Only three games into the 2021-22 season and it’s already squeaky bum time for the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta. Arsenal have had their worst start to a Premier League season, losing to Man City, Chelsea and, there’s no easy way to say this, Brentford. An extraordinary £140m has been spent over the summer on new talent, but neither they nor anyone else in an Arsenal shirt has been capable of finding the proverbial onion bag. Faster than you can say Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal are in a relegation dogfight.
Look, I know it’s hard to care about the minutiae of boring, boring Arsenal, especially in a week in which England’s women have shown underperforming men the true meaning of football. But work with me.
One of the pleasures of All or Nothing: Arsenal (Amazon Prime Video) is to see Gooners, like a bunch of latter-day George Amberson Minafers, get their comeuppance. “Being an Arsenal fan now really sucks, let’s be honest,” says KSI, the YouTubing rapper. “There’s nothing really to cheer about.” Can I get a boo hoo?
Time was, Arsenal had it all: they were undefeated in the 2003-4 season; they were fixtures in the money-spinning Champions League. Now, they struggle to get into the Europa League. It’s as if they were (no offence) Aston Villa or Everton, rather than capable of joining the globally successful sporting brands in All or Nothing’s TV super league.
“It’s the worst Arsenal team I have ever seen in my life,” bleats one fan demanding Arteta’s head. Mate, you’re three games into a new season. It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, issues a statement calling on Arsenal not to accept mediocrity. Why is Rwanda’s president getting involved? Because Rwanda are Arsenal’s shirt sponsors. “Visit Rwanda” say the shirts, a slogan that, thanks to Priti Patel, now has a very different resonance. Football: it doesn’t have to make sense.
Happily, Arsenal’s next home game is against Norwich City. How hard can it be, I wonder, to beat a team nicknamed the Canaries? (Just one reason why I’ve never run a Premier League team.)
Cut to Arteta in the pre-match changing room trying to rouse the troops like Henry V at Agincourt. Some managers use the “hairdryer” (Alex Ferguson). Others kick things (Neil Warnock). And at least one (Leyton Orient’s John Sitton) offered out underperforming players. Arteta doesn’t roll that way, but instead goes for a pep talk that manages to be both touching and baffling.
First, he tells the players that, when he was a child, he had Spain’s first open-heart surgery. The lesson he draws from this is that there is a parallel between high-performance teams and the team of medics who saved his life – both are motivated by love of what they do. Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, understandably, look blank, as if they are wondering: are we supposed to be heart surgeons in this analogy? Because, honestly, that seems a bit of a stretch.
Then Arteta draws a graph on the white board to show his emotional status after the 5-0 trouncing by Man City. He places a dot far below the X axis. “That was me,” he says. “Dead. I had fears. I had insecurity. I had the media that is killing me.” It would be unfair (though not absurd) to suggest that Alexandre Lacazette’s expression says: “Oh dear. The poor old chap’s lost it.” Granit Xhaka is, I feel sure, troubled by questions such as: what does the X axis represent? And what unit of measurement are you using to plot emotional status on the Y axis?
But, just when you think that Arteta, like some supply teacher out of his depth, is losing the crowd, he does something sweet. He places another dot above the X axis and does some decorative twiddles around it. That is his emotional status now. You see, he says, he has been cheered up in the past week by his players’ solidarity and defiance despite a string of defeats. What could have been the end of his Arsenal tenure has become, he says, “the best week of my football career … I want to say to you guys: ‘Thank you’.”
Then Arteta adds words to show he is more Gareth Southgate than José Mourinho. As all bosses should be. “The last thing I want to do is to blame you in difficult moments. My responsibility. I take the shit.” How could they not beat Norwich after such a pep talk?
Perhaps that sweetness explains why, even a year on, Arsenal have kept the faith with Arteta. Even though that profligate summer of spending yielded more misfires than hits, Lacazette and Aubameyang have gone and I wouldn’t bet on them beating Palace on Friday. Arsenal are becoming as mediocre as Rwanda’s president feared. Not all or nothing, but something in between.