As the seconds ticked away on that Swansea match last night, a common refrain began to spread on Twitter. The same moaning and complaints regarding Olivier Giroud and his poor form in front of goal. In spite of his club-leading 19 goals in all competitions, it seems as if the French striker just can’t score. That he scored the go-ahead goal was lost as soon as poor Mathieu Flamini’s bad touch scattered into the Arsenal net for the final 2-2 scoreline and the draw that almost certainly ends any remaining hopes of a decade-long title drought ending. Such is the way of football.
After the game, I was reminded of a line from Lord of War, the Nicholas Cage-movie where he plays an arms dealer through the 80s and 90s. He starts out small, trying to make a spot for himself in the cutthroat world of illegal weapons deals with warlords, drug cartels and the like. Years after he’s established himself, his path and the path of the #1 arms dealer — who years earlier had blown him off — cross again. Looking to recruit him, the arms dealer takes him out to dinner and gives him his sales pitch. Cage quietly listens, then hits him with this:
What do I think? I think you’re the amateur now. I think you should go with your instincts. With your first instinct. I’m the same man who was not good enough for you before and I’m just not good enough for you now.
Arsenal spent all of last summer pursuing a world-class striker. They nearly got to the altar with Gonzalo Higuain before running out of church to chase after Luis Suarez. In the end, they ended with neither and had to go back to the bad marriage of convenience with Nicklas Bendtner — who likes to drink and hump cars. It was like every bad romantic comedy…with car humping.
What does that tell us about how they see Olivier Giroud? What was their first instinct in regards to the striker position at the club?
The club and the manager get a lot of stick, much of it well-earned, because of their inability to bridge the gap between us and the top clubs in the Premier League. As we’ve seen within the last week, the mauling at Stamford Bridge exposes just how wide that gap is between the Gunners and the clubs who are recognized as title challengers. The scary part is that it is the beginning to a 22-day period that will likely define our season — with key league clashes against Manchester City and away to Everton, before the big Wembley FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic.
The injuries to key players hurt as they would hurt any other club. But what makes it worse is that they are all too predictable. This isn’t the first time that Arsenal have headed into the teeth of the February-May death run and watched as key performers dropped by the wayside with strains, sprains, pulls and hurts. And I’m not just talking the perennially-crocked like Abou Diaby or Tomas Rosicky or even the extreme cases of Eduardo or Aaron Ramsey. On top of them, players like Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure and William Gallas would often be out for four-six weeks at this point. It’s never a question of if Arsenal will suffer debilitating injuries to the roster, but where or to whom.
This is why the first instinct of many supporters was to clamor for additions to the squad in January — like it has been for many previous Januaries. “Buy a striker,” was repeated. “Buy defenders or defensive midfielders,” was added. “Buy anyone!!” was heard. The addition of Kim Kallstrom and the failed bid for Julian Draxler were the only response to these cries, with Kallstrom coming at the end and coming injured. All the while, Arsene Wenger stated that he only added him to add someone and not because he felt it was needed.
So his first instinct was that the team as constructed could retain their form, health and style through the business end of the season? In spite of the overwhelming historical evidence pointing to the contrary?
I guess my point, if there is one, is that we are all victims of our own prejudiced opinions. We are all subject to the filters we put between ourselves and the data we receive every day. We get a compliment from a boss, we might consider it a positive or a negative depending on what kind of relationship we might have with our boss. You get a text saying “We need to talk” from a loved one and the gamut of possibilities — from great to terrifying — open up.
But often, our first reaction — our gut instinct — tends to be the closest indicator to what we really feel and think. And if the club’s first instinct was that they needed a striker to compete with or supplant Giroud and they didn’t do it, that’s a problem. If the manager’s first instinct was that he had the horses to see the team finally end their drought when history says that a spate of injuries is always just around the corner, that’s a problem.
The greater concern here has to be the repeated inability to get over these continuing problems. The injuries, the mental blocks and errors, the paucity in the transfer market. It’s like we live in an Arsenal-themed Groundhog’s Day with Jose Mourinho playing the role of Ned Ryerson. We continue to trundle along, stuck in neutral, aware of what our instincts are telling us is an untenable position but incapable of changing what our instincts tell us is the way to go forward.
For many supporters, their first instinct after the botched summer and the 3-1 mistake against Aston Villa was to clamor for holy hell to rain down. The purchase of Ozil and a great half-season had managed to shove those instincts down and allow Gooners the chance to dream of finally breaking out of the morass. Instead, the losses to Chelsea, to Liverpool and to Manchester City have only helped to bring back to the surface all the old complaints, fears, recriminations and rapprochements. As the team heads into the next three games, wounded, full of self-doubt and lacking confidence, that’s not a good place to be. The supporters are on the verge of open revolt again. The team feels like it could spiral back down into another Top 4 fight.
I’ll end with another quote from Lord of War (really, if you haven’t seen it, you ought to). As the movie ends, Nicholas Cage stands alone, still dealing arms, still making money. He looks over a scene of war and devastation and says:
That’s the secret to survival. Never go to war. Especially with yourself.