In one way, this campaign appears typical of Arsenal’s seasons under Arsène Wenger over the last ten years – a slow start, leaving them with ground to make up, followed by an upturn in the New Year that sees them stabilise their position.
However, this time around, it feels different. For a start, the gap to the leading clubs is now too big to bridge, and for another, the recovery has started later, which means that there is little chance of cracking the top four. In order to snatch a Champions League qualifying place, the Gunners would need to win all their remaining games, and hope that two teams out of Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham go on a very bad run. That’s a combination of events that seems very unlikely.
According to the betting markets, things are unlikely to improve next sesaon. Arsenal are currently sixth favourites to win the Premier League and can generally be backed at around the 26.0 mark; a sad decline for a manager and a club that once challenged regularly for top-flight honours.
Inconsistency appears to be Arsenal’s problem. Whereas other top teams go on long unbeaten runs while losing the occasional game, Arsenal this season have blown hot and cold. Their longest run of what could be described as good form came between 3rd December and 3rd January when they went seven games without defeat, but that run included five draws, including dropped points against West Ham, Southampton and West Brom.
If their only defeats had come against top-five clubs, it would at least be a consistent picture of the level that this team has been at. However, while they have lost twice to Manchester City and once each to Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United, they have also suffered defeats against Watford, Stoke, Bournemouth, Swansea and Brighton.
The only hint of consistency from the Gunners this season has been their terrible away form. It took them until 22nd October to win an away game, and they’ve only won four out of 15 on the road so far. That’s a terrible record, but it’s also a symptom of one of their main causes of inconsistency – an inability to dig deep and battle. Away games at the “lower” clubs can be a physical and psychological test, and while Arsenal have always played good football under Wenger, they regularly fold when games turn into a physical contest.
That particular failing is partly down to Wenger. He could, after all, drill them to be as organised and resilient as Burnley, and he could have brought in one or two tougher players, but he hasn’t. Not only that, but Wenger has also been criticised for not being more demanding of his players. Watching them, you do not get the impression that they are frightened of the consequences of putting in a poor performance. When top players coast through games, they will sometimes be able to win on sheer talent alone, but often they will be outbattled by opponents who are giving their all.
Another way in which Wenger has contributed to their inconsistency is in his continual rotation of the squad and unusual selections, many of which have baffled fans and must be unsettling for players who don’t know where or whether they will be playing from one week to the next.
While their late surge may ease some of the pressure on Wenger, there is no reason to assume that next season will progress in a significantly different manner. If Arsenal are to leave their inconsistency behind next year, a new manager must be the summer priority.