It is little surprise that as TV cameras panned across the Emirates Stadium thousands of seats were left unoccupied. An anthropologist would describe the period that Arsenal are in as “liminal” – on the threshold between disaster and not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been.
As such, those attending this dead-rubber between Arsenal and Watford were guaranteed one of two things: a further descent into the self-parodic darkness which has Arsenal fans in tears because they are only in sixth position in a league where teams enduring a real crisis suffer far worse; or a modicum of – quite possibly misjudged – hope. Neither scenario was desirable to the fans that stayed away.
Those who persevered got hope: a comfortable 3-0 victory for Arsenal, whose performance was assured, milestone-heavy, and almost entirely inconsequential. And if Twitter is anything to go by – all too often it is not – the Arsenal fan base has become so factional that some were willing their team to lose if only it accelerated Arsene Wenger’s departure.
The milestones were as inchoate as the current atmosphere within the club. Petr Cech made his first penalty save for Arsenal, only of note because it took him 16 attempts. This helped him finally reach 200 Premier League clean sheets, a record which he owes more to performances at his previous club, Chelsea, where he got 165 of them, than at Arsenal. Mezut Ozil grabbed his 50th assist in the Premier League, making him the quickest player to that mark, and the least well-regarded – even though his statistics suggests that he is a workhorse in terms of ground covered in matches, he still can’t shake the “lazy” moniker. His assist from a free kick gave Shokdran Mustafi an eighth minute headed goal, which brought about the most absurd landmark. A booming voice announced over the stadium’s PA system that Arsenal had reached 1000 Premier League goals. Firstly, the statistic was incorrect – Arsenal had in fact reached 1000 Premier League goals at home. Secondly, it was more a reminder of Arsenal’s glorious and free-scoring past than their halting present.
Well-balanced Arsenal fans should at least be happy with the performance. Nervy as it was at times, it brought about star turns from three of Arsenal’s best players: a fine assist for Ozil and a goal apiece for January signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It bodes well for Thursday’s Europa League game against A.C. Milan on which Arsenal’s whole season, a place in the Champions League, currently hangs. Going into the second leg with a two-goal away lead, Arsenal should have felt confident of progressing either way – they will be even more empowered now.
The game even brought a moment of schadenfreude out of Arsenal’s most recent nemesis, Watford’s Troy Deeney, who accused Arsenal’s players of lacking “cojones” after his team beat them in October. Deeney lost his own cojones, blasting a penalty too near to Cech who batted it away with his right hand. “It’s quite fortunate the save was against Deeney,” Wenger said. “Cech’s situation shows how football is. In one week, he went from hell to heaven”.
The reality is that Cech and Arsenal are neither in heaven nor hell at the moment. They are in a purgatory of their own making, waiting to see if they can save their season and emerge back into the daylight. But for the time being, Arsenal are hanging on, Wenger is surviving, and the team may yet find redemption.