It’s a win for Arsenal then, and a moment of respite for Arsene Wenger. As two season-defining fixtures approach against two very different clubs — Bayern Munich in the Champions League and nonleague Sutton United in the FA Cup — Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Hull City had the bare minimum of expectations.
And the bare minimum is what Arsenal provided. Alexis Sanchez’s controversial opening goal and injury time penalty provided only so much solace after a game that was always in the balance. The uncertainty at the Emirates continues.
Indeed, the future is even more uncertain after remarks by club legend Ian Wright on BBC radio on Friday. According to him, Wenger is now aware he is “coming to the end.”
Perhaps that was one reason the atmosphere at the Emirates was so muted. After the manner of those two defeats, to Watford and Chelsea, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see. How can you be angry with a man when he has reportedly said he is already leaving? If previous Emirates rebellions have been set at a “You have betrayed me and I will burn down your castle,” level of rage, this was much more of a “The frost has damaged my cabbages and I’m a bit disappointed,” affair.
There wasn’t much on the pitch to remind the supporters of happier times. Victory was secured through Sanchez quite literally providing a helping hand to his manager by punching the ball into the back of the net from close range. Wenger, still angry about Marcos Alonso’s controversial opening goal last weekend, will surely say that the adage of bad decisions “equalling themselves up over time,” has been proved correct way ahead of schedule. Sam Clucas’ late handball gave Sanchez a chance to put a shine on the scoreline that wasn’t entirely deserved.
Wenger had described this game in the match programme as “an opportunity to show what we are made of,” as if any more opportunities for that were really required. True to form, yet another dissection of this team revealed a side packed with technical ability, low on confidence and lacking the fire and drive of champions. Technically, of course, they can still win the treble. But the gulf in points between themselves and Chelsea in the league seems too much, the gulf in class between themselves and Bayern Munich probably will be too much and, even after this victory, you wouldn’t want to take too much for granted against Sutton in the FA Cup.
Once again, key players looked out of sorts. Mesut Ozil was a shadow of the player he has proved himself to be in the past. Sanchez looked frustrated. Theo Walcott flatters to deceive. There was a lack of belief across the team. Too many counterattacks were launched without adequate support. Players would race down the flank and look up for options, only to find a penalty area short on red shirts. Perhaps it was unsurprising, after recent results, that Arsenal looked more focused on avoiding disaster than claiming victory.
Hull made for odd opposition. They seemed dead and buried at the turn of the year but have looked surprisingly cogent under new manager Marco Silva. They began with a curious combination of the confidence of a team determined to attack the game, with the touch of a team capable of losing it inside 10 minutes. Twice, in quick succession, Tom Huddlestone and Clucas presented Arsenal with golden opportunities to take the lead. Twice, Arsenal rejected their generosity. But the visitors soon settled, and it wasn’t long before Kamil Grosicki and Lazar Markovic were causing problems on the flanks. After 15 minutes, Petr Cech was forced to instinctively tip Oumar Niasse’s goal-bound header over the bar. Arsenal were wobbling. And they didn’t look convinced in their own abilities at all.
And yet they took the lead 10 minutes before half time, albeit in those controversial circumstances. Hull, however, refused to yield. They could have equalised five minutes after the break when Markovic roared down the right and found Niasse, whose powerful shot was saved by Cech. Arsenal’s frustrations soon became evident. Walcott boldly attempted to goad Harry Maguire and Huddlestone into fisticuffs, Sanchez was booked for diving and Kieran Gibbs could easily have seen red for wiping out Markovic in his own half.
But despite their limitations, Arsenal held on to their lead and claimed their victory. The rot, for now, has been stopped. But if faith is to be maintained in Wenger, after all that has passed in the last fortnight and indeed the last decade, it is not victory over Hull that will safeguard it. It is victory over Bayern Munich.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.