Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oh Captain! My Captain!

(*With apologies to Walt Whitman)
By H. Cawood.

This column is about two Captains, one a future Captain at the beginning of his career and one my current Captain reaching the end of his career. They are worlds apart, literally and figuratively. The future Captain can be found gracing the lush grounds of London Colney, my current Captain on dusty molehill-ridden school fields in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The former is 21, learnt his footballing at the Arsenal Academy, and has already played alongside the likes of Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and Robin van Persie. The latter is 37, his footballing career consisting of school, Sunday and veteran leagues in South Africa, Cyprus and the US, and played in a veteran team with Chris Marsden, former Sheffield United, Birmingham City and Southampton player. Jack Wilshere has already been given the Captain’s armband for Arsenal, and is being groomed for both Arsenal and England captaincy, according to Steven Gerrard and Alan Shearer. Everyone who has watched him play for club and country this season knows that the kid has something special about him, that he will run until he can’t run any more  that he’ll stand up to legends like Michael Owen, that his tireless performances will make Neymar and Ronaldinho look ordinary in comparison, and that Arsenal (and England) are lesser teams without him. It’s a Captain-thing, something which all sport persons who have played in teams under an inspirational Captain will recognize.

Jack Wilshere vs Sunderland

Our team played a footy match on Thursday against a much younger , fitter side made up mostly of high school kids (whereas the average age of our team is about 28 – our players ranging from 20 to 40 years old). In the first half, our 3-man makeshift defence (formation 3-5-2) was playing their socks off against younger and fitter opposition, only letting in one goal which came from a mistake in the midfield. The problem was that our strikers had what can only be euphemistically be termed an ‘off-day’ (uneuphemistically – an absolutely shocker), with chance after chance after chance being spurned. We should have put the game to bed by half-time – we could have been 6 or 7 goals up. Instead we went into the break with only a 2-1 advantage. At half-time arguments broke out between the forwards, midfielders and defenders: the defenders begging  the forwards to take their chances as they were starting to tire; the forwards asking the midfielders for better service; the defenders berating the midfielders for not tracking their players back and protecting the backline. As a result, what should have been a relatively straight-forward second half became instead a battle of mental strength and fitness. We lost the match 2-3. The image that remains, however, is that of our Captain Fantastic at 2-2, pushing forward (from CB) in frustration to try and do the job of our failing strikers, drenched in sweat, beyond exhausted, ankle swollen up to the size of a tennis ball, being taken out on the edge of the opposition box, and this time unable to get back up. He was subbed off, and a minute or two later the opposition went down the other end and scored. Our Captain was furious, at himself and at the team, and 4 days after the match is still smarting about the attitude of the boys on the field. As the heartbeat of the team,  his frustration with self and other players shows exactly why we all look up to him so much.

What does this have to do with the Arsenal? Well, on Saturday we faced off against Sunderland, a fixture which was a 0-0 draw in the first game of the season and which traditionally is quite a difficult game for us. Like my team on Thursday, Arsenal had a patched up defence of Jenks (whose last first-team game was a few months ago), Mertesacker (who played a full 90 minutes for Germany midweek), Sagna at CB (who at RB has been somewhat out of form lately), and our new-boy Monreal at LB, in only his second week as an Arsenal player. Like my team on Thursday, we should have made the game a non-contest by half time. Chance after chance was bottled by Giroud and Walcott and even Santi. Our Jack, fresh off that incredibly performance for England, continued the form with a first-half in showing in which he was almost untouchable. Breaking through the midfield, hassling, fouling, getting fouled, intercepting, laying off perfectly-weighted through balls, and generally showing why he has become the contemporary icon of Arsenal Football Club. He had been battered all over the pitch by Cattermole, Gardener and Bramble. Our defence, to be fair, was largely untroubled until N’Diaye put in a last late challenge on Jack, which left him – like my Captain Fantastic – unable to get up.

Immediately I thought about what happened to my team on Thursday, when our strikers didn’t take their numerous chances; how when our Captain got injured we consequently threw away the game. It could have happened to Arsenal. In fact it nearly did happen, as not even 10 minutes after Jack’s injury Jenks dived into a rash challenge and received his second yellow of the game.  Sunderland proceeded to throw everything they had at our goals, while our strikers still couldn’t take more than one of their numerous chances. With 19 goal attempts only 8 were on target, and those 8 saved by a brilliant Mignolet. But here’s what was amazing, what showed that Arsenal have more grit and determination that previously given credit for – they held strong. We had very little possession in midfield and only attacked on the counter, but for all Sunderland threw the kitchen sink, we stood firm. Sagna had his best game of the season by miles, Szczesny showed why Arsene hasn’t gone into the market for another keeper, Per marshalled the back-line like a general, Arteta was effectively breaking up attacks in the area between defence and midfield, and Nacho had a quietly competent game on the left. The display by 10-man Arsenal to keep Sunderland at bay was the gutsiest performance I’ve seen all season from them, and was in its own way just as satisfying as the 5-2 thrashing of the scum down the road.

Wojciech Szczesny

It doesn’t patch over the problems we have in squad depth. With Vermaelen, Koscielny and Gibbs out, and Jenks suspended, thank goodness we have 10 days until our next league game and a week until our Champions League clash against Bayern. It was interesting that Miquel came on ahead of Squillaci and that Wenger has allowed the probable loan move of Santos to Gremio to go ahead – clearly speaking volumes about what he thinks of their potential contributions towards the push for 4th place. While our attack, on their day, can be lethal, the fact is that if they don’t take the chances given to them we will draw and lose more games than we can afford. Jack will hopefully only be out for a few days. I honestly can’t imagine going into the Bayern game without him.

He might not be Captain yet, and quite frankly I’m rather happy with Arteta taking on that responsibility allowing Wilshere the freedom to focus on his own game, but he clearly IS Arsenal, just as my Captain Fantastic is the life of my team.

It’s to players like them that the quote by Anson Dorrance applies:

‘The vision of a champion is someone bent over, drenched in sweat, to a point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.’


Post a Comment