Earlier in the year, I wrote a post discussing the commitment one has for their teams and how in order for a fan to be truly disappointed or heartbroken, they have to wholeheartedly believe that their team has a chance to win it all. I mentioned at several points this year how I didn't believe in Arsenal enough to commit to them in that way and by now, the window for such trust has surely passed, for this season, at least. I still believe this assessment of the fan condition to be true, but I believe I ignored another key component to the fan experience, one that does not require the opening of the heart but rather the foolish, masochistic desire to keep watching a team that you are all but convinced can't be better than they are showing, but maybe, hopefully, at some point, really will be. This is the Cycle of Inconsistency and though it will never depress you as much as the loss of the team you fell head-over-heels for, it will madden you in ways you never thought possible.
We've all been there. Your team looks great on paper before the year starts. You begin to get your hopes up because this really could be your year. It all has to come together, of course, but a title honestly could be in the future. The season starts, and things are going ok. Not everyone seems to be firing on all cylinders, but that's all right, these things happen. Players need to get used to communicating with each other, coaches need to adjust and see what works; the engine needs to be more finely tuned. But then that imaginary date goes by in your mind, the date by which all of these things should have been worked out, and the mistrust starts to slowly creep in. Are we really as talented as we thought? Shouldn't Player X have shown more than he has? Why do we not seem to know what to do with the ball still? But these thoughts are brushed aside, at least out of the realm of certainty. Things will get better, they have to. There's So Much Potential Here. It'll come around.
This is the point when all is lost for you as a fan. You've already talked yourself into your team and try as you might, you can't get away from it. I know, I've been there before and in all kinds of varieties. There is the aforementioned "Preseason Expectations," where your team just has to be good because my god look at all that talent. There's the "Early Season Performance," where your team plays better than you thought they would early in the year and you start to get a little excited about what they might do. And then there's the always popular, always devastating "Is My Team Good Enough" season, where you aren't convinced that your players are a bunch of world beaters, but there's still something there (a superstar player, really great chemistry, electric plays) that keeps you think there's the possibility of more. All of these situations lead fans into the Cycle of Frustration, where the team is maddeningly inconsistent and refuses to let you go because the highs are too sweet and the lows are too deeply personal to ever shrug off and move on. And it stays that way for the rest of the season.
Most fans never give up watching their team, just kind of give up on expecting anything. You can only be a passionate Cleveland Browns fan for about six weeks before you go back to just being a fan. The same is true of plenty of teams in plenty of sports, even routinely good franchises who happen to suffer through a down year here and there. Fans don't disown their team or stop rooting for them, they just let other things occupy their lives and don't put any true emotion into the season. And that's not something that should be criticized either. Let's face it: if you're putting your whole self into every game during a 65-97 baseball season, you're asking for an aneurysm or a restraining order. Some seasons it's easier to put fandom on the back burner, following along with your team but never really committing to it.
But then there are some seasons when you just can't quit your team, no matter what they do. You desperately hope that there is something there when quite often there is not. Or at least not enough of that special something to justify the emotion that you're putting into each game. This doesn't lead to the disappointment or broken heart feelings like you might experience if you truly thought your team was good enough to win the championship. Instead it's like this masochist itch that you can't help but scratch. A long shot bet that you can't help but get your hopes up for even though you know your horse will pull up lame in the end. It's frustrating more than anything else. Anger would be giving it too much credit as that level of emotion doesn't really exist here. It's mechanical and dutiful like the thank you cards you were forced to write as a kid, occasionally throwing down the pencil because dammit your hand hurts and you shouldn't have to be doing this. But you do it anyway.
I, like every fan who is put in this situation, feels like my teams always do this. I can't look at the New York Giants, UConn Huskies, and Minnesota Twins without thinking of all the times they've built me up to knock me down. That 12-4 Giants team in 2008 that backed into the playoffs and then got bounced in the first round. The 2011 Twins team who followed up their 2010 Central Division title with the second worst record in the majors despite having basically the same team. This year's UConn Huskies who have all the talent in the world the year after winning the national championship and now can't even score more than 50 points in a game. And these are just the recent examples. All of these teams seem to tempt me into caring for them, then decide amongst themselves that it's time to bring hope crashing down. But ability is still there, so we follow along hoping that it turns itself around.
And that's the thing. Sometimes it does. I openly rooted for this year's Giants team to finish 6-10 so that Tom Coughlin, Kevin Gilbride, Perry Fewell, and some particularly lazy towel boys would all be fired and we could finally have the house cleaning we so desperately needed. Instead, the kindling finally caught and my team is inexplicably in the Super Bowl, roughly a month and a half after looking like a really determined Appalachian State team could run them out of the building. This is what can happen. This is why we do care, even when we know we're not supposed to, even when we know we're must more likely to have our friends say "I told you so" rather than being able to say the same to them. I don't know if they'll ever come through for me the way my other teams have, but I guess I can't say I'm surprised that Arsenal puts me in this same damn mood week in and week out.
PS. I'm well aware that this the "White People Problems" of the sports world, how fans of generally competent teams love to bemoan the trials and tribulations that they're going through. A Cleveland fan would be well within his or her rights to slap me across the face after reading this.
-I think I'll at least start with something good. Theo Walcott, awful decision on the breakaway aside, played a very strong game. He was pacey at the right times, picked out players well, and took full advantage of all of the space that Bolton was giving him (when he wasn't in a one-on-one in front of goal at least). Is it that surprising that his best game of the last month comes on the same day Bacary Sagna returns to the starting lineup? Sagna's attacking presence down the flank opens up much more space for Walcott, allowing him to be the danger he can be. I fully expect this going forward, and it's yet another reason I love having Sagna back and healthy.
-Inevitably, however, we come to the bad. Arsenal cannot score. I can counted six clear goal scoring opportunities at least, none of which were converted. Some of this was bad luck of course. Robin Van Persie's brilliant, sublime chip in the 80th minute was cruelly denied by the crossbar, keeping him from notching another Top Ten Goals of the Year. But Arsenal's Lord and Savior missed an open shot himself from the top of the box, though Aaron Ramsey and Walcott were worse offenders by far with their comical attempts in front of goal when all that was needed was composure and a touch to the corner. These are the kinds of games that Arsenal cannot afford to lose, despite how much Chelsea is trying to give 4th place to anyone who will take it. A win in this match would have kept the Gunners in 5th place only 3 points out of 4th. Instead, they drop to 7th and now have to make up 5 points while also holding off further competition. What a missed opportunity.
-This was the first game where I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's youth showed a bit. I don't think he had a particularly bad game, as he was still menacing with his pace and showed some good vision. But he did duff a few too many passes and at times looked like he was trying to press. It's almost as if he hears all the fans talking about how great he is for the team and is trying to do too much (which very well could be the case). I'm not worried about him and I still think he'll be great in the future, but it was a bit surprising to see him play uncharacteristically sloppily. Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that that's the standard he's set for himself. As Always, Go Gunners.