Anatomy of a Bottle Job: Eight factors to separate the true choke from a mere collapse

Dave Tickner
Arsenal players Martin Odegaard, Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka in conversation during the draw at West Ham.

When not pointing and laughing at Frank Lampard or whatever it is Spurs are currently doing to themselves, English football is currently consumed by one subject: are Arsenal bottling it or not?

Brilliantly, the conversation has already moved on entirely from whether or not the team still holding a four-point lead at the top of the table might actually be able to win the league or not. It is now widely if absurdly presumptuously assumed they will not. The discussion is entirely about whether or not the now inevitable failure constitutes a bottling or not.

We’re not here to answer that essentially unanswerable question, but it does intrigue us. What even is a bottle job? We submit that it’s one of those things that’s hard to define but one knows it when one sees it. We’d also submit that it’s more art than science. And also that your previous opinions and biases on the club involved are disproportionately important.

But we’ve tried to provide a guide. Here, then, are eight factors that make up The Bottle Job…


Size of lead
Obvious starting point is obvious, but you’d be surprised. Yes, at the most basic level the bigger the lead you hold the worse a bottle job looks. Unofficially, anything in double figures is going to be pretty hard to explain away as anything else, but relatively small leads can be deemed bottle jobs in the right conditions. Or even no leads at all. Spurs quite literally never topped the table in 2015/16 or 2016/17, which is in its own mischievous way the Spursiest bottle job of all. They even bottled going top of the table, most specifically in 2016 when they would have overtaken Leicester with a win at West Ham in a game they would lose 1-0. West Ham, by the way, are suspiciously good at inserting themselves into these situations in general. Worth investigating.


Games remaining
A corollary of lead size. The fewer games remaining, the smaller a lead needs for its loss to be a chokey bottle job. Liverpool’s 2013/14 performance – in many ways the archetypal bottling – encapsulates this one nicely. Going into the Chelsea game they only actually led City by six points having played a game more. But that brings events to a head, to a sharpened focus.

The flipside of this is that if you can do your bottling early enough you can often get away with it. Chelsea themselves are fine examples of the genre. Sure, Gerrard’s slip and Demba Ba etc and forth, but Chelsea should have been far more than chaos agent in that title chase. They were seven points clear at one point, albeit with some games-in-hand chicanery involved, but dropped off the pace less hilariously and noticeably to finish four and two points behind City and Liverpool.

We reckon a non-zero percentage of football fans would go even further than not remembering Chelsea’s bottling that season and would actually have Mandela Effected themselves into thinking Chelsea actually won the title, so powerful and compelling is the narrative of that 2-0 win.

The other great example of getting your bottling out of the way under cover of winter darkness is of course Arsenal themselves in 2015/16, using all their experience to spaff their golden chance of a title away far earlier than naïve and silly Spurs.


Strength of challenger
Another seemingly obvious one that actually appears to count for very little. It should logically be far less of a Bottle McBottlejob to lose a lead to, say, a Manchester City team that pursued titles with the relentless remorselessness of a Terminator long before they actually had one scoring 50 goals a season than doing so to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City or even Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

But aside from the occasional acknowledgement of The Pressure – and even then often framed in bottlish terms of Succumbing To – it seems to get relatively little traction.


How much other clubs’ fans hate you
Our theory, despite our attempt to codify things here, is that bottling and what does or does not constitute a bottling is far more art than science and a big part of it is about whether other clubs’ fans are going to be in any way inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

This one is becoming less important because nobody has a ‘soft spot’ for any other teams these days in the modern online world of tribal football fandom where every other club is a prick with terrible fans who deserve nothing but bad things and anyway they’d chat shit about you if it was the other way round so no point passing up this opportunity to go at them, is there?


Humorous or slapstick catastrophe
Of course it matters. The more memorably ludicrous the better. Gerrard’s slip and Crystanbul is the ultimate one-two punch here, but we go again to 2016 and the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Spurs threw away a 2-0 lead and spent much of the second half just booting Chelsea players about the place.

It was a classic head’s gone masterpiece of bottling but here’s the thing: if Spurs did bottle it in 2016 it wasn’t really in that game. The 1-1 home draw with West Brom the week before really did end their realistic hopes of doing anything. But who remembers that? Literally nobody. Because it was nowhere near as funny.

Kodak moment
It definitely makes things worse if there is one specific moment that comes to sum up the entirety of a bottle job. One particular image that becomes burnt into the collective football memory of the nation. You’re literally already picturing a slippy Steven Gerrard right now, aren’t you? Or Kevin Keegan, face reddening under his massive headphones and jabbing a finger at a Sky Sports camera. Or Eric Dier booting people into the Stamford Bridge sky. Or William Gallas’ sit-in protest at Birmingham. Or Rafa Benitez’s facts.

It really doesn’t matter whether the moment is actually that pivotal or significant. Only that it be memorable and part of a wider collapse for a team in need of the Heimlich manoeuvre.


Previous reputation for bottliness
Confirmation bias is a real and powerful thing. If you are, for instance, a club whose name has literally become a byword for bottling stuff, then it won’t take much for it to surface. And with Arsenal we are already in their second bottling of this title race, which is rare. Especially as they are still four points clear at the top of the table. Everything crossed for them to bottle it a third time. And then win it to completely frazzle everyone’s minds.


Unexpectedness of pre-bottling situation
This is an important, pertinent and slippery one. “Nobody expected us to challenge anyway!” a bottling club’s fans will continue to insist as they slowly shrink and transform into a corn cob. Taking a step back and viewing it dispassionately (LOL) it seems pretty clear this argument simultaneously carries far less weight than the bottling club’s fans will insist but also far more than rival fans will concede.

There’s no point pretending finishing second to Manchester City would represent anything other than an exceptional and unexpected season for Arsenal viewed as a whole, but at the same time ambitions and reality shifts across the course of the season. Aston Villa would not now settle for what they would have taken in August. Manchester United, at one time on the fringes of the title race, are now just relieved to see everyone else shitting the top-four bed. Liverpool fans are pretending doing some big wins is better than winning a trophy. Things change.

Bottling an unexpected situation can still absolutely be a bottling. Arsenal fans themselves deep down know this because they’ve very correctly spent many years enjoying the ‘third in a two-horse race’ line about Spurs’ failed challenge in 2016, an interesting season when a great many of the factors outlined above allowed Arsenal’s own failings to go rather under the radar. (But Stead knows, because Stead always knows.)

At the same time, it’s absolutely the case that this Arsenal team blowing an eight-point lead over City is far less bottle-jobbish than it happening the other way round.