Footballistically Speaking: the end of the love story

Arsene Wenger introduced to Highbury with the quote “I always say that a manager has a love story with a club and he has to behave like it will be a love story forever but not be stupid enough to believe that it will never end. It could end at any minute, but you have to behave like it will last forever.”

“I always say that a manager has a love story with a club and he has to behave like it will be a love story forever but not be stupid enough to believe that it will never end. It could end at any minute, but you have to behave like it will last forever.” – Arsene Wenger

All relationships eventually end. It’s not something we humans like to think about much but it’s an inescapable fact: we are confronted with endings at almost every turn and yet we remain surprised each time. When a lover leaves we are “shocked” and “never saw that coming.” And when a good friend passes it is always “too soon.” We wish for more time together and yet how much of our time together is spent wasting those moments?

Even our language around these endings is filled with surprise. We are “confronted” with death. That is possibly the most true statement of all time because we humans pretend that death will never come and have to have our heads lifted from our hands to look death in the face when it’s time.

And we have the seven stages of grieving which naturally starts with shock and disbelief, transitioning to anger and depression, and fading away into hope and acceptance. It takes us six stages to get to the point where we accept the inevitable. All relationships end and it takes us forever to be reminded of this fact.

Heartache is wasted on the heartbroken. They wallow in the heartache instead of seeing it as the inevitable outgrowth of love. When we open ourselves to another, we invite not only love and happiness but heartache and sadness. Unless we are the “lucky one” and we die suddenly and tragically, in which case we simply leave the heartache behind for others. It’s still there though. It’s the burden of love.

In between the falling in love and the heartache is all the good stuff. Spinning on a tire swing on a sunny day. Breaking open a loaf of hot, fresh baked bread and eating the whole thing with butter. Catching fireflies in the woods near your house. That big rattler and how your best friend ran home, got a shovel, and chopped off that snake’s head, which was the dumbest thing you probably did as a kid. Staying up until midnight, fishing until your arm got tired in the Alaskan summer. The horrible scream of that first rabbit you ever shot. Your first kiss at that party, in that dark room, with the red curtains, and “Off the wall” playing in the background. Stealing credits to play Dragon’s Lair all day. Watching a kid fall down a half-pipe on his skateboard, fall down and compound fracture his arm. Getting drunk and laughing all night long as your best friend cracks jokes. Having a fight over a game of pool. Cooking a meal together and laughing because you put too much vegetables in the borscht. Kanu jumping over Wiltord as Arsenal win the League at Old Trafford. Patrick Vieira’s run and goal to help seal the title at White Hart Lane. Your friend’s drawing of that moment hanging on your wall. Ljungberg scoring the winner as John Terry falls over. Highbury, and those well worn stairs to the tiny seats on the lower tier: the grass so green it seems like turf. Fabregas’ mullet. The day she was born, and how blue she was because her blood was full of bilirubin and you worried that she was going to die already before you ever even got a chance to know her but she didn’t die and you worried about nothing. A man punching the seat in front of him at Wembley when Martins scored the winner against Arsenal in the League Cup final. A night game in Munich so cold that the ground looked like the ice planet Hoth. Skinny dipping in an alpine lake*. Aaron Ramsey lying on the ground, his arms outstretched, hugging the infinite after scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final. Hiking along a trail in late fall as dozens of baby toads cross your path to migrate down the mountain. Asking a woman on a date because you like her sassy attitude. Life and love is worth the heartache because of that good stuff.

“A team with good players but a manager they don’t think is good enough, goes nowhere. A great manager with no good players, goes nowhere. Success in football is always a combination of both.” – Wenger 2009

And now we come to the bad stuff. Last night was bad. Arsenal lost 5-1 to a decent enough Bayern Munich team but it wasn’t the gulf in quality between the players that was awful. I accept that there will be better teams and better players than what Arsenal can buy. What made yesterday heartbreaking was that Arsenal were disorganized, yelling at each other constantly in defense, running around (when they felt like running) for no reason, and just lumping the ball out on the rare occasion that they had the ball.

It was a very simple game plan by Bayern and their manager Carlo Ancelotti: just play possession football. They constantly drew Arsenal out of their low block by slowly playing back whenever Arsenal’s players went bombing forward on one of their individual “pressure” moves. Then Bayern calmly played the ball to Alcantara or Lewandowski. Most of the game Bayern barely broke a sweat. It looked like walking football for large portions of the game.

Arsenal didn’t press as a unit and it showed. Ozil led Arsenal in tackles, which is an incredible stat when you watched him play: he basically walked around the pitch for 80 minutes, jogged for 9, and ran for 1. They just had so much of the ball and so much of it right in Özil’s face that he had no choice but to tackle. The video I made for Alcantara’s goal shows in microcosm exactly what I mean.

The score is 2-1 at this point. It’s 55 minutes in to the match. This match far from over and yet watch all of the Arsenal players, listlessly “tackling” and challenging for the ball. Özil goes over and makes a tackle, but only after wandering around for a minute. Then watch Mustafi jawing at Bellerin while Alcantara walks, not runs, into his space. Watch as Mustafi realizes too late. Watch as Mustafi then inexplicably yells at someone else for his error. He got up faster to yell at someone than he did to cover Alcantara.

Everything about this match was exactly what many of us have been warning about for the last few years. Arsenal can’t pass the ball any more. Wenger had a center mid, Coquelin, who made 6/9 passes in 77 minutes and Ox didn’t fare much better with 11/18 passes in 90 minutes. Arsenal don’t press as a unit any more. I counted no less than four different players waving on their teammates to come over and help make a press: Alexis, Xhaka, Özil (which is funny), and Ox. And defensively, Arsenal are a shambles. Koscielny was certainly missed but Bayern scored their second on an aerial duel with Mustafi and their third when Mustafi was yelling at Bellerin or his teammates for something (not pressing, maybe??). Arsenal didn’t lose this match through Koscielny’s replacement, they lost this match because the £35m center back Arsenal purchased this summer is better at disco dancing than at playing defense.

But none of this is news. If you’ve been watching this season it’s clear that this team is lacking direction, organization, and heart. And you have to wonder if Wenger’s quote from 2009 about players who lack belief in the manager isn’t a little bit prescient.

I love Wenger and this heartbreak was inevitable. I’m sorry if this is something you didn’t expect but I’ve been resigned to this happening now for over two years. I’ve moved on to the final stage.



*I was offered the chance to have my youth restored by a beautiful, naked, younger woman swimming in a clear, cold, mountain lake, and I refused because I hadn’t brought a towel. Always bring a towel. Or sometimes, just be wet for a little bit.

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