You may already be aware that this past weekend Arsenal worked itself up into a familiar pre-crisis episode.
Away at West Bromwich Albion, the Gunners took the lead, handed it back with some reverse-defending, acquired two injuries in the same, ill-covered defensive midfield position to add to an already implausibly long list, missed a penalty and dropped two places down the Premier League table—overtaken by a Manchester United team it beat 3-0 just a few weeks ago and a Leicester City team that was bottom of the league at this time last year, that it also defeated in similar style a few weeks ago.
It was a dismal day, in some ways enhanced by the sense of opportunity lost, with Manchester City losing to Liverpool an hour or so later, and as such Arsene Wenger had little choice but to concur with the overwhelming conclusion that the game he’d just witnessed had been “a nightmare.” With a Jamie-Vardy-inspired Leicester top of the league with a mere 28 points after 13 games, this is almost evidently Arsenal and Wenger’s best chance to win the league in 10 years, and Saturday’s events looked exactly like the kind of thing that would happen to a team that will end up blowing that chance.
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What’s missing from this analysis, however, is the observation that while, yes, these kinds of games will happen if Arsenal doesn’t end up winning things this season, they will also probably occur even if it does.
This is because even a winning Arsenal will likely never be a perfect Arsenal, which is an important point, and one often missed. This team could, perhaps, be good enough to win a Premier League in exactly the right circumstances—surely involving mismanagement by rival clubs with financial superpowers—but that process of winning would not involve it becoming indestructible, or replicating the destructive runs of form we’ve seen elsewhere from Bayern Munich and Barcelona this season.
That’s simply not how it will work, because this is Arsenal, and expecting its current squad to win every game, or avoid poor runs of form, would be like expecting Leicester to be at the top of the league after 13 games—a ridiculous expectation, even if one that could technically come to fruition one time out of a million.
Realistically, Arsenal won’t win by becoming Bayern or Barca, it will win by being the best version of Arsenal it can possibly manage at the time, and that will likely still mean some pre-crisis or even full-crisis episodes like the one we all witnessed at West Brom. That’s what it’s capable of. And that means that while those episodes aren’t positives they also don’t have to be considered disastrous either, because even in a best-case-scenario season where this team wins everything on offer, some disappointing defeats would still form a necessary part of the route to those longer-term victories. This is the reality for every club hoping to win anything, except perhaps those with billions to spend.
Of course, again, this isn’t to say that Arsenal’s “nightmare” against West Brom is a good thing—it’s just to say that only within the full context of a season will we be able to recognise if it was a part of a missed opportunity or an opportunity that was taken in a convoluted, up and down, Arsenal kind of way. Is the latter still possible? Yes, it is.
And with this logic in mind we move on to this week’s Champions League engagements, where a rather similar situation exists for Wenger’s team. Having lost to each one of its Group F opponents once already, and in particular been reduced to the role of witness in 5-1 defeat in Munich two weeks ago, there is little confidence of the “this is our year” variety amongst or outside of the Arsenal ranks. The assumption, quite understandably, is that this is definitively not Arsenal’s year. And I’m pretty sure of that myself, to be honest.
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But as Wenger’s team sit around waiting to face Dinamo Zagreb this Tuesday, bottom of its group, contemplating the fitness of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Mikel Arteta, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, and hoping for results to go its way, I’m struck by an idea. If Arsenal was going to win the Champions League, isn’t this exactly how it would go about it? It wouldn’t win it by destroying everyone in its sights, it would “do a Liverpool”—or a Chelsea, for that matter—and sneak through each round, somehow, while never being all that amazing, right?
Now I will grant you that these unhappy circumstances are far more likely to produce unhappy end results to match—that’s not in question, particularly in the Champions League. But the point is that we shouldn’t be simplistic in our analysis of Arsenal and its elaborate series of crises. As I call for time and time again, we need a little nuance, and as such, we must all accept the fact that for much of any particular season, Arsenal winning trophies and Arsenal not winning trophies will probably appear very similar beasts.
Only a very small shift in points totals or quality of opponents or luck will make a positive difference in outcome, not some revolutionary shift in Arsenal where it suddenly eradicates all its faults and financial constraints. In fact, it’s extremely likely that if Arsenal wins, you won’t be sure it’s won right until the exact moment when it happens.
So stay on guard.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter