Lock a man in a concrete box for a decade and the chances are he’ll become fascinated by minute changes within his environment–the shifting patterns of the damp on the walls perhaps, or a new crack in the ceiling–and argue vehemently that everything is different now. To everybody else, though, he’s just a man in a concrete box.
This is Arsenal.
As Arsenal has lost its last two games, going down 2-1 at Everton and at Manchester City, the reactions of fans have fallen into two camps. There have been those who have lurched into the familiar anti-Arsene Wenger fury, and those who have insisted that this isn’t like the last time or the time before that, that there are specific causes for this stumble and that this season is actually unique among the last 10 years of underachievement.
It is certainly true that Arsenal is stronger now than it was four or five years ago. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin are high-caliber players. Petr Cech is a reliable goalkeeper. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny are the most reliable central defensive pairing Arsenal has had since Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure. There is depth at the back of the midfield where for so long resources were limited. With so much of the debt on the new stadium paid off, Arsenal is cash rich in a way it wasn’t for around a decade.
And it’s also true that two narrow away defeats to decent sides shouldn’t, under normal circumstances, have anybody out brandishing pitchforks and blazing torches–or giving impassioned rants on Arsenal Fan TV, which seems to be the modern equivalent–even if they happen in the space of five days. But it was the manner of the defeats and the nature of what had gone before that makes this such an issue.
Arsenal led 1-0 at Everton and looked comfortable but conceded an equalizer just before halftime. It was pinned back after the break and lost when Ashley Williams headed in a corner as Ozil got out of the way. It was a shambolic goal to concede: Ozil’s attempt to mark him was pathetic, but then, even in a zonal system, there’s something absurd about asking somebody like Ozil to deal with a player as powerful as Williams. It can’t have come as a surprise to anybody to see Ozil shirking a physical challenge.
At City, it was a similar story. Arsenal was dominant in the first half but led only 1-0 at halftime. Its lack of ruthlessness was exposed after the break as City took control to win more convincingly than a 2-1 score line may suggest. Ozil, again, took much of the blame, his slack approach to playmaking an awkward contrast to the incessant energy all around him.
The absence of Mustafi with a hamstring injury is a factor, of course, and he is expected back before the new year–although at Arsenal, injuries often seem to take longer to heal than they do elsewhere. Any side would miss a player of his quality, but there are two aspects of his absence that feel particularly Arsenal: that the loss of one iconic player should have such a profound effect on the self-confidence of a side, and that he should be injured at all.
Arsenal’s injury list always seems longer than those of most sides. Even now, it is without not only Mustafi, but also Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Debuchy, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker.
But it’s more than that. It’s about a mood that infects the club. U.S. psychologist Abraham Maslow, most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, saw in the Old Testament story of Jonah a human archetype. Instructed by God to warn the people of Nineveh that they faced destruction unless they mended their ways, Jonah instead ran away to sea, leading to the storm during which he was thrown overboard and swallowed by the whale. For Maslow, those who panicked in the face of responsibility or achievement had fallen into the “Jonah Complex.”
For Arsenal, the pattern is clear: every time it comes close to fulfillment, every time it almost delivers, it falls short, whether that is giving away silly goals in the first leg of a big European tie or having a bad month just as it looks like getting into the title race. Last season, Arsenal followed up a win over Manchester City in the last game before Christmas with a 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day then won just two of its following six matches.
This season it could have gone top, albeit having played a game more than Chelsea, had it beaten Everton, but it froze. A week later, the leader is nine points clear. Worse, there is familiar wrangling over the contracts of star players, with both Alexis and Ozil looking for much-improved deals. Other clubs face similar problems, of course, and everybody in the Premier League must deal with the vast wealth of the Chinese Super League, but at Arsenal the situation has become a crisis. Perhaps Ozil in the past couple of games has played himself into expendability but if Alexis goes it would seem a mortal blow to Arsenal’s hopes of establishing itself among the very elite.
But then that’s been the way for a long time now: the story of Arsenal coming up short through a failure of nerve keeps on repeating.
The names and details change but the overall pattern remains horribly familiar.