I’m sure we’re not alone in thinking such things but this is another of those pivotal weeks in Arsenal’s season. Tomorrow’s FA Cup replay against Hull is another stepping stone on the path to Wembley with hopefully the visit of Watford in the next round this Saturday.
The Cup wasn’t supposed to be Arsenal’s last tilt at silverware this early in the season, not until the title had been won. It won’t be, no matter what the public utterances of the manager or the maths tell you; it’s Leicester’s to lose and frankly, given that Tottenham are the most likely beneficiaries, I’d rather they didn’t blow it spectacularly.
But to Hull and back tomorrow night, with no excuse for Arsène not to field his strongest side beyond the suspended Francis Coquelin. I’m sure that Wenger would rather stick to his ‘tried and trusted’ formula of rotating players but injuries limit his options and the importance of the match is such that he can forgo that luxury.
The point at Tottenham, the manner in which it was achieved, is the positive after weeks of negatives. Reduced to ten men and conceding two goals quickly has in the past been a recipe for a disaster. None of us would have been surprised if defeat by a big margin had followed. Yet it didn’t; the fight, the spirit, so noticeable by their absence in previous weeks, returned and in the perfect match.
Losing to Barcelona, despite protestations to the contrary, had a hugely negative effect on a side notorious for brittle confidence. Yet Arsenal were architects of their own downfall in the manner the two goals were conceded which begs the question as to why it hit so hard. Losing to what is currently rated as the best side in Europe is hardly shameful so why did it have such a big impact?
This is nothing new either. Arsenal habitually have poor runs in clusters; a number of draws and groups book-end a winning run. It’s a hallmark of Wenger’s sides that this happens but whilst we’re hardly unique in football for this happening, we’ve never seen a solution to the pattern. Perhaps there isn’t one.
We need, however, to use Saturday as the starting point for the remainder of the season. United’s defeat at the weekend leaves Arsenal in a slightly better position regarding the top four. I can’t see us winning the title, Leicester are too far ahead. Second is within reach and both sides have difficult fixtures to negotiate; so too City. Nothing in terms of the Champions League places is likely to be decided any time soon.
Arsenal need to take belief from anywhere. I know that sounds like clutching at straws – perhaps it is – but for a few weeks, we’ve been bereft of confidence. Arsène pondered on the impact of “nervousness” in the stadium in recent matches and about how the players may be affected by it.
The problem is that players and supporters survive in a symbiotic relationship with each feeding off the others energy. It’s an age-old argument about whose job it is to begin that process but the reality is that it depends on the opposition.
Supporters don’t need any incentive to be vocal for the big matches, there’s a tension and vibrancy of our own. It happens for other games as well but sometimes – perhaps more often than not – it requires a spark from the pitch to get the crowd going. Not even a goal is necessary, something which shows that the players are up for it. When that doesn’t happen, there is a quietness about the ground.
It’s not unique to Arsenal either. There’s a mythology about football grounds these days, where supporters are eulogised based on past reputations. Previously thought of cauldrons, stadiums like Anfield and St James Park are more than capable of being morgues if things aren’t going right on the pitch.
That’s the downside of all-seater stadia and of the soulless concrete bowls erected. There are laudable efforts to imbue a sense of camaraderie but the days of the terrace culture are gone. It wasn’t always pleasant either but there was an atmosphere of sorts. Bringing back safe standing might change that but this generation and those in the future would establish their own collective identities, bringing a different atmosphere to the game.
What impact that has on players is questionable. We’re routinely told that they block out the noise of the crowd in away games and I suspect that happens a lot in home games as well, beyond the adulation when a goal is scored. It seems almost inconceivable that players aren’t affected by the extremes of crowd involvement, a ‘super-charged’ or deathly silent stadium must surely impact on the game. The rest of the time, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest players barely know the crowd are there.
But more than anything, their mood comes from themselves. Talk of supporters is, for the most part, noise around the collective mood of the squad. Arsenal are subdued at the moment with the deflation of losing their way in the Premier League, all but out of Europe. If we’re thinking these things, the players will as well, possibly more intensely if as we’re always told, at this level money is secondary to silverware.
Goal droughts and poor form; these have to be resolved by the squad. There’s nothing the crowd can do which will make Olivier Giroud score or Gabriel time a tackle to perfection. Per Mertesacker isn’t going to gain a yard of pace through the supporters, even if he and they may seem lifted by an occasion. The problems at Arsenal have to be solved by the players.
Hopefully Saturday saw that turning point. We shall see.