Arsène Wenger chases top-four comforts but title race absence damns Arsenal | Jacob Steinberg

Jacob Steinberg
Arsène Wenger’s chances of a Champions League place have revived, but qualifying would still leave them back where they started. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

For the best teams dealing with adversity is second nature. Losing a game, especially a big one, inevitably leaves a few psychological scars. It happens to everyone, even at the top. The trick is developing and maintaining a mentality tough enough to ensure that self-doubt, kryptonite for any professional athlete, is kept at a safe enough distance to ensure that the mind does not conspire against the body. By working hard and keeping the faith, the chances of one setback turning into a crisis are diminished.

Momentum matters, of course. When Chelsea lost at Manchester United two weeks ago and allowed Tottenham Hotspur a scent of blood in the title race, what came next was as much a test of their mental strength as of their footballing ability. They had two options available, weakness or defiance, and chose the latter by winning their FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham last weekend. Three days later Chelsea beat Southampton and Antonio Conte praised his players for taking a “big psychological step” towards the title.

How Arsène Wenger must wish he could lavish such praise on his team. After delving deep into their well of toughness to defeat Manchester City from a goal down at Wembley last week, Arsenal will face Chelsea in next month’s FA Cup final, offering Wenger an opportunity to end a troubled season with a trophy. Even more importantly Wenger’s side head to White Hart Lane for Sunday afternoon’s north London derby still part of the scramble for Champions League qualification after the late and fortunate victory over Leicester on Wednesday, and it is not hard to imagine the Frenchman signing that two-year contract extension if he can pull off yet another top-four finish.

Arsenal have slumped 14 points behind Tottenham but have improved since switching to a back three after the appalling defeat at Crystal Palace three weeks ago, winning three consecutive matches and still able to secure Champions League football again. Manchester City and Liverpool are catchable. With six matches remaining, Arsenal are five points off the warm embrace of fourth.

It is how they roll. They torment and tease their fans with their flakiness, starting seasons promisingly before unravelling at the first sign of trouble. Then comes the recovery, the late spurt that rescues respectability and maintains the cosy status quo, at the end of which Arsenal end up more or less where they started, no closer to making the leap from good to great.

The problem with standing still in a ruthless world is being overtaken by one’s rivals, however, and this could be the year when Arsenal’s complacency finally catches up with them, the year when they find themselves shoved out of the exclusive club they have been members of throughout the Wenger era.

Arsenal’s heavy defeat by Bayern Munich helped derail their season. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images

There was a sense of the inertia at the Emirates when Wenger spoke about how Arsenal struggled to recover from the shock of their humiliating defeats against Bayern Munich and Chelsea in February. He likened Arsenal to a boxer lying dazed on the canvas. Yet other teams clamber off the floor and start punching immediately, using their humiliation as fuel for revenge. Arsenal take too long to stand up again. When they do, their knockout blow never follows.

“We lost a little bit and people interpreted that as them not caring,” Wenger said. “No. Maybe it’s because they care very much that we were like that – shocked. We were shocked.”

No one watching from the sidelines was shocked by Arsenal losing badly at Stamford Bridge and, for the seventh year in a row, in the last 16 of the Champions League. But the problem since then has been their response and Wenger briefly sounded indignant about the way confidence deserted his players. “The turning point is that you have to revolt and say: ‘Come on, that cannot go on,’” he said, hinting at harsh words in the dressing room.

Yet the malaise was allowed to fester for far too long. “You cannot stop that,” Wenger said. “You have just seen Bayern went out against Real Madrid and they lost in the cup. It’s part of being disappointed. When you care and you have a big disappointment, it takes you a little bit of time to recover. It happens to everybody, to every team. Paris Saint-Germain went out against Barcelona and they were in shock. Why? Because they wanted to win the Champions League.”

It sounds convincing but there is a failure of logic here. Four days after Barcelona’s Champions League exit, they won the clásico. Perhaps Lionel Messi was able to score that 92nd-minute winner at the Bernabéu last Sunday because he was not disappointed enough about losing to Juventus.

Managers have a role to play in this area. Under Wenger Arsenal have failed to react with enough urgency. Under Conte Chelsea have repeatedly bounced back. “Chelsea didn’t play in Europe,” Wenger said. “Spurs did not qualify in Europe. They went out in the Champions League group stage, so they had time to get out of that. It is not like in March, you get knocked out, it is different.”

But Spurs have endured disappointment. Knocked out of the Europa League by Gent in February, they put together a winning run in the league. Beaten by Chelsea at Wembley, four days later they kept themselves within touching distance of Conte’s side thanks to Christian Eriksen’s late winner at Palace.

The debate over the title’s destination remains alive. It damns Wenger’s Arsenal that the conversation is taking place in a different room.

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