Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A handsome young man suffers a vicious assault by a brutal sociopath. He goes to the hospital and while he’s recovering there are jubilant court scenes where his assailant is let off easy. He is then jeered by that guy’s friends every time they see him, for the next three years. And he can’t escape seeing his abusers because everyone in this story lives in the same small town and works at the same job.
The young man gets to the gym, vowing to never be a victim again. But in the midst of his rehab his own family and friends doubt him. There’s probably a chapter where he and his friends have a falling out and the young man walks off into the cold night, slamming the screen door behind him, muttering something about “showing us all”.
Then one night, the two men meet again on the football field. Surrounded by his assailant’s thuggish friends and being screamed at by a hostile crowd who are dripping spittle as they bay for his blood, the young man sees their keeper spill the ball on an easy free kick, he swoops in and kicks the ball into the net.
He circles around the side of the goal, places finger to mouth, and shushes his baying hobgoblins.
If there was such a story it would be called Aaron and it would be written by S.E.Hinton.
It’s a story about how Aaron and his teammates spent three years being called soft, but here in this happy ending he comes of age, he’s no longer weak and easily pushed around by the bullies. He wins the day with strength and grace.
Or stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
“Why can’t Arsenal just buy someone who can win a simple header? Christopher Samba for example!” I heard that on the night we all trudged out of Wembley. And since then, the cry for Arsene to buy a lumbering center half who will simply head balls away has only grown.
But also since then, Arsenal have gotten significantly better at defending corners and set plays, much to the chagrin of the anti-zonal-defense folks. Last season, Arsenal only allowed 4 goals from corners. That’s second best in the Premier League, tied with West Ham, and only bettered by Norwich and Chelsea. True, Arsenal did so by limiting the overall number of corners taken but when the opposition got a corner and turned it into a shot, Arsenal’s save percentage last season from corners was 89%, bested only by Norwich, Chelsea, and Sunderland.
Not only that but there’s the narrative that Arsenal can’t score from corners. Well, that used to be true, but no longer because Özil is a real set piece threat. As I outlined in my By The Numbers column, 5 of Özil’s 13 assists for Real Madrid last season (in liga play) came from set plays (corners or free kicks) and now 2 of his league leading three assists for Arsenal are also off set plays. He’s a breathtakingly beautiful striker of the ball, Beckham-esque in fact, and he placed two perfect balls for Mertesacker who eventually nodded one home yesterday against Stoke.
Oh the irony, Arsenal, the open play team who love to dominate possession and play “beautiful football” — the team who never buy expensive players — paid £42m for a guy who is so good he can get Arsenal goals off set pieces. Perhaps we’ve just been building up our irony reserves for this one fell literary swoop?
Or how about the one where Wenger doesn’t like to take players back, doesn’t like egos, or won’t sign players over 30? That was done long ago but there’s this funny story about Flamini.
I’ve made no secret that Flamini was my favorite player from the 07/08 season where Arsenal very nearly won the League. I know, I’m supposed to like Fabregas, and he was great (creates space, vision, time, yadda yadda), but in real life I see myself as more of a Flamini than a Fabregas: Flamini just has that tenacity and a bite to him* that I need to really connect with in a player. I still have his shirt from that season and I have no problem wearing it for pickup games.**
But Flamini did what Flamini does and he left when Arsenal refused to pay what he felt was a fair price for his services. That was a particularly bad moment in Arsenal history. The club lost Flamini, Gilberto, and Diarra all in 6 months.
The narrative after that was that Denilson wasn’t a real defensive midfielder because Arsene Wenger doesn’t like defensive midfielders. Or that Song wasn’t one because Arsene didn’t like defensive mids. But I think that last year, with the transformation of Arteta into the deepest midfielder on the team and this year with Arsene clearly targeting Luiz Gustavo in the offseason and taking a chance on Flamini we have to at least say that this idea Wenger doesn’t like defensive mids is wrong. Flamini isn’t some beast-mode DM who runs around kicking everyone, he’s not Lee Clattermole, but he is a positionally astute midfielder who makes himself available for every pass, and covers everyone in defense.
Most importantly, he gets into the head of the opposition from the start. We saw him get Fletcher riled up, we saw him put in a bit of a two-footed tackle against Stoke yesterday which had them all screaming at Mike Dean. I’ve long said that Wilshere needs protection and that we aren’t going to get that from the referees. I’ve also long said that Arsenal need to be the aggressors in midfield because referees tend to punish retaliation much more than aggression. The narrative was that we’ve been missing that, no longer.
Or stop me if you’ve heard the one about how parking the bus is anti-football and anathema to the way that Arsenal play?
Yeah, well, there’s a new pragmatism and defensive confidence to this Arsenal side largely stemming from the run of 10 games at the end of last season which saw Arsenal soak up pressure time and again only to come out on top. It’s not quite parking the bus, which I think refers to a more cynical approach to the game, but rather just a pragmatic approach. Tottenham were Tottenham, Arsenal had a 1-0 lead, Wenger must have looked at the teamsheet and thought “they can’t beat my defense.” There was certainly an air of that again last night against Stoke. There aren’t any bona fide goal scorers on Stoke’s team and Wenger’s approach was to tell his team to sit deep, stay organized with two banks of four, and hit them on the counter. After all, it wasn’t like they were going to score three goals.
Reminded me of the Arsenal of old. Which is a narrative that will never go away, but that’s ok, because it’s my favorite story.
*You don’t write a blog every day for years, with no fans, without tenacity and I think my bite is evident in nearly every post.
**Wearing your favorite player’s shirt is a form of LARPing. You know it, I know it, let’s just admit it.