Two weeks later, of course, came the signing of Mesut Özil, and hope was restored. However, even then, we had to know that there would be a honeymoon period, a blissful stage before a coming back to Earth. Aside from Özil, this was the same squad that barely finished fourth last season and that seemed doomed to finish outside the top five as recently as March.
Fast-forward through September, October, November, December. We emerged from the Group of Death and very nearly won it. We stayed atop the Prem for 17 out of 19 weeks. Despite injury after injury, we rode out the storm and defied the critics, all with a squad thinner than paper. Each time a man went down or suffered a dip in form, another teammate took up the banner. Yes, there were blips on the radar—losing to Chelsea in the league cup, losing at Old Trafford, the hammering at the Etihad—but, by and large, we saw the squad fight through and reclaim momentum, winning where no one thought we could.
For a while, it became easy to forget just how thin this squad is, and how much thinner it got through injuries—but also how young and untested. At its core are seven regular players 24 or younger who have not been through the cauldron of a full season often enough to know its rigors. Their youthful vigor, borne at times of blissful ignorance, was bound to ebb at some point, Their legs and their confidence could only carry them through the knocks and niggles, the physical and emotional fatigue, for so long.
At the other end of the spectrum, ten regulars are 28 or older, long in tooth and in experience but suffering that much more from the physical rigors of the campaign. They might be better equipped with the maturity and emotional stability needed to sustain themselves over the course of a 50-match season, but the sore muscles and aching joints take their toll as well.
Largely missing in the middle are the players in the Goldilocks zone, those possessing a blend of ‘just-right’ experience and youth, energy and maturity, players in that 24-28 range who both understand the rhythms and demands of the season and can conserve or deliver energy as needed. Only Mesut Özil, new to the Prem, and Theo Walcott, who will have missed half the season to injury, fall into that Goldilocks zone.
This is a squad a year away from full contention, needing a few key signings to bolster certain positions that are currently undermanned or filled by players with one eye on their final contract, if not on retirement itself. By most measures, I’d have to say they’ve over-performed and done better than all but the most optimistic fans would have expected—certainly on 18 August 2013. To have ruled the roost for as long as we did only to falter now should inspire no shame. Regret, maybe. Certainly not the bitterness, outrage, and venom I’ve seen on various forums. Yes, Arsène might have done better in his transfer-dealings or in his tactics, but we should be careful how forcefully or confidently we assert our interpretations, given the scant tea-leaves we have to interpret. As Aristotle once put it:
Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
I know right now that many of us feel a great deal of anger, whether we direct at Arsène, the players, the board, fellow Gooners, anyone. I’m not the AKB I so frequently sound like, but I do believe he knows far more than I or most (if not all) of us Gooners. I’m not quite ready for a future without him.
I hope that we all wake up on Monday feeling a bit calmer than we felt on Saturday, once we’ve had a chance to sleep on it.