In Arsene we trust?
Dear Professor Wenger,
I write you today with a heavy Gooner heart, still bleeding Arsenal red from that nightmare ending to the Carling Cup final at Wembley. I know you've always acted as though the CC wasn't worthy of the Arsenal pedigree -- I believe your exact words were, "If you win the league Cup, for me, you cannot say you win trophies" -- but perhaps when you've gone nearly six years without being near any precious metal, even the lowly CC is better than an Ashley Cole bullet in your torso.
It certainly felt like I had been gut-shot in the final minute of Sunday's game. Or did you not see it? I know historically you often fail to catch ugly incidents involving your own players, but I sure hope you had a good look this time because it was a howler for the ages.
I'm curious: Did it hurt a little more because The Fiasco featured a goalkeeper and central defender in whom you've had such abiding faith, despite their obvious liabilities. And especially since every Arsenal fan worth his Tony Adams bobblehead has been imploring you since last summer to bring in a keeper and center back as dominant as your players at other positions.
Even Birmingham's Cameron Jerome gave you a hint earlier in the week when he said that "if Arsenal have a weak point, it's the back four and the goalkeeper."
Ah, but then I remember, Professor, you are not one to capitulate to conventional wisdom. You have always believed that your way is right and that every other way, by default, is wrong. And as long as the mild inconvenience of a six-year silverware drought is ignored, the results have borne you out.
Some would view this inability to admit weakness as arrogance, but not I. "In Arsene We Trust," I proclaimed to the naysayers as recently as two weeks ago, when your tactical acumen and brilliant substitutions flummoxed Barcelona and made fools of those who questioned your wisdom in sticking with Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny.
Only a cynic would point out that in Barca, you were playing a mirror image of Arsenal, albeit with even more self-regard for their aesthetically pleasing superiority. Let's face it, Barcelona has no interest in the dirty work that is the province of workaday mortals like those who toil in the blue of Birmingham City.
Still, knowing the kind of in-your-face game Birmingham plays, you couldn't really have been surprised to see Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer racing around and nipping at your ankles like a couple of crazed pit bulls. And is it not true that without Theo Walcott's blinding pace and Cesc Fabregas' uncanny ability to deliver the killer 35-yard defense-shredding pass, the Gunners have been known to be vulnerable to teams that press you in the midfield?
Which is why I found it strange that you didn't start with your player of the season, Samir Nasri, in the Fabregas role rather than isolating him on the right and leaving an inconsistent Tomas Rosicky as the midfield fulcrum. I must admit that sometimes your genius simply flies over my mustache. I'm certain that, unlike the rest of us, you avoided soiling your pants when within three minutes we should have been down to 10 men after Szczesny took out Bowyer in the box, only for the linesman to erroneously judge the Birmingham midfielder offside. To you that was probably just karmic justice given your recent track record of suffering bad fortune in big games. Wasn't it just a year ago in the opening minutes of a Champions League game that another one of our teenage prodigies, Kieran Gibbs, fell down in the box, allowing Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung to score uncontested?
In hindsight, maybe you would have been better off on Sunday if Szczesny had been shown a red card, because it's unlikely that his replacement, Manuel Almunia, would have been quite so generous during the final two minutes. Surely you recall those heady days when you were hailing the Spaniard as England's next No. 1, only for him to commit a series of boneheaded mistakes -- Wojciech certainly learned from the best! -- that caused you to drop him in favor of your No. 2, Lukasz Fabianski. He then made some spectacular miscues of his own before injuring himself and forcing you to play the 20-year-old Pole.
But I get it. How can you not like Woj, with his cocksure attitude and hilarious Ashley Cole-bashing tweets? That said, I'm afraid he was all over the place on Birmingham's first goal, a situation that wasn't helped by Koscielny -- hello, foreshadowing -- who allowed Roger Johnson to outjump him and flick the ball into the goalmouth. Why didn't Wojciech come hurtling out off his line and punch the ball clear instead of waiting for Nikola Zigic to back-head it past him? Was no one assigned to mark the 6-foot-8 Serb after he hurt you last time with his aerial power? And did that display of tentativeness on Szczesny's part give you pause, Professor? My apologies if the question sounds disrespectful. I know you would never doubt yourself.
Fortunately, the steaming-hot RvP would soon put things right with a swiveling side-volley in traffic, which meant it was only a matter of time before Birmingham would collapse in the face of Arsenal's transcendent skill.
Just wondering, but during your halftime pep talk, did you expressly order your players to make at least five short passes in the box before shooting? Were extra helpings of WAG time promised to the player who bedazzled the Blues so much that they could walk the ball into the net? -- or, in Rosicky's case, attempt a ridiculous back-heel in front of goal?
Perhaps that might have worked if Ben "Future England No. 2" Foster wasn't playing out of his gourd in the Birmingham goal, repelling anything your twinkle-toed Gunners daintily kicked at him.
I know one of your go-to sayings is that the better team doesn't always win, but I'm afraid, Professor, that it did on Sunday. Birmingham may not have had the Wembley crowd oohing and aahing over its pretty passing, but in the areas that counted -- heart, steel and endurance -- it was the superior team.
The more the game went on, the less assured you looked on the touchline. Is that because you sensed a certain weariness in your defense, especially after Alex McLeish brought on Obafemi Martins to run at our tired legs? Were you perhaps asking yourself, "Where are the loud and commanding leaders back there like Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann," the kind of players whose presence made you feel a little less nervy? Is it possible you even entertained the thought just for a nanosecond that you should have bagged Gary Cahill and Mark Schwarzer in the January transfer window because that kind of experience is invaluable in Cup finals?
Of course not. Self-doubt is for guys like Thomas Jefferson. And you're more like Charlie Sheen.
No, you were too busy pondering your extra-time and penalty-kick strategy as the game wound down and Foster boomed his kick into the Arsenal penalty area. Why even bother to look? It was just a routine clearance as the ball rolled toward your beleaguered duo. I mean, what 6-year-old defender hasn't had the mantra "when in doubt, kick it out" drilled into his head? Even John O'Shea would have blasted it into outer space. And what preteen shot-stopper wasn't taught to scream "Mine, mine!" if there was any question as to whose ball it was? Those things are simply so rudimentary that you would never waste time practicing them, n'est-ce pas, Professor?
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Not when there are triangles to be perfected, movements off the ball to be honed. But what happens, Professor, when neither your central defender nor your keeper take control of a basic situation? Then you have Brum sub Martins not believing his good luck as he rolls the ball into an open net for what he later called the "easiest goal" of his career.
Some might say, Professor, that you are still trophy-less due more to your hubris than to a slapstick cock-up between the two positional players you were so certain you didn't need to upgrade. But I don't think that, Professor.
All week long you had been saying how these young, talented Gunners had come of age at just the right time, and how winning one trophy would inevitably and magnetically lead to their collecting more. Now that Birmingham has broken its 48-year streak without a major honor, you surely know that it can be done, and I, for one, am dead certain that your shameful dry spell is coming to an end as well.
After all, In Arsene We Trust.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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