Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cranking the crisis klaxon

And so the "defining week" of Arsenal's season draws to a close. We have one of these every year. It's a tradition, like wearing a used keeper's jersey for a cup final. The press are predictably hyper-ventilating, with some now openly imploring RvP to quit at the end of the season to save his career. These are the same commentators who criticised Arsenal for not signing more players of van Persie's calibre last summer.

The defining week has a time-honoured plot, like a medieval mystery play, in which Arsenal crumple on multiple fronts and find themselves staring at another potless season. I'm only surprised it doesn't feature a dragon. The fact that in most seasons only 3 English clubs win anything is ignored. The narrative is about the shame of Arsenal not being one of them. Again.

As a long-standing fan, this isn't as irksome as many think, indeed the disappointment when you respond to enquiries like "you must be gutted" with "not really" is mildly amusing. It's as if you hadn't read the script. In truth, it's simply about knowing your history and having been round long enough to see much worse teams, with much worse records.

If you had told me at the beginning of the week that we'd only win one of three, but said I could choose which one, I'd have plumped for the league game. The 3 points are in the bank. Progressing a further round in a cup is fun, but the success is unlikely to be lasting. That's the nature of knockout competitions. All clubs recognise this, hence the relative downgrading of the cups. The days of the "cup team", willing to sacrifice league points for a good run, are gone. TV's position money has put paid to that.

The doom-mongering over the defeats has ignored some salient facts. First, that Arsenal won well away from home against Sunderland, coming from behind and snatching a late winner (the sign of a good team, we're normally told). Second, that we lost 4 defenders to injury over 3 games, one of whom is now out for the rest of the season. (I doubt even Barcelona could have shrugged off the rate of attrition we have suffered across the back line in 6 months). Third, that we were on the receiving end of a lot of bad luck: an offside goal build-up by Milan, Vermaelen's slip for their third, and two goals for Sunderland from shots that weren't on target. That's not to mention Ibrahimovic's penalty dive (the old knee to thigh trick).

We didn't deserve to beat Milan, but on most days we'd have lost 2-0 (had we nicked a goal, 2-1 would have felt like a victory of sorts). They're not that good, and we're not that bad. I suspect the flat, slow performance owed something to the exertions against Sunderland on a heavy pitch in the first game. Playing 3 games in 8 days on cut-up surfaces not only hampers our passing style, but it exacerbates the physical toll. That's not to say that we weren't poor, but we haven't suddenly turned into the worst team in living memory.

I'm sure we're all glad that another "defining week" is behind us. So what, objectively, did we achieve? We got through to the last 16 in Europe, and the last 16 in the FA Cup. Neither Manchester club could manage either, but they have different narratives. For Arsenal's detractors, being a top European team is not enough. It's victory or ignominy - nothing in between. This has been key to the narrative since 2006. We clearly flew too close to the sun then.

What I think this shows generally is that as league placings have become more and more a straight reflection of money spent, and as the amount of money needed to move up a place has grown so much, small relative movements have taken on a greater significance. Today's "surprise package" is a promoted team that doesn't get relegated immediately.

A team like Spurs is lauded for "cracking the top four" (and Harry Redknapp will no doubt get Manager of the Year for it, in addition to the England job), though no one really expects them to emulate an Everton or a Leeds and win the title. It's worth noting that plucky Spurs have been the fourth highest gross and net spenders in terms of transfers over the last 6 years. In terms of return on investment, their record is quite poor.

This attitude has become so entrenched that when a team punches above it's presumed weight, the positive delight for them is quickly drowned by the noisy inquest into the relative failure of others that this must entail. Winning has become a grind, an expectation, not an eagerly sought bonus.

The media pander to this, as noisy intemperance is a more compelling spectacle than reasonable judgement. This resulted in the strange sight of ITV's pundits lauding Zlatan Ibrahimovic midweek. This is a player that English commentators have taken great pleasure in denigrating over the years ("he doesn't do it in the big games"). For one night only (or two, if you count the 2-2 draw with Barcelona at the Emirates in 2010), Ibra was a giant among men.

It would take something to top that for cheek, but ITV managed it with Roy Keane yesterday. He was on the panel not because he is an astute and interesting pundit (he isn't) but because he could stick the knife into either team, depending on the result.

Adrian Childs seemed determined to provoke him, and remind us of the key narrative, by asking him if he'd got over the 2005 cup final (he hasn't). Keane obliged by claiming at half-time that Arsenal weren't in the game at all, despite out-passing Sunderland at the beginning, getting knocked back when Coquelin went off and the defence was rejigged, and then falling behind to a deflected shot.

He dismissed the current Arsenal team as the worst he'd ever seen, which means he must have been abducted by aliens and replaced with a robot when we finished 12th in 1995. His insight amounted to the claim that wearing gloves signalled a lack of fight. This is the sort of thing that passes for wisdom in a pub or a playground. It is absurd that such a managerial nonentity should be asked to comment on the likes of Arsene Wenger and Martin O'Neill. You'd get more sense out of Gok Wan.

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