There were moans, groans and murmurs of discontent rippling around Emirates Stadium for almost the entirety of the first half on Tuesday night.
This wasn’t pretty. Arsenal's performance in eventually shaking off a typically stubborn West Ham lacked many of the hallmarks of an Arsene Wenger team of days past - and for a time it looked as if the Gunners would give up further ground in the battle for a top-four spot.
|THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
Arsenal's fixture list
||Hull City vs. Arsenal
||Arsenal vs. Newcastle|
||Arsenal vs. West Brom
||Norwich vs. Arsenal
||Arsenal vs. Hull City (FA Cup)
Yet, when all was said and done, they emerged with a precious three points and renewed vigor in their quest for Champions League football. The collective exhale when Lukas Podolski netted his second - Arsenal's third - was palpable.
Three days earlier Arsenal huffed and puffed for 120 minutes against Uwe Rosler’s Wigan as the Championship outfit held on for penalties at Wembley and this 3-1 come-from-behind victory was similarly far from routine.
And so, by full-time, we had learned very little we didn't already know about Arsenal. Once more this was a game in which Wenger’s charges did just enough to regain momentum in the race versus Everton for fourth - a race run many, many times by this collective.
More enlightening, was Wenger's post-match press conference.
Few were his declarations of defiance, absent was the fighting talk or a vocal rallying of the troops as the Gunners inch down the final stretch.
This Arsenal side - and Wenger himself - is undergoing something akin to an identity crisis.
This is a team after all, that was heavily tipped to win the title after an unexpected surge to the summit. A team that had been glazed with a 42 million pound Mesut Ozil in the summer. One that led the league from Sept. 14 to Feb. 8 with just one matchday in second place.
Since then, a December run of two points from nine followed by a hammering at the hands of Liverpool that sparked a slip down the table to fifth before kick off and we're left to witness a team that's bereft of confidence, its rhythm broken, belief shook.
Listening to the Frenchman after the match you wouldn't believe his team is on the brink of ending a nine-year trophy drought, or that they had got their noses back in front in the race for Champions League football. His talk was all about his battle to repair a fragile dressing room's confidence.
Wenger was pressed twice to make a statement of intent. Both times we were fed cautionary responses.
“We have to win our games and hope Everton slip up somewhere," he said. "Let’s focus on our job and not look too much at Everton. We can only do it if we win our games so let’s focus on that.”
The message was clear. There was no tub-thumping, nothing to put his team in the spotlight. They must hope Everton stumbles - a very real prospect with home games against both Manchester clubs coming up - and sneak into fourth. Under the radar, no harm done.
This Arsenal, after too many heavy defeats in a season where so much was expected, is a team permanently propped up on the edge of a cliff. One gust of wind too strong and they tumble.
And yet, again, Arsenal still looks more than capable of doing enough. Of snatching fourth place through experience rather, necessarily, than form as it has done numerous times in recent years.
For the club’s fans, it serves as yet another reminder that their battles are not fought at the top table. They skirmish and flirt with the real title contenders before fading and taking their seat far away from centre stage.
As painful as it must be this is their crescendo, this is what every season builds towards. Wenger described the win against West Ham as 'normal', a rare flash of arrogance in a press conference that painted a very different picture.
He is worried, tired even, that finally after so many brushes with fifth, he may have to accept his club have fallen even beyond their fourth-place benchmark.
But would fourth constitute the great success again as before? Time may well tell.
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