One of the most inconvenient facts of football, particularly if you support a relatively successful team, is that to win trophies or to achieve other aims that are, in the words of unfairly maligned past Arsenal coaches, like a trophy, you have to go through the wringer as a supporter.
Winning cups is wonderful but cup finals are hell. I spend the majority of the FA Cup finals that Arsenal have been involved in silently wishing that we had been knocked out in the 3rd round to spare myself the emotional torpor of the showpiece occasion.
Literally shaking. Why do I do this to myself?
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 1, 2020
There is no more enjoyable victory for an Arsenal fan than to beat Spurs but there is also no more gut wrenching defeat. Ergo, North London derbies are an all-out assault on the nervous system. I hate the person they turn me into, tetchy, unreasonable, maybe even a little hateful at times.
When Aubameyang missed that stoppage time penalty away at Spurs in 2019, I yelled things that I am grateful that he never heard. I would almost certainly be missing a tooth had he done so. During the 2014 FA Cup Final, when Arsenal were 2-0 down and Cazorla lined up his free-kick, my mate (whom I will not name) spat on the floor at Wembley.
He doesn’t know why he did it, part disgust, part an attempt to change the cosmic rhythm of the afternoon, altering its course like the distant flap of a time travelling butterfly’s wing. Cazorla scored. So he continued to spit on the Wembley floor intermittently during the game. He knows and he knew that this was an absurd act.
Pressure does funny things to people. In that respect, the last month of a football season is like a zoo in a jungle. Teams battling relegation find that something extra and win games that ruin many a betting slip. (Not you Leeds, you just roll over one more time thank you very much).
Football seasons are a little like football games, in a sense. If you really want to see the tactical shape shifting, what the instructions of the respective coaches were, it’s all about the first ten minutes. When the players are fresh and the instructions are at their freshest.
As the game develops, chaos envelopes it more and more. The best teams are the ones that can reduce the impact of the chaos and control situations, or else be so convincing in the early part of games that chaos never quite seeps in. Even Manchester City, the archbishops of control, could not fend off the agents of chaos in Madrid on Wednesday evening.
It’s why the title races between Liverpool and Manchester City actually leave me a little cold, both teams are almost too good. There just isn’t that sense of jeopardy like you get in a “race for 4th” or a relegation battle.
As far as Arsenal’s season is concerned, we are in Rob Holding coming on for the last ten minutes to hold onto a one-goal lead away from home territory. I very much doubt that Mikel Arteta spends hours and hours combing (see what I did there?) through his coaching manuals to teach his players the value of a five-man defence in the last ten minutes of a game.
Holding (see what I did there?) onto a lead with ten minutes to go with a 541 is probably not something Arteta spends a lot of time on at London Colney. It’s just situational management, the same way that you don’t worry too much about what your hair looks like when fending off an intruder in your house in the wee small hours.
Within this pressured context, strange things can happen in terms of player form, unexpected heroes can arise. In 1993, when Arsenal reached both domestic cup finals, I am not sure many would have predicted Steve Morrow and Andy Linighan to emerge as the winning goal scorers in either game.
In the situation that Arsenal currently find themselves, the likes of Mohamed Elneny, Rob Holding, Nuno Tavares and Eddie Nketiah are emerging from the shadows. It doesn’t (yet) require a long-term reassessment as to any of their respective qualities.
Three of those players were squad members in teams that finished eighth in consecutive seasons. They are doing the job that is required and we have seen this before. At the tail end of the 2011-12 season, when the pressure came on, Arsene Wenger sat a young Aaron Ramsey down and played Tomas Rosicky in his stead with Yossi Benayoun on the wing.
He opted for experience and Arsenal got over the line. It didn’t harm Ramsey’s development, Benayoun went back to Chelsea and Rosicky went back to being a high level squad player thereafter. In 2012-13, Wenger dropped Szczesny and Vermaelen for the run-in in favour of Fabianski and Mertesacker.
The centre-half shift was significant on a long-term basis, Mertescielny became Arsenal’s defensive anchor for the next few seasons but that move really should have happened earlier. Fabianski did not go on to become Arsenal’s number one but he did the job that was required to navigate a nervy run-in.
The Hail Mary stage of a season rarely tells you anything conclusive about players for whom the jury is still out. Christopher Wreh never did challenge for the Arsenal all-time goal scoring record. It’s just the part of the season where a growth spurt in a player’s form can be enough to get you over the line.
It’s why Burnley will sack their long-term manager in April and hand the team over to the U23 coach. It is unlikely that Mike Jackson will be a long-term pillar in Burnley’s history; they are just trying a little electric shock treatment for a short-term jolt.
In fact, the whole relegation battle in recent seasons has been distilled into “who makes the best fist of sacking and replacing their manager and how well do they time it?” For the last two seasons, Arsenal have been absent from this sense of seasonal climax.
In fact, on the final day of last season, many debated whether they even wanted to finish above Spurs and qualify for the Europa Conference League, which felt like another brand of humiliation somehow. The stakes are higher this time.
And the anxiety levels are off the charts, so much so that in private moments you wish that mid table mediocrity was again the order of the day, so that you didn’t find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night hoping that Rob Holding can fend off Harry Kane.
But the truth is that it makes you feel alive. Yes, sometimes you have to confront the grim reality of defeat and it’s a punch that my Arsenal chin has absorbed many, many times in my life. It might test my jaw once again in the next three weeks.
That possibility is on the table and we have to confront it. That’s why the nerves jangle, the heart races and the palms perspire. It’s also why we all fell into a kind of love-hate relationship with this game and with this club. In the end, it’s the anxiety that makes us feel alive.