It must be an incredibly frustrating experience being an Arsenal fan.
That the same team are capable of destroying Manchester United and Bayern Munich yet capitulating against Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb all within a few weeks of each other must be exasperating.
Nothing about Arsenal’s Champions League campaign this term makes sense, and although they are still fighting an uphill battle to progress to the next round, last night’s unexpected 2-0 win gave them the lifeline they so desperately needed.
Logic would suggest that this is the sort of result that could give the team the confidence and push on and start realising the potential that this side has, but then Arsenal have never been ones to follow logic.
It would come as a shock to pretty much nobody if they were to win the return leg in Munich and away to Olympiacos, and yet still find themselves knocked out with a defeat at home to Zagreb. In fact that would probably be the most Arsenal thing that could happen in the remaining fixtures.
The frustration from the supporters is surely borne out of the inconsistency of this team. Each fixture can be an isolated incident where each win or loss is irrespective of form and a series of victories or defeats would be purely coincidental, where nothing is learned either way. They always do just enough though to make sure it never looks either too bleak or too promising.
Right now it is edging towards the latter. Their Premier League form has them second in the table, which, even at this early stage, is important while Tuesday night’s victory will at least make them believe that they still have a chance of further progression in Europe.
The problem for Arsenal is that it’s familiar territory. It bodes well for them that they were able to show the big game mentality to beat Bayern in what was a high pressure situation (though, to play devil’s advocate, it could be argued the opposite is true since they were not expected to win it) but to prove that they are genuine contenders for major honours they have to start winning the important matches later on in the season too.
October is not a good time to be analysing Arsenal’s title credentials. The mentality of this side and that of Arsène Wenger himself mean that it’s indeterminable how far this side can go until around March.
That being said, the game plan against Pep Guardiola’s side worked perfectly.
The return of Petr Čech against Bayern was a welcome one, and it showed just how wrong Wenger was to drop the Czech international in favour of backup David Ospina for the Olympiacos fixture.
As relatively dependable as Ospina is (despite the major error in that game that led to a goal), Čech’s presence elevates the entire defence to a level above themselves, giving them the reassurance that everything is alright behind them and enjoying the confidence that comes with that.
If Čech is not the final piece in that jigsaw, he certainly brings it closer to completion.
The striker issue, though, is another story. Oh what Wenger wouldn’t give for an in-form Robin van Persie right now to spearhead this attack. Instead the manager is left with Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, who, competent as they are, do not as yet inspire confidence that they can score the necessary number of goals to power this team towards a title.
It puts a lot of pressure on Alexis Sánchez to repeat or at the very least match his return of 25 goals during last season.
Wenger might consider extortionately high transfer fees to be a particularly vulgar part of modern football – and he is to be commended for that – but the situation in England sometimes calls for it, just as it did when the club signed Sánchez and Mesut Özil.
Even if they had that striker though, even if they had somehow managed to sign, for example, Karim Benzema in the summer, that is still a guarantee of nothing. Arsenal have had great squads before, including the likes of Van Persie and Cesc Fàbregas, and it hasn’t been enough.
There has been a mental fragility in that team to be addressed, whereby it can sometimes seem like Wenger is terrified of just taking a chance and going for the jugular, especially against the bigger teams. It’s all very docile and overly pleasant.
The way they took Man United apart in the first twenty minutes, though, suggests it’s something they have finally been working on.
The likes of Van Persie, Fàbregas and Samir Nasri couldn’t hang around forever while the club stagnated and neither can their current collection of stars.
Something has to give – Wenger has to get over the fear that any deviation from the norm and push for glory would automatically make things worse. Tuesday night was a good start but that’s what it has to be – a beginning. No more false Autumn dawns and glorious failures, this has to be the real thing.
There’s still a long way to go in this season, but if Arsenal are to be successful then they have to take the good components from the Bayern scalp and the demolition of Manchester United, and use them for the rest of the campaign.
Practically everyone expects the Gunners to be looking back on another third or fourth place league finish and yet another early Champions League exit as per the usual series of events – it’s now up to this team to finally toughen up and prove everyone wrong.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena