For Arsenal supporters, it has been a season of despair. Bad enough that new signing Gervinho was sent off during a 0-0 draw with Newcastle on opening day, but continued squad upheaval quickly obscured even that disaster. Fabregas delayed his departure long enough to convince many that he meant to stay, while Nasri’s move to City left an understandably bitter taste. Wenger’s response — a five-signing spree on deadline day — reeked of procrastination and left onlookers grumbling about a preference for quantity over quality.
By early winter, Wenger looked gaunt and frail, totally consumed by his cavernous rain jacket. Asrenal’s failure seemed to leave him more sad than angry, too resigned to his team’s fate to muster even a scowl. He lost faith in the team, so the fans lost faith in him.
The growing discontent crystallized when, at home to Manchester United, the Emirates crowd jeered Wenger’s decision to replace Alex Oxlade Chamberlain with Andrey Arshavin mid-way through a competitive second half. In a post-match interview, Wenger babbled about his experience and said he had made “thousands” of substitutions before.
So the club was already in free fall when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored Milan’s fourth at the San Siro, already dead and buried when Alex Oxlade Chamberlain sliced a cross into his own net at the Stadium of Light. Even if Champions League qualification were still mathematically possibly — and it certainly was — surely Arsenal were too traumatized to mount a serious challenge.
And then the resurrection.
It’s always tempting to identify a turning point. In Arsenal’s case, Arshavin’s exit fills the bill both symbolically and chronologically. On the Wednesday before last, he returned to Russia. On the following Sunday, Arsenal trounced Spurs. Fairly or not, Arshavin had come to embody everything that had gone wrong at the Emirates. Pundits accused him of apathy, seeing him as a complacent version of his former self.
Arshavin also fell victim to England’s intolerance of continental eccentricity. He called for women to be banned from driving and insisted on moving his Russian hairdresser to London. Nobody cared about any of that when he was scoring — four goals at Anfield in 2009 — but, when he fell out of form early this season, Arsenal fans lost faith in him. His departure saddened no one.
Arsenal’s revival was spearheaded by the man who seemed most likely to replace Arshavin as Official Emirates Pariah. Theo Walcott — a graduate of the Southampton speed factory that also produced Gareth Bale — is arguably the most frustrating player in football. Against Tottenham, he was woeful for the first 45, and then morphed into a world beater in time for the second half, scoring twice in a come-from-behind 5-2 win.
Credited with orchestrating that victory was Tomas Rosicky, who was quietly effective in yesterday’s 2-1 triumph at Anfield. Rosicky arrived at Arsenal amid much fanfare in 2006. Already tagged “the new Bergkamp”, he foolishly accepted Robert Pires’ number seven shirt, identifying himself with a legend of the club’s recent history.
Inevitably, he failed to live-up to expectations, becoming more a poor man’s Bergkamp than a Bergkamp 2.0.
Rosicky’s goal in last week’s 5-2 win over Spurs was his first in over a year. He is human evidence of the fall of the Invincibles, a failed attempt to replace the irreplaceable.
But Rosicky’s initial struggles are past now. He is vital to the new Arsenal. Rosicky was terrific against Spurs; his intelligent midfield play is a throwback to the days of Fabregas and Henry, the days when Arsenal could at least entertain.
Because so far this year they have struggled to do even that. Saturday’s win was workmanlike and slightly lucky, less a master class in midfield control than further evidence of Robin Van Persie’s brillaince. Ominously, Van Persie has never played more than 28 league games in a single season. The Liverpool match was his 26th of this campaign.
Wenger will need all his players fit and on form if Arsenal are to have any chance of another come-back on Tuesday. All season, they have defied critics’ worst predictions, but a five-goal victory over Milan — who notched another four against Palermo on Saturday evening — would require not just the luck that defined Saturday’s win, but also a level of performance reminiscent of great Wenger teams of the past.
Rosicky has to become Bergkamp, Walcott has to evoke the famous predecessor who wore his number fourteen shirt. Against terriers like Mark van Bommel and Kevin Prince Boateng, Arsenal must summon the resolve that served them so well against Liverpool. For ninety minutes, Arsenal need to remember how to be invincible.