The Guardian: LONDON, England, By Barney Roney – Objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they seem. For what feels like at least a decade now, from way back in the early years of this endless Premier League season, Arsenal have maintained their lead over Manchester City at the top of the table, keeping that sky blue vessel of sporting perfection in the near slipstream all the way from autumn into spring.
At the final whistle on a muggy, sullen afternoon at the London Stadium five of Arsenal’s outfield players slumped into the same position, bent at the waist, staying on their feet, but kidney-punched, feeling that wash of late-season nausea.
A 2-2 draw here meant that an eight-point lead had become six points, had become four points and might yet become one point. That black-clad skinny-legged figure in the rear-view mirror, fists pumping, eyes bulging, has seemed distant at times. Glance back now and he’s right there, a single hand clamped down on the rear bumper, never breaking stride.
How do you stay ahead of this Pep Guardiola-led engine of perfection, the most powerful squad, the greatest manager, the most coherent nation-state project team ever assembled? It is a question no one has really managed to answer consistently over the past five years.
And yes, it will still be tempting to cast Arsenal’s failure to win this game as evidence of some fatal competitive weakness, a character flaw, a rabbit-hearted collapse. Twice in successive Sundays Arsenal have taken a two-goal lead and simply plateaued, lost their vim and drive, and ended up holding on like a leggy heavyweight.
They were 2-0 up here with 10 minutes gone against relegation-menaced opponents. They glided around West Ham’s players for long stretches of the opening half-hour, a team running though lighter air. From high in the London Stadium’s cantilevered stands the black shapes moved in easy, smooth, pre-grooved patterns across that huge lime-green chequerboard. The ball zipped and fizzed. It looked easy.
And yet with half an hour gone there was already a sense of dissipated energy, of patterns lost, code snarled. West Ham played well.
They felt that relax of air and swarmed forward into it. Saïd Benrahma pulled one back from the spot. It was 2-2 on 54 minutes, Jarrod Bowen scoring an equaliser that had, frankly, been coming.
And if any single element captured Arsenal’s entropy it was probably the performance of Martin Ødegaard. He had made the opening goal with a beautiful pass before the pass, taking the ball from Thomas Partey and easing it into the path of Ben White in a way that seemed to pull the stitches of the day together. This was the kind of pass that comes pre-loaded with its own set of instructions. a pass that says yes, you will take the ball without breaking stride and cross low and hard for Gabriel Jesus at the back post.
Ødegaard was sublime for 20 minutes. He scored the second goal, volleying in Gabriel Martinelli’s cross. He looked like what he is, a deeply modern kind of creative footballer, with the feet of a street scamp and the brain of a high-end architectural engineer. Even better, he is something rare, a prodigy who is now becoming the thing he was supposed to be. But he is also 24, still in the chrysalis stage. Like Arsenal, he’s close. But sometimes those distances can be deceptive.
Mikel Arteta made changes late on but nothing worked as Arsenal drew 2-2 at West Ham – Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
From that point there was a sense of shifting weather. For the second successive week Arsenal basically stopped. Those slick, fizzed passes became laboured. The overloads dried up. Bukayo Saka missed a penalty to make it 3-1. And with a full half an hour to go Ødegaard had begun to spray his passes around with a jarring inaccuracy, missing his mark, like a programme hitting a glitch.
By the end this felt like something passing in real time. Should we really call it a choke? Or simply a failure to maintain sufficient proximity to perfection? Arsenal have not collapsed, but they have felt the pressure at their back. And twice in a week now there has been a sense of a group of players reaching its limits.
There will be questions asked. With 25 minutes to go Mikel Arteta sent on Jorginho. Perhaps this is just what you need when you’re in the process of curling into a ball under the skull-crushing pressure of successive collapses away from home: a neat, accurate midfielder who is very good at recycling phases of possession.
But then the Arsenal bench here was a hopeful bench, not a champion bench. They do not have proven world stars in the first XI.
This is a collective that has been drilled into shape, with some fine young players and leftover parts. Rob Holding was terrorised at times by Michail Antonio. Holding has many qualities. Being able to run at a league-title-appropriate speed is not one of them. Arsenal are desperate to get William Saliba ready to face the full imperial might of Erling Haaland. You can see why.
For Arsenal, avoiding defeat at the Etihad might still be enough on April 26. But they are also playing with something else in their heads, the strain of sustaining that lead over a weirdly endless league season, of being chased to the end by the most powerfully resourced club football entity of the age. It is hardly surprising there should be a little pain, a little metal fatigue along the way.
Top Feature Photo: ‘A huge mistake’: Arteta admits Arsenal took their eye off the ball at West Ham – video