JUST two days after Valentine’s Day, it feels like a massacre. The managers and players won’t say that, obviously, and nor will broadcasters for fear of losing eyeballs before Easter. But this is the final reel of the movie already. Arsenal: Endgame.
But Mikel Arteta is not an avenger. He’s Chief Brody in Jaws , lying on a sinking boat mast and armed with nothing but a rifle and blind hope. He’s still taking shots. But the shark keeps coming. It doesn’t stop, chewing up defenders and spitting out bile to critics. It is genetically engineered to gorge and endure. It knows nothing else.
The shark keeps coming.
Manchester City are feeding machines. The Gunners will be swallowed whole if both parties remain on their current course.
In the movies, the shark must lose. In the English Premier League, we swim with sharks and they invariably win.
A fifth title in six years is on its way to the Etihad, unless Arteta takes that single shot before the curtain falls. There will not be another.
That’s why the terrific encounter at the Emirates was not just about the three points. Both sides were playing for the mythical pendulum, the pendulum that the all-seeing Gary Neville has been banging on about for weeks, despite the initial laughs of derision.
Momentum is everything. City have it. Arsenal have lost it. And for serial winners, titles are like Thanos’ grand plan. All in the mind. Inevitable. Neville was right to look through the points gap to do a little soul searching in the two dressing rooms.
Guardiola’s artists are skipping towards a fifth title in six years like they’re strolling to a Parisian brunch. Arteta’s creaking parts are spluttering like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, dropping eight points in their last three games (they only dropped seven in their first 19 games of the campaign). The risk of spontaneous combustion is real.
Before Christmas, Arteta was Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator , a youthful, assured emperor comfortable with his sudden elevation to the throne. Now, he’s closer to Phoenix’s Joker , hopping and stomping along the touchline as his world threatens to implode. Phoenix’s journey from Emperor Commodus to the Joker took 20 years. The Gunners have done it in two months.
That unmistakable sense of inevitability hangs over both the Emirates and the Eitihad, a growing belief that City have got this in the bag now and Arsenal are just, well, Arsenal. Titles so often seem preordained, whatever the fluctuating circumstances through the season.
Guardiola wisely apologised for referencing Steven Gerrard’s 2014 slip, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. Liverpool fans knew that the race wasn’t mathematically over. There were still games to play. But there was already a sense of inevitability. The Reds weren’t taking the title.
Ifs, buts and maybes creeping into Arsenal psyche
Just as when Blackburn Rovers collected the trophy on the final day in 1995, despite losing at Liverpool, or Manchester City pulling off their Sergio Aguero miracle in 2012, or Leicester City holding on in 2016, that sense of inevitability guides champions home.
Call it momentum, durability, fate or kismet, but Neville is right. When the pendulum swings, it does decisively and pretty much stays there. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the law of averages. If the shark keeps coming, he’s going to feast in the end.
Of course, the Gunners claim otherwise. Dumb luck is a valid argument of sorts for their current predicament. They visited an Everton side enjoying a honeymoon with new manager Sean Dyche. A VAR blinder denied a win against Brentford. There were last-minute injuries against Manchester City and Jack Grealish’s goal benefitted from a cruel deflection.
There are plenty of comforting ifs, buts and maybes. But they can draw attention away from the definitive, long-term ifs, buts and maybes that typically derail a title challenge.
If Arsenal had a settled right-back, then poor Takehiro Tomiyasu may not have presented Kevin de Bruyne with his fine goal. Thomas Partey’s injury was unfortunate, but if Arteta had better bench options, the Gunners might have hung on. Edward Nketiah has been a magnificent fill-in striker, but maybe a more experienced finisher doesn’t miss the chances that fell his way against City.
Ifs, buts and maybes help the defeated drown their sorrows, but dumb luck does not decide a title race. That creeping sense of inevitability is usually earned.
But this is not a criticism of Arsenal, quite the opposite. It’s a miracle they made it this far. A young side, a couple of shaky right-backs, a reserve centre-forward and an anaemic-looking bench do not typically face down Manchester City for more than half a season. At least Chief Brody had a rifle. Relatively speaking, the Gunners are taking aim with peashooters.
And in desperation, they are panicking, just a little perhaps, but it’s enough. Apart from Tomiyasu, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Magalhaes and Aaron Ramsdale all fumbled, lost the ball, missed a tackle or simply blundered.
That sense of inevitability threatens to consume them. When Manchester City play Arsenal, Manchester City always win – 11 times in a row in fact – a crushing statistic to contemplate and overcome, as if fate has already made its decision. It’s over. Thanks for coming, Mikel, but Pep will take it from here.
Suddenly, this weekend’s reunion with former manager Unai Emery at Aston Villa takes on a much greater significance, a handy barometer to measure the pressure in the squad. Only goal difference is keeping the Gunners off the top – with a game in hand – but that pesky pendulum has clearly swung away from them. They must not collapse now.
The prospect of Arsenal simply “doing an Arsenal” and folding like a jittery tourist on his first casino visit must be as terrifying to the hardcore Gunners as it is dispiriting for anyone not keen on the same club winning the title every year. Hope remains, but only just.
The shark keeps coming. And there’s only one shot left in the chamber.
The prospect of Arsenal simply “doing an Arsenal” and folding like a jittery tourist on his first casino visit must be as terrifying to the hardcore Gunners as it is dispiriting for anyone not keen on the same club winning the title every year.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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