Mentally weak? Arsenal are at their best when backed into a corner

The Gunners, currently occupying third placed, are regularly dubbed as bottlers and lacking in courage, but their record this season, despite adversity, suggests otherwise
By Ewan Roberts

Few teams have an ability to endure quite like Arsenal, to find a crucial win when they need it most – and when it looks most unlikely. In the last few years, as the Gunners' wait for a trophy goes on, the club has seen plenty of drama and setbacks, from the sale of key players to calls for Arsene Wenger’s head. Yet, following a run of one loss in their last 12 games, they are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the 16th successive season.

Just when everything is doomed, just when hordes of tweets start appearing that begrudgingly read, 'I actually think I'm beginning to agree with Piers Morgan', just when St. Totteringham's Day looks an impossible dream, just when all hope is lost, that is when Arsenal start to come to life.

At the start of December, the club were 10th and roundly derided (as a point of reference, at that stage they were 12 points behind Manchester City in second place). Now, almost five months later, they are third (and just five points behind Roberto Mancini's side), written off and ridiculed no more.

2 0 4
2 0 4
2 1 7
4 2 14
5 2 16
6 3 21
3 5 21
But things got worse before they got better, with just five points accrued from a possible 15 in January (and with FA Cup and Champions League exits soon to follow). But, like they so often do, Arsenal dug in, recording back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since August – and consecutive 1-0 wins for the first time since January 2009 (when William Gallas and Emmanuel Adebayor still belonged to the red half of north London).

Since those one-goal victories over Stoke and Sunderland, the Gunners have conceded just six goals in the following eight games, registering an additional three clean sheets – only champions Manchester United boast a better defensive record over the same period.

Admittedly, across the season as a whole they have had mixed fortunes at the back. Steve Bould's behind-the-scenes work initially seemed miraculous as Arsenal shut out their opponents for the first 270 minutes of the campaign, but that soon went out the window and some laugh-out-loud horror performances took over.

Yet, they have conceded just 1.03 goals per game, a record bettered only by Manchester City. Meanwhile, on their travels, they have conceded just 14 goals this year (or 0.82 per match) – by some distance the best away record in the entire division. In fact, in the top five divisions in Europe, only Juventus (12), Bayern Munich (3) and PSG (12) have let in fewer away goals.

Mental grit, and real fighting spirit, is best showcased in the final moments of a game. Can a side push for an equaliser? Can they rally and find a late, winning goal? Can they hold off an onslaught from the opposition and preserve their lead? In Arsenal's case, the answer to most of those questions has been a resounding yes. No Premier League team has scored more goals in the final 15 minutes of matches than the Gunners (18), nor has any team conceded fewer goals (2).

Nor is there a team more scrupulous and stingy than Arsenal when winning, dropping just four points from winning positions (picking up 42 out of a possible 46 points) – they have never lost a match in which they have held the lead. That record is astounding when compared to the Gunners' top-four rivals; Chelsea have dropped 16 points, while Everton and Spurs have both dropped 21 points from winning positions.

The Gunners have also won each of the 10 matches in which they have been leading at half-time, the best record in the division.

7/1 Arsenal are 7/1 with bet365 to come from behind and beat Manchester United
When they have fallen behind, they have often found a way to respond. They have mounted a comeback on seven of the 14 occasions in which their opponent has scored first (claiming 15 points); only Everton (22 points) and Manchester United (28 points) boast a better turnaround record. But, the Gunners have +2 goal difference in matches where their opponent has scored first, the joint-second best (behind United, +7).

This isn't a new characteristic, but one that has existed for several seasons. Last year, for example, they managed to overhaul Tottenham's double-digit points advantage – though Spurs had a hand in their own downfall - after a calamitous start to the season.

But when the campaign reached the business end, Arsenal found a way to win. Even when talisman Robin van Persie stuttered, Arsenal did not. In the first half of the 2011-12 season the Gunners won just 18 per cent of the matches he failed to score in, from February onwards that figure rose to 55%.

This year they were forced to make do without the Dutchman entirely, watching on as he fired United to the title, but they have survived – despite not sufficiently replacing him. Instead they have the profligate Olivier Giroud and perennial substitute Lukas Podolski (who has completed 90 minutes on two out of 29 league appearances). But when they need a goal, they find a way. Someone, no matter how unlikely (Tomas Rosicky for example) steps up.

For so long Arsenal have been accused of being mentally brittle, lacking in resolve, but it is entirely unfounded. Few teams find solace in crisis quite like Wenger's men, finding form when they need it most, winning against all the odds - at the Allianz Arena, even. When they are allegedly dead and buried, backed into a corner, is when Arsenal are at their most dangerous.

Follow Ewan Roberts on