six points dropped from winning positions in two games before Christmas was reminiscent of Arsenal collapses of Novembers past. But more importantly, Goodison Park and the Etihad Stadium are tough places to go, so when you get a lead, you really need to hold on to it.
Had they managed to hold on, they’d be six points better off and only three behind Chelsea. So as it stands, Antonio Conte’s side now look like probable champions – a prediction that could only happen in football with less than half the games played.
But it’s likely that, even though Chelsea do look like the best team in the league, they’ll hit a slump at some point. With no European football to contend with, and only the FA Cup for extra curricular sustenance, Chelsea really are well-placed. Probable champions is a bit strong before the year’s out.
In the same vein, to proclaim Arsenal out of the title race after two defeats is premature. What you can take from that game, though – and the subsequent late victory over West Brom – is that Arsenal lack fight, but not quality.
In order to go to Manchester City and Everton and take the lead early on, and in order to break down a stubborn West Brom, Arsenal clearly needed quality. But nothing epitomises the trade off at Arsenal between fight and quality quite so much as the recent performances of Mesut Ozil. His quality is undoubted, his fight less so. The problem is, you need both.
And yet, Arsenal’s fight has looked much more in evidence this season. The very first game of the season, against Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium showed an Arsenal like every other over the past decade. They took the lead and then capitulated, they suffered injuries and strange Wenger decisions – why rest Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny for the first game of the season when every other team in the league is playing their Euro 2016 stars? But despite all of this, they rallied and fought back. It was just too late when they did. It was almost an entire Arsenal season in a nutshell.
The bar has been raised this season. Arsenal seem to have raised their game, too. Their performance in the transfer market was like a man just about managing to get all of his gifts before Christmas day: they got what they needed in order to progress to the right level, but they probably didn’t get exactly what they wanted, nor was it of the best quality. They did enough to stave off all-out anger, however.
But if Arsenal have raised their game, they’ve only raised it with the rate of inflation. Their purchases this summer weren’t to make their squad one of the best in the league, it was to make sure it could compete – on paper, at least. They only raised their game at the same rate as the rest of the league raised its bar.
The problem is, other teams have raised their game further than that.
And so Arsenal have reverted to type. Back in fourth position, where they have spent 3298 days since the birth of the Premier League – the equivalent of just over nine years. According to Futbol Actual, anyway.
— Actual Fútbol (@ActualFutbol) December 26, 2016
Yet football is more than about just two defeats in a row. That sometimes happens. And if Arsenal end the season with defeats only against Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton, it will have been a great season – possibly a victorious one. Because the season is 38 games long, not 18.
So far, this season has been one of impossible standards, and Arsenal are victims of that. Nothing displays that more obviously than the fact that they could top their Champions League group and draw Bayern Munich. (Though it may have been worse to come second in that group and draw Atletico Madrid, who topped Bayern’s group. Or Barcelona, who drew PSG, the runners-up in Arsenal’s group.)
If this season is to be Arsenal’s, they are going to have to match those impossible standards. But if tiredness is taking its toll even before Christmas – something that Gary Neville remarked during their defeat to Manchester City – then that’s a bad sign, and one that looks like they probably can’t match the standards of a Chelsea side who are playing magnificently and won’t have Champions League football in the new year.
The squad is more or less complete. They have star quality, a spine in midfield, as well as a couple of strong centre backs and a great goalkeeper. But whilst on paper, Wenger’s side look all there, there’s something missing in terms mentality: a desire to be the best by any means necessary. That’s why Wenger didn’t – and won’t – spend £100m on a player, and that mentality trickles down. It’s why Arsenal only improve at the rate of inflation; functional, but not spectacular.
They won’t win the league unless they actually do have the fighting spirit they’ve lacked for the past decade. Two defeats in a row, and a laboured home victory over West Brom point to the answer being no – but when did football boil down to three games?