2016 was widely hailed as the worst year anyone could remember. Coupled with celebrity deaths like Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and Prince was the rise to power of Brexit in England and Donald Trump in America. In my personal life 2016 was marked by the news that a close friend got cancer and had a mere six months to live. By the time January 1st 2017 rolled around, most of us were happy to say good riddance to 2016.
But I guess we forgot that time is not a flat circle and is instead an arrow to the heart. One moment in time doesn’t eradicate the previous but instead builds upon the momentum of the past until it explodes spectacularly. That is to say, 2016 was merely setting up 2017 which has, so far, been worse.
In 2017 the people I love are sicker than before, we have seen Brexit only gain momentum, and of course, 2017 saw the swearing in of Donald Trump. Trump has appointed several noted white supremacists to his cabinet, along with his children, and that action was quickly followed by Trump acting like a king and handing down dozens of proclamations from on high including a ban on refugees based on religion, an order to finish the Dakota Access Pipeline, several other orders which set the stage to radically change America’s relationships with China, Russia, Mexico, and Canada, and to dismantle the affordable care act. If we were hoping that a president who lost the popular election and won the electoral college by a few thousand key votes would reach out to the other half of the country that he presides over in an effort to heal our divided nation, we were rebuked roundly.
Arsenal also decided that they too would continue 2016’s trend and make 2017 into the worst year imaginable. That may be a bit of hyperbole but hyperbole is as American as greed and Jesus.
2017 started fine, with a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, and then 2 days later the season came to what was nearly a screeching halt when Arsenal contrived to draw 3-3 against a 10 man Bournemouth side. Arsenal got back on track with wins over Preston and Swansea but there were signs that things weren’t ok at Arsenal because nearly every match after Crystal Palace was marked with slow starts.
Seeking to rectify the slow starts of the previous matches, Arsenal came out strong against Burnley and got off 12 shots in the first 35 minutes. They could only manage two on target in that time and Burnley, to their credit, forced three saves from Cech but Arsenal kept the pressure up and eventually got their goal in the 59th minute when Özil found Mustafi for his first Arsenal goal. Then six minutes later, 2017 reminded us who was in charge and Xhaka got a red card for a tackle that was yellow at best.
Xhaka’s red card meant that Arsenal would be missing Cazorla to injury, Elneny to the African Cup of Nations, and Xhaka to ill-discipline and would need to play with a makeshift midfield over the next four matches which included a crucial top of the table clash with Chelsea.
Wenger rested his first team in the next match, an FA Cup tie against Southampton. Arsenal stormed Southampton, scoring five goals to their nil. But the most exciting prospect in that match was seeing Theo Walcott score a hat trick and watching Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain grow in prominence in the center of the midfield. Despite the struggles of the weeks prior, Arsenal looked ok and like maybe they could pull off an upset or two despite missing their most important midfielders.
Arsenal lost 2-1 to Watford thanks, again, to a slow start. Wenger opted for Aaron Ramsey in the center of the park along with Coquelin. And up front, Wenger started Giroud while at right back he chose Gabriel over the speedy Bellerin. Wenger went for size and power against a large and powerful Watford team. It turned out that the problem wasn’t being overrun with power, it was simply playing football like it mattered. Ramsey switched off on an awful throw-in by Gabriel, Coquelin was juked, Mustafi just let his man run past him and Watford took a 2-0 lead over Arsenal. Wenger admitted his mistake and switched to movement in the second half, putting Alexis up front but by then it was too little too late.
Arsenal went into that match 8 points off leaders Chelsea. Chelsea played Liverpool later in the day, a match which Chelsea would draw. A win over Watford would have put Arsenal just 6 points off Chelsea and heading into the next match, against the league leaders, Arsenal would have a chance to close the gap to just three.
But instead, Arsenal went to the Bridge behind by 9 and by the end of the day, behind by 12. Arsenal lost 3-1 to Chelsea courtesy of what Wenger called a controversial referee decision: Chelsea’s Moses played a cross in from the right toward Arsenal’s left back, Bellerin – Bellerin was caught trying to challenge the much larger Costa for the ball and did a decent job putting the Brazilian off his header, but the shot ricocheted off the crossbar and looped high into the air. Then Chelsea’s left back, Alonso, came storming in after the loose ball and went into an aerial challenge clearly leading with his elbow and knocked Hector bellerin out to score the goal. It was both a real and symbolic knockout of Arsenal’s title hopes.
Wenger is still furious. Pointing out that the elbow was the main reason why Arsenal lost to Chelsea. That elbow, however, is convenient cover for the fact that Arsenal’s Theo Walcott failed to track Alonso. Yes, it seems unfair to blame Walcott, a forward, for failing to cover a left back, but that’s what Chelsea does: they play a five man attack in order to overwhelm defenses and catch forwards napping. In this instance, their right back (Moses) played a cross in while Hazard, Pedro, and Costa all moved toward the ball, creating space in behind. Walcott should have been prepared to cover Alonso and if he was (I assume Wenger alerted the players to Chelsea’s obvious playing style) then he should have been aware of the threat. Instead, Arsenal’s Bellerin was left challenging for two aerial balls against much larger men in both Costa and Alonso.
I understand why us Gooners think that the League and the referees are against us. We seem to be on the negative end of calls more often than the positive. This is especially true when the calls are physical. So, Xhaka gets a red card for looking like he was going to hurt a player but Alonso actually gives a player a concussion and there is no foul called. And what’s also true is that Arsenal’s lack of organization and discipline exacerbate the referee decisions. If Theo tracks Alonso does Bellerin get knocked out? I doubt it. Bellerin had to make two challenges in the span of a few seconds against two much larger men, even having a second body in there would help a little.
And it’s important to note that this wasn’t at the end of the match when everyone was tired, Arsenal also weren’t behind in the match and needing their forwards to stay up in order to spring counters. This was early in the match when Chelsea had created almost nothing and Walcott simply stood there and watched as his marker ran up and brutally elbowed a teammate in the head. This is the exact same problem that Arsenal suffered against Watford a few days earlier, key players (this time Ramsey, Coquelin, and Mustafi) just being a little bit off the pace. A little bit less than fully switched on. A little bit standing there and watching their teammates get abused.
After taking on the referees Wenger admonished fans today saying that the season isn’t over and that we need to back the team:
It is never over; we are not to behave like that. Even if you [reporters] think like that, I don’t. We look at the teams who surround us, we are all in a pack that is very tight and the fight for every position is massive as it has always been in the Premier League – maybe even more so this season.
Of course, our fans have been consistent and have a high level of expectation, as I have as well. But I don’t feel it is absolutely clear. You cannot be a fan until last Tuesday and not be a fan anymore and not be behind the team this Saturday. It doesn’t make sense.
This isn’t a problem that spans back to just Tuesday. This is a problem that started at Bournemouth, continued through Xhaka’s red card and four match suspension, and culminated in back to back limp, disorganized defeats. It’s over. Arsenal’s title race is over. Arsenal would need to win every remaining fixture and Chelsea would need to lose three and draw 1. Not impossible but highly unlikely. What Wenger is referring to “fighting for” here is the 4th place trophy.
4th place is a logical thing to root for. 4th place means that Arsenal are in the Champions League next year. Champions League means that Arsenal won’t have as much trouble recruiting new players. 4th place means Arsenal get Champions League money in order to buy players.
But 4th place is also a lot like rooting for Hillary Clinton. She was the logical choice. She was the safe choice. She was the most experienced choice and she would have represented a smooth transition in the status quo. Governments around the world (except Russia) would have loved Hillary. Hillary would have worked hrd for America. Hillary wasn’t the most exciting candidate but she was a logical, rational choice. Instead we got Trump. Trump is like finishing 5th: none of the benefit of being in the Champions League and all of the drawbacks of playing an extra match a week in the Europa League.
Personally, I hope Arsenal finish top four but… But if 2016 taught us anything, the logical, rational, and probably the right, choice is not what the people want going forward. They want chaos. They want change. They want Brexit. They want Trump. They want 7th place.
And so, I fear that despite Wenger’s hopeful optimism, it may very well be over.