BOURNEMOUTH, England — In an alternate reality, Arsene Wenger is currently enduring the start of one of those brutal weeks that the latter stage of his Arsenal career has thrown up so frequently. Beaten by Bournemouth, and in some style, the question is once again being asked online, on air and on mountains of newspaper: Is it time for him to go?
In this reality, fortunately for him, it’s all very different. He has been spared that painful scrutiny by Olivier Giroud’s injury-time equaliser. It might have been 3-0 to the Cherries after 70 minutes, but it was 3-3 at the end. Arsenal were wretched for much of Tuesday, artless and spineless, beneficiaries of a dubious red card that left Bournemouth reduced to 10 men. But they didn’t lose.
The character they have so often been accused of lacking was prominent enough for Eddie Howe to make repeated mention of it afterward. If Wenger can urge his players to build on that fight back, rather than dwell on the awfulness that preceded it, Arsenal could use this night as a springboard for the rest of the season.
Wenger knows better than most how quickly received wisdom can change in football. It is to his credit that he doesn’t spend every day reminding journalists of the time that Everton beat Arsenal 3-0 in April and dozens of columns, including one from this quarter, pronounced that he was the past and exciting young manager Roberto Martinez was the future. The following month, Arsenal pipped Everton to fourth place and won the FA Cup for good measure.
There have been other escapes too. There was 2008-09, when Arsenal lost five league games before the end of November but only one the rest of the season. They finished fourth that year too. And what about 2012-13, when Arsenal were 10th in December and lost to Spurs in March? Yes, they came fourth again. Spurs came fifth.
The problem, and you’ll have noticed the trend, is that Arsenal supporters expect a little more than fourth. They pay more than most for their tickets. They recognise that they are based in the richest city in England and they play in the richest league and they always qualify for the richest cup competition. They want the title. With Chelsea vanishing over the horizon, propelled by a series of victories that threaten Arsenal’s own all-time Premier League record, they are beginning to lose hope that it will happen this season. But things can change.
Chelsea, even if they beat Tottenham on Wednesday, are not invincible. They are brilliant, resilient, driven and apparently flawless, but they will not win every game from now until the end of the season. They will drop points, and then they’ll have to react. They will suffer injuries, and then they’ll have to reshuffle. You don’t have to have been a manager for as long as Wenger to realise that no one ever won the title in January.
What remains to be seen is whether Arsenal can be the team to put pressure on them. The first 70 minutes at Bournemouth certainly provide compelling evidence that they won’t. But things can change.
When a team hauls itself back from the precipice, as Arsenal did Tuesday, the experience leaves a lasting effect. These players will remember this. The next time they are struggling in a game, the urge to panic will be lessened. They can do this. They have done this before. They can do it again. Look at the way Liverpool teams snatched late wins in the ’80s, how Manchester United teams did likewise through the ’90s and beyond. Winning is addictive. Things can change.
Of course, there are light-years of difference between hoping that a fight back becomes a springboard to success and actually making it so. Wenger, speaking after the game, was keen to impress upon his inquisitors that Arsenal had suffered from the lack of preparation time.
“I’m ready to play again tomorrow, as long as I play against a team who played today,” he said wryly.
That might be so, and Eddie Howe confirmed that he felt the extra rest was an advantage, but it didn’t explain why Hector Bellerin was so easily muscled off the ball by the tiny Ryan Fraser. It didn’t explain why there was so little chemistry between Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey that they repeatedly exchanged verbals on the pitch. It didn’t explain why Granit Xhaka kept slamming set pieces into the first defender. It didn’t explain why the passing was so woeful for so long.
But there is a limit to Wenger’s powers. At some point, the players have to take responsibility, and that’s what will be fascinating in the coming weeks. The conditions are perfect. They have Preston in the FA Cup and then Swansea away in the league. They don’t play another title rival until Feb. 4, when they face Chelsea. They can build up a head of steam. They must build up a head of steam.
Just because Wenger has avoided the onslaught of criticism doesn’t mean he will continue to do so, nor that he deserves to do so. For as long as Arsenal fail to provide convincing answers, the same questions about their fortitude will be asked. Bournemouth could have been a disaster for Arsenal. If it is channeled correctly, it could yet turn out to be a turning point.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.