Monday, April 22, 2024

Pain and parallels

Morning.

How are you feeling today? The Brighton disappointment was, for me anyway, the most acute of the season. Even if I had already come to terms with the idea that the title would be going to the Abu Dhabi Group’s trophy cabinet, there’s still something that makes that final stumble quite painful. If I had to compare it to a feeling from the past, I’d liken it to the way I felt when Mark Viduka scored that late goal for Leeds in 2002/03.

Obviously the circumstances were quite different, but just in terms of the gut punch sensation, it comes close to that. That was a title we should have won, but some results late in the season in games we should have done better in allowed Manchester United to overtake us. As a famous dame once sang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

It is funny how you can find parallels between the past and today. I don’t know if it’s just a way for us to try and frame what we’re seeing in a way that gives us some hope and comfort. I’ve said before that I think you can see some of what George Graham did in the way Mikel Arteta has operated. A young manager arrives at a club that isn’t where it should be, ruthlessly culls the big names, brings through talented Academy players, and does it with a steely discipline that nobody is inclined to mess with. If they do, they know where the door is.

But that was the late 80s, and football then is so different to now. The game has shifted in myriad ways, it’s almost unrecognisable in some ways. However, maybe some of the underlying aspects of man management, team building, recruitment, fostering a connection between a team and its fans remain consistent.

I go back to 2003, Sol Campbell was suspended for that Leeds game having been a shown a red card in a 2-2 draw with Man Utd at Highbury. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pretended to be hit in the face. There were appeals. He played the next couple, but missed this one. Not quite the same as William Saliba missing the last two months of the season, but an important absence that day as we lost the title at home.

Ouch. It hurt a lot. We won the FA Cup a couple of weeks later, but it should have been a second successive double. That final at Wembley in Cardiff, with a patched up Martin Keown and Oleg Luzhny as the centre-halves. Parallels with how we’ve run out of legs in recent times, but we had enough about us to scrap a 1-0 win over Southampton (I’d have loved one of those this season).

We all know what happened next season. In my opinion Arsenal do not go unbeaten in 2003-04 without the pain and sporting trauma of 2002-03. In Great Expectations, Estella tells Pip, “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.”

She made poor choices in love, but did she ever experience the heartbreak of a chunky Australian scoring a late goal to give a side that contained Danny Mills a win at Highbury? I think not. Either way, I think evidence of last season’s pain can be found in this Arsenal teams’ performance this season. Missing out on top four isn’t quite the same as being pipped (no Dickensian pun intended) to the title, but it still hurt. We used it, harnessed it, and improved.

And now this hurts. Use it. Harness it. Improve again. What’s the alternative? Feel sorry for ourselves? You don’t get anything for that in top level sport. Beyond regression and retirement. We’re not ready for that.

Arsenal fans have watched this team since August, and while mileage might vary on the specifics of why things didn’t go the way we wanted, I suspect most will have genuine clarity. Forget high profile pundits banging away on the same tedious drum they have been all season long. Suggestions that we’ve been too emotional are errant nonsense. Celebrating a win of that nature against Bournemouth is what you’re supposed to do. Oleksandr Zinchenko sharing that feeling with fans as he drives past The Tollington afterwards is not the reason we didn’t win the title.

A good pundit, someone with genuine intelligence and even a hint of humility, can hold their hands up and say they got something wrong. Doubling down and tripling down on buzzword bingo bullshit doesn’t make you right. Of course there are emotional aspects to football, to game management, but to put all your eggs in that flimsy basket is beyond reductive. Especially from someone whose career was made by people like Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson, hardly the models of cold, composed restraint.

Which is to say the emotional aspects of this season have been the most enjoyable. They made us believe. They gave us feelings of intense joy, sometimes relief, but ones that have been so much part of the experience. We all have our own trials and tribulations with life and work and the universe, and these moments have been almost transcendent. It’s all out of our hands, we cannot influence it, but we can let ourselves be influenced by it. The reason it hurts so much now is because it was good. So good. Give me that every single time over the indifference of mediocrity.

I can guarantee you that as Mikel Arteta thinks about the summer and the next stage of this team’s development he won’t be at all worried about the emotions – beyond once again harnessing the pain into something that can motivate his team further. He will think about player quality. He’ll think about the fact we had to play the last two months of the season without one half of the best central defensive partnership in the league, and the drop off as we went deep into the squad to try and cope. He’ll think how influential someone like Zinchenko has been to the way we play, and the fact his direct replacement is a completely different kind of player. He’ll think about central midfield and how we need to improve there. He’ll think about the amount of goals we scored, how we can score more, and what kind of players we need to do that. He will think tactics and game-plans, and he’ll think about the mistakes he’s made this season – generally speaking few and far between – and how he can do better.

He won’t worry at all about those times the stadium went mental, the roars, the songs, the wave of hope and optimism and good feeling that washed over a fanbase which has been desperate to feel something like this again. He’ll be desperate to extend that feeling right to the end, but there’s a reason why he’s in charge of a football club like Arsenal and why some people are doing fluff on TV and getting pelters on social media for it. From people – by the way – who actually understand what we’ve done this season, and why we’ve fallen short.

Arteta seemed hurt on Sunday. We’ve been beaten before, we’ve lost games along the way, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite as affected as this one. He might need a few days to clarify his thoughts, but I back him to make decisions this summer to make us better next season. Some of those might hurt too, by the way, but that’s the way it goes at this level. It’s how it has to be.

Use it. Harness it. Improve again.

Till tomorrow.

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