Something Great

Arsene Wenger cobbled together starting lineups with spit and duct tape and Denilson and somehow the team dragged its ass over the finish line in third or fourth.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's Beautiful On the Other Side/A Disturbance in the Force

Two quick points:

1) Once you've successfully abandoned all expectation for your team, it's actually kind of nice to watch a game like yesterday's match between Arsenal and Spurs. Both teams played fantastic attacking football, defense optional, and all in all, it was probably a fair result. I think Arsenal were slightly better on the day (when will Tom Huddlestone, of all people, score a goal like that again? - the answer is surely never), but it's hard to begrudge Spurs the draw, especially when Kenny Chesney had to make a series of excellent saves to keep it 3-3.

Basically, I was expecting to surrender the 3-1 lead. (And frankly, I was expecting William Gallas to head in the winner once the game was tied.) I refused to get sucked in by Manchester United's draw against Newcastle. We should all know that the league is lost, the season is over. So I'm OK with the result, and I'm able to see the dark, absurd humor in supporting a team for which no lead is EVER safe. When one's team is up 3-1 and playing well, that supporter should entertain in the back of his mind that a draw or loss is possible. He should NOT, however, fear that outcome. And he definitely should not anticipate that outcome or, as in my case, perceive it as a foregone conclusion. But that's how it is with Arsenal these days. And once you've gone that far, it's weirdly beautiful on the other side. [Note: As I was writing this, I began listening to the Footballistically Arsenal podcast from Tuesday. From his remarks, you can tell that Tom Rosenthal reached the other side during the Liverpool match, and I'm happy to join him there. He notes in the podcast that Arsenal have become a parody of themselves. He's taking sick pleasure in the sheer absurdity of the team - it's almost a perfect summary of how I felt going into the Spurs match.]

2. Is this the beginning of the end for Barca's GOAT claims? Have the Patriots found a way to stop the Greatest Show on Turf? Honestly, I was stunned at the momentum shift I perceived after Madrid won. I was expecting Barca to look unhappy, but not perturbed. Instead, the TV captured Messi looking really upset, Guardiola looking concerned, and the rest of the team looking generally devastated. Madrid, of course, were going nuts. I'm not sure we can underestimate just how big a statement was made in this game. There has been a disturbance in the force. And if I could feel it here, I'm sure Juan heard cries of anguish for miles.

Other Thoughts: Ronaldo's header was fantastic, and for the first time ever, he definitely outplayed Messi. He was the most dangerous man on the field for all 120 minutes. I had flashbacks to watching him run at English defenders in the Premier League. It's still terrifying how fast he is and just how good he is in the air. It was also perversely satisfying to hear the commentators accusing Barca of all the things they say about Arsenal: "not enough height," "no Plan B," "not enough urgency," "wasteful in front of goal," etc. I would also like to note that Arsenal (even a more talented Arsenal from 2004-2006) always had a great deal of trouble with Mourinho's Chelsea teams. He is a master at exposing those kind of flaws. Very, very interesting times ahead.

Also, I can't believe Sergio Ramos dropped the Copa del Rey under a bus. That's really all there is to say about that.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Seven Years of Famine

"Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land." Genesis 41:29-30.

Arsenal Under Arsene Wenger

97/98-04/05: Three Premier League Titles, Four FA Cups (including two Doubles and an undefeated league season).

05/06-present: Famine, starvation, rivers of blood, Mikael Silvestre, locusts, death of firstborn children, etc.

Indeed, the plenty is long forgotten. Let's take a quick season recap, shall we?

18 September 2010: After a gritty, but by no means dominant performance, Arsenal lead 1-0 from a crazy Cesc Fabregas goal. But then Rosicky spurns a chance to make it 2-0 by blasting his penalty into outer space. And in the dying seconds of injury time, a Clichy/Koscielny mix-up allows Darren Bent to equalize and prevent Arsenal from moving top of the league.

7 November 2010: Free kick to Newcastle. Fabianski comes for it, flaps wildly. Andy Carroll heads into an empty net. Newcastle line for the game: two attempts, one goal. Arsenal lose.

20 November 2010: Two excellent first-half goals by Arsenal see them lead their bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur at home. However, after the break, Tottenham score three times, including a penalty awarded when our captain foolishly raises his arm in the area to block a free kick. Spurs beat Arsenal in the league at home for the first time in, well, a really long time. Again, this loss prevents Arsenal from moving to the top of the table.

29 December 2010: After coming off the high of beating Chelsea 3-1 in the league, Arsenal respond well to an early setback against Wigan by taking the lead, 2-1. They even enjoy the benefit of a man-advantage after N’Zogbia is rightfully sent off for headbutting Wilshere. However, in the 80th minute of the game, Sebastian Squillaci heads the ball into his own net when trying to clear. The draw prevents Arsenal from going level on points with United at the top of the table. Sensing a theme here...

5 February 2011: Theo Walcott scores in the first minute of the game against Newcastle, and Arsenal romp to a 4-0 lead by halftime. But in the second half, Newcastle are awarded two penalties (one just, the other terribly unfair), and this sparks them to a 4-4 comeback, which culminates in an 87th minute wonderstrike by Tiote. Arsenal are the first team to go 4-0 up in a league game and not win it.

27 February 2011: Arsenal and Birmingham City are deadlocked at 1-1 in the Carling Cup Final. As the second half goes on and extra time beckons, it’s clear that Arsenal are in the ascendancy and that Birmingham are tiring. But in the 89th minute of regulation, an insane mix-up between Koscielny and Kenny Chesney allows Obefami Martins to tap in and win the cup for Birmingham.

8 March 2011: Arsenal go to the Camp Nou with a 2-1 lead from the first leg of their Champions League matchup against Barcelona. Barcelona are in fine form, but Arsenal defend extremely well until an uncharacteristic error by Fabregas gifts a chance to Messi right before halftime, and he takes it very well. However, Arsenal equalize from a fortunate own goal by Busquets in the second half. Soon after, though, Robin van Persie is ludicrously sent off with a second yellow for “timewasting” when he kicks a ball a split second after the referee’s whistle (in a loud, crowded stadium). Barca take advantage of the extra man and quickly score two more. Arsenal still have a chance to go through, but Bendtner fluffs his lines in front of goal. Arsenal go out of the Champions League, losing 4-3 on aggregate.

12 March 2011: Arsenal dominate possession and chances at Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarterfinal against Manchester United. Fergie puts out a team with seven defenders, though, and Arsenal can’t make the breakthrough. Fabio and Rooney, on the other hand, make the most of their chances. Arsenal go out of the FA Cup, losing 2-0.

17 April 2011: After several lackluster draws, Arsenal have one last chance to put pressure on United at the top of the table. After dominating possession and chances all game (and benefiting from unfortunate injuries to key Liverpool players), they are still unable to make a breakthrough... until Fabregas wins a penalty in the 7th minute of stoppage time and van Persie coolly slots it home. The revitalized title challenge lasts exactly two minutes, however, as Arsenal surrender a free kick on the edge of the area, and then Eboue gives away an insanely sloppy (and rather dubious) penalty when Lucas dives under his body. Kuyt scores in the 102nd minute of regulation (!) with literally the last kick of the game, thus ending any Arsenal hope of winning the league.

Has there ever been a season quite like this? I know that Arsenal in spring has become a freak show that everyone else can enjoy over the past few seasons. But we are reaching new lows here, people. This entire season has been one gut punch after another. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, the football gods take a familiar, painful plotline, and give it just enough of a twist to make it hurt all over again. For instance, today’s match was reminiscent of the Champions League match against Liverpool from several years ago. That one really hurt - in fact, it might be the most crushing soccer loss I've experienced. But I thought I was over it. Well, this one reopened that wound and then twisted the knife for good measure. As another example, the 4-4 against Newcastle reminded me of the 4-4 against Spurs from three years ago (and to a lesser extent, the 4-4 against Liverpool, which was more bittersweet). But at least the goals were more back and forth in that one. This season, we rolled over and let in four straight without any resistance. (And at least we didn’t LOSE that 4-4 to Spurs... this year, they came back and beat us. I’m telling you, new lows.)

As Juan succinctly put it, “the kind of bad luck that happens to United over the course of twenty years gets consolidated into a season for us.” Why is that? My personal theory is that Arsene Wenger made a deal with Satan for the Invincibles. That team had too much swagger NOT to be aided by dark, supernatural forces. If only Arsene had known that this was how the devil would collect his due: six years without a trophy and some of the most freakish, gutting losses that any team has ever experienced... consolidated into the span of a few seasons (or even just one).

What more has to happen for this terrible saga to come to an end? What new levels of losing (to quote the irritating but often on-point Bill Simmons) will the football gods find for Arsenal in the remainder of this awful season? Right now, I’m envisioning a 5-4 loss to Tottenham midweek, in which we go up 4 nil and then manage to lose. William Gallas will score the winning goal. And then maybe Manchester United clinching the title (is that mathematically possible? Seems like it...) with a 5-0 beatdown at the Emirates, thus exacting revenge for 2002. Patrice Evra and Nani will score at least one each. Rooney will pick up the ball in his own penalty area, run the length of the field, nutmegging Fabregas, sidestepping Nasri, twirling beyond Djourou, and then lobbing Chesney with an inch-perfect chip. It will be the greatest goal ever scored in the Premier League, and people will talk about it for a century.

Frankly, if that’s what it takes to make this voodoo madness stop, then I can deal with it. But according to the Biblical prophecy (see above), we have at least one more season to go. For next year, I'm predicting a fourth place finish behind, wait for it... Spurs. After that, maybe there will be a return to normalcy. No more clumsy or freakish errors that come at the most inopportune moments. No more horrible refereeing decisions that go against us at crucial times (yes, yes, I know they're supposed to even out over the course of the season, but ask any Arsenal or Chelsea fan if they feel that the universe hasn't quite made up for some of the calls/no-calls of the past few years). And if Arsene is still around (and I pray that he is because for all his flaws, he's a fascinating, intelligent person and an amazing manager), I firmly believe I will see him lift another trophy with Arsenal. He and Captain Jack Wilshere.

In the meantime, Juan and I will be watching Boca Juniors and the Seattle Sounders. Because you just can't fight that Biblical ish. And because it’s easier when you just don’t give a damn.