That’s exactly how I feel about yesterday’s game. Meh. It happened. There was joy and trepidation in the first half. Then it was gone and I was left with just nothing.
The Champions-elect Chelsea visited Arsenal on Sunday. I had guessed beforehand that that would be the result. Chelsea didn’t need a win and so they didn’t play for one. The draw that they got certainly put us out of reach of all hope of the title.
That happens sometimes in soccer, a boring nil-nil draw. Sometimes your team can’t string together three passes to save their lives. Arsenal’s finishing yesterday wasn’t great. And sometimes the other team would rather not lose and they do everything they can to prevent an actual contest from happening. That’s their right. It’s called gamesmanship.
Everyone hates icing the kicker or the steroids era in baseball or the ridiculous fouling at the end of a basketball game. If it’s your team, then you forgive them, especially if they win. If it’s the other team doing it, then it’s absolutely the most frustrating thing ever.
There are a few tell-tale signs of gamesmanship in soccer: all their players behind the ball (only playing defense), rotational fouling on the other team’s best players (Alexis got three heavy fouls on him in the first 8 minutes), wasting time (fake injuries, time taken before free kicks), and diving for fouls.
This is not an article about how Chelsea don’t deserve the title; they do. The saying is, “The table doesn’t lie.” The team with the most points are crowned as champions. They get the title and the bragging rights. My argument is that the best team in terms of points is not always the best team in terms of aesthetics. I’m not even going to argue that Arsenal are always the most pleasing team to watch. They often aren’t. But they do try.
I enjoy the beauty of the game (as much as one can enjoy the beauty of a game where a bunch of millionaires chase a ball around a field and try to kick it into a net). I would argue that we all should. I almost wish I didn’t have a team so that I could enjoy soccer without worrying about losing. I would just cheer for whoever was playing better football.
If I had to watch nil-nil, let’s just not lose, park-the-bus soccer every week, I would not watch soccer even if we won the league every year. I just don’t see how that would be compelling enough to make me passionate about it. Soccer is a spectator sport and people watch it to see goals and excitement.
We watch soccer for the aesthetics. It’s that simple. No one would be a soccer fan simply for the winning or losing. That’s why live blogs are terrible, although a useful way to keep track of a game. You get none of the beauty, none of the skill or drama from basic words on the page (yep, me again, being critical of the written word, totally unironically). I follow live blogs when I’m at work because knowing whether we won or lost is better than nothing. It’s one step below a dodgy stream broadcast in Russian.
The goals are the exciting bit. Dribbling and intricate passing are what get us excited. Boring, stale winning is great for the sake of winning, but only for so long. And it certainly isn’t going to convince anyone new to like the sport.
To say that Chelsea play boring football is not the full truth. They at times this season have played attacking football, although they haven’t really trounced a top 5 team like Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool, United’s 4-2 over City, or City 3-0 against Southampton. They have in general been ruthlessly efficient. They do win games. They’ve been even tighter in 2015. In the league this year, they’ve only beaten 2 teams by more than one goal, Newcastle and Swansea, both in January. Hardly swaggering to the title. More often they’ve been staggering, needing an 88th minute goal against relegation fodder QPR to get the three points.
To appreciate good football we need to see cynical, boring football from time to time. Often lower-level teams will play defensive minded football to prevent getting battered. Nobody faults West Ham for playing long ball (except for the owners) and I think we all have a begrudging respect for Burnley’s never-say-die attitude fighting for Premier League survival. But if you fill a team with superstars (and if you noticed half of the team of the season are Chelsea players) and then play like a small team, then you deserve some criticism. Earlier this season the media were crowning Chelsea as the new Invincibles, but they’ll hardly go down as one of the legendary teams like United ’99 or Arsenal ’04 because they didn’t express themselves.
I think that is the upsetting part. Chelsea have the players to attack and win. Courtois, Hazard, Fabregas, Matic, Ivanovic and Oscar are some of the best players on the planet. They could have done so much more this season.
We know that to have heroes, we need villains. I think José Mourinho is the most willing villain ever. He relishes baiting the media into loving him. Here’s the video of him sneaking up on the other team’s manager and gouging his eye before slinking away. Who does that?! If Chelsea are happy to oblige us, then we should let them. José and Roman’s relationship will blow up soon enough.