Are Arsenal Now Winning Simply Because They Are Under No Pressure?April 24, 2015
Arsenal: the perennial underachievers, the constant fourth-placers. The butt of jokes, the deluded with visions of grandeur. The team players left to actually go and win things.
Up until last year, the Gunners were all of that. They hadn't won a single trophy in the best part of a decade until the extra-time FA Cup victory over Hull City last term, and now they stand on the cusp of retaining that particular piece of silverware, with another final looming next month against Aston Villa.
Also sitting in second place in the league and with a game against Premier League leaders Chelsea on Sunday, the question has to be asked: Have Arsenal genuinely become a better side who are beginning to return to winning ways, or are they simply playing with the freedom and lack of fear created by lowered expectancy and no pressure being on them?
Last year's FA Cup final was a different story. With several finals in the preceding years having ended in predictable disappointment, even playing against a relative minnow in Hull was a big deal for the Gunners to contend with.
They were heavy favourites of course, yet still went two goals down early on and struggled to cope with the occasion. It took 120 minutes to seal the win and end the drought, thus also bringing to an end the mental block which comes with not having seen through any of their previous silverware charges.
The first is always the hardest, we sometimes hear from managers. Well, it wasn't Arsene Wenger's first, but it was certainly that particular team's first.
With that comes the knowledge and confidence that, when they reach those latter stages again, they are capable of seeing the job through, winning the games that matter and engraving their name on the cup.
So what about the Premier League?
Think back to New Year's Day. The Gunners had just been beaten by Southampton—rivals for the top four spots at the time. Shortly before that they had succumbed to a 2-2 draw at Anfield against 10 men, having led Liverpool—another top-four rival—heading into injury time. Just a few games afterward, they'd lose to Tottenham Hotspur, both a derby match and, you guessed it, a top-four rival.
These weren't isolated incidents. They were games against direct competitors, within six weeks or so of each other, and they took only one point from them.
Following those fixtures, Arsenal were in sixth and a massive 14 points off top spot already. There was no title race for Wenger and his team. That ship sailed long before, and all that mattered was a five-way fight (at the time, Manchester City and Chelsea being way above the chasing pack) for three Champions League places.
The positive thing for the Gunners was, they had just gotten through their run against the sides around them. They didn't take many points from those big games, but they were still in the mix. It's also not to say they didn't take any points from big matches: A 2-0 win at Manchester City was seen as a marker, while Southampton themselves were also beaten 1-0 back at the beginning of December, just before the run mentioned above.
Of course, time has shown Manchester City's own mentality and consistency to be far more fragile than expected, while Saints have fallen off the map somewhat.
In any case, Arsenal could then focus on playing teams in the lower half of the table, interspersed with the odd critical fixture. An eight-game win streak in the Premier League has been the end result since the derby defeat to Spurs, while in all competitions, Arsenal have 12 wins in 13, counting the extra-time win over Reading in the FA Cup semi-final.
Leicester City, Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United and Burnley have figured among the teams that Arsenal have dispatched in that run. None are sides that should trouble the Gunners, and none are also games that would really demand particular scrutiny on any given weekend.
Arsenal have been, by and large, able to play with freedom and almost flying below the radar—at least until they came up against Liverpool. A 4-1 win answered that question, as the Gunners' confidence and systemic balance, well in place by that point, made the difference in clinical style.
As the points mounted up, the Gunners climbed higher in the table, into the top four and then into the top two as City have imploded.
But is it really because they have been the "second best"? Or, as the team has developed, is it because there was no longer an expectation on them to perform? There was no early comeback. There was no breathing new life back into the title race. It has been a steady (and impressive) ascension, but at no point has anybody given any credence to Arsenal being capable of winning the league, simply because Chelsea were always so far ahead.
And that's the big point of the matter: Would the Gunners have continued to pick up the wins if they had been closer and knew that the eight successive wins would bring them into this weekend's games level on points with Chelsea?
The choking Arsenal of previous seasons would have to, undeniably, answer that question with a sorrowful "no."
Against Chelsea, the objective for the game will be easy for Wenger: He may as well go for the win.
His side have in place a huge safety net to fifth, and the margin to Chelsea is practically insurmountable at this stage. With Manchester United having dominated and still lost to the table toppers last week, Wenger is in a no-lose situation. If his team attack and get beaten, it will be "same old Jose Mourinho." Louis van Gaal got away with being furious about the manner of being beaten, so Wenger can do so too without any real damage to his name. Fail to attack and still lose, and it's a different story.
Either way, the top four looks set for Arsenal once again...which brings us to the Champions League, and perhaps the marker for why we can still label Arsenal as improving because they are playing under no pressure, rather than simply improving in general terms.
When it has mattered in the games on the big stage, Arsenal again continued to fall short. Their abysmal defeat at home to Monaco essentially ruined their hopes of progression in Europe, and the better display away in the second leg was rendered irrelevant—Europe is a two-legged affair and has been for time out of mind. You must perform in both to deserve progression.
Next term, the Gunners will have another chance, Arsene Wenger will have another chance...but Arsenal won't be top seeds. The changes to the system mean Chelsea will be the only top-ranked club in each group and the Gunners will be paired with the winners of a major European top flight, quite possibly alongside another big club who would usually be a "second seed" or similar.
Perhaps Arsenal go into the new season as FA Cup holders and Premier League runners-up.
Combined, they are a nice indication of domestic excellence, very nearly dominance. But the fact is that nobody sees Arsenal as a dominant force, at home or abroad. The summer will be an opportunity to build on what has gone right, to harness the stronger mentality and improved consistency...unless the "old" Arsenal shows up, of course, and lets the chance of a highest finish for 10 years and successive seasons lifting silverware slip through the net.
Can they perform under pressure? We'll see.