Chelsea 2—Arsenal 0…With Differences
Prior to the match, there was the feeling that the events and outcomes of the match would be eerily similar to the previous encounters, which turned out to be true in part, because those anxious feeling have invested it. Supporters feel this way, so the players must feel it like bolts in the skull.
‘It will be an open game, but it will be about us, not them.’—Bacary Sagna
Where does the weight of Arsenal’s recent history lie? In what form? Heading into the international break after another defeat to Chelsea, Arsenal’s reflective period will be extended and fractured along trajectories of individual travel. Each will have the introspective duration to wrestle questions within the secure privacy of noise reduction headphones.
Could it lie in the senses? This most recent loss tastes acrid again. The memory of the game is immediately offensive and unpalatable, like a cat’s recoil from lemon wedges or toothpaste. The crowd erupted from Alex’s goal before the wall could turn around and watch—helpless to witness their fate. The taste vapors feel both hot and cold moving up into the nose and back down and tasted in the throat.
Arsenal’s pre-game squad sheet differed little from the broken lines on the palm of a dead man walking. There was already indication of the fate hiding just around the corner, just beyond the edges of a squad sheet without the names of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Thomas Vermaelen, and Theo Walcott. Another game against Chelsea without a full healthy squad.
Could the burden then lie in the statistics, which convey the truth until they don’t? Eight months ago, Arsenal also lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. Then it was a mercy killing by Didier Drogba who scored both goals inside twenty minutes; the first strike to the brain, the second to the heart of a fragile Arsenal team. Before the game was a quarter over, Arsenal could be declared terminal. Chelsea at their clinical best.
Going into this fixture, Chelsea have lost 2 of the last 15 games against Arsenal, due overwhelmingly to Drogba scoring 12 goals in his 10 matches against them. Did he have to score by back heel off a low tricky cross?
Could the weight be found in the writhing slug that wormed its way into a dark and damp Arsenal psyche? The mind is tied in knots or separated from the self it knows, or the self it expects to be. Is something subversive being whispered from inside the head? Is there a sense of inferiority, a subordination or meekness, from where a history is perversely augmented into something no longer historical, but cosmically predetermined? Koscielny was inside, but tight to Drogba and it didn’t matter.
Jack Wilshere in his October 4th twitter was “gutted” by the loss. He traveled from London to Norwich to join the U21s—the landscape and clicking track perfect for images and sensations to be relived. Some are momentarily refracted toward positive outcomes through an imaginitive counter-history (Alex’s free kick going wide), until the plague of fantasies returns—the poor pass which led to Alex’s goal, Laurent Koscielny’s header over the cross bar, Ramirez beating Marouane Chamakh to to the ball initiating the first goal’s sequence— and syncs again with a sour stomach.
Maybe this time it doesn’t go in…
Any Arsenal supporter, similarly suffering from the elusive answer to Chelsea’s continued dominance, can take from this recent loss, this especially bitter repetition of 2—0, a heartening stance toward the history: The kick to the unmentionables doesn’t linger through the futile search for comprehension and answers, because evidence has emerged that the history no longer comprehensively applies.
A tentative position—one to be held for three months if the return fixture is to certify it. Certainly Arsenal’s ardent, but irreligious supporters will be compelled to say a small prayer at kickoff, for the stats by then will be more mostrous than last time and the history will still smolder in the nostrils.
In what was an exciting hard-fought game, the score reflected the difference between the two teams: Chelsea finished better. In the opening minutes, Arsenal had two scoring chances. The first was a skillfully directed header sent wide by Chamakh. The striker made the most of the opportunity and could not be blamed for missing. The same cannot be said of the second chance. An unmarked Koscielny, two yards from the goal, sent his header over the bar. A sitter, surely, and more mystifying with each replay.
Except for possibly Andrei Arshavin and van Persie, Arsenal do not have a complete player who can finish like Drogba, or a player who is only a finisher like Darren Bent. The Chelsea and Sunderland strikers have turned instinct into an applied art, possessing a focus and skill so necessarily narrow and fine-tuned that its scope can contain only one small highly concentrated thing. If it’s not too soon to include Chamakh’s prowess in the air, then arguably Arsenal’s best finishers are imports and not products of the youth system.
Arsenal’s commitment to the total development of a player is careful to avoid an uneven set of capacities. This could be an outcome of the rigorous pedagogy of an Arsenal system that aims for well-rounded development and a total awareness necessary for Arsenal’s type of game.
Yet there have been paradoxical outcomes. The American artist and professor Allan Kaprow aptly remarks on the structure of experience, “Well, I’ve always been impressed by the fact that I wasn’t able to experience anything completely, only indirectly or in part…This sense of multiple choices has always intrigued me, partly because it is mysterious, partly because I know I cannot satisfy everything at once.” For all of Arsenal’s integrated knowledge and broad comprehension, there have been frequent lapses in focus, and for all their technical skill an underdevelopment of specializations.
Leading up to the match, it was Florent Malouda who said, “It will not be easy because Arsenal is a big opponent, even better than last year”. A few days prior, Arsenal had been eaten by its own shadow. The old ailments returned. The red bumps and pustules emerged through the skin seemingly overnight. Arsenal had yet to break out with a case of their well-worn deficiencies until the 3—2 loss at home to promoted West Bromwich Albion. Malouda could have hit Arsenal when down, but instead chose to pay them a flattering compliment, either out of graciousness for his French national teammates, or because he really believes in his long view.
The game was open from the start. Through width and attacking intention (occasionally over-concentrated through the middle), intense engagement continuously expanded over the field. Each team had decent chances throughout the first half, though few tested the goalkeepers. Arsenal, despite being exposed late, dominated the second half. Abu Diaby and Jack Wilshere were particularly standout. Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri were dependable.
Again, Arsenal showed a physical strength to match their opponents. A fearless Ramirez made a case for belonging in the Premier League. Everything he did was done fiercely, but his performance did not translate into a dominant Chelsea midfield. The Arsenal center backs held their own and Chelsea proved incapable of making the most out of counter-attacking long ball. Koscielny, who has been outmuscled on a couple of occasions this season, showed in equal measure to be strong against Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were involved in the offense from the start, and both made a number of good crosses without being exposed at the other end.
Arsenal’s crisp and sharp passing is inseparable from pace. Against West Brom, Arsenal’s passing and movement was slow, as if they were suffering from heat stroke or had gone boneless. A disjointed rhythm early on is often a sign for a poor Arsenal performance, which does not always lead to a loss, but the short unchallenged passes that barely reached their destinations hinted at capitulation. The performance against Chelsea was a striking contrast.
Chelsea’s first goal was neither the product of a counter-attack nor the fault of defensive frailty—both common causes of Arsenal failure. In big games, these rapid breakdowns were followed by fated embodiments of deflation and disorientation. Conceding just before half time so often exposes the belly, but Arsenal began the second half with the same intensity displayed in the first. None of the truly debilitating symptoms of immemorial loser was evident.
By category, Arsenal was Chelsea’s equal, except when it came to finishing and the attributes of focus and character assigned to it.
For Chelsea, finishing is the means to getting results, which for Arsenal is the burdensome remainder carried over from previous seasons.
The story of Arsenal’s frailty and stunted development carries over from one season to the next; never just anecdote, it is always more than last year’s story. At the same time, it is inconclusive and open-ended, rewritable at any moment. This provides an opportunity for a performance like this to find a place in the next chapter. Arsenal were finally capable of making their own history more than being made by it. For many, this is not hyperbole.