Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
ObjectSt in the rear view mirror it may be closer than it appears. For what feels like at least a decade now, since the early years of this interminable Premier League season, Arsenal have held their lead over Manchester City at the top of the table, keeping that celestial vessel of sporting perfection in their near autumn to spring wake. .
At the final whistle on a sultry, gloomy afternoon at the London Stadium, five Arsenal outfield players slumped in the same position, hunched over at the waist, standing, but their kidneys stricken, feeling that season-ending sickness trail.
A 2-2 draw here meant that an eight-point lead had become five points, had become four points and could still become one point. That slim-legged figure dressed in black in the rearview mirror, fists pumping, eyes bulging, has seemed distant at times. She looks back now and it’s right there, one hand pressed to the rear bumper, never slowing down.
Related: Bowen earns West Ham equalizer and hurts Arsenal’s title bid after Saka bust
How does one keep up with this engine of perfection led by Pep Guardiola, the most powerful team, the best coach, the most coherent nation-state project team ever assembled? It’s a question that no one has really been able to consistently answer over the past five years.
And yes, it will still be tempting to regard Arsenal’s failure to win this game as evidence of a fatal competitive weakness, a character flaw, a rabbit heart failure. Twice on consecutive Sundays Arsenal took a two-goal lead and simply leveled off, lost their stamina and drive and ended up hanging on like a long-legged heavyweight.
Here they were 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining against opponents in danger of relegation. They glided around the West Ham players for long stretches of the first half hour, a team running even though the air was lighter. From atop the cantilevered stands of the London Stadium the black silhouettes moved in easy, smooth, pre-sculpted patterns across that huge lime green checkerboard. The ball whizzed and sizzled. It sounded easy.
Yet, half an hour later, there was already a sense of dissipated energy, of lost patterns, snarled code. West Ham played well. They felt the relaxation of the air and rushed into it. Saïd Benrahma withdrew one from the post. It was 2-2 in the 55th minute, Jarrod Bowen scored an equalizer which, frankly, was coming.
And if one thing captured Arsenal’s entropy it was probably Martin Ødegaard’s performance. He had set up the first goal with a beautiful pass before the pass, taking the ball from Thomas Partey and facilitating the path of Ben White in a way that seemed to close the points of the day. This was the kind of pass that comes pre-loaded with its own set of instructions. a pass that says yes you’ll get the ball without breaking the stride and low hard cross for Gabriel Jesus at the back post.
Ødegaard was sublime for 20 minutes. He scored the second goal, a volley from Gabriel Martinelli’s cross. He looked like what he is, a deeply modern kind of creative footballer, with the feet of a street urchin and the brains of a top-notch architectural engineer. Even better, he is something of a rarity, a prodigy who is now becoming what he was meant to be. But he’s also 24, still in the chrysalis stage. Like Arsenal, he is close. But sometimes those distances can be deceiving.
From that moment there was a sense of change in the weather. For the second week in a row Arsenal practically stopped. Those smooth, crisp passages became tiring. Overloads dried up. Bukayo Saka misses a penalty to make it 3-1. And with a full half hour to go Ødegaard had begun to sprinkle his passages with jarring inaccuracy, missing the mark, like a program hitting a glitch.
Finally it seemed that something was passing in real time. Should we really call it suffocation? Or simply a failure to maintain sufficient closeness to perfection? Arsenal didn’t collapse, but felt the pressure behind them. And twice in one week there was a feeling that a group of players had reached their limits.
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There will be questions asked. 25 minutes from the end Mikel Arteta inserts Jorginho. Perhaps this is just what you need when you’re about to curl up in a ball under the skull-crushing pressure of successive away collapses: a clean and precise midfielder who is very good at recycling phases of possession.
But then the Arsenal bench here was a bench full of hope, not a champions’ bench. They have no proven world stars in the first XI. This is a collective that has been brought into shape, with some good young players and parts remaining. Rob Holding has been terrorized at times by Michail Antonio. The estate has many qualities. Being able to race at a speed appropriate for the championship title is not one of them. Arsenal are desperate to prepare William Saliba to face the full Imperial might of Erling Haaland. You can see why.
For Arsenal, avoiding defeat at the Etihad may still be enough on 26 April. But they’re also playing with something else on their mind, the effort to sustain that led to a strangely never-ending league season, being chased to the bitter end by the era’s most powerful club football entity. Unsurprisingly, there is some pain, some metal fatigue along the way.