The mood in the locker room was tense. In minutes, the Gunners would take to the pitch to face a key rival in one of their most difficult fixtures to date, just one in a long string of challenges that could make or break the entire season. Players were clearly antsy; even in recent wins, their form had taken a dip, and the press had eagerly seized upon this as evidence that their success to date had been a fluke. It was into this tetchy atmosphere that the manager stepped and address his charges.
“Are we a little bit nervous? Yes, I think this is true. It is for this I want to talk to you.”
One by one, players gathered around, some taking a knee, others sitting cross-legged. A hand was raised.
Kieran glanced around nervously before speaking. “Well, boss, I’m not sure we can hold off Suarez and Sturridge like we did last time. I mean, it’s one thing to do it at home, but at the Kop, it’s, well, it’s different.”
Arsène glanced around, unspeaking, noting that there were nods and murmurings of assent. “Is this true, what Kieran says? Is there uncertainty today? Perhaps. Is Liverpool top-quality? We shall see. Do I have a plan? I will not comment on speculations.”
The players looked around,here, mystified; there, vexed. Some of the longer-tenured players simply rolled their eyes. There was a muttered comment from somewhere in the back.
“I’m sorry? Did I hear a question from the back? Who has asked it? Give me one name. No? Okay. Thank you.” Arsène scanned the room. No one met his eye this time. “I say to you that I have a plan of top, top quality. All it is I ask is that you a little bit believe in this.”
Players’ eyes skittered left and right as they took this in. A plan? The unspoken thought ran around the room: aren’t we just supposed to out and play? You know, pass it around a lot, maybe have a shot if we get close enough? That sort of thing?
Arsène watched quietly, a smirk creeping slowly across his face. He waited, letting the tension build, all the better to release it when the time was right. “Look. I have been accused of not taking seriously the FA Cup. I have won it four times. Who has won it a little bit more?”
“The FA Cup?” asked Mertesacker. “Sir, is that not next week?”
Arsène smiled. “Did I overlook a little bit today’s match? We shall see. Will I explain more carefully what I mean? Time will tell.”
Confused looks now permeated the room. To a man, each player seemed genuinely baffled. What was going on? Is this kind of pre-game discussion really necessary to have at the moment? From outside, the roar of the Anfield crowd caused small vibrations in the locker-room. A hand was raised.
“Do you have a question, Jack?”
Jack lowered his hand, a bit uncertain, looking around for help.
“What, is it Jack?”
“What? Oh. Sorry. I just wasn’t sure if, you know, if you were asking me a question or if you were going to answer it yourself, so I—”
“Do I ask questions that I then answer myself? That is the wrong information. I think we have to put a little bit handbrake on that, thank you. Jack, please to ask your question.”
“All due respect, sir, but what are you going on about? Aren’t we supposed to just pass it in? It worked against Norwich dinnit?”
“Ah. Was that a little bit Wengerball? I refuse to comment. Was it exceptional quality? There is a shortage of top, top information I can give about that. I will say that our plan for today is a little bit to take our foot off the gas. A little bit handbrake, a little less petrol.”
The stunned silence that followed was shattered almost immediately. From the back, a French-accented bark “What?! Do you want to lose? Arsène, I’ve known you a decade. This is the first time you say to us that we, um, lose.”
“Matthieu, please speak calmly. Is what you say true? I don’t want to comment on that, but yes, I must tell you, it is true. What do I look for from you today? It is for you to lose today. Do I want you to lose spectacularly? I will leave this to you to decide.”
“Is this a little bit confusing? Yes, but trust me. To lose today to Liverpool, it allows us a little to relieve a little bit of the pressure in the Prem. It is a very, very difficult situation to remain at the top. I want therefore for us to lose today so we are not in first place. This will also give Liverpool confidence, too much, for the FA Cup next week. Do you see what I am saying?”
A confused silence followed.
“This was not a rhetorical question.”
Arteta raised his hand.
Arteta cleared his throat, clearly a bit uncomfortable. “I’m sorry to nit-pick, sir, but what you do isn’t really rhetorical questioning. What you do is you pose a rhetorical question, then answer it. That’s technically known as hypophora. Actually, it’s a very useful—”
Arsène’s glare was enough to melt paint from the walls, but not enough to overcome Arteta’s coiffure. “Thank you, Mikel. Is that interesting? Realistically, no. Do not overthink this. Go out and lose. Let them score. Two goals, is this enough? Maybe. Three? Footballistically, this is foreseeable. We will allow them to score. Just not Suarez. Anyone but Suarez. Sturridge? This is okay. Skrtel? I don’t see why not. That is all. What is essential is that we encourage Liverpool to think they are a little bit better. Do not let them think we have applied the handbrake, though. Do we want them to get a little bit complacent? Yes. Then, we can dump them from the FA Cup on Sunday.”
“Got it, coach!” Inspired, the Gunners went out, ready to play out the plan to perfection, laying a trap for the unsuspecting Scousers and taking pressure off of themselves to stay atop the Prem, at least for a week or two. Little did Liverpool know that they were walking into a trap, setting the stage for the kind of ‘second-leg’ comeback for which Arsenal has become so famous in recent seasons. As the players exited the changing room, a smirk again crept slowly across Arsène’s face. He let a quiet chuckle escape. Then, shaking his head, he followed the players out to the pitch.