The other day I went to see the movie Black Swan. It was a good movie and included a sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. This should have been an exhilarating experience until you consider that I was sitting between my parents twitching like ‘Arry through the entire ordeal. For those that haven’t seen the movie, it’s essentially a character study about a ballerina, played by Portman, who is given the role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. As the Swan Queen, Portman’s character must master the dual roles of the White Swan and the eponymous Black Swan. The director has no doubts about the ingenue’s ability to portray the delicate, beautiful, technically refined White Swan. His concern rests with her capacity to exude the ruthlessness, power and cunning of the seductive, adulterous Black Swan. As the movie progresses we watch Portman’s character literally and figuratively become the Black Swan on her way to a perfect performance on the opening night of Swan Lake.
Considering my discomfort watching a movie largely concerned with a young woman’s sexual awakening while seated between my parents, my thoughts inevitably drifted to Arsenal. As I watched, I realized that the movie could be reasonably interpreted as metaphor for Arsenal’s development. This team has learned to play beautiful football. It is a team that can demonstrate technical superiority while adhering to a strict philosophy about how football should be played. It’s also a fragile team. A team of delicate players whose confidence can seemingly shatter from a single mistake or misfortune. This team is the White Swan.
On the other hand, Chelsea are quite exquisitely representative of the Black Swan. They are a team of reprobates and sexual deviants. Their players’ passions lie with whatever is most expedient. They are powerful, nefarious and ready to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. There is nothing beautiful, idealistic, or delicate about Chelsea. And it makes them particularly loathsome.
Despite their detestable qualities, the fact remains that Chelsea’s impersonation of the Black Swan has served them better than our White Swan. But if this Arsenal team could learn to adopt the traits of the Black Swan, without abandoning it’s inherently White Swan identity, then we could be a fearsome team indeed. If we could add ruthlessness, confidence, and power to our game, it’s hard to see anything standing in our way. When this Arsenal team learns to step on the pitch with a swagger, and never let their heads go down, then they will be nearly impossible to beat. If we can be just a little Machiavellian in our approach to a football match, and do what’s necessary to win even when it’s unpleasant, then opponents will not find it so easy to prevent us from playing our game. And it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the first step in developing some of those traits, is to end this miserable run against Chelsea today at the Emirates.
It’s been suggested that this is a good time to face the Blues. They are in a terrible run of form and look ready to be had. But the team that will step onto the Emirates pitch today isn’t the same one that’s struggled over the last 7 matches. With Essien and Lampard in the side, they are a much more difficult proposition. Any Arsenal player who believes this will be an easier Chelsea team to beat is setting themselves up for a rude awakening.
As far as I’m concerned, this is a match we simply have to win. Not because our title hopes depend on it. A loss would see us stay 5 behind United at the top. But it would also send us to fourth place and further extend our terrible losing streak against the two top sides in England. Eventually, our lack of confidence against those sides will begin to translate into a lack of confidence generally. Cesc has suggested that the team goes into these games with a certain degree of fear, but if we continue to lose the big games, that fear could easily permeate other matches.
You don’t have to beat the top teams to win the league, but if you’re incapable of beating the top teams, how do you convince yourself that you are capable of being champions? I just don’t see how you can lose every big match you play, and still believe that you are genuine title challengers. Eventually the constant disappointment will create a culture of losing. And the only way to eliminate that culture is to start winning, or get new players. Hopefully, today we will see this group of players choose the former option.
The other reason that I believe we must win this game is because of what it means to the fans. Lately it seems that the supporters at the emirates are always one mis-kick away from abandoning the team. One possible reason for our poor home form this season might be because the atmosphere at home is one of anxiety more than support. If we beat Chelsea at home it would go a long way to restoring the good feeling among supporters at the Emirates. But if we lose again, in another big game, it’s reasonable to fear that the atmosphere at subsequent home games will continue to deteriorate. And that could lead to more bad results. The fans owe the team a better atmosphere at the Emirates, but the team also owes the fans a big win against a major rival.
The Premier League is there to be won this season. There are no great teams and no one has broken away from the pack at the top. We have so much talent on our roster and for the first time in years, most of the key players are fit. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that this is a team capable of running away with the league if they were to hit stride. But something would have to serve as a catalyst. Perhaps a win over Chelsea would be just the thing.
There are certainly some questions about whom Arsene should pick today. Van Persie or Chamakh? Diaby or Wilshere? Koscielny or Djourou? Fabianski or Szczesny? There’s even some suggestions that Arshavin should be replaced, but Wenger has shown incredible loyalty to the diminutive Russian and I expect that he’ll be in the starting lineup today. As for the other choices, it’s anyone’s guess.
Whether Diaby starts will probably be determined entirely by how he’s looked in training. If he’s fit and looking sharp then Wenger will be tempted to start him in order get some additional size into the starting XI. Chelsea are a massive team and while size isn’t everything, we don’t want to be too lightweight. If Van Persie starts up top in place of Chamakh, it would be even more tempting to hand Diaby a starting role.
Personally, I’m worried about Diaby starting. If Essien marks Cesc like he has in the past, and manages to neutralize our captain, then it leaves the creative duties in midfield to Song and Diaby. Song’s passing has been wretched lately and Diaby simply lingers too long on the ball. I think we’d be better suited with Wilshere or Nasri in midfield offering Cesc some help moving the ball through the middle of the pitch.
If Nasri were to drop into midfield, that would give Wenger the option of playing RVP and Chamakh together, or handing Theo a rare start. I think Theo could be a fantastic option, although I don’t expect him to be chosen. Ashley Cole, much as it pains me to point this out, has a been a real problem for us lately. If Theo is on the pitch, it forces Cole to think twice before rampaging forward, and gives us a means to punish him when he does join the attack.
Ultimately, nothing would surprise me less than to see Arsene stick with the same lineup that has recent become our first choice. That would mean Arshavin, Chamakh, Nasri, Wilshere, Cesc, Song, Clichy, Koscielny, Squillaci, Sagna and Fabianski. And while that’s a perfectly nice team, I think it’s naive to think that we can continue to put the same eleven players on the pitch and expect a different result. I think Wenger has to try something new. Maybe that’s just the disappointment of a seemingly endless string of losses against Chelsea and United talking. But that’s how I feel.
Regardless of who is on the pitch, one thing is clear: there can be no passengers. We must press for 90 minutes. That’s how Barcelona dismantled Madrid and that’s what we must learn to do if we’re going to win the big games. Pressure causes mistakes, helps us get behind the defense and prevents our opposition from sinking comfortably into their defensive shell. If Gael Clichy is routinely left to defend Chelsea counter-attacks because Arshavin is still sitting in the opposition half, then we’ll get slaughtered. It’s that simple.
What makes this game so fascinating in some ways, is that we know what’s going to happen already. Chelsea will allow us all the possession we want. They’ll sit deep and defend in numbers. Their midfield and their defense will play close together and they’ll challenge us to find a way through. When we give the ball away they’ll play quickly from back to front and try to catch us on the counter. They’ll kick it long to Drogba who will hold it up for the on-rushing full backs or feed it back to Lampard to spread it wide. They’ll fire in the crosses and try to out-muscle us in the box.
Meanwhile, we’ll patiently pass the ball around their half of the pitch. We’ll play pretty triangles on the edge of their area and look for a way behind the defense. We’ll eventually get the ball wide and send in a barrage of useless crosses. If Cesc is on his game, we’ll probably find a few killer balls behind the defense and then it will be down to how well we take our chances.
At least that’s how it might play out. That’s how it’s often played out in the past. What I hope, is that it doesn’t go anything like that today. Because if it does go like that, then we probably already know what to expect.
If you asked me what the most important thing is today, I’d say something overly simplistic. We must score first. If we don’t score first, we play right into Chelsea’s strategy. But if we do score, and Chelsea are forced to come at us, then we can finally see what it’s like to play against them when they can’t sit back comfortably and defend in numbers. Then we have a chance to get a second and a third and ultimately the fourth that would be needed before I’d feel remotely comfortable.
I’m not confident about this game. Not because I don’t believe in this team or because I think Chelsea are spectacular. I’m just not insane. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Today we will do the same things on the football pitch that we always do. Chelsea will do what they always do. So why should I expect a different result? Well, I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hope for a win. I desperately hope for a win. I believe we can win, but I refuse to be drawn into the same trap of confidence that has caused me so much disappointment in recent seasons. There’s just no reason for it. This time I’m taking a new approach. I’ll support the team and cheer for them from my living room as I always do. But I won’t grant them the confidence that they will do something until they’ve proven they can.
It’s a must-win game. The last thing this team needs is to be chasing the top spot from essentially 8 points back while clinging to fourth place. I don’t believe there’s enough confidence in the squad to survive that. And that’s where we’d find ourselves if we lost this match. But if we win, then everything changes. The headlines have to be re-written. Old opinions about Arsenal have to be revised. The team can look at itself differently. And maybe, just maybe, we can start a new big-game trend that will carry us to trophies this season and beyond.
If you’re going to the Emirates today just remember, Chelsea are the enemy. They are John Terry and Ashley Cole. They deserve the abuse and Arsenal need your support. Get behind the team and stay behind them for 90 minutes, and hopefully there’ll be even more reason to cheer after the full time whistle has blown.
We know that Arsenal can play pretty football. Today I want to see that Arsenal can be ruthless. I want to see the Black Swan.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!