Twenty-four hours on. You expected my mood might have improved, that I would find the words to at least try and make sense of last night, But I’m afraid not. With apologies for starting off me, me, me, I should put what follows into some context.
The match started a string of just miserable fortune. The relative pleasure at making the penultimate train rather than the last being taken away by the train manager. “Passengers for Didcot Parkway and Swindon, please change at Reading where a bus replacement service awaits you.” It was after one when finally I made the duvet, but the events of the evening had prompted whatever keeps one in a state of insomnia to take control of whatever passes for my grey matter. In pure darkness the mind whirled through what had just happened.
Not everything was negative. In fact the evening had started well with an hour and a half in excellent company in the Gunners, followed by a swift couple with a not-seen-enough drinker of this parish. Talk turned to our chances of getting a result at the bus stop in Fulham on Saturday after extending Watford’s miserable run. A gentle stroll to the stadium, a chat with el Presidente and the neighbour, and all seemed well with the world.
It was at this point that things took a turn for the worse. As we took our seats the rain that had been promised arrived, and would spend the next ninety minutes getting progressively worse. In row seven we were getting a proper soaking. There is no doubt that it had dampened the enthusiasm of the home support as well. The lack of strong support off the pitch was no excuse for a similarly quiet start on it.
The omission of Hector Bellerin and Theo Walcott had raised eyebrows in the build-up, but Gabriel has covered well for the Spaniard of late, and Alex Iwobi has something about him so that would be ok, surely? But it wasn’t. The Arsenal that started so slowly in many recent fixtures returned with a vengeance. No pressure on the visitors from the off, no urgency, and a collective inability to consistently find team-mates and dominate possession.
If Watford had expected to be hitting on the break they made the most of the carelessness that had enveloped us. They poured forward at every opportunity. You will have seen the two goals in three minutes that rocked the crowd by now. Aaron Ramsey again hobbled off with a calf injury. “Unlucky Aaron” yelled the neighbour. That was not the only view being expressed. Some of it was sad to hear.
The opening forty-five minutes were as depressing as we have seen this season. No character, no pride. Something needed to change in the second-half and to be fair, once again, it did. Yet how frustrating is it now that so often a squad that is clearly the best we have had in a decade should regularly sleepwalk their way through the first-half of matches? The darkness somehow intensified, and yet yielded no sleep.
Theo Walcott was introduced at half-time. I know not whether or not Giroud was injured but the change gave us a more threatening shape with Iwobi switching to the left where he began to torture the Watford defence. His goal was a reward for a spell of vibrant attacking play but there was a twist left on a frustrating night. Our last standing deep-lying midfielder, Francis Coquelin, left the pitch. Again I know not if he was injured but we are potentially decimated for what has become a huge match on Saturday lunch-time.
Iwobi was withdrawn to partner Oxlade-Chamberlain who almost immediately found himself reduced to a hobble too. With all three substitutes used he had to limp through to the finish and let’s hope he did not cause further damage in so doing. Our chance of rescuing a point with another last-gasp strike evaporated when Lucas smashed an effort against the bar and it came back into play.
I had not a clue what the time was as I got to this point, but still something kept me from even a refreshing nap. So the thoughts turned to how, why, who. They do, don’t they? I have to temper what follows by saying that if we can find a way of nicking a win on Saturday, by hook or by crook, we will be back in the hunt and this will appear an intolerant, needy rant. Indeed it probably is, anyway.
That doesn’t seem likely right now. Defeat at the weekend will leave us twelve points adrift of the leaders. I know mathematically that won’t be decisive, but it will signal yet again the early surrender of a realistic title challenge. You may have expected me to lead the defence of the manager tonight. Instead, in the early hours of darkness I mulled over my thoughts about him. His failure to commit to the club beyond this season, along with his two truly world-class talents, is a concern.
Yet there is also an air of relief that he is obviously considering his next step. I cannot hide my support for the job the man has done, and the success he achieved in the years leading up to the stadium move. I remain convinced he navigated us through some very choppy waters in the years of necessary belt-tightning that followed. I argued all along that he deserved to be the beneficiary of the increased funds when they became available.
That happened with the renegotiations with Emirates and the switch to Puma in 2013, plus the subsequent step change in television payments. The man delivered successive FA Cups, memorable Wembley days both, and they were thought to be the platform from which we could launch a serious title challenge. Despite improving to a last day second place finish our failure to stay the course with Leicester last season was the first time I accepted the possibility, no more than that, that Arsene’s tenure was approaching a natural conclusion.
In the oh so dark early hours of this morning I have to confess my stupid racing mind had accepted that if we lose on Saturday then I would be at a crossroads. Arsene has had the money, and indeed spent the thick end of a hundred million pounds in 2016, and yet a serious title challenge appears as far away as ever. Arsene has been the beneficiary of the funds his frugality in the lean years helped to provide. Four years on we are still ‘inconsistently consistent’.
Of course we could win at the bus stop in Fulham, sweep Bayern Munich aside on our march to the Champions League Final in Cardiff. We might survive potentially the toughest last eight in recent FA Cup memory. There is always hope, but expectation? In the early hours of this morning, in the depths of what passes for feelings, it really was very, very dark.
Turn the light on again, Arsene.
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