There is a moment—much beloved of Aaron Sorkin, who has referenced it at least twice—in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter when the princes Richard and Geoffrey, imprisoned in a dungeon, think they hear their father approaching to order their executions.
“He'll get no satisfaction out of me,” said Richard. “He isn't going to see me beg.”
“My you chivalric fool,” scoffs Geoffrey. “As if the way one fell down mattered.”
“When the fall is all there is, it matters,” Richard replies.
Richard, you suspect, would approve of Arsenal a lot. There is no side that does heroic failure quite so well, no side so guaranteed to come out punching when all hope has been lost, no side of whom it can be said so often that nothing in a competition became them so well as the leaving of it. They are the masters of the vain second-leg fightback, the kings of the spring surge.
Already the cycle can be seen repeating, the hope of the summer evaporating, heading for the gloom and disillusion of autumn before the restorative improvement of spring when, in terms of a title bid, it’s already too late. Already the optimism of this summer has begun to fade, to look, frankly, a little misguided.
David Ospina wasn’t the reason Arsenal didn’t win the Premier League last season, a fact it was increasingly hard to cling to as talk of a title challenge swelled around the Emirates Stadium in the close season, predicated largely, it seemed, on the signing of Petr Cech. The goalkeeper’s performance against Liverpool on Monday balanced his personal account after his shakiness in the opener against West Ham United, and he will surely go on to make a positive contribution, but he alone cannot resolve the enduring Arsenalness of Arsenal.
As the season has begun slowly—the gap to the top of the table is already five points—there has been much talk about the need for a centre-forward and a central midfielder, but the issue goes deeper than just personnel, as Gary Neville noted with his comments on Monday Night Football (h/t Sky Sports), blaming Arsene Wenger for Arsenal’s failure to win the league over the past decade.
“To think that you are not going to adapt your team, to change to impact on the other teams that you’re playing against and their strengths. It is either naive or arrogance, because they keep losing this way," he said. "I just cannot get my head around why he would not sign players of power to assist these talented players that you’ve got to enable them to win the league.”
Whether it is arrogance or, as Thierry Henry volunteered, “belief,” that has led to Wenger’s lack of transfer activity, there is a real danger this summer comes to be seen as an opportunity missed. Even Wenger seemed carried away by the mood of glee and the sense of momentum in July, admitting that whereas in the past he had at heart known the league lay out of reach, he had faith this time around.
“In the past I thought we couldn’t win the Premier League, of course,” he said, relayed by Matt Hughes of the Times. “Because, when you lose your best players, it is impossible. And when you see opponents strengthen their squad, and they are already stronger than you, it becomes even harder. It’s difficult to be convinced you can still win the league then. I promise this season we will fight to win, but it is difficult. Being a manager is to promise winning and survive losing.”
With repayments on the debt on the stadium under control and various sponsorship deals ensuring revenue was on the up even before the new TV deal, Arsenal have the money to compete in the transfer market. That’s one of the reasons the arrival of Cech seemed so significant: It was Arsenal signing a player from rather than selling to one of their rivals.
They had accumulated a very fine clutch of creative midfielders and a back four that worked well together. In Francis Coquelin, they had serendipitously found a holding midfielder. There were signs toward the end of last season of a team growing together.
The issues at the back of midfield and at centre-forward are clear and were underlined by Monday’s 0-0 draw against Liverpool, when they were outplayed in the first half by a side that simply looked quicker and stronger. Coquelin cannot be expected to perform that holding role alone, particularly as he seems to have developed a habit this season of lunging into challenges that will, eventually, cost him suspensions.
Arsenal have recently been linked with Grzegorz Krychowiak, as reported in the Independent, the Polish holding midfielder who so impressed as Sevilla retained the Europa League last season. His destructive qualities are without question, but the slight worry must be his passing: Stats from WhoScored.com show he’s averaged between 80 and 82 per cent pass completion in his time at Sevilla; Coquelin last season averaged 85 per cent.
A tweet Krychowiak sent on Wednesday, though, seemed to suggest he was staying at Sevilla:
Similarly, there is a lack of ruthlessness at centre-forward. Olivier Giroud still has his apologists, but he is a player who embodies that Arsenal habit of disappearing when the going gets tough—the culture of “six-packs and selfies,” of which Roy Keane spoke to the Irish Mail on Sunday.
Against Monaco last season, his finishing and touch deserted him to the extent that Wenger took him off to protect the striker's self-esteem. Against Swansea City last season, he was simply overpowered by Ashley Williams. Giroud is a muscular figure, but he isn’t a presence, too easily shrugged off the ball, too easily discouraged.
Arsenal have been linked with a string of forwards, from Karim Benzema to Edinson Cavani to Aleksandar Kokorin, reported by Metro, of whom the latter two are perhaps still possible as the transfer deadline approaches. But the players are only part of it. There is something less definable that undermines Arsenal, a lack of hardness that means they seem unable to grasp for the prize until it is already out of reach.
Toward the end of last season, there were some extremely good performances, notably at Manchester City and at home to Liverpool, but the issue is to do it while the games still matter. Already Arsenal are facing a trip to Newcastle United on Saturday knowing they can’t afford to slip up.
They have to ensure they don’t again get into a position where the fall is all there is.