Arsenal have spent 248 days at the top of the Premier League this season. No side has led the way for so long without claiming glory, but now their title bid appears to be in ruins.
Once eight points clear of treble-chasing Manchester City, Mikel Arteta’s side now find themselves four points behind the leaders having played a game more after a disastrous 3-0 home defeat to Brighton.
All that’s required for City to be sure of becoming only the second club in Premier League history to claim a three-peat is three points from their remaining three games.
Considering Pep Guardiola’s players have won 11 on the trot in the league, you fancy them to wrap things up against Chelsea next Sunday, live on Sky Sports, leaving Arsenal’s wait for the title to stretch to a 20th year.
So where did it all go wrong for Arsenal? Here Sky Sports takes a look…
It hasn’t: a case for the defence
Around this time last year, Arsenal fans were suffering a similar kind of heartbreak. Nothing quite as painful as this, mind, but a torturous end to the season nonetheless.
Their bid for a return to the Champions League, after what was a five-year absence at the time, unravelled with back-to-back defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle.
St Totteringham’s Day was put on hold for another year as Spurs clinched fourth ahead of Arsenal. Having been in the driving seat, Arteta’s youthful side couldn’t quite hold on long enough to achieve their goal.
Sound familiar? An unkind interpretation of the past two seasons could lead you to the conclusion that Arsenal have a propensity to bottle, collapse or capitulate – whatever you want to call it.
Arsenal did squander what was once an eight-point lead. They’ve also dropped 11 points in their last seven games. But Manchester City have won 11 in a row and they’ve got Guardiola.
Consider the progress made at the Emirates in the short space of 12 months. They could finish the season 18 points better off than the last having pushed one of the Premier League’s greatest-ever teams almost all the way.
It’s all the more impressive when you realise Arteta is doing this with the second-youngest team in the division – only Southampton’s has been more youthful and look what happened to them. This isn’t the tale of a team that’s missed their one shot at glory now condemned to living with the memory of the one that got away.
This is just the beginning.
Did they bottle it?
Arsenal’s ‘bottling’ has been on the agenda at the Emirates Stadium for a while now, first foretelling and now explaining their capitulation in the title race.
They are still on course to rack up 85 points this season, a record tally since the Invincibles season of 2003/04. They haven’t broken the 80-point barrier since 2005, and have only hit 70 once in the last five years. Arsenal could end up 18 points ahead of last season, and have been in a title fight significantly ahead of schedule.
Most would agree they are overachieving. When the dust has settled, that will provide some solace but for now does nothing to stem the disappointment of coming so close and falling at the final hurdle.
On the surface the way Arsenal have let Man City in under their noses looks like a textbook bottle-job. The Gunners only dropped seven points in the first half of the season, but 20 in the second already. When the pressure ramped up, they crumbled. Man City have done quite the opposite, winning 13 of their last 14 games to take control of the title race.
But below the headline figures, did Arteta’s team ever have the mental capacity to see off Guardiola’s winning machine, shaking off years of mediocrity in the space of nine months? Mental performance consultant Mark Bowden, who works with a number of Premier League footballers, told Sky Sports why it proved too big an ask in one season.
“Arteta has started to make some extremely big inroads into protecting Arsenal against what’s called ‘red-brain bias’. It’s that fight or flight side – when the stakes are a little bit higher, the crunch time of the season, our brain’s instinct is to respond to stress by going into more stress, and that’s where we lose our performances.
“It’s a survival mechanism, it says ‘you always bottle it at the last minute, you’re going to do it again’, therefore self-doubt kicks in and there’s a physical shift in what’s going on inside the brain.
“You could turn round and ask why Manchester City don’t do this. They’ve got the experience and evidence in their heads, that it doesn’t matter where they are right now, we’ll win our last 10 games in a row if we need to. It makes them less likely that they go into that zone, because they have evidence that they can do it.
“Arsenal might be falling by the wayside now, but Arteta has shown what can be achieved when you fight against the natural instincts of the brain. He leads with such unwavering green-brain performance attributes – absolute self-belief, focus on progression on moving forward, that headspace of thinking ‘this is what we’re doing’. Everything he does as well is with enormous intensity and positive aggression.
“He’s making a huge influence – but as much as he can do, it might not be a fair match against Manchester City in their experience of knowing what to do.”
Context is key in the scope of Arsenal’s grander project. Yes, they have fallen short, but to get to this position is an indication of how far they’ve come. The mentality shift required to mount a title fight after years in the doldrums is far more significant than being pipped by Man City – just ask Jurgen Klopp.
So near yet so VAR
Arsenal will always be left wondering what might have been had the lines been drawn against Brentford back in February.
Set to move eight points clear, the VAR team, led by Lee Mason, failed to spot that Christian Norgaard was offside before making the cross for Ivan Toney’s equaliser and it later emerged no lines had even been drawn to check for a possible offside.
It wasn’t the first time Arsenal dropped points following a contentious VAR decision. In September, Gabriel Martinelli’s 12th-minute opener at Manchester United was ruled out for a soft foul on Christian Eriksen.
They would go on to lose 3-1 before the PGMOL included the decision as one of six incorrect VAR interventions in the first part of the season.
A month later, Gabriel Jesus was hauled to the ground in the box at St Mary’s with a penalty shout waved away. A spot kick would have given them the chance to go 2-0. Instead, they drew 1-1.
Then there were the “two penalties” Mikel Arteta claimed the officials missed in the 0-0 draw against Newcastle in January and even Brighton’s first goal on Sunday could have been ruled out when Jakub Kiwior went down clutching his ankle after contact from Evan Ferguson in the build-up.
How did injuries impact the run-in?
“Arsenal, all the time their squad is totally available.”
Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag suggested in March that Arsenal had enjoyed an easy ride with injuries this season.
At that stage, Gabriel Jesus had been out since the World Cup (knee), Oleksandr Zinchenko had missed seven league games (knee) and Thomas Partey had been absent for five. Not to mention, Reiss Nelson, Mohamed Elneny and Emile Smith Rowe had spent all or most of the campaign sidelined with injury.
Ten Hag’s claim was baseless, but, until that stage, Arsenal had found a way to cope. That all changed when William Saliba suffered a back injury on March 16 as Sporting knocked Arsenal out of the Europa League on penalties just a day on from Ten Hag’s comments. Saliba has not returned since and is unlikely to do so until next season.
Arsenal became vulnerable at the back without their star centre-back. The numbers show they concede more than double the goals per game without Saliba. But his absence has had repercussions far beyond the team’s solidity at the back.
Rob Holding, the stand-in for Saliba, doesn’t boast the same distribution skills as his team-mate and, as a result, Arsenal have suffered. Holding’s preference to play the ball left, rather than right, has also seen Bukayo Saka’s influence wilt in the run-in.
Saka, the star turn of this Arsenal team, has managed just one goal and one assist in his last eight. Quite the drop off for one of Arsenal’s more prolific players, leaving the team wanting in front of goal at the most crucial stage of the season.
Arsenal’s change in personnel, however small relative to the rotation we see at City, resulted in a shift of style that’s ultimately had a detrimental impact on their season.
Man City’s golden era
Arsenal will finish the season on 87 points should they win their final two games – a total that surpasses or equals 14 of the 27 Premier League winners’ since it has been a 20-team division.
Diving deeper, their points-per-game (with the projected 87 points) places them 14th compared with the division’s champions since 1981/82.
In simple terms, 87 points would be enough to win the title more often than not. Of course, they still need to win at Nottingham Forest and beat Wolves to reach that total.
Part of Arsenal’s problem, as Liverpool have found out in recent seasons, is that Manchester City have been setting a new standard.
Assuming City win their final three games, a tally of 94 points will only be their third-best title-winning season. It would give them an average of the same amount from their five championships under Pep Guardiola.
Their 11-game winning run has come amid reaching the FA Cup final and the Champions League semi-finals. Arsenal have been victims of timing.