1. Aston Villa 3-2 Arsenal (Dec 1998)
It seems almost contrived to speak of a tipping point in Arsenal’s 1998/99 campaign, when the season’s first 17 outings had brought the defending champions just six wins. The title defence had begun at a snail’s pace with 22 points dropped by mid-December, and in another year, the team languishing in sixth when the Christmas decorations were unboxed might have reasonably expected to have been out of contention.
Respite came in the form of two first-half Dennis Bergkamp goals at Villa Park on December 13 as the champions offered a rare glimpse of the swagger with which they’d glided to the title in May. But with half an hour remaining Julian Joachim halved the deficit, Dion Dublin knocked in a scrappy equaliser, and then some pitiful late defending allowed the burly striker to crash in a late winner.
The defeat came a year to the day after the Gunners had been undone 3-1 at Highbury by Blackburn Rovers in what turned out to be the catalyst for their drive towards the league summit. Again, Arsene Wenger’s team turned their year around after Villa Park, dropping just 11 more points all season. But the collapse in Birmingham left the team with too much ground to recover, and treble-winning Manchester United pipped them by a point.
2. Leeds 1-0 Arsenal (May 1999)
Having clawed their way back from the brink after defeat at Villa, putting together a ruthless unbeaten streak to move within spitting distance of retaining their crown, the season boiled down to a Tuesday night visit to Elland Road in May. With one goal the difference between themselves and United at the top it was a question of who would blink first as 1998/99 arrived at its penultimate fixtures.
It was Arsenal, of course. Having been let off the hook in the first half when Ian Harte smacked a penalty against the bar, the hapless Kaba Diawara had an effort saved on the line and then struck the woodwork for the Gunners before Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink dived spread-eagle at the far post two minutes from time to sink the Gunners and hand the title to United on a plate.
3. Blackburn 2-0 Arsenal (Mar 2003)
When defeat to Manchester United in October 2005 at the end of 49 games unbeaten triggered a crisis of confidence among Arsenal’s Invincibles, they could well have been accused of failing to learn from their mistakes. Early in the 2002/03 season a 30-game unbeaten run had been followed up with five defeats in six, one of which had come against Graeme Souness’s Blackburn at Highbury. The Gunners hung on at the top for a further two weeks after crashing 2-0 at Ewood Park in March, but the team’s rhythm never recovered after Damien Duff and Tugay had inflicted their fourth defeat of the season, clearing the way for Manchester United to steal in and swipe the title.
4. Birmingham 2-2 Arsenal (Feb 2008)
Of all the eternal ‘what if’ moments that haunt the life of a football club, for Arsenal there can be few which lay such a psychological burden as February 23, 2008, away at Birmingham City. At 1.15pm they topped the table, six points clear and looking far more like the side which had gone unbeaten in the league four years earlier than the one which had finished 21 points off the pace in May.
Then, with the Gunners trailing 1-0, the unfortunate Martin Taylor inflicted a horror leg-breaking challenge on Eduardo Silva. A heavy atmosphere descended on the match – and on the season. When Birmingham were given a penalty to equalise at 2-2 in the fifth minute of injury time, Arsenal captain William Gallas sat in the centre-circle with his back to goal in futile protest at his team’s rotten luck; thereafter the skipper’s head was gone and his composure never recovered.
In one lunchtime Arsenal lost their striker, their captain and the initiative in a title race that had been theirs to lose. Five weeks later when they next won a match they were third; seven years later they’re still waiting for their next Premier League crown.
5. Wigan 3-2 Arsenal (Apr 2010)
The final standings from the 2009/10 season say that Arsenal never got close to the title, finishing third and a distant 11 points adrift of champions Chelsea. But between the lines lies an archetypical spring-time implosion, the kind which seems to riddle the Gunners’ DNA and renders them perennial nearly men of English football.
They blew 13 points in their final seven games, beginning again at the cursed St Andrew’s at the end of March, but it was at the JJB Stadium on April 18 that the death knell was sounded on a faltering title bid – and in humiliating fashion. Two up with 10 minutes to play, the final moments conjured a quick-fire turnaround that marked Arsenal’s withdrawal from the title race in typical fashion.
6. Bolton 2-1 Arsenal (Apr 2011)
Another year in which the league table failed to fully demonstrate the Gunners’ inglorious 11th-hour collapse. The 15 points they flittered away in the final seven games would have been enough to turn fourth into first, so really it was one long extended moment of decline that did for their title challenge. But if one snapshot served as a living summary of how far they’d fallen – and how quickly – it was when the Israeli Tamir Cohen powered home a last-minute header for Bolton at the Reebok Stadium to spark a run of three defeats in four, just as the heat was turned up on Wenger’s men.
7. Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal (Feb 2014)
Arsenal spent more days on top of the Premier League in 2013/14 than any other side, but after shipping five goals and slipping from the summit on February 8, their season went into freefall. The psychological baggage they collected on a horror afternoon at Anfield against the lethal Liverpool trio of Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling ended the Gunners’ championship challenge in the head long before it did on paper, as a thousand column inches worth of doubt directed at Wenger’s fragile side were vindicated in a masterclass from Brendan Rodgers’ title chasers.
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