Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Arsenal Deliver Hope

Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Manchester City is an occasion to savor but not to belabor.

As sports fans in general and Arsenal supporters in particular, we have yearned for moments like this, an event that is all the more satisfying for our inability to see it coming. We struggled to imagine the satisfaction of victory because this scenario, in which Arsenal traveled to one of the league's elites, had produced such different conclusions in the recent, memorable past.

The records didn't favor Arsenal, but those records didn't determine the plot or result of this contest. The individual and collective performances on the day did. That's why, compelling statistical correlations and convincing historical storylines notwithstanding, there is always hope.

Mental and physical ability in a familiar package

In addition to the drama created by the unpredictable, we follow sport to witness the highest levels of physical and mental ability. We saw that on Sunday in the person of midfielder Santi Cazorla.

Analysts and supporters by the dozens are rightly praising Cazorla's performance; I won't replicate those ratings here. Instead, I'll be looking briefly at Cazorla as a compelling character in this particular sporting drama.

Cazorla's physique distinguishes him from professional athletes not named Woosnam. He is 5-foot-5 and not exactly muscular. He stands apart from the large majority of professional athletes in most sports, who are gargantuan and/or amazingly defined specimens. Fans can therefore relate to Cazorla in ways we can't to other top-level athletes.

We can also see our own outlooks reflected in Cazorla's. Unlike the joyless hordes of stars who portray their professions as grinds, Cazorla takes great pleasure in what he does. His laughter and smiles show the attitude we would have if we were blessed to play a game for a living. At least that's what we tell ourselves, knowing next to nothing about a professional athlete's  sacrifices, past, or psychology.

What we don't share is Cazorla's remarkable skill, vision, and calm. All were on full display as he controlled Sunday's match, which featured 14 selected members of the world's most expensive sporting enterprise, Manchester City Football Club. (See Adrian Clarke's always excellent segment, The Breakdown, on Arsenal Player for a shrewd analysis of Cazorla's performance.)

The professional perspective

Another trait that distinguishes Cazorla from fans is his perspective. We'll be excited for some time--and understandably so--about what happened at the Etihad. Not Spurs-Special-Issue-DVD-level excited, but buzzing all the same. That emotion is what fans live for.

Professional athletes, though, live for the next contest. I wrote about this mentality after a quite different occasion, the 2-0 loss at Chelsea earlier this season ("Arsenal's Next Steps"), and what's encouraging is that Arsenal's players are now displaying the same level-headedness that they showed then in defeat.

One example was Cazorla's reflection immediately after the match: "Today, the team had good spirit, good concentrate, and we need to play the same the next game, no?"

Quite charming in its earnestness, simplicity, and cross-lingual struggle.

Similarly, midfielder Francis Coquelin, who might be excused some excitement and exaggeration given his rapid transition from a fringe player to a vital contributor, did not get carried away as many of us would. "It's a tough game to win," Coquelin told the club website, "but we did that, and now we need to move to to the next one, because there is no point winning here and then losing at home in the next game."

Captain Per Mertesacker neatly summarized the calm reaction, saying "We don't have to talk too much -- it was just one game, but it was a good response."

Treating the two imposters

These statements from the players suggest that they're handling the highs and lows of the season like professionals. Although we as fans might relate better to full-blown emotional reactions, such swings by the team aren't productive. Instead, it's vital that players manage the stress of elite competition with a cool head. (See "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not.")

I'd therefore expect the management, coaching staff, and team to deploy the same methodology after the City performance as they do after every other match, one I described in the wake of the Chelsea loss. Win or lose, they will:
  1. Analyze the performance
  2. Avoid excessive praise or blame
  3. Apply what they learn
  4. Turn their attention to the next match

These aren't inspiring steps, but they are what's required to focus a group of elite athletes over the course of a long campaign. They are also necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the fulfillment of this side's potential, a hint of which just stunned us in the technicolor of individual and collective feats.

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