According to one report, the atmosphere at the Emirates on Sunday ‘fluctuated between mild panic and full-on hysteria’. Another acknowledged the earlier ‘frustration and bitterness’ but admitted that by the time 90 minutes had elapsed, the place was ‘rocking’. If you’re now thinking that Arsenal are a terrible mess and we need to ask ourselves what is going wrong with the Gunners, then we simply cannot be friends.
After the stagnation of the late Wenger years which prompted sleeping and weeping in the stands, this is exactly why we craved change: to make Arsenal interesting again. Years after they ceased to be the neutrals’ favourites and became the neutrals’ equal parts frustration and comedy, Arsenal are back. Unpredictable, thrilling and extraordinary.
Of course, this is not the life Arsenal thought they were choosing. They thought they were choosing pragmatic, detail-obsessed and organised. Whether Unai Emery has abandoned that path through choice, desperation or a complete lack of control remains a mystery, but what we do know is that we prefer this version of Arsenal. As football writers and football watchers, we would choose an Arsenal side that could either score or concede six goals in any game. They throw away leads, they abandon their posts, they capitulate, and then they rally, they overturn leads and they look unstoppable. Within one week, one game, one half of football. ‘Emery’s careless, chaotic Arsenal are off the rails – it can’t go on’ read one headline this Monday morning. Oh but it must. It really must.
And for now at least, it is working. Despite that calamitous defence and despite a midfield ‘general’ being generally cheered off the pitch, this Arsenal side is in fourth place. And more impressive still, it lies in third place in a points table for the whole of 2019, having scored more goals than anybody outside the Big Two. ‘It can’t go on?’ If it does go on, Arsenal might return to the Champions League and might even win a trophy – via a fair amount of mild panic and full-on hysteria. To a certain fan, this does not feel comfortable – it’s absolutely not comfortable during the actual matches – but to the rest of us, this is magnificent. When you are not emotionally invested, you don’t want calm or control; you want haphazard, lackadaisical and exhilarating.
For all the attempts to fabricate an Arsenal crisis last week, this is a team that has lost only once this season and only once at home in 21 games. They are three points better off than Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea and only two behind Manchester City. They are also missing three-quarters of what could be a far tighter defence and on Sunday, they started the game with four players aged 23 or under, matching other teams who are attracting extensive praise for pivoting towards a younger team. There are far more reasons to be cheerful than to despair.
In 2019, we want to analyse, to understand, to suggest five ways this could improve, five reasons why it absolutely cannot and why xG proves that actually, the team you think are having an awful season might just be suffering terrible luck. It’s that desire to rationalise football that leads to certainty that a team that allows so many shots (they are second only to Aston Villa on that metric) cannot possibly qualify for the Champions League. But it’s a desire to be entertained that leads to many of us revelling in the actual lack of certainty. Can chaotic work over a whole season? Can high turnovers lead to qualified success? Can having no discernible plan make Arsenal difficult to prepare for?
We do not know the answers and that feels refreshing after years of knowing all of the questions, all of the answers and all of the excuses. Arsenal are fascinating once again.