Are Arsenal for real or is this season just another big tease?
For the first time in my life, I am officially a West Coast soccer fan. That's right: I have left the comfort of my bar stool at New York's Football Factory and moved to Los Angeles to live out my dream of being a mustache model.
Sure, the weather's great and you can get a quinoa pizza to go once you've removed all your taste buds, but you also have to wake up three hours earlier just to watch football. On the other hand, my new local pub, Ye Olde King's Head, is conveniently located only a corner kick away from the Pacific Ocean, just in case I want to pitch myself into it after a particularly dire Arsenal performance, like, say, the one I watched this past Saturday. I should have recognized the ominous warning when I walked up and the bar was closed.
Fortunately, another sleep-deprived Arsenal fan was loitering outside and he explained that punctuality is a luxury here in laid-back Santa Monica. So the two of us stood there on the sidewalk squinting through the tinted windows at the big screen TV that some employee had inadvertently left on the night before. After a few minutes, the bartender, a convivial Manchester United fan named Raoul, opened the door and said with a laugh, "I almost forgot you lot had a game today."
As it turned out, I wish I had forgotten, too.
An otherwise glorious morning was ruined not so much by the 0-0 draw that followed, but by the realization that once again I had fallen for the The Great Arsenal Tease. You know, that cruel smoke and mirrors trick the Gunners do so well in convincing their supporters that, finally, their prayers have been answered, only to then conjure the kind of ponderous and toothless performance that has their supporters right back to believing they have a mortal lock on fourth place.
You'd think that I'd be wise to this cunning ruse after so many false dawns, but if you haven't noticed, Arsenal fans like to suffer. In that sense, Saturday's goalless disappointment was masochistic nirvana and to his credit, Arsene Wenger had seen it coming.
"Keep feet on the ground and work on humility," the manager cautioned his team after the the Gunners' 6-0 Champions League demolition of Ludogorets had made it nine wins out of 10 in all competitions.
It's nice to see that Wenger can be so prescient, but it would be a lot more comforting to Arsenal fans if he figured out a successful tactical approach against those opponents whose survival instincts call for them to pack the box with 10 men, the tea lady, both physios, the team mascot and maybe a life-sized cutout of Harry Kane celebrating a goal in the North London derby. As far as I know, there's nothing in the FA rule book that says teams who face Arsenal must agree to play a wide-open game so that Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott can run amok until they all pull a hamstring.
Middlesbrough didn't do anything radically different than previous opponents like Burnley and, to a lesser extent, Swansea. They sat deep and delivered an engraved invitation to the Gunners to break them down. The fact that Arsenal were unable to do so against a team that staggered into the Emirates fourth from bottom with only one victory to their name this season is a bit worrisome because it's not like this is a historically aberrant happenstance. Saturday's stultifying display had me reliving all of the soul-crushing frustrations that are de rigeur for the modern-day Arsenal fan.
But now that I am a West Coaster, I want to radiate the positivity that fills the air out here. I don't want to fret about the looming North London derby or, as my former New York self used to call it, the "Mind the Gap game." I also need to embrace the league game that follows on the heels of Arsenal's beatdown of Spurs. Truth to tell, I used to break out in a cold sweat the night before Arsenal played Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, but now I can't stop laughing at the prospect of Arsene Wenger heaping more misery on his BFF, Jose Mourinho.
I can't have any negative thoughts disturbing my hard-won sense of California zen, and so I will leave those to Arsene Wenger, who had to be somewhat concerned that his team displayed all the fluency, creativity and composure of a stampede of wild horses against 'Boro.
For all the attacking firepower that Arsenal bring to the party -- the Gunners had scored 23 goals in their previous seven games -- Ozil, Sanchez and Walcott can't unlock massed defenses all by themselves, which is why the injured Santi Cazorla was so sorely missed on Saturday.
I make no secret of my man-crush on the criminally underrated smurf, but it's indisputable that the Spaniard occupies the key role in Arsenal's midfield. Without his two-footed dynamism and quick thinking, Arsenal's build-up play is as flat and predictable as West Coast take-out Chinese food. Cazorla's ability to change the tempo simply makes Arsenal sharper and less one-dimensional.
If Wenger has a second tactical option other than the power of positive thinking, it's to stretch the game by relying on his marauding wing-backs Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin to fling crosses into the box. That's a perfectly viable alternative when:
1. Those crosses clear the first defender, which more often than not they didn't against 'Boro
2. There is someone in the box who can battle for those aerial balls other than the 5-foot-7 Sanchez.
I never thought I'd find myself pining for Oliver Giroud. He may be oafish and petulant but his perfectly-coiffed noggin is exactly what Arsenal needs when balls are floated into the penalty area with a forest of tall defenders arrayed in front of the goalkeeper. I know Ollie G has been suffering from an injury to his big toe, but short of amputation, I'd like to see the Frenchman back in the team tout de suite. It's only a matter of time until the Duracell batteries in Sanchez's legs give out anyway.
Seen solely through the prism of the Burnley, Swansea and 'Boro games, it's tempting to think that Arsenal is one bad result from falling through the trapdoor marked "CRISIS" but I no longer wish to be the font of Gooner gloom. Instead, the case can be made that those three matches are just the sort of exacting character tests the Gunners would have failed last season. So perhaps Wenger has instilled a new level of hunger and resilience in his current squad, enough that with a few tactical tweaks and maybe the addition of a world-class forward in January, all of my newly blissed-out mantras will be rewarded.
Of course, as an Arsenal fan, it's difficult to shake that sense of impending doom that has attached itself to us like a barnacle on a surfboard. And yet now that I've moved 3,000 miles to the land of sun and impossibly fit people, I'm determined to be more of a blue-sky kind of guy.
Rather than viewing Saturday's goalless draw as a precursor to Arsenal's annual full-on implosion, as I no doubt would have in my former fatalistic New York state of mind, I now saw it for what it was: a mere speed bump along Arsenal's road to Premier League glory.
Hurling myself into the Pacific Ocean can wait for another day.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.