Arsenal Must Hold Their Nerve in EPL Title Race

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2014

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Per Mertesacker of Arsenal and his team-mates look dejected at the end of the Barclays Pemier League match between Stoke City and Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium on March 1, 2014 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Arsenal's English Premier League title hopes are on life support after a 1-0 defeat to Stoke City, but they are far from expired. To keep those hopes alive, the Gunners must hold their nerve during the crunch period of this season.

The early signs are not good, at least based on the tepid performance at the Britannia Stadium. Arsenal's struggles away at Stoke are well-known.

But as rough as things have been in Staffordshire for manager Arsene Wenger's teams, it doesn't excuse the timidity shown by a number of his players.

Not for the first time this season, Arsenal wilted when faced with a good opportunity to forge ahead. With Manchester City in Carling Cup action, the Gunners wasted the chance to open a five-point lead over third place.

That Arsenal produced such a lame response to that kind of pressure was deeply disappointing. It was reminiscent of the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford in November.

That was the Gunners' moment to make a powerful statement about their credentials to overthrow the current champions, not just this season but beyond.

A similarly flat showing was produced in the return fixture with United at the end of February. The goalless draw prevented Arsenal from going a point clear at the top, one day after Chelsea had been held at home by West Ham United.

The Gunners have missed too many opportunities this season.
The Gunners have missed too many opportunities this season.Michael Regan/Getty Images

A late goal conceded at home to Everton in December prevented the Gunners from going seven points clear before daunting fixtures against City and Chelsea.

Missed opportunities like this will do as much to cost Arsenal the title as their failure to consistently beat the top teams. But even after the loss at Stoke, a defeat Wenger rightly dubbed "a massive setback," the Gunners are far from out of the race.

Recovering from dismal failure in the Potteries demands holding their nerve. That means striking the right balance between being cautious but still staying adventurous.

In such a tight title tilt, where four teams are vying for the prize, Arsenal can't be reckless in their remaining games. They can't go gung-ho in search of dominant victories.

But the need to stay stable shouldn't negate taking a few of the risks that often decide close games at the business end of a season.

Achieving this vital balance starts with Wenger. But he bottled the trip to Stoke with an overly cautious team selection.

Leaving out Mathieu Flamini, a player whose natural tenacity and defiance in the middle is a necessary answer to Stoke's brute-force cynicism, was a major gaffe.

Wenger likely chose Mikel Arteta at the base of his midfield because the ex-Everton man has made many trips to the Britannia. He has more experience of the rugged approach expected there than a player who only returned to the EPL this summer.

But Flamini is more suited to that kind of game. When it came to picking horses for courses, Wenger erred badly.

He made an even bigger mistake putting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench. Direct pace and powerful running are essential to standing up to Stoke's robust defensive organization.

They are also vital qualities that this Arsenal attack misses badly. With Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey sharing space on the shelf, Chamberlain is the only first-team player possessing those qualities.

The folly of leaving him out was exposed when Chamberlain entered the fray as a late substitute. He crafted Arsenal's best chance of the game by getting behind the Stoke defensive line and pulling the ball across for Yaya Sanogo.

Wenger, whose ideas are often more daring than his decisions, has to be a little bolder with his selections from now on, even with the need to rotate.

Wenger can't let caution and nerves get the better of him.
Wenger can't let caution and nerves get the better of him.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

But no matter what Wenger does, he needs his players to stand up and be counted. Simply put, they must deliver more when the pressure is on.

This squad is certainly not incapable of producing in key moments. The response was superb during the final 10 games of last season, when Arsenal gained 26 points to seal a place in the UEFA Champions League.

But now the stakes are even higher. The Gunners are in the last eight of the FA Cup with a strong chance to claim that trophy. They can also win the EPL title with a similar run to last season.

But that will take consistently standout performances from key members of this team. Most of those performances will likely have to come from midfield.

Wenger has a major issue up front. There is not enough pace, guile and confidence at the striker position. Just like the team's struggles on the big stage, that problem has been obvious all season.

It simply puts more pressure on the team's marquee players, schemers Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil, to deliver more. For the former, that means more goals.

Cazorla netted 12 times last season but has been limited to only six successful strikes this term. Injuries have played a part, but Cazorla has to find the net more often between now and the end of May.

As for Ozil, he has to start living up to his price tag. When you pay £42.5 million for a single player, you should be getting a consistent difference-maker.

Ozil certainly came to Arsenal as an overindulgent, luxury signing, but he is talented enough and has played in enough high-profile games to deliver in crunch time.

But Cazorla and Ozil are not the only midfielders who must do more. If Jack Wilshere is going to recklessly venture forward as often as he does, he has to produce more goals and assists.

Players like Jack Wilshere must deliver more.
Players like Jack Wilshere must deliver more.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Tomas Rosicky is often deservedly a key figure for Arsenal in the later stages of a season. But he has to merit that status every time he is selected.

It was disturbing to see Arsenal create so little at Stoke, despite starting with Wilshere, Rosicky and Cazorla on the field. That hints at a worrying lack of initiative and determination to open packed defences and turn tight games.

Wenger won't be able to add the necessary pace in attack, along with power and drive in midfield, until the summer. So he needs his playmakers to be prolific, both in terms of creating and scoring goals.

Arsenal cannot afford any more timidity this season. Their next four league games take them to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Everton, as well as entertaining Manchester City. They'll also host Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final.

The ultimate fate of Arsenal's season will likely be set by the end of those five games. The Gunners don't need to panic, but they must also be brave enough to seize their chance.


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