At the final whistle, Mesut Ozil crouched on his haunches, 30 yards away from his nearest teammate, and gazed blankly into the distance. Perhaps he could not see clearly through the snow, coming down in thick, powdery gusts, to the back of the sparsely populated Emirates Stadium stands. He could hear the boos, though, which rang out among the sea of unoccupied seats and signaled, if it needed spelling out at all, the sense of crisis that pervades Arsenal’s unhappy home.
Ozil might not have been able to pick out the crowd, but the view from the stands was crystal clear. Laid out as if frozen for posterity amid subzero temperatures was an inalienable fact that, even during previous troughs in Arsene Wenger’s reign, had never quite come into being. But now the truth was stark: Arsenal had been beaten at what used to be their own game, pulverised by the kind of football that created the modern identity they cling to, blown away by the fluidity, speed and movement of opponents playing a brand of football not seen in the Premier League since this corner of London celebrated its most recent league title in 2004.
That could not feel further away now.
Wenger’s departure increasingly seems a matter of time, and how desperately sad, from a neutral perspective, to see his creation shrivelling into also-ran status like this. Arsenal’s problem in the early Emirates Stadium era was that naive defending all too often offset the verve of their attack; these days experienced defenders fail to do the jobs required of them, while further forward, talented individuals simply fail to click. The contrast with City, far from dominant in general play, but lethal when given a chance to spring the Arsenal back line, could hardly have been more obvious.
“You go up the stairs, you go down by the lift, that’s confidence,” Wenger said of his side, whose heads once again dropped after the game began to drift from them. “When your confidence is not at your best, the first thing that goes is the fluidity, the movement, the spontaneous side of the game, and you could see that [Thursday].”
The problem is that, much as Wenger preaches game-by-game analysis, it is not only Thursday. Arsenal have not played genuinely slick, incisive football on a regular basis for years, but a surfeit of quality at the sharp end — most recently through the departed Alexis Sanchez — has seen them through sticky patches.
In Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang they have three attacking players, all signed to long-term contracts, who are in their peak years but they will take time to gel, and none of them are young enough to be built around for the next five years. In any case, those underpinning them are simply not strong enough in body or mind, from the indecisive Shkodran Mustafi, to the lumpen Sead Kolasinac, to the whipping boy Granit Xhaka — who was branded “not fit to wear the shirt” by a section of home fans as he prepared to take a first-half corner and may have been relieved to hear that assessment spread to the entire team when the half-time whistle blew.
These are experienced, expensive players, not the callow youngsters who were leaned on to guide Arsenal through the late-2000s and who, to Wenger’s credit, kept them afloat more adeptly than they are sometimes given credit for. Why did Kolasinac not know to avoid showing Bernardo Silva inside onto his favoured foot, when ushering him the other way would have led him down a blocked alley, with the score goalless and Arsenal having started competently? Why was Mustafi, who has endured an awful week, left one-on-one with Leroy Sane in the buildup to City’s second goal?
Something is wrong; spontaneity is one thing, but it should never come at the expense of fine details. That is what wins games at this level now, and it is in this aspect that Wenger’s Arsenal increasingly look like a setup from a bygone era.
Pep Guardiola probably did not mean to stoke the fire regarding Wenger’s future further when, in his postmatch news conference, he alluded directly to the giant elephant that inhabits these parts.
“I can understand the situation; I know all managers can be in that situation,” he said of the pressure facing his counterpart. “He has a lot of experience. He knows the club, he knows the Premier League, he knows his players. And I’m sure he is going to take the right decision for the club, for him, for the players, for everybody.”
It should not be taken as inside information on Guardiola’s part that a split may be nearing, but as slips of the tongue go, it may have been revealing: nobody present on an Arctic night, in a half-empty ground, would have sensed anything beyond a feeling of atrophy and the end times of an era that looks likely to end in sadness.
Wenger does not deserve that. But his own inadvertent piece of phrasing told a tale, too.
“Nothing is permanent in life,” he said when asked whether his squad could still dig him out of a hole, starting at Brighton on Sunday. “Apart from the judgment, that is always permanent. But the reality in life is nothing is permanent.”
As Ozil took in the scene of desolation and his teammates made for the warmth of the dressing room, that could hardly have seemed clearer.