Arsenal’s victory over Manchester United revived dimming hopes of lifting the title. A week later defeat to Stoke City ensured the flickering embers have finally been extinguished.
The result does not come as a surprise in light of previous defeats, and the Britannia Stadium served up another on Sunday as FA Cup finalists Stoke romped to a 3-1 victory. Arsenal’s performance lacked fire and the spark of creativity to unlock the Potters’ resolute defence as Stoke put on a master class of how to expose Arsenal’s vulnerability, working hard without the ball and asking questions of the opposition every time they were in possession.
Nor does the result surprise when considered in context of Arsenal’s season as a whole. A morale-boosting victory over the league leaders and Champions League finalists last weekend was promptly followed by a crushing defeat one week later. This inconsistency is symptomatic of Arsenal’s season as a whole and explains why they find themselves wanting in the race for the title. This has been true throughout the season, with hard-fought wins over Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers in August followed by a draw with Sunderland and defeat to West Bromwich Albion. A dramatic last-gasp winner against West Ham at the end of October was promptly followed by home defeat to Newcastle United in November. An away win at Everton preceded a home defeat by Tottenham Hotspur and victory over Chelsea led to a draw with Wigan Athletic. Throughout the season the Gunners have been consistently inconsistent.
Sunday’s match highlighted the key factors in their lack of consistency, with the opening goal illustrating their main weakness. When questioned on his side’s defensive record prior to the match, Arsene Wenger responded: “If you look at the numbers, we conceded less goals from open play than any other team in the league.” Whilst true, this ignores the fact his side have conceded the most goals from set pieces in the league, a flaw all too evident as Kenwyne Jones bundled home a Stoke corner. Jermaine Pennant’s deflected strike owed a lot to fortune, but also highlighted the lack of leadership within the defensive ranks. With no-one taking responsibility to close the winger down, he was allowed to run unchallenged towards the goal. Johan Djourou’s desperate lunge was too little too late and only served to divert the ball away from the despairing Wojciech Szczesny.
Arsenal’s lack of variety allowed Stoke to stifle and Robin van Persie’s direct run and drilled finish only emphasised the predictability of the Gunners’ play up to that point. Arsenal finally clicked on a frustrating afternoon only for the deficit to be restored within a minute as Jonathan Walters’ strike summarised the defensive fragility and lack of concentration that has cost the Gunners dear this term. 2-0 up and coasting against Spurs, the Gunners eventually lost 3-2, and they surrendered a four goal half-time lead against Newcastle, showing Sunday’s collapse had precedent.
Despite these setbacks, Wenger’s men remained in the hunt for the title, but a lack of variety against Sunderland and Blackburn and the concession of avoidable penalties against Liverpool and Tottenham saw them fade away. Whilst these myriad flaws persist, the trophy drought looks set to continue for Wenger’s men.