At Arsenal’s last gasp win at home to Southampton I indulged in a bit of time travelling.
No, I didn’t go back to the 12th May, 1984 – that would have been weird.
Instead, I went all the way back to the 2003/04 season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible does it?
I suppose I’m misleading you a little, but this Saturday was the first time since that oh so momentous season that I’ve been to a game on my own.
It was a weird experience, but also kind of liberating.
I could leave the flat when I wanted, not have to worry about where or when I was meeting someone and stroll happily down the Holloway Road; Red Stripe in hand, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleroes on the headphones.
The miserable weather couldn’t dampen my excitement as I made my way down Benwell Road towards the North London Enormodome with about 40 minutes to kick off.
A slight diversion round the roundabout to locate a copy of the Gooner and then up the steps, past Dennis and through the turnstile, into the ground.
I decided against parting with any money for Arsenal’s, frankly laughable, beer selection and headed straight upstairs, girding myself for my climb to the 32nd row of the West upper.
At this point, I should say thank you very much to my workmate, Jacqui Skinner for providing me her season ticket gratis and such entertaining company for the afternoon.
So, er, thank you Jacqui!
Chatting to Jacqui’s friends in front of me, it wasn’t till just before kick off that I caught the team news. Lucas and Mustafi in for their debuts, the bench had a very strong look to it should it be required. I don’t doubt the boss when he talked about players being late back from international duty, but I feel fairly certain our first visit to Paris in just over ten years (sob) wasn’t far from his thoughts either.
I began this article talking about going back in time to the 2003/04 season.
If only the team now were capable of starting games with the pace and intensity of our beloved Invincibles, we might have put a few more trophies on the board in the intervening years. As it was, I sat chatting to my companion for the day, Kyle (no not THAT one), thinking how many games just like this one I had watched at the Emirates.
And then, Southampton scored.
Oh, joy; deep, deep joy.
Even better, the goal came from a free kick they should never have been awarded (shades of Coutinho in our last home game) and that Cech saved only to have it bounce lucklessly off his shoulder and in. Happily, this early concession seemed to wake Arsenal up. Mustafi got a somewhat nervous crowd on his side with a bulldozing run down the right hand side, on the left the Ox buzzed around angrily, but with little end product.
There was nothing lucky about our equaliser, coming as it did from Laurent Koscielny’s outrageous overhead kick. On his birthday too, I tried to get everyone singing “Happy birthday to you”, but only my new friends joined in and it died on the vine.
Perhaps it was a reflection of our new found strength in depth that in the second half Arsène went to his bench a whole eight minutes earlier than is standard. Giroud and Alexis replaced Lucas and the Ox. Early impressions of Lucas are that he is probably going to struggle in more physical encounters – and that he likes a backheel.
I look at the Ox and am reminded of how Dennis Bergkamp used talk about being able to visualise what was going to happen in three seconds time, as if he was some kind of footballing Minority Report.
The Ox, if he has any pictures in his head at all, they’re more likely to have been produced by Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker. As a friend of mine said to me at the weekend, if anyone was a prime candidate for a loan this summer, you would have thought it was him.
I wonder if Southampton fans talk about Arsenal and laugh at our generosity in the same way we used to about Manchester City.
Anyway, Shane Long probably should have scored a few minutes later but his chip was almost Oxladian in its awfulness. The first, but not the only gift Long gave us. Moments later, Mesut Özil did what he does and found some space and a lovely ball into Alexis. Alexis shot was fiercely struck but perhaps he’d sacrificed a little accuracy for power and the ball flew over the bar.
That pass from Özil was almost the only thing that went right for him on a sticky pitch, but one moment in the first half highlighted why he is so important. A ball came into him with his back to goal and with one flick of his boot he had wrongfooted a defender and put Theo in on goal. Or he would have done, had he not got his contact a fraction wrong. I suppose these are the margins our game changers play within.
Speaking of that, being able to watch the game from a perspective I don’t normally get, I was struck by just how narrow Arsenal’s play is.
It’s really staggering to watch a team attempting to play almost exclusively within the width of the penalty area – against two banks of four. Particularly when you have Exocet missiles like Bellerin and Walcott on the right hand side. I can’t fathom for the life of me why Bellerin is not used on the overlap more, I can only put it down to a lack of rapport with the guy playing in front of him.
Or, perhaps, tactical instruction.
It just seems nuts that we don’t exploit his pace more often, because when we do, things tend to happen.
As it was, things began to look up when Alex Iwobi replaced Theo and injected some pace, but also some intelligence to proceedings. It’s funny thinking back on the game a couple of days later and realising that, even as we appeared to be on the brink of dropping two points, I never felt that sense of inevitable despair.
I think the atmosphere in the stadium was largely supportive and that can only have helped.
Even so, it was with a sense of disbelief that I and the people around me greeted the award of the penalty for Fonte’s stupid foul on Olivier Giroud. Particularly as Laurent Koscielny lay prone in the Saints penalty area. For once, Arsenal had kept the ball going – even after Shane Long’s theatrical response to Monreal’s tap on his ankles. Thank God.
The wait for the penalty felt interminable. I wonder how must it have felt to Santi Cazorla, the second half’s stand out performer as he probed from deep. I wonder if his mind went back to his last attempt at a game changing penalty in injury time.
I like to think that we kept his mind off that one as we repeatedly serenaded him, “Ohhhhh, Santi Cazorla/Ohhhhh Santi Cazorla!”
Finally, it was time. The guy in front of me who had been despairing at the efforts of the Ox and Özil turned his face from the field of play as Santi stepped up and smashed the ball down the middle, into the space that Fraser Forster had obviously, thankfully, dived out of.
Get in there!
Who will be the first goalkeeper to call Santi’s bluff and stay standing? You’d be a brave goalkeeper to do it, wouldn’t you? It’s almost counter intuitive, I think [even though research/stats show it is the best thing to do – ed].
Obviously, a last minute winner will only help your mood, at least, until you try and negotiate what should have been a relatively short Piccadilly line journey to Hammersmith afterwards.
However, despite only taking the lead in the 93rd minute, I had thoroughly enjoyed my day, supporting the team, meeting new people and having a laugh.
It was a timely reminder that that’s what this is all about.