By Zito Madu
Arsenal legend Robin van Persie once compared football to sex and likened scoring a goal to an orgasm. Van Persie is not the first player to make that comparison, and it’s easy to see why the metaphor works. A study even once found that many people considered football better than sex.
Football, unlike many other sports, is a low-scoring affair, which means that there’s usually an intense buildup to the first goal, which can last anywhere from mere seconds to 90 minutes. In a narrative structure, it’s the rising action before the climax. The goal is the release of frustration. And then you go again.
If football is like sex, then Arsenal are not terribly good at it.
They were at their frustrating best against Basel. The first goal came quick. Theo Walcott scored after seven minutes: Santi Cazorla clipped a pass over the ball-watching Basel defense from near midfield and found Alexis Sánchez deep inside the left side of the box. Sánchez sent in a high cross and Walcott was there to head the ball past the diving keeper.
The second took a big longer. Walcott received the ball from Mesut Özil on the right side of Basel’s defensive third. Going forward, he played a one-two with Sánchez whose return pass completely beat Basel’s defense and sent the winger who desired to be a forward before resigning himself to being a winger, in on goal. Walcott, who the commentator described as “in the mood” was measured in his finish. He sent it to the bottom right corner.
Then they were apparently done with the scoring and started with the misses.
The next big opportunity came when Sánchez spread the ball to a running Héctor Bellerín on the right. Bellerín cut inside with his first touch and played it to Özil who was waiting right outside the box. Özil tried to flick the ball to Walcott who was just ahead and beyond the Basel defense, but it deflected off a defender and into the center —between the keeper and Basel’s last defender. Sánchez, who had been making a run through the middle since his initial pass, almost managed to get there before both. He didn’t, but all three collided and the ball spilled out. Walcott pounced but was thwarted by a defender. He cried for a penalty. The fans raised their voices in support. And the referee waived them all off.
The next one was the most baffling of what would be a litany of missed opportunities. It was the Kevin to the audience’s Charlotte in “The Drought” episode of Sex and the City.
Bellerín headed on a clearance forward right from under the midfield line. Walcott got to it about 10 yards ahead. With a defender right on top of him, he controlled first with his right foot, turning forward in the process, and played it into the middle, into space, with his left. Bellerín ran onto the ball. Walcott then beat his defender with pace for the return pass. The ball came to him right inside the box. He played it back into the middle, towards the edge where Bellerín had been arriving. The fullback let it run beyond him so it could find Cazorla at the top.
Cazorla could have tried to finish himself, a man with his technique has all rights to shoot from that distance. He could have ended the contest and all anxiety. But this is Arsenal and the tension was still building. He instead one-touched it to Sánchez who was ahead to his left. Sánchez had backpedaled and created space for himself while the defenders were suffering palpitations of their own.
Bellerín-Walcott-Bellerín-Walcott-Cazorla-Sánchez. Does he finish? Does he put the ball on either side of the keeper? Is there an actual climax to what was a stupendous buildup? Of course not. As is stereotypical for Sánchez when he misses, he got too excited. He tried to chip the ball rather than being simple. The attempt was weak and the keeper managed to deflect it out for a corner.
Bellerín missed next. And thin Özil, Sánchez, Iwobi, Özil again; Iwobi once more after bursting through the center on his own, Sánchez again, this time from inside the 6-yard box; even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed his age after beating the offside trap and the keeper and failing to pull the trigger. The final minute saw Sánchez miss again, this time at close range after a flicked header from a corner. He could have pulled it back to the middle for Laurent Koscielny, but was too selfish.
So went the 90 minutes and what started off as a promising night, seemingly ended in frustration — even the faces of the players showed it. There were two good goals and a clean sheet but the numerous simulations without a resolution, a finish, made it so the affair was burdened by what could have been. It was good but had the potential to be better.
This Arsenal side is built for Van Persie’s “sexy football.” The midfield of Cazorla and Granit Xhaka means that no type of pass or range is out of question, Sánchez and Walcott are willing to run, Iwobi can take multiple defenders off the dribble, and Özil is to goals what Good Luck Chuck is to marriages. The defense even now provides the foundation, the protection, that Arsenal needed for so many years in order to enjoy their play.
But just as the team needs to be composed during the latter parts of the league campaign in order to actually challenge for the title, so too do the players need to take their chances in order to kill off games. Especially when they’re up against sides more capable than a ponied up Basel.