Send in the clowns

Watching Arsenal in the Champions League is a maddening, almost hallucinogenic experience. When you wrench your knuckles free from your teeth and remove the caps lock, it’s almost amusing. If you support any team other than Arsenal, there is surely no ‘almost’ about it. That a group of demonstratively capable athletes and coach, operating at the highest level of their profession, are able to raise the bar for calamity so often is more than comedy. It is a work of performance art. What is even more incredible, is that the malleable cast of actors in this annual theatre does nothing to dilute the thirst for self-destruction.

Witness David Ospina throw a custard pie into his own face. Gasp as Kieran Gibbs manages to fall asleep walking the tightrope, tumbling helplessly to earth as he wakes from his slumber and loses his bearings. Watch in amazement as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s unicycle is derailed by a rogue banana skin. I am convinced that Anderlecht’s unlikely equaliser at the Emirates last October was scored by the bearded lady. All the while, Steve Bould danced mournfully on the touchline whilst Arsene Wenger ground his organ. When the Champions League comes to the Emirates, perhaps it is time to discard the shrill, operatic call to arms that is the Champions League anthem. Maybe it’s time it was replaced by circus music.

Every act of defensive knife chucking gone awry could be punctuated with the diegetic “wa, wa, waaaa” of a trumpet. And do you know what? Perhaps we should applaud Arsenal for their commitment to slapstick- especially in the confines of a soulless competition made eye rollingly predictable by cash. Arsene is often accused of being a romantic (the joy has been wrung from football to the extent that to be romantic is an accusation), maybe his latest project is to make the Champions League remarkable again. When it comes to entertainment in the competition, Arsenal are the flower growing from the pot of dirt. It’s a flower fixed to Arsenal’s lapel that squirts water under the slightest pressure.

It could be that Arsenal are just testing our faith, as a fan base. Those spoiled souls amongst us that have disapprovingly poked caviar around our plates with a fork and complained of ‘Champions League fatigue’  are having the authenticity of our apathy tested. The Gunners are climbing into a straitjacket and tossing themselves into the ocean for our entertainment. “Now we’ll see if they care!” says a smiling Wenger as the final strap is fastened. Arsenal are reigniting suspense and comedy in a competition that has become so carefully scripted that crowd noise could be replaced by canned laughter.

If self-harm is appealing, then Arsenal are the nation’s sweethearts. How could anyone deny their status as the continent’s entertainers? We are Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe. Don’t hate us for our frailties, cherish us for them. Don’t mock us, applaud us. Arsenal produce performance art of which no other club in the competition is capable. We are the chaaaaaaaaaampiooooooooons of self-destruction. We are Homer Simpson taking cannon ball after cannon ball to the gut. You want to cuddle us, clutch us to your bosom and look after us and tell us everything will be alright. But you can’t because you don’t want to lie to us.

Arsenal’s commitment to the absurd, (and sometimes, with the right set of eyes, our defensive setup from setpieces looks like a piece of installation art) produces a kind of mania in us, the supporters too. I scanned my twitter feed on the train home from the Olympiacos performance (and performance really is the best word for it) and immediately saw 6-7 theories for the team’s European Cup malaise, which, by now, stretches back many years. Somebody asked me whether the installation of Santi Cazorla as captain was in some way responsible for the latest episode of Cirque du Arsenal.

I initially rebuked the man’s theory, but fuck it? Why not? Because the proliferation of theories put forward for Arsenal’s acts of European self-mutilation just serve to demonstrate the extent to which none of us have a clue why this keeps happening. I know that I don’t. The team are perfectly capable of shooting themselves in the foot domestically. But there can be no doubt that Arsenal save their headline acts for the Champions League, where the hilarity is condensed into linear episodes. It’s like watching an HBO boxset. You’re guaranteed action in every episode. In most seasons, the cliff hanger doesn’t appear until episode 7-8, but this season, Arsenal seem determined to fast forward the suspense.

In Petr Cech, they’ve even taken the bold move of killing off the main character early on in the series. It could be that they are anticipating fewer episodes this season and feel a responsibility to bring the tragi-comedy forward. That nobody has a firm grip on why this is happening- manager and players included- makes it a playground for the imagination for the armchair analyst. Any theory goes (except for “I don’t know,” that’s an instant disqualification). So I’m actually attracted to the theory that a small Spaniard wearing a piece of cloth is in some way responsible. The mystery of Arsenal’s Champions League oddity is a free pass, take it with relish and have some imagination, I say.

Ordinarily, when Arsenal lose, we will identify a pre-existing bias and fly it from a mast as “the reason.” If you are pissed about transfers, transfers will be the reason for every defeat, every goal conceded. If you hate the manager, a new manager is always the answer. If you really lack originality, you might nod sagely and say that it’s down to “tactics” or “mentality” or some other grandiose, nebulous term and you’ll hope against hope that nobody will ask you to expand on it. But that is a waste of imagination. None of us actually know, so let us don tinfoil hats and speculate wildly. Arsenal in Europe is a performance art of the absurd, so let us enter this entente in that spirit.

Arsenal, seemingly resolved that they can never actually win the Champions League, have moved in a brave new direction. Like all good artists, they have challenged their fans with edgy new material as they seek to redefine a tired genre. They are the KLF setting light to their fortune and in doing so, sealing their legacy as daring artistes. They’ve handed Ringo the microphone, they’ve gone to Newport folk festival with an electric guitar strapped around their shoulders. Olympiacos was their Kid A, the approach is taking time to germinate, but history will judge it favourably. You. Loooooooove. Uuuuuussssss! You Love Us!

The craziest thing of all is that I still believe that Arsenal will complete this act of escapology and qualify from the group, disarming the bomb as the clock counts down to the final 5 seconds. Is this because I am mad? Or because I am fully cognisant of the madness of the situation? I haven’t decided and do you know what? I am not going to. My brain cannot make me.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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