Leagues are about the relative, rather than the absolute.
In a league system, winning only guarantees that you have been better than anyone who finishes below you, and thus not winning only guarantees that you have been worse than whoever finishes above you. Neither of these states inherently guarantees that you have done a certain amount of things wrong or right, or that you have been good or bad at most things.
You can win while doing a lot wrong and you can lose while doing a lot right. The latter position becomes particularly applicable if you are the non-billionaire-backed Arsenal, competing against the wholeheartedly billionaire-backed Manchester City—the Gunners’ best will usually not be better than Blues’ best.
And so it is that halfway through the current season, sitting two points clear of Leicester City and three points clear of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, Arsenal could still lose the league title to the richer of those two without messing up.
In fact, it’s not even a difficult scenario to conjure in your head. All it might take is, say, the miraculous Sergio Aguero going on one of his semi-regular, similarly miraculous runs of goalscoring form after his late winner against Watford last Saturday. From there, City could theoretically obliterate all that comes before it, including Arsenal. In those circumstances could anyone being entirely rational really blame Arsene Wenger’s team for not finishing ahead of Manuel Pellegrini’s? Would it suddenly be Wenger’s fault that he couldn’t summon a player the calibre of Aguero from the bottom of one of his deep coat pockets?
Simply put: surely not. And thus Arsenal’s job in the second half of this season should not be to win the league because that is a moveable goalpost. Instead it should be to avoid being in any way culpable for the failure, should it arise. It should, in advertising jargon, be the best in can be.
What this really means is that Arsenal has to not mess this situation up. There can be no Monaco-esque catastrophes or repeats of disastrous away-day meltdowns as in 2014. There can be no “forgetting” to buy a backup defensive-minded midfielder this January, leaving the remnants of Mathieu Flamini to fill in for the remnants of the remnants of the remnants of Mikel Arteta when Francis Coquelin is injured.
Deep down, we all know the drill here: a process similar to that of the recently decent Tottenham would do the trick, where you cut out all of the aspects of your footballing personality that could be deemed worthy of ridicule, leaving only the serious bits and none of the obvious mistakes.
Now, having already climbed to the top of the table on merit, and been the best English club over the course of the last calendar year, clearly this process is already a long way towards completion. Arsenal has recently succeeded in doing what any non-super-powered club needs to by taking its chance when it comes, using its main weapons, continuity and coherence, to win in the short term where money hasn’t been able to—and with this success many of the more cringe-worthy aspects of its past performances have disappeared.
Take a look at your old “Typical Arsenal” checklists if you don’t believe me.
The embarrassing goal concessions have slowed and almost stopped with the growth of Laurent Koscielny into a top-class centre back, the acquisition of Petr Cech as a top-class goalkeeper and the development of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal into the best two fullbacks in the league. The potential for an injury crisis to derail a season has been neutralized with the pulling together of one of those fancy, modern, up-scaled squads (in all but the defensive midfield position, at the time of writing). In attack, no single star is now relied upon as the sole source of goals or creativity, albeit Mesut Ozil’s recent elevation towards extreme brilliance would make him a heavy loss to any team right now.
Each of these represents a significant reversal, as does the positioning of the currently injured Coquelin as a powerful midfield shield in front of the defence.
There is, really, only one dodgy trait left to eliminate: the tendency, too often, to only play well at a time of negative opportunity rather than at a time of positive opportunity. As the recent daring escape from its Champions League group showed, Wenger’s team still responds better to the possibility of disaster than it does to the chance of success. And while in its late runs to finish fourth this has been a useful trait, when sitting at the top of the league like right now, it’s one that has been outgrown. Mentally, Arsenal should now expect to win before a crisis looms, not after.
More directly, and succinctly, this means Arsenal could do with relaxing into the second half of this season. It can’t affect City and Aguero, but it has to be good enough to lead the pack without any really outrageous lapses in concentration or nerve if it’s not to look back and wonder what could have been. Economic reality dictates that City could always still come past it, but Arsenal needs to have the confidence to make that task as hard as possible if it’s to do itself justice.
Beating Newcastle 1-0 last weekend, via a pretty terrible performance, was a good start. Now it needs a good middle and a good ending.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter