By Ewan Roberts
For Arsenal, March is unquestionably the cruellest month. The north Londoners, reeling from the news of Jack Wilshere's latest injury, play four of the Premier League's top seven in the coming weeks, face Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday and travel to the Allianz Arena to take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League. The campaign is racing towards its crescendo, yet the Gunners still feel so far away from the finishing line.
A once confident title bid now risks descending towards the usual scrap for fourth place, and a familiarly weary pessimism is returning to the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal enter a season-defining period needing to do something they have struggled to do for a long time: consistently pick up points in the big games and deliver performances befitting of a champion.
|TITLE CHALLENGERS' POINTS PER GAME
|FORM v TOP SEVEN versus FORM v THE REST
|PPG v TOP SEVEN||PPG v THE REST||INCREASE
In fact, they have the biggest drop-off in points accrued against the top seven compared to points achieved against the rest of the division, picking up 55 per cent fewer points per game against high-level opponents (2.5 down to 1.12). City, with their 75% win rate in this mini league of elite teams, actually pick up more points per game against the top seven (2.25) than against the rest of the league (2.16). City are a side for the big occasion, Arsenal appear little more than flat-track bullies.
Their two wins came earlier this season, against both a Tottenham team still dealing with the loss of Gareth Bale – he moved to Real Madrid on the very same day – and a Liverpool side yet to hit their free-flowing best. Both were at home. In their three away matches against top-seven sides, the Gunners have conceded 12 goals, a major worry ahead of trips to White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, not to mention a second leg in Munich needing to overhaul a two-goal deficit.
|FASTEST OUT OF THE BLOCKS
|HOW THE TITLE CHALLENGERS COMPARE IN FIRST 20 MINUTES v THE TOP SEVEN
After losing to Manchester United, former captain Cesc Fabregas once remarked: "Sometimes we seem scared of losing these big games. We don't really go for it." Almost four years later, and after another fruitless trip to Old Trafford, the excuses remain the same. "We were a bit nervous at the start, we didn't play our game," said Wenger in November after a 1-0 defeat.
That lack of belief and sense of fear is especially evident in the opening exchanges of matches, as Arsenal struggle to impose themselves. Their usual dominance of possession all too often evaporates and they are notoriously slow starters – a fact which made that dizzying, frenzied opening exchange against Bayern last month all the more conspicuous. Where had this Arsenal been hiding?
The Gunners have taken the lead in just three top-seven encounters – the fewest of the four sides still left in the title race – while Liverpool have struck first on seven occasions. Arsenal have scored just once in the opening 20 minutes but conceded five goals, while Brendan Rodgers' side, who effuse a confidence seldom seen by their north London title rivals (and which belies their underdog tag), have struck nine times in the opening period of top-of-the-table clashes.
|THE STRIFEL TOWER
|OLIVIER GIROUD'S MIXED FORM
|vs. TOP SEVEN||vs. THE REST|
GOALS PER GAME
'BIG' CHANCES SCORED
'BIG' CHANCES MISSED
'BIG' CHANCE %
Arsenal's fragile, passive mentality is exacerbated by an abundance of players who are good but not great. The prime culprit is Olivier Giroud, a player who can put minnows to the sword but loses his edge in key contests, and who will inevitably draw unfavourable comparisons with the man he replaced, a genuine big game performer, Robin van Persie.
The Dutchman scored 10 goals against top-seven sides in his final season in north London alone, while Giroud has netted just three times in 22 matches against teams in the upper echelons – only one of those was a match-winning strike. The former Montpellier man has fired only blanks in his seven outings against the top sides since netting against Spurs in September, and has never scored away from home.
Meanwhile, six of Van Persie's strikes in 2011-12 came away from the Emirates, while his goals were directly responsible for nine points in big games.
What is most interesting about Giroud, and which is true of most of the Arsenal team, is how much he buckles in big games. He has been presented with 17 clear-cut chances against top-seven sides and missed every single one, his shooting accuracy falls by 14% (in the 2013-14 campaign) and his conversion rate is almost cut in three, falling from 18.8% to 6.3% in big games. Is it any wonder, then, that Yaya Sanogo was preferred against Bayern when the leading man so often forgets his lines on the grandest of stages.
Giroud, though, is far from the only Arsenal player to underperform when it matters most, and there is a deeper rooted inferiority complex that pre-exists the Frenchman's arrival. It is imperative that Wenger finds a way to make his players believe they are worthy of lifting the Premier League title and arrest their big-game fallibility, otherwise March will bring only a wasteland of yet more dropped points and broken dreams.
*Statistics provided by Opta
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