Once again, Arsenal have done an ‘Arsenal’ and found the most complicated, unintended, ill-advised way of completing a mundane task that should have been of little trouble to them, and left us all wondering what to make of the aftermath.
Let there be no confusion, Arsenal were superb on Wednesday, against a Olympiakos team who are miles ahead in the Greek League and are certainly no mugs. But it is impossible to separate the performance from the situation that they found themselves in, and it is here where we may find the root cause behind Arsenal’s inconsistent results this season.
Every time this season where Arsenal has gone into a game needing a result, they’ve got one. I put the emphasis there on ‘needing’ because as fans, we need every result. We don’t differentiate between an away game at Tottenham and a home game versus Newcastle, we want to win every game. We’re fans, we’re irrational like that.
It’s impossible for footballers to feel the same way, just like it’s impossible to expect the average person to work at 100% efficiency every day. The aim is always to do your best, but it’s a lot easier to find the motivation to work harder when you’re 36 hours away from a deadline than it is when you’re 36 days away from one.
So it can’t be a coincidence that if we list Arsenal’s best performances this season, they’re all when the most pressure has been put on them to perform. Our four best wins have been the following:
Arsenal 3-0 Manchester United. First game after the Olympiakos defeat. Response needed. Plus it’s United, a top 4 rival.
Arsenal 2-0 Bayern Munich. Absolutely crucial to get three points to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal. It’s Tottenham.
Olympiakos 0-3 Arsenal. Same as Bayern Munich at home. Win or go out.
In all of those games, it was obvious that there was going to be no margin for error if we were to win the game, everyone had to be focused and disciplined at all times, and that the rewards for winning the game would be significant. And on all four occasions, Arsenal delivered. This team can be accused of many things, but choking on the big stage can’t be one of them.
But whilst it’s great that we have so many players who can perform at the highest level when the stakes are at their greatest, it has to be somewhat concerning that Arsenal’s four worst losses of the season occurred when those stakes were lacking.
Arsenal 0-2 West Ham. First day of the season, everyone getting back into the swing of things, nobody looking at league tables for a while yet, plenty of time to catch up, etc.
Dinamo Zagreb 2-1 Arsenal. First group game, no need to panic, plenty of time to make amends, etc etc.
Arsenal 2-3 Olympiakos. The worst of the four losses in that it dawned on the team half way through the game that they couldn’t lose it, only to lose focus every time they scored, thinking that the danger was over.
Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 Arsenal. Championship team. No need to prepare properly, play the kids, it’s only the League Cup anyway, etc etc.
It has to be slightly disconcerting that whenever Arsenal have been given a chance to relax, take their foot off the pedal and not play at full potential, they’ve taken it. How else can we explain the vast difference in performances between the one that got us three points in Athens on Wednesday and the one that got us one point in Norwich 10 days previously, other than to point out that in the former they ran their backsides off and in the latter, they didn’t?
This isn’t a problem with just this season either. Last season threw up the same problem. Early in the season Arsenal were lacklustre and often lackadaisical in their play, then January arrived and they played like the best team in the country for five months. What changed, apart from there suddenly being trophies to play for? Not a lot.
So how do we fix this? Well, there lies the problem, because I don’t think it can be fixed. Here’s why:
Go back to when you were either in school or college, and there will have been one person in your class who was smart, really smart, and they knew it. They were so smart, that they could afford to miss a class here or there, not study as much as they could have, go out more than everyone else, end up needing an A in the final exam to pass a course because they missed the first one, and still come in on the morning hungover and get that A. Not an A+, but a good A.
To us, they’re wasting away their intelligence because they could do anything they want with the gifts they have, but instead they’re settling for a A, when we wouldn’t. But to them, they’re looking at that A and asking why everyone is so mad. It’s an A, what’s to be upset about.
And that’s where Arsenal have put us today. They’ve just gone to Olympiakos and gotten an A, when they shouldn’t have needed to have done so in the first place. When a team knows that it can get itself out of the hole that it dug in Athens, there’s very little we can do except cover our eyes and wince when they go fetch a shovel to dig another one.