You could be forgiven for thinking the seismic vacuum left throughout the spring by the lack of live football was all a simulation, as what unfolded at the Etihad from an Arsenal perspective bore all the circus-like hallmarks that Mikel Arteta’s side have become unfortunately synonymous with in recent times.
For those twelve weeks we wondered and we pondered, we debated and deflated, would we even see the season be completed? Was football really all that important in light of a pandemic that has tragically claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?
We know that in the grand scheme of things, football is a mere footnote but the return of the game we all know and love has injected a much welcome warmth in us all. A feeling of solidarity, familiarity and simply put – normality.
It is the latter word with which all Arsenal fans can relate upon when watching the team back in action at the Etihad. Throughout lockdown, a new vocabulary has been instilled within us all, notably the “new normal” phrase that is banded around in the daily press briefings at Number Ten. Nothing was new about the normal here, very much the “old normal”, or maybe even just “the norm”.
One hour before kick-off, the much anticipated team sheet was bestowed upon us. Even by Arsenal standards, this was incredibly akin to those wooden government press briefings we have been subjected to – more questions than answers. A starting eleven that was minus record signing Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette seemingly picking up where he left off pre-lockdown, in playing second fiddle to Eddie Nketiah who led the line and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shunted out onto the left. The inclusion of Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka, whilst not entirely surprising given the relentless rejigging of the side, did raise eyebrows further still.
However, the spectre of Mesut Ozil became once more prominent. Eleven players starting, nine substitutes, a colossal twenty-man squad, but no Ozil. If anyone needed awakening from their lockdown induced stupor, this was the alarm clock moment. That euphoric “we are back” feeling was suddenly compounded with the all too familiar feelings of dread and caution.
Within five minutes of the referee’s whistle, that signalled the recommencing of this insane campaign, a secondary affirmation of the “we are back” dread occurred. Granit Xhaka, divisive but influential for the midfield structure, collided with team-mate Matteo Guendouzi, forcing him off on a stretcher. Arsenal have never been blessed with divine intervention on the injury front, but just fifteen minutes later, a further blow was dealt when loan signing Pablo Mari was forced off with what has now been confirmed as a potentially season-ending injury, only amplifying the concern and dismay.
Enter David Luiz, dropped from the starting line-up due to his ongoing contract wrangle. The 25-minute cameo was so calamitous, the man with the big mop would have been better placed in the confines of a tented big top. As City pressure grew towards the latter stages of the first half, Arsenal’s need to reach half time without conceding was desperate. A nonchalant ball was punted forward and inexplicably, Luiz tried to control it with his thigh, a la Shkodran Mustafi at Stamford Bridge. Having completely missed it, the ball fell Raheem Sterling’s way, and the rest is history. The clownery was further exacerbated just after the break. Riyad Mahrez was adjudged to have been held back by Luiz and a penalty and red card were awarded. Stage exit left for Bozo. Cue the Twitter goblins frantically editing montages of Luiz’s ineptitude with the Benny Hill soundtrack to boot.
It’s now four penalties conceded, two red cards and more errors directly leading to goals than any other player in the Premier League for Luiz. This voodoo defensive curse that can beset any one of the Arsenal defenders at any given time during a game is something which is ingrained into the tapestry of the club and it’s defensive DNA, something which has become another worryingly normalised trait.
So, with only two from a possible six centre-halves currently available, the exhausting and seemingly eternal Ozil saga, the question marks over Pepe and Lacazette given their peripheral involvement, the injury to Xhaka, and the uncertainty over the futures of David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares to name but a few, three months with a dearth of football already seems long ago.
Focus on results and any final league table positions pale into insignificance, despite the obvious riches European football brings when dissecting the deep-rooted issues at the club. Given the extensive list of problems they must overcome, it would be churlish to assume between now and the season’s end that Arsenal will finish high enough to even achieve Europa League football. A growing feeling and wider acceptance that they may regress further before they progress further is the clearest indication of what the “new normal” may look like for the Gunners.