When The Wheels Fell Off Arsenal’s Beach Buggy
The seventh and eighth episodes of Amazon Video’s The Grand Tour, essentially an independent reboot of BBC’s Top Gear despite the original show still chugging along, involve a journey across Namibia in customized beach buggies. In their coastal coupes, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond set off down the Skeleton Coast and toward a beach on the Kunene River that sits on the country’s border with Angola a thousand miles away. The trip is grueling and the conditions are harsh. The presenters must navigate deserts, sleep under their cars for warmth to pass bone-chilling nights, race to safety after being pinned between insurmountable sand dunes and an incoming tide, travel down an unforgivingly bumpy road, and cross a crocodile-infested river.
If you know anything about cars, you likely know that beach buggies aren’t really meant for cross-country odysseys. That remained the case here. From the outset, it was clear that even the boys’ professionally modified buggies could not cope with what was being asked of them. Problems manifested quickly. James’ buggy lacks the power to comfortably ascend sand dunes. Jeremy’s throttle jams open and his engine ends up overheating constantly. Richard’s vehicle, modified the most for off-roading, gets stuck 200 meters from the finish line. The buggies were simply not up to the challenge.
The performance of Arsenal’s squad this season is somewhat reminiscent of “The Beach (Buggy) Boys”. The task of competing for a Europa League place that lay ahead in August seemed a rather straightforward assignment for a squad boasting the likes of Gabriel, Kierney Tierney, Thomas Partey, and Bukayo Saka. With the arrival of former Real Madrid wonderkid Martin Odegaard and a few other reinforcements, finishing in the top six appeared akin to a jaunt down an untamed coastline.
But then things changed. Manchester United, who had threatened to challenge for the title, pathetically withered away. Spurs floundered under the steering of Nuno Espirito Santo. In the meantime, Arsenal sped past expectations. Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, and Takehiro Tomiyasu all announced themselves as clear upgrades at their positions. After a few sputters to start the season, Mikel Arteta’s modified team roared to life. And thus, a new path presented itself: a road to a top-four finish.
For months, Arsenal pressed on, weathering the harsh conditions on the highway to the Champions League. Cruising along, they overcame challenges like the first North London Derby of the season, Leicester, Wolves, and Aston Villa. But players broke down from time to time. Partey missed the first few matches of the season with an ankle issue. Tierney too suffered from wear and tear in that area. Tomiyasu’s calf wore out late in January, keeping the Japanese defender sidelined for almost three months.
Unfortunately, Arsenal didn’t find any refurbishments they liked in the January transfer window. Additionally, they shed plenty of weight, emptying the boot of players such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers. As a result, they trundled into the final quarter of the season with a small group of players feeling the effects of overuse and burnout. After a long road that saw the vehicle of Arsenal’s ambition face inconsistent referees, insurmountable obstacles in Manchester City and Liverpool, a barrage of rather undeserved media scrutiny at times, and the generally draining rigor of the Premier League, the team’s most important pieces became inoperable. Tierney’s knee blew out, ending his season. Partey’s thigh was damaged, also preventing him from carrying on for the duration of the campaign.
However, the roster contained enough spare parts to make do for a while. Cedric temporarily patched things up in Tomiyasu’s place. Rob Holding served as a fix at center-back. Mohamed Elneny functioned as a cheap replacement for Partey. Eddie Nketiah glued the attack back together when using Alexandre Lacazette stopped working.
But as has been the case previously, the backups were never meant to serve as long-term substitutions for their more high-quality counterparts. Relying on the makeshift mechanism they helped form was always going to be a terrifying proposition. So of course it wasn’t too surprising when, in the absence of Partey the midfield engine and Tierney the quiet stabilizer of the defense, a totaled Arsenal spun out of control, faltering in three consecutive matches against Crystal Palace, Brighton, and Southampton.
In the meantime, Spurs had undergone some improvements in the shop. They had brought in Antonio Conte to take the wheel, and added in Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur to help provide a boost. The result, regrettably, was a streamlined, well-oiled machine. Harry Kane and Heung-min Son were firing on all cylinders and propelling Tottenham forward at breakneck speed.
Astonishingly, Arteta’s men got back on track against Chelsea of all teams. They then secured subsequent victories against Manchester United, West Ham, and Leeds. Tomiyasu returned, albeit requiring a couple matches to warm up. The road remained vicious, but the Gunners kept rolling. Unfortunately, however, they would soon be forced into a screeching halt.
In the end, Arsenal were running on fumes by the time they entered the second North London Derby of the season. White had now gone down with an injury as well. They had been forced into so many personnel changes, the starting XI looked like it had been in a chop shop. Spurs, in better form with fewer injuries, rammed them with a 3-0 victory, almost forcing Arsenal off the road to the highest competition in Europe.
Still, the finish line was in sight. Arteta’s men just needed to hold it together and make it through the last couple turns. But ultimately, Newcastle turned out to be something of a hairpin. Bruno Guimaraes and company proved a challenge too many for a smoldering Arsenal, pressing the Gunners’ rather immobile midfield, winning almost every duel, and getting the better of a back four all on the cusp of blowing out a leg muscle.. As the Magpies dominated their way to a 2-0 win, the wheels finally came off.
In the end, this Arsenal side weren’t equipped for the voyage. The final leg of the road they chose to take was too much for a frankly rickety squad of inexperienced young stars and middling reserve players to traverse. In fairness, the manager at times refrained from performing maintenance that could have squeezed a bit more mileage out of this roster. The primary examples of this is not rotating the important players more often. But nevertheless, the gaffer managed a fairly impressive drive throughout the season, even if he seems unhappy with it at this juncture.
Now it is on Arteta, Edu, and the Kroenkes to take their wrecked Arsenal buggy into the shop and get to work. If they wish to conquer the course that bested them this season, they’ll need clear upgrades in attack, an improved piece or two in midfield, and perhaps even some reinforcing of the defense. When August rolls around, Arsenal must have been transformed into the ultimate all-purpose vehicle. And then we’ll all set out on the road with them again.
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