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Happy 15th (and one month) Anniversary to Michael Essien’s unforgettable strike versus Arsenal!

Still unbelievable

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Chelsea v Arsenal - Stamford Bridge Photo by Nick Potts - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

The internet is nearing a third decade as a mainstay of modern life. While some its content is as fresh as the next nanosecond, other bits are digitally prehistoric. As people fight online about the concept of NFTs and whether one can truly own digital art that holds value outside of anyone who believes it should, to me the true beauty of the internet is as a living archive, in which recorded experiences can become collector’s items. So, on the fifteenth (plus one month) anniversary of that 2006 Michael Essien strike versus Arsenal, I went on a quest to find a highlight with the requisite components to relive the awe of the real-time moment.

The breakneck pace of technology advancements plus all the dang football that happens all the time combine to make finding this highlight in its best and purest form quite a task.

Firstly, it happened in 2006, which, though my millennial brain would prefer to never admit, was quite some time ago. Sure the internet existed in 2006, but HD video on a computer was not a thing. In fact, true HD television was just getting started, and only at 720p or 1080i. Uploading the kind of high-quality video we see a hundred times a day on our phones now would have taken hours. To further crystallize the point: the first iPhone was released in June of 2007, and it didn’t have the capability to send a picture message.

It takes some careful and discerning scrolling and clicking after typing ‘Essien Arsenal’ into YouTube to find the right combination to properly relive the experience of the goal. The first obstacle is getting clear enough video. Plenty clips look like digital static, but that was just the standard definition picture beamed to a prehistoric satellite dish that was to be cherished, while also raising your cable bill substantially. The next problem is finding one long enough. Highlights in most sports are so rarely clipped to include the buildup necessary to absorb the moment. Most clips are 45 seconds or less, and with replays included, that’s just not enough.

But the biggest key, at least for me, is the English commentary duo of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. The latter proved to be a massive dick who torpedoed his commentary career by being a Neanderthal. However, these two are needed not for who they are nor for their accurate descriptions of the moment — they fail at first — but for the real-time journey of their minds bending. (Ed.note: sorry, Chelsea TV!)

As I scoured, I realized it was 2022, and I was going to have to make concessions. Many clips of the goal exist, but many with the wrong commentary or EDM that so commonly scores football highlights for some reason. Fewer are the requisite length, and even fewer are crisp enough by today’s video standards. However, I found a clip that is 57 seconds long, contains the pass before Lampard’s setup, and has the proper commentary punctuated by the all-important epiphany at the very end. The compromise of it is the video quality, but I find it clearer than a lot of what’s out there, but if I’m honest I’m drawn to the nostalgic charm of its slight fuzziness.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Chelsea are down 1-0 to Arsenal in the 84th minute. It was December 10th, 2006 and Manchester United were already nine points clear and storming to another title, and Chelsea were the only club within their orbit. Chelsea were playing Arsenal and attempting to keep pace with a juggernaut at the same time, and down 1-0 in the 84th minute was not ideal. The match had been frustrating, and thanks to Arsenal scoring in the 78th minute, it was even more so.

Frank Lampard plays the ball wide left to Arjen Robben then continues his run to his favorite area of the pitch, the space between the opposition’s midfield and backline. Robben returns the pass and Lampard uses his body to shield the ball and turn away from pressure. As he does he spots Michael Essien trotting up from defensive midfield.

Lampard’s pass back to Essien is an interesting one and I’ve always wanted to talk to him about it. If you look at a freeze-frame just he makes the pass, you can see Shaun Wright-Phillips has backpedaled into plenty of space wide right and just inside the box. Was Lampard anticipating a first-time pass from Essien to Wright-Phillips, or was he possessed by a football god who knew what was coming?

The rest was all Essien. He hunches down and lines up the ball like any carnivore worth its fangs when fresh prey is within striking distance. Essien chops his steps to ensure he can meet the ball cleanly and perfectly after throwing his right leg back and whipping it forward. He uses the outside of his boot and cuts his follow-through short, lifting him off the ground, flicking the ball as it leaves his boot to ensure it’s sent with instructions.

Of all the goals that have been absorbed by my eyes and nestled into my brain, this one has its own suite. I absolutely adore it. You love to see the incredible done against a rival. A neighbor of this goal is a bit down the street but within walking distance: Eden Hazard’s mazy determined run and finish that yanked Spurs away from a potential Premier League title and handed it to Leicester.

But for as much as I love it, it’s hard for me to describe in a way I feel it deserves. The closest I’ve come is that it feels like Essien’s boot inserted a tiny pilot into the ball. The spin of the ball and the trajectory makes scientific sense, but just barely. You’d lose weeks of your life and plenty of shoulder cartilage trying to throw a ball (any ball!) along the same path. This is why the replays are so necessary, from the wide angle it looks like a powerful drive to the far side of the goal, but it was so much more.

From the reverse angle, the ball looks as if it’s headed directly into the stands. The only thing tipping you off, aside from the replays prior and what you saw in “real-time”, is the direction of the spin on the ball. The reason I use the pilot thing is because the ball appears to be sentient. It knows it needs to avoid the goalkeeper and stays wide as long as it can before needing to turn, and nearly doesn’t make it. The ball turns sharply but so late that it skims the inside of the post before reaching the side netting.

While these replays are going on the commentators are trying their best to keep the focus on the context because that’s the tension that was scripted. Chelsea chasing Manchester United, Chelsea-Arsenal rivalry, Premier League title race — none of this mattered in those immediate moments due to the magnificence of what just happened. Tyler exclaims “...they’re not over-celebrating this, they’ve got one, they want two, just six minutes left”, as Essien was getting up after being mobbed in the corner by his teammates. Gray follows his lead during the first part of the first replay and talks about then-Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger being furious about a challenge that happened prior to the scoring sequence. Then, once they’ve seen the goal again, it sinks in.

“Admire a strike of unbelievable quality. Unbelievable!”

Then the epiphany happens. Football, with all its rules and systems of measurement and tactics and punditry and vast economies on nearly every continent, is at its core simply a beautiful game; and that the production of beauty ought to be regarded as just as important as the mathematics applied to rate and rank. And maybe, just maybe, on the most beautiful and rare occasion, rewarded just as tangibly. Gray, finally understanding that the goal would outlive the tension of the title race as well as memories of whatever parade took place in Manchester, stated simply and rightly, “This should win a game.” It of course didn’t, but in a fair world, a far more beautiful world, it most certainly would.

Thank you, Michael Essien.

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