It is easy, when looking at most recent events, to assume that this is how the future will be repeated. Predictions are most often made on the assumption that what happened just before will happen tomorrow, too. The famous example is that of a turkey, who assumes that each day will be like the day before, a lazy day of feeding and clucking, until one very surprising day, he’s made ready for the table.
Perhaps football’s equivalent of the turkey, the person with minimal imaginative bandwidth, is the Arsenal fan. As someone put it years ago, to them, Arsenal really are only as good as their last game. Perhaps Piers Morgan is the man to demonstrate that. At one point over the moon and lording it over defeated rivals on Twitter, and the next match he claims the sky is caving in, demanding the sacking of Arsene Wenger. The everyday fan has something of that in them, too. Arsenal are either going to finally turn the corner, or they are stuck in a rut in definitely, a sickening sarcastic self-parody.
The best way to look at trends in life is to observe all you can that happened in the past, and allow for exceptions that will still surprise you in the future. Surprises are things like Leicester City winning the league despite having only a relatively good squad, and doing so the year after flirting with relegation. The trends, though, would be Arsenal being superior to most sides, but only rarely dominating. There have been no recent changes to their manager, cost of their squad, or approach, to suggest that there is anything transformative at the club. It would be sensible to assume that until money spent increases significantly, the competition diminishes rapidly, or a new manager is appointed, that Arsenal will always fall a little short, but be one of the best sides in England.
The game against Manchester United demonstrated just how full of Arsenalitis they really are. The most recent games hinted that Arsenal had improved. The fans looked at their squad, and then they looked at United’s. United had beaten an awful Swansea side, but they had struggled against Stoke, Burnley and Fenerbahce before then. The expectation was that Arsenal were the favourites and should beat United, finally. If things had really changed, that would be the logical assumption. But what ended up occurring was that the established trend and not the recent results was the strongest indicator.
Last season, after all, United had welcomed Arsenal to Old Trafford in just as much of a funk. They had injury problems and they had Louis van Gaal. These two hindrances should have been encouraging for Arsenal, who were still chasing for a league title, and should have won it had they not been made out of frozen, breakable balsa wood. They collapsed 3-2, allowing a child striker in the midst of exam preparation to defeat them, worse even than the 1-1 draw the season before. The most appropriate word is pathetic.
Before then, even David Moyes was undefeated against Arsenal, and took four points from the two games. This was a United side in disarray, but one that needed little more than muscle memory to coast past them. Arsenal were unable to escape the trend, and they were perhaps at their most pitiful on Saturday.
They came with one of their strongest sides possible. They were unable to call upon the excellent Hector Bellerin, and Alexis Sanchez had suffered long-haul flights to play for Chile, but beyond that, this was the best side that Wenger could put out on the pitch. He chose Theo Walcott, and left Granit Xhaka on the bench but, well, that’s his own fault and nobody else’s. His side played exactly as they usually do against United. They were quiet. At one point, some people had to genuinely ask if Mesut Ozil was on the pitch. Not as a joke, but because it was so hard to discern whether he had contributed anything at all to the team. He’s a fine player, but he is a classic number 10, in that the team would be immeasurably improved by a proper footballer instead of him. It’s not to single him out, merely to point out that players like him and Juan Mata and others occupy that position when there’s nothing more constructive available.
Sanchez struggled to make even less of an impact, and while they can complain that he was tired, Wenger presumably knows which country Sanchez is from, and so should have bought a better striker to play instead of or with him. He, and he alone, chose to buy Lucas Perez instead. The midfield was absent, and the defence was led by the rotting, constantly trailing Laurent Koscielny, who was out of position for Ander Herrera’s goal.
Now, Arsenal fans will be pointing out that the team didn’t play well, and still won a point. They will also says that Olivier Giroud is becoming an effective, goalscoring substitute. But it doesn’t matter. In isolation it’s handy to take a draw from such a wretched performance, but there has to come a point that these wretched performances against United aren’t so predictable. Giroud is an acceptable player to call on from the bench, but the lack of squad depth shouldn’t mean a barely-present Sanchez has to slog his guts out when already knackered. And most of all, they should remember that a team with Wayne Rooney on the pitch, with Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones in defence, and with a hangover of complete incompetence holding them back, has to be beaten.
The chance for Arsenal was to knock United out of their last remaining confidence, and out of the title race, psychologically if not mathematically. It was a chance to embrace real progress. As ever, they missed their chance, and merely strengthened the trend: they remain too Arsenal to succeed.