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Arsenal are lost in a maze of mistakes – can they find a way out?


Listing Arsenal’s litany of problems would be a fool’s errand, for your pen would sooner run out of ink or your fingers would develop arthritis. There are screaming children on planes and psychedelic drugs known to have less maddening qualities. But if you were to highlight just one, it would not relate to an unbalanced squad, a naive hierarchy or the continuing disenfranchisement from its supporters, but the air of defeatism.

Arsenal cannot be accused of failing to invest this summer, even if the £50m spent on Ben White might have been served better elsewhere. There can be no questioning the ambition of their embittered manager, Mikel Arteta, or the natural talent of his players, no matter how well-disguised it can often seem. If anything, what the club’s dismal opening defeat against Brentford last Friday showed was that sometimes, even in this most grotesquely capitalistic version of modern football, hope and belief remain two of its most valuable commodities.

They existed in a happy unison for 27 glorious, inebriated minutes at least. Arsenal’s small corner of the Brentford Community Stadium had crackled with desire and anticipation, in spite of their mysteriously stricken forwards. It wasn’t so much a craving, but a drooling, frothing starvation for something new to believe in after last season’s desperate start. And then Sergi Canos was allowed to cut inside onto his stronger right foot and rifle a shot past Bernd Leno’s near post. It was like a bullet through a balloon, and somewhere 35,000ft in the air, a child started screaming again.

On the pitch, it was as though Arsenal’s players had already resigned to the repetition, another season that will curdle and conspire, damned and depressed. They tried as hard as ever, and yet there was always a sense of crushing inevitability. The bright sparks – Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka – whose flames only met cinder. The unfailing efforts of Granit Xhaka, the unbridled passion of Kieran Tierney and the untainted optimism of debutant Albert Sambi Lokonga. And then Ethan Pinnock hurled a hopeful long throw into the box, Leno wriggled helplessly behind Ivan Toney, and the ball teased its way high into the air. Long before Christian Nørgaard had risen to meet it, Arsenal players and supporters could pre-empt what was to happen next.

It’s a pattern at the club that has often felt contagious. A weakness for mistakes that spreads between positions and leads eleven sets of shoulders to slump knowingly to the tune of a collective sigh. It slowly afflicts the new signings, too, and questionable investment has proven there is no easy way out of this malaise, no one face that can transform this issue of attitude, atmosphere and culture. This might only have been one match, and one where Arsenal were admittedly missing several key players, but the familiarity breeds a type of contempt that could be seen in the bleak stares of its travelling supporters. It’s a constant sense of anxiety that’s entrenched itself over the last few years, a clinging fear that everything is only ever an absent-minded pass away from going spectacularly awry, and the most damning indictment of the 2-0 defeat was that it hardly represented a shock.

Perhaps, the most frustrating element is that, for all the mud thrown, there is more than just a kernel of a good team there. That is the seed that spawns the tortured cycle, the knowledge that Arteta could just be a few turns of a key away from unlocking something truly great. He has fought with enthusiasm and frustration – not always in that order – to reset standards and the prevailing aura around the club since his first day in charge. “We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest,” he said in one of his first interviews. “If we don’t have the right culture then the tree is going to shake.”

Towards the end of last season, it seemed as though that principle might finally be starting to bear fruit. But the trouble is, when progress is so fragile, one defeat seems able to rot away any sense of progress in an instant. Anger turns into acceptance and triumphs over positivity. Slowly, the normal and the mediocre blur until they’re almost impossible to differentiate, and you find yourself out of Europe entirely and scrapping with Aston Villa in the transfer market and mid-table.

It is the fading hope that’s most dangerous and detrimental. Every disappointment seems to drain the life and steal a small piece of the club’s spirit. Long detached from its glory days, beneath the mucky, corporate ownership of the Kroenkes, is a club that’s lost its identity in a maze of its own mistakes. And the longer the search goes on, as another transfer window meets opportunity with chaos, it only becomes harder to believe Arsenal are any closer to finding their way out.

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