For the second consecutive year, Arsenal found themselves top of the Premier League table on Christmas Day. Being top at Christmas has typically been a good omen for any title hopefuls as over the last 14 seasons, the side top on December 25th has gone on to be crowned champions on 10 occasions.
Fast forward just one week though and Arsenal were suddenly out of the title race according to some pundits. Back-to-back defeats immediately after Christmas not only pushed the Gunners down to fourth place in the table but got many people asking if they have again blown their shot at the title. As it is an interesting question, we wanted to take a look at it ourselves from a balanced perspective.
Ahead of the Premier League’s mini winter (FA Cup) break, the top of the table stood as follows.
With sixth-place West Ham trailing Tottenham by five points, it appears as though there is a competitive five-way title race on our hands. Based on the table alone, it seems foolish to discount Arsenal from the running as five points is hardly an insurmountable gap. This is especially true when remembering they still have to face Liverpool in north London.
A look at the betting gives you a significantly different picture of the title race, however.
According to the bookies, it is far more of a three-horse race but one led by Man City and Liverpool, while Arsenal desperately cling on. You should also bear in mind that Arsenal’s price tag is shorter than it might otherwise be because they have been a popular choice in the market. According to Oddschecker, they have attracted as many bets as Man City and more than Liverpool.
Still, it would only take Arsenal to capitalise on a couple of surprise defeats for Man City and Liverpool to put them firmly back in the mix. So, is it too soon to say the Gunners have blown their chance or is this little more than wishful thinking?
Yes – Arsenal Have Blown Their Chance
We will start with the argument that four points from a possible 15 during the festive period has all but ruined Arsenal’s title charge. Although the Gunners may prefer not to have the pressure of being the team to catch, having to make up points on other contenders is an issue. Mikel Arteta’s men do not look as strong as they did last season, a year that saw them finish five points short of clinching league silverware.
Defensively, they are on course to have a better record, partly thanks to William Saliba avoiding a serious injury this season. His absence proved telling last season as the Gunners instantly became more shaky without him. In attack though, the Arsenal frontline has struggled for inspiration for much of the campaign. On their current trajectory, they will end the season with 70 goals: 18 fewer than they managed last season.
Their top goalscorer in the league is Bukayo Saka who is on a mere six goals, two of which came from the penalty spot. It is this absence of a reliable source of goals that will make it extremely challenging for Arsenal to make up ground on Man City and Liverpool. The likes of Haaland (14) and Salah (14) are the kind of players that make all the difference in a title race.
While Arsenal are not hitting the same highs as last season though, you could say that neither are Man City. The big difference for the Citizens though is that for the entire campaign, they have been without one of the world’s best players, Kevin de Bruyne. With the Belgian now fit again and Haaland on the cusp of a return following a shorter layoff, City could see big improvements.
No – Arsenal Have Not Blown Their Chance
While the case for the Gunners having blown their title hopes is fairly convincing, there are few certainties in football. Optimistic Arsenal fans would be right to argue that it is normal for title challengers to suffer dips during the season. Man City and Liverpool have had theirs already but Arsenal’s is focussed on more because it’s the most recent.
Had the Gunners lost to Fulham and West Ham earlier in the season and climbed back to be five points from the top, the discourse surrounding them would be different. People can say momentum matters but Arsenal have not lost three league games in a row since April 2022. If they manage to beat Crystal Palace, as they are still firm favourites to do so, this should help steady the ship and quieten some of the critics.
How Important Is a Winning Mentality?
Although it takes a quality side to win the Premier League, the psychological aspect should not be overlooked. To bounce back after a defeat, or to get three points after a rival has won just before you, is as much about mentality as it is footballing ability. This is where Liverpool and Man City have the edge over Arsenal as the pair have become more accustomed to winning. Over the past four seasons (when Arteta took charge) City have picked up six major trophies and Liverpool three, compared to Arsenal’s one.
When you also factor in Arsenal had an eight-point lead after 29 games last season (City had a game in hand) plus their history of finishing just short, things do not look great for the Londoners. The north Londoners have won three Premier League titles but have finished runner-up seven times – the joint-highest record in the league tied with Manchester United.
Are Arsenal ‘Bottlers’?
Despite their tendency to finish just shy of the top spot, it would be unfair to label Arsenal as serial bottlers as usually they have not really been in the title race. When looking at their runner-up finishes, for the 1999/2000, 2000/01, 2004/05 and 2015/16 seasons, they finished at least 10 points behind a stronger adversary. It would be harsh to say they ‘bottled’ it in 1998/99 too as they only dropped points to fourth-placed Leeds away during the run-in.
There is a much stronger case for bottling in the 2002/03 season as Arsène Wenger’s men failed to win four of their last seven matches. If you consider this and the 2022/23 season as the only ones the Gunners have ‘bottled’ though, this is far from a poor record.