By Tony Attwood
Going out of the FA Cup is always a disappointment, and doubly so yesterday because it looked like a competition which, given Arsenal’s pedigree as all-time record winners, the club might have had a chance of taking the FA Cup once more.
But there is an extra danger beyond that defeat, and that is for the players and staff around them to feel so down about the result, and be so affected by the tsunami of negative publicity that inevitably accompanied it, that further defeats follow, meaning we lose our chance of finishing in the top four.
We considered What’s more important; the FA Cup or fourth? in a previous article, but now the question is different, for of late, Arsenal have let defeats affect them badly, and have often taken far too long to recover.
In 2021 for example when we lost to Southampton in the fourth round of the Cup through a Gabriel own goal, we only won two of the next six league matches, in a run that included defeats to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa.
In 2019 a fourth round defeat at home to Manchester United saw the next four games include a defeat to Manchester City in the league which was excusable, and a loss to BATE Borisov in the Europa League, which certainly wasn’t.
Going back one more year we had the previous defeat to Nottingham Forest on 7 January 2018 which was followed up by a goalless draw against Chelsea in the league cup (we did manage to win the replay 2-1) but a defeat away to AFC Bournemouth in the league. Indeed we lost seven of the next 13 games in all competitions including defeats to Swansea, Tottenham, Östersunds FK and Brighton.
The 2016 home defeat to Watford in the Cup in the sixth round was a real surprise and after that we won just five of the next ten games. However this time, to put the statistics another way and we only lost one of the next ten – and that away to Barcelona, who in those days were of course a major force. But it was the draws that didn’t help our cause that season.
A 0-1 home defeat to Blackburn in 2013 in the fifth round was followed by a perhaps predictable defeat to Bayern Munich at home in the Champions League, and after a win against Villa, and a defeat to Tottenham away. We did however then go on an 11 match unbeaten run which shows that going out of the FA Cup need not always present a long-term hangover until the end of the season. Indeed that run included a 2-0 away with in Munich – not enough to send us through, as they won on away goals, but still an inspiring result.
Going back to 2012 however shows that being knocked out of the FA Cup in those days did not affect us at all, as we followed it up with a 5-2 win against Tottenham in the league and then further victories against Liverpool away, AC Milan, Newcastle, Everton and Villa.
But it should not be thought therefore that downturns after a cup defeat are only a recent invention for Arsenal, for in 2011, after going out to Manchester United in the sixth round we only gained two victories in the next ten games.
All of which suggests that it is very easy for a cup defeat to affect the team psychologically, and send them tumbling down the league table, as well as out of any other cups remaining. And when that happens immediately subsequent defeats are followed by journalists and fans combining to complain that the team isn’t mentally strong and “doesn’t want it enough”, combined with demands for a new set of transfers, which further unsettles the team, and is based on an analysis of ludicrous over-simplifications.
Football, as results like yesterday’s confirm, is a psychological and social game as well as a physical and tactical affair, and all four elements have to be right for the club to secure the run of victories that is needed to keep Arsenal in the top four.
Of course these considerations also affect Tottenham, currently our main rival for that top-four place, and they have had just one defeat in the last seven games. True their progress in the FA Cup was hardly convincing (beating Morecambe) but it was a victory, and they move on.
The next round of the FA Cup is played just at the time when the Africa Nations Cup is reaching its final, and so many teams will have players still missing as they return but need time to re-acclimatise. Also there seems every chance that the pandemic will still be raging, thus making this a very uncertain and disruptive period.
Depressing though the defeat to Forest was and still is, the one benefit is that it does reduce the number of games the club will be playing through this chaotic period. Indeed it always strikes me that if the club is not going to get to the final, it might as well go out in the third round, and save all the subsequent games which take us nowhere. After all, who remembers the beaten semi-finalists?
(Speaking of which, Arsenal and Manchester United are the joint record holders for cup semi-finals, each having appeared 30 times. Arsenal have won 21 of those appearances and Man U 20).
More than anything Arsenal need an immediate psychological recovery from yesterday’s upset. After five straight wins we’ve lost two in a row, and we need to put that right, immediately.
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