November 5, 2002

Breaking the System

A few weeks ago, I picked Arsenal as the top of the Premiership heap. Liverpool was too inconsistent, Manchester United lacked chemistry, Chelsea was, well, Chelsea, and no other challengers seemed to peep out of Arsenal's schedule. Sure, I didn't think they would continue their unbeaten streak indefinitely, but I figured that, given their talent and cohesion, Arsenal could stay ahead of the pack for quite some time.

How the mighty have fallen.

In the past few weeks, Arsenal has somehow managed to lose four straight matches. I don't know their exact history, but I know they haven't lost four straight matches in a long, long time. All of a sudden, the unbeatable Gunners looked extremely vulnerable.

It all started when Everton wonderboy Wayne Rooney nailed a shot past the (ever more questionable) Arsenal goalkeeper, David Seaman. The shot made Rooney's stock soar. Pundits are now calling the youngster from Everton the next Michael Owen. Others are even contending that Rooney will soon surpass Owen.

Sure, as just a teen, the guy looks very dangerous. Against Manchester United, Rooney made a sensational run from midfield and nearly scored a goal that would have drastically changed the match. Nevertheless, scoring a thunderous goal against Arsenal, and, not against, say, West Ham, surely sent more shockwaves than Rooney probably merits.

In any case, Rooney started Arsenal's downward spiral. After the 2-1 loss to Everton, the Gunners fell by a score of 2-1 to French squad Auxerre, then Blackburn, and then Borussia Dortmund. All of a sudden, Arsenal could not score, and their defense and usually steadfast goalkeeper were looking very suspect.

Manager Arsene Wenger tried to play it cool; he tried to keep Arsenal on an even keel, but everything certainly was not right. A Premiership contender should not lose four straight, especially a contender with such ambitions as Arsenal's (many of the local newspapers, before Arsenal's losing stretch, asserted that the Gunners were easily the class of England). Really, no team as talented as Arsenal should struggle like this, with such sadly lackluster performances.

Sure, the Gunners were creating chances, and they probably outplayed a couple of their opponents during their four-game losing stretch. Nevertheless, poor finishing and lack of luck can pervade a team's spirit for one game, but for four games—for the supposed class of England—is somewhat worrying.

Surprisingly, just as Arsenal had Wayne Rooney to thank for their descent, they may have to thank another player—entirely outside the organization—for their gradual climb back up.

Frenchman Steve Marlet.

Marlet scored an own goal as Arsenal defeated Fulham 1-0 at Loftus Road. Arsenal, as Wenger would readily admit, felt considerable relief after the match, even though they hardly would have wanted another player, outside of the squad, to turn their fortunes around.

But that's exactly what Marlet did in the 31st minute.

Teams—even the best teams—always need a little luck. The Gunners still lack a scoring touch, their defense still looks shaky, and they are hardly looking like definite Premiership champions. Regardless, Arsenal got the result. With it, they still only lie four points (or two matches) out of first place, and first-place in Liverpool, if nothing else, has proven to be inconsistent this season.

Manchester United is again looking to raise their level of play. Suddenly, the hunt for the top of the Premiership looks exceedingly familiar: Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United are once again vying for the top spot. To make things interesting, no team looks set to take the crown.

Previously, I thought Arsenal could perhaps replicate Man U's success from the late 1990s. In one campaign, Manchester United pretty much readily took the crown, with very little competition from any other squad. Given Arsenal's form at the beginning of the season, it looked like literally no one could compete. As the observers were saying, Arsenal was playing at a higher level. They enjoyed a better sense of cohesion. Their strikers were finishing.

Now, however, they struggle with the same problem that follows their rivals: inconsistency. Liverpool can come out looking like world-beaters or like a bottom-rung team. The Red Devils can play like men possessed (see the Everton match) or like men with no cause (see the Leeds match). Currently, Arsenal is no better.

With Arsenal's newfound erratic tendencies, predictions are much harder to come by. Who knows which team will show up: the squad that lost four straight, to the likes of Auxerre or Everton, or the team that opened up the season looking unbeatable? On paper, Arsenal still stands as arguably the most talented team in the Premiership, and perhaps one of the top five teams in Europe. They're glutted with talent. On paper, any team in the Premiership would fall to Arsenal.

But, sadly for the Gunners, they don't play the game on paper. Given their latest, unconvincing results, Arsenal can be sure of only one, consistent, unremitting fact for the rest of the season: The jury is still out.