At the start of the season there was such a bubbling optimism among the Arsenal supporters that to see us where we are now, with even keeled people calling for the manager to step down, is a bit hard to fathom. Of course, there will be folks who now say “I knew this would happen” and “I told you so” but among the majority of the fans, the people whose emotions actually swing from good to bad and don’t stay pegged at either end of the spectrum, among those people there was a very nice, rolling boil of optimism.
In many ways the start of every footballing season is the dawning of a new religion. Every season is it’s own mythology pieced together from the season prior, our experience of football throughout our lives, the realities of the world around us, the pre-season friendlies, and the players bought and sold. Collectively they define our rights and wrongs, our gods and demi-gods, devils and heroes.
The Arsenal faithful started this season with the irrational belief that the team was deep. Some folks wanted a few new signings in midfield, but by and large, there was a palpable sense that this team was deep and the words “selection nightmare” and “that’s a good nightmare to have!” were glibly spoken as we drank Guinness and danced nude to the god Patricisis around the pre-season fire.
But just 10 games into the season and already Santos is touted as the worst Arsenal defender since Pascal Cygan, Koscielny has reverted to form of two years ago, Vermaelen looks like he deserves to be dropped, Szczesny and Fabianski are both out injured, there are only three healthy first-choice midfielders, and the strike team that looked so promising has struggled to gel.
In retrospect, it was irrational to believe that Arsenal could hit the ground running offensively after losing Robin van Persie and Song (who created or scored 59 goals between them) and benching contract rebel Theo Walcott (who created or scored an additional 18 goals). Had Cazorla, Giroud, and Podolski been able to replicate the form of those three in their very first few games at Arsenal, they would have been truly mythological. That they haven’t is just realistic.
Steve Bould is yet another chimera that the fans fastened their harness too. Pat Rice was savaged by some as a yes man who “just puts the cones out” and yet some of the same defensive frailties exist in this Arsenal side with Steve Bould as defensive coach as existed in the last. Arsenal still have trouble defending set pieces, as Patrice Evra showed on Saturday, and the infamous “mental strength” that the club lacked last season is still lacking this season as Arsenal have only conceded 8 goals but 5 of those have been due to individual errors.
At points like this, when the reality of sport knocks over their carefully constructed fantasy, most sports fans actually turn deeper to faith unearthing the old gods and holding them up as the standards we should bear.
The mythology that a change in formation would solve this team’s problems is the one making the rounds right now. The 4-3-3 was not the reason why Man U beat Arsenal on Saturday. Slack defending, poor ball movement, not dealing with Wayne Rooney man-marking Mikel Arteta, and a gormless performance are what beat Arsenal on Saturday. That same listlessness is why Schalke beat Arsenal and why Reading took a four goal lead before the Gunners fought back.
I guarantee if you took Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, and Sol Campbell at the height of their ability and put them into the 4-3-3 Arsenal would not have lost 2-1 to that Man U side. Can you imagine Patrick Vieira allowing Wayne Rooney to man-mark him out of a game? I don’t care what formation they used, those players were dominant personalities, at least in my mythos they were.
Along with the 4-4-2 is the idea that just one or two players brought in would solve the problems. That Arsenal are just one or two players away from challenging is what I hear all the time. But even if I were to accept the “one or two” players argument (I don’t, it’s more like four or five) I feel the need to point out… it’s November. The transfer window doesn’t open for two whole months. Or if you prefer, the transfer window doesn’t open for 14 games.
And then there’s the oddest mythology of all, that firing Ivan Gazidis (which is also phrased as firing “the board”) would somehow change the results on the pitch here and now. I suspect what people want is for the tea lady to go over to Highbury and dig up David Dein’s dessicated corpse, brush off all the £50 notes his legacy was buried with and wheel him over to the Arsenal board to magically “fix things”.
But to fix things that are happening on the pitch now you would have to go back in time to three or four years ago and work on the contract problems, the wage structure, and keeping key players by building a stronger team around the stars. I’m not throwing my support behind the board, far from it, I’m saying again what I warned three years ago when people were sanguine about Cesc leaving (he left the next year, I know), if Arsenal are to rebuild this team it will take 3-5 years — and we haven’t even started rebuilding.
Let’s not forget that it took 4 years and a billion dollars to “rebuild” Manchester City. So, even if the Deinists and Usmanovists get their way and the board is fired today, Kroenke is forced to sell tomorrow, and hundreds of millions of pounds are pumped into the team starting in January, fans should reasonably expect a three to four year term before the new team is a title challenger. Note, please, that the same can be expected if Kroenke and the board were to suddenly wake up tomorrow and realize that their investment in the squad hasn’t been at a level commensurate with the desires of the worshippers.
The harsh reality is that Arsenal are not the title contending team we built them up to be at the start of the season right now and after Saturday many of us have lost our religion, as it were. But when the faithful are at their darkest moments they tend to double down on belief.
In the face of a team that couldn’t bother to show up in a match against Manchester United, the manager getting the tactics wrong, and the injuries decimating the first team, you have to look forward over the course of the season and back over the last five years and see that the manager has managed to beat the odds before and that there is still time to beat the odds now. What are we, nine points off the leaders? Psshhh, last season Arsenal pulled off a ten point comeback in March. March. Nine points in November is nothing. I’m not even sure I would count that as one of the miracles needed for sainthood.
No, you have to turn to faith and rebuild your belief one myth at a time. Because no matter how much we pretend it otherwise, football is not about reason. Football is about the irrational belief in the magical abilities of a guy who kicks a ball, who “drags his teammates back from the brink”, and who wears a puffy down jacket with “A.W.” embroidered on the front.
And if they don’t finish this season as title contenders and they don’t win any trophies, well there’s always next year to build an entirely new pantheon of gods and discover that they too have feet made of clay.