02 February 2016

Slip slidin' away...or a set-up for a second-half surge?

Liverpool got lucky with a late equaliser at Anfield. It's impossible to win at the Brit. Chelsea were gifted another man-advantage win. We made nine changes to face Burnley. Forster played an absolute blinder. For each dispiriting result, there's an individual excuse, some isolated reason why Arsenal could not find more points. However, we're mired in the muck of a majestic morass at the moment, and no amount of finger-pointing at Lee Mason is going to change that. This misfiring squad has shot itself in the foot too many times in recent weeks. That, however, sets the stage for a stunning surge the likes of which we haven't seen in several seasons.

 In 1997-98, we went into January in sixth position, 12 points behind the undisputed titans of Old Trafford. A stinging defeat to Blackburn inspired our lads to finish out the season without a single loss until after we had already won the Prem and FA Cup. In 2001-02, we repeated the pattern, following an embarrassing home-loss (this time to Newcastle) with another stirring string of results, going undefeated over 21 matches to win the Prem and rampaging through the FA Cup in similar fashion to again win a double. We'll exclude 2003-04 due to its historic nature, even if it conforms to the pattern. Long story short,

We do have a history, however spotty, of rising to the occasion. This time through, it's almost as if we've relaxed a bit, applying a little bit handbrake, as key-players have returned to the fold. We put our collective shoulders to the wheel through a gritty December and January during which we went without Alexis, Coquelin, Wilshere, Welbeck, Cazorla, Rosický, and sundry others, and we emerged none the worse for wear. With the returns of Alexis and Coquelin, however, it's almost as if we've relented just a bit, assuming that these LANSes would on their own reinvigorate us. If anything, unfortunately, the opposite has held true. Correlation is not quite causation, but it does seem as if we've lost our edge just as we've seen key players return. We'd circled the wagons in bold defiance as warrior after warrior went down—ironically, though, we've come a bit unhinged just as those warriors rejoin the fray. Rarely have I enjoyed irony less than this,

Credit Southampton, though—or at least Fraser Forster. While he has frequently saved his best for us, his performance on Tuesday was one for the ages. No less than ten times did he single-handedly save Southampton's hash. Twice inside the first twenty minutes did he deny Özil at point-blank range. He snuffed out chances from Giroud and Alexis and Walcott, aided also by a goal-line clearance by Ward-Prowse. On any other day, one or more of these chances would have found its way home. We had our chances. We put many of them on-frame. We tested the keeper time and time again only to see him rise to the call each and every time

It won't be that way week in, week out. If we can continue to create chances as we did against Southampton, we'll start to run riot, and results will return. We've stumbled something awful over the last month or so, it's true, but where does that leave us? We're still just five points off the pace. Leicester, Tottenham, and Man City have had to raise their games and depend on us to drop points to get to where they are—and they're lucky to be ahead of us.

There are fourteen matches left to play. There are 42 points still on offer. Every squad suffers a dip in form some time or another. Let this be ours. Elsewhere, our rivals are riding high—for now. I fancy our chances as chasers more than as the chased. I can't read the minds of our players, but I have to think that their appetites are whetted, their skills sharpened, their desires deepened by the tantalizing taste of a title that they'd enjoyed to this point. They—like us—have to feel that there are trophies to be taken if only they want it and work for it.

If you were to look at our last four results, you'd see the cup as half-empty. That makes sense. After all, we've dropped nine points and have fallen to fourth, behind Tottenham (will wonders never cease?). Seen through the pessimistic perspective, it was all-too predictable that we'd bottle our chance. Seen through a more-rational, perhaps-optimistic point of view, we've weathered a storm and are gathering strength for the final run-in. We've backed ourselves into a bit of a corner, it's true, but we shall fight our way out of that corner like crazed beasts. Ramsey will rediscover his form. Walcott will lay waste to opposing defenses. Alexis and Özil will—well, they'll continue to do what they do. Someone will emerge from out of nowhere to set our faces to "stunned", be it Coquelin or Campbell or who knows who else?

Our backs are up against up,  but we're the ones who've put ourselves there. We still have a fighting chance, and our foes have to feel fortunate for our fecklessness. Let them enjoy their spell above us. They know that they haven't earned it so much as we've granted it to them. Wait until they get a load of us at full-strength...