Sunday, April 3, 2011

When the Game Matters, the Form Deteriorates

This has been the case for the last four seasons.

In 07/08, Arsenal led the league for most of the season, but collapsed miserably in the end, drawing four "easy" league games in a row, committing countless individual errors, and ultimately coming in third.

In 08/09, Arsenal recovered somewhat from an erratic start to challenge for both the FA Cup and the Champions League. A kind run of fixtures mid-season saw the team hold onto its top four place, but as soon as the big games came, the collapse followed. A hiding against Manchester United in the European Cup semi-finals, and, in a familiar twist, a goalkeeping error proving costly in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.

In 09/10, Arsenal were mostly consistent against the league's lesser lights, but their wretched record against Chelsea and United ensured they were unable to convincingly challenge for the title. Despite both those teams showing signs of decline, Arsenal lacked the quality to rise to the top. They were swept aside by a far superior Barcelona in Europe, and yet another Almunia error signalled the end of whatever title hopes they harboured, in a game at Birmingham.

This season, the continued decline at Chelsea and United has meant that if Arsenal progressed, they would win the title. Sadly, the picture as we enter April is a familiar one. Arsenal have at least managed to beat Chelsea and, in one leg, Barcelona, but the benefits of those results are negated by a troubling tendency to drop points against frankly substandard sides. For example, Arsenal have won 2 points out of a possible twelve against two of the promoted teams, West Brom and Newcastle. At St. James', they amazingly managed to blow a four-goal lead. That echoed an embarrassing collapse early in the season at home to Spurs.

Arsenal entered springtime with hopes in four competitions. In a matter of weeks, those hopes have evaporated, and the performances have been almost uniformly woeful.

When United lost consecutive games recently to Chelsea and Liverpool, the league was, apparently, "in Arsenal's hands". Typically, they have contrived to drop it on their own toes, aggravating the pain of those cup defeats to Birmingham, Barcelona and Manchester United reserves.

At the end of another unforgivably colourless performance and goalless result against Blackburn, there was a palpable sense of discontent in the Emirates crowd. The atmosphere had been flat throughout, after a promising start dissolved into lethargy. The most noise the Arsenal fans made all day was with the brief flurry of boos that greeted full time.

Questions are being asked of the manager, and are being asked with more conviction than ever before, and so it should be. If Arsenal want to be a big club, they have to expect more than a team that consistently fails to perform in matches that matter. Wenger has professed faith in his players, year after year, and it seems certain now that his faith is misplaced.

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