Well, I had called it. The good thing about being an inveterate pessimist is that expectations post disappointments are quickly recalibrated: title-race mode changes to race-for-fourth mode in the swish of a cape, sunshine-made hay and Groundhog Day are both digested with practiced indifference, and neither top-of-the-table wankfests nor post-meltdown pitchfork chests are taken too seriously. Arsenal seem to be continuing their infuriating practice of topping the table in calendar years but not in the August-May period that ultimately matters.
Two points from Liverpool and Stoke, as disappointing as the last-minute nature of the former result was, would still have been okay had Arsenal taken advantage of their two following homes games. Of course, they bollixed both fixtures, extenuating circumstances and brave running in the Chelsea game doing nothing to temper the loss, and 10 chances and an excellent Forester showing doing nothing to temper yesterday’s drab draw. We now sit in fourth place again, that throne of upper middle class mediocrity that we wear so regularly, and coming weeks can see the season easily fall off the thread that it is currently hanging on.
Yesterday’s first half was eminently strange in that Southampton had most of the play and Arsenal had the best scoring chances. An excellent Ozil touch-down and shot was saved well by their keeper, as was another Ozil toe-poke from a Giroud flick-on. But while our chance creation was decent, our control of the game was abject. Ramsey and Flamini once again proved incapable of dictating tempo: misplacing passes like nobody’s business, displaying amateurish positioning and coordination for out-balls which meant the ball circulated needlessly amongst our defenders, and failing to match the bite and power of twin powerhouses Romeu and Wanyama. Southampton attackers got direct runs at our backline on multiple occasions after loose passing from our midfield duo, which they thankfully didn’t convert into something more. The second half was much better, we created many more chances, but excellent keeping and tame finishing kept parity on the scoreboard and frowns on Ashburton Grove faithfuls.
The truth is that Arsenal were sucker-punched with a near fatal one-two in November when they lost Coquelin and Cazorla in quick succession. Their initial good performances with the Ramsey-Flamini axis now seem akin to a browbeaten boxer swinging wild punches in a heady adrenaline rush before eventually collapsing in a sorry pile of bile and bones.
Speaking of bile and bones, Mathieu Flamini. I don’t mean to be excessively harsh on him – there were enough people in the team who resembled canine excrement yesterday – but the ageing French midfield terrier with a pointing fetish is emblematic of Arsenal’s almost-but-not-quite salsa with success over the past decade. When Arsene Wenger didn’t buy a striker in the summer, it could still be countenanced: Walcott had missed huge chunks of last season and would be back (fat lot of good that has done, but the logic stands), we tried for Benzema and he rightly rejected us, and strikers on the market were rarer than fresh roadkill. But not getting back-up for Coquelin, who himself was a product of last-ditch serendipity, was always likely to prove costly.
Our midfield backup to the first choice Coquelin-Cazorla pairing consisted of Wilshere, Rosicky, and Arteta – a wailing mass of pulled hamstrings and broken fibulas – and Ramsey and Flamini. Ramsey needs the right partner to really shine, and Flamini isn’t that partner. One can’t fault the Frenchman for being fit more often than our other walking wounded, and he has played as manfully as his waning days allow, but a midfielder of his sub-par ilk should not get such an extended runout at the heart of a title challenging midfield. How we chased Schneiderlin and then dropped the case after Coq’s emergence is a damning repetition of past mistakes. Repose faith in first choice players to be invincible (they never are), trust never-good-enough back-ups to perform when needed (they never do), and clutch lucky rabbit toes to hope it all falls into place (the rabbit toe knees you in the groin).
We’re in a busy period and fortunately don’t have to wait too long for the next game. I say fortunately because Arsenal are still giving a nebulous impression of being in this title race, and the sooner that gets set right one way or another, the better. Best case, we beat Bournemouth and Leicester and are close to the top again in two weeks’ time. Worst case, we stutter against those two as well, and are mathematically so far from the top that optimists have no straws left to clutch, and can concentrate on my favourite competition in club football, the FA Cup (I say that only half-jokingly).
And while we’re waiting for this red-and-white Greek tragicomedy to unfold, picture this: Flamini will line up against Barcelona in a few weeks’ time. You’d better watch out Iniesta, Mathieu will point the fuck out of you.