The problem with fall guys is that eventually, you run out of them. Last night, as a shell-shocked, enervated Arsenal side crumbled again at the crunch, it was startling to look around and realise that there was no one left to blame. Shkodran Mustafi, the source of so much fan ire, had been hooked from the starting line-up after his mistakes gave Norwich City two goals last weekend. Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil, two players who at various points have been ostracised totally from active squad duty, were both out on the pitch, recalled through desperation. Arsène Wenger is long gone and his successor, Unai Emery, was seen off last week.
There are no big injuries, all the summer signings have had their chance to shine, and a cherished Invincible was in the dug out. No more patsies, excuses or silver bullets. This was Arsenal uncut, Lord of the Flies Arsenal, a team flayed to the point where all that remains are 11 individuals and their myriad flaws.
The occasion demanded unity. In Fredrik Ljungberg – not just the aforementioned Invincible but also a member of the side that reached the 2006 Champions League Final, Arsenal’s continental high water mark – they seemed to possess the perfect unifying totem. Yet so deeply divided is the club from its public that there were boos at the Emirates Stadium before half-time, the most spoilt and entitled factions of the home support having the temerity to toss a few hoots pitch-wards as they scuttled off early to avoid the bar queues. Arsenal was once a club renowned for its class, patience and dignity. That has been eroded now, to the point where its noble past feels like a parody, to the point where a popular member of its most successful ever side can hear boos ring out for him after 42 minutes on his home managerial debut.
But really, Ljungberg is not the story here. The Arsenal manager’s job now resembles a big sack full of contaminated nuclear waste being chucked from candidate to candidate. The fall-out from Wenger’s departure was always likely to be too much for his successor to deal with. Arsenal must have thought they were getting a safe pair of hands in Emery – it’s regularly cited as the reason he was chosen over the other front-runner of summer 2017, Mikel Arteta – a man to steady the ship, mop the floors, service the engines and get things back on course. But all he succeeded in doing was creating baggage of his own, his habit of changing the personnel and shape from game-to-game, even from half-to-half, leaving as a legacy a chronic lack of togetherness and coherence.
Without coherence, there can be no confidence. Without confidence, there can be no effective attacking play. Without an attack making the difference, Arsenal will always be undone by their collapsing clown car of a defence, comprised of players who almost to a man seem utterly incapable of assertive, one-on-one defending. When you have precisely zero midfielders who’re athletic enough to ensure those defenders aren’t left one-on-one when yet another attacking move breaks down and the opponents counter, you’re in deep, deep shit – or tenth place, as Arsenal stand today, six places, ten points and an atmospheric epoch adrift of their stated aim at the campaign’s outset. More alarming still, they sit just five points above the relegation zone. They couldn’t, could they? Famously, Arsenal are the only club never to have been relegated from England’s top flight. With games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in their next six, their players may just be getting a whiff of history on the breeze.
Even if that outcome seems unlikely, it’s difficult to see given the fixture list how Arsenal are going to clamber back up the table into Europa League contention, let alone gate-crash the top four. If no run to the Europa League final can be mustered, it looks set to be another lost season for the club, which has been tramping about in the wilderness for long enough now that you wonder if it really knows the way home or is just bluffing so as not to scare the children. The situation speaks to an institution that has decisively lost its way, that at some critical point forgot what and who it was. Responsibility for that must reside with those decision-makers at executive and ownership level who’ve been there long enough to guide the club into its on-going malaise.
The next time Arsenal fans are casting about for a fall guy, it may be Raul Sanllehi – the Head of Football who was feted as a “Don” after the summer’s transfer business – who finds himself being winched into position on the butcher’s slab. It’s all hypothetical now, of course, but how different might the club look today if it had been entrusted to Arteta and ousted recruitment guru Sven Mislintat, rather than Emery and Sanllehi? It’s conjecture, and it’s pointless. But the worse this side gets, the more tempting it is to rake over the trajectory of the post-Wenger years to date, to fantasise about an alternative future in which Arsenal are gliding rather than stumbling, in which they can defend, in which captains don’t get sold, exiled and jeered from the pitch, in which the players they have actually fit together into a logical team shape, in which their last “new manager bounce” wasn’t 23 years ago and in which their motto, Victory Through Harmony, doesn’t feel like the punchline to a Spurs’ fan’s joke.
As it is, this Arsenal side, led by a man who used to have a red mohican, are on their worst run of form since punk. That man, also a former underwear model, may find his tenure terminated on Monday at the home of the Dildo Brothers. Round up the black cats. Find some wood to knock on. Bury an old boot out back by the lintel. The supporters may be drifting away, but for Arsenal and for Ljungberg, the portents are lining up.