Monday, 24 March 2014

Wouldn't you expect Arsenal to lose to Chelsea?

In Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, the titular character’s personal shortcoming is one of a weak heart, falling for Dora, rather than the more suitable Agnes. I’ve now saved you reading 700 pages of Dickens’ awful prose but more importantly, Copperfield’s shortcomings are similar to those of Arsenal fans: always believing the grass would be greener on the other side, always wanting the allure of something new regardless of how it might go wrong, turning down sensible Agnes for beautiful Dora.

The aftermath of any Arsenal defeat these days is usually characterised by the return of an abundance of people calling for Arsene Wenger to be sacked, talking about how he is past his sell-by date etc etc etc. It’s boring, I’m not going to recant it all. There’s two odd things about this: generally this season Arsenal have been very good; the odd defeat, such at the one to Stoke is what makes football exciting. If the favourites always won it would be exceptionally boring.

But the second is that the response to other defeats – particularly the games away to Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea – have been followed by an outcry about the results. It’s very odd to me: before the match, people usually concede these teams are better than Arsenal and predict a defeat. When defeat follows, there is then a huge display of faux-shock of ‘how could this possibly happen’ despite it being predicted by most people.

People depicting all these games as being exactly the same and this season as being “same old, same old” need to open their eyes. Arsenal have been far more consistent this season. They’re in the semi-final of the FA Cup and there is still a chance they will win the League. Do they have the best squad in the League? No. Do they have the second-best? No. Do they have the third best? Yeah, probably. Where do I expect Arsenal to finish? Third. It’s almost like they’re performing about to the standard I’d expect.

But I’d still be wary of taking the three away shellackings as being evidence of tactical negligence. Simply because all three ended in heavy defeats does not mean they should be conflated into one. At City, while I might have set up more cautiously, Arsenal could easily have won the game, and this despite an injury to their best defender mid-game. At Liverpool, the opposition performance was the finest 20 minute spell any team has produced in the Premier League all season. There’s a peculiar insistence among Arsenal fans that the opposition can never just be better. When Arsenal were terrific against Napoli, they rightly received much praise. Similarly, another very good football team can sometimes be excellent against Arsenal. It’s why they’re good, and it’s more than likely to happen on their home ground with their supporters cheering them on. This isn’t some massive conspiracy theory: it’s how football generally works. It’s why cup ties played over one leg can often see surprising results when a bigger team plays away to a smaller team.

And against Chelsea, it’s also hard to see that tactical negligence was to blame, so much as individual errors. Even at 2-0 down, Arsenal had already a brilliant chance in a game that looked very open. It was not inexplicable that they could get back into the game. I’m not entirely sure what Arsene Wenger was supposed to do to stop Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suddenly deciding he was a goalkeeper. Intuitively, it seems unlikely to me that he was told before the match to do that. When footballers do stupid things, blaming the manager seems an odd response.

Like other Gooners, I’m very disappointed. It’s obviously very embarrassing to lose 6-0. But the rational part of me says it’s difficult to blame the tactics when you play with ten men for 75 minutes away from home against a better team. Perhaps the bigger reason for a downturn in form has been the loss of Walcott, Ramsey, and Ozil, three of Arsenal’s very best players. Having them in the team might well have led to a better result on Saturday and better results in the last few weeks. Of course Podolski isn’t brilliant: but tell me who should play instead. Everybody complains we have too many wide players; it’s a shame that so many are injured.

I’d love Arsenal to win more of these big games. In particular, the two matches against Man United were a huge let-down. But in general, I just think Arsenal are still about the third-best team in the League. All the people criticising the transfer policy seem to think that Arsenal didn’t try and sign a striker or holding midfielder last summer: they did. They bid more than three times their previous transfer record for Suarez. Given the comparative success Arsenal have had this season, the argument that it would have been worth signing another striker of Giroud’s caliber for circa £15 million and £12 million wages over four years is odd. I’m struggling to see where that would have brought more success, even if such a player existed.

Nobody predicted Arsenal would win the League this season; not having to battle it out for fourth place is a welcome improvement on the last two seasons. The team can improve this summer and come back fighting next season: Arsenal are no longer a selling club and there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

Another of Dickens’ novels opens with the famous line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I’m happy to predict the best of times are returning to the Emirates pretty soon.

Keep the faith.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"It’s very odd to me: before the match, people usually concede these teams are better than Arsenal and predict a defeat. When defeat follows, there is then a huge display of faux-shock of ‘how could this possibly happen’ despite it being predicted by most people."

I agree with your sentiment that some people lose their sh*t at EVERY lost point, but I very much doubt even the most pessimistic or realistic (depending on your viewpoint) of Arsenal fans would have conceded that Arsenal may lose 6-3, 5-1 and 6-0 to the aforementioned Clubs. Yes, losing to Chelsea and City is almost acceptable if a tight game. Liverpool, not so much. But to be absolutely annihilated by these Clubs, well fans are well within their rights to deplore such abject displays from the players that represent the Club.

We can't expect to go undefeated in a season again, it just isn't a realistic attitude to have but at no level should letting in 17 goals in 3 games against rivals be accepted or excused even by the most ardent of fans.