All things come to an end. Sports, like anything else in life, is cyclical in nature. I've been an Arsenal supporter for pretty much as long as you can be as an American (circa 1992), and for the entirety of that time, we've been demonstrably better than our nearest and dearest. Year in, year out, there would be that fact to rely on even if Manchester United pipped us to the title again, or we sold our best players again, or an oligarch bought another club for us to have to compete with at the top level.
Well, all of that is over at present. Tottenham is unquestionably and emphatically better than us right now, stem to stern, and the sooner everyone involved at the club realizes that, the further along we'll be towards putting that state of affairs right.
I honestly don't know if I've ever seen the club at a crossroads like this before. So much is up in the air, from the manager to the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, to some factors on their end as well (the new stadium not least of it). This summer will answer a multitude of questions about the future of our football club, that's for sure.
1. Should you read none of the other nine thoughts, at least read this one - this is the crux of the whole matter right here.
You're going to read a lot of SCORCHING HOT TAKES on this match and this season, and a lot of them are going to revolve around the players not being good enough, or not having PASSHUN. The first isn't true, the second is ridiculously over-simplistic.
People say that football is a simple game, and to an extent that's factually correct. But, in execution, the game is an interconnected series of complex systems. A failure in one area can trigger three or more failures somewhere down the line. You can have an impressive array of high-spec parts combined in a flashy array with all the bells and whistles. But, if the parts don't work together, if the design isn't right, the machine isn't going to work.
Do you know why they're better than us right now? I'd argue that it's not that their players are significantly better - hell, there is no one on their team who can hold a candle to Ozil or Sanchez in terms of raw footballing ability. But, they have a bunch of very good players, all of whom know when they're playing, what role they have and what their job is. They go out with a plan and they execute it, game in and game out. They're not better than Chelsea - the table doesn't lie - but they're for sure the second-best team in the division for that reason.
2. The other thing is, everyone on their end actually, like, plays in their natural position and stuff. I did say over the last few weeks that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was doing OK at right wingback, and I stand by that. But, doing it against Middlesbrough is one thing, doing it away in the North London Derby is quite another.
We found ourselves in a situation today where the choice was to either play Ox there or a woefully out-of-form Hector Bellerin. We had to choose between playing Kieran Gibbs at left wingback for only his 3rd or 4th start of the season and to play Nacho Monreal out of position at center-half, or to throw young Rob Holding into the fire after only a handful of starts this season.
None of them sound all that appealing, right? The switch to 3-4-3 was the right one, I'll continue to believe that, but it's in the knowledge that our pieces don't entirely fit for it, and there was going to be a weak point somewhere for an opponent well in form to exploit.
As it turned out, Spurs ruthlessly attacked the Ox on our right flank, and he simply couldn't live with it.
3. He wasn't entirely at fault for the first goal, but he does own a significant share of the blame as well. Dele Alli was allowed far too much time and space to slalom through our penalty area, and how Christian Eriksen had that much time for a shot I'll have no idea. Petr Cech did well to make the save, but the rebound going right back out to Alli was rotten luck. Still, there wasn't a lot of mustard on the shot, and AOC was in the immediate vicinity. A more natural defender would have known to get his whole body in between the ball and the goal line, but Ox in his inexperience just kind of waved his leg at it. He missed, the ball went in, and the match changed for good.
It comes back to what I said about the component parts and how they fit together. Gabriel has had a bit of a renaissance lately, but I don't think there's any honest assessment of him that has him projecting past anything other than "decent squad player" at the top end. You're in trouble if you're depending on him in a game of this magnitude, and unfortunately it proved to be the case again. Nanoseconds after they scored, Gabriel recklessly left his foot in and gave Harry Kane the opportunity to make a meal out of the contact. Penalty, goal, ballgame.
4. The funny thing is, the first half wasn't all that bad. They had more of the ball and we had a few lucky escapes, but all in all after 45 I was reasonably pleased with going in at 0-0. Sure, Alli missed a wide-open header off a corner, and Eriksen even more hilariously missed a gaping net soon after. But, we had counter-punched a little bit as well. Aaron Ramsey forced Hugo Lloris into the one good save he'd have to make all day with a scorcher from distance, and Alexis almost found the far corner with an audacious effort almost from the sideline right before halftime.
We were right there. Still in it. But, as alluded to above, all it took was one instance of letting Alli run free, one missed block on the goal line, and it all went to pieces. You have to rack your brains to remember that it was this very season where we were the ones coming back from the brink on several occasions to rescue points. It feels like some sepia-toned memory from when George Graham and Pat Rice were playing though, doesn't it? Somehow, we have schizophrenically gone from that team to the one that responds to adversity by exploding directly into our composite atoms. It's mind-blowing.
5. Anyway, remember how I said last time that Cech might be the most under-appreciated player in the entire goddamn league?
Well, Arsenal Twitter, please form an orderly line to pass on your contritions. Should you be in a charitable mood, we can take a second to congratulate me on being right (as usual with goalkeepers).
I honestly don't know what his best save was. Was it the one where he clawed out Jan Vertonghen's long-range shot that bounced awkwardly in front of him, just before halftime? Was it the one he tipped over from Victor Wanyama? Was it the other Vertonghen one from distance that swerved wickedly on its way in? The one on Kane that he blocked with his legs? The wide-open header that Toby Alderweireld had?
It's hard to tell, there were so goddamn many of them. He was the only thing that stood between us and an embarrassing rout, and all y'all owe my man a massive bloody apology.
6. Speaking of goalkeepers, you know who would not put up with any of this shit for a single nanosecond? THIS guy.
Man, I miss him.
7. As for us, it's telling when their two center-halves have more shots on target than our entire team did. I actually asked a few mates with questionable taste in football clubs as to whether those two (Vertonghen especially) make a habit of doing that, and I was told basically "sort of but not really". It must have been a game plan specifically for us, but thankfully Cech was up to the task.
Regardless, I don't think our offensive impotence was down to formations or tactics or a lack of PASSHUN. There were plenty of times that we broke at pace on the counter, times where our guys got into good positions and made some good runs off the ball. The final pass in their end of the field was almost always sorely lacking, though. Whether it was Ramsey trying to thread a needle through four white shirts, or Alexis doing his heroball me-against-the-world thing, or Ozil playing in a wonder-pass that went to no one because he doesn't have a Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema who can operate on his level, or Giroud theatrically looking up at the sky after skying one of our few good chances into low earth orbit, well, it all amounted to the same thing.
I also think Danny Welbeck should have started, let alone coming on as late as he did. Other than Giroud's space mission and the two aforementioned first-half chances, he was the only one who had a sniff at goal (thanks to a gorgeous cross from Ozil, I might add).
Hell, I forgot Giroud was playing half the time. I like him, a lot actually, but I wonder if he might be one of those who need a change of scenery at this point. More on that in a bit.
8. Actually, you know what, I lied just there. We did have a few other chances, notably one from Theo Walcott in the 86th minute. I don't think that would have been much more than a consolation anyway, but it's worth noting because like all of our other half-chances, it was shot directly at Lloris. The man literally had to dive once in 90 minutes, and that's not going to get it done against anyone.
There's just no conviction here. Again, note the comparison - Cech had to desperately claw out everything at full stretch, while Lloris could have read a book for much of that game.
We're so far behind them in every way, it's unbelievable.
9. The absolute state of this:
Gruesome, isn't it? If you're not able to read the caption up top, that's the form table in away matches against the current top 10 this season. Were we even as competent as Southampton, we'd be tied for 5th with United, with a game in hand. A win in that game would take us up to third.
It's just not good enough.
10. But, that's where we find ourselves. Again, we're not going to get anywhere until we do some serious soul-searching and get that through our heads. A quick review of Twitter and the closed forum I post at shows that, in general, the supporters understand this. Of course, we're also the ones not in a position to do anything about it.
To take this full circle, football is a game of complex and interconnected systems. Coaching, structure, discipline - these things are vitally important and all are badly lacking in our setup. I don't want to re-legislate the Arsene In/Arsene Out thing for the zillionth time here - chances are you've already chosen a side anyway. But, whether he stays or goes, I hope with all my heart that it's now obvious that things have to change drastically - and fast - one way or the other. Maybe this formation-changing Arsene can change his spots as he nears his 70th birthday. I suspect not, but the choice isn't up to me, now is it?
Were it my choice though, I'm coming around to the idea that the best possible course of action is a total root-and-branch upheaval of the club. We have a bunch of fantastic footballers who as a composite are far less than the sum of their parts. Maybe it's time to say a few difficult goodbyes. You know my feelings on the manager, I'm sure. But, as I said with Giroud, maybe he'll rediscover his scoring touch elsewhere. As otherworldly as Ozil and Sanchez are, maybe losing one or both won't be the end of the world. It might be time to say goodbye to Ramsey, like we've fairly obviously already done with Jack Wilshere.
At the end of the day, I believe that the malaise that has insinuated into every nook and cranny of this club has become terminal. I don't see a way to make one or two small adjustments and have us come back to the right path. I've said it before in this shebeen, but I daydream about the mighty wind that Diego Simeone would send through this club. I mean, I'm not sure that Thomas Tuchel and his valiantly falling short against Bayern every year is the right way to go - it just seems like it's a not-too-distant cousin of what we already have here now.
Do we have the wherewithal among our leadership to recognize the problem and to take decisive and correct steps to address it? I'm not sure. I do at least feel confident that there isn't much of a floor below where we're at right now. The players are too talented and there's too much inertia for us to worry too much about becoming the next Sunderland. But, given our clout and resources, the fact that we're even having this conversation is mind-boggling. It's an utterly catastrophic failure on every conceivable level.
As the great American poets Bone Thugs-N'-Harmony once said, I'll see you at the crossroads.