“They say every man needs protection,
They say every man must fall”
In the wake of Arsenal’s latest seasonal lapse, Mesut Özil appeared the unlikely embodiment of Dylan’s take of man. His early impressions on the Premier League had appeared to cement public opinion on Özil as a player worth the £40m + fee that Arsenal had parted with to obtain his services. Similarly, Arsenal’s positional longevity among the contenders for this year’s title added credence to the theory that spending big on the one correct player can outweigh extensive spending on many potential solutions – to the particular glee of Arsenal fans this was shown to be partly true at least by what now amounts to the reckless spending of their North London neighbours Spurs.
Yet, as Arsène Wenger found himself having to contend with yet another defeat of an unprecedented scale, it was Özil who found himself in most dire need of his support. Perhaps to those watching Saturday’s tie between Liverpool and Arsenal in the quiet comfort of their own home – and certainly those fans within Anfield itself – as opposed to the crowded surroundings of a pub preparing to show its coverage of Ireland vs Wales, the sound of Arsenal fans vilifying the lacklustre Özil – he had been directly at fault for Liverpool’s third and fourth goals – may have been transmitted clearly. Whether this emotional outburst amounted to the Arsenal fans booing Özil or merely venting some frustration at the player whose contribution, or lack thereof, ultimately saw the match end as a contest is something I am not entirely certain of. Whatever the eventuality of their anguish, the Arsenal fans briefly succumbed to their innermost fears; that this comprehensive defeat by a side deemed to be beyond true league contention this season would spark a run of results almost as bad as those between 27th February – 2nd April 2011. It was a fearfully long March to seasonal extinction.
It is with a tone of knowing banality that I re-utter that well-worn paradox regarding Arsenal’s other major investment of recent years and the unexpected lack of material success that came along with it; the bespoke Emirates Stadium. To ever so briefly chastise those short-sighted football fans who enjoy pointing out that Arsenal’s trophies must never have been dealt a forwarding address to their new home; consider the 20,000+ fans Arsenal bring in bi-weekly in comparison to either Liverpool or Chelsea.
Building on one’s success while it still appears tangible is a far more straightforward enterprise than looking at it retrospectively. The alignment of material success with this infrastructural achievement is something that Wenger again reiterated as something he expects to happen sooner rather than later as he defended Özil and his other poor-performing players. However, as admirable as Arsenal’s business plan regarding stability and progressive growth is, it is not clear of what immediate use it will be as they undertake what has often been an unforgiving period for them. In the wake of their humbling at the hands of Liverpool, Arsenal face down a tie with Manchester United on Wednesday night. Although by no means enjoying a vintage season, Moyes’ United dismantled Arsenal’s game plan earlier in the season; another tie where Özil was in need of some defending as he proved ineffectual throughout. Writing United out of the league run in and now perhaps even the race for top four are fair estimations to make based on form. However, overlooking them in a head to head game of as high a magnitude as this is something Wenger would be wary of doing. There is no suggestion that Wenger would treat United with anything but a minimal dose of fear and hearty respect, but should United find themselves in the mood on Wednesday night it may be with even less intrigue that Arsenal fans ponder their next major opponent; an F.A. Cup quarter final tie with Liverpool.
Of course, all of these domestic concerns are but small fish when one considers the wider European pond and what it holds for Arsenal. Arsenal’s next European opponents – like the majority of Arsenal’s opponents at this stage of the tournament – are the obvious favourites in this year’s regeneration of Champions League football. Pursuing history, Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola will view Arsenal as a threat worth taking seriously but ultimately one they should be overwhelming as they attempt to seal back-to-back Champions League triumphs.
Where Arsenal fans vented frustration as their most talented Özil created back-to-back problems of his own on Saturday, they will be undoubtedly aware of the numerous ‘Özils’ Bayern possess. There will be no shame in losing to Bayern Munich over two legs. Likewise, losing to a Manchester United side desperate to restore some pride is no major cause for concern or embarrassment either. However, under normal circumstances losing to Liverpool at Anfield is not a disaster either. It will be on the manner that Arsenal play and ultimately win or lose that will determine how far this Arsenal side can hope to go in rediscovering the club’s form of the late 90’s and early 00’s. In being so sternly humbled at the hands of Liverpool, Wenger’s men displayed a chink in their otherwise resplendent armour of this season. With at least some fans now not above berating the player whose arrival and performance brought with it a rise in morale and club performance, Arsenal stand at the precipice of what is to become a terribly familiar nightmare or a glorious estrangement from a dreadfully isolating April. Truly T.S. Eliot was correct as he dubbed it the ‘cruellest month.’