Wednesday night was an opportunity missed for Arsenal and a sign that their customary end-of-season decline may be setting in.
Fresh from a 5-1 thrashing to Liverpool on Saturday, the Gunners had a chance to make amends against a stuttering Manchester United side at the Emirates.
However, a nervy display from Arsene Wenger’s side saw them play out a 0-0 draw against a United side who were there for the taking after poor results against Fulham and Stoke.
It may seem ludicrous to suggest decline when Arsenal sit only one point behind league-leaders Chelsea, but it was Arsenal’s lack of intent that is most concerning.
As reported by Sami Mokbel in the Daily Mail, Wenger admitted post-match that it was indeed nerves that got to his side, who showed little attacking invention:
I felt we were nervous tonight, yes.
We are usually dangerous breaking through with speedy passing, but they defended very well. But it is not worrying because we care about what we are doing.
When you concede five goals like we did against Liverpool on Saturday, maybe that’s what you do. The team was highly focused on not conceding after Saturday.
We missed out on the chance to go top but a point keeps us in the race. We played with the handbrake on tonight. I hope and think the handbrake will come off.
This should make both Wenger himself, and Arsenal fans, nervous. Playing with the handbrake on in a big home game is not how Premier League titles are won.
Arsenal need goals and they do not seem forthcoming, as this OptaJoe stat suggests:
Olivier Giroud—the one real option up top—can't seem to step up in the big games.
The sight of Giroud looking agonised as he squanders chances in games against the Premier League's elite has become worryingly familiar for Arsenal. Since his goal beat Tottenham on 1 September, he has not scored in the league in seven subsequent matches against the top handful of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool (twice), Everton and United (twice).
The other contenders for the title, Manchester City and Chelsea, beat David Moyes’s side 4-1 and 3-1 respectively in their home league games. That is the kind of display Arsenal fans should have been expecting, but it is not what they got.
After a swashbuckling opening to the season and a steady Christmas period, Arsenal should be kicking on in the latter stages of the season if they wish to stay in the race.
However, they are stuttering. After Manchester City’s game against Sunderland was postponed and Chelsea could only draw with West Brom on Tuesday, Arsenal had the chance to go top of the league.
But as they did at Old Trafford, the Etihad and Anfield, they could not make the big games count.
A look at the fixture list shows that Arsenal’s recent difficult Premier League run of Liverpool followed by United is nothing compared to what awaits them in March.
In consecutive weeks from Sunday Mar. 16, Arsenal face Tottenham away, Chelsea away, Manchester City at home and Everton away.
The handbrake had better be well and truly off by then or Arsenal will be looking at another season without silverware for their efforts.