13 April 2014

There's just no pleasing some people, is there?

Despite a thorough-going, dominant performance, Arsenal eked out a nail-biting, skin of the teeth "victory" on penalties that puts them through to the final. It's a win in name only, as Wigan, the decided underdogs, fought bravely and answered nearly every question put to them by Arsenal, forcing their fancier, better-financed foes to confront if not quite answer long-standing questions about their own suitability and aspirations. As it stands, it's hard to suggest that the better side won, on this night or on the whole, as the grit, effort, and organization Wigan displayed was often more than a match for the supposed elan, price-tag, or desperation of Arsenal.

Or as so many of the headlines would have you believe. Heck, as so many of the tweets from Gooners would have you believe. By the time the first half had come to a close, the defiant, inspired desire I had seen from so many Gooners had faded, replaced by embittered, cynical defeatism. The prevailing mood seemed to fall into one of three basic categories, each of which overlapped the other two while vying for supremacy. I'm not going to bother dredging up the tweets themselves; I have neither the time nor the stomach. Trust me, then, when I offer this summary:
  1. Typical, typical Arsenal. We're going to lose to a Championship club.
  2. How can this be happening? It's going to penalties, and we're going to lose to a Championship club.
  3. Why the fudge is Sanogo playing? We should have signed a striker. Oh, Giroud sucks as well.
We could probaby divvy up into other categories, slicing and dicing and ending up with a few other categories as well, but they all boil down to the same basic premise: we have no business having won the semifinal. Its corollary is all but written already: we'll lose to whoever we face in the final, be it Hull or Sheffield United, just because. It would have been better for us to have lost in the quarterfinal or, better yet, to Tottenham in the third round, all the better to (a) dash our hopes before they got too high to sustain and (b) prove once and for all that this squad and this manager should be summarily sacked and replaced with those with the quality and price tag befitting our dreams.

Of course, when Wigan went up 1-0, thanks to a rash foul from Mertesacker in the box and a coolly-slotted spot-kick from Jordi Gomez, the despair went off the charts. Fan-confidence collapsed, and the excrement hurled at all Gunners, various and sundry, could have filled more than a few Wembleys if we had the shovels to collect it. Never mind how it came against the run of play. Forget that Wigan beat City, at the Etihad, for crissakes. All that matters to some is that the match to that point proved their own perverse mindsets right: the entire squad is piss-poor, and the manager should be sacked. Post-haste. To some, sadly, losing would lend further evidence to these spiteful intentions, and winning would blow up in their faces, forcing them, as it were, to put up with yet another season, if not three, of inept management and craven capitulation.

They'll overlook, as is their wont, the fact that we dominated this match, whistle to whistle. It seemed for long stretches as if Wigan, despite their reputation, were willing to sit back and defend. There was little of the pressing up the pitch we were so worried about. A few stats that resulted:
  • shots: Wigan 9, Arsenal 27
  • shots on target: Wigan 2, Arsenal 9
  • woodwork struck: Wigan 0, Arsenal 2
  • possession: Wigan 38%, Arsenal 62%
  • passes completed: Wigan 458, Arsenal 753
  • key passes: Wigan 6, Arsenal 19
  • clearances: Wigan 54, Arsenal 31
  • set-pieces: Wigan 1, Arsenal 12
  • aerial duels won: Wigan 17, Arsenal 27
Of course, the only stat that really ever matters in the end is the scoreline, but even by those numbers, the grumblers will have their day. After all, regular time and extra time both ended 1-1. Perfect. We've played right into their hands. Now it goes to penalties, and it'll be Bradford all over again. Arsenal have never won on penalties. Fabianski has never saved a penalty. Cue the "Wenger out" tweets, as well as the "[insert player of your choice here] is terrible" tweets as well. Take your pick. Monreal. Arteta. Giroud (not even on the pitch for most of it). Sanogo. Podolski. Vermaelen. Cazorla. Few would be spared, because so few, apparently deserve the sacred right of playing for Arsenal. 

When Fabianski went out and saved not one, but two of the penalties, the delirium was intoxicating, but a fair few still wallowed. "We'll botch it," they'd grumble. "Look who our shooters are. Arteta?  Källström? Fabianski's simply delayed the inevitable. Besides, he's gone in the summer, so who cares?" It's a sickness, and the only cure for them seems to be abject defeat so as to purge the bile that has built up since 2005. The sickness is some form of Wengeritis; the mere presence of this manager on the sideline seems to have inspired a derangement that leaves too many bereft of the ability to hope for anything other than his sacking. Each loss offers more evidence to that conclusion; each victory is to be ignored or explained away. Mention injuries or oil-money and receive a sad clucking of the tongue or a furious tongue-lashing as how ignorant or deluded you are.

Well, if that's how they're going to have it, fine. Let the baby have its bottle, I say. We're through to the final. We're one step closer to achieving something we've waited all too long for, and there's one more step, one more club between us and some glory. Those who belittle Wigan may not understand how football works. The Latics didn't get here through luck. They didn't get relegated because they're terrible. The Prem is a tough nut crack, and we've seen how often the apparently inferior clubs have bested their so-called betters. The idea that a Championship side should ipso facto lose to a Prem side is, prima facie, laughable. It happens often enough to warrant not one, but two tournaments each year. If the FA Cup (or league cup, while we're at it) were the sole concerns of Prem clubs, well, then, we might as well stop including the Championship, League One, League Two, and on down the line. Part of what makes it glorious (in my opinion) is the notion, however far-fetched, that any club can win it, even if a Prem club wins it 97% of the time. While we're at it, the difference between Wigan and the bottom five or six or eight clubs currently in the Prem is not that large. I won't even backhand the compliment to them by saying they won any moral victories or suggesting that they're plucky or punching above their weight. They had a game-plan, they took it to us, and they'll feel hard done-by to be out. 

That said, we won. We left it later than many would like, but that's football. It might have been nice for us to have won in a rout, but things are rarely that easy. I just hope that those who struggled to support the club can find a few moments to enjoy it. Whether we win the FA Cup itself or not, the questions and the brickbats can wait until 18 May. We have a trophy to play for, so savor the possibility! We've come through a lot in the last few months, not to mention years, but an end to the misery and the waiting is within reach. We have a date with destiny—17 May—and I pray fervently that we make good on that day!

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