A guest post for Tim, @foreverheady, a braver man than me.
I changed my seat at half-time. Pleased with the two goal lead I paused the TV, put the children to bed, made a cup of tea and then went back into the sitting room – and sat in a different place. I knew at the time I shouldn’t do it, but I thought it wouldn’t matter: the job was surely done, and I waited to be entertained. The Emirates crowd were of the same opinion I reckon: after Alexis’s wonder free kick the antiphonal chanting began: North Bank, Clock End. We are only those things when strolling to victory, when all worry is gone. When Oxlade opened up his body Thierry like to make it three the players’ celebrations told us that they thought it was over too.
Except nobody had remembered to tell that to the Sporting Gods – or rather, we had all forgotten the essential rule of Tragedy, that pride comes before a fall and the one thing that is guaranteed to irritate Fate is misplaced Hubris. Suddenly the players stopped doing what they had been doing so well, and showboated a bit: not much, to be fair, but enough for Anderlecht to take control of the midfield. Defensive duties were left undone as player after player sought to join the attacking party and feast on the adulation of the crowd. It seemed suddenly as if everyone and everything had forgotten their proper jobs, and as shape was lost so the chaos began. Attackers didn’t track back, midfielders forgot to challenge and mark, full backs and central defenders pushed forward worryingly, hamstrings abandoned their primary purpose, managers sat back when immediate action was needed, linesmen forgot to check for offside, London autumn turned monsoon and still the crowd partied as if it was, if not quite 1999, at least the last time we had bossed lesser European opposition.
Lear-like, Monreal stumbled, and this time the ref saw all too well: the keeper sent effortlessly the wrong way and suddenly, as clear as day, the third goal became inevitable. It is virtually impossible to take your foot off the pedal in sport and then reapply it at will: the mind-set has been changed irrevocably and momentum ceded fatally to your opponent. As far as the players were concerned they didn’t need to do any more: the game had already been won, except of course it hadn’t been and the fat lady was a long way from singing the praises of the greatest team the world had ever seen. And so the crowd’s heroes who were carrying all before them suddenly had feet of clay and became a group of anxious and worried young twenty year olds, all too aware of their own vulnerability. The only thing that surprised me about the game was that it ended in a draw.
And so the recriminations began, and the insults cascaded down on The Arsenal. Useless. Weak. Tactically naïve. Shambolic. Spineless. All the good things that happened in the first 60 minutes washed away by North London rain and the bitter tears of dashed expectations, replaced instead by anger and bile. But if in the Anderlecht away match you had thought that the result didn’t count because it was won in the last minute, and only papered over the cracks of a sub-standard performance, then how do you react to last night’s game? Only a draw, but that doesn’t matter because for large parts of the match the arsenal were very, very good? No, that would be absurd, because a match is a full match and needs to be played for all 90 minutes before the prizes are given out – and woe betide any team who think it is over before it really is. And if you as a spectator thought at any stage last night that you could chill because the game was safe, then to my mind you are as bad as any of the players who relaxed prematurely. And if you did worse than that, and changed your seat, or moved from your positon, or ignored any of those important rituals that the Gods think so important, then you really need to take a long hard look at yourself and realise that like it or not, we are all in this together.