As referee Felix Brych blew the full-time whistle at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday, it felt as futile and aimless as a Carl Jenkinson cross to have to wait until the end of November for Arsenal to – as Arsene Wenger put it at the start of the month – “know more about ourselves”. If you don’t know them by now…
Wenger was responding rather tetchily to claims that the Gunners’ first stumbles after a typically promising start have historically come in this month. The numbers back up the belief: Since his appointment in 1996, the club’s points-per-game ratio in the 11th month of the year is just 1.59; their win rate is just 47%.
“I don’t know who said we don’t win games in November but I can assure you we’ve won a few,” Wenger added at the start of this month. A demoralising draw with PSG means the club’s record since ending October level on points at the top of both the Premier and Champions League is: Played four, won one, drawn three. A last-gasp victory over Ludogorets three weeks ago hardly dispels fears of a November curse.
Nor did this result; nor did this performance. Arsenal found themselves in a similar situation to the reverse fixture in the Parc des Princes in September, when only Edinson Cavani’s profligacy spared them an embarrassing defeat. They rescued a 1-1 draw that day in spite of an overawed, uninspired showing. On Wednesday, a dubious penalty and a fortuitous own goal handed them an unlikely and largely undeserved 2-1 second-half lead after Cavani’s early opener.
After stealing a point from Old Trafford at the weekend, this added further weight to the argument that this Arsenal might just be different – they might just have the mentality and character to match the skill and flair.
Then came that familiar sinking feeling. Wenger neglected to make a necessary substitution, to freshen the legs of a side defending a one-goal lead, to remove the sting from any potential PSG attack. The French side were disjointed, but always capable of conjuring one decisive moment.
So it proved. That the bitter blow was delivered by the smallest man on the pitch winning a back-post header under little pressure was akin to performance art from a side who have perfected the act of throwing a pie in their own face. Constantly their own worst enemy, constantly shooting themselves in the foot. Constantly Arsenal.
Only when Lucas Moura, all 5ft 8ins of him, headed past a despairing David Ospina and Alex Iwobi did Wenger act. The horse had already bolted, but the Frenchman’s next move was to replace Iwobi with Granit Xhaka. The Swiss was sorely missed throughout the previous 78 minutes, as a midfield of Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey struggled to provide meaningful creativity, drive or passing range.
The visitors had little trouble in maintaining a 2-2 scoreline which almost guarantees them top spot in the group. It could be the difference between Barcelona and Benfica. Arsenal know only too well the perils of finishing second. Yet this was supposed to be the Arsenal side capable of topping a Champions League group for the first time since the 2011/12 season.
This is no disaster for Arsenal – progression is secured and they are fourth in the Premier League table – but Wenger has a growing number of pressing matters to deal with. Giroud’s first-half penalty was only Arsenal’s second shot of any kind in 96 minutes of football across their last two fixtures. The Frenchman was a peripheral figure for the majority, and Santi Cazorla’s ball retention and creativity is conspicuous by its absence. Then there is the issue of Coquelin and Alex Iwobi. Are these really two players who should be starting in a must-win game?
The draw with Manchester United on Saturday was achieved despite an abject performance, but it was still seen as a positive result. It was a game the Arsenal of old would have lost – against United, against Jose Mourinho, at Old Trafford, from behind. It was a step forward. Four days later, the Gunners were just as abysmal. That they held the initiative with 13 minutes remaining, at home, and with a point to prove, represents two exasperating steps back.