A week is a long time in football, and nobody will be feeling the chill of that geriatric cliché more than Arsenal fans right now. Somehow, they have contrived to fall 9 points behind leaders Chelsea from being top of the Premier League before the 10th December’s fixtures kicked off. Their contriving to turn a 1-0 half-time lead over a Manchester City side they should have buried in that first 45 minutes into a 2-1 defeat got Tom Simmonds noticing a familiar pattern.
There is always a point in a season when it’s proclaimed that Arsenal have turned a corner, that this time they’re for real. The season before last, it was when they blew Liverpool to bits in a 4-1 win on Easter Saturday. That performance, as awesome as it was, didn’t quite usher in a new era of trophy rapacity at the Emirates despite them retaining the FA Cup by beating an appalling Villa side a month later.
The stakes were raised on Valentine’s Day this year, when Danny Welbeck reminded the world he was still alive by glancing in an injury time winner against Leicester which drove the commentariat’s confirmation bias into overload. That was it, went the received wisdom. Little Leicester would fold, and the red juggernaut would claim a bigger prize than celebrating stopping Tottenham Hotspur from finishing second. Or something.
Just as that didn’t happen, it seems that Arsenal’s 3-0 dismantling of Chelsea in late September has served only to have given Antonio Conte the answers to every problem his team has. Chelsea’s ruthless efficiency since this defeat illustrates how Conte has made it very clear to his players that sort of defeat can’t happen to them again.
However, on the red side rather than kicking on from this, it seems to have reaffirmed the entitled reverie that tends to engulf Arsenal every time they beat a big team. Rather than deliver these wins with a snarl, as the likes of Martin Keown and Patrick Vieira would’ve done, this vintage’s wins seem to come with a petulant “see, we can do it” type of sneer, like a child who has been threatened with toy removal if they don’t start behaving.
When you look at where this flaw in Arsenal is located, exactitude is not easy to find. Some have zeroed in on the superstars, Alexis Sanchez and particularly Mesut Ozil. Throwing accusations of a lack of mental fortitude at players who have won the Copa America and the World Cup seems an odd thing to do, and only the most stupid would hammer Sanchez for his contribution this season, or any other. The accusation that Ozil goes missing in big games is one that is given credence by off days like the one he had on Sunday, but he’s played in much bigger games than that and prevailed. Could it be that his effete style of play is more noticeable to English eyes, even those who have been softened by 20 years of Wengerball? After all, when things aren’t going right, the default English position is to demand more intensity, and Ozil is not your man for that. Set him alongside an all-or-nothing street footballer with Sanchez’s wonderful gifts, and it makes any off-days Ozil has look much worse by comparison.
I think the damage was already done long before Ozil or Sanchez came anywhere near the Emirates. The building of the stadium and Wenger’s continued insistence throughout the time that finishing 4th and qualifying for the Champions League was more important than winning trophies is something he has rightly never been allowed to forget. Saying something like that, particularly when you don’t make a strong statement once the stadium is paid for, shows the straitened days are at an end. Wenger didn’t do this forcefully enough and what he’s presiding over as a consequence is a club where being allowed to get away with the bare minimum requirement is embedded in its psychology. The players will feel this, be it consciously or unconsciously, as they always seem to finish in the League position which is just about acceptable for their circumstances. This can all be traced back to Wenger’s reduced vision of a decade ago.
This brings us back to their superstars. Sanchez and Ozil will be nailed-on to be the two players in Wenger’s squad who will not be happy for this status to continue, which is why Wenger was right when he said players of this calibre would want something other than Chinese salary levels to stay at Arsenal. What he needs to do to is make a statement to them – for it’s absolutely certain that they need both to have any chance of winning the league – that Arsenal is indeed the place to be and to stop living in an era where finishing fourth was acceptable for a few seasons. In other words, he needs to think a little further back, and tell himself that it’s 2004 again, not 2007.
Arsenal fans: do you agree with Tom that Arsenal’s failure to challenge for the league adequately is largely psychological, and that Wenger needs to own up to past miscommunications ?
Follow Tom on Twitter on @TallulahonEarth