Sunday’s shock defeat to Wigan Athletic quashed any remaining hopes of lifting the title and confirmed beyond doubt Arsenal’s wait for silverware will continue for at least another year. Just as in the previous campaigns, the verdict is close, but not close enough.
And close they certainly were, having only been effectively ruled out of the running with three games remaining. A similarly encouraging improvement from last season is their points tally – they are currently three points better off than at the same stage last season – as they have narrowed the gap to the teams above them. But for Arsenal fans, the fact that there are still two teams above them remains a disappointing fact. At the end of last season they lay 28 points behind the eventual winners, this season the gap looks unlikely to reach double figures. Significant ground has been made up in bridging this gap, yet the most difficult step will be to overcome it.
Last season Manchester United won the league by beating the smaller sides ruthlessly and efficiently, and fared relatively poorly in the matches against the would-be European qualifiers. However, having witnessed the sheer unpredictability of this season’s campaign, the comparisons are ultimately limited as it is clear that this is a season like no other. In hindsight, the capitulations against the two teams above them cost the Gunners dear, as many rightly feared they would at the time. Had they merely drawn all four games against Chelsea and United, they would currently be sitting two points clear at the top even after their back-to-back defeats against Tottenham and Wigan. A lack of composure, experience and competitiveness in the big games has resigned Arsenal’s position this season to that of also-rans.
After the painful defeat to Tottenham left them teetering perilously on the brink of the title race, their north London neighbours provided the opportunity for the Gunners to fire themselves back into contention with a victory over Wigan. Letting a two-goal lead slip not only ruled Arsenal out of the title race in practical terms, but demonstrated neatly why they were unable to win the title. In complete control at 2-0 and having weathered the early Wigan storm, they clinically put distance between themselves and the hosts with two well-taken goals. A combination of conceding possession cheaply, slack defending and erratic goalkeeping allowed the hosts to steal a shock win as a lack of experience and winning mentality was all too evident. Arsene Wenger identified how he could envisage a fight-back but was powerless to prevent it: “I believe that we were not focused or disciplined at Wigan and we got caught… I could see we were having difficulties keeping the ball, creating other chances, and when you do not create chances in football you are in trouble.” Having benefitted from goals in the last 10 minutes on so many occasions this season, Arsenal were left reeling by Wigan’s triple salvo.
Having previously stated that the side “are not mature enough” in the wake of the midweek defeat to Spurs, Sunday’s remarks form the latest chapter in a change of stance for Wenger. Far from trotting out the usual excuses, adopting the father figure role and shielding his young charges, the Frenchman has criticised his players’ attitude and mentality. The scathing remarks were applied to the squad as a whole however, with the manager refusing to identify any particular player to whom they applied. Particularly, when pressed on the performance of Lukasz Fabianski after another high-profile handling error, he defended the Pole, instead focusing upon Wigan’s opener: “I thought Wigan’s first goal was very important. We were not in the right position for that goal and that was an important moment.”
It is possible that the recent change of approach in terms of Wenger’s press conferences may also signify a change in philosophy. Having identified that: “We have gone for a policy of development of the team over a longer period,” the manager appears set to augment his squad with experience. Both Manuel Almunia and Fabianski are tremendous shot stoppers yet lack composure and so a new No 1 is a must. Defence is another priority with age and contracts conspiring to deplete central defence, although it looks as if Sol Campbell will re-sign for another year and prolong his Indian summer. In fact it is Campbell’s successful return that may prompt Wenger into modifying his approach. His reluctance to sign experienced players stems from his faith in his youngsters: “We have stood up for these young players so it is down to them to pay us back,” but with that faith being sorely tested in recent weeks, a change appears imminent. Once again, it is evident that with a few signings in key areas, this side can go all the way. But this has been true for a number of years now.
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