At the start of 2020, despite the feel-good factor of Mikel Arteta’s late-December appointment as our new manager, I had concerns and questions, a worrying emotional distance, and a healthy dose of the scepticism that stems only from a much-burned, long-suffering sports fan. And, yet, by the time the final whistle rolled around on that New Year’s Day, I was back in that pit. Wholehearted and reckless, well aware of the dangers—despair and heartbreak be damned.
After the match, I spoke about how I was struggling to explain that “elusive, tangible something that separates the right fit from everyone else”. At that point, all we had was a draw, a gut-punch loss, and a heady win. So what, you say? One match, or even five, is too minuscule a sample size for any sweeping declarations. Statistics can be misleading and twisted; then again so can narratives.
Yet, and yet.
January 22, 2023. Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United. Here I am, talking about my third fixture between the two for an Alternative Match Report. I’ve spoken previously about narrative cycles in football. But even I have to pause for a moment and bask in how effortlessly last night’s performance and result—arguably vital in context of this season—slots into the larger narrative around the club.
Big games are always subject to more of a narrative than the others over the course of the season. Growing up, you couldn’t get bigger than Arsenal and Manchester United, with Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm. But, as hard as it may be to accept, both clubs have since succumbed to the stern tests of the rapid evolution of the modern game, the Premier League in particular. Which is why yesterday—Arsenal at the summit with a ravenous Man City only two points behind after their earlier kickoff, and a resurgent Man United finally helmed by a manager who might restore their past glory—felt all the more compelling as a potential echo of that old rivalry.
Ask any Arsenal fan and they will say it felt like a nervy, end-to-end battle; also that the final whistle ignited euphoria as strongly as relief and emotional exhaustion. But if you were to take a peek at the statistics, particularly in the last 20 minutes of the second half after Lisandro Martinez scored that unlikely header to restore parity at 2-2, they’d tell a different story.
Arsenal had 25 shots to United’s 6. Not to mention the fact that we had a staggering 63 touches in the opposition box, while they managed only 12.
Then again, statistics, even the most objective of them within the context of a match, can never explain how a game made you feel.
And isn’t that the crux of this whole football shebang we struggle to satisfactorily elaborate to bemused strangers?
When our little chilli starboy son, Bukayo becomes only the third Arsenal player to score in three consecutive Premier League appearances against Manchester United after Freddie Ljunberg and Thierry Henry. When fellow academy lad Eddie Eddie Eddie gets deserved plaudits for a stunning winner in stoppage time after he has stepped the hale up in Gabby Jesus’s absence—for that matter, when a beaming, hugging, chest-thumping Jesus celebrates with the team after the final whistle. When Zinny rushes into the embrace of fans after that third goal; later epitomising all Gooners after VAR rules that it was indeed a goal. When captain Martin Ødegaard jogs off the pitch to a clapping, cheering, adoring crowd (who dares call it a library now?). The undiluted delight of our bench. The fact that I want to hug every single one of them.
Hindsight is definitely like a cheat code (why, that’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, you exclaim—you’d be right, of course). For all that this is his first managerial role (imagine!), Mikel Arteta has a certain passionate clarity about his vision to comprehensively rebuild a club that was indisputably in freefall, and rudderless to boot. He hasn’t deviated from it—strip down to the bones, buy smart, buy experience, demand discipline, embed a cohesive culture change that permeates into every aspect of the club, identify personnel, leaders that can help the vision function, elevate the dreams and ideas on paper, and feed the collective. The team that he took over three years ago was neither a proper unit, nor consisting of players who had what it took—skill or attitude—for achieving that vision. We’ve all known it’s a long-term project; even he hasn’t claimed otherwise.
But the fact remains that at the halfway point of the season, after 19 games, Arsenal sit at 50 points. Even the Invincibles team had fewer points at this stage. We have so far lost only to Manchester United at Old Trafford, a game where the result doesn’t tell the whole story of our progress or performance. The two draws have come at home versus a tough-to-score-against at 3rd-place Newcastle and during a rare frustrating outing at St. Mary’s in October. We are yet to face the mighty Man City, but barring that, this Arsenal have repeatedly shown that they’ve eliminated weaknesses—technical and mental—plaguing past recent sides and have a steely, mature undercurrent to even the most beautiful well-drilled Teta-Ball they play. We have faced injuries and readjusted. We have so far recruited well in January. We demand a high, exacting, intense standard of performance no matter what the scoreline or the minute. There is also a foundational unity, a belief, an unrelenting determination bolstered by hard work and hope that cannot be bought. And the man responsible continues to keep them, and himself, grounded because he knows just how long there is to go, to grow, to achieve.
Process can be a loaded word. It demands trust, patience, enough forward momentum in the right direction to earn the first two. In any long-term outcomes, small steps are as important as leaps of faith, and micro changes take the longest time. And none of this happens without a crystal-sharp plan, conviction, and the correct personnel.
We are finally (well ahead of schedule going by even the rosiest predictions of this project) seeing it all start to blend together. Gloriously, goosebump-inducingly so.
Last night, a whole three years and 21 days since the first victory under our beautiful Spaniard, I was similarly at a loss. How can mere words encompass the overwhelming, fierce, perhaps irrational outpouring of love towards these players, this manager, this club? What are the right combinations of the alphabet to describe the buoyant belief of this season so far, the effervescent joy, the fist-pumping hope of the youngest team in the league led by the youngest manager?
I’ll let Stuart take over for me.
On February 27, 2020, I wrote – The summer of 2018 was about falling in love again with football. Now, it’s Arsenal’s turn.
This is why we keep coming back.