A controversial penalty and freak own-goal overshadow excellent performance
Arsene Wenger said it best,
“I think what is the most difficult to take is that we were the better team and
we lost the game. We were in front and had a chance to score the second goal and
got punished on two goals. It is beyond belief. So overall I would like to
keep the positives of this game because I believe that we can deal well with the
disappointment of losing the game today. We have a great future and we can be a
real force. But of course, it’s difficult to sort out tonight and we go home
without any points.”
And that about sums it up. We can go into detail, we can complain about the referee, we can wonder what would have happened if Van Persie put away his chance early in the second half or if Diaby didn’t have a momentary seizure forcing him to head the ball into his own net. When it’s all said and done, “we were the better team and we lost the game.” In many ways, this result reminded me of the feeling after Sp*rs came back at the Emirates last season to tie the game. It was a gut wrenching result because it felt so undeserved. When you outplay your competition in a big game, against a hated rival, it is heartbreaking to give away points.
But in many ways, the game at Old Trafford was unique. This wasn’t a case of Arsenal choking away the points or crumbling under pressure. This wasn’t a case of the Gunners taking a lucky lead only to see it deservedly ripped away. We were the better team. We played with great composure and discipline and we had Manchester United on the ropes, looking rattled at Old Trafford. The penalty was given against the run of play. The Diaby own goal was a freak incident. But other than two counter attacks in the last few minutes of the game when we were throwing everything at the United goal, they never really looked threatening. We created the better chances and we bossed the game.
Last season United came to the Emirates and lost. It was a game where they showed great attacking prowess and put us under extreme pressure. But despite losing that game, United went on to win the title. In fact, United won the title last season without a particularly impressive record against their “top 4” rivals. My point is that this is merely one game and the result does nothing to dim our chances of challenging for top honors.
I think the performance is more important than the result in many ways. We travelled to a ground where we were desperately outclassed last season and performed brilliantly. Had we been played off the pitch, all the questions and doubts about our title credentials would have resurfaced with renewed vigor. Instead, we showed that we are clearly a threat to United and that our bright start has not been a fluke. While football is a results-based business, there is no doubt that our performance will have reassured our young players and further quieted some critics.
Now for the fun stuff. Let’s talk about Mike Dean and his crew. In every season you know that you will lose some points due to referee incompetence. Saturday was our turn. Mike Dean had a terrible game in so many ways. While I can forgive referees for getting a few calls wrong, what I have a hard time forgiving is a lack of balance. Our physical challenges were deemed yellow card offenses. Theirs went unpunished as good, tough tackling. That’s hard to take. In a game between hated rivals, the players are going to be diving into tackles. It’s important that both teams are equally protected. What Mike Dean created was a situation where United was emboldened to make more crunching tackles, while Arsenal was forced to use restraint. United received 3 yellow cards for their 22 fouls, whereas Arsenal were issued 6 yellow cards for 16 fouls.
But Mike Dean’s greatest errors in the match came on two penalty decisions. Let’s be clear, Andrey Arshavin was fouled in the box late in the first half. He made a clever move to pull the ball back while being taken out by a two-footed tackle. There was no contact with the ball, and Arshavin wound up on his back. It’s was a stonewall penalty. There’s no debating this point, and there’s no opinion involved. It was a penalty plain and simple. And here’s what’s so disgustingly frustrating about the fact that Mike Dean failed to award the penalty, Arshavin bailed him out.
Andrey’s rocket shot hit the back of the net just 24 seconds after the foul in the box. So as far as most people are concerned, the question of Arshavin’s penalty was mooted. But that’s just ridiculous. If you deserve a penalty, then you deserve a penalty. I don’t care what happened after the fact. It was a missed call and it cost us a scoring opportunity. Who’s to say that Arshavin wouldn’t have gone on to score his long range goal anyway. Who’s to say that United players wouldn’t have lost their minds over the penalty call and been issued red cards. Maybe Van Persie would’ve stepped up to take the penalty, converted it, and subsequently had just that little extra confidence to put away his second half chance. You just never know. And no matter what happened 24 seconds after the missed call, it was a still a terrible, miserable, horrible missed call and Dean deserves his blame for that.
The best way for a referee to compound the error of a missed penalty call, is to give a soft penalty to the other team later in the game. Mike Dean did that when he bought Rooney’s second-half dive and pointed to the spot. Again, I want to be clear about this. Rooney’s penalty and Eduardo’s penalty are virtually identical. And they are virtually identical to every penalty awarded when a ‘keeper charges a striker. Both Rooney and Eduardo pushed the ball past the keeper into positions where they wouldn’t have been able to score. Both Rooney and Eduardo anticipated contact and began falling to the ground in advance. Both were awarded penalties despite the fact that little or no contact was made. And I would be much less perturbed by Rooney’s penalty if not for the furore surrounding Eduardo’s.
Strikers have been winning penalties this way for years. When a keeper charges, and the ball is pushed past, most striker are going to fall down. Scoring a goal is hard, but scoring from the penalty spot is easy. And a simple drag of the leg is usually all that’s needed to ensure some contact with the keeper to make it look pretty. In almost every case, these big strong strikers could stay on their feet if they had any inclination. But they don’t. Eduardo didn’t and Rooney didn’t and neither would Drogba, or Torres, or Gerrard, or Ronaldo, etc. etc. etc.
While I believe Rooney dived, and I believe he should not have been awarded a penalty, I was not surprised to see it given and I wouldn’t have been half as furious over the award if it weren’t for the uproar surrounding Eduardo. Most days that’s a penalty even if it’s not deserved. The fact that Eduardo has been vilified and Rooney will never hear about it again is aggravating. The fact that we had a clearer penalty turned down while Rooney’s soft penalty appeal was upheld is unacceptable.
Dean’s crew saved one final lapse in judgment for the waning seconds of the match. After watching his team take the lead at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger must have been cringing as he saw that lead overturned against the run of play. He watched as we missed chances, and suffered bad luck on a day when we were the better side. All the while, he endured despicable chants from classless United fans declaring him a paedophile. So when the ball went in the United net, late in second half stoppage time to seemingly give us a share of the points, you can imagine how frustrated he must have been to see the penalty flag disallow the goal. In a benign display of disappointment, Wenger kicked a water bottle on the touchline and was subsequently ejected from the game. He attempted to leave the pitch, but the referees continued to send him further back towards the rabid fans screaming their horrific chants. A few moments later, the game was over.
I would be more outraged over this final injustice of the match but it was just the icing on the cake. Dean had taken a football spectacle and made his crew the center of attention. It’s precisely what a referee should avoid doing. Thankfully, Wenger will be issued an apology for his sending off, but I think he’d rather be issued the points that we richly deserved. Sadly, that won’t be happening.
It was a wonderful match in many ways, but ultimately it was hugely disappointing. We can be disheartened by the result, but we should instead be reassured by the performance. In the past, we have shown a lack of composure in big games. That was not the case on this occasion. While we lost our lead and lost the game, it was taken from us largely by misfortune and not our opposition’s superior play. On the day we created more chances, we controlled the midfield, and we even looked more confident defensively. A once maligned midfield trio of Diaby, Denilson and Song outplayed their United counterparts. That’s something no Arsenal fan could have expected just 3 or 4 short months ago. So it’s fair to say that we have made huge progress. On the evidence of Saturday’s game, we are as likely a candidate to win the league as United. And we should only get stronger as our young players mature and our injured players, most notably Cesc, return to the lineup.
There were several moments in the game, big and small, that could have turned the result. Arshavin should have been awarded a penalty in the first half. Earlier in the half, Arshavin just barely missed the top right corner of the net after collecting a poorly cleared corner kick on the edge of the area. Van Persie should have converted his point-blank second half opportunity. Eboue should have controlled a cross in the second half and fired home from six yards out instead of carelessly letting the ball fly out of play. The free kick that resulted in Diaby’s own goal should probably have been a mere throw in. Diaby, just moments after conceding the own goal, should have done better with his shot after dancing through the defense into the penalty area. The line judge could have seen Gallas’ offside differently in the build up to the disallowed Van Persie equaliser. And those are just some of the moments that narrowly went against us over the 90 minutes. In many ways, it was a game that Arsenal just wasn’t meant to win.
The measure of a great team is not how they deal with triumph but how that handle adversity. That might be a bit cliche but it happens to be true. Last season Chelsea had a barnstorming start to the campaign, but completely collapsed when things started to go wrong under Scolari. Aston Villa couldn’t recover once the results stopped going their way. And we wilted in the early days of winter amidst controversy and a rash of injuries. Manchester United won the title last season because they didn’t let a loss at the Emirates or an embarassing defeat at Old Trafford by Liverpool dent their self-belief. If we are going to win the title this season, we must push on from this match and continue to exude confidence. I believe we will.
Unforunately it’s two weeks until the next match and players will be away with their national teams between now and then. It’s plenty of time for injuries to heal, but also for new injuries to surface. Fingers crossed for more of the former and less of the latter. After the international break (aptly labled “interlull” by Arseblog), we have arguably a bigger match than the one we just endured. Manchester City will have their first chance to show that they are a legitimate threat to the Premier League elite and will be relishing the opportunity.
Conversely, we will be looking to show the world that we are better off without our departed players and that there is still a gulf in class between the two clubs despite their wild spending. If we can take three points from Citeh, we will be right there near the top of the table and looking good. But more importantly we will have knocked down a potential upstart and called their early season success into question. We will also have put the Old Trafford misfortune in the rear-view mirror and taken a giant leap onward towards a true title challenge. I won’t begin to explore the implications of a loss. It’s simply not worth adding any negativity at this moment.
So more than anything, I actually feel very good about our team at the moment. Last season it always felt like another shoe was about to drop. I think that came from the lack of harmony in the team and the fragility of our defense. But with our defense looking self assured, the team seemingly unified, and the new formation creating yet another season of beautiful football for Arsenal fans to enjoy, that sense of impending doom seems to have lifted. As our key players return to health we should only get stronger.
Unfortunately, not all Arsenal fans think alike. I am amazed, saddened, repulsed, pissed-off,(and any other adjective you can think of to describe a negative emotion) by some fools that call themselves Arsenal fans. Despite a wonderful start to the season, a good performance at Old Trafford, and reasons for optimism abounding, there’s still plenty of “supporters” who want to attack the team, attack the manager, and clamor for new signings like that’s the answer to all of our problems. At some point you’re either behind your team or you’re not. So figure out which side of the battle you’re on.
All summer it was like this and even our good start hasn’t stopped the mindless complaining. “We should have signed Melo…” Boo-hoo. Are you so certain that he would have been better than Song or Denilson? No. You just like him because he’s something new. “We must sign a defender or a defensive midfielder if we want to challenge this year.” Really? And you know this for a fact? Despite the obvious improvements our players have made, the improved formation, and the fact that it looks like Senderos is staying with the club, we “must” sign players to contend? It’s ludicrous. If the right player isn’t available and the right price isn’t on offer, then what is gained by a signing? Does anyone think we need another Silvestre?
And just look at the players we lost the past few seasons. Hleb’s career has essentially evaporated. Flamini is just starting to get on the pitch for Milan and he was dreadful in the 4-0 drubbing they suffered to Inter at the weekend. Sure Greedybayor has had a good start to the season, but just wait until the winter months when it’s less fun to play football. And Toure has looked as shaky for Citeh as he looked for us last season. But I’m sure if you told some “fans” that we were going to resign Flamini or Hleb they’d jump for joy. Never mind the fact that the players we currently have are playing more and playing better than those two. We just want signings. Anyone will do!
This mentality that a team is built through excessive spending is unhealthy and it’s starting to permeate the culture of every club. Supporters that have no right to expect their team to spend are starting to shout their disapproval when big name signings fail to arrive. It’s really a shame. I have no quarrel with Abromovich, or Citeh’s Arab owners, they are free to spend the money how they like. But the rich can be capricious and some day they will abandon their clubs and leave them in untenable financial positions. Whatever prosperity they enjoyed will be paid back with total devastation and possibly a farewell to top-flight football for a very long time. But thanks to our board and our masterful manager, Arsenal have a sustainable approach to prosperity that sees us compete for the biggest trophies without the abusive spending.
If Arshavin, Van Persie, Eduardo, Vela, Walcott, Bendtner, Cesc, Song, Denilson, Diaby, Rosicky, Nasri, Ramsey, Wilshere, Clichy, Vermaelen, Djourou, Gallas, Sagna, Eboue, Almunia et. al. isn’t enough top talent for you, then feel free to go buy season tickets to the Bernabeu and watch an fantasy team fail to win trophies. I’m sure it’s fun having to check the club’s official website each season just to learn who’s on your team so you can remember which players you’re supporting.
Get behind these players and get behind this manager. Maybe they let us down last season, but they’re working hard to make up for that disappointment and they need/deserve our best possible support. Wouldn’t it be more rewarding to help lift them to great accomplishments rather than being able to say “I told you so” when they fail? I’m not sure how you can see it differently.
Enjoy the interlull if that’s even possible. I am involved in an out of town wedding for my dearest friend this weekend so I will not be blogging from Tuesday through Sunday. I will still be tweeting if you’re interested, but I’m not sure there’ll be much to blog about anyway. Of course, if a new signing or two does arrive, then I’ll make a point to post something about it here.
Sorry for the VERY long post, but I had a lot to get off my mind before this loathsome fortnight without Arsenal begins.
Enjoy your interlull and pray for the safe return of our international players.
Until next time…