Ordinarily I’m not a huge believer in heroic defeats. For instance, last season’s first leg win over Barcelona is widely viewed as one of our epoch making moments of the last few years. That game has come to mean very little to me. Not to be deliberately obtuse, but even on an emotional level, on the night it occurred, I wasn’t awash with emotion. That’s not to deride anybody that was you understand, but leading a game at half time did not constitute an eye watering achievement in my eyes – even if it was against a team as fine as Barcelona.
However, the game on Tuesday night had more value to it than the ultimately Pyrrhic 3-0 scoreline. It restored pride for a start, enforcing the impression that the aberration in Northern Italy three weeks ago was a horrible one off. But most importantly, it maintained the momentum we have built over recent games. Exiting the stadium on Tuesday, there were no grumbles, no dissenting voices and there was no air of negativity. I don’t think many of us harboured any real hopes that we could overturn the deficit, but wanted to see a fighting performance and a victory. In that sense, we were satisfied.
But whilst the team would do well to look to the positives to imbue the remainder of their season with purpose, the defeat should be viewed by the players and the manager in proper perspective. It’s all well and good that the supporters view the tie through the prism of glorious failure – we’re allowed to be misty eyed sentimentalists. But there is one word in that sentence that should sting any competitive sportsman. It was still a failure to a Milan side that barely holds a flicker of a candle to past incarnations.
The delicate balancing act is the response to that failure. I want the team to be hurt by it. But not that kind of mopey, doleful hurt we so often get from this Arsenal side; causing them to sob quietly in a corner and not win for eons. I want the kind of fighty, teeth clenchy hurt that Sylvester Stallone always experiences ten minutes before the end of every Rocky film. I want to see wind milling fists set against a soft rock soundtrack, followed by demented cries for spouses. In short, Arsene has to become a kind of psychological alchemist; harnessing the fight and application showed on Tuesday night, but adding just a pinch of regret to the cauldron, causing it to froth and bubble.
Perhaps a look at some of Wednesday’s patronising, sympathetic headlines might be in order. I’m uncomfortable with sympathetic press. It puts me in mind of those horror movies when the evil witch flashes a crooked smile. It unsettles you and makes you pine for her to instantly resume being a murderous, psychopathic bitch. You know where you are then. But mainly it’s unsettling because it’s pejorative, as though we have been relegated to the status of plucky minnows. I preferred it when everybody was clucking their tongues at us as we fluked our way past Villarreal.
But what the last fortnight or so has shown is that football continually confounds definitive conclusions. Arsenal are a side criticised for their lack of mental fortitude, yet have won their last three league games from losing positions – two in injury time away from home. A few weeks ago, Martin O’Neill’s arrival at Sunderland coincided with a spate of injury time winners, credited unanimously to “The O’Neill effect.” They have now dropped points in two of their last three league games to stoppage time goals. Spurs are the nation’s favourite entertainers and so called title challengers that have shipped eight in their last two matches. Football, baby. It’s bloody mental. It’s why we all keep coming back.
Meanwhile, this time last year Alex Song was criticised for having the temerity to occasionally roam away from the centre circle. I’ve touched on the modern fixation with narrow, strictly defined roles in football teams before and how better teams are always fluid. Song’s experimentation with roving forwards last year was about both building a midfield that is more fluid, making threat harder to isolate. But I think it was also about developing Song into a more complete midfield player.
Now we’re reaping the rewards as Song has 9 assists to his name this season. Stat boffins tell me he completes an average of a through ball a game – more than Modric and David Silva. Don’t get me wrong, I know his primary role is to protect, but Song’s progression is a sort of inverse to Wilshere’s, who was assigned a more defensive role last season than he has been accustomed to at youth level. Arteta too is capable of functioning in any midfield role. (He even played on the wing at Everton).
Having three midfielders that can effortlessly swap between attack, defence and errr, midfield is infinitely preferable to a Fußball table style midfield. That would be rubbish. Song frantically turning three somersaults a second as the ball rolls agonisingly past his foot and towards the goal. Is that what you want? Well? Is it? In seriousness, Song’s ability to find the runs of van Persie has been a potent weapon. Usually the deepest of the midfield trio, he tends to get more time and space to pick a pass than Ramsey or Rosicky do further up the pitch. That said, I still think the Cameroonian has a tendency to over elaborate in possession.
Key to keeping that fluidity though is keeping the personnel steady. In that respect, you have to feel sorry for the manager to some degree. Every time he comes close to achieving it and solders something of a unit together, the component parts of it flounce off. The midfield he built for the 2007-08 season of Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini and Rosicky rivals the unit of 1997-98 for my money. But just as it threatened domestic supremacy, three quarters of it disappeared to a mixture of itchy feet and fitful hamstrings. Last season, the forward unit, imaginatively dubbed Theo van Nasrigas, looked to bring the perfect blend of qualities that could likewise challenge the summit of the table. But 50% of it was wiped out at the stroke of a pen.
In closing, I’d like to draw some attention to something of a Hertfordshire double whammy next week. The Arsenal Ladies side play a crucial Champions League Quarter Final against Gothenburg at Borehamwood this Wednesday at 2.30pm. Later that evening, the Reserves return to Underhill for a fixture against West Brom. It’s the penultimate reserves home game of the season and one of the last two that will probably ever be held at Barnet’s historic old ground.
Next season’s plans for Reserve games are, as yet, unconfirmed, but there has been a motion towards behind closed doors games in recent years. It could be one of your last chances to see them and, indeed, one of your last chances to visit Barnet’s quaint 105 year old stadium. Hope to see plenty of you at one or both. Till next time. LD.
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