29 February 2016

Rivals collude and conspire to destroy and delude Arsenal...

THAMES HOUSE, London—Authorities will neither confirm nor deny the discovery of a massive conspiracy, apparently conceived in secrecy at some point in the summer of 2015, to first inflate the expectations of the Arsenal FC fanbase—(heretofore referred to as "Gooners")—only to dash them in as cruel a manner as possible. In a scandal sure to rock British football to its very core, managers of three of the Premier League's biggest clubs, once known collectively as members of the "Big Four" after a period of shared dominance of the Prem during the early 2000s, went so far as to stake their own tenures at their clubs, if not their professional futures, on hatching and implementing their plan. Should the existence of such a plot be confirmed, it would prove to be the most explosive discovery in the history of sport.

MI5 officers have been characteristically tight-lipped regarding the nature and scope of any investigation, but leaked memoranda suggest that there are four parties to the conspiracy: José Mourinho, Louis Van Gaal, Brendan Rodgers, and Jürgen  Klopp. Although emerging details remain sketchy at best, the apparent plot consisted of each manager agreeing to systematically undermine or even sabotage his squad's performance to the point that Gooners would start to believe that their club might have a chance at winning the Prem for the first time since doing so since 2004.

All of the pieces fit—until recently, Chelsea languished just points from relegation. Liverpool have been mired midtable since early days. Manchester United have flirted with the edges of European qualification since early in the season. In each case, the managers had spent freely in the summer of 2015 as well as in previous tranfer windows. It now seems as if such sprending sprees were part of an elaborate plan to "punk" Arsène Wenger, suggesting that massive spending to boost a squad was ultimately inferior to building from within, finding chemistry, and trusting players to blossom.

By contrast with each club's league-wide performances, though, they each have done quite well against Arsenal—quite a bit better than might be expected given broader circumstances. Chelsea, for one, found a way to win both fixtures against Arsenal, taking all six points and more than making up for losing in the Community Shield to open the season. Stoking the flames of Gooners' fury, unjust red cards were issued in each, handing to Mourinho and then his replacement Ranieri what had to feel like undeserved victories against a side slouching toward Gomorrah.

Liverpool took a more-modest route but one just as spiteful in the light of the as-yet unconfirmed conspiracy. After drawing early in the season at the Emirates, Rodgers fell on his sword to make way for Klopp, who had bedeviled Arsenal in seemingly innumerable Champions League group-stage clashes. Klopp promptly ran his squad into the ground, as if to prove that his "heavy metal" style just wouldn't work in the Prem. When Arsenal came calling, his injury-list was as long as any seen under Arsène, yet his rag-tag crew found a way to earn a dramatic last-gasp draw. Not quite the double that Chelsea achieved, but galling none the less. It wouldn't be the last time that injuries raised Arsenal's hopes only to dash them. Two points earned? Surely, it feels like three points dropped, if not six, at the other end.

Last but not least, Manchester United. They may have perfected the bait-and-switch. After letting themselves get thrashed rather thoroughly (a 3-0 win surely had Gooners dreaming of brighter days...), Van Gaal took a page from Klopp's playbook, allowing his injury-list to stretch so far as to have Gooners salivating. By kick-off, as many as 16 players were apparently unavailable. Surely, it seemed, Arsenal would achieve a double over their long-time rivals, something that hadn't happened since 2006-07. There's the bait. The switch? Scoring twice in just over a minute to stun Arsenal and pull back the curtain on this master-plan. They even had the chutzpah to let none other than Welbeck score from an Özil assist, tantalizing Gooners what might have been even as Özil took one step closer to breaking club-legend Thierry Henry's record for assists in a season.

Indeed, it was just that detail that finally drew MI5's notice. No longer could such a series of events be seen as the random helter-skelter of a madcap Prem season. There had to be a deeper explanation. The collapse of three clubs in one season was simply unprecedented—but there is now at least the outlines of one grand, unifying theory that explains those clubs' misadventures as well as Arsenal's aspirations and aggravations.

Why though would three apparent rivals, each poised at making a run at a Prem title, stoop to such levels? We're through the looking-glass now. Mourinho worked under Van Gaal at Barcelona. Rodgers worked under Mourinho at Chelsea. The circle is not quite complete, but the pieces of the puzzle fit. As for Klopp, authorities suspect that he simply enjoys a good prank from time to time. As it stands, then, we might just be witnessing one of the most colossal pranks in Prem history, one that two if not three managers were willing to "part by mutual consent" from their clubs.

The roles of managers Claudio Ranieri and Mauricio Pochettino are as yet unconfirmed, but it is worth mentioning that floral delivery vans have been seen idling opposite each manager's flat for several days now, quite a bit longer than one might expect it takes to deliver a bouquet. If one or both man's participation can be proven, we might just be witnessing the worst scandal since the Profumo affair.

Also unconfirmed is whether or not Arsène's men have the courage or confidence left to fight back against these revelations and rumours. They'll have precious little time to prove that they do with a midweek visit from Swansea followed by a trip to White Hart Lane this weekend.