Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fitting the Games to the Narratives

Several times this year I have mentioned different narratives that Arsenal fans have gotten used to, and deservedly so, over the years. Playing fancy rather than to score, trying to pass the ball into the net, not having a killer instinct, not being tough enough to hold on against top competition, and so on. Though these themes are simple constructions and constructions of this nature do not have a direct bearing on new matches, they are useful for various reasons. For starters, they are grounded in the facts of the past. Arsenal has, over the past couple of years, not seemed to have the steel and fortitude necessary when it was required. When the players got knocked around and roughed up, they seemed to fall to the ground and raise their hands, bewildered as to what the opposing team could possibly be doing. The desired response of course is that the Gunners would realize what was happening, adjust accordingly, and at the very least not let such tactics disrupt their game. Though these instances have occurred in the past, it is important to consider the narrative for the future because many of the current Arsenal players are veterans from those teams with all the troubles. There has been turnover of course and it would be easy to say that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were "those" kind of players and now things are completely different, but that would be a bit disingenuous and quite removed from reality. The fact is that this Arsenal squad will be rightly judged by the performances of the recent Arsenal squads until they prove that they are different. With this entire season taking a different tone than any past season (awful start, Arsene Wenger's job on the line, brilliant comeback, so on), why then is the team still being not just judged by past narratives but crammed into them?

If you watch this fantastic interview, you (hopefully) will come across thinking two things: 1. Russell Brand is much more intelligent than you had originally thought and; 2. His point about narratives is very well stated. For those who don't want to bother with the video, he argues that narratives are used in politics so often nowadays because it's a way to express an idea without actually having to argue for that idea. It's much easier to portray George W. Bush as a Washington outsider and a cowboy from Texas than it is to make that same argument when the evidence shows that he grew up in Connecticut, went to Yale, and has a man who was Vice-President and President for his father. We use these narratives to express things because it is an easy way to typecast and label someone or something with very little effort. It's a straw man argument, but one that is difficult to disprove because the story itself is built into the heads of the people who are already familiar with the subject matter. It would be very easy to use the "action hero" label on Colin Farrell due to his performances in movies like S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice and therefore assign a whole other set of characteristics, both positive and negative, without even having to enumerate or defend them. So now it would fall on a defender of Farrell to point out that he was brilliant in the dark comedy In Bruges, or that he played a very understated role in Crazy Heart, or that he was hilariously over the top in Horrible Bosses. It's an uphill battle to fight these narratives because they already exist in people's minds and merely need to be appealed to.

The Russell Brand interview was repeating in my mind as I watched the Arsenal vs Everton match today because I couldn't believe how hard the announcers were trying to make the match fit their prefabricated notion of what an Arsenal match really was. We've seen this plenty of times already this year, from pundits calling the early season the "downfall of Arsenal" despite the fact that at one point they had three starters suspended and another four injured, to a draw to Marseille at home being proof of the Gunners' lack of character. I've heard these comments before and they've annoyed me, but I acknowledge that I watch the team week in and week out and, as a fan, there is the possibility that I'm biased. However, today's commentary sent me over the edge. I have never heard a match be so obviously shoe-horned into a particular set of contrived ideas than the one today.

To me, it started with the chance that Theo Walcott had in the 15th minute. He received a beautiful through ball and broke into the box on the right side. Rather than take an open shot though, he tried to play across to Gervinho but an Everton defender slid in to break it up. Gervinho still got the ball back and put a shot in on the open net but another Everton defender slid in front of it to deflect the ball over the endline. In my notes on the match I had ripped Theo for not taking the shot initially, but then I saw that Howard had done well to come out and limit the angles and that there were two Arsenal players open to Walcott's left. I still would like to see him shoot it as maybe Howard would give up an easy rebound, but I understand that he saw a potentially better option with the pass to set up the tap-in goal. What came from this was the beginning of a game-long "Arsenal is trying to pass the ball into the net" narrative that never let up. It's one thing if you want to say "Theo should shoot there and if he doesn't then it has to be a better pass." It's a completely different story to say that this is a fundamental problem with Arsenal as a team. If that pass is properly spaced then the ball is in the back of the net and those same announcers would be praising Walcott's decision-making ability. And that's my problem. It's not that someone may disagree with me regarding an assessment of what happened, it's how disingenuous the whole build-up of this narrative is.

This went on throughout the match and the commentary got worse and worse. Despite Aaron Ramsey turning beautifully in the box and floating a shot just barely over the post, despite Walcott having a near post blast stopped by an outstretched Tim Howard, despite having Howard stop a low Gervinho when the Ivorian was in alone, despite all of these chances and just slightly missed balls, Arsenal's play had been "disappointing" at the half. I thought to myself "they have to be joking. This has been one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year! Arsenal has had a lot of opportunities, true, but many of them were shut down by fabulous Everton defending or barely mistimed runs or passes. How could this be 'disappointing?'" The worst, in my mind, came in the 55th minute when Walcott thundered a low volley into the box that was just slightly behind Robin Van Persie, which caused the ball to deflect away. This was simply a well-struck ball that was inches away from being a goal, but was instead pinballed out in a reasonable fashion. Instead, the announcers called it "a wasted chance." I was stunned. "Unfortunate timing" I could see. "A bit unlucky" I would understand. "A wasted chance" because a ball that was well struck but never quite on target didn't go in the back of the net? You can call every play in the box that doesn't result in a goal a "wasted chance" then. Again, it's how people are disingenuous about these critiques. If the announcers weren't already working with the "disappointing match for Arsenal where they can't score a goal" narrative then the commentary would have been a little more balanced and a little more rational.

Luckily Van Persie put that narrative out of reach with his brilliant strike to put the Gunners ahead for good in the 7oth minute and in the end, a 1-0 Arsenal win was a very likely outcome. They had been the better team all game, had the most dangerous chances, and deserved to have one of them put in. Then again, Everton defended brilliantly all day and played very well for ninety minutes. They were unlucky not to get a point out of the match, and would have even been justified with the full three points if a bounce had gone their way. Ultimately, this was a hard fought game in which Arsenal attacked very well, Everton defended very well, and the game could have gone in either direction. And, but for a moment of brilliance, it may well have. Is it so wrong to say that? Is it so wrong to respond to a game as it's being played rather than shove whatever happens into the box of what you already want to say? I think that it might be best for all involved if we started looking at the games as they happen on the field rather than come in with your direction already prepared. But what do I know, I'm not a commentator.

Game Notes

-Briefly keeping with the theme of the narratives, did the announcers really need to reach so hard as to call Theo Walcott's performance "disappointing" and say that he needs to "develop consistency" despite the fact that he very nearly set up two goals, almost scored one himself were it not for a world class save by Tim Howard, and was an absolute menace on the wings whenever he touched the ball? He did miss a couple of crosses badly, which he knows is not his strong suit, but he still had a largely productive game. Michael Cox wrote an excellent article recently where he asked "Why so hesitant and forced?" when people praised Walcott, and he's right. Walcott has played exceptionally this year, posing a constant threat on the wings while adding two goals and four assists during Premier League play. What does he need to do for people to start giving him at least some credit?

-Speaking of credit, here's some for Alex Song, my man of the match. All game long Song was instrumental in playing the strong holding midfielder role in front of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (due to Thomas Vermaelen being forced to play out of position at left full), but he did much more than that. He passed well out from the back and he also made several brilliant passes up to the front, including the perfectly weighted chip that found Van Persie for the game winner. His outside of the foot curling through balls almost led to several other goals as he had one of his best games of the year. Brilliant stuff from Alex Song.

-Once again though, the ominous specter of Depth looms over Arsenal, waiting to derail its title hopes. When the match was still 0-0 in the 65th minute or so, I was looking over the bench list to see who they could bring on to liven up the game. I then became extremely worried. Arshavin, Benayoun, Rosicky, Chamakh? Good God. When Walcott pulled up lame, I first looked for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a replacement only to see that he wasn't even on the bench. I understand that Arsene Wenger wants to rely on his veterans as a stabilizing presence, but they are not game changers. He either needs to let some kids like Oxlade-Chamberlain have some run, or make smart moves during the transfer window. If he doesn't, Arsenal just won't have the firepower to outrun Depth. As Always, Go Gunners.

1 comment:

  1. Narratives act as short-hand so much for commentators in sports these days. They have a JOB that culminates for speaking a few hours awake about a game, but the utter lack of research is mind-boggling, across sports and networks. If the average commentator would read five weeks of local articles and have an executive summary written up by local beat reporters, it would show. For fans of teams that have popular narratives that trump the day to day facts its maddening.