April 25th, 2006 • 9:54 pm
It’s hard to know what to say. Yes, Arsenal is in the final for the first time in its history. But did they really have to play that way to get there?
It was positively painful to watch—and I am quite sure it was so for the neutrals as well, not to mention the Villareal fans.
Sure, football is about winning and, as long as you do it legally within the rules—written and, ahem, unwritten—of the game, you deserve your win. But this is simply not the Arsenal team we love to watch. Even with a 4-5-1 formation, the Gunners were able to put together masterful, impressive performances against the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus.
But this time it was the kind of 4-5-1 that is rightfully loathed by lovers of the beautiful game. There was no impetus to go forward and try to create something. There was lots of defending, some of it desperate at times, and the Gunners would have been punished a dozen times by teams with better finishers.
But then, I suppose you could argue that this type of approach was the only way to qualify against a team like Villareal. By not attacking and provoking the Spaniards, the Gunners avoided the kind of theatrical performance that this could easily have become, based on what we saw in the first leg.
There were no yellow cards, and as a general rule tempers didn’t flare up. So the job is done. Arsenal are in the final, they are still unbeaten since last year, they haven’t conceded a goal since last fall, and neither Kolo Touré nor the injured Flamini got the dreaded yellow card that would have meant a suspension for the final.
Flamini was in fact substituted early in the game because of a thigh strain, and this early injury, combined with Senderos’s absence and replacement by Sol Campbell, meant that the 4-man foundation of previous performances was no longer there. Maybe that is why the Gunners were so conservative in their approach. I don’t know.
Arsène Wenger himself sounds like he was a bit puzzled by it:
We just didn’t play, whether that was down to physical or psychological reasons I don’t know, but we showed such character… We never came into our fluent game, so we needed a bit of luck and resilience and showed that.
If it’s the same old psychological demons coming back with a vengeance, it doesn’t bode well for the final. Hopefully in the next three weeks Wenger will find the words and the strategy to restore the will to attack and win. He certainly can count on Jens Lehmann, who was superb yet again, and of course was the hero of the night with his penalty save. Although it was a very soft penalty decision, it definitely looked like our luck had run out when it happened—and Lehmann was single-handedly responsible for keeping the dream alive, although I suppose you could also argue that Riquelme’s penalty wasn’t the best.
Now what we really need is a superb performance in the final and a glorious win, with a masterful Thierry Henry performance. Of course if it ends 0-0 and we win on penalty kicks, I will take the victory just the same. But it won’t be as convincing, either for neutrals or for Arsenal fans. Because, after all, the only reason we ever wanted to win the Champions’ League in the first place was to show “them” that you can also win it by playing beautiful, attacking football, and not the boring defensive stuff that has become a trademark in recent years.
If we don’t play such beautiful, attacking football in the final, then what will the point be?
Let’s hope it can all happen in Paris on May 17, whether it’s against Barcelona or Milan AC.