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The Gunners could end a nine-year trophy drought on Saturday but bottled the Premier League title race harder than ever and have not had the most thorough of tests in the cup

ANALYSIS
By George Ankers

The FA Cup final against Hull City is seen by many as an opportunity for Arsenal to make up for their Premier League disappointment, to finally end their nine-year wait for a trophy and show that there is progress being made after several seasons of inertia.

But has 2013-14 really taken the Gunners forward? Not by far, if at all. After starting so promisingly, Arsenal finished in their now-almost-customary position of fourth in the Premier League, ultimately irrelevant in the crucial days of the title race after flirting with a major breakthrough.

The north Londoners played excellent football at times, particularly during the first half of the season, and ended the campaign seven points off the top rather than last year’s 16. However, their tally of 79 points is only an improvement of six on last season, while the collapse of 2012-13 champions Manchester United distorts the picture.

In fact, Arsenal's goal difference is seven worse off than last season, and a defence that was once hailed ended up conceding more goals than in all but four previous campaigns under Wenger. Eight Premier League sides mustered more shots on goal, and the Gunners' average possession took a massive hit too, dethroning them as the division’s pass-masters.

Before the start of the season, it was pointed out that Manchester City and Chelsea were also going through similar transitions to that of United and that their prospects could suffer as a consequence. But both of those sides added more points (eight and seven, respectively) to their 2012-13 totals than Arsenal did in a far more stable summer.

As Liverpool’s remarkable performance proved, the opportunity was there to exploit but the Gunners bottled it. Their mental aptitude for a title challenge was the one thing that really needed progress, that has demanded it for years now, and it was that same thing that undid them once again.

Wenger’s men had daylight between themselves and the chasing pack at times – they were seven points clear at the end of November – but they lost credibility as true challengers when they were obliterated by their rivals. A 6-3 loss at Manchester City, a 5-1 evisceration by Liverpool and a 6-0 humiliation by Chelsea in their manager’s 1000th game. Defeats by Stoke City and Everton, as well as an own-goal-induced 2-2 draw with Swansea City, confirmed that Arsenal had blown their chance.

The Gunners won only one of eight matches against the rest of the top five, enduring the worst record amongst the top-of-the-table mini-league, with a dire points per game average of 0.6 against their rivals only marginally less embarrassing than their -22 goal difference.

There is no particular progress to be found on the European front, either. Though unlucky to draw Bayern Munich in the last 16 for the second season in a row, the Gunners were no closer at all to beating the German giants one year on after a virtually identical group-stage performance.

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Even their run to the FA Cup final is not necessarily a sign that things are different at the Emirates Stadium. All four of Arsenal’s cup matches that could have been played at home were – playing into their markedly better home form in the league than away – and, as soon as they had to play elsewhere, they nearly folded and required penalties to see off second-tier Wigan at Wembley.

Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are, at least, good teams to beat but, save a draw with the Toffees, all were given the same treatment when visiting the Emirates in league play.

This all, of course, must be couched in the context that Arsenal have not yet won the cup. Their mental strength still has not been tested and all the pressure will be on Wenger and his troops at Wembley.

After all, though the Londoners should comfortably win on paper, this Hull team are a better one than the Birmingham City who so embarrassed the Gunners in the League Cup final of 2011. Four years previously, Arsenal had lost in the final of the same competition to Chelsea. There is an acclimatisation to losing for which the current squad have shown the same proclivity as ever.

It is the same kind of unwillingness or inability to step up and do what must be done that now sees Bacary Sagna on the verge of playing his last game for the club on Saturday. Once again, Arsenal will be set back by seeing a very good – or, in some cases, better – player leave in search of bigger money and titles elsewhere, and he may well end up strengthening a Premier League rival.

Whatever happens at Wembley, Arsenal will not be any significant distance further ahead of where they were at this time last year.

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