I like to keep things fairly positive around here but I’m pretty frustrated today.
Frustrated because the same team which performed so admirably to knock over the Champions-to-be last weekend were so terrible, so out-of-sorts against Stoke on Sunday that it was embarrassing.
I would sound like a broken record if I said that our title challenge has faded badly this season. Sunday offered us the very last chance to stay on the heels of United and Chelsea and we failed the test miserably.
The defending on the set pieces was below par, the collective effort all over the pitch was lack and you have to ask why? Did our team believe they had nothing to fight for? Did they know that United would blow Chelsea away a couple of hours later to put nine fingers in the title and render our game meaningless?
It’s tough to believe that with the title on the line — and it was, make no mistake — we could perform so poorly. Even reliable heads like Djourou, Sagna and Szczesny didn’t look up for it today. As a team we were sloppy at the back, lethargic in the middle and lacking ideas in the final third.
Earlier in the season we beat Barcelona 2-1 at The Emirates. It was a wonderful night, a performance and result so strong as to make us believe that this group could take the final step. We followed that by failing to beat Leyton Orient and crashing and burning against Birmingham.
This team appears to have a problem with following a significant result in a big game with a similar result in a smaller game. The commonly cited reason for this is that our team are arrogant, that we do not treat smaller opponents with the same respect as the Uniteds, Chelseas and Barcelonas of the world.
It has merit of course, but could there be another reason? Could it be that this team — who were criticised so heavily for failing to beat the big teams last season have put too much emphasis on correcting the problem this time around? That the psychological resources have been drained by striving to make mark in the big games and performances against the little team have suffered as a consequence?
Last season we were the flat-track bullies of the league and couldn’t draw blood from the teams around the top. This season it has been the opposite. Surely next season a balance between the two is what is required?
It’s not possible to play every game at 100% in a season. But do you hit the big ones at 90% and the little ones at 60%, or hit both at 75%. That’s the balance that we need to find to merge the progression that we have made over the past two seasons.
Of course, balance means consistency. The mental strength that is so talked about is certainly there in some measure: a couple of flaky performances aside, we’ve shown tremendous resilience and focus in our away fixtures this season. We’ve knocked off United, Barcelona and Chelsea at home and generally-speaking done well in fiercely-contested games.
United will be the Champions this season because they have been the most consistent team in the league. They’ve won some big games and lost some big games, they’ve usually performed when they’ve needed too and they’ve created a great supporting atmosphere by winning most games at Old Trafford. They haven’t overly impressed but they’ve done enough to cross the line first.
For Arsenal the final two games are going to be fairly shallow, unemotional affairs. We’re more than likely going to finish third and there is very little to play for. For two games I will feel like a supporter of a club in mid-table: free of worry but without much hope, as unemotional a state of being as you can find in football.
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