Ridiculous Rice has elevated Arsenal above ‘panic’ and into relentless Manchester City stratosphere

Matt Stead
Declan Rice celebrates with Arsenal
Declan Rice was crucial for Arsenal

Gary Neville was right about Arsenal last year: they did ‘panic’, the ‘anxiety’ built and the ‘pressure’ told. But this is a different beast entirely.

 

In a way – a hilariously unnecessarily contrived way, but a way nonetheless – pundit opinions on Arsenal are much like software patches on a knackered old laptop: they take far too long to update so many people simply never bother.

The Gunners are bulliable, naive, emotional, too focused on being pretty rather than effective and still haven’t adequately replaced Patrick Vieira; and yes, Windows, set another reminder in four hours if you really want.

Gary Neville has been particularly egregious in watching the Arsenal bandwagon pull away while making some of his usual funny noises to express doubt as to whether the wheels will remain attached. But he did nail one assessment last year.

“Arsenal have struggled in latter parts of seasons, with last season the most recent example of this,” he said in February 2023. “This is why Manchester City will win the Premier League. Because when it gets to the last 10 games, Arsenal will start to panic a little bit, the anxiety will kick in, pressure builds.”

It was an almost perfect prediction. Neville was speaking after a dramatic victory over Aston Villa which started a run of seven consecutive victories, before Arsenal drew three and lost three of their final nine games. They panicked. The anxiety kicked in. The pressure built. And it told.

With two hurdles remaining in this campaign, Arsenal have underlined their immense growth from surprise title challengers to unrelenting Manchester City chasers. Two of the five Premier League points they have dropped in 2024 were to the champions and the others represent a mere stumble in this sprint finish.

The expectation was that the insipid home defeat to Aston Villa in April would prompt a similar collapse, coming as it did between two disappointing legs of a damaging Champions League exit to Bayern Munich. But Arsenal have emerged stronger for it. Mikel Arteta told his players during his post-match press conference in Bavaria “to show now that we are capable of turning this around”. Four game, four wins, three clean sheets and 13 goals is compelling evidence to suggest they have achieved that.

It might still all be for nought, and that is the catch when engaging in these blinking contests with Manchester City. As Liverpool have found more than once at the height of their powers, the realisation soon dawns that those competitions were lost long ago. December cost Arsenal, not January, February, March or April, nor seemingly May. And as crushing as that is, there is pride to be taken in that.

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So too how that “panic”, that “anxiety” and that “pressure” is now exclusively external. The commentators, the pundits, the social media timelines and even the fans in the stadium believed that negative energy to be palpable; the players could not have seemed more calm and composed in the face of it.

That is not necessarily always a good thing. Arsenal have been too casual and relaxed before and paid the price. But this was different. Even when losing control of the game in the second half, the threat of them losing the match itself seemed to manifest solely in the drama confected by the broadcasters and the defeatism which compels supporters of any club in any situation.

Six of Bournemouth’s seven shots came between the 53rd and 65th minutes. Possession was roughly shared in that time and the visitors found joy on the break. But none of those efforts were particularly troubling – only two required straightforward saves from David Raya – and the game never really got away from Arsenal in the same way it might have with former iterations of this team.

They even constructed the best move of the match in that time, Takehiro Tomiyasu passing crisply to Martin Odegaard in the middle, whose drag back helped create the space and time to find the run of Kai Havertz; the German’s low delivery into the area was perfect for Bukayo Saka, but for a sensational tackle from last man Lewis Cook.

That was the story of most of the first half – Arsenal waited patiently for the killer pass to reveal itself, yet a Bournemouth player somehow still thwarted it. The hosts had six shots blocked in the first 14 minutes, with Marcos Senesi and Ilya Zabarnyi particularly obstinate obstacles.

But still Arsenal found a way. Odegaard had been sliding sumptuous passes through to Leandro Trossard, Tomiyasu and Benajmin White all half, before spotting the relentless movement of Havertz. He bought the penalty but Mark Travers was a willing vendor and Saka belied the racking of Emirates nerves to roll it in.

It was an entirely deserved lead which should have been more, and through the lens of hindsight Arteta might not even be too concerned that a small Bournemouth wave had to be rode to victory. That should at least sharpen focus for the final two assignments.

Declan Rice unlocked the game in the end, roaming forward to latch onto a loose ball and caress it out wide for Trossard to bring back in past Travers, before the England midfielder collected a Gabriel Jesus pass in stoppage-time and struck his sixth goal of the season – his career-best for a single campaign.

It was a welcome intervention, especially after some VAR silliness to help rule out a Bournemouth goal at 2-0 which could also have been a penalty. It was One Of Those, an essentially impossible decision to appease anyone due to all the moving parts involved. And as aggrieved as Andoni Iraola and his players will be, Saka can point to the gash on his shin inflicted by Ryan Christie which did not warrant so much as a free-kick during a dominant Arsenal first half which might have turned quite ugly indeed had 10 men been tasked with defending against it.

That turned into something a little less convincing after the break, yet still a 3-0 win against a very good team in fine form, when many are still expecting the unabated title pressure to tell on this team eventually. Like that knackered old laptop, they stuttered a little but got the job done.

More: ArsenalDeclan Rice | Bukayo Saka