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Jack: Same old Arsenal heading down the stretch?

Kristian Jack
3/1/2014 8:23:24 PM
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Britain's national weather service announced this week they had suffered their wettest winter ever.

Yet, when Arsenal's players woke up on Saturday morning, the calendar had turned to March and the sun was shining. In Stoke, of all places.

The white ball was back, a sign that the harshest conditions were behind us, but also a stark reality that the final stretch of the season was now here.

Arsenal's journey, in the marathon that is the Premier League season, had so far been a success with them spending much of the race out in front.

Many onlookers expected them to hit a wall but here they were in March, now, and the only thing remotely looking like a wall was a brief meltdown as they passed through the red half of Merseyside last month.

Four points against Manchester United and Sunderland, plus a win over Liverpool in the FA Cup, had put them back on track, sprinting into March with more and more believing they could be the first across the line when their race is run in Norwich on May 11.

Yet, still there were the non-believers.

"They have always been an outstanding team and they have great ability within their ranks," said Stoke manager Mark Hughes on Friday before going on to tell us what he really thinks: "but I just felt maybe they wouldn't have the ability to sustain a challenge. I think there are possibly stronger challengers, stronger teams that could take it away from them."

Arsenal's match with Stoke was only one of 38 encounters that will define their league season but given the time of the year and their history with this opponent, it felt much more than that.

It proved to be a test they failed miserably. The result went against them, losing 1-0, as did the decisions, a questionable penalty call and a missed red card for Stoke's Charlie Adam amongst them, but if Arsenal want the jury to make a decision on whether they are genuine title contenders, this would not be evidence they'd want to present them.

The Gunners were unimaginative in attack, too narrow and slow in tempo. They lacked the creative brilliance that has so often helped them this season and the sharpness in possession. As often happens when they struggle going forward, they look to have too many similar players; ball treasurers who demand it and flock towards it. Oh, how they missed a Theo Walcott, someone in attack who can sprint on to a ball rather than run towards it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is showing he will one day be a fine player, offered this in all-too-brief substitute appearance late on.

Stoke, of course, deserved credit for defending well and it should be noted that Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have also not won there this season, but the concerns for Arsenal didn't start and end with the final result.

"It's a defeat that hurts," said Wenger after the match. He added: "The consequences of this defeat could be very difficult to take and we will have to respond very quickly."

Wenger is not a man that allows a conclusion to be reached based on one game but the choice of consequence as a word shows he has a concern that the league challenge could slip away.

Arsenal ended the day in third place on 59pts after 28 games, four points off leaders Chelsea.

On this same weekend four years ago, Wenger also met with the media at the Brittania Stadium after his team had won 3-1 against Stoke (to this day their only victory there in eight attempts). It was a sad day for the Frenchman after Aaron Ramsey had broken his leg but, despite being visibly angry and upset, Wenger admitted that he felt his team was very much in the title race after the win.

Arsenal ended that day in third place on 58pts after 28 games, three points off leaders Chelsea.

Arsenal faded down the stretch, going from an average of 2.07 points per game (PPG) to 1.70 in the last ten games, with 17 added to 58 to give them a total of 75. They finished third, 11pts back of winners Chelsea and they were out of the race with a month to go.

Two years earlier, on this weekend during the 2007-08 season, Arsenal led the league with 10 games to go, sitting on 65pts to Manchester United's 64 and Chelsea's 61.

At the end of the season, United won the title on 87pts (23 in their last 10 games), Chelsea finished second on 85pts (24 in their last 10 games) and Arsenal finished third on 83pts, going from an average of 2.32 PPG to 1.80 PPG (18pts in their last 10 games).

With 10 games remaining in the 2010-11 season, Arsenal were second on 57pts, just three points off leaders Manchester United.

Once again they faded down the stretch, going from an average of 2.04 PPG to 1.10 PPG, achieving just 11pts in their last 10 games to with a total of 68, in fourth, and 12pts back of winners Manchester United.
Arsenal hit their wall while the best got stronger.

2009-10 -- Chelsea 25pts from a possible 30
2010-11 -- Manchester United 20pts from a possible 30

That is the nightmare scenario that Arsenal fans are concerned about happening again.

The fixture list will ensure the Gunners will have their answer to this by early April. Of their last 10 league games, the four most difficult happen next - Tottenham (a), Chelsea (a), Man City (h), Everton (a) with the first three all happening this month, which also includes a trip to Bayern Munich and an FA Cup match against Everton. Talk about March Madness.

After that, Swansea, West Ham, Newcastle and West Brom all come to the Emirates while Hull and Norwich welcome the Gunners.

Last season, Arsenal achieved just 13pts from these 10 games (using Hull as Reading) losing at Tottenham, Chelsea and Norwich and at home to Man City and Swansea.

It is their difficulties against these teams, coupled with their recent history, as title contenders through 28 games, that leads many to believe Arsenal's pursuit of the finish line will fade quickly. Ironically, last season they ended the season extremely strongly, gaining 28pts from a possible 30 to qualify for the Champions League. Unfortunately, for them, at this time last season, they were already 24pts behind leaders Manchester United.

In the nine seasons since Arsenal last won the Premier League, the average number of points achieved by the champions in the last 10 matches has been 22, with the lowest being 19 coming by two teams who were running away with the league - Chelsea of 2004-05 and Manchester United last season.

Should Arsenal get 22pts from their last 10 games, that would give them 80pts, perhaps not enough to win the title but, likely, enough to maintain their challenge into May, and a haul that would show significant improvement considering they haven't gotten over the 75.

Arsenal players and fans are regularly told they have not won a trophy in eight years and, soon, that needs to change but, above all else, Arsenal finally need to be relevant title contenders into May, no matter who wins the league.

Recent history suggests even that moderate, achievable goal could be beyond them. Upon the marathon's completion, we won't just know if Arsenal were worthy title contenders, we will know if they were much better than their unsuccessful teams of the recent past.




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