As Arsenal’s title dreams all but vanished with defeat at Bolton on Sunday, fans were left to contemplate yet another trophy-free season for the Gunners. Questions have been raised time and time again about the Gunners’ mental strength and whether they have the stomach for the battle. Having crashed out of three cup competitions in quick succession earlier in the season – admittedly in tricky ties – they remained optimistic of silverware having put themselves in a stronger league position than in previous seasons.
Instead their season appears to have collapsed, with just one league win in seven games. Their form at this important time sits in stark contrast to Manchester United, who have kept up their tradition of grinding out results in the business end of the season. This disastrous run of results since their Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City culminated in defeat at the Reebok Stadium and has seen them slip to third and in all likelihood out of reach of the Premier League title.
Chief among the Gunners’ problems throughout the campaign has been their inability to hold on to leads. Having lost at home to Tottenham after leading 2-0 and surrendering a four goal advantage against Newcastle earlier in the season, in the last week they have let a 3-1 lead slip at White Hart Lane and were arguably unlucky to be denied victory against Liverpool. Theo Walcott has acknowledged that this is something that needs to change if Arsenal are to add to their trophy cabinet. “You feel like you need to score three or four goals to win at times. The Newcastle game…it shouldn’t happen. If we want to be winning things we can’t let a lead like that slip. That’s what we have been doing too much this season,” he said. In addition, although creating chances has never been a problem for Arsenal, the age old criticism of them trying to score the perfect goal instead of just shooting reared its head again in the Bolton game. Both Marouane Chamakh and Samir Nasri were especially guilty of not taking a shot on when well-placed.
While it is hard to say exactly the extent to which Arsenal have been influenced by their rivals’ comments in the media, Sir Alex Ferguson’s dismissive prophecy that Chelsea would eventually emerge as the biggest threat to Manchester United’s title challenge appears to have been realised, as he noted in the build up to the weekend. “I said a few weeks ago that Chelsea would be our main challengers but I don’t know if anyone was listening. Now they are above Arsenal.” Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech twisted the knife further by adding: “Arsenal had a big game against Tottenham, they were 3-1 up and threw it away. Now they are third for the first time in a long time so let’s see how they cope with this new situation. They had plenty of chances this season to close the gap and haven’t taken them yet.” The North Londoners subsequent 2-1 defeat seemed to back up both Ferguson and Cech, leaving Arsene Wenger to finally concede that they are unlikely to catch United. While the Red Devils still have to visit the Emirates, they will do so knowing they have a considerable points cushion to fall back on, and will be more concerned about the testing encounter with Chelsea at Old Trafford.
Arsenal fans will be left cursing a lack of steel that has been exposed at the worst possible time. Their wait for their team’s eternal promise to bear fruit looks like it will continue for at least a year longer.