It is time to place Arsenal 2022/23 among the greatest Premier League title bottle jobs ever. The Gunners make up almost half of the all-time top 10.
10) Arsenal 2015/16
There must be something about three-way Premier League title races which makes it hard to accurately identify and subsequently point and laugh at the true bottlers. Jose Mourinho’s shtick about the “little horse” of Chelsea in 2013/14 adequately deflected from their collapse: seven points clear, albeit with games in hand for the teams below them, by mid-March, only to lose three in six, including two red cards in defeat to Aston Villa and setbacks against Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace and a Gus Poyet-managed Sunderland.
Mourinho’s side came third, the forgotten challenger who dropped 11 points in their last nine games and finished four and two points behind Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. They were just clever enough to mess things up earlier, gradually across different fixtures and far less hilariously, while benefiting from the Mourinho PR.
Then there was the 2015/16 season, in which Tottenham literally never led the table but popular opinion suggests they made the most royal faff of preventing Leicester miracles. Closer inspection shows that their main hiccup amounted to a 1-0 defeat to an excellent West Ham side in their second game in three days, which was followed by March and April draws with Arsenal, Liverpool and Tony Pulis’ West Brom.
The implosion at Stamford Bridge, a rush to declare any and all things Spursy and the fact they finished third in their own two-horse race after losing their last couple of games, including a 5-1 thrashing by relegated Newcastle, does make them a neater candidate for the tag.
But in another case of slipping up sooner and less memorably, Arsenal’s botched run is often overlooked. It was they who Celebrated Like They Won The League
when they beat Leicester with Danny Welbeck’s last-minute winner on Valentine’s Day, capitalising on those high spirits by then losing to a Man Utd side with a defence of Varela, Carrick, Blind, Rojo, and Marcus Rashford making his debut up front.
Arsenal rectified those mistakes by losing to Swansea in their next game and drawing five of their last 10 fixtures. A four-match winless run in January, when they last topped the table, was equally ruinous. But making fun of Spurs is too powerful an urge for context to resist.
9) Norwich 1992/93
If Eric Cantona had not joined Man Utd when he did, a generation of football fans could have grown up resenting the unforgiving grip Norwich had imposed on the domestic game. Alex Ferguson’s side went seven games without a win shortly before the Frenchman’s arrival in November 1992, allowing a field of candidates to emerge in the race for the inaugural Premier League title as the Red Devils slipped as low as 10th.
Norwich were the unexpected beneficiaries, spending 129 days atop the table and leading the pack as late as March 19. But inconsistency and a capacity for defensive calamity did for them and Mike Walker’s side had to settle for a phenomenal third place, with a European tie against Bayern Munich the following season a fair consolation prize.
8) Liverpool 2008/09
“There’s no doubt that in the second half of the season they will get nervous. With the experience we’ve got at our club, having won a couple of titles in the past couple of years especially, it helps you. There’s no doubt about that. They are going into the unknown, and if you make mistakes, then you get punished.”
Ferguson cast the bait and Rafa Benitez was reeled in. Liverpool might not have expected to challenge for the title in 2009 but having found themselves at the summit, they delivered a memorable and marked fall from grace.
That press conference came in the build-up to a miserable 0-0 draw at Stoke, which then bled into successive draws with Everton and Wigan after leading both games. Such stalemates – four in five matches at one stage in December – cost a Liverpool side which only lost twice all season. Mind games and rants are probably given too much credence in most quarters for Man Utd’s eventual coronation, but as Steven Gerrard later wrote, ‘we were sitting so calmly on top of the table early into a new year,’ only for the manager to irreversibly change the dynamic and invite unnecessary pressure.
7) Arsenal 2022/23
While everyone argued between themselves what constitutes a bottling – and indeed whether bottling itself is even possible when competing against this Manchester City juggernaut – Arsenal screwed their caps on and jumped into the recycling.
The escalation of their collapse was glorious: a 2-2 draw from 2-0 up at Liverpool was neither ideal nor cataclysmic; a 2-2 draw from 2-0 up at West Ham, with a missed penalty to boot, was slightly more ruinous yet still the Gunners were technically in front; a 3-3 draw from 2-0 and 3-1 down at home to Southampton confirmed the obvious, before a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City underlined it.
That four-game stretch ended their challenge, before some pride was restored with wins over Chelsea and Newcastle. Then Arsenal lost consecutive games without scoring to Brighton and Nottingham Forest, the latter crowning City as champions.
Arsenal led the table for 248 days, shattering the record for longest time spent top without subsequently winning the league in English top-flight history. Mikel Arteta’s side had a five-point lead with equal games played on April 8; exactly six weeks later, they had surrendered the title to Manchester City.
6) Arsenal 2002/03
Arsene Wenger never did successfully defend a Premier League title. That looked likely to change for the majority of the 2002/03 season, the Gunners boasting gaps as wide as eight points as late as March, albeit with matches in hand to consider elsewhere. But Man Utd were rampant and by the time the two candidates met in April, Ferguson’s side were three points clear having played a game more.
A draw at Highbury kept things interesting, yet the Gunners blinked first when visiting their arch-nemesis. Having gone 2-0 up at the Reebok Stadium by the 73rd minute, Sam Allardyce’s band of merry and eclectic Bolton men pegged Arsenal back and handed Man Utd an advantage they would not relinquish. A home defeat to relegation-battling Leeds confirmed what Wenger would vociferously argue was not a “failure”.
5) Man Utd 1997/98
The roles had been reversed half a decade earlier. The 12-point gap Man Utd enjoyed by early March persuaded bookmaker Fred Done to pay out early on bets for Ferguson’s side to win yet another 1990s title, even with Arsenal holding two games in hand. Man Utd wobbled, losing to Sheffield Wednesday and drawing with West Ham, but the outlook was still rosy enough. By the time the Gunners rocked up at Old Trafford for a potential decider, they were nine points behind the champions having played three fewer matches.
Even when Marc Overmars secured a crucial victory, Wenger declared Man Utd to have a “small advantage” in the race, while Ferguson said it was “inevitable” Arsenal would drop points eventually. And they did. But only after they had stormed to 10 consecutive wins, only resting players for the upcoming FA Cup final in defeats to Liverpool and Aston Villa when the title was wrapped up.
4) Man Utd 2011/12
The accepted wisdom is that a seasoned veteran with experience of winning the title will always overcome a spirited but naive challenger with no knowledge of how to properly cope with the requisite twists and turns. Ferguson engaged in enough championship tussles to lose a few by the sheer law of averages, but he could be as prone to remarkable collapse as anyone.
It was expected that Man Utd would saunter home with few problems despite an enthusiastic push from their noisy neighbours in 2012. By April 10, the champions had an advantage of eight points with six games left, with Manchester City their only remaining opponent in the top six and Everton the sole other residing in the top half.
A defeat to relegation-fighting Wigan nudged the door open, a 4-4 draw with Everton after leading by two goals as late as the 82nd minute blew it off, and City walked straight through with a nervous win at the Etihad. Try as they might to raise that high bottling bar on the final day, Roberto Mancini’s men had somehow edged over the line first.
3) Arsenal 2007/08
The last proper, genuine, sustained Premier League title challenge Arsenal mustered before this season came 15 years ago. The Gunners were beaten just once in their first 26 games of the 2007/08 season, earning a five-point lead with 12 games remaining and Man Utd and Chelsea both lurking.
Four consecutive draws derailed them, a run which started with that infamous trip to Birmingham when what was an impressive response to falling behind after Eduardo’s gruesome injury to lead 2-1, became a capitulation after the concession of a stoppage-time penalty.
The on-pitch reaction from senior professionals at full-time confirmed what many suspected of Arsenal, fairly or otherwise.
Those stalemates loosened Arsenal’s grip on the trophy but they had two opportunities to rein Chelsea and Man Utd back in down the home straight. They faced, scored first against and eventually lost 2-1 to both.
2) Liverpool 2013/14
I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards. Whoever authored the script in which Liverpool won 11 straight games, a run during which Steven Gerrard told his teammates, “this does not f**king slip,” before he himself specifically ignored that demand, is a hero.
Liverpool were on 80 points with 35 games played. Manchester City were on 74 points with 34 games played. Chelsea burrowed themselves in the middle. The Reds only needed a draw against Mourinho’s bus-parkers to maintain any sort of advantage, however slender. But Demba Ba. Gerrard taking seven shots from outside the box in the second half. Iago Aspas on corners. And then after all that, Crystanbul.
1) Newcastle 1995/96
“We remain in contention for this FA Carling Premiership crown, and he is still required to travel to Teesside and return with suitable reward, and… and… I shall inform these good people, wholeheartedly, I will take immense satisfaction from us vanquishing them. Immense satisfaction.”
Oh Kevin Keegan, you old card. That faithful transcript remains an eminently quotable encapsulation of self-destruction, a first-class rattling which verified an era-defining bottling. Newcastle led the table by 12 points at one stage, and by late February had a nine-point advantage over Man Utd with a game in hand and a home match to come against their closest challengers.
Newcastle had dropped 15 points in their first 25 games, but closed the campaign by dropping 21 in their last 13. Man Utd did travel to Teesside and return with suitable reward in a stunning run of post-Christmas form.
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