19 December 2005

Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea

I hope I wasn't too unbearable Sunday afternoon. The loss to Chelsea was bitterly disappointing, of course, and was then followed by the Colts first loss of the season, ending their 13-game unbeaten run and their chance at a perfect season. So not a happy day for sports for me.

The match itself was a frustrating affair. Arsenal clearly should have been up 1-0 on Robin van Persie's goal, ruled out for offsides. The overall assumption is that he was judged offsides, which replays clearly showed he wasn't. As it happens, Thierry Henry was clearly in an offside position... but now we get into the esoteric realm of what constitutes "involved in active play". I'm tempted to go off into a discussion of that point, but it's probably irrelevant as it seems likely that the judgement was on RVP's position and not TH's.

In any event, if you let Chelsea get into the net twice, you're unlikely to win the game; they just don't give up that many goals. I was too depressed to watch the replays, but my initial impressions of both goals were that they weren't huge mistakes by anyone. In both cases, a small mistake (of timing and offside-trap position) gave Chelsea an opening, and both Arjen Robben and Joe Cole were able to take advantage.

Arsenal are just not in sync on either side of the ball. Soccer is such an improvisational game that everybody needs to be absolutely sure of what their teammates will do. Some teams -- Chelsea, for one -- accomplish this by being dead simple. Arsenal however are a team that thrives on improvisation and creativity. When it works, it's an amazing thing of beauty. But if the team loses its cohesion, the result is what we see today: poor passes, mistimed runs, defensive breakdowns. A portion of this is caused by the players themselves. The young players are still not as masterful as they need to be, and the older players are finding that their skills are slowly departing. More importantly, the team just hasn't been stable. How many lineups have we fielded this year? (I may look it up later if I'm bored.) More importantly, how many changes have their been to the side from game to game? If we look back to 03/04, it would be easy to name the first-choice side. This year it's a true challenge.

That cohesion will return as the lineup stabilizes (and some help for central-mid in January would be nice). But Arsenal are going to have to get used to winning ugly again. That means winning some games simply by being more determined than the other team. And that was the one heartening element of Sunday's game: the team looked like they cared. Everyone was aggressive and committed, and threw themselves into the game. Of course, Chelsea were too, and our effort wasn't enough to overcome theirs. But against some teams -- the Boltons, the Middlesboroughs -- that effort would have been enough. And I think much of the fans' unease has been from not seeing that effort. The Gunners still need to show that they can be motivated for their mid-table opponents, and that needs to start on Boxing Day against Charlton at the Valley. Still, yesterday's effort was well appreciated, and it was gratifying and appropriate to hear "we love the Arsenal" echoing through Highbury in the 88th minute. Because, in the end, if a team gives its all and still loses, you'll be disappointed in the result... but you'll still be proud of your team.

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