There was a time when a match which ended 7-3 might have been counted among the “classics” but that time has passed. Eye-watering scorelines are now just part of the game and even my American friends who won’t watch football because it’s “boring” have started to notice that something odd is going on in the sport.
My first ever Premier League football match was Arsenal v. Charlton at Highbury in 2006. Arsenal were clearly the superior team and traipsed about the pitch with a matchless unity and fluidity of movement that had the fans near me speaking of caviar days.
Arsenal were a team just removed from an unbeaten season. Their only missing player was Patrick Vieira and I wouldn’t say we missed him much because we had a little Spanish genius in his stead. Cesc Fabregas made that team click. If Charlton tried to harass him in midfield, he would magically create time and space for himself, and the engine of a perfectly oiled Arsenal machine would keep ticking over. The patterns were clear; the defense worked as a unit, the midfield bubbled along nicely, and the forwards worked the lines pulling the Charlton defense apart at will.
It was, and remains to this day, the best football I have ever seen. Everything was so perfectly timed and balanced that any missed pass by Arsenal brought a groan that one might give if they were looking at Seurat’s Bathers and noticed a bad brush stroke.
Arsenal won that game 3-0 with goals by Robert Pires, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Alex Hleb. It could have been 5-0 and the crowd moaned loudly when Adebayor missed two gilt chances presented to him by the legend himself, Thierry Henry. Hell, it could have been 6-0, after all, Robert Pires hit the post. But the match ended 3-0 and that is the point: the most organized and fluid football I have ever seen against an opponent in dire form only resulted in three goals.
Fast forward to yesterday and it was as if the world had turned upside down. In all the years I’ve been following them, Arsenal have been known as a possession hoarding team, a pass and move team, whose intricate triangles and one-two passes cut the opposition to pieces whilst wearing them out chasing ghosts in midfield. Arsenal are also known to be vulnerable from counter-attacks as they tend to play with a high defensive line, giving space to opposition strikers to get behind the defense.
Arsenal’s first goal against Newcastle, yesterday, was a classic “Arsenal goal” except I mean, its the type of goal Arsenal classically concede. Newcastle were playing high up the pitch, controlling the game with their passing, and trying to peg Arsenal into their end of the field. A long cross from Cazorla gets the ball out to Podolski and he played a slide-rule pass into the acres of space behind the Newcastle defense. Newcastle’s center backs tried to step up and catch Walcott offside, a move that’s so synonymous with Arsenal it was immortalized in the film The Full Monty, but the Newcastle fullback (Santon) plays Walcott onside. Walcott is off to the races and in the end simply opens his body up to shape the shot and curls home.
But then Newcastle scored to draw level off a Demba Ba free kick which was deflected in by Jack Wilshere who was supposed to be standing in the wall. It was a terrible free kick, to be honest, and would have been saved easily had it not taken a deflection off Wilshere’s head as he tried to duck out of the way of the ball. What was a player in the wall doing ducking? What happened to players taking the shot? It’s not to single Jack out, very few players in the League seem willing to just stand there and take the shot.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restored Arsenal’s lead with a great strike from outside the box after Arsenal won the ball back from a Newcastle throw-in. But minutes later, Arsenal switched off defensively as Jack Wilshere allowed his midfield runner to just walk (walk!) into the Arsenal back line and stand at the far post. Obertan beat Sagna and put in the cross which Marveaux tapped in. It was a basic defensive error by Arsenal who seem to switch too easily from wonderfully precise movement to ugly chaos.
Arsenal hit Newcastle for a third when Jack Wilshere dribbled in to the Newcastle box, dinked a little cross over to where Walcott was and when Coloccini failed to clear with his header (it rolled along the bar in defiance of physics) Podolski nodded home. But seconds later, Arsenal were at sixes and nines again as Demba Ba just stepped in front of Kieran Gibbs (who had switched off) to tap in a wonderful Marveaux cross. It was at that point, that Alan Pardew motioned to his team and said “don’t concede any more goals.”
They would concede four more.
Pundits are putting that goal flurry down to Newcastle having heavy legs owing to the fact that they had played a very hard fought loss to Man U three days prior but Arsenal’s fourth goal wasn’t down to Toon tiredness, it was slack defending. It was a broken play and Newcastle were pulled ragged as Gibbs got into the box and dragged back to the penalty spot. Despite Arsenal having two players standing there, neither could get the ball and Newcastle’s defensive midfielder, Chiek Tiote, just stood and watched as Theo Walcott took a touch, turned, took a moment to compose himself, read three chapters of Ivanhoe, and blasted the ball into the back of the net. Chiek Tiote hadn’t played in that Man U game, he can’t use tiredness as an excuse for his ball-watching.
Not satisfied with a 4-3 scoreline, Arsene Wenger substituted in center forward Olivier Giroud for midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and pushed Theo Walcott wide. The move worked and it was Theo Walcott who turned provider when his exceptional cross was thumped home by Olivier Giroud. 5-3.
Giroud scored the sixth and Walcott the seventh but both were born from the same type of action: Walcott dribbling straight at the opposition, being blatantly fouled, the referee swallowing the whistle, and either Giroud picking the ball up and scoring or Walcott picking himself up and scoring. 7-3. Chaos at the Emirates.
Everything about the game, from kickoff to the seventh goal, was weird. For the first 50 minutes, the Emirates seemed asleep. You could have, and perhaps the Toon Army should have, sung a lullaby. “Rock-a-bye Arsenal, in the top four…” And despite scoring, Arsenal seemed just as disinterested in the first half as the fans did. Moreover, Newcastle controlled possession, Newcastle outpassed Arsenal, Newcastle played the high defensive line, and Arsenal were a counter-attacking menace with Theo Walcott working the channels and Santi Cazorla relegated to a bit role. It was as it everything I thought I knew about Arsenal, everything I learned from that sunny Spring day in 2006 was turned on its head.
It’s not just Arsenal matches, Premier League football has become chaotic, wild, and unpredictable. Two hours before the Arsenal match, defensive stalwarts Stoke City, who hadn’t allowed more than four goals total at the Brittania all season, shipped three goals in the first half to Premier League bottom dwellers Southampton. And this isn’t just a Boxing Day problem, this chaos in defense and eye-watering scorelines are now a feature of Premier League games. Manchester United conceded three goals to relegation bound Reading on December 1st and you can think of countless examples proliferating over the last few years. The game seems very different to me now than it did when I first discovered it and I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing.