Hindsight is a compliant geisha that one can use to justify narratives however tenuous, but I still maintain that I had seen this coming. In 13-14, Arsenal sat joint-top of the Premier League, grinding out results with impressive efficiency despite showing initial signs of injury wear-and-tear. They faced Stoke, Liverpool, and Chelsea in consecutive games – all of them away from home – in a fire test of their title credentials. And they were set alight in a hideous conflagration: losing to Stoke while accruing a few more walking wounded, getting paddle-pounded by a rampant Liverpool as SAS caused SOS, and being roasted above the fire-pits of hell by a horned Mourinho in Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. A limp fourth place finish ensued, and while the season was salvaged by a much-needed FA Cup triumph, there was a definite sense of regret at having let another title challenge slip through battered fingers. And the regret was mixed with resignation, because of course we had seen this coming.
Fast forward two seasons, and the exact same set of fixtures stared the Gunners in the face as they sat gingerly atop the summit of the league once again. Enough had changed in the current Arsenal from the Arsenal of two years ago to light a cautious candle of optimism, but enough had remained the same for pessimistic gusts of wind to portend candle-less darkness. Now that Arsenal are two-thirds of the way through this fire test, what’s the verdict? Well, rather than meeting flame with flame, they have handled the hot stuff with kid gloves and lead-lined protective suits. The result is two points dropped and one point gained, an overall improvement over this corresponding period in 13-14, but a hung jury over whether they can last the distance in this title race.
I realize that this avatar of Stoke is far removed from the usual conglomeration of orcs and orcas that cause Arsenal trouble at the Britannia, but there is still bestiality beneath the veneer of beauty. Chelsea, Man United, and Man City have all returned empty handed from Mark Hughes’s antechamber. A point and a clean sheet set against this context highlight a mental strength and willingness to scrap that were perhaps absent in seasons past.
I’d like to shower special praise on three Arsenal players here: Petr Cech, Nacho Monreal, and Joel Campbell. Cech was superb against Stoke, commanding the area with considerable sangfroid, saving twice from Joselu, and pulling off another reflex stop in the dying minutes after Ramsey cleared off the line. The lanky Czech has been a paragon of consistency after the opening weekend debacle against West Ham, winning us points against Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle, Sunderland, and Tottenham, among others. Cech could defuse a bomb with one hand while catching a baby thrown from a burning building with the other. The Arsenal defense will probably make him do both these things before the season is out.
While Cech came pre-stamped with a huge-ass watermark of quality, Nacho Monreal has had to forge public opinion in his favour from scratch. Solid in his first few months, shaky in his next few as Gibbs took over, shell-shocked at the beginning of last season while playing central defense, and Mr. Reliable for almost 1.5 years thenceforth. Monreal is clearly a player who needs sustained game-time to get into his stride, and now that he has that, he regularly ranks among the top LBs in the league for both offensive and defensive stats. Even with players like Theo and Sanchez in front of him – folks not exactly known for disciplined and constant tracking back – Monreal’s flank is usually safe as houses.
If Monreal’s development is pleasantly unexpected, the Joel Campbell card is wilder than Bear Gryllis. Chucked into the team after inclement injury gods swept through both our flanks, Campbell has morphed from deer-in-headlights to Madonna-in-spotlights. Three goals, three assists, a surprisingly prescient eye for through balls, and a guarantee that he will run his Costa Rican bollocks off every game mean that he is now arguably first choice on one wing ahead of Ox and Theo. He was one of our biggest creative threats against both Liverpool and Stoke, and let’s not forget the game-changing pass against Olympiakos. These are tough, high-octane games in which he has come through for us. Like Monreal, Campbell needed an extended run-out to truly come into his own. Long may he remain there.
The draw against Liverpool was disappointing for two reasons: Arsenal never played like they deserved to win the game, and also contrived to throw away two points once they found themselves in an unlikely winning position. Champions either play well against these kinds of teams and win, or don’t play well and sneak in wins anyway. This was some almost-champion tightrope walking that frustrated to no end.
The generous number of shots we let Liverpool take and the Southampton shit-fest on Boxing Day are symptomatic of a wider midfield imbalance ever since we lost Coquelin and Cazorla. Flamini has pointed and puffed as much as his ageing legs can allow him, but he clearly lacks the dynamism, sharpness, and discipline that Coquelin brings to midfield. Ramsey gets forward far more than Cazorla, and while that has resulted in four goals and two assists from the Welshman, he is either not available often enough or not adept enough to make passes out of defence and recycle possession (something the little Spaniard is excellent in).
This piece by 7amkickoff is essential reading, highlighting how Arsenal have regressed in passes per game, dribbles per game, interceptions and tackles per game, and average possession under the Ramsey-Flamini axis. It’s to the team’s great credit that results have been as good as they are (seven wins, two draws, one defeat), but this patchwork strategy is bound to get found out soon. Most likely when that small team from Catalonia pay a visit.
It is certain that Wenger has noticed these flaws, prompting a quickish (by Arsenal standards) purchase of Elneny. It’s a tough ask for the Egyptian to fit in and perform at such short notice, but needs must. I think he will start this weekend in what is a hugely important game.
So, Jose Mourinho is gone. That pantomime has passed. But hilariously, their crappy season continues to waft its scent across the contours of the country, a one-win-per-month record being maintained under a suddenly-not-so-Midas Hiddink. Oh how they would love to spoil our season by taking points off us in the upcoming encounter. And they are well capable of doing so.
If memory serves correctly, the last time we scored against Chelsea in the league was in 2012-13. We played Hiddink’s Chelsea twice in 2008-09, losing 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final and 4-1 at the Emirates. Chelsea still have the same players, players capable of aggravating us into circuitous possession before scoring on the break. And finally, as illogical as it may sound, Arsenal squads over the past decade have revelled in reaching as close to success as possible before veering wildly off-course and falling ditchwards. One can never ever put it past them to do it again. In such an open title race, with major rivals struggling and greenhorns gate-crashing the Champions League places, when top spot is so up for grabs, the most Arsenal thing to do would be to spurn it. It’s a football supporter’s job to have belief, but ten years of butt-hurt will take time to set right.
Like I said at the start of this blog, enough has changed in this Arsenal side: world-class and street-smart keepers, productive and hard-working seventh choice wingers, World Cup and Copa America winners, and grinding results out with half the side out injured. And enough has remained the same: propensity to brain fart and lose heavily, regularly having to play a skeletal and overworked side, and the ever-looming possibility of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Sunday’s match can be called on a coin toss.
And if Arsenal drop points in this game, and fail to win the title again, and we’re discussing this sorry period two years from now, I’m going to tell you that I saw it coming. Small pleasures.