There is a sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar. First, the familiar, the headline from 2002 would normally read that Arsenal is locked in a two-way title with a team from Manchester. More than twenty years later, the unfamiliar headline today would read Arsenal unexpectedly locked in a two-way horse race with Manchester City. Like a Jim Daly comedy show, there is a sense of incredulity today. One is that Manchester United are no longer in the pantheon of English football. Two, Arsenal fans, who saw the greatest ever season, in the “Invincibles” who earned that sobriquet going an entire season unbeaten, couldn’t fathom, that they would wait close to two decades to have a realistic shot at buffing the crown jewel of English football. Three, that’s how long it’s been, that Manchester City were the meager neighbor (in terms of silverware) compared to Manchester United. The last time Arsenal won the league, City finished 16th, woefully, two spots above the relegation red zone. To say, things have changed is an understatement. The Premier League was just about becoming cosmopolitan, as foreign managers today aren’t rarities, they’re the dominant force, and oligarchs and nation-states that unknowingly discovered oil, suddenly pumped money into “poor country cousin” teams. These teams like their nation-states suddenly discovered their own riches. Blank checks do write wonders. Yes, Chelsea and Manchester City, I am looking at you!
Arsenal are a side that’s used to seeing juxtapositions. As I had earlier penned my thoughts on Arsene Wenger’s retirement, “from never finishing below second in the Premier League, Arsenal became known as the annual fourth-place trophy club”. Arsene Wenger ironically gave Arsenal the Invincibles season, and yet, never delivered Arsenal another Premier League again. Arsenal became a phenomenal brand under the Wenger era and yet under the same era also faded into also-rans.”
And that’s exactly where they were last season, fifth place, also-rans, a club in transition, that was both young in squad and experience and weaker in the coffers against the Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City. Something miraculous happened, Arsenal didn’t follow the script. Sports and sporting encounters rarely do, they’re not meant to be scripted. So, come this season, Arsenal were flying high, top of the league, against all odds, sitting at the pantheon of the table, one where they start every season by the law of the alphabetic order, and then reality descends, and so Arsenal too descend down the table. But Arsenal are football’s Cinderella this season. It’s “our” (the cat is out of the bag, I write and speak as a realistic Arsenal fan), Leicester City season, a fairytale season where against all odds, Arsenal have punched above their weight from just wanting to just finish in the top 4, to secure elite European football to now dominating the league from summer to spring and August to April. There was a sense of hope from Arsenal, that they would conduct their season, the way they conduct their play – stay in control and finish immaculately.
Alas, it’s painful to write this and as I write I bleed but tell the truth I must. I am going to say this now and want that metaphoric pie on my face. With every bone in my body, I hope I am wrong, but like an honest general reassesses and informs his leadership when he has lost a battle that will lead to loss of war, so I assess and say that I unequivocally believe that “we” Arsenal have bottled the league after another a third consecutive draw. A set of profligacies, squandering away another two points, making it three points from three games, or worse, six dropped from a possible nine.
Juxtapositions are common with Arsenal, let’s start with a few this season. Two games come to mind. The one with Bournemouth was a testimony to time and timeless brilliance. A goal in the very first minute by the visiting Bournemouth side, floundering then near the bottom of the league to shock the home side sitting at the top of the totem pole. Bournemouth would score again, to make it 2-0, before Arsenal found ways to achieve parity in quick succession. They had a point to prove, they weren’t going to settle for a point. And just like the very first minute, in the last minute, in the dying embers of the match, there was a fire that was reignited in Arsenal’s season. Their youth product, Reiss Nelson volleys home a left-foot strike to bag a third and secure all three points.
Arsenal would go on a winning run before faltering to their third straight successive draw. Juxtaposition continues. The team at the top Arsenal is playing the team languishing at the bottom. Southampton finds itself geographically south of the country, and south of all other teams in the league. Playing away from home, they hit Arsenal, not once, but twice, to go 2-0 up, and then a third, to make it 3-1. A miraculous Bournemouth-like recovery ensues, Arsenal hit three goals, but they don’t get three points. They have conceded one too many goals. Irony again, where ace shot stopper Aaron Ramsdale, saved Arsenal two points against a juggernaut Liverpool away from home and yet gifted Southampton a dolly right at home. Let’s read the headlines through a Rashomon Effect. Headline one reads, in the last three games, Arsenal have scored seven goals. Boom! Sounds like the team that’s flying high. Headline two reads, in the last three games, Arsenal have conceded seven goals. Sounds like a relegation-threatened side or a team that’s struggling. Juxtaposition again, as both scenarios are true, which is why, they have collected only three points from three games.
This Arsenal side is a paradox. They weren’t supposed to be sitting at the top of the league for this long, and now, as seasons changed from winter to spring, they’re melting faster than the snow did.
Every pundit premonition wrote them off during the season. They would bottle it they say, and ironically bottling means no cup. The unprecedented winter World Cup break didn’t stop the momentum. Their talismanic number 9, with a messiah name in Jesus, was injured and yet they persevered, and while waiting for Jesus to resurface (not the first time those words have been said), Arsenal continued their run.
Yes, they had a bit of frosty February, with a poor run of games, losing to Everton away, drawing at home to middling Brentford, and they came undone to Manchester City. But like Gabriel Jesus, they resurrected their season.
Now is the daunting task, a herculean task of going to Manchester City and somehow against all odds turning the corner. For the neutral and the more facetious inclined, they will say it’s the Emirati-backed side versus the Emirates-backed side or the Emirati airline derby. For Arsenal and us Arsenal fans, this entire season has been a profound metaphor of standing up to “The Man” (no pun intended). It’s the win of the proverbial David against Goliath. And anyone who is not a Manchester City, or a Spurs fan (Arsenal’s arch-rival) should be rooting for Arsenal.
If it’s a movie, you would see it in the script. Boyish lads, just a little over legal drinking age with a cherubic smile. That’s Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard, against the gargantuan threatening might of superstar antagonist in Erling Haaland with the Schwarzenegger Terminator look and efficient ruthlessness. Yes, Etihad Stadium doesn’t have the decibel level of Anfield or the historical antiquity of Old Trafford, but Manchester City have made it their impregnable fortress.
Maybe a win against the mighty blue side may wash away the blues that Arsenal currently have and just maybe, we can continue to smile, the way this Arsenal side have made us Gooners smile and believe again.
I don’t think Arsenal are going to win the league. I won’t ever say I told you so, but with every inch of my body, I hope I am wrong, and we get that unlikely win at the Etihad, the same way Arsenal have had an unlikely season. Arsenal fans need it, football needs it, metaphors of David v Goliath will come true, and the world needs it, showing that unscrupulous billions don’t always win, and underdogs do persevere, even if it’s for that one page in history books.
I am getting emotional, because my side, Arsenal are emotional. The words to express my feelings come from strange places. Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times recently spoke on CNN talking about US-China decoupling, and strangely the geoeconomics phenomena actually describes my sentiment on Arsenal’s season and the big clash right now. Wolf said, “one is obliged to be optimistic, the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I believe one must be optimistic, but one be realistic too.” And to paraphrase “we (Arsenal) have a lot of problems”.
As I tweeted earlier, “there is tenacity, there is tension; there is ambition, there is anxiety; there is stoic, there is swagger, there is pride, there is pain, that elusive trophy to gain. The cup is within grasp, but will it come in the hands? There is Arteta, there is Arsenal.
Come On You Gunners!
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