Seriously, how has it come to this for Arsenal? Afforded all the pillars that should support a Premier League title triumph, here they are again out of the race and scrambling around to finish in the top four.
They have cash to burn, a squad of talented individuals, a manager who has had years to implement his ideas, and in this most barmy season a series of usual suspects all falling well below par.
Arsenal should be looking down from first on a pursuing pack, but instead they look over their shoulder from fourth as Manchester United stagger towards them like a drunk at closing time.
Louis Van Gaal’s team may be travelling at the speed of a poorly-fuelled tractor but they are still catching Arsenal, now just one point behind after beating Crystal Palace 2-0.
Sir Alex Ferguson coined the term Squeaky Bum Time for the final stages of a championship battle but Arsene Wenger will be clenching over a far more mediocre prize. He has insisted he will stay until his contract runs out in May 2017, at least, but his authority would be greatly undermined if Arsenal miss out on Champions League qualification.
Wenger has always accomplished his paymasters wishes by churning out elite European competition season after season and that is why his job has never really been under threat. But slipping below fourth would surely bring deep scrutiny.
West Bromwich Albion are the visitors to the Emirates on Thursday night, a likely home win whatever year. Victory would increase the gap to United to four points with four games to go and Wenger might be able to relax a little.
But this game is more complex than that. For a start, Arsenal have flat-lined since we entered 2016, winning just five of 14 Premier League games and drawing to the likes of Southampton, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Stoke. They have lost at home to Swansea. In the FA Cup they drew at home to Hull, and were beaten by Watford.
ARSENAL’S LEAGUE FIXTURES
- April 21 – West Brom (H)
- April 24 – Sunderland (A)
- April 30 – Norwich (H)
- May 8 – Manchester City (A)
- May 15 – Aston Villa (H)
MAN UNITED’S LEAGUE FIXTURES
- May 1 – Leicester City (H)
- May 7 – Norwich City (A)
- May 10 – West Ham (A)
- May 15 – Bournemouth (A)
Then there is West Brom. They may have long since secured safety but Tony Pulis will not allow his players to rest, particularly when punching the nose of one of the Premier League’s big beasts remains a possibility. His team gave Manchester City a fright at the Etihad and beat United last month.
Finally, the atmosphere at the Emirates – never a stadium to sing the roof off – is set to be shorn of around 2,500 season ticket holders who can’t manage, or be bothered, to show up. In such circumstances an anxious performance would not be a surprise.
Wenger was prickly in his pre-match press conference – he usually is this time of year – but he can have no complaints with the accusations levelled at him or his players. They were top at the halfway point, ahead of Leicester on goal difference. Leicester, who have no experience of fighting for a First Division title, let alone a Premier League one. Yet they held firm, Arsenal crumpled.
After 19 games reigning champions Chelsea were 19 points behind following their catastrophic start, United nine off, Spurs back four, and City three. All Arsenal’s traditional rivals were wounded, going through torment in the dugout or on the pitch, but it was the club with serenity all around that contrived to become paralysed by pressure and stall on accumulating points.
Now Arsenal are 13 points off first – albeit with a game in hand – and a familiar feel is gripping. Even groundhogs will be bored of this recurring story.
After 33 games last season Arsenal were 10 points behind Chelsea, the team in top. In 2013/14 they were again 10 back. In 2012/13 the gap to United was an astonishing 21 points. In 2011/12 it was a relatively median 15.
Come mid April, this is Arsenal’s customary position. So we should not be shocked. But when all the elements conspired to aid Wenger, his failure to yet again to mount a genuine bid is galling for fans.
In all probability Arsenal will come fourth, but that would owe more to United’s shortcomings than there own strides. But say United do rally to third and it is City who miss out in fifth, Arsenal could still be at risk of seeing the Champions League’s velvet rope whipped across their path.
City winning the tournament and Liverpool lifting the Europa League would mean the side finishing fourth in England misses out. While fighting for the title seems to have long since failed to inspire Wenger or Arsenal, that prospect should give cause for a performance against West Brom