I didn’t see any of the reported in-fighting between the AKB (Arsene Knows Best) and the WO (Wenger Out) brigades outside the Liberty Stadium a couple of weeks back, but any more displays like Saturday’s infuriating defeat to United and we will all turn into total schizophrenics.
This might not have been the heavyweight, top-of-the-table clash of yesteryear, but coming on the back of the last of a succession of interminable international breaks until the end of March, it felt like a significant encounter.
It remains to be seen whether this was, in effect, a fourth place play-off, but there was definitely an added frisson, with both sides desperate to acquire some momentum at the re-commencement of domestic hostilities.
I really didn’t fancy the chances of our makeshift backline being able to keep Man United’s £250 million’s worth of talent at bay.
Yet there was some solace, in hearing how their fans were no more confident in the prospects of their own pre-pubescent rearguard.
Thus on the face of it, this appeared to be a contest to decide which of the two defences would prove least incompetent.
In the end, it was our experienced professionals that were left looking woefully naïve and there’s certainly no arguing with the scoreline.
Nevertheless, considering how terrified I’d been at the thought of Di Maria, Rooney and Van Persie running Monreal and Chambers ragged, quite frankly I was shocked, as I can rarely recall us ever meeting a more subdued bunch of Red Devils.
In fact it was most pleasing to see the Gunners tear into the opposition right from the opening whistle, with a verve and vigour which left United’s youthful five-man defence looking entirely at sixes and sevens.
This opening onslaught resulted in the sight of Wayne Rooney running around the pitch, hollering at team-mates, seemingly attempting to calm their nerves.
Nevertheless, as the Arsenal’s initial intensity began to fizzle out and Fellaini’s elbows began to impose themselves in the middle of the park, I began to fear that we might find ourselves rueing our failure to make an impact on the scoresheet with all that early dominance.
Sadly thus far, Aaron Ramsey has been a shadow of the player that was running the show last season. So when Wilshere hobbled out of the fray, the Gunners seemed to lose much of our forward impetus, as evidenced by the fateful and ultimately calamitous sight of our BFG doing his best Stormtrooper impersonation, when we were left chasing the game at the death.
I can’t knock Monreal, as our lack of defensive options are certainly not his fault, but if I was going to choose one player to guard the Gunners back door, the Spaniard wouldn’t exactly be top of my list.
I fancy that Van Gaal has too much talent at his disposal for United not to come good at some stage, which makes Saturday’s defeat all the more distressing because we’ve wasted a prime opportunity to stick the knife in while they are at such a low ebb.
However, after their lavish spending spree last summer, if I was a United fan, I’d be disappointed my side could muster nothing more than this somewhat hollow “smash and grab” victory.
As Rooney celebrated United’s second goal in front of their travelling fans, I initially thought the Gooners in front of me were turning to watch some “handbags” in the prawn circle above.
In fact they were all looking aghast, as for the first time we heard the mood of discontent made manifest in the stadium as some of the posh punters attempted to start a “Wenger Out” chant.
Mercifully, we’ve an opportunity to get misery of losing to United out of our system, by climbing straight back on the horse with Wednesday’s big clash and beating Dortmund to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Failing that, the clamour for Arsène’s head will only grow louder as pretty much our entire season comes crashing down around our ears, in the space of five days.
No-one in SW6 is getting carried away. No chickens are being counted, no tee-shirts printed. The West Brom game demonstrated perfectly how this team follow Jose’s instructions to the letter. A high octane attack to win the game, then tenacious controlled passing to see the tie out. A lot has been written about Jose’s ego, but when it comes to winning games it doesn’t come into play. Mourinho could have instructed the team to go for the hockey score, especially against ten men, but elected instead to reserve energy ahead of this week’s Champions League appointment. Jose will always put the good of the team before his ego — unlike Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal are in the mess they are in as a direct result of Wenger’s ego. He believes that he can deliver trophies based purely on his football philosophies, despite the glaring gaps in his squad. Anyone with a even a modicum of football knowledge could see before the season started that Arsenal were desperate for a defensive midfielder and a central defender. But Wenger, obsessed only the attacking aspect of the game, buys Alexis Sanchez (a great player, but a luxury purchase).
All that said, it was quite difficult to watch that second half against the Baggies after the riches of the first. Jose is right though to preach caution and how nothing is won in the autumn. He also needs to keep the players grounded. The papers and pundits already have royal blue ribbons on the Premier League trophy so the manager has to ensure the players are confident but not complacent. It’s a fine line to negotiate and part of his method of managing that is obviously to preach restraint and we as supporters need to accept that.
Manchester City are still in touch though and I have often spoken of their strength in depth, especially in their striking options. We have become so reliant on Costa already and he is just one booking away from a ban. No doubt there will be a tactical yellow soon — it will be meticulously planned so we don’t lose him for an important game — but we need to keep racking up the points while we can.
We may be over-reliant in the striker department but where we do have an embarrassment of riches is between the sticks. Although I am fully on board with Courtois becoming first choice, it is still awful to see Cech demoted to playing Carling a Cup games against the likes of Shrewsbury. He is still one of the best keepers in the world and deserves to play. But we can’t entertain the possibility of selling him to any of our rivals.
Apparently he is reluctant to uproot his family from London, which has led to links with Arsenal. But I refuse to believe that our club could possible be that stupid (I know, I know).
My selfish side hopes he can find a way of remaining with us but the more altruistic side accepts he deserves better than our bench but still hopes that his new career won’t be in the Premier League.
On the subject of legends, tomorrow we face Schalke. The story will be as much about the emotional bond between the Chelsea fans and Di Matteo as the game. Abramovich sacked the genial Italian almost exactly two years ago and he can be forgiven for wanting to prove a point against the club who treated him so shabbily after he orchestrated one of the greatest nights in the club’s history.
Chelsea fans are renowned for their loyalty to their heroes and I imagine Di Matteo will get a rousing reception from the Chelsea contingent as his legendary status was cemented on that dramatic night in Munich. The team and current manager won’t be as accommodating though as a win guarantees topping the group so I imagine us going all out for the victory.
Lost for words. Generally, that’s not good news for a columnist… Ninety minutes after Rickie Lambert was incredulously celebrating a goal, you could see nothing in the away end but goldfish.
Wide-eyed and vacant, mouths open in astonishment. In a nutshell; they looked and looked but there was simply NOTHING out there.
We’ve not had that feeling for, ooh, weeks.
There’ll be more internet images of Rodgers looking up at Shankly in heaven. “How am I doing, boss?” “You’ve absolutely ****ed it up, sonnnnn.” Hubris always comes after those who cannot keep their gobs shut.
Balotelli wasn’t fit so he was packed off to some boxing match, presumably to learn what a bead of sweat looks like. The trip to Selhurst Park was dreaded. Nothing so harrowing as returning to the scene of the crime…
Yes you’re all absolutely right, at home to Chelsea was when we lost the title but away to Palace was where we deserved to lose it. “We don’t have to defend, we can score four. Or five. Or six…”
How’s that plan panning out for you? As the final whistle blew and Suarez burst into tears last May, you were deafened by the sound of pennies dropping. Oh yeah, one of those defence thingies — maybe we should ourselves get one of those? Six months later and we’re still waiting. Minds turned to Ludogorets where a win might actually be of some use in this car-crash of a season, then swiftly turned back again to a league table where a gaggle of relegation certs are suddenly breathing down our necks.
Before the title race was lost, you’d forgotten how much Liverpool were hated and everyone’s emerged from the woodwork to give us a good kicking since. It doesn’t even matter if they’re struggling themselves; our pain is always somebody else’s gain.
Perhaps that’s what the louder, more obnoxious and arrogant Reds learned long ago? It doesn’t matter how ordinary and grounded you are, that petty venom will still get spat at everyone. You’re going to get it anyway, so why bother with civility? More chicken and egg conundrums that will never be resolved.
Rodgers played with one up front again. At least this time he got 16 whole minutes to cock his snook at the rest of the planet calling him a stubborn, arrogant fool. Sterling and Coutinho were lightweight, bordering on wispy.
The equaliser, the 10th conceded this season, arrived to a strict schedule. It’s what happens now. There was no purpose throughout the side. Make your jokes now about Liverpool’s hunger vanishing with Suarez. Mmmm, Chielini… Gerrard putting a free kick over the bar reminded everyone he was actually on the pitch. He’d caused more trouble than he stemmed with Liverpool back to Rodgers’ earliest incarnation: lots of possession, going nowhere.
Two minutes with the ball, backward and forward, left side to right side. Lose it and Palace were away. The contrast was stark. Out-thought by Neil Warnock. Take a few minutes to ponder that.
The gulf of space Manquillo always leaves behind him could’ve been exploited by any half-decent player, but with Johnson and Lovren in disinterested mode all afternoon, trouble might have come from anywhere else, and so it proved.
Arrogance oozed from every pore. “I’m not jumping or running, that’s far too sweaty. I’m a Liverpool player, don’tcha know,” etc.
The second-half goals weren’t a surprise. That’s also what happens now.
The word that came to mind was negligence. It wasn’t that anybody was especially poor, it just seemed nobody cared that much if they were bad or not.
This sort of thing happened a lot under Souness, and later on under Hodgson. In injury-time, Palace wanted to score a fourth, with no fear they’d be caught out. Why would there be? It’s only a matter of time before the manager begins every answer with: “Don’t ask me.”
Then you’ll know it’s over.
Saturday was one of those matchdays when Reds spend a lot of time grinning, chuckling and sniggering. Truly, that was one of the biggest smash-and-grab raids seen north of the river since the Baker Street heist, and one wasn’t surprised to learn the United dressing room afterwards resounded to the sound of laughter-filled carousing as the lads enjoyed their rare loot of three away points.
Back in 1971, the robbers had abandoned an early plan to use ultra-sophisticated torches and resorted instead to good old-fashioned dynamite, which is also how LVG approached his own assault. So no Herrera or Mata, who we are beginning to assume have run over Louis’ cat, but a full-blooded Fellaini alongside old warhorse Carrick. The former was chaotic but, at key moments, highly effective, whilst the latter demonstrated why he may yet be worth an extra year on his contract.
None of us was giggling at the 20 minute mark, mind, as United reeled like drunks. But by midway through the second half, we had got a grip to such an extent that Reds were even to be heard murmuring approval of Chris Smalling’s defence-marshalling. Considering the disastrous season he’s had hitherto, that was as unexpected as this: Rooney was gathering widespread plaudits too. Only RVP lived down to a norm, being immobile and seemingly barely interested. Young Wilson did more in ten minutes when he came on than the Dutchman had done all match. As for David de Gea, whose man of the match award was surely deserved, the only regret is Real Madrid must now want him even more than ever.
Apparently, Louis looked stunned when he was informed later that United were now in a Champions League slot; that was the second surprise he’d had in a week, after he declared amazement at making the Ballon d’Or coach of the year shortlist. Like the rest of us, he could hardly have expected to come away with much from the Emirates, given the number of injuries and the necessarily youthful defence. Of course, he was extraordinarily lucky: only Arsenal’s unaccountable failure to score during those opening 20 minutes of chaos allowed United the breathing space to begin to make his tactical plan work.
Nevertheless, he has every right now to look back on the three recent much-hyped ‘big ones’ — Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal — and reflect that a 50% return, in the current conditions, constitutes a triumph of sorts. Despite all the well-documented glitches and misfortunes, both on and off the pitch, he is still managing to inculcate confidence. And perhaps the most important achievement of all could be witnessed in the seconds after Rooney’s goal. That was a cracking collective celebration, for which McNair and co ran most of the length of the pitch to join in: the lads seem imbued with a team spirit that wasn’t much in evidence last season.
Not that any of this makes the future any easier to predict. If anything, the crystal ball’s getting murkier. Herrera and Mata are now starting to be measured up for possible suitors, which just six weeks ago would’ve seemed inconceivable. The eventual departure of RVP is being regarded as odds-on in certain quarters, whilst De Gea/Madrid stories appear with depressing, yet understandable, regularity. As for incomers, I counted a total of 15 centre-backs being linked to United just last week. By the time the window opens, it will be easier to list the leading defenders who haven’t been linked.
Add to all that the continuing uncertainty over whether Messrs Di Maria and Falcao will still be here in August. Di Maria, for example, was barely able to conceal the fact that he is only here because PSG couldn’t get their act together, whereas ‘Falcao’s Knee’ is becoming the most mysterious and ever-shifting narrative since ‘Claire’s...’.
A film that was playing in London when the Baker Street robbers struck — which is where we came in. And yet you thought this column was just hurled together without a plan...”
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