Football is a game of small margins.
When Bobby Madley decided that throttling Mesut Ozil wasn’t even a challenge worthy of a free-kick, he effectively undid all the (admittedly baby) steps that Arsenal had taken following a well-worked opening goal towards piecing back together some form.
And when his assistant referee failed to raise his flag as Ashley Williams bundled home from a close, but nonetheless offside position, he simply added another week to our unchecked slide into misery, despondency and despair.
The thing is, despite the shocking decision not to award a foul against Amat, there is no arguing that our defence could – and should – have still prevented Swansea’s first goal. Likewise, the slightly less shocking decision to allow their second was no excuse for the horrific marking in front of goal. In that respect, there are no excuses. None, nil, nada.
But when the chips are down, confidence is at an all-time low and the one, singular thing that matters is getting a win by hook or by crook, you cannot afford those small margins to go against you.
Yes, you can drag yourselves out of it, and often a change in manager inspires this improvement, but the link is far from defined. Chelsea this season, Dortmund last season, and United over a period of time have found themselves struggling in competitions where they have previously been competing at the top of the table or even dominating. Yet while Klopp’s departure reinvigorated Dortmund, Hiddink’s appointment hardly signalled an immediate move to let the good times roll over at Stamford Bridge.
A moving target
Truth is, form is such a complex concept, and it is so vulnerable to those small things. In tough times, a borderline decision going your way – or in Tuesday night’s case, simply a blatant decision actually being given – can be all you need to turn your whole season around, and the lack of it can just dig you deeper into your rut. Goals change games, and while I don’t wish to exonerate the players from the culpability they very definitely deserve, without Bobby Madley’s incompetence, we may have seen a very different outcome in our last run out.
Saturday’s opponents are having the exact opposite issue. From the farcical non-penalty given against Raheem Sterling for a handball which hit his back while he was facing the other way, to the two hopeful pot-shots they scored from last weekend, one ricocheting off the fortunate Nacer Chadli and the other somehow evading every single one of a glut of players blocking Fabianski’s view, everything is coming up Spurs at the moment.
Even their players and former players seem to have gained confidence, and conveniently forgotten that every other time they have declared “this is our year” and “there’s a power shift” it’s come back to bite them hard.
Truth be told, I’m genuinely terrified about the North London Derby for the first time ever. Spurs games always carry that little bit of extra significance for me, since I cohabit with one of their season ticket holders, but this is the first time ever that I’m going into the fixture not just thinking we could lose, but also that we could be humiliated.
Fortune favours the form
I said to a Barcelona fan I know last week that “I would wish you good luck, but if you get luck on top of your excessively talented front three then we have no chance.”
Come Saturday lunchtime, we cannot allow luck to go the way of our noisy neighbours. The small margins have to go our way for the first time in a while. When you’re playing well, these tiny things are just plain irritating, but when your team is so below par that they’re practically 10 feet under with the soil piling up on top of their decomposing body, it is the difference between winning and losing, and in arresting the slump or burrowing yet further into the mire.
Arsenal cannot lose on Saturday. It would leave us six points off Tottenham, and a possible nine points off Leicester. It would see our terrible run continue. And of course, it would ruin my life for the foreseeable future (by far the biggest concern, I’m sure you’d agree!).
Right now, our toast keeps landing butter side down, but it won’t do forever. We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, stop allowing ourselves to believe that these things are happening ‘to us’ and not ‘because of us’ and start forcing the issue.
That means minimising our errors, maximising our opportunities and limiting the impact that any small margins which go against us can have on the result.
It means having a game plan, it means believing we can execute it and it means following through with that executing.
And it means giving thanks for Michael Oliver.
Being down doesn’t mean being out. But it does mean it’s time to act.
This is our moment to make – or break – our season, so it’s time to drive the train rather than be tied to the tracks in front of it.
Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a train wreck.