The signs of what had been a puzzling season are now almost clear to see. The recent run of seven consecutive defeats, starting against Tottenham just before Christmas, has finally caught up with Arsenal.
The team entered the season with anticipation of their resurgence following a deep rebuild, but instead it has resulted in an underwhelming debut season under Arsène Wenger. To put things bluntly, the Arsenal manager has looked positively clueless in their recent performances.
Within those seven defeats, Wenger’s team conceded more goals (36) than any other Premier League side this season. The performances have been abysmal. On occasions when Arsenal are faring well on the pitch, they generate the same sloppiness that has led to five red cards this season. They fail to hold onto the ball and create a clear idea of how to break down their opponents. It makes for boring viewing.
When something is not working for Wenger’s side, the team’s owner, Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder, has not found an antidote. He has bought into the negativity by stoking the flames of a rivalry with their rivals, while running a club which is, more often than not, perceived to be run better than theirs.
The only hint of life is West Ham, where David Moyes is an inspired replacement for the hamstrung and unpopular Slaven Bilic. That consistency of interest is what London soccer fans crave from their managers, but it is little comfort that West Ham fans who have been living through these same problems can now look forward to next season with some hope.
Meanwhile, the culture of Arsenal — an isolated (from the rest of the world) group of fanatical followers — has only strengthened its refusal to see the light. As the club has failed to rise to the expected standards, there has been little variety in the representation from the stands. Instead, the purists have sunk even deeper into the team’s quagmire, and the growth of dissent has spilled over on to social media.
Arsenal are a club whose feel good story has turned sour. Now they face their toughest test yet and will be driven by the animosity of its most passionate followers. Can they emerge, or will their grip on domestic football eventually pull them down?
The day before Christmas is typically a one-day lull in English football. Just hours before, Sunderland had taken a last-gasp win away to a much-fancied Brighton side. Two years ago, Arsenal’s supporters celebrated the club’s 10th place in the league. Now they’re faced with a match against Everton just a few hours later.
Everton are bottom of the league, with no points from their last five matches. But they are playing better than Arsenal’s recently. Everton, whose talent on the field has slowly been turning into contempt, have been outclassed by Liverpool, Arsenal’s great rivals, this season. But the team has finally found a manager who can counteract their middle-of-the-road performances.
Wenger has yet to show signs of being a manager who can bend his famed philosophy to suit another club. Everton’s Ronald Koeman has shown that, even on the other side of the world, it is possible to change styles. Against the Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho, last weekend, he received a sharp response from his own team. The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley did Koeman proud against what was, for them, a top team. Whether the Dutchman will be able to reproduce that performance against Arsenal in the same manner is still unclear.
It may be that Arsenal fail to improve, and are dragged into the relegation fight. Or it may be that they rise above the usual patterns. This Christmas is always a window of opportunity for frustrated teams in the Premier League. Chelsea have begun to look more like the champions. Should Arsenal fail to win their next two fixtures, it would be the end of the club’s 20-year trophy drought.
If the game is meant to be a friendly, it is increasingly clear who the underdogs are.
The day after Christmas, the feeling of insufferable underachievement at Arsenal is likely to become more entrenched. It is a sure sign of the season, no matter how long ago it happened, when Arsenal fans really are contemplating the prospect of months of waiting until next season, when things might finally start to look up.