Last night I dreamed that I was a sub for the FA Cup final which was being played on a mud-bath of a pitch at the far end of a school playground.
In the end I didn’t get on but Nicklas Bendtner did before he was immediately sent off for stabbing one of his own players because they deleted an Instagram selfie they took together just before the match. I don’t know how it ended up, but I’m taking some comfort from the fact that I was, at least, dreaming about the final.
We have, this season, a maximum of 7 games left. That’s 15 Premier League points and one trophy to play for. That’s enough to keep us focused and concentrated on things, but so much depends on what happens this Saturday at Wembley. Win that and things start to look up. We’ve got a final to prepare for, and it restores some confidence and belief ahead of the final league games of the season.
Anything less than that, well, it’s hard to even consider, so I don’t think I’m going to. Although I’ve got worries, as I discuss in yesterday’s Arsecast Extra, about this team’s ability to cope with the pressure of the occasion, I still have this innate faith in these players being able to do it simply because they’re Arsenal players. Maybe that’s illogical or naive, but that’s just the way I’ve always felt.
I think the experience in this team, and there’s plenty of it, needs to be brought to the fore. Mertesacker, Rosicky, Vermaelen, Arteta, Flamini, Cazorla, Podolski, Sagna – every one of them has enough under their belts to drag this team back into something approaching effectiveness, if not form.
For some of them it’s their first real chance, and for others their last chance, of winning a trophy at this club. I want to believe that they’ll respond and react and make things better. If the air needs to be cleared on the training ground this week, then do it. Nobody’s so precious that they can’t face a few home truths, and if they can’t, well fuck them anyway.
As for the Premier League, as painful as Everton was, I don’t think it means our chances of finishing in the top four are over. I said it before the game that it wasn’t as make or break as people made out. Yes, they have it in their hands, but they also have to play both Manchester clubs, and if they come out of those games with maximum points I’d be very surprised. If they did, what can you do but hold up your hands and say they deserved it, but there’s no guarantee.
As for us, these final few games are bittersweet, in a way. For a long time this season I thought that if we could just hang on in the title race – even if we were a few points behind – these fixtures represented a really good chance of finishing the campaign strongly.
We’ve got West Ham at home, Hull away, Newcastle at home, West Brom at home and then Norwich away on the final day of the season. If the filling in our fixture pie was a bit chewy and hard going, the crusts at either end have been baked to perfection, and these games are all very winnable under normal circumstances. But then these don’t feel exactly like normal circumstances, do they?
It’s hard to feel confident, faith has been shaken, and it just shows you how quickly things can change in football. It wasn’t long ago that looking at Arsenal made it easy to see how things could and would progress, even if you didn’t think we’d quite go the distance in the title race. Now, however, it’s like our clouds don’t even have the hint of a silver lining. The lining is made from more cloud and the cloud itself is made from burning the bodies of ebola monkeys on a pyre of seabirds and wildlife slick with oil from a tanker spill.
The future looks uncertain and that’s something that’s new, really. For the last 16/17 years, we’ve never really had to consider who is going to be in charge next season, but now we’re in a position where the manager’s future is entirely dependent on winning at least two of those five games – and in reality, most of them. The ‘trophy or 4th place’ thing – ignoring the fact the two do not have to be mutually exclusive (and never should be at a club like Arsenal) – is a possibility.
Would the achievement of winning an actual cup be dampened by having to play Metallurg Twatbasket in the Europa League next season? I don’t know. In the very short term the joy of winning the FA Cup would hardly be affected, but when that wears off, the reality of the upcoming season kicks in, it might well take some of the shine off it (or, more accurately, the season as a whole).
But then maybe we’ve kinda been here before. This teetering on the brink sensation is familiar enough. In seasons past when we were chasing the top four from below, it felt like failure to achieve that would be an awful thing to happen. It’s why, when we got there last season, there was such celebration. Mikel Arteta spoke about it in the build-up to the Everton game, saying:
It wasn’t like we were running down the street celebrating that we finished fourth. It was just a release of pressure. I understand that it wasn’t good enough but when you analyse the circumstances with the squad you have and what you’re competing against, you can’t just say: ‘Because we’re Arsenal, we have to finish first’.
I suppose it’s all to do with context though. If Everton clinch fourth spot on the final day, they’ll celebrate like mad, and rightly so, but I don’t imagine anyone will chide them for it. When Arsenal did it, having overturned another big gap to do so, we were open to ridicule. Despite what some people say I don’t think there’s any edict from inside the club that says fourth is our goal. It’s obviously our minimum requirement, but nor can I defend the idea that we’ve done as much as we can to finish above that.
A team with one striker can just about get away with it if that striker is genuinely world class. It can’t if that striker is a decent but limited player who is played beyond the point of usefulness. A team that spends £42m on one player can’t really be accused of lacking ambition or being willing to spend big; but a team that leaves that purchase until deadline day, and fails to address the area they’ve been trying all summer to do, can certainly be accused of a lack of cohesion and proper planning in the transfer market.
Context. Everton achieving the top four would be a remarkable achievement given their resources. Arsenal not doing so would be down to our inability to use what we have well enough.
But, as troubled as we are right now, I still have, and I hope I always will have, this part inside me that believes Arsenal can pull it off. That simply by being Arsenal we have something a bit extra that will see us through. The bit that won the Littlewoods Cup against Liverpool, the Anfield 89 bit, the FA Cup 2005 bit, those top four chase bits. Because I think we need that bit right now, otherwise that cloud becomes cloudier, more toxic and the future even more uncertain.
Sorry for the rambling/stream of consciousness stuff this morning. Back tomorrow.