If you’re an Arsenal fan you’re feeling pretty sweet right now, aren’t you? Eight games unbeaten in the league, 14 in all competitions. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil look on fire. Hell, even Olivier Giroud is scoring.
And people are thinking to themselves: “We didn’t win our first two games, but now we’re top of the league. Manchester City have stumbled, United seem to be in turmoil. Spurs are Spurs. You can’t trust Liverpool. So could this be our year?” Well it could be. Or it could be the exact same one they’ve had for over a decade.
So the Gunners are in great form at the moment? Yes, that’s undeniable. Looking at it analytically though – of the last eight league games they’ve played, it’s not too hard to pick holes in them. At least two wins were exceptionally fortunate. Against Southampton you would be hard pressed to find anyone other than a dyed-in-the-wool Gooner to say that Giroud deserved a last-minute penalty. At Burnley, Laurent Koscielny’s late winner should have been chalked off on two counts. And it was only Petr Cech’s excellence against Middlesbrough that rescued a point for them.
But hey, it’s a sign of a good team that wins while playing well isn’t it? In that hot streak there was also a magnificent destruction of Chelsea at the Emirates, as well as a few other routs. And that’s not to say some players haven’t stepped up over the past while. Certainly, Theo Walcott seems to be moving at a rate not seen in his career before. But even within that, Roy Keane sounded a salient note of caution a few weeks ago on ITV after a double against Basel:
“He’s had a good week. Try playing well for the next seven, eight, nine months, when the real crunch games come.”
Keane’s point is a pertinent one as, crucially, it hinted at something that is not at all pervasive in the game at the moment: long-term thinking. You see, people like to make rash statements in football. I call it the Eamon Dunphy effect. So Manchester City win ten games in a row and they’re going to canter to the quadruple right? My god, Pep Guardiola’s a genius!
Oh no, wait, they didn’t win in six games, he must be a complete fraud. And Lionel Messi was never the same since he got the blond highlights, he’s on the slide. But then he got a hat-trick against Man City, so maybe…
While it’s easy and fun to jump on the bandwagon, then ride it for all it’s worth, forgive me if I take this Arsenal surge with a pinch of salt. I wasn’t saying that they’d jump out of the top four because they failed to win their (admittedly difficult) first two games. And it’s no surprise that they’ve jumped back into form right after their latest crisis. It’s not uncommon. In fact, if anything, it’s to be expected.
Of all the teams in the Premier League, there’s no one else that can match the “big mo” (momentum) of Arsenal. This run of form in the league is surely impressive, but it’s by no means unprecedented. It’s still lagging behind their eight-game winning run in 2014/15, and seven-match streaks in 2007/08 and 2011/12. They also managed a fine 25 points from a possible 27 in 2013/14. And what was the recurring theme of all those seasons? They didn’t win the title.
Among the numerous, infamous, Arsenal title failures over the past twelve years, possibly the most notorious meltdown was in 2008. What would have happened that season if Martin Taylor hadn’t almost severed Eduardo’s leg in that Birmingham City game, causing pretty much the end of his Arsenal career? Or what if Gael Clichy had just cleared the damn ball up field, rather than giving away the penalty in the last minute that cost them two points? Or if William Gallas had just accepted the result with some sort of grace, rather than throwing a tantrum and sitting down on the field in protest?
Well, it was undoubtedly a catastrophic set of circumstances. But it still doesn’t excuse the fact the team gleaned just seven points from the ensuing seven games.
Or take 2014, where they looked primed for a significant title tilt before a 5-1 capitulation at Liverpool rocked them on their heels. Of the ensuing eight games they played, only two were won. By the time they got back to any sort of groove, the league was lost, and they were battling it out with Everton for Champions League qualification.
This cycle has just been repeated year-on-year for the last twelve campaigns. Every time there’s a period in Arsenal’s season where everything is firing, Giroud is in top form, the defence looks solid. Everyone rushes in to say: “You know… this season could be…” And then the blip comes. Then Claude comes on Arsenal Fan TV with his angry face and Heavy D comes on the same station with his little sad face.
So from a position of being first, now they’re fifth, and people think they won’t qualify for the Champions League. But somehow, miraculously, Arsene Wenger manages to turn it round. And they finish third/fourth. And he insists that this little run they’ve just had is a sign they are going to “challenge for the title” next season. And Arsenal fans say they’ll win it next year “if we sign a central defender and a striker.” And the world turns on its axis yet again.
So while it’s highly encouraging for all Gunners out there that their side are enjoying this hot streak, it can by no means be taken as given that it will continue. The problem for Arsenal has never been putting together impressive runs, it has been reacting to the blips. Any side can lose or draw a game. But to follow it up with a five or six matches, where they can’t buy a win, is not the mark of champions, and they have done that on an untold number of occasions.
So when Paul Scholes and Roy Keane belittle them (interesting how it’s always Arsenal the ex-Manchester United boys attack) it may be irritating, but it’s also entirely justified. Arsenal can’t just expect respect, they have to earn it. And the only way they can do that, is by winning the title.
Looking at it objectively you’d have to say this is about as open a title race as you could imagine. Up to six clubs (maybe even Everton?) would fancy their chances of winning the league, and Arsenal are definitely one of them. But, as Keane alluded to with Walcott, what will happen when the real crunch games come?
Last season, Arsenal were just two points behind Leicester City after beating them with a last-minute goal at the Emirates. In their next game they lost to a Manchester United side featuring a back four consisting of two midfielders, an inexperienced Uruguayan right-back and Marcus Rojo. Following that, a struggling Swansea City defeated them at home in the Emirates, after Arsenal had taken the lead. This is the Arsenal we know and expect. They have to do it in February and March. Or even November.
The next two fixtures will provide a greater indication of their capabilities. Next Sunday’s opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, have stuttered in the league of late and look diminished as an attacking force without Harry Kane. But under Mauricio Pochettino they haven’t lost to Arsenal in the league (four games).
As for Manchester United, well it’s true that Jose Mourinho is going through just about the worst run of his managerial career (barring last season), but what cannot be denied is his record against Wenger, which is impeccable. He hasn’t lost against him in 13 competitive games, something that would be embarrassing for a club of Watford’s stature, for example, never mind Arsenal’s.
So while United’s current form is troubling for their fans, Arsenal’s record against Mourinho is even more worrying from their supporters’ perspective.
For all Arsenal fans reading this, I’m not here to burst your balloon, but I am here to add some balance. It’s agreed Arsenal look good now; they’ve had a decent couple of months, and fair play to them.
But, is this Arsenal’s year? Well, I might say it in May, but I certainly won’t say it in November.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena