Depression is defined as “Severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. A condition of mental disturbance, typically with lack of energy and difficulty in maintaining concentration or interest in life.” There is, based on this definition, an assumption—a manifestation of a prejudice of which we should all be ashamed—that depression doesn’t affect institutions, only people. Step forward Arsenal: prepare to have the prejudice rebuffed. Arsenal’s symptoms of depression are there for all to see, except because of your prejudices, you’ve probably laughed at them rather than looked to help. Shame on us all. In particular shame on you, I at least tried to do the right thing.
I’m not a medical expert but I have watched two series of House and three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy so I can point to the final proof of Arsenal’s condition. Today they’ve signed Theo Walcott up on a new, three-and-a-half-year deal. A vastly improved new deal. For Theo Walcott. This isn’t in itself a sign of depression, merely an expression of extreme, painful, horrific, poor judgement and perhaps, yes, evidence of a strictly figurative suicidal tendency, given the impact this is likely to have on results. But it’s the celebration of this new deal which has finally moved the club from ‘cause for concern’ to ‘needs help’. The vast majority of people around and involved in Arsenal are “delighted” with the new deal for Walcott and last night Arsene Wenger went as far as admitting that he had been “worried” Theo might leave. No-one asked him if he wept at the prospect of a Walcottless club, but we can assume that the answer is yes, many times.
On the degree of self-loathing required to care one way or another whether Theo ‘he’s scored the fifth goal in a 5-0 home win again,’ Walcott remains in your team dips deep into the unhealthy end of the depressive spectrum. It suggests a club which has lowered its expectations so drastically that it may soon be describing fourth place in the league as the equivalent of a trophy. To be clear: Theo Walcott is not bad at football, but he isn’t exactly good, is he? Can you put your hands in the air like you just don’t care when Van Persie signs a new contract? Yes. Fabregas? Yes. Even Nasri? Yes. But Walcott? No. Celebrating the recapturing of mediocrity like this is giving up and putting a brave face on it.
And The Walcott Contract Signing Incident—or WCSI as it is referred to in medical journals—has been made to look a lot worse because the announcement of the deal came hours after Wenger had laughed off suggestions that Arsenal might sign Edinson Cavani, a legitimately good player. It was an inferiority complex in full flow, a moment when Wenger forgot to hide the pain beneath the surface. Arsenal has begun to believe that it doesn’t deserve good players to such an extent that it cheers when it signs a Walcott and jokes at its own expense when asked about signing A Good Player. It seems no longer to respect itself and when that happens there is not much else left. I was half-sure they played in an unwashed kit in midweek.
The club has become incapable of processing positive thoughts. Jack Wilshere has been excellent since his return from injury, scoring goals, doing passes: all of the things you might expect of a footballer. And yet he couldn’t help but put himself down this week, saying the words “Steven [Gerrard] is a great role model,” and presumably meaning them too. “If I can get anywhere near as good as him…then I will be happy,” he said, unable to stop himself from spraying sharp-edged self-deprecation. Note too that he places “happiness” as something far off, yet he has already become a far better player than Gerrard ever was without achieving happiness. It’s basically a cry for help.
I don’t like watching Arsenal anymore, not like this. The misery is contagious. Every pass Aaron Ramsey has played in the last three years has had in its subtext the question “Why does it even matter?” and Laurent Koscielny has become so bored with life that he’s become aggressive, being sent off last week for a half-hearted assault on Edin Dzeko. One of Mikel Arteta’s shots suggested “I don’t even want this to go in because then I’ll have to celebrate” a couple of weeks ago. People are right to say that Arsenal don’t have a winning mentality, but it isn’t because they’re losers, or aren’t brave, it’s because the club is depressed.
These days, it looks back mournfully at what it used to be like. The former vice-chairman, David Dein, was at it yesterday, reminding fans of “what Arsene has achieved at the club,” but in doing so not actually being able to name the things he’s achieved, so painful that might be. It’s the opposite of Harry Redknapp syndrome, where listing your past achievements in great detail becomes a compulsion.
What’s the solution? Mourning the past, celebrating Theo Walcott’s existence and playing with apathy can’t go on, after all. Well, I think, in some ways, we’ve all known this for a while: it’s time for Arsenal to take a break. They can’t compete with Manchester City’s money and they haven’t the heart to pretend they really care about beating Tottenham to fourth place every year, so they should stop trying to. They should give up mid-season and try something else. Maybe they’d have better luck in Spain? Or as a table tennis team? The possibilities are out there, they just have to look, and stop playing football for a while.
Giving up gets a bad rap—it’s been stigmatized, in fact—but occasionally it really is the right thing to do. Now it’s time to try something new, something where it can find its interest in life again. Whatever this football club does after football, I’ll offer my full support.
Some brief news
Many of you will have heard this already about Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel: apparently it’s a wig.