That’s it then. Arsenal have officially turned the corner. In the same way that Eduardo’s injury, Stuart Parnaby’s dive and William Gallas’s teary outburst reflected the collapse of their 2007-08 title challenge, so Ramsey’s injury, Danny Pugh’s waving arms and Cesc Fabregas’s penalty will reflect Arsenal’s glorious rampage to the title. Yet despite the significance of the result in terms of getting Arsenal back into the title race, is there really enough to suggest that Arsenal have turned the corner, other than the obvious historical overtones to the result?
On the surface, it certainly seems that they have. As Aaron Ramsey was carried off the field, it seemed that Arsenal’s title hopes were being carried away with him – not as such due to the Welshman’s impact on the pitch, but to the effect that seeing another broken leg would have on this ‘notoriously brittle’ Arsenal team, who were obviously going to collapse in a heap against a physical Stoke side, at the Britannia where they never lose, in a decade in which they had never lost: the ghost of St Andrews was rearing its head in an eerily similar way… but this time Arsenal didn’t crack. Instead of collapsing as the game meandered along, they dusted themselves down and went for Stoke head on, tackle for tackle in what was surely a must win game. As the clock ticked over 90, just before Stoke cleared it upfield and Sol Campbell gave away a stupid last minute penalty… Danny Pugh stuck out his paws and the penalty was given… to Arsenal. Cesc Fabregas was never going to miss, and he didn’t – low, in the corner, Arsenal take the lead. As Thomas Vermaelan tapped in a third, Arsenal fans and players, instead of smiling and cheering, were growling and shouting – scars had been healed, surely now was the time for Arsenal to grow a pair… and they did. It is understandable for fans and players to be swept along the narrative saying ‘This was the game where Arsenal grew up’.
Understandable, but premature. Whilst the mental effects of Ramsey’s injury were damaging for Arsenal, surely they were also damaging for Stoke – it can be argued that while Arsenal’s players had lessons to learn from previous, similar episodes (like the aforementioned events at St Andrews), Stoke would be inexperienced at having to recover from seeing such a serious injury in such an important game. Moreover, while Arsenal could pass the ball around as they recovered from those events, Stoke had to chase – Stoke’s ten men had to chase down Arsenal’s shadows, no doubt fearful of a similar tackle causing a similar injury. As many of Stoke’s chief threats: energy, physicality and the crowd were all drained from them, Arsenal could pass around them with impunity – and even doing that they struggled to break down Stoke’s determined rearguard. In the same way that Arsenal dominated That Game At St Andrews after Taylor’s dismissal – McFadden’s goals both came completely against the run of play – so they dominated this time, only with arguably less incisiveness. While Theo Walcott’s magnificent performance, the refereeing howler and Arsenal’s largely remarkable composure at St Andrews has been overshadowed by the narrative history, so it may be that Arsenal’s inability to create chances against 10 men, and Stoke’s remarkable ability to organise themselves a man down will be forgotten if Arsenal go on to win the league.
Whilst it is tempting to conclude that Arsenal’s result at the Britannia was a sign of a New, Mature Arsenal, it would be wrong, as ultimately the only difference between now and That Game At St Andrews is that while a dodgy penalty decision went against Arsenal on that day, a fortunate one went for them on Saturday. In the same way that the Lion in the Wizard of Oz had courage all along, so Arsenal’s cubs were always as courageous as they are now. A subsequent league triumph would be down to a consistently good campaign waged by an already spirited team, rather than a corner being turned at the Britannia.