Arsenal’s title bid has faltered in recent weeks as back-to-back 2-2 draws have closed the gap between themselves and a Manchester City side, sweeping everyone else aside. The stats suggest that Mikel Arteta’s side are looking shaky defensively, and the eye test tells us that the players are not responding well enough to adversity, but the inexcusable lack of awareness at West Ham on Sunday provides a tricky conundrum for the Spaniard and his coaching staff.
To put it into perspective, Arsenal are on course to reach 91 points in what has been an incredible season for the Gunners. Despite racking up 23 wins from 31 games, they are being relentlessly hunted down by City, who have recorded six straight wins since that freakish 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest back in February. The Gunners have been top of the Premier League for the vast majority of the season, spending 235 days at the summit.
Arteta suggested that his side lacked the ability to ‘kill a team’ for the second week in a row, which is a stark difference compared to the ruthless form they have shown since August. Some have argued that Arteta’s side is starting to feel the pressure and is looking like they might ultimately ‘bottle’ their title charge. The reality is, however, that this notion of succumbing to pressure is far from the truth.
The reality is that the players have become complacent, and their lackadaisical approach has been exhibited in those two painful results at Anfield and the London Stadium. At 2-0 up, Thomas Partey decided to attempt an audacious flick over Declan Rice at a point in the match where Arsenal were dominant—a terrible error of judgment that led to Gabriel Magalhaes diving in and gifting West Ham a penalty.
The Ghanaian looked flustered, seemingly coming to the realisation that it was a significant turning point in the match and ultimately his side’s season. On the face of things, you can see why Partey may have attempted such a bold move after he has consistently shown how press-resistant he is in tight situations, but Rice is an intelligent midfielder and read what Partey was going to do perfectly.
The most frustrating aspect of this is that it didn’t need to happen. The Gunners were in cruise control and were sailing towards a comprehensive win in a silent London stadium. It looked as if Mikel Arteta’s ‘three hundred thousand passes’ were going to get his side over the line. A combination of carelessness and a poor defensive line on the day ultimately cost them dearly.
For the second week running, Arsenal blew a two-goal lead away from home, leaving them nervously looking over their shoulder going into what could be the club’s biggest game since the Champions League Final in 2006. It’s easy to identify Arsenal’s defensive frailties upon reflection of the two poor goals they conceded in a game they most certainly should have won, but removing players such as Oleksandr Zinchenko and William Saliba from a back four that has been so formidable away from home will cost any team.
Arteta went with Kieran Tierney as a more orthodox left-back, with Rob Holding continuing to deputise for the injured Saliba at centre-half. The drop-off in quality was stark, and Tierney chose to lump the ball out of touch on several occasions, shedding light on the difference between what Mikel Arteta has in Zinchenko and what he had on the day from the Scotsman. It feels troubling for players like Tierney and Holding.
They are clearly highly valued as members of the dressing room, but Arteta’s side is constantly evolving away from players who were ostensibly first choices for large parts of last season. Although the last two weeks have been extremely disappointing, Arsenal still has their future in their own hands. However, despite the summer acquisitions of Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus, they still look like an extremely emotional group.
Reiss Nelson’s last-gasp winner against Bournemouth a few weeks ago exhibited exactly how much this journey means to the players, and Mikel Arteta’s antics on the touchline throughout the season only reiterate the emotional connection the season has created. It might be another stick to beat them with from some areas of the anti-Arsenal brigade, but it has become so clear that this team is an impassioned and rather temperamental bunch.
Granit Xhaka was thrown to the lions after his spat with Trent Alexander-Arnold at Anfield and was widely criticised for sparking the Liverpool faithful back into life. Although such a judgment was harsh, the emotion is an issue that has crept into their game and may cost them come the end of the season. The Gunners now face a Southampton side sitting rock bottom of the Premier League table on Friday night under the lights at the Emirates.
Arteta addressed the media in his press conference today, directly asking the fans for an ‘electric’ atmosphere, something that will need to happen if Arsenal are going to use their twelfth man against what is likely to be a determined Saints side. For all the issues seemingly holding the north London side back in what looks to be an exhilarating close to the season, the draw at West Ham on Sunday doesn’t alter the task at hand.
The Gunners’ destiny will most likely be decided in Manchester on Wednesday night, and they travel there still needing a draw at the very least. Arteta has, however, constantly banged the drum of taking it game-by-game and not looking too far ahead, but the blockbuster match at the Etihad looms, which could ultimately swing the momentum for either side should one of them come out on top.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Catherine Ivill / Getty Images