Football is designed to make fools of us all. It doesn’t like the cut of your jib. Its dad is bigger than your dad, he’s got eight cars and a house in Ireland. Football was watching you all week as you made your tweets, wrote your blogs, placed your bets, and emotionally prepared for the coming week. We had been told exactly what would happen, and we had acted accordingly. We had a few jokes lined up, and then football decided to get out his old chap and spray ‘opposite’ as far as his arc would fly.
To Highbury, first, where we turn up to the reupholstered stadium which is now a mixture of some social housing, but mainly housing for posh, rich people who are steadily destroying everything London used to be. Then a tedious 20 minute walk to the Emirates, where the match actually happened. In fact, if anything, the whole thing is pointless because it’s Monday, and the game took place on Sunday.
It was, though, a hilarious Sunday. Arsenal fans had come prepared with their selfie sticks, their protective hats (though with the Arsenal fans, you might argue that, if anything, protecting themselves from brain damage now is a little too late), and their wild dreams of success. Ignoring those who pointed out last year that they managed to finish third in a year that Manchester United and Liverpool were awful, and that this was simply the bare minimum they could do, they were sure. This year was the year they would assault the Premier League title in a way they hadn’t managed for more than a decade.
They had Olivier Giroud, the sine qua non of 7/10 strikers. They had countless flighty, technical attacking midfielders — seriously, it is impossible to count them, they just won’t stand still. One of us nearly sat on Santi Cazorla this morning. They had Petr Cech, a goalkeeper who hadn’t really played in a year but was no doubt the difference between last year’s incredible success, and this year’s even better incredible success. They had the same slow central defense prone to very amusing howlers, and they hadn’t bought Morgan Schneiderlin because Francis Coquelin had half a good season in 2014-15. It was time, clearly, for Arsenal to set the league alight and prove the doubters wrong.
It was going to be easy. It was up against West Ham. West Ham had been turfed out of the Europa League, but worse than that, it’d done so in the qualifying stages. It’d had three players sent off in six games, and Slaven Bilic even got sent to the stands in the penultimate game against FC Astra, when it collapsed from a 2-0 lead to hanging on for a 2-2 draw. It’d bought oddly but expensively, and yet still had to play a 16-year-old Reece Oxford in midfield. On Mesut Ozil’s behalf, those in the Emirates crowd were licking their lips. Their own lips. Not each other’s. Definitely not Mesut Ozil’s.
The game started well enough. Arsenal probed West Ham. And while West Ham held its own, Arsenal grew into the game and started to stretch the away side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla exacted some pressure, but Arsenal failed to get enough players into the box to support Giroud, whose good looks somehow failed to translate into a match-winning performance. Odd how that keeps happening.
The best was, however, yet to come. Twice.
As Arsenal looked more and more likely to score, Dimitri Payet curled in a free kick towards Cheikhou Kouyate. Coquelin, reading the game like an expert, decided to play everybody onside. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny — statistically the best defence in the world, ever — decided to miss the flight of the ball and the man it was aimed toward. Cech, the difference-maker, ran towards the ball, but failed to anticipate the presence of other human beings, including Kouyate, who headed into an empty net.
Somehow, against all reason, logic and hope, Arsenal had managed to concede a goal. The greatest team in England was a goal behind.
Early into the second half, Mauro Zarate surprised Cech by having the temerity to shoot, and Cech was so surprised he had no option but to let the ball roll past him. The finest team the world has ever seen had, once again, been exposed as a collection of embarrassing bottle jobs.
How could this happen? How could Le Professeur fail to have prepared for the exam properly?
It turns out that it wasn’t his fault. It’s never his fault. The players had let him down again. Wenger said:
“The players were maybe too nervous and put too much pressure on themselves. Today we have been hurt mentally and it is a good opportunity to respond.”
Wenger had done all he could do. He had the players the fans thought were good enough. He had the players some optimistic pundits thought were good enough. But he hadn’t bothered to do the bare minimum necessary for the season’s start: prepare his players not to be so nervous they couldn’t manage to beat a mid-table time with a child in it, and he’d missed out on the easiest, most logical signing to improve his side, and let a rival get in. Worst of all, he’d missed out on the chance to start the season with three easy points.
Luckily for him, Chelsea did the same. Thanks, football! Put it away now. You’ve made your point.