Andrei Arshavin Is Not A Goat

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on SB NATION, January 23 2012

We’ve all done it. You see that a glass is precariously balanced, move it away from the edge of the table, and then watch in horror as your housemate turns around quickly and knocks the thing to the floor. Everything is okay until you try to make it better, then suddenly there is glass all over the place and water in your shoes and your friends are shouting at you and it’s all gone wrong.

But after Andrei Arshavin’s catastrophic cameo — cameohdear? cameoops? — against Manchester United, I fully intend to start calling it “doing a Wenger”. (I don’t. But opening paragraphs are difficult.)

It was hard not to feel some sympathy for the diminutive Russian. As a player of minimal defensive talent that hasn’t seen anything even resembling decent form for months, who may well be in the process of moving clubs, and whose arrival on the pitch was greeted by boos and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”, it’s amazing he could even be bothered tracking Valencia as inadequately as he did. I’d have been crying hot tears of loneliness and shame.

The chants and boos may, of course, have been directed less at Arshavin and more at the removal of desginated silver lining Alexander Oxtail-Chiffarobe, particularly given that the risible Walcott somehow stayed on the pitch. Whether that distinction would have been clear to Arshavin himself is dubious, and ‘They’re not booing me as a person, just me as an option’ doesn’t feel like much consolation. Taking account of Arshavin’s non-form, I think it’s fair to suggest that at least some of the opprobrium was because of him, how he’s been playing, and the fact that he was coming on.

Now, all of the paragraph-before-last points to it being a bad substitution, and it probably was. However, if Wenger is telling the truth regarding Oxybaric-Chamber’s mid-week illness and his concerns over his fitness, then it makes sense to take him off — think what another injury would do to that squad — and the only other plausible option available to him was noted defensive titanYossi Benayoun. Given that Antonio Valencia’s in thrillingly slippery form at the moment, making fools out of plenty of proper defenders, it’s disingenuous and unsupportable to suggest that either Benayoun or Oscillating-Chlamydia definitely would have done better in that situation. It also fails to address the positional failings of Vermaelen and Song in the subsequent burst of tiki-taka that ended in the goal.

Substitutions in finely-balanced games are always risky. It’s been a touch overlooked that Wenger had taken what looked, on the face of it, to be a much bigger gamble at half-time. While withdrawing Johan Djourou made perfect sense — he’d been wholly absent — replacing him with 18-year-old midfielder Nico Yennaris took serious stones, and if Nani had sliced him into tiny ribbons then Wenger would have got stick for failing to introduce Miquel/move Koscielny/whatever. Instead, United’s principle first-half outlet was quelled, and Arsenal were able to get themselves back into the game. Had Wenger’s earlier gamble failed, Arshavin wouldn’t have had anything to throw away.

And if my auntie had balls she’d be a juggler, yes. It was a bad substitution because it went badly, that’s the only thing that really matters. What’s interesting, though, is the pre-emptive nature of the abuse: it had been pronounced a bad substitution before it had even been completed, a prophesy that may or may not have been self-fulfilling but certainly speaks of an intense amount of frustration and, perhaps more importantly, of a loss of faith. Arsene, famously, knows; in the eyes of plenty at the weekend, he didn’t.

When teams under-perform, fans look for reasons. And individuals make excellent scapegoats. You can’t boo an injury list; you can’t hurl invective at bad luck. It should go without saying that this isn’t specific to Arsenal, though the hounding of Emmanuel Eboue in his pre-cult hero days is another handy example. Everyone’s at it. Manchester United fans spent a good long time viewing Darron Gibson as a symbol rather than a symptom of their particular malaise, to the point that his perfectly innocent attempt to join United’s legions of incomprehensible Twitterers was drowned in a torrent of vicious, poorly-spelled, self-aggrandising abuse.

That’s the point of a scapegoat: by piling everything onto the shoulders of one man, it presents a simplistic-but-appealing solution. If he goes, so does the problem. Managers get it more than most, of course, often required to lay down their lives that their chairmen might live. The nature of discontent requires a sacrifical target. That’s what scapegoats were, after all: goats that were laden with the sins of the faithful, then turned into the desert to die.

Whether Wenger, Azazel Arshavin, or both are this month’s goat(s) isn’t really the point. The point is that ritual sacrifice-by-whistle-and-boo isn’t going to heal Bacary Sagna’s bones. It’s not going to give Ostrich-Showaddywaddy 20 more minutes in his legs. It’s not going to give Djourou any more gorm. It might be nice for frustrated Arsenal fans to think that holding an unhappy winger down on a stone slab and offering his blood to the gods will solve everything. But they know that it won’t. It’s just going to make everybody that bit more miserable.


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