02 March 2016

Not with a bang but a whimper...or is it simply darkest before the dawn?

Words can't really express how I'm feeling after this result. Fifteen minutes in, we were up 1-0, Tottenham were down 0-1, and I was starting to think we could go into White Hart Lane level on points with a wobby Leicester in our sights. Oh, how wrong I was. Heart-breakingly wrong. I thought I was undone by the loss at Old Trafford. I thought no loss could sting as much as that one. Now, I realise my naïveté. After all, I could console myself by saying, "it's Old Trafford. Tough venue, even against a threadbare squad." Heck, but for 71 seconds or so, we actually looked tolerable. Against Swansea—Swansea, for feck's sake—we looked, well, terrible. Is this how Arsène's reign will end?

It seems almost unthinkable in this of all seasons. Chelsea have imploded, and the anti-Arsène Mourinho was sacked. Liverpool collapsed, leading to Rodgers being replaced (and Klopp struggling to resurrect the squad). Man U, despite having spent enough to make even Sheikh Mansour blanche, can barely latch on to a Europa League spot. Man City, plagued by indifference in the absence of a "true" rival, have sleep-walked through the season. This should have been our time. However, we're actually three points off our own pace from last season. No one could have foreseen Leicester's stunning form. Tottenham's, though less surprising, is even more troubling.

This was supposed to be a season in which Arsenal broke through. Having paid down stadium debt, we should have been able to go into this campaign flush with funds, at least enough to reinforce key areas. After adding Özil and Alexis in previous summers, we might have counted on something more-ambitious than the addition of Petr Čech. He's been grand, but our frailties were all too obvious. Alexis's second-season struggles have exposed them all the more. Giroud busts his butt to the best of his ability, but we clearly lack someone who can rise up and, by sheer force of will, turn a game on its head. At least he tries.

Speaking of trying, could anyone have foreseen a season in which the removal of Joel Campbell would inspire rage and despair in equal measures? He's quickly become our best option on the right wing, and that's just as much a compliment to him as it is a criticism of those ahead of him in the pecking order. Walcott, Ox, and Ramsey might sport superior pedigrees, but Campbell's been the only one to soup something up on a regular basis.

Years ago, we might have hailed Campbell as yet another of Arsène's visionary strokes of genius: plucked from obscurity and given time to marinate before exploding on the scene. However, he's come to embody the darker sides of Arsène's vision: a player bought on the cheap who exceeds all expectations and plugs a gap just well enough to get us by as often as not. His goal against Swansea was crafty and clever, but it was the beginning and the end in this match. He was, after all, one of the only players on the pitch visibly giving it his all.

There is a definite lack of a winner's mentality in our squad, a pervasive sense that we will bottle it if the pressure gets too high, and that's what's happened twice in a row now. I'm struggling to sustain my pragmatic belief that Arsène should stay on past the end of this season. We went into halftime level against an inferior foe, but our second-half fight came up short, and now our hopes waver on the edge of failure. We now have to split hairs: how will it feel to finish behind Leicester but ahead of Tottenham in a season in which our "real" rivals have folded? Is that enough to justify Arsène's continued reign? What if we win the FA Cup for a third straight time but finish below Tottenham?

With ten matches to play, a six-point gap separates us from winning the Prem. If we can win at White Hart Lane—something we simply must do—we can still win the Prem.

Long story short, I still cling to hope—not that Arsène will stay on forever, necessarily, but that he'll have a chance to bow out gracefully on the heels of having won the Prem and FA Cup, bookending a career that has been both as magnificent and as ambivalent as any in any club's history. I do still believe that there is time. There are ten Prem matches left. If we run the table, well, we should finish atop the table. Three matches separate us from that third consecutive FA Cup title.

Thirteen matches, then, stand between us and a blaze of glory. A double would lift us all to levels of elation that none of us have felt for more than a decade. There are still plenty of fixtures, chief among them a certain North London Derby on Saturday. Tottenham have rarely if ever been in this position before. Let's see how they handle the pressure. Something tells me they'll bottle it. It's what they do, after all.

What does this all mean as far as Arsène's tenure? It's too early to tell. Losing to Swansea might sound like a death-knell, but ask not for whom the bell tolls. There will be time enough to assess what it all means after it ends.