Conventional wisdom dictates that Arsenal should simply have too much for Middlesbrough in tonight’s Premier League clash.
The Gunners are the far superior side man-for-man, with a vastly more lavish playing budget, better training facilities and management structure.
But, if this season has taught Arsenal fans anything, it’s that this club cares little for convention, or wisdom, for that matter. If ever there has been an opportunity to defy expectation, we have taken it, and often in spectacular fashion.
We’ve made something of an art form of the outlandishly unconventional.
Our sense-defying feats have extended to back-to-back implosions against a solid, but not spectacular, Bayern Munich team, a bizarre home defeat to Watford, and recent lamentable showings against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace.
Tonight’s trip to the Riverside is, therefore, another step into the unknown. While we can theorise and postulate about what may take place on the pitch, none of us really know what will happen until the whistle blows.
Having witnessed our recent capitulations, one would expect Middlesbrough to base their game plan along similar lines – plenty of industry, lots of harrying, and regular long balls into the gaping chasms of our defence.
It’s certainly not pretty but it is a repeatedly tried and tested way of besting Arsene Wenger’s staggeringly naïve approach to matches this season, an approach that has seen us turned over by huge margins time and again, and often in exactly the same way.
As fans, we can only hope that the players may at last have been embarrassed into pulling their fingers out for tonight. It should never have taken a mutiny to force a better performance from the team, but we are where we are and I hope a few bruised egos may serve us a wake up call.
Given how the teams above us are rumbling ever onwards and upwards, we have no choice but to come away from the North East with three points, anything else would be yet another failure, and the players know that they will likely be on the receiving end of more ire should they fail so badly again.
There can be no place for tentative, cautious starts. The Gunners must go out hard and go out to win. Any hopes of making the Champions League this season are long dead, but the players owe it to their manager, and to their long-suffering fans, to give it a damn good go between now and the end of the season. After all, it’s been a long time since we have had something to really get behind.
As to the team line-up, I don’t think it really matters at this point. Whatever Arsene has tried this season has seldom worked for more than a game or two, so further tinkering would just be cosmetic. More important than everything else is the result but we must see some conviction tonight, a bit of humility, and a little of the hunger that deserted this team back in December, as Everton overturned a single-goal deficit to consign us to a first defeat in months. It’s been all downhill since then.
Whatever has happened behind the scenes is irrelevant at this point, the players should only be focussed on the matches ahead of them. Worrying about what may or may not happen in the future has cost everyone at the club dearly in 2017 and dragging it out will only lengthen the pain. While the fans certainly can’t or won’t, the players have to move on, there can be no more dwelling on it.
Tonight, it is past time we saw a performance, and I remain hopeful that we will. Such is the damage that has been done these last few months, however, I can no longer say with any conviction that we will see one.