Is it really a collapse if everyone sees it coming?
Arsenal's fall from the top of the table has been predicted since early autumn. With the season-opening defeat against Aston Villa behind them, Arsene Wenger's side, buoyed by the acquisition of Real Madrid star Mesut Özil and the spectacular form of Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey, were sweeping aside the competition. But even when the Gunners began December seven points clear of second-placed Liverpool, there were doubts about their ability to mount a sustained title challenge.
Why? There were a number of reasons, not all of them good ones. Undoubtedly, many were talking down Arsenal's chances simply because they didn't want to see the Gunners as a legitimate contender, but to chalk up the skepticism -- much of it now proven right -- to bias, as was done at the time, is little short of lunacy. The truth of the matter is that Arsenal's plummet down the table was pre-ordained, more controlled demolition than collapse.
There are two main factors at play here.
The first is that the table lies. It lies through means overt and subtle, and in Arsenal's case we were faced with one of the more subtler untruths. Points are points, of course, but not all games are created equal. When detractors pointed to the relatively easy autumn schedule and pinpointed the horrific February-April stretch as the time the chickens would come home to roost, they weren't being unfair. In the just-completed nine game run which included trips to Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool as well as a home match against Manchester City, Arsenal picked up just nine points -- and were arguably lucky to reach that figure.
The second issue, though, is more important. 'Arsenal collapse in the spring' is the sort of lazy truism trotted out by analysts looking to fill column inches without asking further questions, but the timing of the club's troubles this year do fit a loose pattern. Why? This almost certainly has to do with a particularly Arsenal problem -- injuries and a lack of depth.
The Gunners' poor form is not simply the result of a fiendishly difficult run of fixtures. Injuries have also taken an extraordinary toll. At Goodison Park, Arsene Wenger fielded a starting eleven without any of Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Özil and Ramsey, which is something like two-thirds of a top-tier Premier League team.
A year lost (at least in the league) to injuries can be written off as bad luck, but Arsenal's habit of losing key players during the later stages of the season is looking increasingly problematic, especially as the club doesn't have access to petrodollar-fueled depth. Although talk of incompetence from the medical department is premature, the struggles Arsenal players have with both non-contact injuries and in recovery suggest that their practices need to be reevaluated.
At their best, the Gunners are a superb side, capable of controlling the ball, stymieing the oppositions' attack before shredding their defence with their quick passing game. At their worst, they're only able to do the former, and not for long enough to matter. It's beyond doubt that peak Arsenal are one of the top teams in the Premier League and a genuine title contender; it's also beyond doubt that Arsenal are currently lacking in the stamina needed to keep up that challenge for a full season.
Is this a structural problem with the club? Perhaps not, but every season which sees the Gunners drop points thanks to a lack of depth reinforces the notion that it is. The complaints about the way Wenger's side plays are less relevant when one realises that most of Arsenal's struggles come when they're an injury-ridden, shattered shell of themselves -- when Wenger is forced to play a B team, it's perhaps forgivable that he neglects to institute a B plan. At least on the pitch.
But the manager doesn't escape blame in the bigger picture. After all, this is a squad he assembled, and he's responsible for the team's well-being as well as ensuring that when disaster strikes it's suitably mitigated. Without being inside the club, it's difficult to say what steps have been taken to address Arsenal's problems over the years, but from the outside it looks as though the solution has been something along the lines of 'hope it's just bad luck and will therefore go away.'
That tack has left key issues unaddressed without seeing the Gunners make the progress that they arguably should have. 'Collapse' is an easy word to throw around, mostly because it implies that the club is best by something random, a spiteful act of nature rather than something that could actually really be anyone else's fault. But now that they're coming like clockwork, it's becoming clear that Arsenal's collapses are no such thing.