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Arsenal and Vettel show leading doesn’t equate to winning

This Premier League season has had almost as many twists and turns as Shanghai’s Formula 1 circuit, but within the space of twelve hours yesterday we were given two clear demonstrations that being faster or better or simply ahead of your opponents is not an automatic ticket to victory.

Some of the greatest individuals and teams in sport dominate their events from start to finish (for instance, Michael Schumacher or the current Barcelona football team). Others save their best for last, building momentum at the perfect moment down the home straight. Football’s most famous example of this is the Manchester United team of 1995/96, which bridged a seemingly unassailable 12-point gap to claim the Premier League title.

There are plenty of similar instances elsewhere in the sporting universe too: Dennis Taylor recovering from 8-0 down to win the 1985 World Snooker Championship; Greg LeMond overcoming a 50 second deficit in the final time trial stage to win the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds; Nick Faldo coming from six shots back after three rounds to triumph at the 1996 US Masters.

Equally, for every great comeback, there is a contrasting example of the team or individual who put themselves in a commanding position, only to throw it all away. Call it a lack of belief or mental strength, or just plain ‘choking’, but their number is legion. For Man U, read Newcastle; for Taylor, LeMond and Faldo, read Steve Davis, Laurent Fignon and Greg Norman.

And, for the 2009/10 Premier League season, read Arsenal.

Wigan 3 Arsenal 2

Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have become specialists in late-season runs to overhaul the league leaders, putting together irresistible winning sequences en route to their 1998 and 2002 titles. However, they are also notably uncomfortable when they themselves are front-runners, twice wasting five-point leads late in the 2003 and 2007 seasons to concede the title to Man U. While neither of these concessions was of the magnitude of the one which cost Devon Loch, who literally stumbled within sight of the finish while leading the 1956 Grand National, it is a clear indication that the club prefers the role of greyhound rather than hare.

The 2003 run-in was notorious for a crucial 2-2 draw at Bolton in which Arsenal frittered away a two goal lead in the last 20 minutes; this season we have seen an identical scenario play out at West Ham. At times this year, this team has shown great heart and fighting spirit when cast in the role of underdog. However, the old frailties of being unable to cope with the glare of the spotlight have surfaced repeatedly. And while the damage done by home-and-away defeats to both Chelsea and Man U was largely repaired, the ignominy of a first league defeat to Spurs in nearly 11 years last Wednesday merely reopened the wounds.

Yesterday, however, the team plumbed new depths. After Chelsea’s defeat on Saturday, the players knew the importance of securing a victory which would have moved them back within three points of the summit. But having secured a spluttering two goal advantage at the DW Stadium – and having wasted several chances to bolster the potentially critical goal difference – Arsenal somehow contrived to concede three goals in the last ten minutes to extinguish their fading title aspirations.

The worst thing was you could see it coming. After Mikael Silvestre scored the second goal early in the second half, there was a visible drop-off in effort as a fog of complacency descended over the team. Chances went begging, and opponents’ runs went untracked (Ben Watson‘s 80th minute effort that made it 2-1 came as a result of Abou Diaby‘s casual, half-hearted effort to fulfil his defensive duties). The manner of the capitulation may have been shocking, but the warning signs were clearly there – and totally ignored.

Now I don’t mind being beaten by the better team, as happened recently when Barcelona knocked Arsenal out of this season’s Champions League. But with the greatest of respect to Roberto Martinez‘s side, Wigan are not a better team than Arsenal. There is a reason why they have been flirting with relegation all season. However, they battled hard throughout yesterday and stood toe-to-toe with a side they knew was technically superior, and who switched off the moment they went 2-0 up, assuming the job was done.

Being better on paper – or for 80 minutes – does not confer an automatic right to victory. I have no complaints. Wigan got everything they deserved yesterday. So, too, did Arsenal.

Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

There is no question that Sebastian Vettel is an extremely quick and talented driver. Three poles and one win from the first four races of the 2010 season are testament to his speed and consistency when he gets himself into race-winning positions.

However, if there is one question mark hanging over him, it is his ability to drive through the field when fate deals him a mediocre hand. Having squandered pole position with a poor start yesterday, he lost further places in the tactical scramble which ensued when a combination of light rain and a safety car randomised the pack. With McLaren‘s Lewis Hamilton in close attendance, there was a clear contrast between the incision and aggression with which the Briton carved his way through the field and Vettel’s more hesitant approach, most obviously when Vettel fumbled an overtaking attempt on Adrian Sutil at the end of the back straight, allowing Hamilton to dive past them both in a flash.

Hamilton is at his best chasing, when required to drive on instinct and emotion and not over-think; he is not the type to relentlessly crush his opposition with effortless lights-to-flag victories. Vettel seems to be the opposite: when he is out in front he is untouchable; when asked to charge through the midfield, less so. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw – in my lifetime, only Schumacher and Ayrton Senna have been routinely capable of winning a grand prix through both relentless dominance and stirring charges. (For prime examples of the latter, think of Schumacher’s win from 16th on the grid at Spa in 1995, or Senna dancing his McLaren through the intermittent storms at Donington in 1993.)

There is no question that Vettel is one of the fastest men of the grid. Hamilton too. But neither won yesterday’s race. While speed is critical in F1, it is not the only thing. Jenson Button won his second race of the season with the brave decision to stay on slicks when most others were switching to intermediates, and now leads the championship by ten points, confounding the pundits who insisted he would be blown into the weeds by Hamilton. Both his wins this season have come as a result of making the right split-second call on tyres, demonstrating a tactical intelligence (and a modicum of good fortune) which is currently keeping him ahead of the acknowledged speed merchants.

Many have already drawn the comparison of Hamilton and Button with the Senna/Alain Prost era at McLaren: fire and ice, the hot-blooded Latin who would just out-drive everyone else and the cool Frenchman who would out-think everyone. It’s not a bad comparison. It doesn’t matter how fast Hamilton is, how many times he outqualifies his teammate or how many laps he leads; in changeable conditions which push tactical nous to the fore, Button is finding a way to ensure he leads in the only place that matters: the final lap.

As the F1 circus moves back towards Europe and into the summer months, Button will be less likely to benefit from the wild card effect of changeable weather. Vettel and Hamilton will undoubtedly take their share of victories and podiums. (So too Fernando Alonso and the consistent if unspectacular Nico Rosberg.) But with the final third of the season featuring races in Belgium, Japan and Brazil – each with notoriously unpredictable conditions – only a fool would discount Button’s chances if he remains in contention down the stretch.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether you prefer to win from the front or with a well-timed attack from behind – the greatest champions simply find a way to win, no matter what. And that is what separates the likes of Man U and Barcelona from Arsenal, and that means that Vettel will not have things all his own way.

Painful though that simple fact was from an Arsenal perspective yesterday, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The right to be called ‘champion’ has to be earned; it is not simply conferred. That is why it means so much.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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