Sometimes your destiny is in your own hands, or at very least materially so.
Say, when you’re the best team in the league. Then, you know that you simply have to keep winning your own games and you’ll finish as champions. Easier said than done with refereeing these days of course.
Other times, you are constrained by your resources, your abilities, and while you can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, you cannot always build something that is better than a more advantaged competitor.
This year, Arsenal have a fantastic team. On our day we can beat absolutely anyone, Guardiola’s Manchester City included, but in years gone by, it has simply not been our day often enough.
We have strengthened the areas we needed to, we have kept our best players, and we are playing a cohesive brand of football that means that even when we have injuries, they’re so far not affecting the quality of our game, or more importantly our results. Touch wood. That winning streak is a sign of how we have matured as challengers for the Premier League.
Yet there is still one side that could beat us. Ourselves.
Regular readers of this column will know I tend to be pretty upbeat, but also a smidgen contrary. So it is then, that after a run of seven straight wins and nine in our last 10, I have still found something to moan about. I know, I know. But I grew up in the spoiled early-Wenger paradise of titles, or at the very least title challenges, pretty much every year.
I don’t believe that Man City are the target, or our greatest opposition. I am far more worried about our ability to throw away games, which should have been won four times over, by indulging our great nemesis: complacency.
Some examples then.
In the games against Chelsea and Basel, we dominated each match and created a string of chances, which could and should have seen us rack up a few more goals. But to my mind, missing a few chances is par for the course in a football contest.
Compare and contrast with Swansea. We may have had a run of games where we seemed to randomly veer between swashbuckling, clinical dominance and comically jammy luck, but in each and every game we approached the fixture with seriousness and set about putting in maximum effort to achieve our goals. Noone personified this more than Theo Walcott. His statistics on tackles are fast becoming the stuff of legend and although the Burnley game kept us hanging, there was no doubting the attitude throughout.
The Swansea game started in much the same vein. We roared into a two goal lead, and the three points appeared to have been gift-wrapped and deposited under the tree for us to enjoy Christmas early. There was a brief blip, as we conceded a sloppy goal, but we promptly restored our cushion with fairly minimal fuss. And then it all started to go wrong.
Out came the tricks and flicks, as the players seemed far more interested in enjoying themselves, putting on some exhibition stunts. At 3-1.
A two goal lead is infamously dangerous given the way the momentum can swing with a single strike, and so we found after Xhaka’s (questionable at best) red card and Swansea’s second goal. Right up until that moment, we had played with the most cavalier of attitudes, failing to offer up the appropriate amount of respect. In short, we were complacent. And we got away with it, somehow, as Swansea missed chance after chance late on to punish us for our wastefulness on the counter.
And, to be clear, it was a great win to secure. Hallmark of champions and all that. Bleurgh. In some ways, this result was even more lucky than the Burnley one.
I know we won’t always be able to win, and we won’t always be able to maintain 100% concentration 100% of the time, but the flip side of this is that the best sides manage to minimise the time they switch off.
We finally have a side with the quality and depth to win this league, if only we can stop ourselves getting carried away. You can’t help but feel that a combination of that complacency (and of course a measure of being overwhelming favourites) also contributed to some of the mountains we have made from our Wembley molehills in the FA Cup, with penalties required to beat Wigan, a goalkeeping rick to eliminate Reading, and of course extra time to lift the cup itself in 2014.
This time will be different. (Please let it be different!)
When you’re a bit worried about the level of respect your side is showing to the opposition, possibly a game against the Bulgarian champions isn’t quite the tonic, but so we found Ludogorets Razgrad rolling into town this week. Sometimes you can actually be too good for your own good.
For much of the first half, it appeared that maybe there is some truth to the statement “scored too early” as Alexis’ fantastic opener saw us regress into much the same side which almost blew it against Swansea. Our front four pretty much stood stock still about 18 yards from goal, inviting our defensive players to find a way to get the ball to them, and to the naked eye, it appeared as if Coquelin was playing in fast forward compared to many of his teammates.
(It perhaps helped that Ander Herrera reportedly set a season record for ball recoveries on Monday night with 10. Coq clearly likes to be recognised as number one, so by 70 minutes in, he had already amassed a whopping 13.)
That air of expectation seriously undermined our game in the second portion of the first half, and I turned to my dad at the time and said, “This isn’t right, at 1-0 up. Put three in the back of the net, and then maybe we can relax and have some fun.”
So we did. That was me told.
In both our past two games, we have had spells of complacency where we seem to consider the game all but won and more an opportunity to try out some skills or attempt the perfect goal. Even Alexis’ opener wouldn’t have been quite as well received if it hadn’t rippled the net, given there were two players waiting at the far post for a tap in. So far, we have gotten away with it.
We no longer have a lack of quality, a lack of experience. We no longer have any excuse for our players – or the manager – because they are good enough to not only beat anyone on our day, but to have our day each and every time we turn out a side in the famous red-and-white (or our yellow monstrosity, or our multi-coloured cup kit).
Arsene has made all the right noises about consistency being key, and now it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is. There are three points up for grabs in every Premier League game, but just as we talk about this being the best league in the world because anyone can beat anyone, that means you have to earn them.
When we concede a goal, I want to see Koscielny and Mustafi geeing the troops up, refocusing their minds and saying, “We got this!” No more plodding back to our starting positions, heads down, lost in the moment.
When we score a goal, I want to see joyous celebrations yes, but also a steely focus once we return for the kick off. An acknowledgement that there is a job to be done, and while there will be periods of games where we can revert to our favourite exhibition football and enjoy ourselves, the result has to be secured first, rather than standing around dreaming about where the next goal is coming from.
I want to see more of the kind of spirit we saw from Ozil upon being substituted versus Swansea, where he gestured and incited his teammates left on to “Fight!” to secure the result even in the face of terrible refereeing and our own screw-ups. I want to see more of the energy that keeps us tracking back, tackling and blocking when we’re a couple of goals to the good as when we are desperately chasing a game. And I want to see our players showing that my goodness they want it just as much as us.
That’s hunger and that’s desire.
That’s spirit and that’s unity.
That’s leadership, that’s commitment, and that’s having a clear focus on the bigger picture, the end goal.
That’s enjoying yourselves, but knowing that winning games no matter what is also enjoyable, and that winning games repeatedly ends in a fairy tale, which is the most enjoyable of all.
Because that, folks, is how we’ll win a league title that has evaded us for far too long.