LONDON – We should have known better. We ought to have realized it always let us down.
Every time we think Arsenal has found what it takes to win the Premier League it proves us wrong — again.
The Gunners have done it time and time again since 2004, serial bridesmaids with a soft center. The backbone, mental strength, determination and consistency needed to be first over the line are missing. Arsene Wenger’s side is a constant work in process, one always so far from the finished article.
Arsenal has lost its last three games in all competitions and with an away match at Tottenham on Saturday few would be surprised if the ignominious hat trick became a quartet of losses.
This had to be the season when Arsenal won its first title in 12 years. Champion Chelsea was in mutiny until Jose Mourinho was shown the door, but by then its season was effectively over soon after it had begun.
Manchester City’s courting of Pep Guardiola saw it take its eye off the ball while until recently Manchester United was a mess. With the three traditional would-be champions not punching their weight the path should have been clear for the Gunners.
Leicester and Spurs were their biggest challengers, so what could go wrong for Arsenal?
Everything that usually goes wrong for Arsenal is what.
Having teased us into thinking it can do it, it loses 2-1 at home to an under-strength Swansea, which rested key players for what it considered a more winnable match against fellow relegation struggler Norwich on Saturday. The March collapse is so Arsenal.
It has won only nine points from a possible 24. Even an extra eight points — which should not have been too difficult from home games against Southampton, Swansea, a then out-of-form Chelsea and a visit to Stoke, which was in a bad run — would have seen the Gunners two points clear at the top instead of trailing Leicester by six.
Arsenal’s defensive fragilities have once again been laid bare, there is a lack of creativity apart from Mesut Ozil and a powder puff attack where Olivier Giroud has not scored in 10 games, Alexis Sanchez has managed only one goal since returning from injury six weeks ago and Theo Walcott’s confidence highlighted by his return of two goals in his last 22 appearances.
With Guardiola in charge of an inevitably strengthened City next season it is a safe bet the Blues will be more realistic title challengers.
Roman Abramovich will give whoever is in charge of Chelsea a generous transfer budget.
Man United will surely not endure another season of on-field numbing tedium, while Jurgen Klopp’s first full season at the helm with Liverpool should see the Merseysiders more competitive.
So it had to be this season for Arsenal and if it does not win the title it is hard to make an argument for Wenger to remain. This a golden, unexpected opportunity for Arsenal and, of course, it could still do it though there has been nothing in its recent performances to suggest it will be first over the line.
Wenger deserves to walk out of the front door with his head held high having left Arsenal on his terms, not sneaking out the back entrance having been forced out. The Frenchman has given Arsenal and English football so much and no one wants to see him leave Emirates Stadium under a cloud, but the jeers at the end of the Swansea defeat and the vitriolic abuse from Gunners fans on social media told their own story.
The supporters will not be content with a third successive F.A. Cup success — Arsenal plays Hull in a fifth-round replay next week — or fourth place. The atmosphere at Emirates is now negative bordering on toxic, with season ticket holders booing every mistake by the home players.
They had every right to be confident Arsenal would belatedly bring them another title given all the circumstances this season and the north London derby at a white-hot White Hart Lane on Saturday will be a defining match for Wenger.
Should Arsenal lose it would trail Spurs by six points with nine games remaining. An away win would see the Gunners on 54 points, the same as Spurs.
This clash is not big, it is massive. It is not an exaggeration to say that Wenger’s future is hanging on the result. He has had three days to somehow rebuild his team’s confidence and while Spurs lost at a resurgent West Ham on Wednesday, Mauricio Pochettino is under no pressure compared to Wenger.
Despite that defeat, Spurs have shown they have the resilience and inner strength too often lacking in their rivals. They have the second-best attack (behind Leicester) and the most miserly defense in the Premier League this season. Given what will be needed to win Saturday’s match, Spurs start as favorite, Arsenal’s chances are not helped by the absence of the injured Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny.
The Gunners have won only once in their last seven league visits to White Hart Lane and Wenger said: “Football — it is cruel sometimes. We need to live with that and show that we can bounce back.
“At the moment we are lacking confidence in front of goal and we have to deal with that. We need to get back to positive results before we speak about the championship which is at stake at the moment. It is very difficult as it is unpredictable.
“Manchester City lost, Tottenham lost (on Wednesday). It is very difficult to predict what will happen in this league,” Wenger stated. “The other results this week mean we are mathematically still in the game. We have to bounce back quickly and realize that we have a difficult game and prepare well.”
For Spurs, beating Arsenal is the most important result of the season. Defeating them while ending the Gunners’ title hopes and putting Spurs one step closer to being champions is the stuff of Tottenham dreams.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.