21 May 2013

What was Arsenal's worst loss of the season?

I hope it's not too much of a buzzkill to dredge this subject up, but I thought I might maybe sneak this in while we're still celebrating Champions League qualification, St. Totteringham's Day, and all the rest. A spoonful of sugar, perhaps. Last year, we had to deal with the 8-2 debacle at Old Trafford, a humiliating destruction that hung over us for most of the rest of the season. This year, thankfully, we never conceded more than five goals (to Reading? at least we won...) or lost by more than two. Improvements, to be sure, but more to be done. In the absence of such a shocking scoreline this year, what, then, sticks out as the worst loss, either symbolically or strategically?

At first, I was drawn to the 3-1 loss to Bayern. It was a home-loss, it all but ended our European adventure, and it was the first time a German team won in England. It echoed last year's 4-0 loss at AC Milan in many ways. However, as soon as we drew Bayern, we all but knew that it spelled our demise. After all,  Bayern had terrorized the Bundesliga and are hell-bent on winning the Champions League after falling short last year and in 2010. In fact, because we answered so famously in the second leg, the sting of that loss is all but forgotten. The long-shot nature of progressing here or beyond inure us against feeling too much lingering bitterness.

No, instead, there are two losses from the year that are going to chafe at the taint for a while, and both of them ended our best chances at actual silverware this year, extending The Drought for yet another year. By now, I'm sure you're thinking along with me: the quarter-final loss to Bradford in the Capital One Cup and the 5th round loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup. Both were embarrassing at both levels (symbolic and strategic). We lost to far-inferior teams despite fielding full-strength squads, crashing out of competitions in stunning fashion. Which one is worse, though?

At first blush, the Bradford loss stands out. We must have a dozen players who each out-earn the entire side. We sent out Szczesny, Sagna, Per, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Coquelin, Podolski, and Gervinho against a League Two club and lost. By contrast, in the previous round, we featured Martinez, Djourou, Miquel, Frimpong, Gnabry, and Chamakh and won 6-1. If we had hoped to intimidate Bradford, it seems only to have backfired. That we needed a last-gasp goal from Vermaelen to even get to extra time, much less penalties, is ridiculous (no disrespect to the Bantams). Lastly, heaping even more misery on ourselves, Chamakh and Vermaelen missed, and Cazorla had his shot saved to concede the game infamously to Bradford. Had we won, assuming that the next-round draw had remained the same, we would have faced Aston Villa and would have gone on to face Swansea in the final. Both of these would have been eminently winnable games.

Our other option is the Blackburn loss. The gap between the two of us is not nearly as considerable as it is between us and Bradford, but it's still quite large. They were relegated to the Championship this year after ten in the Prem, and they'd even won the league championship in 1995. However, this was another game we really should have won with ease. Even if we did have one eye on the Bayern match three days later, we again sent out a squad full of first-team regulars with Szczesny, Monreal, Koscielny, Vermaelen,, Diaby, Rosicky Arteta, Ox, Coquelin, Giroud, and Gervinho. The fact that we went on to lose to Bayern seems to have deflected attention away from this one somewhat as it became "just" the first of two losses in a row, and there was barely enough time to feel its sting before we had to prepare for Bayern. However, we had to go in knowing it was our best last-chance at a trophy. Had we won, all other things staying the same, we would have faced Millwall, then Wigan, and then Man City in the final. Perhaps not quite as winnable as Swansea in the Capital One final, but still well within reach.

We might have simply written off the Capital One Cup as beneath us, and even winning it might not have offered us much consolation even if it would have ended The Drought. Even if some among might sneer at the Capital One Cup, a trophy is a trophy. Winning it might have been nice, if only to get the monkey off our backs and allow us to relax just a little. It's more than a shame to have let it slip through our fingers when it could have been so easy. It should have been. We could have exacted some revenge on Swansea for the earlier 2-0 defeat. We simply underestimated Bradford and the Cup, thinking that the name "Arsenal" should be enough to win games for us. Lesson learned.

Or it should have been. Instead, we went into the Blackburn match knowing that the FA Cup was the only silverware within reach. We were 21 points behind Man U in the Prem and would have to beat Bayern, then Dortmund, Real, or Barca in the UCL. In one of my first-ever posts,  I lamented this loss bitterly. This, even more than the loss to Bradford, cut me to the quick. It seemed to slam shut a coffin-lid whereas the Bradford loss merely slammed shut a door. I'm not ashamed to admit that I wept--but it was "manly" stuff: a tear or two rolled down my cheek, jaw clenched, etc. I didn't even care how we would  do against Bayern. My mood darkened anyway, as that loss rolled into the 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane. 

However, we all know how the story unfolds. Yeah, we've gone another year without a trophy, but we finished famously. For as depressed as I got back there, I'm going to savor the celebration at the end of the season more than I'll rue the maelstrom in the middle.