Thursday, April 25, 2024

Bottle

Good morning, Tim Stillman here filling in while blogs makes his way back from the Big Apple (normal service will be resumed on the blog tomorrow). In the wake of the 2-2 draw at West Ham on Saturday, one of the conversations that has developed in the wider media is around whether or not the Gunners are showing signs of the strain of the title race getting to them.

It’s an interesting question that doesn’t have a straight forward answer, largely, I think because it deals with semantics. Miguel Delaney wrote an interesting piece in the Independent positing that Arsenal are showing signs of the pressure but it’s written with a sympathetic tilt, that Manchester City have set the bar so ridiculously high to win the league that anything short of perfection adds up to failure, ultimately.

We had Lee Dixon on the Arsenal Vision Podcast last week and he spoke about the pressures he and his team felt during the 1989 league title run-in where he admitted that the pressure really did get to the team in those final weeks. In Lee’s mind, Arsenal only won the league in the extraordinary fashion they did at Anfield that year because the ending was so unlikely that it removed the pressure from their shoulders.

Lee said the squad felt they had already thrown the league away by the time they travelled to Anfield on May 26. Applying that calculation to this season and this group, he warned, “They don’t know what’s coming.” On Sky Sports last night, Jamie Carragher addressed the question as to whether Arsenal are “bottling it” an irritating phrase now seemingly applied to anyone that doesn’t win every single match and trophy on offer. (It’s less irritating when used to describe Tottenham’s failures, however. Then it’s just funny and obviously accurate).

Carragher’s conclusion lines up with my own, that tossing away two goal leads on consecutive weekends was much more due to cockiness than it was pressure. And who knows, maybe that cockiness (assuming that’s what it was) is just a different manifestation of pressure?

There was an interesting question on this week’s Arsecast Extra that asked whether the absence of pressure is more of a problem for Arsenal than pressure itself. I thought it was an excellent question. I agree with both Jamie Carragher and Mikel Arteta that you don’t start games the way we did at Anfield and the London Stadium if the pressure is getting to you.

Arsenal have responded to pressure positively on countless occasions this season- even going back to just before the World Cup when City dropped points ahead of consecutive away games at Chelsea and Wolves and each time Arsenal responded favourably with a strong performance and a deserved win. Obviously, April is different to November but it’s not strain or fatigue I have detected over the last two games, I definitely think Arsenal got into too much of a comfort zone.

I do wonder whether the manager consistently talking up “The Anfield factor” was a blocker to properly learning the lessons from that game last week. We saw in the ‘All or Nothing’ documentary that when Arsenal played at Anfield last season, Arteta really imposed the idea that Anfield is somehow different to his players and I don’t think it was helpful. In his post-match interview following this season’s game he described it as “this magical place.” Again, I suspect it might have been unhelpful to ascribe the lessons required to some kind of “magic” rather than the fundamentals of the team’s play.

Pressure does funny things to a team so maybe the complacency we have seen can be ascribed to stress but I am not convinced. When Arsenal lost three games on the bounce last April that, to me, looked far more like a team who was feeling the significance of the games they were playing.

Clearly, the game at Manchester City on April 26 has had a giant red ring around it for some time and maybe there is something to be said for Arsenal to go into it as underdogs, as Lee Dixon and his teammates did at Anfield on May 26, 1989. One thing is for sure, however the players are responding to the strain, we fans are not elite athletes (well, some of you might be!) and we certainly will feel the strain in the coming weeks.

There were some other things I thought I would address in this blog, like Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe and Rob Holding and their futures at the club. I think we can see Arsenal are ahead of schedule in terms of where they are in the league because the squad build is clearly not quite done yet. I think there are some players around the edges who may well be emptying their lockers at Colney this summer but I might leave some meat on that bone for Blogs in the coming days because I imagine not a lot will come out of Arsenal before Friday’s game against Southampton.

Just finally, as if one stressful title race were not enough, Arsenal Women travel to top of the table Manchester United tomorrow evening. A defeat probably makes the league title unlikely for them this season, a win blows the whole thing wide open and not unlike their male counterparts, the women have a big red ring around the calendar for a trip to defending champions Chelsea on May 21. It’s all heating up and I need a lie down!

We’ll have the usual coverage of that game and the upcoming semi-final against Wolfsburg over on Arseblog News and on Thursday, we will have an Arsenal Women Arsecast featuring exclusive interviews with Jen Beattie, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Victoria Pelova. There might be something else to look out for later this morning for Arsenal Women fans too.

I will have a new column out on Thursday as usual but, until then, take it easy!

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