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Is It Fair To Say That Arsenal ‘Bottled’ The League?


Is It Fair To Say That Arsenal ‘Bottled’ The League?

Following on from Manchester City’s recent 3-0 win over Everton in conjunction with Arsenal’s 3-0 loss at home to Brighton, it is fair to say that it looks like the Premier League title is heading back to the blue side of Manchester for what will now be the fifth time in the last six seasons.

But Arsenal, having been top and leading the way for most of the season, will feel that this was their year to take the title. The Gunners do look like they have missed out on what would have been their first Premier League title since 2004, and have been given the tag of ‘bottlers’ after surrendering their advantage at the top to the relentless Citizens. But is that a fair statement?

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Team logoMan City
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Last updated 18/06/2024

City are a Class Above the Rest

It can, and has, been argued by some that this is not the case. First of all, nobody actually expected Arsenal to go on and win the Premier League, did they? Was it ever a realistic prospect?

At the start of the campaign, not a single person would have mentioned the Gunners in title conversations. For them, their only focus was getting into the top four and back into the Champions League, which they had been out of for six seasons at the time. Once again, it was expected that both Liverpool and Manchester City would battle it out for the crown, with City the slight favourites. And the team that pretty much everyone said would win it back then, look like they are going to win it now.

City, like they have done over the past few seasons, were being mooted for yet another 90+ points season. Out of the previous five league campaigns, City have broken the 90-point barrier in three of those and are on track to do so again this year. Arsenal have hit the 90-point mark just once in Premier League history, and that was their Invincibles season of 2003/04.

To beat Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled Manchester City machine to a league title over the course of a 38-game season requires you to be pretty much perfect (remember that even though Liverpool lost just one league game across the entirety of the 2018/19 season, they were still beaten to the title by City), but this Arsenal team are not that. And that is because, as this season has shown, they are nowhere near the finished article, with work still needing to be done to get the squad to the best it can be by adding depth and further quality to it.

Arsenal Need to Build a Squad

Just a single injury to a key man was catastrophic for Arsenal, whereas City can afford to call upon multiple high-quality backups and therefore not lose any rhythm or momentum going into the business end of a campaign in such a situation. To even mount a title challenge in the first place with their inferior squad after many years of poor showings is actually an overachievement, and could be more significant in the long run – it’s an indication of the great work that Mikel Arteta has done so far, and stands them in good stead for future seasons.

A single injury to William Saliba late on in the season was somewhat of a killer blow to Arsenal, because the Frenchman’s ball-playing and defensive abilities, which had been so key to Arsenal’s build-up and overall system, were now suddenly not there.

Instead, the Gunners could only call upon centre-half Rob Holding as a backup. And while the Englishman tries hard and has been a fine servant for the club, Holding does not possess the skills required to thrive within Arteta’s system and within a title-chasing team. Lacking composure, athleticism and the ability to help build attacks from the back and play killer long passes from within Arsenal’s defensive zone, it can be argued that he actually makes the players around him worse.

Usually safe in the knowledge that the reliable Saliba is there to cover Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White whenever the pair bomb forward, the presence of Holding means that those defenders were then forced to be more restrained in their forays forward, because Holding is not able to hold things down at the back by himself. And he is also not as composed on the ball and able to burst forward into midfield with it as Saliba is - Holding as a defender is at his best in a side that is happy to sit in a deep block and defend, which Arsenal do not do.

The stats show this - since Saliba’s absence, Arsenal have conceded a lot more. The Gunners let in 25 goals in Saliba’s 27 outings, with 13 being conceded in the six matches that Holding has played in. Jakub Kiwior was also thrown into the mix, and although the Pole has been somewhat impressive, has already seen four goals go in in his three outings – simply put, without Saliba, Arsenal are weaker centrally.

Perhaps that would not have been a problem if Takehiro Tomiyasu was fit, who could’ve slotted in at right-back with Ben White moving to centre-back, but with the Japanese international out injured, it brings us back to the point about squad depth. Arsenal just did not have the required squad depth to fight for a title over such a long season, whereas if this situation were to arise over at the Etihad, City can call on the likes of Nathan Ake and Aymeric Laporte for example, who are more than capable backups.

In attack, City can call on a player who is arguably the most prolific player of this generation in Erling Haaland, alongside a £100m wide player in Jack Grealish. In comparison, Arsenal can call on two 21-year-olds in Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, while their big-money centre-forward missed three months of the season through injury and had to be replaced by 23-year-old Eddie Nketiah. It is partly a question of resources, and in that regard, City can only be matched by a select few clubs, and certainly not Arsenal.

Arsenal’s Impressive Progress

So as established, this Manchester City side is a well-oiled machine, and it takes something special to pip them to a title. And as we have also seen, the Citizens are notoriously perfect in the second half of seasons/title run-ins. Can anyone be expected to keep up with that, let alone what is the division’s second-youngest side?

By even taking the race all the way to gameweek 35, have Arsenal overachieved in that regard? By even taking City so close despite their inferior squad and lack of any title expectations at the start of the campaign, consider the huge amount of progress made by Arteta and his men anyway, from a club who have finished 8th, 8th and 5th over the last three seasons to now pretty closely pushing one of this generation’s most dominant club sides for title glory.

Is competing against the City juggernaut a standard you can reasonably expect of a team so young and inexperienced in winning big trophies (particularly a trophy that the club hasn’t touched in nearly 20 years?). Did Arteta’s men ever have the mental strength to see off the inevitable City pressure and shake off years of previous club failure? No - it is way too big of an ask, and especially for such a young and inexperienced side.

And that is why a collapse, or at least a stumble, was somewhat inevitable in the second half of the season for Arsenal. Much attention has been placed on the eight-point lead that the Gunners at one point held over the Citizens, but with City having a game in hand throughout, the gap was essentially only five points. And a five-point gap against this City team is not that big of a lead.

City are so good that even if Arsenal hadn’t slipped up in those now-infamous draws against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton, there is no guarantee that the points Arsenal would have otherwise gained would have been enough to see them over the line.

Refereeing Decisions

To further add to this has been some of the refereeing decisions that have negatively affected the Gunners as well, with the club having been the subject of two massively incorrect VAR decisions, alongside other smaller decisions that have gone against them. Looking back, it is all the more painful now.

Now all clubs are affected by VAR decisions, yes, but in the midst of a title race, to incorrectly award an offside goal to the opposing team in a tight match is a very tough pill to swallow. Arsenal saw their lead at the top of the table cut to just three points after the VAR team at Stockley Park failed to spot the offside Christian Norgaard in the build-up to Ivan Toney’s equaliser during Brentford’s match with Arsenal, meaning that the Bees left the Emirates with a point and a dent Arsenal’s title hopes in the process.

That was the second major decision that went against the Gunners this campaign after Gabriel Martinelli’s early opener against Manchester United in September was ruled out, with the Gunners going on to lose 3-1. The PGMOL would later include the decision in one of six incorrect VAR interventions that had taken place in the first half of the season.

Strong penalty shouts in matches against Southampton and Newcastle that were waved away while those games were finely poised at 0-0 will also aggrieve Gunners fans more now. These kinds of decisions are huge, especially in a title race.

Can Arsenal Learn From Their Shortcomings?

But on the other hand, when you have spent over 245 days at the summit of the Premier League and still don’t manage to win it, despite whatever advantages the chasing side might have, then there is a reasonable case for people to describe that as failure, or ‘bottling’.

Whether or not anyone expected Arsenal to challenge or not, the fact that they have done so and the manner in which that challenge has ultimately turned out, being sat in 1st place for so long yet still not being crowned champions at the end means that people can level the label of bottlers towards them, and those people would be justified in doing so.

Dropping points against lowly sides like West Ham and Southampton towards the business end of the season is criminal – two wins from seven matches in the final two months of the season is not the form indicative of champions, and Arsenal have paid the price for doing so.

Before that horrid run of form began, barring their results in the Europa League against Sporting Lisbon, Arsenal had won seven matches on the bounce in the league, and prior to the first of those 3 damaging draws in April, the Gunners were eight points clear at the top. They are now 4 points behind City in 2nd having played a game more. Based on this run of form at such a crucial stage of the campaign and considering the points advantage they had, then objectively it can be said that yes, Arsenal did bottle it.

That is further compounded when you find out that the Gunners have spent a reported 93% of the entire campaign in 1st place. Once again, to do that and not come away with the prize is absolutely criminal, and can again be called bottling. To spend that long at the top and come away with nothing – yes, Arsenal did bottle it.

At the start of the season, did anyone expect Arsenal to overachieve like how they have by being in a title race and come so close to winning the Premier League? No. But taking into account their performances, the position they got themselves into and how the season ultimately panned out, did Arsenal bottle the league? Yes. Both of these statements can be true at the same time.

But it was still ultimately a superb showing by Mikel Arteta’s men this year. They did challenge for the country’s top prize, which is something that Arsenal have failed to do for so many years now.

A fanbase that had become disillusioned for so many years now became re-connected with their team once again. There are lessons to be taken from all that has happened this season, because Arsenal are nearly there. This year, despite the way it has ended, is just another chapter on the journey that is Arsenal’s redemption under Mikel Arteta.