Does beating Chelsea in the community shield actually mean anything?
So on Sunday the Mourinho blue dragon was finally vanquished, although in more of a minor altercation than a full on battle to the last. But should we believe they nay-sayers when they tell us it was ‘just a pre-season friendly’?
In keeping with his role of pantomime villain, the increasingly tedious one did his usual trick of deflecting attention from his team’s bluntness sans-Costa by playing up for the cameras. Not content with ostentatiously lining up in front of a TV crew to shake hands with the Arsenal players after they collected their medals, he sealed the deal by throwing his losers medal into the crowd, knowing that that a nation of viewers had their electronic eyes on him.
“2nd place is good enough for Arsenal but not for me,” he implied, both in deed and later word, effectively taking pot shots at not only his rivals, but also the child who caught such an unexpected gift. Despite such laughable attention seeking and blatant manipulation of the media by providing copy, it still provided us Gooners with a few moments of pleasure and amusement.
While unsurprisingly former players Petr Cech and Mesut Özil, and the Iberian contingent, embraced Mourinho’s attentions, Mertesacker, Ramsey and Coquelin’s combined looks of disdain, disinterest and disgust certainly echoed the mood of the fans.
There was also the value of Wenger and Mourinho ‘pretending not to see each other’ in a very obvious way to avoid a handshaking or eye contact. The level to which they hate each other is on a par with the most stubborn of fans. Both were of course topped off by the ever joyous sight of seeing Mr morally deficient himself, John Terry, with a face like the proverbial bulldog/wasp combo at full time, accessorised by just a hint of moistness to the eyes.
Tribal cruelty aside, it was a satisfying and potentially significant day for a number of rather more valuable reasons.
As the nerves of parts of the second half illustrated, beating Chelsea was a big matter for the psychology of the team. The manager at least claims to not have been bothered by his record against Mourinho, but even if we believe that (ha!), it clearly has affected the team. As Hector Bellerin told Arsenal TV, the result was “a weight off our shoulders”. Certainly the way the goal was celebrated and the brief eruption at the final whistle suggested that it meant a lot to the Arsenal players.
In the same way that the reputations of Özil and now Cech generated a more immediate emotional boost than any on pitch impact at first, the ‘infallibility’ of Mourinho was a mental block for this squad. We saw in both of the previous fixtures between the two clubs at the Emirates that Arsenal lacked the conviction to turn dominance into a match-winning position. Very much a case of ‘a little bit with the handbrake’. Accordingly, this result has the potential to provide the same impact as last season’s victories at the Etihad and Old Trafford.
Since the start of the year we have seen a slow return to the ‘unbelievable belief’ that Wenger was able to instil in his teams in the first half of his Arsenal tenure, with the Mourinho megalith as the final frontier in conquering our domestic football demons. It has been clear to see much more ambition and confidence in the way the players are talking about the season ahead, and there is a commitment and singularity of purpose that hasn’t been in evidence for a long time.
The players’ journey has been reflected in the stands, where supporters now have faith in the team’s ability to hold out under pressure in order to keep clean sheets, and to create openings against almost any defence. The stadium (and the Arsenal internet world) is a more relaxed place to be, and the tangible tension being transmitted from the seats to the pitch is increasingly reserved for big games, escaping from the mental exhaustion of feeling that anxiety every week.
Wenger often talks about how long it takes to build confidence and how little it takes to undermine it, and this obviously takes a little longer with a collective of young players who have proven little, and players from overseas who are still on the way to feeling ‘at home’. We aren’t there yet, but this group looks capable to maybe getting that self-belief that made the teams of 2001-2004 so potent. It’s hard to tell how close they are to knowing they are good enough to win a title, and the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, but the feeling around the club is as good as it has been since the mid-point of the 07-08 season.
The result also represents something of a missed opportunity for Chelsea to keep their boots on the Arsenal throat. Despite their attempts to underplay it, the reactions of Mourinho and Terry at the final whistle betrayed their recognition of the significance of the result. The long-standing hold and air of invulnerability as far as Arsenal are concerned has been broken. Both teams now know that Arsenal CAN beat Chelsea, and both are equally aware that the other party knows it too. In the same way Arsenal used to own Spurs but, since they had that first victory, the tiny totts have been a lot more assertive at White Hart Lane.
Of course, regarding the overall season, there are limited conclusions that can be drawn, as much will depend on unpredictable factors such as injury, distraction by other competitions, future signings and form in areas of squad vulnerability. We have all been told ad nauseam that ‘it’s a long season’, and like most of Michael Owen’s pronouncements on Sunday, it’s self-evident nature doesn’t make it any less true. As such, there isn’t really much point in making any definitive predictions about the year ahead. At this stage it has to be enough to know that a challenge is genuinely plausible, although Chelsea are still the team to knock off their perch.
As an opening skirmish in the new war of 2015/16, it’s always good to wrest the balance of confidence back onto an even keel by landing a solid blow on the previously unscarred visage of the enemy. Napoleon was considered undefeatable…until he was defeated. Then suddenly the balance between victories and defeats shifted. If nothing else Sunday has the potential to explode the same sort of myth.
The blue dragon down by the river has had the shine knocked off a few of its scales, and though still a cunning beast, it now knows fear. And it knows the knights of north London are coming. I’m sure somewhere there was another dragon slayer of yore who’s lance bore the colours of red and white…