A Paris Saint-Germain side struggling to come to terms with their new manager; Edinson Cavani struggling to recapture form and to come to terms with filling the enormous hole that Zlatan Ibrahimovic left. It was a perfect opportunity for Arsenal, in what was their hardest game of the group phase, on paper, to get their Champions League campaign off to a positive start.
And within 44 seconds, Cavani had given PSG the lead.
Of course he did. This is Arsenal: finding familiar ways to underachieve for around a decade.
But this being Arsenal, they also came back. Especially in Europe, it’s as though they feel they have to make the mountain a bit bigger before they start climbing it.
Cavani, who played well apart from his finishing, should have killed the game off. He had three golden chances to increase PSG’s lead and missed them all. That seemed to embolden Arsenal, who were much better (if far from dominant) in the second half, and by the time Alexis Sanchez smashed in the equaliser, it had begun to feel, if not inevitable, then at least plausible.
But why do Arsenal keep on doing this? Why did they underperform so badly in the first two group games last season, to make finishing first in the group all but impossible, inviting the draw against Barcelona that inevitably undid them?
Why did they play so abjectly the previous year to lose the home leg of the last-16 tie 3-1 against Monaco, setting up the 2-0 win in France that saw them go out on the away-goals rule?
Why, the season before that, did they lose tamely at home to Bayern Munich, missing a penalty, before a valiant draw in Germany?
Why, the season before that, did they lose 3-1 to Bayern at home before winning 2-0 at the Allianz to go out only on away goals?
Why, the season before that, did they lose 4-0 away to AC Milan before winning the home leg 3-0? Why are they so addicted to the trope of glorious but futile fightback against the odds—odds they’ve usually lengthened by their own ineptness?
Watch the first goal in Paris. There is a slackness about Arsenal from the off, a lethargy, a lack of intensity.
Serge Aurier flies down the right. Nobody goes with him. Nacho Monreal is in the vague vicinity but he never applies any pressure. Aurier’s cross is excellent, but Cavani is unmarked to glance his header past David Ospina—Shkodran Mustafi has let him go.
Perhaps Monreal was outpaced. Perhaps. But for Mustafi, there can be no excuse. He knows where he ought to be. He has done it well enough to become a regular in the Germany squad. He is a high-class player. So why? Why, then?
There are perhaps two explanations—and they are explanations that relate to Arsenal in general rather than Mustafi in particular: The problems, after all, long predate his arrival, and in a sense, it’s remarkable that he’s picked up the club foibles so quickly.
First, is there something wrong in Arsenal’s pre-match routine, something that means they aren’t quite sharp enough, aren’t quite aggressive enough from the start? Again and again over the past few seasons, but most recently on Saturday against Southampton, Arsenal have ended up pummelling teams in the final minutes as they seek an equaliser or a winner in a game they should have won with some ease.
And secondly, and perhaps most intriguingly, could the issue be psychological? Could it be that Arsenal are terrified of success? The U.S. psychologist Abraham Maslow, most famous for his hierarchy of needs, came up with what he termed the Jonah Complex.
Jonah, in the Old Testament, is told by God to go to Nineveh to prophesy the destruction of the city for its wickedness. He instead flees in the opposite direction, looking to escape his responsibilities, which results in him being thrown overboard a ship and swallowed by a whale.
Maslow took the idea of avoiding a difficult, dangerous or intimidating task and extended it to include the responsibility of talent. The greatest achievements carry an element of risk: They are a trial of ability and temperament. An individual or a team can make the effort, physical and mental, and still fail, an exhausting process with significant cost. How much easier it is, then, to embrace self-destructiveness, to make an error, to not quite give everything so the consequences of coming up short are diminished.
The way Arsenal have exited in Europe in recent years follows the pattern. They make an early mistake or they look oddly off the pace. They concede. They give themselves an impossible amount of ground to recover—and then, when the possibility of success is removed, when the excuse has been laid down, they begin to play and, often, almost make up that ground.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger seems to regard the capacity to fight when all hope is lost as mental strength, but in fact it is the reverse; their capacity to perform when the pressure is off is evidence of the Jonah Complex.
Not that psychology is the only thing holding Arsenal back. Wenger must take responsibility for the way his side are prepared, but even more so he must be held accountable for Arsenal’s tactical approach. To play a 4-2-3-1 against PSG with their three-man midfield of Adrien Rabiot, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Marco Verratti was always going to be a huge risk, particularly given Mesut Ozil’s reluctance to track back. Not surprisingly, Arsenal were overmanned.
Wenger could have taken action to counter that. He could, for instance, have moved Ozil wide and played Granit Xhaka alongside Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, but he almost never alters his formation.
That again suggests a lethargy, an assumption that the old ways will work out, an unwillingness to take the hard option. It feels as though in the past decade he has not evolved, that he’s been left behind following the same old formulae when football, with its modern obsession with attention to detail and meticulous tactical planning, has moved on.
Perhaps Wenger, too, is unwilling or unable quite to push his abilities to the maximum. Perhaps he, too, is in the grips of a Jonah Complex.