In many ways, Tuesday night’s match against Bournemouth was a microcosm of Arsenal’s last twelve or so years.
Or, to probably be more accurate about it, the last twenty minutes were.
3-0 down and faced with the prospect of being humiliated at the Vitality Stadium, only then did the visitors pull their socks up and actually start playing. They escaped Den Court with a point, and the players did what Arsenal players tend to do at that point – celebrate mediocrity. Another point earned towards the comfort blanket of fourth place.
It’s not so much the point itself that is the problem – there are, after all, 18 games remaining and the title landscape could shift significantly in that time – but the reaction jarringly suggests that they think this was good enough, that not being destroyed by Bournemouth and leaving with a point is something to be celebrated.
Upon scoring the late equaliser, Olivier Giroud ran away carrying out his scorpion kick-inspired dance routine rather than planting the ball on the centre circle and concentrating on getting a winner. Not to pick on Giroud, because the suspicion is that a lot of that Arsenal squad would have done the same thing, but Alexis Sánchez wouldn’t have.
No player from Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Tottenham or Chelsea would have, because the respective managers involved wouldn’t have allowed it.
Arsene Wenger spoke of “passing a mental test” after the game, paying tribute to the side’s character. True resilience would have been making one final effort to win after the equaliser – the end result might have been the same but settling for a 3-3 draw when the comeback wasn’t over yet should never have been an option.
(This isn’t a slight on Wenger, by the way. Arguments of whether he has created a culture of softness aside, the players should be able to take responsibility for their own actions. Héctor Bellerin, for example, should be thoroughly embarrassed with himself for at least one, if not two of Bournemouth’s goals.)
Sky Sports asked Aaron Ramsey in a post-match interview, “what kind of message does this send to the rest of the league?” He was obviously referring to the three-goal comeback but the rest of the league, the rest of the top six in particular, can learn something from the entire game.
They can learn that Arsenal can be played off the park for the majority of the game but if you aren’t careful they can earn a draw against you. Liverpool nearly found that out to their cost in August, as a potential 4-1 thrashing became a nervy 4-3 all too quickly.
Manchester sides United and City, meanwhile, also exposed Arsenal’s soft centre and while only the latter was able to claim the win, both of them should have.
These are the kinds of matches that can save seasons, purely because there can be a collective agreement that it can never get this bad again. But after a certain point, a question has to be asked of this Arsenal team as to whether they are actually learning anything?
Four times now they have played away against teams in the top half of the league table, and only two late Giroud goals have stopped it from being four defeats.
Oddly, the late goal seems to have completely changed the narrative regarding that entire match – and even more bizarrely, Arsenal’s season as a whole. Is a 3-3 draw against Bournemouth really that much better than a 3-2 defeat? Is the single point as opposed to none really so significant that it can change the outlook of this team?
Had they gone on to win it would have been one thing, but they didn’t even appear to be interested in doing that once they retained parity against a side down to ten men. Granted, there was little injury time left but the urgency from the team seemed to evaporate as soon as they were level, as if the 3-3 was enough heroism for one evening.
One player who did seem to care, however, was Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean international looked visibly frustrated for the majority of the match and was in no mood to acknowledge the point when they would have been expected to claim all three beforehand.
Nights like Tuesday could speed up his departure from the Emirates. Money is one thing, but above all else Sánchez is ambitious – increased wages will do nothing to appease him if he feels that his teammates are not at a level of ambition that matches his own, he won’t stay there beyond this season.
How Arsenal respond to this will be interesting, and telling. Their next three Premier League games are against Swansea, Burnley and Watford before travelling to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea. Whatever about losing to Antonio Conte’s side in February, victory in the games leading up that Stamford Bridge showdown is essential.
Twenty minutes of character (for a minimal reward) can’t excuse seventy minutes of being steamrolled. When the dust settles, they have potentially dropped two points on Chelsea (as did Liverpool 24 hours earlier), and that should be the biggest talking point.