The end was all too familiar. Arsenal were in fourth place, their habitual home, and Arsene Wenger was fielding questions if a title challenge was in effect over by December.
He had complained about the refereeing decisions he saw. Others diagnosed a mental fragility. The only unusual element at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday came with Wenger’s mentions of lions and zoos.
They were eye-catching and diversionary, but it was another setback for Arsenal that could be assessed with a regular question: what if? What if Santi Cazorla and Shkodran Mustafi had been fit? The Spaniard had lent positional nous and the passing ability to spring counter-attacks when they won at the Etihad Stadium in January 2015.
Arsenal have taken 2.15 points per league game, which can be title-winning form, with midfielder in the starting XI since the start of the 2013/14 season, but that drops by half a point in his regular absences.
The German is yet to finish on the losing side in an Arsenal shirt. His erratic deputy Gabriel threatened to conjure the own goal of the season by cannoning a clearance into an unfortunate Hector Bellerin.
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Thankfully for all concerned, the rebound flew to Petr Cech, not past him. The Brazilian nevertheless only succeeded in underlining Mustafi’s importance.
It conformed to a recurring theme. Arsenal have proved time and again that they can secure a top-four finish even when deprived of pivotal performers. The last dozen years, however, feature too many examples of title challenges crumbling when injuries occur for them just to be coincidence.
Most cruelly, there was Eduardo’s horrific leg break at Birmingham in 2008, a game that not merely deprived Arsenal of the striker but had a psychological effect on his teammates. But their form nosedived again when Robin van Persie was injured in November 2009. Their results were dramatically different when Laurent Koscielny was missing in 2012/13. They were top when an in-form Aaron Ramsey was injured in December 2013 and fourth when he returned four months later. Cazorla’s knee injury eventually came at a cost last season.
At each stage, Arsenal have showed they have had enough of a squad to prosper in some fixtures, but not all. They are specialists in plotting a path to an eventual total of between 67 and 79 points, but have only reached the 80 barrier that potential champions need to pass once since 2004/05.
It lends itself to the conclusion that Wenger’s strongest XI can compete but that his squad players are sometimes found wanting, something Arsenal may attribute to the heavier investment at other clubs as his youngsters or less impressive buys are exposed. Yet it is also evidence of a frailty in a group that has lost leads twice in five days, just as many of their predecessors had a propensity to suffer hugely damaging spells.
Arsenal may cast their eyes up the table enviously. Antonio Conte’s preferred XI have barely been affected by injuries. Nor were Leicester City last season. Yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. Consider the other champions of the past decade, the various Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United sides and a common denominator is that they found a way to win without key performers. Stand-ins stood up or the collective compensated.
Arsenal can muddle their way to fourth, not first. They are constants in a much-changed world. This year has brought a revival of great-man theory as egotistical individuals with delusions of greatness believe they can change history through force, and cult, of personality. Arsenal’s variant on it is an idiosyncratic inversion. They seem unable to attain greatness without certain crucial characters. It has been Mustafi and Cazorla of late, but it might have been Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, or Cech and Koscielny.
When Arsenal operate at their optimum, they have the class of champions. Yet it is that inability to sustain title-winning form in the absence of pivotal players that ensures their wait to lift the trophy dates back to 2004 and may extend for some time to come. It is why Wenger’s team are not lionised.
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