Arsenal are big game flops…only thesedays!
In truth, that is just a form which has coincided with the frustrations which have come ever since somewhere in 2009…ever since Manchester United sucker-punched the Gunners 3-1 at the Emirates in the Champions League.
Believe it or not, not too long ago, in the league at least, Arsenal were so formidable in clashes against fellow title rivals that their Achilles’ heel was not beating the best, but in fact, beating the rest.
Proof? Let’s recall the 2006/07 season. The Gunners led the ‘mini-league’ after doing the double over United, claiming 1-1 home and way draws against Mourinho’s Chelsea, and thrashing Liverpool at home. Somehow, Wenger’s men were closer to dropping out of the top four than challenging for the title in the end, finishing 21 points behind champions United.
Let’s recall the 2007/08 season. Again, Wenger’s men turned up in the big games. The Gunners snatched a dramatic 2-2 draw with United at home, dominated and defeated Chelsea 1-0 at home (how forgotten that has become) and claimed 1-1 home and away draws with Liverpool. Indeed, Wenger’s men, who deserved the title if not for a collapse which began with Eduardo’s injury, were nearly impeccable during that season and in ‘big four’ games – only narrowly falling 2-1 at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge respectively, after taking the lead on both occasions. Arsenal would manage to finish third and four points behind the top that year.
Let’s now recall 2008/09. Arsenal had nearly a deja vu of the 2006/07 campaign, as despite a remarkable 2-1 win over United at home, a superb 2-1 triumph at Stamford Bridge (how forgotten that has become again) all in 2008 and home and away draws against Liverpool only saw them finish behind the trio, 18 points behind champions United after just shrugging off a big scare from Aston Villa for fourth place.
Arsenal did play against United and Chelsea again during the latter stage of that season in the league and cup competitions, and what happened then is what has left us with the mentality we have today. Chelsea would dramatically defeat the Gunners 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final, United would stun the Emirates with a 3-1 victory (4-1 aggregate) in the Champions League semi-final and later that week, Chelsea emulated the red devils’ sucker-punching formula to run riot 4-1 at Arsenal’s ground.
To save some pride, Arsenal did conclude their grand-slam clashes that season with a credible 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in May 2009, but it has been ever since, (last season’s four losses against that duo and last Sunday’s result in West London) that Arsenal have been perceived as bully victims of their closest rivals.
No excuses, but this form may be fairly coincidental. In none of those four losses last season did Arsenal field a full-strength squad (with either Fabregas or Van Persie missing) and indeed, in three of them, they lacked a mere striker.
Last Sunday’s case was no different, with injuries as much of a nemesis as the football team we were facing, and when Arsenal did have some sort of front-man this time, they actually delivered a contest which might been won on a less profligate day.
I personally remember recent days where we would lose to Stoke City but beat United in the next match and Andy Gray would ask: ‘How do they do that’?… just imagine if they actually beat the weaker sides more often’.
These days, that equation has turned into ‘Arsenal bully smaller opponents and succumb to big sides’, but, to me, it is just down to the fact that the batterings Arsenal have suffered to Chelsea and United since 2009 have been so demoralizing that we have quickly forgotten those triumphs of the recent past.
Even so, there are those who exaggerate the implications of these ‘big four’ matches – especially when we lose them – claiming they are title deciders and defeat simply means conceding the race.
But if you think direct confrontations with rivals do determine the champions come May, ask yourself how Arsenal failed to even challenge for the title in 2006/07 after those wins in ‘big four’ games, how United clinched the title in 2008/09 despite their woeful ‘mini league’ form and how Arsenal managed to be only two points away from the top during March last season despite losing to Chelsea and United home and away.
These games…you can win them all and not even come close, you can lose them all and still contend.
And for those who will argue that ‘big four’ matches determine confidence and momentum in the title race, I have witnessed a side slip to defeat or a real blip after a win in such game and while another has sprung an inspiring run after such loss.
Indeed, Chelsea (who lost games immediately after both victories over Arsenal last season – to Man. City and Everton respectively) will attest that racking up the points week-in week-out against the Wigan’s and Bolton’s is much harder than beating United and Arsenal and indeed, what won them the title last term.