Tuesday’s loss to Barcelona, and the subsequent reaction from those associated with Arsenal to it, was a little bit weird.
To explain why, we need to look west. Way west.
Oakland, California, to be precise.
The Golden State Warriors are the current champions of the NBA. They also currently have the best record of all 30 teams in the league, at a historically high 51 wins and five losses. At present, they are on course to beat the highest total of wins during a regular season, held by the Chicago Bulls featuring a certain Michael Jordan, who went 72-10 in 1996.
They are, to put it mildly, the Barcelona of basketball.
But it’s not the fact that they’re winning that makes them stand out at the minute, it’s the manner in which they are doing so. Their best player, Stephen Curry, is playing the game in such a fashion that has computer game developers complaining that it’s unrealistic. A good NBA player will shoot at a 40% success rate from behind the three-point line, which is 23 feet and nine inches away from the basket. Curry is shooting at a 68% success rate from twenty-eight feet and further away from the basket.
And he can also do this:
He is, to put it very mildly, the Lionel Messi of basketball.
The Warriors are overwhelming teams, just like Barcelona have been doing for the last few years. They get ahead early, and stay ahead. They have won the last 97 games in which they get a 15 point lead, which in a sport that is known for leads like that to be made and lost with great regularity, is an insane statistic. They just blow teams away, in a fashion and style that has never been seen in the sport before.
The reason I bring the Warriors up, is because sport in America is notorious for having no room for losers. Teams, and their fans, rarely have any preference for a method of victory, only the victory is important. That victory will then be celebrated as the greatest victory of all time, because it was their victory. There is no clamour for aesthetic failure, winning is all that matters.
At least, it was all that mattered. But for the last year or so, the Warriors have changed that dynamic. They’ve played so well, and so beautifully, that losing to them isn’t seen as a failure. Merely making them work hard for a victory is currently viewed as a sign of promise for the team that lost.
The most recent example of this happened on Wednesday night, when Golden State won a close game in Miami. The Miami Heat are no strangers to winning championships, having reached four NBA finals in a row between 2010 and 2014, and were seen at the start of this season as having an outside shot of winning the title again. You’d think that losing to a title rival, at home, would have hurt a lot, right?
Here’s a quote from their head coach, Eric Spoelstra, immediately after the loss:
“We had our opportunities,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys played their butts off. ……. This is for competitors only. This is competition at its finest.”
Here’s their best player, Dwayne Wade, a player who has won three championships with Miami, talking about how Steph Curry won the game for the Warriors:
“A great player made some great plays at the end,” Wade said. “We did enough to win the ballgame, we just didn’t come out with it. If we can play the way we did tonight the rest of the season we will win most of those games.”
Losing to the Warriors but giving them a tough game in the process is now being treated as if that was almost as good as winning, that losing was inevitable so making that loss as close as possible should be seen as a sign that the team that lost is good as well.
That all is well and good, but it’s still a loss, and a loss against a direct competitor as well. There’s no such thing as a good loss to a rival. There just isn’t.
But what has all of this got to do with Tuesday night? Well, here’s what Aaron Ramsey said after the game:
“You have to give them credit they average a goal a game. But chances like the one we had, you need to take them.”
And Arsene Wenger?
“Barcelona master all aspects of the game. As soon as you’re in a bad position against them you can get punished.”
Sound familiar? In the same way that the NBA has allowed itself to believe that almost losing to Golden State isn’t a bad result, Arsenal went into this game fearing that not getting a win at home against Barcelona would be a disaster. There is no better way of explaining how Arsenal, in the 71st minute, went from trying to catch Barca on the counter-attack to suddenly throwing bodies forward in the hope of a goal, other than that they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.
This is why Wenger was so annoyed after the game, because he knew that his team had panicked under pressure… again. Arsenal had played well, defended superbly, countered with skill and pace, and were creating as many opportunities as their opponents. It was an even game, right up until the minute that Arsenal began to think that it wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter how we set up before a game, or how much time we spend of specific instructions, if during a game those drills are ignored because our players are too afraid of implementing them for the fear of losing. And if it’s the same players constantly panicking under pressure, i.e. Per Mertesacker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, then it’s the players that need to be changed, not the tactics.
Losing to Barcelona is fine. Losing to Barcelona because you were worried about losing to Barcelona isn’t, and shouldn’t be. But as long as there are players in important positions at Arsenal playing with fear, then this will keep being a problem.