“It’s not a failure” Giannis Antetokoumpo.
Different sport, different country. But those words could well have come from the lips of Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta following his team’s late season capitulation in the Premier League title race. Many Arsenal fans would surely concur, if the social media reaction to accusations of “bottling” the title challenge is anything to go by.
To be clear, I completely agree. I cannot in clear conscience describe a second-place finish in a league as competitive as the Premier League as a failure, and that’s even before we get into the context. If they win their last game on Sunday, Arsenal could finish as much as 11 points clear of the team behind them in third place. Seriously, if Arsenal’s season is a failure, what then is Liverpool’s? Or Chelsea’s?
For one thing, consider pre-season expectations. Only the most optimistic of Gunner fans could have predicted back in August that Arsenal would be in a two-way title tussle with Man City. Certainly not one that would see Arsenal lead the table for as long as they did or establish a lead large enough to put them in control of their own fate.
For another thing, consider the identity of their eventual conquerors. Triple-chasing defending champions, winners of four of the previous five titles, financial and sporting behemoth, Manchester City. The size of the challenge was always such that the young Gunners were always underdogs.
If Arsenal had been offered a second place finish at the start of the season, they’d have gladly taken it. Heck – this is a club that hasn’t been in the Champions League since 2017 – they’d have gladly taken 4th!
In that light, there’s no way this season can be described as a failure for Arsenal.
But they did “bottle” the title challenge.
There’s no other way to describe the manner in which their form fell apart in the run-in.
To be clear, the mere fact of losing a points advantage in a title race does not in of itself define a “bottled” challenge. A loss is a loss, but there are ways to lose that leave any talk of “bottling” out of the question. Watching a five-point lead become an eight-point deficit is not one of them. Nor is dropping 15 points (from 24) in an eight-match stretch at the business end of the season, ceding the title with three games to play.
Arsenal entered the final 9 games with plenty of wriggle room and the wind in their sails. They had dropped just two points (from 27) in their prior nine matches. That was title-winning form.
What followed was distinctly not. What followed bore all the hallmarks of a “bottled” title challenge:
A no-win streak? Check. Arsenal went four consecutive games without a win…they are currently on a two-game no-point, no-goal run. Losing points from a strong winning position? Check. Arsenal lost an early two-goal lead and dropped two points….twice…back to back.
Losing points to “weaker” opposition? Check. Arsenal needed a stirring comeback to take one point against bottom-club Southampton..at home, where they also lost to Brighton…and then lost at Nottingham Forest.
Now just compare that to the record of the last team to blow a lead this late in a Premier League season: Liverpool in 2013/14.
Brendan Rodgers’ side famously lost a home match to Chelsea – on the back of that unfortunate Steven Gerrard slip – and then followed that with a collapse at Crystal Palace where they let slip a three-goal lead in the final ten minutes.
It was classic crash and burn. Four points from those two games would have made Liverpool champions; they took just one, and Man City took the title by two points. For many Premier League fans, it’s the worst “bottle job” in Premier League history.
Yet, Arsenal’s 2022/23 capitulation is even worse.
For one thing, those five points were the only points Liverpool dropped in the last 14 games of that season. Arsenal, this season, have dropped 15 points in the last 13 matches.
And for another, that Liverpool team dropped points in only two of their last 14 games, losing just once. Arsenal have dropped points in six of their last 13 matches, of which they’ve lost three.
Imagine this: had Arsenal dropped five points – or even eight points – in this title run-in they would still be in the title race going into the final day.
That must be the one regret of this season for Arteta and his young Gunners. An opportunity lost from a position of strength. They reached new heights this season; won a lot of games, played exciting, entertaining football and deservedly earned a place back in the Champions League.
But a successful campaign will also be remembered for a spectacularly “bottled” title challenge.