As Arsenal’s title dream fades, is it another ‘Arsenaling’?

Arsenal‘s season had already exceeded expectations long before their surprise bid to win the Premier League title for the first time in almost two decades began to hit the skids in the spring.

Having been top of the table for most of the season, a sequence of three draws [against Liverpool, West Ham United and Southampton] and a 4-1 loss [vs. Manchester City] in April led to them being overtaken by defending champions and title rivals City, who went top for the first time since mid-February on Sunday.

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The Gunners kept things interesting as they bounced back with impressive wins over Chelsea and Newcastle United, but their title hopes were all but ended with Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. That is the view of Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard, who said: “The way we played, especially in the second half, I don’t know what happened, to be honest. A big, big disappointment, and it feels like there is no hope [in the title race] now.”

Check the social media discourse during that run of results and, among a certain set of fans, you’ll likely see one term that keeps popping up: “Arsenaling.”

It’s nothing new, though, with the same online talk surrounding any Arsenal match at the business end of any previous campaign in recent years. Digging into Twitter, it starts to show up at least as early as 2011 — some time after the famed “Invincibles” delivered the Gunners’ most recent championship in 2004.

Despite the term “Arsenaling” also initially being used by fans to describe the team’s penchant for passing the ball around the opposition area without creating a clear chance on goal (which typified the second part of Arsene Wenger’s long reign as manager), by consensus it has now come to mean something else. It could be a “here we go again” feeling after a missed opportunity or bad luck during one match, but especially a sudden downturn in results over the course of a few games at a critical point of the season.

It’s no surprise that other professional athletes, such as NBA star Josh Hart, know an “Arsenaling” when they see one.

The term was once more all over Twitter in the wake of last month’s drubbing at Manchester City, which ceded control of the title to Pep Guardiola’s side …

and again after that chastening home loss to Brighton.

Arsenal are four points behind City having played a game more. The defending champions can reclaim their crown if Arsenal lose at Nottingham Forest on Saturday, before they host Chelsea the following day.

“Arsenaling” has multiple entries on Urban Dictionary, the primary online resource for such things. One entry defines the word as “leading ’til the end and slipping up at the last moment,” while another reads: “This term is used to describe something so frustrating, distressing and baffling, you’ve gone past the point of caring for it.”

It certainly has a recency bias, forgetting years of Arsenal’s regular success that included five league titles between 1989-2004, and it’s hard to pin down the nation of origin for the term. But it bears a strong similarity to one used around the Clemson Tigers, an American college football team that seemed to have all the resources and talent and could never get over the hump and win a national championship.

In 2015, ESPN writer David M. Hale described “Clemsoning” as: “The derogatory term that hovers over the program like a black cloud, goading the Tigers with promises of an inexplicable loss that will somehow undermine an otherwise promising season.”

That term also belied the school’s rich history, even if it didn’t have the same level of success and global notoriety as Arsenal. The Tigers, however, have been able to mostly scrub it from their fanbase’s lexicon after four national semifinal appearances and two national championships. Arsenal might have let that chance slip by this year.

But just how often does one of Arsenal’s seasons succumb to a true “Arsenaling” anyway? Not every campaign can suddenly disintegrate in a matter of weeks or even days, even if the sort of self-pitying gallows humour that all sports fans share might make it seem otherwise. Take a look back through the years since their last league title triumph, including a rating for each season on the “Arsenaling” scale, and decide for yourself.

Premier League: 2nd
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Manchester United, Dec. 1, 2004)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs Bayern Munich, March 9, 2005)

The reigning champions continued their dominant “Invincibles” form into the 2004-05 season, winning eight of their first nine Premier League games to be top of the league come the end of October. Results remained consistent but the Gunners were unable to keep pace with Chelsea, who leapfrogged their London rivals at the beginning of November and eventually won the title at a canter in Jose Mourinho’s debut season. Arsenal did end the campaign as FA Cup winners but were eliminated from the League Cup in early December before suffering an unfortunate exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich, pipped on away goals in the first knockout phase. Rating on the “Arsenaling” scale: 3/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Fourth round (vs. Bolton Wanderers, Jan. 28, 2006)
League Cup: Semifinals (vs. Wigan Athletic, Jan. 24, 2006)
Champions League: Runners-up (vs. Barcelona, May 17, 2006)

Arsenal were eliminated from both domestic cups within the space of four days, which coincided with a dismal run of Premier League results that saw Wenger’s side lose four, draw one and win one of the six games they played between Jan. 21 and Feb. 25 — a rough patch in which they tumbled down to sixth in the table before clawing their way back up to fourth by the end of the season. They fared much better in Europe as the Gunners battled to the Champions League final, beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way. But they came unstuck against Barcelona, losing 2-1 after goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was shown a controversial 18th-minute red card. They managed to take the lead in Paris through defender Sol Campbell on 37 minutes, but strikes from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti in the final quarter of an hour broke Arsenal’s hearts. Rating: 6.5/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Fifth-round replay (vs. Blackburn Rovers, Feb. 28, 2007)
League Cup: Runners-up (vs. Chelsea, Feb.25, 2007)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. PSV Eindhoven, March 7, 2007)

In their first season at the Emirates stadium, Arsenal failed to adorn their new home with any fresh silverware, with defeat against Chelsea in the League Cup final the closest they came. Indeed, cup aspirations were totally derailed in late February as Arsenal lost the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie against PSV before League Cup and FA Cup exits within the space of the eight days that followed. A dreary 0-0 draw against PSV in the second leg then saw their European run come to a premature end the following week. With Chelsea and Manchester United contesting a two-horse title race at the top of the Premier League, the wheels truly came off for the Gunners in mid-March as they managed to win three of their final 10 games to wash up in fourth place. Rating: 8/10

Premier League: 3rd
FA Cup: Fifth round (vs. Manchester United, Feb. 16, 2008)
League Cup: Semifinals (vs. Tottenham, Jan. 22, 2008)
Champions League: Quarterfinals (vs. Liverpool, April 8, 2008)

Despite seeing star striker Thierry Henry move to Barcelona over the summer, Arsenal lost only one of their first 30 Premier League fixtures to top the table for all but three rounds of matches between Sept. 15-March 9. However, a poor run of results began on Feb. 23 with a 2-2 draw against Birmingham City — which started with striker Eduardo suffering a horrendous broken leg and culminated in William Gallas’ infamous postmatch sit-down on the pitch — and took in devastating late-season defeats against title rivals Chelsea (March 23) and Manchester United (April 13) as the pendulum ultimately swung in United’s favour. The Gunners recovered to win their final four games of the campaign by a heavy 10-4 aggregate scoreline, but they couldn’t prevent themselves from becoming the first team to win eight of their opening nine Premier League games and not win the title since … Arsenal, in 2004-05. Rating: 9/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Semifinals (vs. Chelsea, April 18, 2009)
League Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Burnley, Dec. 2, 2008)
Champions League: Semifinals (vs. Manchester United, May, 5 2009)

Gallas was again the centre of controversy in November after he was stripped of the captaincy by Wenger as punishment for making critical comments about his teammates. The armband was passed to talismanic young midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who lasted four games as skipper before a serious ligament injury sustained in a game against Liverpool in December ruled him out for several months. Overall, Arsenal’s entire season was an underwhelming endeavour. They effectively put paid to any latent title hopes with a run of five draws (including four consecutive 0-0s) between Jan.28 and Feb. 28 and then a protracted defensive injury crisis hit them hard in March and April. Come the final reckoning, this was the first time that Arsenal had gone four consecutive seasons without winning a trophy since 1985-86. Rating: 6/10

Premier League: 3rd
FA Cup: Fourth round (vs. Stoke City, Jan. 24, 2010)
League Cup: Fifth round (vs. Manchester City, Dec. 2, 2009)
Champions League: Quarterfinals (vs. Barcelona, April 6, 2010)

While cup success quickly went out of the window, Arsenal scored 36 goals in their first 11 league games and were present in the title race for the majority of the season. They were even joint-second with seven games remaining, level with Chelsea and two points behind leaders Manchester United. However, a stoppage-time equaliser from Kevin Phillips in a draining 1-1 draw against Birmingham on March 27 caused the Gunners’ title challenge to falter irreparably as both their rivals got big victories elsewhere to pull away. As momentum ebbed and defensive fragilities persisted, Arsenal won two of their final seven games — recording critical defeats against Tottenham, Wigan and Blackburn in the process — to finish a distant third, 10 points behind second-placed Manchester United and 11 points behind champions Chelsea. Rating: 8/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Quarterfinal (vs. Manchester United, March 12, 2011)
League Cup: Runners-up (vs Birmingham City, Feb. 27, 2011)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. Barcelona, March 8, 2011)

Despite suffering a smattering of galling defeats in big clashes, Arsenal were nonetheless within a point of Premier League leaders Manchester United as March arrived. However, a classic capitulation on all fronts saw the team win two league games through the entirety of March, April and May to put paid to their title challenge. Just to compound matters further, they were also knocked out of the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League within the space of 14 miserable days between Feb. 27 and March 12 — including a loss to unfancied Birmingham at Wembley in the League Cup final — to ensure a sixth straight season without silverware. Rating: 10/10

Premier League: 3rd
FA Cup: Fifth round (vs. Sunderland, Feb. 18, 2012)
League Cup: Quarter finals (vs. Manchester City, Nov. 29, 2011)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. AC Milan, March 6, 2012)

Arsenal kicked off their 125th anniversary season by losing four of their opening seven Premier League fixtures, including a shock 8-2 mauling by Manchester United on Aug. 28 and a 2-1 defeat against local rivals Tottenham on Oct. 2. The tide did eventually turn as Robin van Persie led the line with a brilliant 30-goal return that helped the Gunners recover sufficiently to qualify for the Champions League, despite stumbling to 10 defeats in the league — double the amount suffered by the two sides directly above them: Manchester United and maiden Premier League champions Manchester City. Despite the cup competitions falling by the wayside, there was a semi-positive finale in the Premier League as Arsenal finished as the top London club in the table for the first time since their “Invincibles” season. What’s more, a topsy-turvy 3-2 win away at West Brom on the final day saw them pip rivals Spurs to third place by one point. Rating: 6/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Fifth round (vs. Blackburn Rovers, Feb. 16 2013)
League Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Bradford City, Dec. 11, 2012)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. Bayern Munich, March 13, 2013)

Another subpar start to their league campaign saw Arsenal win four of their first 11 games, though a heavy 5-2 drubbing of Tottenham in the 12th match helped to temporarily plaster over the cracks. Indeed, the Gunners spent the majority of the campaign desperately trying to catch up to their North London foes. Having slumped as low as 10th, results improved from December onwards and they eventually usurped Spurs, finishing fourth by a single point thanks to a vital 1-0 away win over Newcastle United on the final day. Both domestic cup runs came to an end against lower-league opposition, while the first round of the Champions League knockout phase again proved a hurdle too far, though the three cup exits were well spread out on the calendar. Rating: 5/10

Premier League: 4th
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Fourth round (vs. Chelsea, Oct. 29, 2013)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. Bayern Munich, March 11, 2014)

With midfielder Mesut Ozil a notable summer arrival, Arsenal set the pace in the Premier League title race for much of the 2013-14 season, topping the table between September and February. However, critical away defeats against other challengers (6-3 vs. Man City on Dec. 14, 5-1 vs. Liverpool on Feb. 8 and 6-0 vs. Chelsea on March 22) saw their challenge go up in smoke at roughly the same point Bayern Munich sent them spiralling out of the Champions League knockout phase. The Gunners spent more time in the top spot that any other side but still conspired to finish fourth as a rolling injury crisis (including lengthy/repeated layoffs for Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott) eventually undermined their efforts. However, they did win the FA Cup by beating Hull City in extra time at Wembley to bring their nine-year trophy drought to an end. Rating: 7.5/10

Premier League: 3rd
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Third round (vs. Southampton, Sept. 23, 2014)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. AS Monaco, March 17, 2015)

A rough start to the Premier League season saw Arsenal win four of their first 12 games, with any dreams of a title chase evaporating quickly. With inopportune injuries to several key players throughout November (including Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and new signing Alexis Sanchez) hampering their consistency, Wenger’s side were wallowing in eighth place in early December. However, the new year brought with it a resurgence in form as they went 10 games unbeaten (including nine wins overall and eight victories in a row between February and April) to claim third spot. A catastrophically early exit in the League Cup was offset by back-to-back FA Cup triumphs (Wenger’s record-equalling sixth title as a manager) though Arsenal failed to make it past the Champions League round of 16 for the fifth season running after being eliminated by underdogs Monaco on away goals. Rating: 5/10

Premier League: 2nd
FA Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Watford, March 13, 2016)
League Cup: Fourth round (vs. Sheffield Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2015)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs Barcelona, March 16, 2016)

With all the usual Premier League title challengers struggling to gain a foothold, Arsenal were quickly installed as favourites to claim their first championship since 2003-04 as they led the table over Christmas and into the New Year. The Gunners found themselves under unlikely pressure from Leicester City and soon the cracks began to appear. A brief three-game winless stutter in late February/early March (including consecutive defeats to Manchester United and Swansea City) saw Arsenal lose ground to the Foxes and also coincided with them being knocked out of both the FA Cup and Champions League via two deflating losses in the space of three days. 5000-1 outsiders Leicester claimed the most incredible Premier League title victory in history, but Wenger’s side did record their highest league finish in over a decade. From April 18 onwards, they also made up an eight-point gap to overtake rivals Tottenham on the final day of the season. Rating: 7/10

Premier League: 5th
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Fifth round (vs. Southampton, Nov. 30, 2016)
Champions League: Round of 16 (vs. Bayern Munich, March 7, 2017)

After losing to Liverpool on the opening day, Arsenal slugged their way into the title frame in the first half of the Premier League season. They didn’t taste defeat again until Dec. 13 (losing against Everton and Man City in quick succession) and even topped the table twice (briefly) before that point. However, things went awry in the second half of the campaign as spotty form (including dire defeats against Watford, Chelsea, Liverpool, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Tottenham) between Jan. 31 and April 30 contributed to them finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1995-96, despite winning their last five matches. Between those back-to-back losses against Liverpool and West Brom in early March, Arsenal were also on the wrong end of their heaviest-ever two-legged European defeat, as Bayern Munich inflicted a merciless 10-2 aggregate demolition to end their Champions League voyage at the round of 16 for the seventh season running. Rating: 8.5/10

Premier League: 6th
FA Cup: Third round (vs. Nottingham Forest, Jan. 7, 2018)
League Cup: Runners-up (vs. Manchester City, Feb. 25, 2018)
Europa League: Semifinals (vs. Atletico Madrid, May 3, 2018)

Wenger’s 21st and final season as manager saw his tenure end in unspectacular fashion as Arsenal sat in sixth place from Dec. 22 (after a 3-3 draw with Liverpool) until the end. A shock 4-2 defeat away against Championship side Nottingham Forest saw Arsenal eliminated from the FA Cup third round for the first time since 1996. Indeed, the Gunners’ away form presented a major problem in the league too, winning only four games on the road all season. With unrest increasingly prevalent in the terraces, it took a 1-0 win at relegation-threatened Huddersfield Town on the final day for Arsenal to pick up their first away points of 2018 — the last team in the top four divisions of English football to do so. They made it through to the semifinals of the Europa League before being knocked out by eventual winners Atletico Madrid and failed to land Champions League qualification for the first time since 1997-98. Rating: 5/10

Premier League: 5th
FA Cup: Fourth round (vs. Manchester United, Jan. 25, 2019)
League Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Tottenham, Dec. 19, 2018)
Europa League: Runners-up (vs. Chelsea, May 29, 2019)

With new manager Unai Emery at the helm, a transitional Arsenal squad did little more than tread water as intermittent away wins once again characterised their season. Come the latter stages of the campaign, the Gunners were chasing Tottenham in the race for fourth and the door was left open. Spurs lost eight games in 2019, meaning six points from their final five games would be enough for Arsenal to nip in ahead of Mauricio Pochettino’s floundering side. However, despite facing mid-table opposition in all of their remaining fixtures, Emery’s team bumbled to three straight defeats in the space of a week against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester City in late April to drop to fifth. A 3-1 away win over Burnley on the final day wasn’t enough to prevent them finishing one point and one place below a faltering Spurs side. Despite missing out in the league, Emery and the Gunners still had one last chance to qualify for the 2019-20 Champions League: by beating Chelsea in the Europa League final out in Baku, Azerbaijan. But they lost 4-1. Rating: 9/10

Premier League: 8th
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Fourth round (vs. Liverpool, Oct. 30, 2019)
Europa League: Round of 32 (vs. Olympiakos, Feb. 27, 2020)

Emery lasted until Nov. 27 before he was sacked following Arsenal’s worst run of results since 1992: a 12-game winless sequence that left them eighth in the Premier League and culminated with a 2-1 defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League group stage. Consistently off the pace, amid a backdrop of turmoil, they sank as low as 12th over the Christmas period. The general sense of turbulence continued for the rest of a campaign hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, though new manager Mikel Arteta did lighten the burden by delivering FA Cup success in August’s delayed final, the club’s record-extending 14th victory in the competition. Rating: 6/10

Premier League: 8th
FA Cup: Fourth round (vs. Southampton, Jan. 23, 2021)
League Cup: Quarterfinals (vs. Manchester City, Dec. 22, 2020)
Europa League: Semifinals (vs. Villarreal, May 6, 2021)

After winning the first two Premier League games of Arteta’s first full season in charge, Arsenal won just two more of their next 12 fixtures, losing eight, while dropping down to 15th and hovering precariously above the relegation zone. Results gradually stabilised and a five-game winning streak was at least enough to cement a top-half finish. The Gunners also experienced unceremonious eliminations from the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League which ultimately saw them fail to qualify for any European competition for the first time since 1994-95. Rating: 4/10

Premier League: 5th
FA Cup: Third round (vs. Nottingham Forest, Jan. 9, 2022)
League Cup: Semifinals (vs. Liverpool, Jan. 20, 2022)

Without the distraction of Europe to contend with, Arteta’s effervescent young squad generally gave a good account of themselves on the domestic front, though their cup runs came to abrupt ends within the space of 11 days at the start of the new year. They spent more time in fourth place than any other Premier League team from December onward, despite seeing club captain Pierre Emerick Aubameyang dropped from the first team over disciplinary issues and then shipped off to Barcelona on a free transfer in early February. However, a blip in March and April saw Arsenal lose four games from five (including three defeats on the bounce against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton) and allowed Tottenham to close the gap before they handed them the advantage with a 3-0 loss in the North London derby on May 12. Going into the final match of the season, Arsenal were trailing fourth-placed Spurs by two points and therefore had to win and hope their rivals lost in order to qualify for the Champions League. The former thrashed Everton 5-1 but Spurs’ 5-0 victory at Norwich saw the Gunners finish fifth. Rating: 7/10

Conclusion: Every club has its ups and downs, both over the course of a period of years and within one particular season. What separates the best from the rest is being able to arrest the slide and bounce back from adversity.

Arsenal have shown they can still deliver silverware even in the midst of a bad season, something local rivals Spurs have proved unable to do for some time even when they have been the superior team in north London.

But, since winning their last league title in such glorious fashion, the Gunners have made a habit of throwing their season away with a bad run of results across competitions at the wrong time. It’s easy to see why their fans and supporters of their rivals are always on the lookout for the theme repeating itself anew. For them, “Arsenaling” is a constant hazard to be aware of.

But could this season’s performance, when they were top of the table for so long before Manchester City regained the advantage in the title race, be a sign that they can end the phenomenon? Or is this season just one of the cruellest examples of “Arsenaling”? We’ll have to wait until this time next year to know for sure.