Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City: Same Old Arsenal, Always Choking

Congratulations to Birmingham City, who ended a 48-year trophy drought and quite frankly deserved every bit of it. When you think about the worst game that Arsenal have played this season, West Brom and Newcastle immediately come to mind, with the second Braga game in close proximity. As we go along, ask yourself where on that scale this one places - I say it's either at or near the top (or bottom, as it were). On many other days, this would at least have gone to extra time. A large amount of credit has to go to our opponents for defending well and taking their chances when they came.

The thing is, games that truly matter - where there is a tangible chance of winning things - play differently than normal ones do. A normal regular-season or early-round Cup game is has recognizable patterns and rhythms, and even a horrible loss is only one small part of a much greater whole. A game like this, on the other hand, is magnified to a ridiculously intense degree. One lapse of concentration, one bad bounce of the ball, and a season's worth of work is undone in an instant.

It takes a certain kind of character to win these games, and much of this team just doesn't have it.

I may well take some stick for saying that, but keep in mind that by all rights Birmingham should have been 1-0 up against 10 men (9, when you consider Manuel Almunia would have been in goal) inside of the first two minutes. Arsenal were all over the shop right from the opening whistle, and only a wrongful flag for offside prevented Wojciech Szezcsny from conceding a penalty and seeing a straight red card for taking down that odious cunt Lee Bowyer down in the area. It was a remarkably lucky escape, and sadly a portent of things to come. At the end of the day, a favorite to win a game that has any kind of composure and self-belief doesn't have this happen before most people watching in the pub have ordered their first pint.

Eventually, proceedings settled down to the usual domination of possession for the Gunners. The most joy seemed to come down the flanks, as both Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna had very good games. They overlapped well with the wide two of the forward line, and managed to create some space as the game went along. The attack would have been far more potent though if those two - Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky - were on good form. Arshavin had some nice touches and his passing was OK, although there wasn't as much end product as you'd have liked. Rosicky, on the other hand, was fucking useless once again.

As a matter of fact, Rosicky to me personifies many of the less desirable traits of this club. He's technically a brilliant football player - his touch, ball control and passing are all remarkably good at times, much better than the average Joe. What prevents him from making an impression on games is his lack of self-belief and his inability to decisively make that one final move or pass (or SHOT!!!) that would cause havoc in the opposing defense. And yet, he played all 90 minutes despite contributing the square root of fuck all to the overall cause. Arsene Wenger's substitution patterns mystify me at the best of times, but this season especially has ranged from neutral to mind-boggling.

Anyway, the ball barely left the Birmingham half for about 15 solid minutes, so OF COURSE they would be the ones to take the lead. How fucking typical. A corner from Sebastian Larsson should have been cleared easily, but Laurent Koscielny lost his header to Roger Johnson. The ball came out to Nikola Zigic, who was unmarked. YES, THE SIX-FOOT-FUCKING-EIGHT GUY WAS LEFT COMPLETELY FUCKING UNGUARDED. As it turns out, Johan Djourou (who had a bit of a shocker today, it has to be said) abandoned him to try and double-team Johnson. Oh, and in all of this, Szezcsny made a rare mistake and was caught flapping at absolutely nothing, leaving the big Croat with the easiest of headers to give Birmingham the lead.

Photo: The Guardian

What a fucking shambles. Quelle surprise.

You can castigate me if you wish for not being a True Believer, but it was about this point where I felt we were on a hiding to nothing. As a matter of fact, if Zigic didn't have the ball control of a newborn foal, it would have been 2-0 to the other mob just seconds later. Once again, the backline couldn't deal with a simple long ball, and in the confusion it came to Zigic. Once again, Zigic was clear through on goal without a red shirt anywhere within 38 astronomical units of him. The ball bobbled a bit through, and the big doofus couldn't corral it in time. Szezcsny read the situation very well and came out to bravely block at the big man's feet, temporarily preventing catastrophe.

Let's sum up. At this point, the men in blue could very easily have been up 3-0 and facing 10 men for 56 more minutes. Can anyone honestly dispute that this lot deserved to beat us?

For all that, Arsenal were level around ten minutes later. Jack Wilshere first hit the bar with long-range drive, but the ball came out to Arshavin. The little Russian sent it back into the area, where Robin van Persie crisply volleyed low into the corner of the net. Ben Foster had no chance whatsoever, and the scores were level. The pub erupted, but even then, something seemed off. It wasn't the eruption of "YEEEEAAAH! Now we're going to go on and win it!" was more of an expression of relief for a temporary reprieve.

Photo: The Guardian

Halftime came and went, and the second stanza began much as the first ended with chances being traded on both sides. Nasri sent a rasping shot inches wide, while Birmingam took advantage of a Djourou giveaway with a Keith Fahey effort that cracked off the inside of the post and out. In retrospect, I almost wish that one had went in - there would have been 32 more minutes to make up the difference and perhaps some more urgency would have been shown by the men in red.

As it stood, an even half continued until the 70th minute, when van Persie's number came up on the board to be replaced by Nicklas Bendtner. I didn't see RVP get injured at any point, but that would be the only possible logical reason for that change. If that were the case, fine, I wouldn't risk the Dutchman the rest of the way in a 1-1 game either. If it were tactical though, then I just have no explanation, no reasonable guess as to the thought process behind it. Again, Rosicky was beyond horrendous on the day, and I again point out that he played all 90. I just don't get it.

The Gunners did come to life a bit after that though, and Foster had to make two decent saves and one brilliant one in quick succession (the one with his feet was brilliant - the one where he dived to his left was one that any professional keeper should make). A fourth one followed, where he palmed away a deflected shot, then gathered it into his body in mid-air. Hiding. To. Nothing.

Photo: The Guardian

Somewhere in all of this, Arshavin came off for the completely anonymous Marouane Chamakh. Seriously, does anyone ever remember him touching the ball? A much more fateful substitution came on the Birmingham end, as Obafemi Martins came into the fray. Still, there was one moment in the 88th where I thought Arsenal should have gone on to win it. It was Rosicky of all people who made an amazing, darting run into the penalty area. It was so direct that the Birmingham defense were at sixes and sevens, nowhere fucking near him. It wasn't the greatest of angles, but he had a clear line on goal and should have taken the shot.

Of course, he hit a dreadful pass to Chamakh that was cleared out. The chance came and went. So fucking typical.

Then, of course, the disaster. Another simple long ball caused confusion in the Arsenal area. It looked to me like Szezcsny called for it, but either way, that was always his ball. Koscielny instead tried to hook it away - it hit Szezcsny, and came out right into the path of Martins for the easiest tap-in goal he'll ever score. Fuck me running.

Photo: The Guardian

Despite my angry Facebook status from after the game wishing Koscielny a happy trip back to Lorient, the truth is that he has been a solid defender most of this season. He's had his dodgy moments and his brilliant ones - and this is a mistake that could happen to anyone, could happen in any game. We see mistakes like this made six, seven, maybe eight times a season, minimum. But, you know what? This is the kind of thing that a panicking team does in a big situation. That is the kind of goal I would expect West Ham to concede in a relegation six-pointer. That is the kind of goal I would expect Tiny La Liga Team # 1261A to concede when Barcelona is cutting them to ribbons.

That is the kind of goal that, if we're being honest with ourselves, we always have to expect that Arsenal are capable of conceding at any time.

You can call it luck if you wish. You can say "It's just the League Cup" if it helps you sleep better at night. But the fact of the fucking matter is that winners win, and losers don't. There have been some nice moments this season, just like you can pick out nice moments from the previous five. There's been the beautiful passing moves, the goals you normally couldn't replicate even on the XBox, the days where we put 7 past someone like Everton in a game that means fuck all in the end.

In the end, it doesn't matter.

Get me?





The saying goes that "banners last forever", and whoever coined it wasn't wrong. When Mike Dean blew his whistle three times, Arsenal had one beautiful world-class goal, Birmingham had two ugly ones...and a trophy.

There isn't much else to say. You can trot out all of the usual criticisms, because they all apply. Mental fragility, shoddy defense, silly mistakes, lack of finishing when it was all there in ample supply today. So, while it was fantastic to beat Barcelona when the pressure was off and there was nothing to lose, I would have traded it in an instant for a win today.

I've said before that I don't think this team will ever win a trophy again under the current management. It doesn't give me anything other than misery to say it, but objectively it looks like that may be the case after all. I fervently hope that in the end, this is just another experience and another building block on the path to me being hilariously wrong. We'll see.

One final thought - how fucking Arsenal is Jack Wilshere? He was the only one of that lot with the proper reaction to losing a Cup final (other than Koscielny, who rightly looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up). I have great hope that this will stick in his mind for the rest of his life, and give him the kind of burning determination that winners have to never, ever let it happen again.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezcsny 7, Clichy 7, Djourou 5, Koscielny 3, Sagna 7, Rosicky 4, Song 6, Wilshere 7, Nasri 6, Arshavin 6 (Chamakh N/A), van Persie 8 (MOTM) (Bendtner 5)