Payback: It can’t get any better … can it?
It’s still impossible for Liverpool to win the league.
As impossible as making the best central defenders this season look ridiculous, then wondering what to do for the remaining 70 minutes? That sort of impossible?
Look. You’ve read this column a while, right? You know I know we’re not good enough for that; it’ll probably only take two more days to whip out that 12-bore and blast through our shoes anyway.
But, but… I want us to be part of the conversation. Be patronising if you like, everyone’s done that to Arsenal all year – and yes, you might have been right; as soon as their tricky run of games began they showed their true colours. Bright yellow, suitably enough.
Saturday was payback for all the times they’ve got away with it here. Arshavin turned out to be a flop but that didn’t stop him scoring four at Anfield. We were winning again until Glen Johnson escorted the ball into his own net. Hodgson might have begun with a famous victory until Reina practically threw an equaliser in, and as for Van Persie… Arsenal had that coming.
Take the beating and move on. It isn’t like you’ll have long to wait for revenge, is it? We were exceptional.
An undercurrent of discontent had been festering after Albion. Perhaps there was also a little niggle after Arsenal announced our FA Cup allocation as lower than we were entitled to, 4,000 less than Coventry received.
In a week when South Yorkshire Police decided they were continuing with their “unruly mob” strategy, the Gunners’ decision triggered all kinds of conspiracy theories about ‘police advice’ and public perception.
Or is the Suarez bid still ruffling feathers? The bottom line was that we were well aware defeat meant the end of the line for any lingering title hopes, and desperately set about Arsenal accordingly. Sometimes it is that simple.
A vast amount of media attention was given to the City-Chelsea clash. No complaints there, but for me Liverpool and Arsenal are the story of this season. It’s worth drifting back to August and listening to both sets of fans talking about how their clubs would find this season pretty hard going.
We have all been pleasantly surprised, though I’m not entirely sure why. That’s what big clubs do.
Their Suarez ‘swoop’ wasn’t an irritant in itself. After all didn’t they give us two consecutive title clinchers, Ray Kennedy and Michael Thomas? What hurt was the implication that Liverpool were finished and didn’t need such a player any more.
I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s; Arsenal never did all that much, certainly not compared to us (who did?) but there was never a thought they weren’t one of the big boys. So Saturday was as timely as could be. We snickered when Rodgers tried his Mourinho-lite “we can’t win it” decoy, and nobody gave him an argument! It’s just Brendan talking; all that rubbish about achieving fourth place putting him ahead of ~schedule could have been Houllier at his craftiest or loopiest.
But where it matters, on the pitch, his team produces fantastic performances on a regular basis now. How strange we’ve suddenly reversed the earlier flat track bullying. Now it’s the high and mighty (and Everton) that have to worry, and Fulham we have to be wary of.
Coutinho looks crucial to this side. Dreadful against Villa and Albion, brusquely hauled off in fact, he’s been unplayable the last two home games, which were expected to be dour affairs. Sterling has been excellent for weeks, and does Henderson run in his sleep? So much for the two-man team.
After 20 minutes we stared glassily at the pitch then back at each other, asking a question that’s often arisen in this breath-taking season: It can’t get any better … can it?
This time last week I was fearing that come this article we could potentially be five points behind Arsenal and six behind City. Yet, here we are perched atop of the Premier League!
Given Mourinho’s history of success I’m surprised we were written off so comprehensively in many quarters before our visit to the Etihad.
What we saw was a masterclass in out-thinking a rival manager. John Terry revealed after the match that they had spent two days being drilled on City’s strengths and weaknesses and so it was no real surprise we were able to nullify them so effectively. Pellegrini tried to make light of the loss, but he was very aware this was more than just three points but also a massive blow to his side’s confidence.
It also allows other sides believe they could get something out of everybody’s champions-elect. Looks like Norwich gave City a good go rather than trying to keep the number of goals below a hockey score.
All that said, no one is counting chickens just yet. The unpredictability of this league will no doubt see many twists and turns and there are at least four sides that could make a good case for winning the title.
Liverpool are beginning to worry me. As much as the Arsenal defence were woeful, Liverpool were clinical and the number of goals they are scoring cannot be ignored.
Even a few weeks ago you could quite reasonably label them a one-man team but Suarez’s sensational season is having a positive effect on the rest of the squad and there is an air of belief amongst players and fans alike. Rodgers is playing it cool by claiming even Champions League qualification would be a season ahead of schedule, just as Jose is claiming that a real challenge for the title was not planned for this season but for next.
As much as I dislike Rodgers and Liverpool, I did enjoy watching Arsenal’s destruction. Their fans had rediscovered their pompous superiority, which we had been spared in the recent barren years.
We will see what Wenger is made of following this spanking. Time-wise it could not have come at a worst time, with big fixtures looming, and this result will be either a swift kick in the pants or the beginning of the end. There are no excuses left for Wenger. It is do or die.
As much as Jose has been the conductor of our performances, lead violinist has been Eden Hazard. Prematurely labelled “over-priced” and “over-rated” by many in the media, he is beginning to make those idiots eat their words. His recent displays have been dazzling.
Mourinho’s teams have almost always included one or two technically brilliant players surrounded by good workhorses and physically strong players. That is what he is recreating at Stamford Bridge and after six months of hard work we are beginning to see the team beginning to click. And it’s pretty damned exciting.
It’s an oft repeated myth that Mourinho’s football is “boring”. Predictable yes, boring no. Once he has built a team to his specification they play in a certain way and are almost always successful — that isn’t boring.
Watching Oscar and Hazard making those mazy runs and scoring stunning goals is not boring. Watching a tactical masterclass is not boring.
Complacency is possibly our only enemy. Jose has proven that, despite our lack of quality strikers, we can still make this season successful. However, we have to put as much focus and concentration when facing the “smaller” teams as we do with the Premier League’s thoroughbreds. Then, perhaps, Chelsea’s ‘little horse’ could cross that finishing line first.
Last month, the gossip column in Red Issue printed this: “we keep hearing grumbles from insider sources the forwards are not happy with the ‘final-third’ training they are doing. Or, rather, NOT doing: one claims they’re just not getting enough.”
If anyone had doubts about the veracity of that item, last night should have settled them. As one exasperated comment put it: “you could just write this as the match report — United cross into the box; Fulham clear.”
By my count, United banged in 80 crosses, only one of which produced a goal; I understand this might be some sort of record for cross-wielding, one to which even nocturnal tourists in Transylvania would doff a cap.
Incredibly, I was also told Gary Neville, commentating on TV, praised United’s “quality and composure in the final third.” Which just goes to show you shouldn’t let pundits, whose brothers are partly responsible for what they’re judging, anywhere near a microphone. If he thinks any United fans are going to settle for that as a standard of “final third quality” to emulate, then the sooner he goes into the hotel business full-time, the better.
As I write this, I hear Moyes in my earpiece saying “today was as bad as it gets,” which might at least suggest he knows this is not going to be good enough to get him past May — not if we carry on like a weird wide version of an old Route One 1980s side. Would I be saying any different had Fulham’s last-gasp killer not gone in? I’d hope so: even as the stadium erupted into bedlam when Carrick scored, I don’t think a single one of us watching was under any illusion about the extent of the inadequacy on display for all to see, through our trembling fingers.
That noise, a mix of (premature) ecstatic relief and pent-up frustration-release, was one of the loudest I’ve heard from Old Trafford in a long time; atmosphere throughout was much better than anyone had a right to expect, given what was happening on the pitch for most of the match.
Fans who are actually at the games have behaved in an exemplary fashion throughout this traumatic season, which is obviously more than can be said for some of the hysterics online who’ve never been to a match in their lives.
Will their patience endure, though? Going from a team that wins games in FergieTime to one that throws them away in MoyesMoments is proving to be a repeated kick in the head, and you do wonder what damage this is doing to our collective bonce.
If we all have a ‘funny turn’, the results are not going to be pretty: United fans going mental en masse are a terrible sight and sound. And yet...on any other day, we might have scored five, based on the chances and possession created. Their keeper played a blinder, and we missed some howling sitters. We’re all obviously infuriated by our apparent incapacity to produce any kind of Plan B but we probably shouldn’t have needed to do so: players failed to complete some basic tasks, and we were also spectacularly unlucky. Napoleon would whisper something to you about Moyes’ habitual unluckiness, but we’ll leave metaphysics for another column.
So to Arsenal, another freshly-traumatised side, and a fixture that, even at the best of times, is always approached with some trepidation as well as excitement. I doubt this one would detain a pools-coupon filler for long: a side that can’t even beat the division’s worst team at home, away to one of the three possible champions? Moyes could do with a Leverkusen moment now: that much is obvious. And any team with Mata, RVP and Rooney simultaneously on the pitch cannot be written off. But I’ll admit, I’ll definitely be bringing a cross or two to this one.
Sometimes, in football as in life, you just have a really bad day at the office. Arsenal began the game like a man falling into a cold wet puddle in his brand new suit on the way to work. After as little as one minute (‘One minute! One minute!’ as Steve McMahon might have had it), the stage was set for Arsenal to blow their lines in front of a hitherto sceptical world.
I’m not convinced how or why it matters whether the media give serious regard to Arsenal’s title hopes or not, but it’s still been something of a bone of contention all season amongst Gooners as to whether our challenge has been given due credit.
Certainly Arsenal have seemed a more solid, together and more streetwise outfit this season. That is, until the ‘big’ away games. Arsenal froze at Old Trafford where entirely average sides have prevailed this season. They rather fell apart at Eastlands with a display of uncharacteristic defensive generosity. As for Anfield this weekend? Every single player, with the possible exception of the goalkeeper, played well below their abilities, both mentally and physically. Even erstwhile models of consistency, such as Mertesacker and Arteta played their worst games of the season.
Tactically, it looked as though Liverpool figured us out and it remains to be seen whether that is a portent for the final three months of the league campaign. The Gunners have instigated a methodical approach to games which has involved sitting off of teams in the first half, happy to concede possession in favour of holding a solid shape and keeping opponents at arm’s length. They then gradually take control of the game in the second half and switch through the gears using a solid defence as a base before going for the jugular.
Liverpool were sure to counteract this by beginning the game with fervour, hassling and harrying and refusing to allow us to settle into the metronomic rhythm to which we’ve become accustomed. It was a mix of Liverpool executing their game plan to perfection and Arsenal not even observing the basics. What was worrying was that none of Arsenal’s dependable leaders; Mertesacker, Arteta, Sagna, even Wilshere, seemed to have the wherewithal to steady the ship at 2-0.
Arsenal have generally been good at defending set pieces this season, but have conceded goals to corners in each of their big away assignments. Robin van Persie, Sergio Aguero and Martin Skrtel have all profited from slack concentration at corners, which just hasn’t happened in other matches. It’s difficult not to conclude that Arsenal are suffering from something of a psychological imposition in their approach to these matches, because in every single one they have performed below par.
There’s also the hint of a suggestion that Arsenal have struggled against teams that have pressed them high up the pitch, as Southampton did so well and against Everton at home. In the first half Arsenal managed the magic combination of a wide open defence, a midfield that ceded possession with impunity, didn’t track back to help the back four and didn’t get forward to support their lone striker. Amidst a defiantly raucous but dejected Anfield Road End, I found myself asking time and again “What are you all actually doing?” Even Mesut Özil was left on his backside.
Arsenal have a few more of these tests to come, with away engagements at Chelsea and Spurs and United and City to visit the Emirates before March is out. The Gunners’ task is two-fold. Firstly, to transfer the maturity and mentality that has propelled them to the top of the league in the big matches. Secondly, to render this weekend’s humiliation as a one-off aberration by beating United and Liverpool this week.
They need to use this chastening defeat as motivation to ensure that this is not the beginning of the end and that we bounce back immediately with the end of the beginning.
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