Having seen rivals Manchester United move nine points clear following victory in Saturday’s early kick off, Arsenal knew nothing less than a win would suffice from their trip to the Reebok. Sunday’s defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers extinguished the Gunners’ slim title hopes and highlighted the familiar failings that have blunted their campaign.
The differing build-ups experienced by the respective sides were evident in Sunday’s opening exchanges. Bolton, with a full week to prepare and the heartache of the painful 5-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat still resonating, came out with a point to prove. By contrast, Arsenal, on the back of a pulsating north London derby and under pressure to peg back leaders Manchester United, appeared jaded and anxious in equal measure. Bolton took the lead from a corner after first Gary Cahill and then Daniel Sturridge won uncontested headers. On Sunday’s evidence it is easy to see why the Gunners have conceded the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League this season.
Rather than conceding a late winner, Arsenal’s anguish could have been far less acute had Kevin Davies converted a penalty at the beginning of the second half. Johan Djourou was perhaps harshly adjudged to have felled Sturridge in the box, but the award marked the third penalty the Gunners have conceded in as many matches. While Davies’ weak penalty was easily saved by Wojciech Szczesny, their previous concessions have been far more costly, ensuring the Gunners failed to take maximum returns against Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – wins that would have kept them in touch with the leaders. Whether it is ill discipline or a lack of concentration, Arsenal have conceded nine penalties in the Premiership this season – the most in the league.
Arsenal’s vulnerability from set pieces and propensity to give away penalties has afforded the opposition an unnecessary advantage this term, particularly at the Emirates. Once a stronghold, the Gunners have struggled at home, often handing their opponents the advantage and then failing to overturn the deficit. Arsene Wenger’s men have the best away record in the league, yet it is the four draws and three defeats at home that mean they trail Manchester United by nine points. United, by contrast, are undefeated at home, winning 16 of 17 league matches.
Profligacy in front of goal often cited as a desire to “walk the ball into the net”, and inevitably results in a vulnerability to counter-attacks, as defeats to United and West Bromwich Albion have shown. The aforementioned defensive frailty means the Gunners effectively need to outscore their opponents. That Arsenal have made such a sustained title challenge this term is a testament to their attacking flair, yet while the defensive deficiencies continue, so will the trophy drought.