For 248 days, Arsenal led the way.
When squeaky-bum time kicked off at the beginning of April, with just nine games of 38 left to play, then Premier League leaders Arsenal were eight points clear of champions and chasers Manchester City, albeit having played a game more.
No team have ever held such a large lead in the penultimate month of the season in the Premier League era and not gone on to win the title. Nor have a team led for this long then stumbled, falling into second spot.
So how did the Gunners misfire and become cannon fodder for Pep Guardiola’s treble-chasing juggernaut?
Lacking in experience
According to football data portal Transfermarkt, the Gunners have the joint-youngest average age of any team in the Premier League this season (24.4 years), alongside relegated Southampton. At 24, playmaker Martin Odegaard is the second-youngest skipper in the league, after West Ham United’s Declan Rice, who is also 24.
Arsenal’s other key players include wide forwards Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli (both 21), who along with Odegaard, have combined for over half of their 83 Premier League goals this season. William Saliba, 22, has been their indisputable defensive linchpin.
However, Gary Neville, who was part of Manchester United’s multiple title-winning Fergie’s Fledglings in the 1990s and 2000s told Sky Sports: “You never win your first title easily... You need vast experience to come through and I always wondered whether Arsenal had that experience.”
But he also lay the blame at Arsenal’s older heads like Thomas Partey (29) and Granit Xhaka (30). The former England defender noted: “The experienced players have just not been quite there for them.”
“The (United) Class of 92 did not win that first league because of the Class of 92. We won it because of Roy Keane, because of Steve Bruce, because of Gary Pallister, because of Eric Cantona and because of Peter Schmeichel,” he said of the Red Devils’ senior players.
Former Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira – who captained the Invincibles of 2003-04, the last Arsenal side to win the league – suggested the current team need “more personality”.
He told Sky Sports: “Odegaard has been the technical leader on the field but what they are missing is this physical presence, this leadership where people can get at the back of players when they are not performing. They will have to build a team with more personality, more competitiveness.”
Succumbing to pressure
After holding an eight-point lead at the top of the league at the beginning of April, a historically unassailable advantage, Mikel Arteta’s side then took just nine points from the next 24 on offer.
For a team that were young and callow, did the pressure of their title tilt get to the Gunners?
Neville opined on Twitter: “Young players becoming tense and losing their freedom of expression and others showing too much emotion when calmness is needed... At elite level, we must still recognise when pressure has taken its toll.”
Vieira agreed, saying that in the last 10 games, teams are “playing games to win and when you play those, the pressure is different”.
Mental performance consultant Mark Bowden, who works with several Premier League players, believes Arteta has made progress in helping his charges cope with pressure, even if it proved too burdensome this time.
He told Sky Sports: “Arteta has started to make some extremely big inroads into protecting Arsenal against what’s called ‘red-brain bias’. It’s that fight-or-flight side – when the stakes are a little bit higher, the crunch time of the season, our brain’s instinct is to respond to stress by going into more stress, and that’s where we lose our performance.
“You could turn round and ask why Manchester City don’t do this. They’ve got the experience and evidence in their heads.”
Injuries and squad depth
When Arteta was able to field his first-choice starting XI, the Gunners tended not to drop points. But as the season wore on, a combination of injuries and fatigue took its toll.
The Gunners dealt with the long-term absences of Emile Smith Rowe and marquee signing Gabriel Jesus admirably, but the loss of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Partey during parts of the run-in has been much tougher. Sailba and Martinelli are out for the rest of the season.
But Neville believes the Gunners have not been derailed by an injury crisis, noting on Sky Sports that “every team in a title race have a player missing” and that this was not a case of Arsenal missing five or six players.
However, ex-City defender Micah Richards wrote in his Daily Mail column: “The lack of depth in their squad, compared to the options City have, has proved decisive in the final weeks.”
Vieira opined that those “missing pieces” are a centre-back and a right-back, “more physicality” in midfield, before adding that they need “players capable of scoring goals” up front.
A case against the defence
Before April 9, Arsenal conceded an average of 0.93 goals per game in the Premier League over 29 matches. In the following seven matches, that ratio spiked to 2.0 per game.
Even at home, where the Gunners have the third-best record in the league, they have let in 25 goals in 18 matches, the most since they moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006. That tally is worse than all but five teams this term.
Those figures are even more stark considering the Gunners had the best defensive record in the league before the World Cup break in November.
The stats point to former United boss Alex Ferguson’s much repeated mantra that “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”.
Many have pointed to the season-ending injury to Saliba in March as the catalyst for Arsenal’s defensive downturn. Before that, Arteta’s side kept 12 clean sheets in 27 matches, letting in a ratio of 0.93 goals per game in the process. In the subsequent 10 matches, they kept one clean sheet and conceded an average of 1.8 goals per game.
Neville and fellow former England defender Jamie Carragher, however, do not believe the Frenchman’s injury was the turning point.
Former Liverpool defender Carragher told Sky Sports: “After the World Cup, they were looking completely different defensively. They were still getting the results, but they were conceding goals.
“Then, without Saliba, they dropped even further. That’s where they have lost it. With Saliba, they were still top of the league, but this idea that they weren’t conceding goals, or looking vulnerable with Saliba at centre-back is a myth.”
In the 14 games after Qatar 2022, with Saliba still available, Arsenal went from the stingiest defence in the league to only the 10th-best. They have dropped further to 12th since Saliba’s injury.
Neville said Arteta – Guardiola’s former assistant – has to take some of the blame for his failure to adapt. He told Sky Sports: “Look what Pep was doing 10 or 12 games ago when he was playing Rico Lewis or Bernardo Silva (at left-back). He then started to play four centre-backs.
“City have probably played their most pragmatic football in these last 10 games... But he started to get clean sheets, he started to be really serious about the defending.
“If you look at Arsenal in these last few weeks... they never adapted, they always continued to play the same way, and that’s really cost them.”
Part of Arsenal’s problem might have nothing to do with them. City have been too good. Just ask Liverpool.
The Reds have racked up points tallies of 92, 99 and 97 in three of the past four seasons. All rank in the top 10 points totals in Premier League history. Only once – 99 in 2019-20, the second-highest total ever – was it enough to pip Guardiola’s side to the title.
Their 92- and 97-point campaigns are the only times any team in the top 10 of the list did not win the title. Arsenal will not even reach 90 points this term.
Meanwhile, City’s class of 2022-23 will be anointed as their greatest ever if they go on to emulate their local rivals and win the treble – they are strong favourites in the Champions League and FA Cup finals against Inter Milan and United respectively.
As Richards wrote in his Daily Mail column: “City are in an incredible position now, with their strength, and if they are going to be stopped again next year in the Premier League, a team are going to have to be flawless.”
Even the stats boffins think so.
Simon Gleave, head of sports analysis at Nielsen’s Gracenote, told the BBC that following Arsenal’s win over Tottenham Hotspur on Jan 15, they used their Euro Club Index to estimate how many points both the Gunners and City would finish the season with.
This accounted for “the strengths of the two teams, the strength of their opponents and home advantage in those matches”.
He said: “Arsenal’s expected points total now is 81 points, exactly what they have. However, Manchester City’s expected points total after 35 matches is 78...
“City have therefore outperformed expectations by seven points since mid-January, even taking account of the fact that our Euro Club Index rates them as the No. 1 team in Europe.”
But not all is lost, as David Seaman, who won three league titles in 13 seasons at Arsenal, told the BBC: “This is where we should be, in contention. They have had an amazing season – that’s not in doubt.
“This has to be the new normal for Arsenal. The expectation should be to win trophies and the mentality is changing.”