The Journey

The loss to Chelsea was not personally devastating to me. No, it’s not because I never believed that we could win the Premier League this season. And no, it’s not because I don’t care. I care quite a great deal. After the 3-1 defeat in the second leg of the semifinals of the Champions League last year, I wanted to stay away from football for a long time. I was obliged to watch our final matches, but that was compounded by the fact that we could not thwart United from celebrating their title when we played them at Old Trafford.

Last season featured multiple moments that made an Arsenal fan want to hurl. The Manchester City fixture where William Gallas was left behind after being stripped of his captaincy was one of those moments. At the time, I predicted that it would be the worst moment of the season. I was wrong, but I was also kind of right. Things steadied out from there on, even though it was littered with draws to teams we should have scalped. Regardless, our indifferent form gave us a clear target; we had to finish fourth.

When we conceded the two goals back to back to Chelsea, I knew there was little chance we’d come back into the game. When Arsene Wenger made an observation that Didier Drogba “doesn’t do much,” the English media had a field day with the comments. Pulling out all their repetitive barbs at Wenger’s myopia, Wenger took most of the heat off the performance of our squad. They were still criticized for coming up short, but they didn’t feel the full force. Wenger has always been a subtle professional this way (subtle, because nobody really points out that he’s just deflecting attention away from his players). Despite that, Wenger’s observation was actually astute for he wasn’t actually calling Drogba anything short of a great player. He merely called him an efficient one, and that’s something that can describe the Chelsea team as a whole.

You see, this Chelsea team fails to impress in the larger sense of the word. Sure, they may end up as Champions, but nothing they do is as inspirational as much as it is efficient. Carlo Ancelotti may be a more likable figure than Jose Mourinho, but all he’s doing is duplicating Mourinho’s original vision. He has a blunt, powerful, and experienced team that can carve out the results. In this case, Chelsea failed to impose themselves on us until a couple of defensive lapses in concentration helped lead to their first goal. After that, they parked the bus in a manner that Stoke does. I’m not criticizing that as a tactic. Your primary goal is to win the game, and with an Italian manager, that was always going to happen. After an initial spell of pressure, Chelsea comfortably secured the three points.

And so, the result led to many claiming that it’s no good that Arsenal can beat up the smaller teams but fail to impress in the big occasions. That is the reason, they claim, we will not win the Premier League. That logic may seem sound, but it’s not entirely true. In the Premier League, you play 32 fixtures against teams that are not in the “Big Four.” You lose those six matches, but dominate the rest, you win the Premier League. Look at Manchester United last year, they didn’t do much against the top teams, but they obliterated the rest. In past years, we’ve done well against the Big Four, but slipped up numerous times against the smaller clubs. If the reverse happens, that’s perfectly fine for me. The Champions League is the competition where you need to play best against the best teams, and we’re sitting comfortably in that competition at the moment. That is precisely the reason why it made me angrier when we dropped points against West Ham and Sunderland. After showing that cutting edge against weaker teams throughout this season, we forgot the lessons we’d learned in the past few years.

When our team suffers a dip in confidence, we struggle more than other big teams should. That is what concerns our fan base primarily. After losing two games in a row earlier this season, we responded by beating up on the smaller teams. That is what we had to do, and that is what we did until West Ham snatched a draw from defeat.

From what I see, our primary problem is the intensity with which we play defense. We have the personnel to do well in this department. I don’t see a lack of power or height as our problem. For instance, during the first goal conceded to Chelsea, had Denilson just snapped a tackle into John Terry, we could have set up a counter attack. That didn’t happen. Look at how Chelsea defended in the second half anytime we were in their half. There were bodies flying all over the place. That rarely happens with our team for whatever reason. We fix that, we stop leaking goals. We’ve conceded over 40% of shots on target, that’s an astonishing number. It means that teams don’t create very much, but they score regardless.

Moreover though, back to Chelsea for a moment. It’s often said that only winners are remembered. In other sports, I’d wholeheartedly agree with this statement. In football, not so much. You try telling me that Johan Cruyff’s Holland team will be remembered less than Otto Rehhagel’s Greece team. That’s not to take anything away from actual winners, but I’d suggest that at times winners may be relegated to being a footnote in a book, for that’s all that happens to Champions that truly fail to stir emotions of excitement in spectators.

People may regard Wenger’s youth experiment as a failure, and no doubt Wenger himself would classify it as a failure if we don’t win any trophies. I’d be bitterly disappointed personally, but I already consider his experiment to be a success. There has been more ink written about Arsenal in the past few years than every other English club. We are a fascinating team, albeit imperfect, to follow and cover as a journalist. More books will be written about a “failed” experiment than Chelsea’s two league triumphs in the same span of years. For what Wenger did is bordering on genius, he’s proven that we can be competitive with this blueprint. It is the reason why Wenger has virtually obliterated the memories of George Graham, even though Graham himself won two league titles. I don’t ask for trophies every year, that kind of thinking is in line with Manchester United and Yankee fans who want everything handed to them on a silver platter. No, what I ask for is to be thrilled and a reasonable chance that trophies may come along with that type of play. And from where I stand, we’re still in the title race, we’re into the knockout stages of the Champions League, and we’re in the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup. That’s not so bad, you know?

Because the truth is, when your team triumphs, you celebrate like crazy with your friends for one day. That glow lasts about a week, but it’s on to the next campaign. It’s the journey you remember more than anything else. The bad days when your team threw away points. The great days when you carve open a team in Europe. The times you think about a sublime thirty pass move that set up a goal. The times when an opponent dived to win a penalty against your team. All these things happen, and all of these are the reasons why you follow the sport.

Arsene Wenger and this Arsenal team has provided us many memories on this journey. And frankly, they’re far more valuable to me than anything Chelsea may accomplish with their “powerful” players. I don’t think you should ever forget this as an Arsenal fan.

Stepping back to present issues for a moment, I don’t think Chelsea will walk away with the title. They lost to Wigan and Aston Villa on consecutive weeks. For all this talk about squad depth, their players are about as interchangeable as ours. When people complain about how Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky are identical players, I could say the same about Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard. The point is, that’s simplistic analysis to say the least, and it says nothing. I’ve seen occasions when Chelsea have been frustrated by teams who can more adequately cope with their power. They have a healthy margin and are on a good run, but injuries happen to everybody. Don’t think this race is over quite yet. Nothing is ever over in football.

As for Manchester City today, we’re technically the underdogs as they will field a full side team against our mixture of reserves and youth players. The main impediment is that we’re playing away, and don’t ever underestimate how valuable that is when playing a cup tournament. It will take a big effort to overcome City, but that’s ideally what we should be aiming for. Because a defeat for City gives them more motivation to play hard against Chelsea. Perhaps they play Chelsea to a draw, and we defeat Stoke, and hey, it’s a nine point margin with a game in hand. This team has shown that it can bounce back from setbacks, and that’s what we have to prove that Chelsea was, a setback on a long journey.

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