Forget about money for a second. Forget about Financial Fair Play, £24 million transfers, and oil barons’ bottomless coffers. Money doesn’t guarantee happiness. Money doesn’t guarantee success either (see: Liverpool).
The ball is round, Sepp Herberger famously said, and the game lasts 90 minutes. Anything can happen. Does happen. It’s football. It’s beautiful. And life isn’t always about sport, but sport so often is about life — and the unimpeachable humanity of the men who play this game. The grit and frailty of it all are part of what make sport so appealing. Because it’s real in a way that no carefully-produced TV show or movie could ever be. Sport turns on the hinges of spontaneity, skill, and sheer bloody-minded willpower in the face of adversity. Arsenal are a perfect example.
The comeback kings. The Impossibles. One-nil down then two-one up. 1-2 to Wigan at home, 5-3 vs. Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Granted, Wigan were a team on a mission and Chelsea, at the time of the loss, under the hapless tutelage of Andre Villas-Boas. Still, the pattern rings disconcertingly true: this Arsenal team is much better at chasing a lead than holding it. Winning positions have been found untenable. A 4-0 lead might not be enough to secure three points. Finals — the less said about those, the better. And let me throw in a keyword to get this page some hits: FC Barcelona.
Unhappy memories, I know. Yet ironically it was often in the moments of despair, last season, that this team showed a kind of fervor which humbles the supporter’s heart. The return leg against AC Milan. The fightback from 17th place in the table. The 5-2 NLD. All of which go to show that Arsenal have tremendous heart, and though knocked down, can never be counted out.
But here’s my question: why must defeat be a prerequisite for victory? I love comebacks as much as the next person, but when a comeback seems to be the only way your team knows how to win, then it becomes a problem.
Expectation does not sit well with our team. Some people experience expectation as encouragement, because the world believes you are able; for others, it is pressure, because there will be objurgation should you fail. Expectation can be paralyzing. This Arsenal would rather be the underdogs, and that position takes its own kind of psychological fortitude. Though some may cheer for the unlikely chance of your success, the truth is, the odds are never in your favor. But some thrive under these conditions, and Arsenal, I would suggest, are of that breed.
This team is spectacular when facing down the odds, and they are readily motivated by negatives. It is a reactive mindset. Initiative does not come from within, but is dependent upon an outside and opposing force. Adversity is a potent stimulus, and the underdog narrative is gripping — but ultimately crippling.
Yes, it’s good to know that when it comes down to the fight-or-flight moment, Arsenal’s instinct is a resounding fight. But once that isolated threat is fought and done, what then?
The strength required to maintain form even without the prevailing wind of adversity is an altogether different story. It calls for self-reliance. Self-assurance. It is a question of maturity. Protecting a lead is both a defensive and offensive mindset, requiring the acumen to know when you should attack and — more importantly — when you must hold and defend. Going all out for a comeback removes one of these from the equation. When there is nothing to lose, that defensive part of the psyche gets put to bed, and the gears shift into overdrive for offense. A comeback is a direct run that has but one direction: forward.
In a league as competitive as the EPL, a string of comebacks isn’t enough. A winning team needs maturity and understanding between the players. The title race is no 100m upset; it’s a marathon.
But here’s the silver lining: though the 2012/13 campaign is only two matchdays old, Arsenal are already looking great defensively. Steve Bould’s influence is tangible in the tactical and mental discipline our back four have shown vs. Sunderland and Stoke. It probably helped that the defense managed to remain unscathed through this freak show of a transfer window, and our first- and second-choice defenders have now all had at least one season to get to know each other.
Continuity breeds understanding which breeds self-assurance. What with the rotating cast of captain and crew lately, Arsenal have been beggared for that kind of cohesion. So a solid, settled defense is not only a bulwark against the physical reality of strikers trying to put the ball past Szczesny; it is a psychological reprieve.
We love the underdog because at some point we’ve all felt small and helpless, thrown against seemingly insurmountable odds. We empathize with a fellow human being, burdened by mortal struggles, even if he carries out his battles on the theater of sport and we, in our daily lives. But sometimes we need a little bit more. Sometimes we just want somebody to prove that hey, you can rise above this. You can be great. Those faults, those imperfections — they don’t have to follow you around through all your days.
Sometimes we need our big damn heroes. And right now, that’s what I need from Arsenal.