Arsenal’s 1-0 loss to Nottingham Forest officially crowned Manchester City as Premier League champions for the fifth time in six years. But how did Arsenal let their biggest rivals win so comfortably with three games still to play? On January 18th, the Gunners held a sizeable eight-point lead over City, and they have spent 248 days at the top of the Premier League table this season, the most any side has ever done to then not win the league. The accusations of ‘bottling’ from rival fans are natural, but the reasons for such a late-season falter are of course more complex.
The first thing to note is Arsenal were not expected by anyone to challenge for the title this season. Having finished 5th last season, most expected them to challenge for the top 4 again, but really even the aspirations of their own fans did not extend much beyond that for their domestic campaign. Arteta recruited well in the summer, though, bringing in the City duo of Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back and Gabriel Jesus as striker, as well as utilising the perennially loaned-out William Saliba at centre-back, who has particularly excelled, although was injured recently.
His injury is a notable example of one of the crucial issues afflicting Arsenal in the late stages of the campaign: an unfortunate injury record and the lack of quality squad depth to make sufficient amends. Rob Holding has had to step in for Saliba at times, and he has clearly been exposed. The crushing 4-1 loss at the Etihad last month was particularly damming for Holding, unable to compete with the immense physicality and pace of Erling Haaland.
And while it is a myth to say that Man City possess a much larger squad than the rest of the league to deal with injuries and differing fitness levels of players, as City have actually only used 23 players across the course of the season, 3 less than Arsenal and the least in the entire division, it is fair to say that the quality of their replacements is superior to Arsenal’s. When Guardiola wishes to rest Bernardo Silva, he has the quality of Mahrez to step in, and he even at times has the licence to leave De Bruyne out in favour of World Cup-winning Julian Alvarez.
The relentlessness of Manchester City cannot be underestimated one bit. This is a side that has won their last twelve Premier League matches – a side that has amassed more than 90 points on multiple occasions, even hitting 100 in 2018, and has now added arguably the best striker in the world in Erling Haaland to the team. It is hard to argue against them being the best Premier League side of all time, so is it really fair to see Arsenal as having ‘bottled it’?
There are perhaps some foundations in the argument of Arsenal showing a certain mental fragility in recent months. In April, they threw away 2 goal leads in consecutive games, the first away to Liverpool and the second to West Ham. Some have pointed to such results to suggest that the side lacked sufficient experience in decisive moments to hold their nerve and ensure the win, as true champions would. Arsenal has the youngest average squad age in the league, at 24.4 years, and aside from the aforementioned Zinchenko and Jesus, don’t have the luxury of players who consistently know how to handle the pressures associated with a title challenge, as City do. Having said this, they have equally shown moments of character in recent weeks, too, such as rescuing a 3-3 draw in the last minute against Southampton, having trailed 3-1. While such lack of experience may have proved a factor, therefore, it is not enough in and of itself to explain the drop-off. In fact, their youth can be said to have been a factor in their free-flowing, fearless football at the start of the campaign which fared them so well.
Arsenal has had an unexpectedly impressive season, and although their performances in the past few months have been disappointing, to say the least, their inability to maintain their position at the top of the league should not be too excessively critiqued, given the fact quality of opposition they have been up against. The fear is, however, that this is a missed opportunity and one which may not present itself again in the near future. Manchester United are likely to improve further under Erik Ten Hag, as will Newcastle with more investment and both Liverpool and Chelsea have experienced off seasons this year, particularly the latter. Even though the criticism targeted at Arsenal in recent weeks should be considered more thoughtfully and put in proper context, it is slightly concerning for supporters of the Gunners that they may never get such a palpable opportunity to win the league again in the coming years.
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