By Tim Todd
After this weekend’s 2-0 loss to West Ham I have a new motto: no gloating. It goes along with the motto I carried over from last season which was “reserve judgement”. I’ve put it on my mantle, where I keep a stack of juicy metaphors like “pesto on the second date.” Just a few things I’ve picked up over the years that help me cope with the insanity that comes from following Arsenal.
Reserve judgement is one that I promised myself after I saw Arsenal reverse what I thought was an inevitable slide out of the top four last January. Leading up to the turn of the year Arsenal were playing some of the worst football I’ve seen in Arsene Wenger’s tenure. And it all came to a head when Wenger and the boys were verbally assaulted on the platform at Stoke train station. One of the assailants yelled “Joel Campbell, get out while you still can!” which has become a cliche for the absurdity of football criticism.
Not all blogs are absurd, but there certainly is a rush to get your opinion out there, to be the first to have an opinion¹, and to have an opinion that is slightly more tendentious than your last opinion. It’s almost like there’s an Arsenal blog opinion arms race in which people try to be slightly more outrageous with each week.
And it cuts across the blogging spectrum. It doesn’t matter if the writer writes a “positive blog” or a “negative blog” there are a lot of people writing ever more controversial opinions as the season goes on.
Sadly, this season we’ve already gone straight to the top shelf: I’ve read people saying that Cech should be dropped, Claude is screaming “SHUT UP” on Arsenal fan TV, the defeat is painted as a condemnation of the (lack of) summer transfer business, it exposes “the fantasy” of the team’s unity, and of course, it’s Wenger’s fault because he clearly didn’t prepare his team for the game. My guess on that last one is that some folks imagine Wenger just kinda going “let’s see, first game, West Ham, who’s their manager? Eh, fuckit! We’ve got this one in the bag, who wants another glass of wine? Let’s party!” Or worse, they imagine that Wenger is just incompetent. You know, after 19 years of managing a football club in England, Wenger is just some kind of bumbling idiot, an Inspector Clouseau, who lucks into all these trophies and top four finishes.
Like I said at the start, it’s all absurd.
I suspect that what happened here is we all got caught up in the hype. And in a lot of ways the build up to this season reminded me of the build up to Arsene’s 1000th game in charge.
If you remember back to that game, which was against Mourinho’s Chelsea, everyone had penned a piece about how awesome Arsene Wenger was — me included². The hype over that match was so huge that almost to a person, Arsenal fans thought Arsene was finally going to beat Jose Mourinho.
Arsenal lost 6-0. Six. Sicks.
We had all gone to Wenger’s surprise party holding balloons that read “Arsène s’y connaît!” (edited) and Jose Mourinho walked through the room with a huge grin on his face, wielding a cartoonishly large needle, and popped each and every one of our balloons individually.
The buildup to the season kickoff on Sunday was similar. All of the major papers have Arsenal challenging for the title this season — that’s a first since I’ve been following Arsenal. Almost no one has Arsenal falling out of the top four — another first since I’ve been following Arsenal. There was a piece in the NY Times about how Wenger is unique in world football because he’s stayed with Arsenal for almost 20 years. Arsenal have won back to back FA Cups over the last two years. Arsenal bought Petr Cech from rivals Chelsea. And of course the fans were riding high off the fact that Arsene had finally beaten Jose Mourinho in the Charity Shield a week earlier and claimed his 4th trophy in two years.
And like a final stage booster rocket sending our hype into the stratosphere, the day before Arsenal’s match, main title rivals Chelsea had been held to a 2-2 draw in which they looked sluggish, out of shape, and in which the ‘keeper that they bought to replace the ‘keeper that Arsenal bought off them, had been sent off with a straight red card! Not only did they have to play with 10 men, Courtoise (the Chelsea ‘keeper), would miss the next game.
We were gloating! And naturally, fans predicted scorelines like Arsenal 4-0 West Ham.
What happened next was slightly more than a bad day at the office. Arsenal lined up wrong, put in a weak effort, lacked organization, lacked cohesion as a team, lacked real sharpness, lacked that killer instinct, and looked like they switched off on nearly every play.
There was one play late in the game which illustrates all of Arsenal’s problems on the day. West Ham were up 2-0 and Wenger had put Alexis Sanchez on to save the game. Alexis dribbled into the West Ham defense and they took the ball from him and started a counter attack, Sakho dribbled all the way down to the Arsenal end and won West Ham a corner.
They took the corner short and Mark Noble was allowed to turn his defender, then get past a second defender easily on the end line and dribble into the Arsenal 18 yard box unmarked. He played a low, hard, cross which was cut out at the far post but was easily one of the most dangerous passes of the game.
Cameras cut over to Arsene Wenger and there he was, clutching his bespoke Lanvin jacket.
It’s funny. Before the season kicked off I swore to myself that I wouldn’t get caught up in the hype. That I wouldn’t write outrageous opinion pieces. That I would just let the season unfold and try to tell the story of the season the way it happened.
But I guess the story of the season so far is that we all got caught up in the hype. From what I can tell, the players, the manager, and the fans, might have caught just a little whiff of the Premier League title and decided that we were shoo-ins. We aren’t. This is the hardest league in the world and if we want to win it, we can’t take anything for granted, and we can’t gloat when the opposition have a bad day.
Arsenal are the underdogs in this title race. Arsenal haven’t won a title since 2004 and only one of the players (Cech, though I guess Welbeck also has a winner’s medal) on this team knows what it’s like to challenge for the League title. Arsenal are the outsiders. The long shot. That’s how Arsenal have always been, throughout our history as a club. It’s one of the things that most attracts me to the club, that we are Rebels for the Cause. And the sooner we all act like it, the better off this team and club will be.
So, no more gloating for me. No more expectations. No more hype.
¹presumably so that you can later say to someone who comes up with the same opinion “I wrote about that last month.”
²You do realize that I am not above the criticism I’m making here? I am not special. The reason I know these things is because I’ve done all of them. I’m guilty.
I forgot to mention in my piece that all this hype only serves to help build a narrative about Arsenal’s season which I don’t buy into; this is Arsenal’s title to lose.
It’s no surprise that the first person who tipped Arsenal to win the League was Mourinho (I think). He said that because it’s truly a win-win for him. If Arsenal win the League, he can say “see I was right, my team didn’t have the investment needed to compete against Arsene Wenger and his millions spent” and if Arsenal fail to win the league he can say “see, Arsene is a specialist in failure.”
I suspect this is the exact same reason why the haters in the press (Stewrat Robson tipped Arsenal to win the title) are repeating Mourinho. Consciously or unconsciously they know that saying this is Arsenal’s title to lose is a position with no drawbacks.