A bottle of water with the Arsenal logo

Have Arsenal bottled the title?

Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat to Brighton this weekend seems to have put the writing on the wall. It appears that Manchester City will win the Premier League title again this season. But having led by eight points as recently as 1st April, have Arsenal bottled it?

What is ‘bottling it’?

The idea of “losing your bottle” has rumoured colourful origins in the Cockney Rhyming Slang phrase “bottle and glass”. Put more politely by the BBC:

The idea of losing your bottle has become an infectious one amongst football pundits and fans in recent years. Tune into any football phone-in and you’ll hear plenty of accusations of clubs bottling it.

Arsenal Bottled It

The idea that Arsenal bottled this season’s title race fits with the way that football is discussed in the British media in particular. Analysis is often very focused on the league table, which appears prominently in every football broadcast. Arsenal have been top all season, goes the logic, so of course they’ve bottled it now it appears that Manchester City will be the actual winners of this season’s league title with just one more win in their final three games.

Reece’s argument here is being made a lot at the moment on radio and TV shows discussing what they see as a collapse by Arsenal. And on surface level it does make some sense – at the key moment of the season, Arsenal’s form in their past ten games has not been that of Premier League champions:

  • Fulham 3-0
  • Crystal Palace 4-1
  • Leeds 4-1
  • Liverpool 2-2
  • West Ham 2-2
  • Southampton 3-3
  • Man City 1-4
  • Chelsea 3-1
  • Newcastle 2-0
  • Brighton 0-3

This run not only featured a loss to Manchester City, but has come at a time when the reigning champions have themselves won eleven games in a row.

Arsenal Didn’t Bottle It

However, this surface-level view of Arsenal’s season is an over-simplification. It doesn’t really tell the full story. I think there are a few things to bear in mind when we consider Arsenal’s season:

1. Arsenal Were Never Favourites

When the season began, Manchester City were the bookies’ and pundits’ favourites to win the Premier League title this season. Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea were more fancied to be the main challengers.

Arsenal were 33/1 to win the title and were sixth favourites for a Top Four place at the start of the season, let alone competing for the title:

For Arsenal to emerge as title challengers in this environment is to their great credit. They’ve done with a young team and it bodes well for the direction the club is headed in. Is it really fair for so many to criticise them for “throwing it away”, when the same people didn’t think they’d even compete this season in the first place?

2. Man City are Phenomenal

It looks like Manchester City will beat Arsenal to the Premier League title. City are one of the world’s great sides at the moment. Their main signing this season, Erling Håland, looks to be one half of football’s new Messi and Ronaldo.

It’s possible Man City may win a historic Treble this year. If they do so, they will go down as one of the all-time great teams in the history of English football. It’s hard to lose any title race, but it’s not shameful or an indictment on anybody’s mental fortitude to lose one to this quality of opponent.

3. The League Table Lies

The old adage in football says “the league table never lies”. This has to be one of the most misunderstood concepts in the game.

Come the end of a 38-game season, when all teams have played each other twice, the league table is definitive. The best team will have won the league. This is a tautology: if you have the best results, you of course finish top of the table.

However, when viewed at a point in time before all of the games have been played, the league table does not really tell the full story. This has been more apparent this season than ever. Schedule disruption, driven by the winter World Cup in Qatar, has created situations where teams had multiple games in hand on one another.

Even when everyone has played the same number of games, not every team has played the same fixtures. One team might have a run of home games to come. Another might play difficult fixtures away to the top few teams in the league.

We saw perhaps the ultimate demonstration of this when Crystal Palace sacked Patrick Vieira due to the club’s league position back in March. As we here at BFTGT and Vincent Kompany pointed out at the time, however, Palace had just played an extremely difficult run of fixtures. They were entering a much softer run. Unsurprisingly, Palace’s position looks a lot better now they’ve played closer to the full set of league fixtures for the season.

Football broadcasts should be less focused on the league table and more on results and performances. It’s especially bizarre when a league table is shown on-screen during broadcasts and printed in newspapers after just one set of fixtures in August. This is silly and we’d all do well to pay much less attention to it.

Conclusion: Not Really Bottled

Given all of these factors, I think it’s not really fair to say that Arsenal bottled this season’s title race.

Arsenal have done a great job of competing with Manchester City. With expected challengers Chelsea and Liverpool so far off the pace this season, and Manchester United not competitive at the very top either, it’d have been a poor season for the league as a whole without Mikel Arteta’s side this season.

It’ll be interesting to see where Arsenal go from here and whether they can build on this success. Their established “Big Six” rivals will be back stronger next season. Manchester City remain a juggernaut. Newcastle and Brighton look to be building well to compete for the European places. Aston Villa have been one of the form sides in the second half of the season. If Arsenal’s young team can continue to progress and compete then this should be a source of pride and excitement for their fans, not a source of disappointment.

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