Bradford City last 11: W-D-D-W-D-L-W-D-D-W-W
Arsenal last 11: W-L-D-D-W-W-D-D-L-L-W
As I stood on the sterile steps of Wembley, hungover and looking on as a smattering of brightly attired fans milled round, I thought about what it would mean if Arsenal were to win the League Cup that day. “Winning begets winning” I told myself, “remember what Chelsea did in the League Cup final in 2007? They put out an experienced squad who simply ripped the trophy out of the grasp of Wenger’s boys’ hands. And they did that then and they do it every season because they know that every trophy counts. Winning begets winning.”
By the end of that day, Arsenal had the trophy plucked from their hands as the impish Obafemi Martins latched on to a Koscielny mistake and scored a last minute winner. And as if to put as fine a point on the importance of winning as possible, Arsenal limped into the Champions League places putting on one of the worst finishes to a season that I have ever witnessed as an Arsenal fan.
I’d had two moments of foreboding that day. The first moment came during warm-ups. The Arsenal boys were calmly playing piggy in the middle and joking around in our end of the pitch and when I looked up at the other end, the Birmingham boys were aggressively practicing aerial duels and going in hard against each other. “That’s just a show” I thought, as Liam Ridgewell put a teammate on his ass to win the ball. “We just beat them the week before” I reassured myself, but the little feeling was there, they seemed to want it more.
The second moment was when Martins came on the pitch. I don’t know if anyone else felt it, but I just thought that he was going to get the winner. It wasn’t logical, his record that season had been terrible, it was a feeling.
And now this morning, every major paper has Arsenal taking the game easily, 3-1 and so on. Even the blogs (that I read) are taking a very easy approach to this game. There’s very little sense of trepidation at this tie which Michael Cox called “tricky”. And it was, in fact, Michael Cox’s column for Arsenal.com which gave me that sinking feeling.
I don’t know Bradford City from Bradford Park Avenue so I have to rely on good reporting from reliable sources like Michael Cox and from his description, Bradford City have all the makings of a team that can beat Arsenal. Their manager is Phil Parkinson, a younger manager who seems tactically astute. Most days they set up in a 4-4-2 with a main target man James Hanson who is 6’4″ and his job is to knock the ball down to their pocket rocket Nahki Wells. Sound familiar? That’s what Nikola Zigic and Obafemi Martins did to undo Arsenal. Wells has 14 goals this season, Hanson has 5 and leads Bradford with 4 assists.
In midfield, Bradford should close space and try to harass Coquelin and Ramsey off the ball. Slick passing is going to be absolutely imperative from the very first whistle to the last. Not just because passing quickly is the best defense to a pressing game but because it will wear Bradford down quickly and force them into a different shape. The pitch is going to be frozen today and I’m sure the Bradford City groundskeepers aren’t going to be overly fussy about making the surface a nice place for Arsenal to pass around on.
On paper, Arsenal’s superior technical ability and physical conditioning should win the day but there’s one more factor that I haven’t seen anyone talk about, the pressure. Arsenal have all the pressure on them. The weight of expectation from the press can be largely ignored, but the expectations of the fans should not be. I’ve read the comments here about how Arsenal fans overreact to everything and it’s easy to dismiss “the other” fans as weirdos and freaks but supporters I greatly respect, people with cool heads, have been privately and publicly worried about this match.
There’s some talk about the reaction the fans will have if Arsenal lose today. That any loss at all could cause some fans to take their anger to the streets. At the end of the Birmingham City loss I’d never heard such anger among the fans as I had that night. There were calls for the manager to be sacked, that Arsenal needed to buy a player who could “win a fucking header” but still, they were a minority and largely met with eye rolls and nervous guffaws. The majority of the folks who trudged back to the trains were more funeral than riotous.
Tonight, it’s the type of performance that Arsenal put in that will decide the fan reaction. A good win and Arsenal will be “back on track for the treble” and calls for me to write effusive prose about how this is the greatest team ever under Arsene Wenger’s tenure will only grow (they’ve already started and Arsenal have only won one game). An all action match with the youngsters pressing all over the pitch and getting in on some tasty challenges but barely losing on the back of a bad call (you can bet that any sniff of a foul in the box and Bradford will get a penalty) will mollify the self described “angry” contingent. But a spineless performance against a League Two side who only seek too exploit weaknesses that every Arsenal fan has been complaining about for the last 5 years? Well, that’s unthinkable, right?
So, why is there this lump in my gut?