Make no mistake about it, the 1-1 draw in Sunday’s north London derby was an opportunity missed for Arsenal.
Pole position may belong to Manchester City but the Gunners are the Premier League’s team to beat at the moment, picking up five wins and 16 points from their last six games, and momentum was on their side ahead of the bragging rights clash with local rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs represent the last top six opposition Arsenal will face until a potentially season-defining clash with City in late December. So with Manuel Pellegrini’s side dropping points to Aston Villa earlier in the day, a win would have seen Arsene Wener’s boys claim top spot at just the right time – ahead of a four-game run in which they’ll expect to take maximum points against relegation battlers West Brom, Norwich City, Sunderland and Aston Villa.
A win on Sunday could have put Arsenal in the driving seat for December’s six-pointer at the Emirates, City needing the win more and resultantly forced into taking risks away from home. It could have been one of those games where everything spirals out of control and one side accumulates a rugby score. In prior seasons, Arsenal have usually been the victim during such affairs, but a two-point lead could have instigated a reversal in roles.
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Come the end of May, some might point back to last weekend as the difference between Arsenal breaking their decade-long title duck and finishing the season as also-rans once again. The psychological advantage would have shifted in their favour ahead of a tricky winter period for City, which sees them face Liverpool, Juventus, Southampton, Stoke City and Swansea City before their meet with the Gunners on December 21st – a significantly tougher run than Arsenal’s.
It’s a sign of Arsenal still lacking that killer instinct and nous required in any title bid, the kind Sir Alex Ferguson was famed for at Manchester United; sensing when his rivals were at their weakest and capitalising accordingly.
In no other top flight does momentum swing as quickly and violently as the Premier League and although we’re only twelve games into the new season, moving to the top of the table would have put pressure on City and particularly their manager – whose future at Eastlands seems ever-shrouded in doubt.
That being said, I found myself once again impressed with Arsenal on Sunday. The overall performance was less convincing than the result but under the given circumstances, the Gunners certainly made decent lemonade from dodgy lemons.
It seems illogical to blame Arsenal not beating their local on an injury crisis; the club’s record in that department is so dreadful that if you tried to count all the key games in which key Gunners personnel have been absent since their last title in 2004, you’d end up requiring the assistance of the fingers and toes of the entire first team squad and probably some of the reserves as well.
But right midfield is a crucial position in this current Arsenal side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey both offer fantastic defensive protection whilst moving inside just enough to give the right-back room on the overlap – an increasingly prevalent feature in the Gunners’ attacking play.
For all his efforts, Joel Campbell failed to recreate those characteristics and ended up a rather isolated figure on the right wing, consequentially providing little assistance as Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (who was apparently very unwell) struggled against Spurs’ enthusiastic and organised midfield three.
Resultantly, Arsenal were poor in the first half and more than deserving to go a goal down via Harry Kane. But their comeback after the interval showed confidence and conviction, inspired from incredibly unlikely sources in Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Kieran Gibbs, who managed to overturn Spurs’ momentum in the middle of the park.
All entered the fray due to a lack of viable alternatives – with Theo Walcott, Ramsey, Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky, Hector Bellerin, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck all sidelined through injury – but proved they have the quality to make a difference in Arsenal’s season.
So with a late equaliser provided by a full-back playing on the left wing, in the absence of three players who were at the forefront of Wenger’s selections this time last month and another who was withdrawn at half-time due to illness, after an opening hour in which Arsenal looked almost dead and buried, a point in a local derby certainly isn’t to be sniffed at.
Whilst some lament Arsenal for not taking the chance to go top and will look back upon last weekend as a telling moment should their title bid fall short, that point also has the potential to become an invaluable one by the end of May.
Arsenal are unlikely to enter a tougher fixture under tougher circumstances and find themselves in a tougher position at half-time this season; taking something from the game and keeping the momentum alive may be a lesser prize than leapfrogging Manchester City, but it could be a crucial one nonetheless.