So here we are again, having gone to the top of the table with victory over Stoke City last week (albeit only for 24 hours until Chelsea won their fixture); as soon as Arsenal needed to prove their title credentials, us Gooners find ourselves in an all too familiar position. We were led to believe that the 14 game unbeaten run following the opening day loss to Liverpool, suggested that there was a greater toughness, resilience or as Le Boss likes to refer to it: ‘spirit/ mental strength’ within this squad; the insipid draw at home to Middlesbrough, the failure of the team to turn up at Old Trafford yet again and the ongoing concession of goals through sloppy defensive mistakes, affirmed it was more a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
For this particular Gooner it wasn’t so much losing at Goodison Park and the Etihad, both are tough places to go for any team, it is more that inescapable sinking feeling that I have seen this film before and can predict with almost absolute certainty how it ends.
In the wake of the defeat at the Etihad on Sunday, Arsene Wenger blamed the officials for missing two offside decisions that he felt should have ruled out both of City’s goals. For me the first one was marginal and within the scope of acceptable human error and the second subject to interpretation, as Silva was indeed offside but played no significant role in the goal being scored. The Arsenal manager’s complaints, coming on the back of his excuse that we had been unlucky at Goodison, rang more of Lord Haw-Haw than to serve as any form of rallying call for Gooners looking for reassurance that this year would not follow the all too familiar pattern of 2015/16, 2014/15, 2013/14, 2012/13…
The infamously divided Arsenal support can be broadly split into two camps: those who feel that given time and ongoing investment Arsene will eventually lead us back to the promised land of a credible title challenge and as genuine contenders for the Champions League; and those who have lost the faith, who feel the manager has become outdated and unable to compete at the very top level of the game any longer. Familiar failings season after season have led to a loss of faith and a reluctant transfer from the former to the latter camp for ever increasing numbers of Arsenal fans.
For me what we saw last week was all too characteristic of Arsenal since the stadium move, that feeling that when it really matters, when the team is required to make a statement, to lay down a marker, it bottles it and is found wanting. How much that is due to the spoiled nature of modern footballers and how much the failing of the manager is open to debate.
My wife and I were in Barcelona this weekend and witnessed Diego Simeone urge, cajole and almost bully his side to a hard fought victory over an obstinate Las Palmas side on TV on Saturday evening; and then had the absolute privilege of watching Luis Enrique’s sublimely talented team sweep aside their local rivals Espanyol at the Camp Nou (more on that in a later post). What struck me in both those matches and in watching Chelsea and Liverpool, to name but two, this season was the sheer work rate put in by the players to lay the foundations on which to be able to play their game.
The previous Tuesday evening Arsenal disappeared as soon as Everton decided they had little to fear and would get stuck in; while the abiding memory I will take from Sunday’s game at the Etihad is of Alexis Sanchez slumped to his haunches in sheer frustration at trying time and again without success to get his teammates to support him in pressing City’s defence.
Thomas Edison famously said that ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration’, a lesson that this latest incarnation of Arsenal would do well to heed. However with a relatively winnable run of fixtures before heading to Stamford Bridge at the beginning of February followed by the Champions League clash with Bayern Munich, I think we all know how the story of the 2016/17 season is likely to end…