Illustration by Carlos Amato
Even at the best of times, the festive-season fixture calendar in English Premier League football is a sadistic business. It's fun for the fans, of course, but no fun for the players.
Every December, like a 400-strong herd of overpaid reindeers, they must stampede back and forth across the sleet-lashed wastelands of midwinter England, playing at least four life-changing games in 10 days. En route, they get no mince pies or roast potatoes or amaretto for their troubles. Their only consolations are maybe a solitary Quality Street after training and a lonely nap in a dark hotel suite.
And by the end of this trial, they will emerge in one of three conditions: a) injured, b) fit and ready for more punishment, or c) publicly humiliated.
For one Alex Runarsson, Christmas humiliation came early.
Arsenal's Icelandic backup keeper gave Manchester City a thoughtful prezzie the other night, in the shape of a blunder of almost sublime ineptitude, slapping Riyad Mahrez's free kick gently into the roof of the Arsenal net. Even baby Jesus in his manger would have saved that shot, tiny fingers notwithstanding. For his own sake, we can only hope poor Runarsson smuggled a tupperware of roast potatoes and a half-jack of Icelandic aquavit into his biobubble later that night.
Arsenal keeper Alex Runarsson deletes Twitter account after social media abuse following Man City gaffe https://t.co/5q487gCZOh— The Sun - Arsenal (@SunArsenal) December 23, 2020
As for the Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, he needs baby Jesus. He needs Father Christmas. He needs any kind-hearted higher power who happens to be on duty during the holidays. Because never in the history of the English festive calendar has one manager's fate hung so brutally in the balance.
The issue is not merely the bathos of his team's dire campaign after his promising FA Cup victory. The issue now is survival: Arsenal are in increasing danger of being relegated from the English top flight for the first time since 1919. (Gooners of a superstitious bent may note with a grimace that 1919 was the year of the Spanish flu, the last world-convulsing pandemic.)
Should Arteta fail to extract a victory from at least one of Chelsea, Brighton or West Brom, his position would be untenable. His allies upstairs, notably Edu, the club's increasingly questionable director of football, would then need to fire Arteta in order to save their own jobs and credibility.
Because there are no longer any excuses to be made. The crisis at Arsenal has not been precipitated by a run of bad luck or a spate of injuries, as is often the case. It has been precipitated by years of boardroom-level mismanagement and months of pitch-level mediocrity.
Arsenal are now a Bad Team in every sense – lacking spirit, vision, craft, imagination and guts. And in the short term, such a comprehensive array of deficiencies serves to put just one man in the crosshairs of culpability: the coach.
But should Arteta win two of Arsenal's three games, his life will become a winter wonderland. Hosts of angels will sing him to sleep, and chocolate reindeers will fly him to the Colney training ground. And suddenly his Lego-man hair, so glossy and immobile at the worst of times, will shine a little brighter in the starlight.