We all know the truism that football is a funny old game.
It doesn’t always feel like it though, does it? That said, Arsenal seem to be doing their best to illustrate exactly how funny the game can be on a game by game basis. A week ago, this column reached out to you from the post Olympiacos Pit of Despair. You weren’t difficult to find, because you were there too.
I say that and yet, even as I raged against the dying of Arsenal’s light last week, I wondered. Mostly, I wondered why I had been so upset. Oh, I know I wasn’t alone. Even the über optimist in our midst, Helen Trantum, freely admits to have reached previously untapped levels of anger watching our midweek capitulation. That really says something, when you bear in mind some of the disasters we have witnessed.
However, how much the Olympiacos debacle actually, really, mattered to you, could probably be boiled down thus: do you really believe Arsenal are going to win the Champions League?
I don’t – at least, not this season and so, when I thought about it, I could kind of shrug it off; after I’d written about it obviously! Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t concerned by some aspects of our humiliation, particularly the “seen it before” nature of it. I just felt that if we could go and beat Manchester United on Sunday, and I always thought we could, that Olympiacos would cease to be a thing. Or, at least, less of a thing.
Does anyone remember me saying this?
“I don’t know about this team anymore. They make you feel all warm and toasty one minute, then they pull the rug out from under you the next. Such is the perverse nature of the team that I almost expect them to turn up and batter United on Sunday..”
Okay, I wasn’t exactly shouting from the rooftops about our chances on Sunday. However, even as I recoiled from the horror of Tuesday night, a battering of United didn’t seem that unlikely to me. As it happened, after just twenty minutes of Sunday’s match, every Arsenal fan everywhere on the planet could surely have been described as “warm and toasty” at the very least.
The Twelve Pins. Again.
I know, I was surrounded by more than a few. My recent experience of the Twelve Pins with my friend Ben, as we slipped to defeat against Chelsea, hadn’t put either of us off and we arranged to reconvene in the same spot. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon. An addition to our ranks either side of the game, my friend Sam who was visiting from Australia and had tickets for the game with his friend Cheyne.
I’ve told Sam he has to come over for this fixture every year now.
Some people will have been surprised by Arsenal’s level in this fixture. Okay, yes, three goals up against Manchester United after twenty minutes is… well, the last time we put three past them we were all treated to Fabien Barthez giving himself a wedgie, it was that long ago. However, United seem to be playing a very continental style of game in the Premier League – they haven’t really had anyone go at them yet. More to the point, they hadn’t really faced anyone who could go at them yet.
Pace, pace, pace
With Bellerín providing lightning pace from right back, Alexis now firmly back at last season’s level and Theo now looking much more like a centre forward as opposed to an impersonation of one, pace is very much back on the agenda at Arsenal. WE could go at United.
And, boy, did we go at them… You’ll forgive me the indulgence of returning to Sunday’s events won’t you?
When Bellerín combined with Ramsey and Özil before the German crossed to the edge of the box for Sanchez to drag the ball from behind him and past a wrong footed De Gea, it might have felt amid the elation that we had scored too early.
That feeling didn’t last overly long though, around 75 seconds in fact. Alexis goals were undoubtedly great goals. Of course they were. The craft and intelligence of the first, the lightning quick feet and raw power of the second. However, I just loved everything about Özil’s goal, the run that Walcott made into the area, the fact that two weeks ago he would have shot, but here chose to cut the ball back and then the coup de grace. It was as if Mesut said to De Gea, you see all that space to your right, that’s exactly where I’m going to put the ball and you won’t be able to do anything about it.
Of course, De Gea couldn’t do anything about Mesut’s precise finish and he knew it. He didn’t even bother to dive. As the pub exploded, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the bar staff going absolutely mental.
Not ten minutes after a bloke coming out of the loos had opined that having Özil in the team was like playing with ten players, the German had pretty much decided the game.
Most teams would have felt relatively safe at 2-0 up, I guess. Of course, we are not most football teams, so after this blistering start, it felt like the third goal would really put the tin lid on it. We didn’t have to wait long. The Alexis rocket ended any thoughts you might have had of a United comeback. I’m not sure if I have ever, ever celebrated a goal with such abandon. Arshavin against Barca, or Theo’s first against Spurs in that 5-2 maybe? Ben’s glasses nearly went flying, I grabbed the bloke behind me, “DO IT! DO IT!” as he kept shouting.
That guy disappeared at half time, maybe he’d seen enough. Or maybe I’d just scared him. Aaron Ramsey’s fluffed chance to make it four an indication of where Arsenal’s finishing was heading for the day, whilst at the other end Petr Cech’s save from Anthony Martial all but ensured there would be no comeback from the visitors.
As I remember saying to Ben at half time was, “Well, as long as we defend like adults, we got this.”
Happily, we did defend like adults and I have rarely been so happy to be so bored during 45 minutes of football. The only questions left were, would Wayne Rooney be the first footballer to spontaneously combust on a football pitch and would Arsenal garnish their very tasty cake with the icing of a 4th goal? Sadly, despite a delightful chip from the Ox as the game wound down, the answer to both questions was no.
We didn’t dwell on that though as Sam and Cheyne returned from one of the most incredible displays the Emirates has ever witnessed and we tried to drink all the beer in the pub. Not bad going for a Sunday.
What is important now is consistency. Obviously, it’s difficult to expect that Arsenal will continue to blast teams away in the manner they did on Sunday, but it has to be the aim now. It’s funny that this performance, harking back to the very best days of the Invincibles, came just four days after I talked about how we just didn’t do this sort of thing anymore. I guess I was wrong about that!
That Theo and Alexis, ably supported by Özil and Cazorla, were to the fore though, that shouldn’t really have come as surprise. If you had wanted a mast to pin a flag of hope on after last week’s fiasco, it would have been the combination between Theo and Alexis who had assisted each other’s goals.
Whilst Walcott didn’t get on the scoresheet on Sunday, fluffing his one half decent chance, he did contribute to the Alexis thunderbolt. What’s more, inverting the supplier/creator relationship, his hold up play and pass to Mesut Özil hinted at a striker who isn’t just focused on individual glory. I suppose that may be a natural effect of Theo’s time on our right wing.
Whatever it is, hats off, Theo, you’ve made me a believer. If Arsenal can find some happy level between the abyss and, a bit closer to, the perfection of Sunday, they might just make believers of us all.