Did Arsenal peak too soon?
I think we can all agree that Shakespeare was a pretty smart guy. Clever writer, cute beard, brainy fella. So when he complained about "giddy fortune's furious, fickle wheel," I should have listened. I shouldn't have plopped down my entire life's savings on a line of "Arsenal 2013-14 League Champions" T-shirts, lunch pails and pillow cases.
Oh, immortal bard! How could you let fortune's furious wheel nail me right in the fickleness? Then again, what did Shakespeare know about Gunners misfortune?
But can you blame me for my anxiety rising to Elizabethan proportions after awakening in California at 5:15 a.m. PT to watch Arsenal play Liverpool? The humiliating 5-1 result was only going to embolden the growing chorus of naysayers who had persistently questioned the Gunners' championship credentials despite them having spent 130 days this season at the top of the league. Did I mention that the game actually kicked off at 4:45 a.m. PT but I had wrestled my snooze button into submission on the reasonable theory that the best defense in the Premier League could hold out against the Reds while I cadged another half-hour of beauty sleep for my mustache?
And so it was with a certain measure of relief that the first words I heard as the TV fired up were "It's astonishing that Suarez hasn't scored yet." I glimpsed the scoreline in the top-left corner of my screen -- Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal -- and my blood alcohol level hit 0.00 for the first time since kindergarten.
- Usher: Can LFC win the league? - Kelly: Suarez exit tension still lingers - McNicholas: Time for Ozil to step up - Mangan: Arsenal must react - Brewin: Liverpool destroy Arsenal - Burley: What next for LFC?
But I digress. The Gunners had come swaggering into Anfield carrying a two-point lead over their absurdly spendthrift pursuers, Chelsea and Manchester City. The fatalistic (aka normal) Arsenal fan had sat gobsmacked as the team avoided its now annual August or December collapse and had been rendered joyously speechless by the surprising display of financial muscle used to pry Mesut Ozil out of Real Madrid’s clutches.
With the calendar clicking into February and dreams of FA Cup, Champions League and Prem glory still twerking in our heads, Gooners had been re-exposed to fandom's most lethal emotion -- hope. Who could have imagined that the tidal wave of confidence so painstakingly built up over the course of the past six months would turn into an impotent spray of sea foam in just 19 minutes of abject surrender on Saturday? Or, as Liverpool owner John Henry might have put it, "What were those lads from the Emirates smoking?" After Arsenal's lethargic and listless performance, can we all agree now that whatever the Gunners were smoking wasn't performance-enhancing? So Kleenex-soft was Arsenal in the first half that they made the Denver Broncos' early efforts against Seattle look like corrugated steel by comparison. Instead of the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom," those of us who made the mistake of not sleeping through the game were treated to Arsenal's "Embarrassment of Goon." Over the next 10 days, the Gunners face Manchester United in the league, Liverpool in the FA Cup and Bayern Munich in the Champions League -- a daunting run of games by any measure, but one that is now even more fraught in the wake of the wreckage at Anfield.
The good news is that Arsenal have shown a newfound resilience this season that has allowed them to bounce back from their most soul-shredding defeats -- the opening home humiliation against Villa and the 6-3 horror show against Man City -- but the Liverpool mauling was on an entirely different scale. Put simply, there were no positives to take from the 5-1 atrocity other than the Gunners keeping Suarez off the score sheet from hell. And luck played a part in that small consolation. The Premier League's leading marksman was inches away from adding to his haul of 23 goals this season with two audacious shots -- a thunderous volley in the first half that nearly splintered the right post and a sick free kick in the second half that only an acrobatic save by Wojciech Szczesny prevented from bulging the net. But such were the pace and power of fellow front-runners Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, the guile and vision of slick-passing midfielder Philippe Coutinho and the calm authority and set-piece deliveries of captain Steven Gerrard that Suarez's firepower was utterly moot. It was so wretched a defensive performance that I was surprised to learn that Norwich City had not hijacked the Arsenal team bus on the way in. How lead-footed was the Gunners' back four? Let's just say that it couldn't keep up with the well-known speed merchant and attacking dynamo Martin Skrtel. The Liverpool defender was given a hall pass to roam at will in the Arsenal penalty area, and he took ruthless advantage, bagging a brace before I had even hit the snooze button a second time. But to single out the Arsenal defense for blame would not be fair. This brings me to the most vexing of questions: Has Ozil put his ball wizardry in storage until the World Cup, or is he just going through a rough patch of form?
To watch the German playmaker in recent games is to see a man who seems to be dragging his $68.8 million price tag around like an anvil. He has devolved from being fitfully effective for 65 minutes to inheriting the Dimitar Berbatov mantle of disinterest. Arsene Wenger can extol Ozil's pedigree all he wants, but after giving Arsenal a massive boost after he arrived, his performances -- especially against the big teams -- have become increasingly peripheral.
Ozil's passing was Scottish sloppy, and his ability to lose the ball would make him a leading contender for a Manchester United midfield slot. Most improbable for a man who proudly wears the German whites is his apparent lack of commitment to the cause, as evidenced (yes, Arsenal masochist that I am, I forced myself to watch the first 20 minutes on a delayed telecast) by Ozil's laissez-faire attitude in the first half when he was dispossessed in Arsenal’s half by a rampaging Jordan Henderson and went down in the hope of drawing a free kick. Did he pop right up and chase down the thief? No, he joined Wenger in flapping his arms in protest as Liverpool scorched past the Arsenal rearguard to score their first non-Skrtel goal of the afternoon. To be fair, Ozil had probably never been four goals down after 19 minutes before and the shock likely scrambled his brain. Still, at about a million dollars per hour, the German's rate of return will not keep Arsenal swirling around the title maelstrom.
Wenger was uncharacteristically humble after the game and assured the fans that they would see a much more physically and mentally robust team on Wednesday against visiting United. No doubt the Frenchman was sincere, but Wenger personified his side's predilection for the unanticipated pratfall, slipping as he entered Liverpool's Lime Street train station and tumbling to the floor along with his luggage and savoir faire. What crueler end does fate hold in store for Wenger, the Gunners and all us poor, despairing Arsenal fans? I have no idea. But right now I'm experiencing the kind of gut-wrenching pain that makes me feel like Shakespeare's King Lear as I holler to the heavens: "You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as age; wretched in both!"
Clearly, Lear was an Arsenal supporter. I wonder which daughter got his season tickets.