Arsenal keep title dream alive by exorcising painful past

·4-min read

A dream died for Arsenal at St James’ Park. They were overwhelmed, intimidated into defeat, looking too callow, too brittle, their squad too slender. But not this year, not this dream, not this Arsenal.

Twelve months ago, their season ground to a halt in Newcastle. Defeat meant they knew their chances of Champions League football were over. Granit Xhaka branded their performance a disaster, said they did not deserve to be on the pitch and suggested they should have stayed at home.

A year on, the shift in Arsenal was epitomised by Xhaka, flinging himself in the way of a Joe Willock shot, saving a certain goal. It was 2-0 at St James’ Park in May 2022 and May 2023, but to Arsenal this time, and against a better Newcastle team. This time Arsenal already have secured Champions League football. The dream now is of the title and if, once again, Arsenal may end the season disappointed, it will be a different kind of disappointment.

A year on, Arsenal exorcised their past by remembering it and revisiting it. The All or Nothing documentary captured some of Mikel Arteta’s motivational methods, his attempts to prepare his team for a trip to Anfield by blasting out ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at their Colney training ground. Yet it transpired All or Nothing itself could be used to galvanise Arsenal. The cameras had captured Arteta, in the sanctuary of the St James’ Park dressing room, telling his team they were “embarrassing”, that Newcastle were “10,000 times” better, that they should “shut your mouth and eat it”.

He showed them the footage again in the team meeting at their hotel. “When you have the emotions we had last year in that dressing room, you have to feel them again, realise how nasty they are and then find a way to approach the game differently,” Arteta explained. “It wasn’t enough just to talk about it: we had to feel it, we had to see it, we had to recognise our faces.” The impact was apparent. “You don’t have to be genius to see it,” Arteta said. “The word was pain and then the desire for revenge. I think they had that today in their bellies.” A year on, embarrassment was replaced by pride. In the ferocity of the Newcastle atmosphere, Arsenal had to excel. They did. “We needed a much better performance than any game we’ve played this season,” Arteta said.

Revenge was executed in different ways. Certainly Newcastle felt Arsenal, and Xhaka in particular, were timewasting. But there was also the guts and the grit, the control of Jorginho and the class of Martin Odegaard, the best player on a pitch packed with terrific footballers. There were the saves of Aaron Ramsdale and the choices of Arteta, who preferred the passer Jorginho to the more abrasive Thomas Partey and was rewarded. “He was exceptional,” said Arteta. “There were question marks because you can go physicality against physicality and have no chance.” So Arsenal opted for a blend of silk and steel.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“We had to be very smart and to be ugly at times,” said captain Odegaard. The Arsenal sides of many a negative stereotype were too pretty, too naive. But then easy, lazy assumptions are increasingly inaccurate in a season when Arsenal’s bad days – Everton, Southampton – are rarities. A year ago, Antonio Conte’s Spurs seemed to have the toughness their neighbours lacked. At a ground where Cristian Stellini’s Spurs were blown away, the Gunners stood their ground.

Arsenal have had the image of a soft touch for years but both the manner and the reality of victory on Tyneside suggested otherwise. So do the facts and figures. Tallies of 12 away wins and 39 points on the road this season are unrivalled. Ramsdale joined a select group of three goalkeepers, with Petr Cech and Ederson, to keep 10 away clean sheets in a Premier League campaign.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Arsenal are ticking off the milestones. Three years ago, they bottomed out with 56 points. Now they have passed 80 for the first time in 15 seasons, since the title challenge of 2007-08. This remains a title tilt, too. They could yet equal the Invincibles’ tally of 90 points and will almost certainly record Arsenal’s highest total since then.

The reward may be different, lesser. Ninety brought immortality for Arsene Wenger’s team of 2004. For Arteta’s side of 2023, it would probably only render them runners-up. A closer comparison, given Arsenal history, may be George Graham’s class of 1989, another young, fast-improving team, managed by a former Gunners midfielder, a side with a similar feel of unity. But, even though they had to depose a great Liverpool side to become champions, it was still only with 83 points.

Arteta’s Arsenal, like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in recent years, may be destined to be great runners-up. It would be a bittersweet feat, but an achievement nonetheless. Unless, of course, victory on Newcastle leads to a still greater triumph. “We want to keep digging,” Arteta added. “The prize is there, not too far.” It is so near but so far, the impossible dream that, 35 games into an outstanding season, still hasn’t died.