This time last week I was writing about the Arsenal first team playing yet again in the knock-out stage of the Uefa Champion’s league, then at the weekend I looked at our vital premiership away game with the league cup winners of Swansea. Exciting, nail biting encounters with much at stake, the very stuff we all signed up for and the kind of matches that define our season. And then like a child who walks through the bright lights and loud pulsing rhythms of a funfair only to find himself suddenly outside the line of marquees and beyond the rides and candy floss stalls in a cold darkness surrounded by whisps of mist and chilled by a wintry wind, we find ourselves plunged into the miserable wastelands of the International Break.
Could it have come at a worse time? We certainly had a good shape and were winning in some style before it landed like a plague carrying dirty bomb in the midst of the footballing schedule. Funnily enough we always seem to feel the IB comes at the worst possible moment. I think it’s probably because it means we have to go without our football fix, let’s face it there isn’t a good time to have no Arsenal to watch. To then be presented with the possibility of our players coming back injured after performing for teams who we don’t support and who don’t pay their wages makes the whole thing as easy to digest as a dry shredded wheat in a sandstorm.
I don’t know about you but I can’t discuss football at work. My colleagues are at the mental age of an eight year old in the early nineteen seventies when it comes to the beautiful game. They believe everything they hear on the radio or read in the back pages. Their ideas and opinions are anything but their own and anything but informed. We will only end up coming to blows if we try to talk sport. International breaks are the absolute worst though. Suddenly we are all supposed to give a hoot about England, talk about the manager and players he picks as if we care. Honestly, tripping merrily through the mine field of sport related chit chat has been an exercise in obfuscation and temper control all week.
And so you can only imagine my relief at discovering the cameras were at Underhill last night. It was the second part of our Arsenal midweek methadone treatment. We couldn’t watch the ladies take a first leg lead in their Champions League match but we could and I certainly did watch the reserves (or whatever the Sam Hill they’re called these days) take on Man United’s youngsters. Many of the boys pulling on the red and white are familiar names having featured in first team matches on several occasions. But it only took three minutes for the less well known Hector Bellerin to announce himself with probing fast attacking forays down the right hand side. All too often mass defence prevented any clear opening and in the end too many short passes in and around the box ended in lost possession.
Coqelin and Eisfeld’s presence in the middle of the park provided a really classy fulcrum but it was Henderson who had the first decent shot from a free kick sending a skidding effort in to test the young United keeper after eight minutes. This was one way traffic. We were passing crisply and accurately at speed, and United were reduced to long punts up-field and scraps of possession. Martinez didn’t touch the ball until the eleventh minute and yet somehow the next thing he had to do was pick it out of the net half an hour later. It was a long shot by someone or other out of nothing and after we had dominated most of the half. Bellerin especially had caught the eye with quick feet, and direct running. United’s celebrations were mercifully short lived however, as Henderson equalised from the spot after that man Bellerin had bewitched the United defence once again, and they resorted to the Man United tactics we know and love by scything him down. Don’t worry boys, if Old Red Nose ever picks you for the first team you will never be penalised for kicking a skilful Arsenal player whether in or outside the box.
I’ve mentioned before that for a time in my adolescence I used to go to watch Bristol Rovers. I was taken to Eastville as a young lad by a neighbour and his dad but went more regularly when they played at Twerton Park. The Azteca Twerton was then and almost certainly still is now, famous for it’s sloping profile and watching the teams scaling the slope at Underhill last night certainly brought back memories. I could never decide whether it was better to unleash Rovers on the down hill run in the first half in the hope that they might build a lead before the opposition had gravity on their side, or save the advantage for the second half when the visitors would be tired. In truth it mattered little, as the ball spent most of it’s time flying back and forth through the air in those days the wind had a bigger influence on the match than the angle of the grass. Last night however, the ‘home’ side were determined to keep the ball on a bumpy wet surface and they certainly seemed less dominant in the second half whilst scaling the face of the pitch. Either that or Man U came out with a bit more fight. They certainly came out pretty aggressively , Francis Coquelin was hacked down on the hour by some bloke I’ve never heard of in a horrible foul. Unlike his counterparts in the Premiership the referee had no qualms in actually punishing United players and another one went into his book. Three minutes later and Hayden was chopped down and Arsenal made their first change, like for like Eastmond for Yennaris. Slowly but surely we began to tighten the screw creating more and more chances. Eisfeld, Ansah (substitute for Watt) and the busy Hayden all went close but were stopped by last ditch tackles or wasteful finishing.
It was a familiar tale for Arsenal fans. A lot of the ball, a gradual increase in pressure but a scoreline that didn’t reflect our dominance. Having said that there were some beautiful moves, excellent passing and some players who were quite simply head and shoulders above every one else on the pitch. I’ve mentioned Bellerin, and I know our own Arsenal Andrew really rates the lad having seen him in the flesh but for me Miquel looked a class apart last night; dominant, skilful, strong and decisive. Ansah looked very good when he came on and drew yet another clumsy foul from some United player or other as we entered the final ten minutes. From the free kick Henderson should have doubled his tally and put us in the lead but contrived somehow to bend the crossbar with whoever plays in goal for United well beaten. But then, just as a draw appeared inevitable, Señor Bellarin showed impeccable calm and control to bring the ball down in the United area and lash it home.
I enjoyed seeing the youngsters who were obviously thoroughly schooled in the Wenger Way and it isn’t hard to imagine many of them stepping up if called to plug a gap in the first team. Corporal Jenks could certainly have a very useful understudy in a couple of years time and Miquel is already really close to joining the elite.
Now pass me the syringe and the rope, this international break is about to begin in earnest and the methadone can only take you so far.