Thursday, June 20, 2024

Rollercoaster

On Saturday, Arsenal came from two goals behind to beat Bournemouth with a last ditch strike from Reiss Nelson. It produced some of the most emotional scenes Emirates Stadium has ever witnessed. It was the third time in eight games that the Gunners have won a game in stoppage time. Eddie Nketiah’s flick of the boot against Manchester United in January was followed by Emi Martinez’s unwitting added time heroics at Villa Park in February.

On Saturday, Arsenal took on arguably the Premier League’s weakest side at home and found themselves, inexplicably, 2-0 down two thirds of the way into the game before roaring back with an emotional comeback. It is a game that, as Arsenal fans, we are unlikely to forget in a hurry, however this season ends.

Objectively speaking, however, there is a question as to how sustainable these last gasp heroics are. It is reasonable to question whether the team has rolled a run of lucky sixes that will dry up before long. It is not a question to ask in the immediate aftermath of Reiss Nelson’s winner, for several hours after I think I was still chasing my sanity at the bottom of a jaeger glass.

Jorginho’s last minute shot bouncing off the back of Emi Martinez’s head is not the time for contemplation either and neither is the immediate aftermath of a late winner against Manchester United. But these pages are a safe space for rumination, dear reader. Before considering the question as to whether Arsenal are riding their luck, I think it’s important to acknowledge some additional context.

Ever since Arteta’s side assumed pole position in the table, large swathes of the pundit class have been waiting for some kind of capitulation, some sign of the historical weaknesses that blighted the mid to late Wenger years. And, in fairness, Arsenal did capitulate to Spurs at the final hurdle during last season’s race for Champions League qualification.

I still know a lot of Arsenal fans who either still do not think that the team will win the league or else cannot bring themselves to admit out loud that they think they will. However, across the punditry spectrum I think there is an actual desire, even if only subconscious, to see Arsenal Arsenal it all up again. Many pundits have framed it as a fait accomplit.

They may yet be right, of course but I think this urgency is bleeding into their analyses a tad and when Arsenal so much as concede a corner it is taken as a sign of the mental frailty that will surely, at some point really soon, see this bubble burst. The brain is attracted to narrative threads, it helps us to make sense of the world.

Often narrative threads can prove correct but, occasionally, the brain deceives itself in its overwhelming lust for order and predictability. In that respect, I think there are probably quite a lot of people who would like to regard the emotional rollercoaster Arsenal have been on as a sign of impending collapse. Fortunately, I am untainted by bias and intellectually beyond reproach so my brain is impervious to such trickery.

Obviously, Arsenal cannot forage their way to the title on a diet of last minute goals. The balance between “the sign of champions” and “car rolling down a hill with the handbrake off” is a fine one. No league champion has scored more than three stoppage time winners en route to hoisting the trophy and Arsenal have already used up that allocation.

Clearly, there isn’t an actual ceiling on how often you are allowed to score them but three is the historic ceiling between resilience and instability. I guess it is worth taking each of the last minute winners in turn and assessing them against the game they were scored in. Now, I am not having that scoring a last minute winner against Manchester United is a sign of instability or fortune.

This probably isn’t the best point in time to say this given their most recent result but United are a good team, they are third in the league and Arsenal forced that winner by creating unbearable pressure on Ten Hag’s side. Arteta’s side had 25 shots to United’s six on the day. First they came from behind then, having gone ahead and been pegged back, had the wherewithal to go and win the game again.

12 of those 25 shots came after the 59th minute when Lisandro Martinez levelled the score at 2-2. United managed one shot in the same timeframe. The verdict here simply has to be that this was the ‘good’ type of last minute winner, where a strong team turns the screw on their opponent, forces them backwards and waterboards them with convincing attacking play until they crack.

Now, the Aston Villa game in February, as hilarious as those last couple of minutes were, probably does require greater self-reflection. Arsenal ostensibly threw away the whole first half with a lacklustre performance and found themselves 2-1 down at half-time having mustered just two shots in the first half.

The game came off the back of a trio of poor results and confidence was clearly low. Arteta’s side were far better in the second half but when you score twice in stoppage time and the goals involve the ball smacking the back of the keeper’s head and going in and a break from a corner where the same goalkeeper became stranded in the opponent’s half, the footballing gods have probably smiled on you a little.

That brings us to the Bournemouth game which, to my mind, was a bit of a freak occurrence. A Bournemouth goal in nine seconds just alters the tenor and pattern of the rest of the game. Bournemouth force another good chance in the first half which, to my mind, simply would not have happened had the game still been level and required them to push on. For Bournemouth to take a two goal lead with their third shot also had the real feel of “one of those days.” The Cherries extracted the absolute maximum from relatively small beer.

Add to that a first half injury to Leandro Trossard, which destabilised the Arsenal attack and I honestly think this game moved into the “everything is going against us” realm. (Five VAR checks for penalties with no decision given in the favour of your team adds a twist of lemon to that particular beverage). I think that fixture was very much a case of Arsenal bending a game to their will.

That said, if you are going to have one of those games where everything goes against you, make sure it’s at home to one of the worst teams in the league. Almost any other team in the division would have been able to hold onto some kind of result in those circumstances. I also think it is fair to say that Arsenal have felt a little belated raggedness with the Gabriel Jesus injury, which has created some instability.

A title winning season has many different flavours of victory and Arsenal have produced a few different blueprints in recent weeks. Helter skelter last minute winners, the controlled (tedious for the neutral) 1-0 away win at Leicester and the free flowing 4-0 win over Everton. But we also must acknowledge that there have been poor results against Everton, Brentford and Manchester City recently. Time will tell whether the rollercoaster will judder to a halt.

My own view is that Arsenal have negotiated a mid-season blip, the United winner was the crest of the wave. The Villa winner was the first spade in the ground to dig Arsenal out of a rut and I think Bournemouth was a deer that ran unexpectedly into the road and caused us to veer off-track. Thankfully, we were able to avoid a crash and steer ourselves back onto the straight and narrow on that occasion. But next time, we might not be so lucky.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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