Life in Arms / Down by the Schoolwall
by Brian Phillips · February 21, 2008
I know William Gallas is supposed to have undergone a complete transformation and become a leader with a heart of oak since he signed for Arsenal, but I’m not seeing it; there’s too much desperation in his mohawk and his eyes. Compared to the group of calm bankers and war-heroes-after-the-war in the Milan defense yesterday, he looked wound up and shot through with a consciousness of being looked at, as though his hasty belated conversion to maturity were just another temperamental plea for acclaim. I think he instinctively sensed that there was a market for that kind of baptism and flung himself into the fountain; but you can see where his conscience held back in that dark self-consoling introverted look he gets sometimes when play stops and he turns his head to one side, and you can see it in the way he started to shave his head and then thought at the last second: why not just leave myself this one last plume of flair.
There’s something interesting, something self-conflicted, going on with Arsenal right now, and Gallas is a sign of it, though he probably isn’t even the best one. The team look sharp and nervous, like a violin whose strings have been tightened to the point where they’re about to break; they’re all racehorse sinew and rolling eyes and the threat of going out of control. Fabregas is the exception, and it was a fine thing to see yesterday how at 20 he’s already combining the trench-diving down-and-dirtiness of Gattuso with Pirlo’s lethal diplomacy. The rest of the squad look like the driver just got shot off the stagecoach and they’re starting to bulge ahead and toy with the idea of galloping right for the cliff. As strong as Gallas has been all season, there’s something in him that’s accelerating the anxiety rather than relieving it.
It’s Adebayor who makes the best example, and not just because he missed from eighteen inches in the game’s last will and testament. The other piece of conventional wisdom that’s been following the team all season is that before, with Henry around, Arsenal were a “10+1″ side, and that now, with Adebayor leading the front line, they’re an integrated unit, the younger members of which are no longer stifled by the need to pass to their leader every time they get the ball. If that theory is true then it’s true everywhere except in the mind of Adebayor, who has mad-king potential like no one I’ve ever seen: that huge, nostril-flaring, justified, evil-eye face and the kind of suppressed roar that seems to follow him on the pitch are not out for utopian harmony but look designed to dominate. I think he’s playing his way into power but that something keeps holding him back, the same way it did when he didn’t score in October, the same way it did when he didn’t score last night. As good as he’s become he’s still not as great as his aura’s demanding, and I think the uncertainty that surrounds that gap is having an effect on the team.
Everyone’s talking about the missed header at the end, but to my mind the more interesting miss was Nicklas Bendtner’s a few minutes earlier: Bendtner playing ferociously, Fabregas slipping him the ball on the edge of the box, right in Adebayor’s territory, and Bendtner, who must be living half in terror of Adebayor by this point, breaking down in the face of a makeable shot and sending the ball halfway to the moon.
There’s some crack in this team, some line of tension; they’re like a boat that you wouldn’t feel quite right steering toward deep water. If you think this is nothing but criticism then you must not know this site: I’m as fascinated by Arsenal as by any team in the world right now, and whether Wenger can take their skittish keenness and turn it into a weapon may be the question of the rest of the year. If this were a Star Trek episode it would include the words “subspace ripple” and end with the Enterprise broken in dry dock. But then no one ever dies in those episodes, except maybe one assistant engineer and a ship full of hundreds of Romulans.
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