01 March 2014

Stoke 1-0 Arsenal. On cue: The sky is falling, the sky is—

Honestly. Get a grip. From the reactions I was seeing to this one, our season is not all but over—it's over. We'll be lucky to hold onto the fourth place. At the rate we're going, European competition of any kind may be little more than a pipe-dream. The hyperventilation that's going on after the match might actually be louder than the fan-support during the match. Look. I know that these were three points we had counted on—assuemd—and to see them slip through our fingers in such a fashion is hard to take, even more so when Chelsea would go on to win, as would Liverpool, who vault us into second on goal-difference. With Man City now holding two games in hand, the maths do indeed look bleak. However, those have finished their calculating and lay down their pencils in despair have done so on the assumptions that (1) our rivals will not drop any points, any where, and (2) there is quite literally nothing we can do to change our fate.

O ye of little faith.

For one, assumptions one and two are both false. I don't mean to say that it will be easy or likely, but we do exert a bit of control over our destinies. With a visit from Man City and a trip to Stamford Bridge, we can still reel in those two rivals, at least a bit. City still have to travel to Old Traffod, Anfield, and Goodison Park. Chelsea have to deal with us and make a trip of their own to Anfield. Liverpool have those visits from Chelsea and Man City. In short, there's still quite a lot that can happen. We've stumbled, and there's no amount of lipstick I can put on that pig to change what it means—but from the way some of us are acting, we've already been led to slaughter. Stick a fork in us. We're done.

Of course, there's the matter of the match itself. It was winnable, but never in the bag. By contrast with other surrounding features, and given the heated emotional stakes, many of us—myself included—had presumed for various reasons that we would go on to win. Whether it was Stoke's position on the table, the ease with which we despatched Sunderland, the grim, joyless desire to smash Stoke, or other factors, we led ourselves to believe that there was no way we'd lose. This wasn't just a match to be won for the points; there was a principle at stake. We had to and would teach a lesson to Stoke and their followers that playing football the right way is its own reward, and that rugged tactics would not go unpunished. A win wouldn't just help us keep pace with our rivals at the top of the table; it would restore some sense of civility to a game, putting Stoke in their rightful place on their way to relegation, justice served for seasons of malfeasance and a moment of horror.

It was not to be. Give credit to Stoke. They're not the monsters our imaginations have made them out to be, although there is a contingent (as there is with all clubs, even Arsenal), and they outworked and outplayed us today. We didn't deserve to win, not by any stretch, but to lose in such a way was dumbfounding. Koscielny's handball merely stands out as the most-glaring error on a day when we just couldn't be bothered, apparently, to match Stoke's energy or bring any intensity to speak of. I'm going to go out on a limb and blame Arsène, whose stubborn "philosophy" of making a few subs at 70 minutes regardless of strategy or tactics left us woefully overcommitted to an attack that just wasn't generating enough chances. Lacking any pace or width with Cazorla playing on the right, we finally saw Ox come on and almost immediately change the energy and tempo with, yes, his pace and willingness to work from wide. What might he have done from the start (as I called for in this lead-in to the match), or from halftime, when it was already abundantly clear that we weren't creating many chances for ourselves?

So, three points go by the wayside. Chelsea won, which is no surprise, as did Liverpool, compounding the shock-value of a lost weekend that we had gone into hoping, blithely, that we'd come out the other side in much the same position as before, one point behind Chelsea and still in second place. To fall to third no doubt sends us for a loop, but let's not mistake the immediate gut-reaction with a long-term prognosis for what's possible. Destiny may have slipped through our fingers a bit, but we still hold it, however tenuously. Shake off the gloom. There's still some fight in us yet.