There was a time when the Arsenal team was populated by young, naive players. Then there was a period when the club could not afford the same wages and transfers fees as other leading clubs. There was always a reason why Arsenal’s title hopes, Champions League dreams or aspirations to win the FA Cup floundered in February.
Not so now. They are awash with experience in Mikel Arteta, Olivier Giroud, Mathieu Flamini, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna. And they paid the biggest summer transfer fee in the Premier League to buy Mesut Ozil.
The time for excuses is over. They compete on a level playing field with the elite and if their season implodes against Liverpool in the FA Cup today and against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday, having taken just five points out of the last 12 in the Premier League, the days of pleading mitigation for Arsene Wenger will be over.
But the manager disputes the claim his teams capitulate at this time of year.
“We are much more mature than we were at that time,” he said. “But, you know, people say that we collapsed, we crumbled. But if you collapse, you finish 10th in this league. So, we never crumbled, we always finished strong. If you look at the number of points we have taken at the end of the season, you will see that we never collapsed, despite some big disappointments.”
Still, even if Jose Mourinho’s jibe about Wenger being “a specialist in failure” was the cheapest of shots, Wenger knows that the definitive part of the season is upon them.
“We’re like the guy who goes to the Olympic Games and after he prepares for four years, it’s one race that will define his success,” he added.
“That’s it. I think we have shown quality until now and we have just to continue to focus on the quality and to expect that will decide the results.”
Club captain Arteta insists there are reasons to be optimistic for today’s clash with Liverpool, despite last weekend’s 5-1 defeat.
” I can’t wait to play Liverpool again,” said Arteta. “I want to get last weekend out of my system and get a very different result.
“I have never experienced anything like that before in my career. It was soft. We conceded two set-pieces really early in the game and after that we had to open up against, for me, the two best strikers in the Premier League at the moment. With their pace, they exploited that really well. After 20 minutes when it is 4-0, it was a big hurt.
“We have been very solid throughout the season. We’ve just had two big car crashes, at Manchester City and at Liverpool. Mentally those results have been very hard to take. But I think we have reacted well. Everybody knows that it wasn’t good enough what happened last weekend at Anfield. But we have tried to recover, to speak about it and to analyse what went wrong at Liverpool.
“It was completely different when Liverpool came here earlier in the season. We were the better team on the day; we were much better than them. So hopefully Sunday will be much more similar to the first game.”
Whether Arsenal can regain their confidence and go again seems unlikely, given the evidence of seasons past, though Wenger insists they will. “You learn from failure, that is for sure,” he said. “Especially intelligent people do, stupid people never do. The definition of stupidity is they make always the same mistakes.”
In which case, Arsenal should be able to correct the implosions in form that occurred in February 2008 and after the defeat in the 2011 League Cup final, again in February.
Equally they will presumably avoid the 4-0 defeat by AC Milan in February 2012 and the 3-1 defeat last February by Bayern Munich at The Emirates that effectively ended their Champions League participation, even if the second legs produced spirited comebacks.
In fact, it is the 2-0 win last season at Bayern Munich that precipitated the unbeaten run at the end of last season and sparked what has now been a year-long revival.
The bad news for Wenger is that Bayern are looking even better under Pep Guardiola, though Wenger remains sceptical of that claim. “How they are better I don’t know,” he said. “They won their championship, the Champions League, the Cup and the World championship [last year] so I donâ’t know what more they can do.
However, unlike last year under Jupp Heynckes, they are on course to match Wenger’s ‘invincible’ team by going an entire season undefeated. “They could do but they will lose, don’t worry,” said Wenger in a bullish moment. Perhaps he is rediscovering something of the authority of his 2003-04 team. He will need it this week. - Mail on Sunday