Arsenal always find a way to choke


Arsenal? They find a way to lose. Or at least they find a way to choke. They find a way to blow it. It might be indiscipline, dressed up as passion. It might be a weak challenge that leads to an opposition goal. It might be a bad tackle that leads to a red card. It might be a failure to finish.

Or it might be immaturity. Because, let’s face it, this is a team that has acquired the secret of eternal youth. It never, ever seems to grow up. We keep waiting and waiting, and those of us who admire Arsene Wenger and the style of football his team play keep willing them to take the final step. But there is always something that gets in the way.

Yesterday, it was a rash, stupid, immature, unthinking tackle from Francis Coquelin that ruined their day. Coquelin was already on a yellow and Wenger had warned him at half-time that he had to be careful. But Coquelin is young and inexperienced and so he went to ground.

Harry Kane was not posing an imminent threat. He was galloping down the left wing when Coquelin dived in on him. It was not a nasty challenge but it was badly timed. And it was an obvious yellow. Even Wenger didn’t complain. There were still 35 minutes of the game to go.

Arsenal had been in control until then. They had not been dominating the game but they had kept Spurs at bay comfortably. Dele Alli and Kane had been relatively anonymous. The drubbing that many had expected Tottenham to dish out had not materialised.

When Arsenal took the lead before half-time, it was not undeserved. It was a fine goal, too. Danny Welbeck swept the ball out to the right, Hector Bellerin drove it into the middle and Aaron Ramsey flicked it beautifully past Hugo Lloris. The Frenchman got the faintest of touches to it but that was all.

Arsenal looked good. After their recent miserable run, after the injury to Petr Cech, a little confidence began to return at last. Win this and they would be level on points with Spurs and closing in on Leicester. Their fans would start to believe again.

But then they found a way. Then Coquelin dived in. Then Spurs equalised. Then Per Mertesacker allowed himself to be muscled off the ball in the corner and Kane scored a wonder goal. And the Arsenal fans in the ground stood in their section, disillusioned by the bitter sense of deja vu flooding over them.

Sure, Arsenal showed character to equalise and force the draw. And, no, Spurs didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, either. They should have been able to beat a team down to 10 men and reeling. They couldn’t. Missed opportunities all round.

But then Spurs were not expected to step into the gap left by Chelsea this season. Arsenal were. This was supposed to be Arsenal’s season. With Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all struggling desperately for form, Arsenal were supposed to step up and finally claim the title that has eluded them for so long.

If they don’t do it now, they will probably never do it. Not under Wenger anyway. That was why the game at White Hart Lane was so important to them. That was why they had to stand up. That was why they had to win and get back into the race. But they couldn’t get it done. Wenger knew it. He could not hide his disappointment after the match. He talked of the spirit his team had shown and their character. Up to a point, he was right. They had, as he said, ‘refused to lose’. But they had refused to win, too. Maybe that’s harsh but this is the run-in to the title we are talking about. It is not a place for faint hearts.

‘I have big regrets,’ Wenger said. ‘We looked like we were completely in control when we went down to 10 men. We made a mistake at 1-0. Coquelin knows he made a big mistake. He mistimed his tackle and got sent off.’

So after successive league defeats to Manchester United and Swansea, Arsenal made it one point from the last three games. To say they showed character in the last half hour is clutching at straws.

Character, at this level, is not making a stupid tackle that costs your team a victory. Character is not getting muscled off the ball when your backs are against the wall. Character is getting ahead in a game like this and staying ahead.

Instead, the brutal truth is that Arsenal threw it away. Again. Everybody keeps saying they are weak. Mentally and physically weak. Their friends say it, their enemies say it, some of their old players say it. Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Gary Neville say it. One opinion unites them all of them. Arsenal never replaced Patrick Vieira. Never got close. And they keep paying the price.

Yesterday, they did at least stop Tottenham’s charge. There is some comfort to be taken that. If Arsenal can’t win it, at least they pushed the nightmare scenario of Spurs triumphing instead a little further away. Maybe that will have to be enough for Arsenal. Another year in the Champions League places. Another year when they found a way to let the title slip away. – Mail On Sunday

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