The Premier League title chase was not always as close as it is now.
Arsenal are one point behind Chelsea, who are in top spot, and two points ahead of Manchester City, though the Citizens have a game in hand. Yet the Gunners maintained a multiple-match points advantage earlier in the season—a gap that has been closed multiple times and is now gone.
Aye, how glorious October and November were. Aaron Ramsey was in scintillating, unstoppable form and was arguably the best midfielder in the world. Olivier Giroud was unexpectedly receiving plaudits as he netted goals aplenty, and Arsenal's back line was utterly impregnable.
But Arsenal hit a rockier period beginning in December with their first hellish stretch of fixtures against England's best sides. A disappointing 1-1 draw against Everton (who travel to the Emirates in the next round of the FA Cup) portended trouble. That was quickly followed by a 6-3 shellacking by Manchester City.
The Gunners then made it two points from a possible nine by failing to break the deadlock against Chelsea in a 0-0 stalemate.
Arsene Wenger's men responded well, taking all three points from the next five Premier League fixtures. All were against markedly inferior opposition, and all were relatively unremarkable. But they were victories.
But, as we know, Arsenal's form once again took a troublesome dip just as they entered their most challenging period of the season.
Their recent victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup was so sorely needed because it restored confidence lost in recent disappointing results. The downturn began in a 2-2 draw with Southampton that Arsenal were lucky to gain a point from; they were completely played off the pitch at St Mary's Stadium.
After a brief rebound against lowly Crystal Palace, Arsenal crashed to their lowest point of the season in a thoroughly embarrassing drubbing by Liverpool that made the then-leaders look like relegation fodder.
Beating Manchester United at the Red Devils' worst ebb in Wenger's tenure certainly would have restored a large chunk of the confidence lost at Anfield, but Arsenal were relatively lucky to come away with a 0-0 draw at their home ground.
Given the Gunners' recent dip, then, it is reasonable to ask whether we are witnessing the inevitable regression to the mean of a team that overperformed early in the season.
The best answer to that very important query is that they are doing just as well as they did when they led the Premier League by five points. They are merely earning the same results against the same opposition.
Indeed, the biggest objection to Arsenal's case for title contention is their inability to beat their elite fellow competitors with any regularity at all. They have not, and they still cannot.
Their emasculation by Liverpool two weekends ago is the lone aberration, considering Arsenal have bested them on two occasions this season.
But their draw against United was actually an improvement on their first result (a 1-0 defeat), and they were outplayed by Southampton even when they beat the Saints in November.
It is true that Arsenal's ability to defeat Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton—who they incredibly play in four successive league matches in March and April—will largely determine whether they win the Premier League title.
And it is also true that Gunners fans have little reason to expect their team to win most or all of those fixtures, since, of those teams, Arsenal have only defeated Tottenham.
It follows, then, that Arsenal will have to measurably improve versus the teams against whom they are actually vying at the top of the table if they want to claim the championship. Based on their relatively poor track record, this assertion is also valid.
There is no disputing any of the above based on results.
But Arsenal are certainly not playing below the level at which they were earlier in the season. They have not "peaked too soon"; rather, they just need to play better.
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