Of course it was going to come but just as the celebratory arrogance of a long unbeaten run was misplaced, so is writing off a season on the basis of losing to the team currently sitting second in the Bundesliga, a team who were runners-up in the Champions League last season. It is true to say that Arsenal failed the test on Tuesday because all matches are tests. Real ones too. No match is less of a test than another, it’s just we downgrade them according to the outcome and how we perceive the opposition. The reality is that Arsenal can win, lose or draw any game against any team. There is a bias in their favour in a lot of fixtures but in others, it is not so clear. Even then, it doesn’t make them anything less of a real test and in defining that we need to contextualise the games, form, injuries, etc. Better still, let’s not call them tests at all and accept that any opposition are a decent side. Or some are more decent than others if you must categorise and pigeon-hole.
The measure of this team is how they react to this defeat, how they perform in the next three or four matches leading into the international break. Previous years have seen problems in the autumn, silly defeats from poor performances or silly performances which led to poor defeats. If they had to choose opponents to play next, Crystal Palace would probably be that team, Selhurst Park the venue. Palace cannot sit deep and defend as they would if the fixture were at The Emirates; their fans will expect them to offer more, more than normal in light of the drubbing they received on Monday night against Fulham. I dare say Ian Holloway is well aware that a home defeat to a German team in the Champions League immediately preceded another at the hands of a club lower down the Premier League for Arsenal last season. Maybe he has even used it already at training, arguing somewhat unconvincingly that if Norwich can do it, why can’t we? Maybe Arsène has used that same pair of results to motivate his players, to stop a pattern emerging. Maybe this was just the opening paragraphs to get the creative juices flowing this morning. Not quite a stream of consciousness but definitely a sit down and see what you can write today.
And then Ian Holloway resigned / sacked / left, however you want to describe. Will his successor be able to conjure anything more out of the players who surely are quaking at the prospect of having Tony Pulis as their boss? Will his successor be as lucky as Stuart Pearce when he took over from Frank Clark at Nottingham Forest, bottom of the Premier League with a barely a point to their name? Keith Millen probably knows the name of his goalkeeper.
That is for Palace to deal with, Arsenal as well with the words of Tuesday night being the right things to say. Then again, Arsenal players have always been good at saying the right things, now it is putting them into practice. Olivier Giroud followed Wilshere and Ramsey into the media spotlight to convey the party line and introduce the element of luck that this pre-Christmas spell has been left to,
I feel good. I’m used to playing a lot of games and I feel good with my body so touch wood no injuries. Over the years I’ve got used to playing a lot of games and I’m ok with my body. I don’t want to find an excuse.
His injury record over the past five years is apparently very good and that cannot be argued with at Arsenal either but the first hint of what may lie ahead came with his three-match suspension at the end of last season. Lukas Podolski filled in then and ordinarily you might expect Theo Walcott to be used as well. But neither are available now and that leaves Nicklas Bendtner as the alternative. There is a serious level of revisionism going on in some quarters over the Dane’s abilities, two years on from his last spell in the Arsenal squad. That he was minutes away from leaving before Mourinho’s games unveiled tells you all you need to know about how the manager thinks about him. Of course Arsène is praising him now; he needs him. Wenger will not criticise a player when he may be used and for Bendtner, he is in the shop window. In that sense, it is a win-win situation albeit hardly under the best of circumstances.
The pursuit of various strikers in the summer was written off as Giroud-hating. For some, it probably was but for most, it was recognised as a need to strengthen the squad. Even Giroud recognised that. Interestingly, he admitted recently that it was the club’s pursuit of Gonzalo Higuain which worried him most; the Argentinean striker was identified as a straightforward centre-forward, direct competition for his position. Luis Suarez was not view in the same way, presumably Giroud felt the Uruguayan would compliment his style. Or that the grounds for optimism were so fragile, it was not worth worrying about. The speculation did not do the French international any harm with the prospect of competition for his place underpinning his desire to prove he should lead the line, something he has done successfully with goals and assists coming in equal measure so far.
But it still leaves Arsenal as hostages to fortune. Arsène has hinted that he may not buy in January because Giroud’s form is so good at the moment. That is fine but strikes me as more a compliment for his staff than the reality. A way of preparing to rebuff the demands for another head up front when it is going to be difficult to prise away a world-class striker from his current employers. We need to recognise that as well; even if the club want to sign someone, it takes two clubs to tango and the winter is often too late to teach someone else to dance. Arsenal are left as a hostage to Giroud’s good injury fortune until back-up arrives. It may be that holds until next summer so until then we’ll wince with every knock he gets.