Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Considering the King

We, as fans, often seem to be in the process of arguing before reflecting or honoring. Every goal, every win, every trophy is a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself, a data point to add to existing theses rather than an event that should be celebrated in its own right. Of course I'm exaggerating to some degree. It's hard to picture a room full of stoic faces after a wonder strike to give a team the deserved last minute win. But ask yourself, how long after the celebration before the conversation drifts away from "did you see that? That was amazing!" to "was that better than so-and-so's goal? No way, it doesn't stand a chance!"? We have a tendency to celebrate momentarily, but then quickly move into the "larger" conversation in which each moment and achievement is properly sorted, discussed, and ranked. There is nothing wrong with this as a basic action: you cannot live forever in the moment and eventually that moment needs to be fully processed by your mind and filed away, notations made under the title about how it made you feel, what was happening at the time, and how it might compare to other moments. But we do seem to be doing this a little too immediately at times, quickly breaking down the moment into its constitutive parts and using these facts as fodder for our arguments rather than properly celebrating what has actually occurred. And I am hard pressed to find many things in sports more worth celebrating than the wining the Champions League.

The Champions League is particularly draining because it is essentially a post season tournament that occurs during the regular season. This is not a shot at the structure of American sports in the least because being forced to win four best-of-seven series to hoist a trophy (basketball and hockey), make it through three rounds of playoffs after a 162 game season (baseball), or winning as many as four games in a single elimination atmosphere after a physically demanding regular season (football) is no easy task. But Champions League play comes with the added strategic and mental pressure of trying to win everything (domestic league, domestic cup, European cup, etc.) while still prioritizing those competitions and deciding when to rest players for the bigger matches. Going through six group stage games and then three rounds of home-away elimination series before the winner take all final is going to ensure that a deserving team comes out of the mix. It's easy for teams to get lucky once and pull out a two game series. Doing it three times and then winning the final? That should ensure legitimacy for whoever comes through. These days though, it seems that that legitimacy is almost immediately challenged during the process of public debate and if the champion of Europe is found wanting then people will immediately declare them unworthy champions and talk about how this team is nothing compared to a team in the past or another team in this year's tournament that the pedestrian winners managed to avoid. Why must our quest for rankings result in the degradation of one of the most prized trophies in sports?

The conversations are still fun and reasonable to have, it's the sense of immediacy that I'm concerned with (though perhaps "concerned" is an overstatement). Championship Team A vs Championship Team B is a valid comparison when deciding all timers and it is possible that the runner up, or even fourth place finisher, from a particular year is a better team than the champion from another. But it's still all talk. The fourth place team finished in fourth for a reason. Perhaps that reason was that they ran up against a nigh unbeatable team and just barely missed. Perhaps it was because they did not have the mental fortitude for pressure situations and cracked when the going got tough. We can't know for sure and while we shouldn't let this fact keep us from having any fun (because what are sports if not for the sake of fun?), we could at least be a little more responsible about how quickly we move on from the moment, and a little more judicious with our opinions on which teams are worthy or not.

After all, deciding a champion in sports is very similar to deciding a winner in a presidential election. Rules were created to determine who would be crowned (to use an awkward word when speaking about democracy) president and those rules represent a binding law that is our process for declaring the winner. If you truly believe in the underlying rules and theories of democracy, then you understand that whoever is president of the country represents you because they gained the position by following the rules that you yourself treasure. Meaning, you can't praise the system when it elects a Democrat but then decry it when it elects a Republican. It is a system meant to direct the talents and thoughts existing in the competition. By the same token, if the Champions League is good enough to crown an aesthetically pleasing Barcelona team as your champion, then you cannot balk when it produces this Chelsea squad. They are your champion. Every conversation you want to have about how they didn't show any creativity, how they were lucky to win because other squads squandered chances against them, or *Insert Team X would have beaten them if they played in the elimination rounds, still has to start with the admission, begrudging or not, "Chelsea are the champions."

Personally, I have some trouble with this Chelsea team. First of all, I just don't like Chelsea, so let's get that out of the way. Another rich, "go buy everyone who will help us win" type of team, and of course it doesn't help that they're a fellow London team. As for this squad in particular, I don't feel like they were the most talented that played in the Champions League this season, and certainly not the most creative. They got at least a little lucky to survive Napoli and definitely lucky to survive both Barcelona and Bayern Munich considering that star players on the other team missed penalty kicks that were almost certain game winners. Plus, John Terry. Ugh. But that's all the negative stuff that anyone says when someone they don't like wins something. You can have your problems with a team and still acknowledge that what they did was impressive. Because more than lucky or boring or anything negative, Chelsea was impressive to me in their Champions League play. They came back from down 3-1 versus a talented Napoli squad to move on. They beat Barcelona in London and then held them to an improbable draw in Barcelona after John Terry's idiocy sent them down to 10 men. They went to Munich, a supposedly neutral site, for a winner take all final and won in penalties after going down early, perhaps one of the nerviest experiences you can imagine in sports. The mental fortitude was more impressive than anything else and that was needed in spades playing the defensive countering style of soccer that seemed like a "back to basics" move for Chelsea.

To me, this Chelsea team is summed up by the play of Didier Drogba more than anything else. He is their talisman, their indicator, a microcosm of them as a whole. At times they were ugly, writhing around on the ground at Stamford Bridge trying to delay as much as possible and protect the precarious 1-0 lead over Barcelona. At times they were manic and lucky, getting in the way of every pass but let off the hook by Lionel Messi after an earned penalty kick. In the end, they were poised and confident, scoring the late match-tying goal and then striding up to the spot during penalties leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that this would be the shot that won the championship. They, and he, are not my favorites and if I had my way, there would have been a different outcome, but this is the one that was earned. Chelsea are the champions for 2011-2012 and it should not be argued any other way.

This isn't a diatribe about analysis in the "Twitter Age" (whatever the fuck that truly means), nor a commentary about the attention span of society in digital times. I've drawn enough society-wide conclusions from such a small sample size and I have no interest in using sport as a springboard to talk about the wider world in such definite terms. I simply ask for a brief delay when thinking about where to place these moments in history. There is always time for recaps, for "best of" lists, for end of season awards. Those will take place whether we jump to them or not. In the meantime, enjoy what you've seen (or spend the next week using alcohol to erase what you've seen if you're Bayern) and live in the moment that you've been waiting for rather than rushing backwards or forwards too quickly. Triumphs deserve our consideration, not only our participation and once you've given the wrong conquerors from London their chance, remember... there's always next  year.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Most Amazing Day in Sports

I'm generally against these retro diary posts as they seem to be an all too common conceit, a way of making your recap interesting on the surface without really adding anything to it through the style. But with all ten Premier League matches being played at the same time on the final day of the season, there really is no better way to capture the tension and the drama because almost all of it was dependent upon what was happening in other matches that were unfolding at the same time. So, I bring to you my Sunday (or at least the parts of it I wish to recount) AKA The Premiership's Final Day AKA Survivor Sunday AKA The Craziest Day in Sports I Have Ever Witnessed.

I arrived at Phoenix Landing in Cambridge, MA right at the stroke of ten due a slightly late bus schedule, but anxious to get started on the matches. Phoenix Landing is a bar in Central Square known as a soccer bar, a place which will be open early in the morning for anyone who needs somewhere to watch the games. It is primarily a Liverpool bar, but shows many other games when possible which is great for those of us who don't have FOX Soccer Plus, Setanta, GolTV, Sky Sports, and all of the extra channels on which games can hide. All of this, however, I had discovered on my one previous visit to the bar which was when a staging area was needed before a concert. Therefore I was not sure entirely what to expect when I came up to what looked like a locked door right as the matches were about to start. With panic welling up inside me, I pulled just a bit too hard on an open door and walked into what could have been a nighttime bar anywhere else in the soccer loving world. The windows were all closed, blinds tightened, lights turned low so that you had to struggle just a bit to identify things through the gloam. Inside were roughly one hundred people of all affiliations: 20 or so Manchester United fans sitting around a projection screen; around 15 Arsenal fans standing in front of the bar watching the television behind it; a patch of Manchester City fans camped out in front of the television opposite the bar; dozens of Liverpool fans there to enjoy... god, I don't know what; and plenty of other people I couldn't make out from near the entrance. I sidled up to some other Arsenal fans one row behind the seats at the bar and almost immediately the man in front of me left his seat (presumably due to the taps slightly blocking the view of the TV as I saw him elsewhere in the bar later) and offered it to those standing behind him. I deferred to the people that had been there before me but when all declined, I happily took a seat at the bar, where I would remain for the better part of the next four hours.

Almost immediately a roar burst through the room, a roar I was a part of, as Yossi Benayoun took advantage of a horrible goal keeping blunder by West Bromwich Albion's Marton Fulop in the third minute and tapped the ball into the back of the net. I assume this is the kind of mistake keepers see in their dreams before matches, the post-adolescent netminder version of standing naked in front of your class. Fulop came to the end of his box to play the ball but realized that he had come all the way out of said box, keeping him from picking up the incoming ball. Rather than doing the natural thing at that point (blasting the holy hell out of the ball and conceding a throw-in at worst), Fulop tried to let the ball run into the penalty area and then dive on it. However Benayoun was way too quick for him, nicking the ball from under his arms and then side footing in for the opening goal. The crowd was jubilant but the abused spouse side of us came through almost immediately. Benayoun had scored similarly in Arsenal's last match against Norwich City, a game Arsenal had eventually lost 3-2, keeping the Gunners from clinching third place and a Champions League spot for next year. Hopefully history would not repeat itself.

Well fuck, maybe it would after all. Once all the Arsenal supporters settled down from the Benayoun goal, we were treated to highlights of Tottenham scoring against Fulham a minute prior. The culprit? Emmanuel Adebayor. Of course it was Adebayor. With both teams up 1-0, Arsenal was still safely in third with Spurs trailing in fourth, but it was a downer of a moment that felt like heavy handed foreshadowing more than anything. Inside of 15 minutes, those feelings were proven correct as West Brom scored two goals to take the lead 2-1 over Arsenal. In a bit of Balotelli "why always me" style for Gunners supporters, the first goal was scored by Shane Long (with a very nice finish, by the way), who received the ball in an offside position. The second goal came off of Graham Dorrans popping the ball up to himself and then finishing with a very nice volley to beat Wojiech Szczesny inside the left post. Now, let's be clear. Despite the offsides for the first goal and the impressive skill of the second, Arsenal was badly beaten defensively twice when they had the game in the palm of their hand. First with Thomas Vermaelen traveling too far up the field yet again when he doesn't need to, then by awkward positional defending off a simple pass and a pop-up. Arsenal can play very well defensively at times but have this habit of fumbling away the momentum when they absolutely should not, and it's something that needs to change for next season. We fans in red and white got a bit of good news shortly after the second West Brom goal when the televisions showed Everton going ahead of Newcastle on a Steven Pienaar goal, meaning Arsenal was still in fourth rather than tumbling all the way to fifth and out of the Champions League. But with our arch rivals ahead of us and fourth place not being exactly a sure Champions League spot, this was a gloomy time in an otherwise happily gloomy bar.

It was about at this point in the day that the other races started getting interesting. Bolton needed a win and a Queens Park Rangers loss to stay out of the final relegation spot, but Stoke City put a goal in against them early in the first half, causing everyone around me to shake their heads in mourning for Bolton. Stoke is a notoriously difficult place to play (as I have mentioned before) and also a difficult team to score on. Bolton pulling two goals back and remaining ahead for the rest of the game seemed quite unlikely. All of this discussion was quickly forgotten, however, when Wayne Rooney got on the end of a very nice cross from Phil Jones and headed home to put Man U up 1-0. This was huge as United and City were tied on points going into the day and Rooney's goal meant that City needed one as well in order to keep up. A likely event considering City's home form, QPR's away form, and the general disparity in talent, but you never know.

Now would be a good time to discuss the best part of being at this bar: the fans reacted to everything and there were multiple reactions to each event. For example, a team would score and the fans of the team would absolutely freak out, drawing everyone's attention to their screen. Then the replay would come on and all the other fans would react to the thing they knew had happened but hadn't seen, while the fans of the scoring team would do mini-celebrations and prayers upon seeing their own replay. Then one or more channels would do a split screen shot showing the highlight of the goal that everyone had just seen, but still reacted to at some minor level. So Arsenal fans would groan in disgust at a West Brom goal, then groan again and harp on some players fault while the (mercifully) few Spurs fans would do mini fist pumps and all the other fans would tsk tsk at the sloppy defending. Or, the Manchester United fans would be jumping around, drawing the eye of everyone including the City fans who absolutely dreaded what the television would confirm, then cursed aloud when the replay was shown, then would shout things like "get that trash off the screen" when their own channel would break in to alert them to the highlight. It made for so many smaller moments among the larger ones that added that much more excitement/disappointment/loathing to the day as a whole.

After City and United fans traded oaths and epithets with each other and things began to calm down... they sped right up again. First Andre Santos pulled a goal back for Arsenal on a typical Andre Santos run. He looked lost, perhaps a bit out of shape, then he got the ball, burned by a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot that beat Fulop near post. I just don't understand it. The Tuesday Club members have taken to saying Santos should be forced to wear a chef's hat whenever he's on the field to alert everyone to his love of food. Even without the hyperbole, he always looks awkward when he's gearing up for the attack, like someone who gets together with his friends to play once a week even though his glory days are behind him. But when he gets the ball, he is a completely different person, taking on defenders, whipping in crosses, bursting in from the left to wreck havoc in the middle of the field. He is awful as an on the ball defender and fails to track back well, but he is a real asset from a surprising part of the side's structure when his marauding is needed. I feel uncomfortable with him as the first choice left back (unless he greatly improves his fitness) but I must say that I do like having him as an option. During our celebration, the slightly delayed news came through that Nikica Jelavic had scored for Everton, putting them up 2-0 and seemingly giving Arsenal a stranglehold on fourth place, if not better.

The real drama (and honestly, this was the focal point of the day even if you were a fan of a team about to be relegated or competing for Champions League spots) took another turn in the 39th minute at Ethiad Stadium when Pablo Zabaleta blasted through and put Man City up 1-0 over QPR. This goal put the Manchester teams back on level terms, but since City's goal differential (the tiebreaker) was insurmountable, both teams winning meant United was losing. To make things even crazier, Bolton scored two goals at Stoke to go up 2-1 before the half. Also, Chelsea scored somewhere in here. No one cared. If you're keeping count at home, that means:

Manchester City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Manchester United 1-0 Sunderland
Arsenal 2-2 West Bromwich Albion
Tottenham 1-0 Fulham
Newcastle 0-2 Everton
Bolton 2-1 Stoke City
Chelsea 1(?)-? Who Cares

If those results held, it meant that City were the champions, Tottenham finished above Arsenal (3rd and 4th respectively), Newcastle ended their magical season heartbreakingly close to Champions League play but still outside of it, Bolton stayed up in the Premier League while QPR was relegated, and it was still hilarious that no one cared about Chelsea. All of this is high drama anyway, but there was just so much more in store.

The first magic moment of the second half was a stunner. QPR striker Djibril Cisse pounced on a Joleon Lescott errant header and sent it into the back of the net, turning everything upside down once again. United fans were manic, City fans were distraught, and no one could believe that QPR was coming back from behind at Manchester City. Of course one good turn deserves another and QPR's Joey Barton was sent off for elbowing Carlos Tevez and then cheap-shotting Sergio Aguero, which almost sparked a brawl on the field in an attempt to ruin everything. Thankfully no one got involved like that and it was City's time to be up while United were down. The proceedings took on an air of inevitability at this point. Of course City would notch a goal against 10 man QPR, it was bound to happen. But then again things flipped when Jamie Mackie got on the end of an Armand Traore cross and put a diving header past Joe Hart and into the back of the net, and suddenly City's deficit was two goals in order to come back and win. The craziest part was this all happened in about a 15 minute span and none of it died away after it happened. People kept discussing it, kept seeing replays, and it simmered throughout, building and building in intensity. It captured everyone's attention and led to that age old cliche of thinking "what will happen next?"

In all honesty, even as an Arsenal fan, the Manchester drama took over at this point. Before QPR went ahead on Mackie's goal, Laurent Koscielny took advantage of another comical Fulop error, this time a mishit punch off a corner kick, to put Arsenal up 3-2 and in control of their Champions League destiny. We celebrated heartily, slapping hands and raising glasses. Of course we did. And we sat or stood nervously for 35+ minutes, waiting for Arsenal to let us down again. Tottenham secured their lead against Fulham, but Arsenal's collapse never came and the two London sides finished third and fourth with Arsenal securing yet another Champions League birth. And we cared about this, heartily and truly. We most assuredly did. But even the primary fandom of the people at the bar was muffled to a degree and the other "neutral" storylines was moved to the back burner, noticed but not exactly celebrated. Everton guaranteed finishing above Liverpool for the season. Oh that's nice, good for them, they earned it. Stoke came back to tie with Bolton. That's a shame, the Wanderers were ruined by injuries, probably don't deserve to go down. Swansea scored on Liverpool to cap off a highly disappointing season for the Reds. Haha, that's kind of funny in a mid-table way. All was observed, all was commented upon, but there was one true focus for almost everyone in the room.

In the 80th minute, United fans started to pry their worried eyes away from their television and steal glances at City's. Around the 85th they began to sing every song from "We Love United" to pretty much anything that mentioned City directly, and not in a "good effort, you tried your best" kind of way. By the 90th the place was roaring with song and disbelief, aside from the secluded City fans who couldn't believe what was happening. Then, a goal. Edin Dzeko leapt high and uncontested off a corner to drive home the equalizer and City were shown some life. But even as the roars from City fans died down and the neutrals muttered that cliche yet again shaking their heads, the songs from the United corner came "you still need one more," underlining the fact that City hadn't done anything yet.

But then they did. Aguero broke free off a return pass from Mario Balotelli (of all people), took an extra step to move clear of the diving defender, and drove home the second City goal of the second half, the second goal in overtime, and City were about to be champions. United fans were absolutely shell-shocked, in total disbelief. The Liverpool fans were almost louder than the City fans because, well, any chance to celebrate in United's defeat. And while the excited conversations started to die down, while the fans did their extra fist pumps at the inevitable replay from five different angles, you heard the rise of the one, the only, "Who the Fuck is Manchester United?"

I can't describe the rest of the day to you. I mean, I can, but it won't do it justice. It was the little things that happened that I can't properly recreate so that you feel like you were there. The Arsenal fan with his arm around his United friend's shoulder saying "I'm telling you man, you never sing early." The City fan who sat with the United crowd all day because his wife was a United fan, taking all the abuse from everyone in the area and smiling through it all. The Arsenal fans shaking hands and lifting glasses to a belated St. Totteringham's Day. The conversation I had with my Mom shortly after the matches all ended, a couple Guinness deep and still emotionally reeling from such a fantastic day of soccer. I know that we tend to over inflate the recent at the expense of the past. I know that and I've been comparing this day to my personal favorites in sports over the years: Kirby Puckett robbing Ron Gant against the Metrodome plexiglass before hitting a walk off home run to send the 1991 World Series to a Game 7; the Giants stopping the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and then again in the revenge game; the Penguins overcoming the Red Wings for their own revenge; the see-saw heartbreaking nature of the Twins vs Tigers one game playoff; the Landon Donovan goal that sent the USA through to the elimination round in injury time of their last match of the group stage. All of those memories are incredibly special to me because they involved my teams and they will always hold the most treasured places in my heart, or at least in the section devoted to sports. But after much reflection and genuine thought, I can honestly say that immediacy be damned, the past Sunday was the most insane, nerve-wracking, batshit crazy, and amazing complete day of sports I have ever experienced in my life. For all the meanings and the outcomes, for all the little dramas and the huge one that overpowered us all. It wasn't just one game or one story, it was every moment coming together to make it the unique and extraordinary day that it was. I just hope everyone out there got to taste at least a piece of that themselves. Cheers to you all and thank you for a great Premier League season.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"...Because He Dodges Bullets, Avi"

Perhaps Arsenal is no Boris the Blade, but they were incredibly lucky to still control their own destiny after the events of this past weekend. Because of the FA Cup final, Saturday morning was devoid of all Premier League matches except one: Arsenal vs Norwich City. On paper, this was a perfect game for Arsenal. It was their last home game of the season and against one of those few teams who had nothing in particular to play for. Sitting in 14th place with 43 points, Norwich was completely clear of the relegation zone. No combination of results over the last two games could possibly pull them into the bottom three, so they were not fighting for their lives. In addition, the Canaries were far enough removed from Europa League (the not-so-quick little brother of the Champions League that is all kinds of convoluted for several different reasons) places that there was no hope of qualifying for that illustrious tournament. In other words, they were a relatively rare case in the last two weeks of the EPL season: they were a team with nothing to play for. The case was simple. Arsenal would guarantee a spot in the Champions League if they won their last two matches. With Tottenham and Newcastle only one point behind them however, any slip up could drop them as far as 5th place, outside even the Champions League spot that comes with the requirement of a playoff series. Still, one would have good reason to be optimistic. The Gunners were playing at home against a team that had lost their last three games and didn't have a material reason to show up. Only effort, pride, and a love of winning were there to propel them forward. Unfortunately for Arsenal, that was enough.

The game started beautifully for Arsenal. In the second minute, Yossi Benayoun took a touch inside from his position on the left corner of the 18 and curled a perfect shot inside the back post, leaving Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy with absolutely no chance. Assisted by Kieran Gibbs' touchline run which drew the defender down for the split second Benayoun needed, this goal seemed to be the start of exactly what Arsenal needed. With the first goal going in so effortlessly, surely the Gunners would roll over a disinterested Norwich squad and spare the home fans any frayed nerves by enjoying a ho-hum 3-0 win. Except this was not the case at all. Norwich immediately stormed back into play and controlled the game for the rest of the first half, making Arsenal look ordinary on offense and at times laughable on defense. The flanks were the main danger areas as the Canaries consistently brought the ball as far as the endline before sending crosses into the middle for their target men and on one such play, Wesley Hoolahan got free and directed a shot on goal. This was one of the few cases where Wojiech Szczesny was not at his best as he struggled to get out of his own way, letting the ball go off of his leg and into the back of the net. Not only was Norwich now level, but controlling the match as well. It was only a matter of time until they went up 2-1, this time on an unlucky deflection as Grant Holt's shot hit Gibbs' foot and ballooned over Szczesny for the go-ahead goal. A piece of bad luck to be certain, but a goal that was deserved based on the run of play to that point. Going into the half, one had to wonder whether the Gunners would stay shell-shocked for the rest of the game, or get angry with themselves and come to play.

Fortunately for Arsenal fans, the second option proved to be the true one as the match swung entirely in the home side's favor for nearly all of the last 45 minutes. Arsenal were always the more likely team to score and after some frustrating near misses and excellent keeping by Ruddy, the Gunners broke through on the foot of their captain Robin Van Persie. First it was a volley off of an excellent Alex Song chip and then a clean up job on a loose ball in the box, which put Van Perise on 30 Premier League goals on the season, one away from tying the single season mark shared by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. The go ahead and seemingly match clinching goal was celebrated with the kind of joy and relief that only comes when your team has finally put right a terrible wrong, when they correct on the scoreboard what everyone knew should be happening on the field. The third Arsenal goal of the match felt like order was restored, like we were all back on script for the first time since the bit of Benayoun magic at the start. Like most good stories, however, there was another twist to come. Steve Morrison found himself free on the right hand side of Arsenal's penalty area and before Szczesny could close the angle or the late arriving defender could make a timely shot, he struck the ball perfectly across the face of goal and inside the far post. In Emirates, there was the confused silence of "this is not what is supposed to happen." The right was wronged again and after a tense five minutes plus injury time, Arsenal had drawn with Norwich City, leaving two points and command of third place on the table.

Perhaps the most agonizing part of all of this was that, as I said, Arsenal vs Norwich was the only game on Saturday. The bulk of the week's matches, including those involving Newcastle and Tottenham, were played on Sunday morning, meaning that Arsenal fans were forced to endure over 24 hours before discovering if their team's mistake would be exploited. Miraculously, it wasn't. Newcastle lost a very tough match to a better Manchester City team and Tottenham were inexplicably held to a draw by an Aston Villa team who would be relegated on form, but survived barely above the danger zone thanks to points accumulated earlier in the year. Arsenal were still safe, still somehow in control of their own destiny going into the final week of the season. A win away at West Bromwich Albion continues to mean a guaranteed spot in the Champions League next year and all of a sudden would transform a normal Sunday into a glorious St. Totteringham's Day. After Saturday morning's match, who would have thought it? Arsenal clearly dodged a bullet.

Game Notes

-The biggest loss on Saturday was not the loss of points, but the loss of Bacary Sagna with a broken fibula, the same part of his leg he broke earlier in the season. Not only does this knock him out of a spot on the France national team in Euro 2012, but it puts Sagna's future in doubt as well. Sagna came back from this injury once already and has vowed to come back even stronger this time, but for a right back that relies on pace and constant Cherundoloing (listen to Men in Blazers already, dammit) this is a tough break to take. Sagna will assuredly be missed during next Sunday's match versus West Brom, but the more important thing is for him to come back healthy and fit for next season. Good luck to you Bacary. We think the world of you.

-Alex Song has struck again and it couldn't have come at a better time. Though the match ended in a 3-3 draw, Song made yet another smart, instinctive chip over the defense to free Robin Van Persie for a goal. At times the Cameroonian holding middie can be frustrating due to his desire to always make the perfect, pretty pass, which leads to him being dispossessed in his own end more than an Arsenal fan would like. But with ten assists on the season (tied with Van Persie for the team lead), it's hard to argue that his passing instincts should be blunted. Song has had perhaps his best year for Arsenal providing them with stability in the middle of the field as well as the occasional bit of brilliance. Though at times I may wish for a more traditional steel plated holding middie who shuts down attacks before they start, I can't say I don't like watching him. Now all he needs to do is keep it together for one more match.

-Arsenal clearly miss the injured members of their team, but it was especially clear during the first half of this match. Mikel Arteta certainly wouldn't have ceded control of midfield to Norwich so easily and probably could have kept possession of the ball and kept Arsenal in the game if not on the front foot. Theo Walcott would have gotten up and down the flanks more easily than Gervinho, who seemed to oscillate between being completely invisible off the ball and completely ineffectual on the ball. And that's not even getting into the longer standing members of the injury club like Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesacker. This has been a tough year for Arsenal injury-wise but thankfully it will be all over after next Sunday. It is just the hope that the dreams of Champions League in 2012-2013 won't be over as well. If Arsenal can hold on, they will go into next season healthier and already up the addition of Lukas Podolski. Reasons for optimism for sure. As Always, Go Gunners.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Draw as Something More (Or Less) Than a Neutral Result

A draw as a result is something that is met with frustration or disdain in American sports. We've all heard the phrase "a tie is like kissing your sister" and I would feel safe in describing this as the view of the vast majority of sports fans in the United States. All of the major sports have methods devised to specifically avoid a tie (extra innings in baseball, overtime in basketball, shootouts in hockey, and so forth) and even though football's overtime still allows for the possibility for a tie, this is more due to the unfairness of prolonged overtime due to the intensely physical nature of the game rather than any kind of philosophic inclusion of the result. In general, a draw is seen to be a letdown of an outcome, something that happens because the "true" winner could not be confirmed. It is a result that is largely seen as negative and definitely accepted with no better than a neutral "well, at least we got something out of it" outlook. However, this is a particular and subjective way of thinking about draws rather than something to be seen as a universal truth. In soccer, draws are often unwanted or disappointing, but still can be seen as a positive, or even as a lesser victory depending on the disparity in talent level between the teams.

The main attitude of the American sports fan is that a tie is not winning and therefore automatically bad. While understandable to a degree, this is not an attitude that is applied to all other aspects of the sports. Of course winning is the ultimate goal. The entire point of a season, as well as an extended history, of a sport is to be the best, to be the champions, to have defeated all comers. This is understood and not something I wish to contest. But it is only the most extreme fans who consider every season a failure unless they win the title in their respective league. Of course an odds-on favorite to win it all is disappointed, even devastated, when they fall short (as a Penguins fan I know this all too well right now). If Kentucky hadn't won the NCAA basketball championship, that would have been considered a failure because they were obviously the most talented team and were the dominant pick to win everything. When you reach a certain level of prosperity and talent, simply competing isn't enough. But there are many instances in which falling short of the trophy is still considered an accomplishment. What lowly regarded team that makes the playoffs isn't appreciated for their efforts? Would fans of last year's Seattle Seahawks team, who won their division and then beat the powerhouse New Orleans Saints, truly consider that run to be worth nothing since they didn't win the Super Bowl? Teams and/or fans often view their success incrementally: we'd love it if we showed real improvement from last year, we'd love it if we made the playoffs, we'd love it if we won the division, and so on upward. As I said, at a certain point it is not enough to just be in the running, but if we allow for step-by-step growth at a season level, why do we automatically rule it out from an individual game?

More important, a draw does actually gain something for a team. A draw, although worse than a win, is better than a loss. You may be angry if your football team ties at some point during their season, but when their 9-6-1 record allows them to qualify for the playoffs over a 9-7 team, you'll certainly be happy that game ended in a draw instead of a loss. Draws work similarly in soccer in that you receive 1 point if the game ends with both sides equal. This is clearly worse than the 3 points for a win. If an English Premier League team tied every single one of their 38 matches, that would put them at 38 points which is hovering around the relegation zone in a competitive year (40 points is the common marker for the "safe zone" from being sent down a league), so obviously a team needs to do more than that. But every point is helpful towards achieving the end result. The question is less about "is a draw objectively good/bad/neutral" and more about "what was the nature of the draw?" When Wigan (perennial relegation contender) held Chelsea (perennial title contender) to a draw at home earlier this season, the mood was celebratory and it should have been. Here was one of the small teams in the league holding one of the big money organizations to a draw, something that shouldn't happen in the eyes of the big boys. Add in the fact that European soccer isn't salary capped, and this result looks less like the Cleveland Browns ending a game in a draw with the Green Bay Packers, but more like the Royals splitting a series with the New York Yankees. Any Browns fan would take that result in recent years, but the Royals fan would be especially happy considering the payroll difference between them and the Yankees is a staggering $137 million. Then again, for Chelsea, Green Bay, or New York, such a tie would be below expectations and therefore disappointing. Again, it is situational and not something in the very nature of what a draw is.

So what to make of the Arsenal draw at Stoke City? The answer is that it is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Arsenal will be very disappointed to not pick up the full three points. Newcastle's loss would have meant that an Arsenal win would have gone a long way toward locking up the third spot (the automatic Champions League spot) in the Premiership, putting them six points up (though Newcastle and Tottenham both have a game in hand) with two games to play. That would mean Arsenal would have to lose both of their last two games and their opponents would have to win and at least draw. Good odds to be certain. Alas, the draw leaves them only four points up which means Arsenal winning both of their last two matches is the only way to assure themselves of the third spot. This is why I, and all other Gunners fans, were hoping the team could pull a last minute goal out to earn the win.

Then again, Britannia Stadium is a notoriously difficult place to play. Though Stoke has been a mid-table team since being promoted to the Premier League in 2008, they have never finished worse than 13th and will finish anywhere from 8th to 14th this season (though the low side is much more likely than the high side). Even more telling, they have always finished above. 500 in their home games and have already gotten results from Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, and Chelsea at Britannia this year, an impressive list that doesn't even including disappointing but still historic Liverpool. That point could prove vital over the next two matches, keeping Arsenal ahead of their competition when a loss would have put them in more danger. So while a draw may not be the chest pounding triumphant result that vanquishing your enemies may be, it deserves much more than the derisive dismissal it gets from most fans in the United States. As with most things, it's all a matter of timing and expectations.

Game Notes

-My notes for this match were lost due to an annoying computer crash (very close to upgrading this old (in computer years) laptop), so I'm afraid I cannot be as specific as I'd like. It was apparent though, even working from memory, that Arsenal were the more dominant team and always the more likely to score. Still, Stoke is a difficult team to break down and once the match went on and they were in a position to gain a point, we saw less and less in terms of risk and the standard defensive mindset kicked in. I say this not to insult Stoke as I can easily understand the value of maintaining the draw. It was just unfortunate for an Arsenal team that could have really done with the pace of Theo Walcott or the inventiveness and aggression of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal were unlucky not to come out with the win, but it is one of those acceptable "losses" that Stoke are so good at forcing upon opponents.

-Since I continually dog Aaron Ramsey in this blog, it should be noted that he played much better in this match. He did not dominate the game and come up with chance after chance, but he was much more tidy with the ball than in the past and his attempts on net were more controlled than we have come to expect. He still should not be a first choice starter for the Gunners, but with the increasingly injured midfield looking like it does, he will be a valuable option if he can at least keep up this placeholder type play. Consistency is the name of the game though, so let's hope this is the start of an upswing rather than a momentary glitch.

-MAROUANE CHAMAKH GOT IN A GAME FOR ARSENAL!!! This is both the most hilariously exciting and terribly depressing thing I've seen all season. At least he didn't do anything to lower his potential transfer fee? Ugh. Thank god we got Podolski. As Always, Go Gunners.