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Tuesday 5 December 2017

Are You Watching Tottenham?

            There was I, convincing myself over the last couple of weeks that the switch of Koscielny and Mustafi for our magnificent Derby day triumph was going to prove to be a seminal moment in this season's campaign, akin to the significant impact of Conte dispensing with a back four, after Chelsea's humbling at our place last season and that as a result we were witnessing the renaissance of Shkodran, into our very own Field Marshal Rommel, the sort of resolute, vocal leader that the Gunners have been blatantly crying out for, in the past dozen years or so, of far too docile underachievement. 

            Sadly, following the all too rare sighting of successive clean sheets, this illusion of yet another defensive false dawn was promptly shattered, a mere eleven minutes into Saturday's mammoth encounter versus Man U, as a humiliated Mustafi made his exit, stage left, heading straight down the tunnel, looking less like a wounded warrior and more like a petrified kid who'd just shat his pants on his first day of school!

            If there is one thing that can unite our bipolar club in this fractious Wenger In/Out era, it is the collective Gooner contempt for Jose Mourinho. Sure, much like every other Arsenal fan, I was utterly inconsolable on Saturday evening, coming away from the most enthralling contest seen at our place in many a moon, with nothing to show for such a concerted effort. Yet the antipathy felt towards their smug Portuguese manager has become so vehement over the years that it was the thought of Mourinho mumbling his post-match disdain that was far more infuriating than the melodramatic manner in which we'd just carelessly dispensed with three more points, in yet another fairly typical example of the Gunners' glorious failures.

            I'd schlepped up to Turf Moor the previous weekend for a much-needed fix of awayday fever because home games nowadays are so often such a sterile, unrewarding experience. As my Spurs mates are fast discovering at Wembley, one is invariably aware of the increased proportion of glory-hunting tourists attracted to the glamorous Premiership clashes, due to the proliferation of smartphones being held aloft, by all those irritating spectators, who are less concerned with concentrating on events on the pitch, than they are on posting on Faceache, to prove their presence at the big event to all their envious social media pals (a crime of which I'm often no less culpable!).

            Thankfully for once, we managed to lift the roof off the library on Saturday, where the unfortunate course of events in the opening minutes and the subsequent efforts of our fickle support to try and inspire a riposte, ensured that the decibel level was perhaps even louder than it had been during our 2-0 demolition of Spurs. Not that our desire to beat Man U is greater than our determination to maintain North London bragging rights, but as evidenced by the ferocity of virtually a  57,000 strong chorus of "F#ck off Mourinho", there is nothing more distressing to most Gooners than the prospect of the Gobby One getting one over on us.

            Saturday's game was such a fabulous example of Premiership football at it's frenetic best that I'm sure I'd be far more gracious in defeat, if it involved anyone other than Jose. However considering we fell victim to two defensive catastrophes, a single sucker punch when throwing the kitchen sink at a comeback and possibly the best ever goalkeeping performance I've been privileged to witness, I found myself sitting in front of the TV later than night wondering if I'd seen an entirely different game to the myriad of media pundits who were all lauding the brilliance of our opposition.

            Masochistic sucker for punishment that I am, I forced myself to endure a full length replay of the entire match on the box, just to confirm that my perception of what had transpired hadn't been coloured by my partisan view from the lower east stand. You couldn't help but be impressed by Jesse Lingard's high-octane endeavours and considering I don't hold Man U's defence in particularly high regard, this was a decidedly resolute display.

            Perhaps it will sound like sour grapes, but as delighted as I would've  been to be departing from our place with all three points in the bag, if I was a Man Utd fan, after having spent £587million in pursuit of glory in the post-Fergie era, I'd be a tad disenchanted to be relying on a Man of the Match performance from our keeper to thwart the Arsenal (at least this seemed to be the MOTM consensus amongst all of the media luvvies, with the sole exception of that numbskull McManaman on BT Sport!).

            Excluding all the sarcastic cracks about the sale of 57,000 slightly soiled flags, in the rapid deflation of the buoyant mood at the Emirates on Saturday night, there were echoes of that devastating Champions Leagues semifinal in 2009, with the ten minute, two goal pricking of the Gunners' balloon.

            Arriving early to bag my close proximity parking pitch, I savoured the closing stages from Vicarage Road on the car radio, as ten man Spurs dropped another two points against Watford. Then little did I know that my afternoon had peaked an hour before kick-off, when Wenger pulled a flanker with the announcement of a supposedly injured Lacazette included in the starting lineup. 

            Having seen Laca limping around, holding his groin during the latter stages of the first-half against Huddersfield, it was no surprise when he failed to appear after the break. I feared the worst when I saw Giroud warming up during half-time and Laca's injury certainly wasn't ALL folly. Apparently you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but I can't recall the last time Arsène intentionally put one over on the opposition by springing this sort of a surprise. I can only begin to imagine the satisfaction Wenger must've derived from keeping the lid on this news, when he's so often been on the receiving end of his arch enemy's shenanigans.

            The loss of Lacazette for Saturday's game had taken a little gloss off our five goal drubbing of the Terriers on Wednesday night. I spent the subsequent two days trying to convince myself that Olly's inclusion might possibly serve to our advantage, in combatting Man Utd's obvious aerial advantage. But with LSO (Lacazette, Sanchez, Özil), our very own London Symphony Orchestra just beginning to make some sweet music, in truth I was devastated by the prospect of losing the central prong of our world-class attacking trident and it was a massive shot in the arm to see an unchanged lineup trot out for KO.

            I've felt all season that Man Utd's form has been deceptive and that Mourinho has struggled to find a formula to bring his billionaire collection of individuals to the boil. From the little I've seen of Man U (which hasn't been a lot) Pogba hasn't appeared to be able to impose himself on games, in the way he did for Juve and when you compare his performance with Mesut's on Saturday, if Pogba is worth €100million, what price our playmaker? Likewise, at £75million, the lumbering Lukaku makes Lacazette look a positive bargain!

            Similarly, most avid Gooners turned up on Saturday afternoon, knowing that our form on paper was flattering. Aside from an impressive outing at Goodison, against a Toffee's side in turmoil, the Gunners have been struggling to find some genuine rhythm. We barely touched the ball in the first-half against Burnley and although we improved after the break, the Clarets rarely looked in danger of conceding. And against Huddersfield on Wednesday night, if you exclude the opening minute and a scintillating spell when the Terriers totally imploded in the final twenty minutes, for the remaining 69 mins we failed miserably to break down David Wagner's obdurate and well organised troops.

            So it seemed to me that if we were to have any chance of vanquishing Man U, we needed to turn up with the same high-tempo and intensity, right from the opening whistle that we'd produced against Spurs. Whatever Mourinho might be, he's certainly no fool and if I'm correct in my belief that we must've lost the coin toss, it was a shrewd move designed to try and unsettle us, by turning the teams around. 

            To my mind, the calamitous events in those opening minutes serve to highlight the significance of leadership, either on the pitch, or the bench because it was evident in Man U's adrenaline fuelled start that the visitors were that bit more pumped up than we were. That's the reason they forced the errors and why both gaffes resulted in goals. Not for the first time this season, I'd commented on Huddersfield's kit on Wednesday, not just because it's almost identical to our own black and pink strip, but that I'm no fan of the proliferation of teams playing in black shirts.

            From my vantage point in the lower tier, it's evident that unlike players in brighter coloured shirts, those in black shirts do not stand out against the background of the crowd and I'm 100% convinced that this makes it far harder to perceive opponents and teammates alike in one's peripheral vision. Not playing a square ball when coming out of defence might be one of those schoolboy errors, written in stone, but I was almost directly in line with the intercepted pass from Koscielny, which resulted in Man Utd's first goal and I swear that Laurent was not alone in not seeing Valencia, until it was too late.

            In his defence, in the build up to the killer second goal, Mustafi was far from alone in being caught napping. None of his teammates were sufficiently energised, to be alive to the possibility to make themselves available. Where Man Utd were fired up from the opening whistle, it took until it was game over and we were 0-2 down for the Gunners to get suitably stoked.

            Bloomin' typical! I've been raving these past few weeks about Nacho's remarkable positioning, seemingly always in the right place, at the right time and he goes and lets this immaculate record slip on Saturday, with neither he, nor Petr Cech exactly covering themselves in glory with both two opening goals. It's been Bellerin who's been the principle target for my ire in recent weeks, with his persistent lack of conviction when it comes to stopping opponents supply of ammunition at source, by charging out to prevent crosses.

            Perhaps Hector could've done more to try and stop Man U scoring their third, but we were giving it such a determined go at that stage that we were always liable of conceding a gut-wrenching sucker punch. I think it was an Alexis step-over that gifted Man U the possession to be able to launch this counter attack and in spite of his invariably significant momentary contributions, for the most part Alexis has struggled to put a foot right in recent weeks. Doubtless they've somehow massaged his pass completion stats because I can barely recall Alexis finding a teammate with a single pass in recent games.

            Nevertheless, after having subjected Man U to the most intense pressure for the majority of this encounter that they're likely to experience all season, like most other Gooners, I came away on Saturday evening dejected about the defeat, yet still feeling a good deal of pride in what was otherwise an astonishingly committed performance. It's been an all too common occurrence in recent times for me to be left fulminating about the Arsenal's failure to roll their sleeves up, but most pleasingly, it felt as if we'd left everything out on the park against Man U and on another day, with a little more rub of the green, we'd have utterly buried them, even with a two goal deficit.

            As not exactly one of Granit Xhaka's greatest admirers, you know the Gunners have produced a creditable effort when I find myself struggling to criticise our Swiss Jack-of-no-trades. Similarly, for all my adoration of Mesut Özil, I invariably have cause to moan at his tendency to slow the game down, whereas on Saturday he almost singlehandedly carried the attack to the opposition. The cynic in me sincerely hopes that just about the most dominant display we've seen from Mesut in an Arsenal shirt, wasn't a "come get me" to Mourinho, as that would feel like the ultimate betrayal.

            Frankly I'm relieved we've got a dead rubber game against Bate Borisov on Thursday night, as an opportunity to get Saturday's defeat out of their system before the trip to St Mary's next weekend. After throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Man Utd, you wouldn't be surprised if there was some psychological hangover from coming away with nothing to show for all that effort.

            It wouldn't be realistic of us to expect quite such an epic effort every game, but the Gunners set the bar bloomin' high on Saturday and the challenge now is for them to be able to reproduce the same standard, by regularly peppering our opponents' goal. He perhaps could've been more clinical, but I'm extremely optimistic about Lacazette's potential to become our main man. The French striker is a study in perpetual motion and it might not be apparent to those watching on the box, but he's constantly looking to run in behind the opposition's defence and I can't wait for the time when his teammates become sufficiently in tune with Laca, to pick out more of these runs.

            Finally, what I wouldn't give for an $11k Bitcoin for every Arsenal player that would find his way into the combined Arsenal / Spurs XIs now of all those pundits Gunner-less selections from a couple of weeks back!


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