Premier League Title Race: Are Arsenal Crumbling Under the Pressure Again?
Recent results have changed the dynamic of the Premier League title race. Are Arsenal scarred by previous failures and crumbling under the pressure of a Manchester City charge?
Title races can take many forms; the runaway champions; a two-horse race; a surprise package. But it isn’t always the winners who make the main headlines, sometimes it’s the team that blew their chance that lives in the memory.
Newcastle United’s infamous collapse in 1995-96 is probably the most memorable after they threw away a 12-point lead that they held in January after 23 matches, while Man Utd blew a 13-point lead over Arsenal in 1997-98 and an eight-point lead with just six games remaining in 2011-12 to give Manchester City their first Premier League crown (albeit their final-day comeback against QPR and Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp goal grabbed the headlines).
But when it comes to title challenges falling apart, no team seems to have blown up more often than Arsenal in the Premier League era.
The Gunners haven’t made a title challenge for several seasons now, and their propensity for stumbling was evident at the tail end of last season when they fell short of Champions League qualification after being in the box seat for so long. There are several seasons when they looked like they had a chance at winning the title but hit a run of bad form or pressed the self-destruct button at key moments and Arsenal fans are worried that it could happen again this season after two consecutive matches where the team have given away a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2, despite seeming to be in complete control, followed by Friday night’s shock 3-3 draw at home to bottom club Southampton.
The 2022-23 season started with some mild optimism in north London of challenging for a top-four place, but Arsenal outperformed all expectations by making their best-ever start to a league season. At the halfway point they had accrued 50 points from 19 games and only six teams had garnered more at this stage of a campaign in English League history.
On 18 January, the Gunners had an eight-point cushion over Manchester City, but a run of one point from three games including defeat at home to Pep Guardiola’s side closed that gap and saw the Citizens go top of the table. Arsenal recovered to put together a run of seven consecutive wins, but City have now also won six on the bounce and with the three draws that Arsenal have played out in their last three games, that gap has closed to just five points with City having two games in hand and Arsenal still having to visit the Etihad Stadium.
The Gunners have especially struggled recently in defence as you can see from the table below:
Arsenal have conceded 1.43 goals per game since they beat Spurs in January compared to 0.78 per match up to that point. They have allowed more shots, an average of one more effort on target per game and the chances they have given up have been higher quality – 0.14 xGA per shot faced on average compared to 0.11 in the first part of the campaign.
Only 18 teams have previously ever earned 70 or more points after 30 games of a Premier League campaign. 15 of those have gone on to win the title. Whichever team does end up in second place will be just the fourth team to do so in Premier League history having accrued 70 points or more after 30 games. The previous three have all finished runners up to Man City: Man Utd 2011-12 (73 points), Liverpool 2018-19 (73 points) and Liverpool last season (72 points).
This isn’t the first time that Arsenal look to have been well set to make a title challenge, but failed to have gone on to win the title. In several cases it has seen disastrous runs of form or moments of self-destruction in spring that have derailed their aspirations. Gunners’ fans with a nervous disposition may want to stop reading now…
Arsenal were double winners in 2001-02 and won the league unbeaten in 2003-04, but 2002-03 probably should have seen Arsene Wenger’s side make that a hat-trick of titles.
This was the famous season where Wenger inferred that his team could go through a whole campaign without losing, which was proven premature after Wayne Rooney scored a winning goal for Everton against the Gunners in mid-October. Despite that, Arsenal had made it to early March eight points clear of Man Utd. However, trying to juggle FA Cup, Champions League and Premier League commitments took its toll. Arsenal went on a run of seven league games with just two wins, three draws and two defeats.
They saw Sol Campbell sent off against rivals Man Utd and miss the rest of the season, while Patrick Vieira also got injured in that game. It all culminated in a self-destructive draw after being 2-0 up at Bolton, who would finish 17th and then a 2-3 home defeat by Leeds who finished 15th.
Arsene Wenger’s youthful reinvention of Arsenal saw arguably its best iteration in the 2007-08 season. After Thierry Henry had departed for Barcelona, the team was now built around the talented Cesc Fabregas and blitzed through the first half the season in impressive style.
After 26 games they were five points clear of Man Utd and eight ahead of Chelsea. Trying to compete on all fronts seemed once again to be an issue, so Wenger rested his team for an FA Cup match at Old Trafford and the team were routed 4-0. They then went to Birmingham and suffered the infamous injury to Eduardo da Silva and a late penalty equaliser took the wind completely out of the Gunners’ sails.
They won just two out of 13 games in that run, just one victory in eight in the league and were knocked out by Liverpool in the Champions League quarter finals. Injuries to Tomas Rosicky, Kolo Toure, Bacary Sagna and the trauma of the Eduardo injury severely impacted the team who finished third with 83 points, just four behind Man Utd and two off Chelsea who would also contend the Champions League final as the two strongest teams in Europe that season.
Arsenal were once again challenging in 2009-10. With just seven games left in late March and just two points behind Man Utd, the Gunners looked well placed to challenge. However, another traumatic injury, this time Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg against Stoke impacted the team in the lead up. Injuries also to William Gallas, Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Vermaelen at the business end of the season saw Arsene Wenger’s side run out of steam.
St Andrews and Birmingham once again saw the start of a bad run that saw another title tilt peter out with four defeats and just one win in six league matches, along with another Champions League exit, this time to Barcelona in the same period.
The following campaign also saw Arsenal in touch with the leaders in Spring. On 5 March, the Gunners were four points behind Man Utd with a game in hand and had just beaten Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16. However, Arsene Wenger’s side once again had come undone against Birmingham City, this time in the League Cup final where they lost 2-1.
A 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland started a poor run which saw the Gunners lose to Barcelona after having Robin van Persie sent off for shooting after the whistle was blown and lose to Man Utd in the FA Cup. In addition, they won just two of their remaining 11 Premier League games taking just 12 points out of a possible 33. Bizarrely one of those two wins came against eventual champions Man Utd in between the two legs of the Red Devils’ Champions League semi-final.
Again, injury to talisman Cesc Fabregas and inconsistency of selection and loss of form at the wrong time saw the Gunners’ challenge falter.
It took Arsenal some time to regroup after the departures of key players like Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, but in 2013-14 they looked back to being a contender. In early February, Arsenal were two points clear at the top of the table.
Once again, they were still in the FA Cup and Champions League and struggled to juggle the demands of all three competitions. The big shock to the system was a 5-1 hammering by Liverpool at Anfield. This led to a run of just two wins in nine Premier League matches, taking nine points from just 27 available.
An exit to Bayern Munich was perhaps not unexpected, but one of the two victories in that run was at White Hart Lane of all places, but in the very next game they lost 6-0 at Stamford Bridge in Arene Wenger’s 1000th Arsenal match in charge. Injuries to midfield were again a key factor with Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini all missing lots of matches.
The Gunners went on to win the FA Cup as some consolation but finished just seven points off top place in fourth with this poor run costing them the chance to make a better challenge.
On 14February Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 with a last-minute Danny Welbeck winner and momentum seemed to shift in the Gunners’ favour as they moved just two points behind the leaders, and everyone expected the Foxes’ title challenge to falter.
However, Claudio Ranieri’s team were out of both cups and were able to focus completely on the league, while once again Arsenal were distracted by both FA Cup and Champions League commitments.
Another European exit to Barcelona was not unexpected, but home defeat against Watford in the FA Cup was a significant blow on top of a run of league form that saw the Gunners take just 16 points from a possible 30 in 10 games while Leicester took 27 from a possible 33 in the same period. Injuries to Mathieu Flamini and Per Mertesacker were a factor, but the most significant impact came from a drop in the creative form of Mesut Özil and the Gunners title ambitions faltered with him.
The German playmaker racked up 16 assists in his first 18 Premier League games of the campaign and seemed odds on to smash Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20. But Özil set up just three more goals in his final 17 league games and fell one short of the Frenchman’s tally as the Foxes lifted the trophy.
Three consecutive high-scoring Premier League draws against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton have seen the gap at the top of the Premier League reduce to just five points, with rivals Man City having two games in hand. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “to lose one two-nil lead may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
The top two still have to face one another in the Premier League on Wednesday night (26 April), with City having home advantage at the Etihad Stadium – somewhere that Arsenal have already lost this season, in the FA Cup.
Since the turn of the year, Arsenal’s 32 points from 16 games one fewer than Aston Villa (33) under former boss Unai Emery, while their average of 2.00 points per game is quite a bit below Man City’s 2.43. A bumpy February, in which they lost to relegation-threatened Everton at Goodison Park in their first match under Sean Dyche, followed by a home draw with Brentford and defeat to Man City at the Emirates Stadium four days later, gave Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions a sniff.
As it stands, the Opta supercomputer predictions give Mikel Arteta’s side a 21.9% chance of winning the 2022-23 Premier League title, with City now the big favourites (78.1%) . Only two weeks ago, the projections were falling in Arsenal’s favour at 55.4%. A single result at this stage of the campaign can make or break a season – Arsenal will be hoping it falls in their favour.
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