16 February 2013

Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn: A Bitter Pill

Theo, I wanted you on from the first minute.
I'm vexed. Fuming. I don't know what to say. For the second time in a season, we've crashed out against a team we should have rolled like an R in French 101. Instead, we've been dumped like someone's second cousin taken to prom. It started with a side notable for a number of exclusions--Sagna, Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Podoslki all started on the bench. For a man who claimed that we take the FA Cup seriously, I'm not sure I understand Wenger's intentions here. I respect Diaby, Rosicky, the Ox, Coquelin, and Gervinho, but I do not necessarily want all of them on the field to start in a match we claim that we need to win. If I'm blessed to start in a game like this, I do look around and wonder, "why am I playing instead of Walcott or Wilshere? Maybe this game is less important than Tuesday's match." I can see resting one or two regulars, but six? The message is all too clear--let's get through this match with our fingers crossed.

Rosicky in particular was an odd choice, given how rarely he's played. He's among my favorites, but he had to be a little rusty. And there's something about Gervinho; as wonderful as he apparently is for Cote D'Ivoire, he's horrid for us, evinced yet again by his howler in the 36th when he had just the keeper to beat. As it is, this all amounts to the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. We now go into a Champions League match against Bayern, not that I care. Even if we had won this match, I see progress in the Champions League as a distraction from other goals, reduced though they now may be to finishing 4th or higher in the Prem.

Blackburn came out and did exactly what we might expect an "overmatched" team to do--they parked the bus and soaked up our pressure, pressure that we ourselves released undermined by spurning chances. Yes, we took 26 shots (12 on goal) to their 6 and 3, but that's not what it seems. Sure, strategy usually dictates that a team outshoot, and thereby outscore, the opposition. Not so when the opposition's strategy is to put as many men between ball and goal as possible and hope for the occasional counter. This strategy makes all the more sense when you consider that all of the pressure is on Arsenal, and that we are not particularly well-known for knuckling down. The more time that passed, the more nervous we seemed to get, and the more nervy Blackburn got. Faced with circumstances like these, it almost seems as if a bit of reverse-pyschology might have been clever--instead of pouring forward relentlessly, trying to score through a thicket of 10 or 11 defenders, why not give the ball away a bit, letting Blackburn stretch themselves across the field, to invite ourselves on a few counter-attacks of our own? Yes, it's true--passing a ball around seven or eleven times at a stretch amasses certain statistics, but there are no trophies for time of possession.  Surely, Podolski or Cazorla or Walcott might have enjoyed and exploited a few openings left in Blackburn's back four better than Gervhinho or Coquelin?

Indeed, by the time Wilshere, Cazorla, and Walcott joined the fray, the team's nerves must have been wound tighter than Gatsby's before meeting Daisy in private. The dread that had built up over 70 minutes must have been nerve-wracking, made all the more-so by Blackburn scoring mere minutes after they came on. Now, it's been twenty-odd years since I played competitive soccer, and it was American high school soccer at that, so I know full-well that my next comment comes with that, um, context. When we would go go a goal down, I would react with grim determination, pride, and rage. I reacted as if my mother, my sister, my ethnicity, and my height (what little there is) had been insulted. Whoever had scored wasn't trying to win a soccer game; they were trying to take and destroy all that I cherished. Aside from Jack, I didn't see anything similar from this bunch. Too many--Arsene included--treat a surrendered-goal as a calamity from which recovery is impossible. Sure, there was an frenetic uptick, but, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "never mistake motion for action." Yes, we were kicking the ball and running around and bumping into people, but it lacked purpose or definition. On one hand, this marked the first period of the game when something akin to urgency could be measured. On the other, it resembled far too much the urgency of a chicken after its head is lopped off. Sadly, this must have been Blackburn's plan from the start: sit back, wait, and hope something happens. Even if we do little else but parry, eventually, Arsenal will crack under the pressure.

Yes, I know full-well that this pressure is something that you and I and all of the other Gooners out there have helped to build up. We demand and cajole and beg and condemn. For a glorious period, we were spoiled by some of the best and most-beautiful soccer around, winning accolades and trophies. Now, we have gone through a bit of a weaning, and it has been difficult. The FA Cup is gone. The Champions League is a dream. The only binky we have now is 4th place in the Prem. Let's crash out of the Champions League (with dignity) and then go after each remaining Prem game with the cold-hearted determination that each match will demand. Bayern, do with us what you will. I'm looking ahead to Aston Villa and, yes, Spurs, upon whom I hope we unleash the all of the fury that this defeat has inspired.