Arsenal Missed A Big Title Chance On Sunday, And They Can't Afford More Slip-Ups


At the end of a match of alternating moods at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger was asked how he felt. It was typical of the man, and the day itself, that he flipped the question on its head.

His Arsenal side had creditably come back to claim a 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur, but less creditably blown an opportunity to go ahead of Manchester City in the table after their surprising 0-0 draw at Aston Villa.

Wenger was asked about the latter, but immediately shifted the emphasis back to Manuel Pellegrini’s side, insisting they would be just as frustrated because they could be two points clear.

That’s probably not quite true, and it’s down to nothing more than the timing.

Arsenal v West Ham United - Premier League : News Photo

Because City played first, and had the chance to put pressure on Arsenal but instead gave them the opportunity to go ahead, this will have felt like relief.

There was also relief for Arsenal, of course, because it could have been much worse. Tottenham Hotspur probably should have beaten them, although Mauricio Pochettino's side themselves took pride from the performance.

It all meant that the top of the table bubbled a bit but pretty much stayed the same, and that was in-keeping with the general moods of all teams. There were some minor concerns, but also some minor consolations.

If all this reads like placing too much stock into temporary states of mind, there is a deeper point. Of course, it’s the nature of modern football - and something of which the vast majority of us are all guilty - to draw misplaced medium- to long-term conclusions from short-term performance. Both Pellegrini and Wenger made a point of putting Sunday’s games into a wider context too.

“If you look at a longer distance, in the last six games we have had five wins and one draw,” the Arsenal manager said. “It can happen that, in six games, you can drop points.”

Yet, as intangible as it may be, mentality and the momentum derived from it are an intrinsic part of any title race. It’s not so much about all the hoary old cliches regarding hunger and that, but about a team’s deeper knowledge and confidence that they can carry a title race through.

Manchester United v Arsenal - Premier League : News Photo

That does have tangible effects on the pitch. It eliminates doubt and thereby the moments of hesitation that can be so damaging, and make a team more fragile. It ensures a greater intensity of performance, and was one of many root reasons as to why Alex Ferguson won so many titles.

That is also why this weekend could yet prove more consequential than has been considered.

For one, it solidifies the feeling that City will have that bit too much to be trumped, and neither Manchester United nor Arsenal are quite capable of fully rising to it.

That might be different had Wenger’s side beaten Spurs, and that in itself might seem woefully short-sighted, but there is a much wider context here too.

Arsenal’s failure to claim the three points fosters the sense that they’re still short of what is required to make the breakthrough. They couldn’t grasp the nettle, push themselves over the line. For the past two years, in particular, they’ve personified Zeno’s paradox of the frog: always getting closer, but never actually getting there.

That might be different if they avoid their usual injuries - although that in itself is such a systemic issue by now that it can’t be seen as an excuse - or replace absent players with genuine quality in January.

Manchester City v Chelsea - Premier League : News Photo

Again, it’s difficult not to wonder where they might be now had Wenger signed the extra striker he clearly desired in the summer - or even a slight upgrade on Olivier Giroud. The French striker is a good player, a useful alternative option for a title team and an admittedly easy target in spite of all that, but it’s also true that he misses many such big chances in such games that a better striker wouldn’t.

Arsenal are still a touch too dependent on having all their main players cohering in confident form. Compare that to City.

They have been without a genuinely elite striker in Sergio Aguero for a third of their games but are still top, because they had the forward quality to compensate, to re-adjust. That has been especially clear in Europe.

That’s also why them staying ahead after Sunday is so important.

Right now, even if it’s rather close, it looks like it’s going to take an unprecedented mental or physical collapse for City to be pipped. 

It’s up to Arsenal to drastically change that feeling. They’ve had one chance. They can’t squander another.

 

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