Team A had a relatively experienced manager, but young players.
The team had done well in all competitions. Injuries had taken their toll, but the team was within touching distance of the League title and was still alive in three tournaments: the Carling Cup, the FA Cup, and the Champions League. It had drawn the toughest team in the Champions League Round of 16, and succeeded in beating them in the first leg.
What happened next was disheartening. Team A lost the Carling Cup final match by making a defensive mistake in the 89th minute. A few weeks later, it lost in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 by a big margin, its key goal scorer receiving a second yellow almost on a technicality. Not long afterward, it lost in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. Then the League fell away. Team A finished in fourth place.
The manager of Team A was declared an idiot and supporters and the media bayed for his head.
Team B had a good mix of experienced and new players and a relatively new manager.
Despite his short history with the club, he’d already won the League once and the FA Cup twice. Team B had done well in all competitions. It was winning the League, and hadn’t lost a match in the League all season. It was out of the Carling Cup, but was still in the Champions League and the FA Cup. Injuries threatened, but the ship stayed afloat.
But that, too, began to sink. Team B lost in the FA Cup semi-final and shortly thereafter lost in the quarter-final of the Champions League. A few days later, with four points separating them from the second-place team in the League, they found themselves down 1-2 at home by halftime.
What happened next was this: Team B managed to come out after halftime and score 3 unanswered goals.
They managed to tie the next match, and win the one after that. A big win, by five goals. With four matches still remaining in the season, they tied up the League title with a 2-2 score at the home of their fiercest rivals.
The manager was brilliant, one of the League’s bright spots.
Team A and Team B. Two teams with exceptional athletes, best training practices. Two teams facing roughly the same situation, where success was building and then quickly dismantled. One fell apart in the final moments and football made its judgment. One pulled together in a key moment and history celebrated its success.
That is how we come to think of these things, but there is something else to it as well. Team B had the kind of luck that eluded Team A.
Team A was Arsenal, in 2011. The manager, an idiot, was Arsène Wenger.
Team B was Arsenal, in 2004. The manager, brilliance personified, was Arsène Wenger.
Team B went on to achieve something no modern team in football has ever done. It managed to be undefeated for the entire season, winning or tying each of the last four matches remaining in the league. In the excellent Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten Season, the players on that team shared with author Amy Lawrence that finding focus after winning the League so early was one of the hardest accomplishments of the year. They limped to the end and collapsed in success.
Interestingly, for both Team A and Team B, the doors opened after the season and players left. For Team A, it was sudden and painful. Players had lost faith in the project and other clubs were lined up to take and pay them handsomely.
For Team B it was more gradual, but it happened nonetheless. These amazing players were much in demand and other clubs sweet-talked them away. Some of the older ones retired from the game. The magic slowly dissipated.
While Arsenal was building its new stadium, the Emirates, it was also building a team. The rebuilding process for a team is rarely as straightforward as the building process for a structure. Fitting jigsaw pieces together when the puzzle was not created from a single photo requires patience and diligence. The puzzle pieces are not, by and large, patient. They have individual goals, and short careers to manage.
This is not unique. All teams experience ebb and flow in personnel, in management. Successful and failure both have the potential to initiate seismic shifts. All teams face opportunities to exploit the moments when other teams inevitably go through these shifts.
But not all teams have the patience to wait out painful periods and endeavor to work steadily toward success, fitting and piecing and massaging and smoothing until all is in place. Some argue they shouldn’t even try.
That’s not the way Manchester City works, for example. The goal is to amass the best players of the best, cost be damned. But even that is only so successful. On paper, an argument could be made that Manchester City could have won the League every year for the past five or six years. But Luck had its say, and Luck allowed two titles.
I don’t know if this is Arsenal’s year. I would love it to be.
These moments that produce success hang by a thread, waiting to be seized.