Once more unto the international break dear friends, once more
We have been riding an undulating course of late. The humdrum of league encounters has been punctuated by the lofty heights of all or nothing cup competitions and then it’s back down again to the daily grind. Except of course that the daily grind for us represents jousting with the very best for the biggest prizes of all. Not that the main prize is actually in reach you understand. To be honest it isn’t even in view yet. There is a veritable forest of ifs to negotiate before we even snatch a glance. If we can overtake the blue Mancunians, if Chelsea lose their game in hand and if we go on to beat Chelsea then there may just be the smallest hint of a glimpse of a prize. Oh, and all of this is predicated on us first taking maximum points from an away trip to Newcastle, from Liverpool and from Burnley. You can see why Arsène is a confirmed celebrant at the Church Of One Game At A Time, can’t you?
We supporters, free from the constraints which necessity places on those at the heart of the drama, can dream big and wonder if the seemingly impossible might become true. We did this on Tuesday didn’t we? And didn’t that dreaming make for a thrilling evening of football? Winning the league represents a far more outlandish scenario than that which we hoped to see in Monaco but a win at St James Park today will at least keep the infinitesimally small flame alight for another week.
It would be nice to have some spark no matter how tiny its source to warm us during the evil chill of the dreaded international break. I despise the interruption as I’m sure you do. The only good thing one can say for it is that it gives our injured players a little more time to recover without missing games. I hate it because, like an advertisement in the middle of a tense drama or an unwelcome knock on the bathroom door it breaks one’s concentration, disrupts the flow. More than this though the internationals ruin the pattern, the run of energy and momentum which has built over the preceding weeks of league football. Chelsea have stuttered. Six points dropped in their last six games. Manchester City have stumbled, eight points dropped. Arsenal and Liverpool have powered forward winning their last five and dropping only three and two respectively in their last six. After this weekend all of that will be as nought. The teams will return after the nonsensical irrelevance of the international sideshow, and like actors retaking the stage following an air raid warning will try in vain to pick up their lines, to remember where they were stood before the sirens cleared the theatre. The actor may in fact recall his script but the particular energy of the moment can never be recaptured.
Each international break is a small death and whatever is resurrected can never be the same as that which has passed. Be that as it may. Drop points today and none of that will matter. I don’t expect us to give Newcastle the room to prosper this afternoon. I expect us to apply a similar choke hold as that with which we so expertly stifled and suffocated Monaco. This was the single most pleasing aspect of our superb performance on Tuesday. The way the players were able to attack with fluency and invention and yet simultaneously envelop the opposition in a blanket of defensive discipline; harrying defenders, closing midfielders and throttling the forwards. If the players can raise themselves from their understandable disappointment to achieve similar heights in the North East today they ought to give their hosts an uncomfortable afternoon. I wonder if they can? In truth they should take an awful lot of encouragement from the way they played in the Principality. Far from being discomfited they should reflect on a masterful display of team work and individual brilliance. They missed out on the result by a tiny fraction but they showed how good a footballing team they can be and that may prove more important in the long run.
What of our opponents? Well, like us, they have their own idiot brigade who thought they could help their team by harassing the manager. This is a fascinating idea which I’m sure must delight any passing anthropologists. The suggestion that publicly abusing the very person responsible for engineering the success of your team will somehow benefit the players he has to inspire. That denigrating achievement and applauding defeat can in some way lead to better things is the work of an intelligence so far beyond the reach of mine that I am speechless to pass judgement upon it. Unlike the sad, bewildered minority of our own supporters who follow a similar logic, the Newcastle fifth columnists got their wish. As the champagne bubbles went flat in the aftermath of New Years Eve celebrations and twenty fourteen gave way to twenty fifteen, Alan Pardew returned to Crystal Palace leaving the fog of war on the Tyne far behind, and frankly, who can blame him? Before he took the plane south Newcastle had enjoyed a mixed bag of results. They were rampant in October and November beating, among others, Spurs, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea in a run which was cruelly brought to an abrupt halt at the Emirates when we demolished them in a four one rout.
With Mertesacker hitting the underside of the bar and Wellbeck’s brilliant falling chipped goal being wrongly disallowed the scoreline actually flattered Newcastle. Giroud scored two fine goals that day underlining yet again to all but the blind or the stupid just how valuable he is to us. Honestly if you even entertain those who try to draw you into a debate as to whether Olivier Giroud is good enough for Arsenal you need to have a long hard look at yourself. If he never scored another goal for us, the rest of his game is so good, so important to the way we play that he would still merit a place in our starting line up. It isn’t just Larry’s form which should give us heart. With Aaron coming back to his best and Mesut and Santi in their pomp the Arsenal scythe looks sharp as the season ripens and the final harvest approaches.
While the superstars in the squad are showered in rightful praise there are three other players who have been punching well above their weight. Hector, Nacho and Francis are all wrongly denigrated as respectively, merely quick, dull and tough. Each player has, however, far more to his game than these lazy stereotypes. Hector Bellerin is possessed of some crazy ball skills and is, I believe, playing well within himself at the moment, and understandably so. To be catapulted from the youth team to the Champions League would leave anyone a little overawed but when this boy shows what he is capable of I think he’ll be running rings around premier league defenders for fun. Nacho Monreal is a far better footballer than people give him credit for. I don’t see him showing the same flashes of genius of which Hector is capable but his reading of the game, position, pace and passing out of trouble when allied to his willingness and versatility have seen him take full advantage of Gibbs’ carefully managed recovery.
Which brings me to Francis Coquelin. Now I know that people hated Arteta with a slavering insanity akin to a fish hating water. Consequently anyone who wasn’t Arteta had, they felt, to be applauded. But the same people had spent so long telling us that we needed a big, tough, hard tackling defensive minded player that to save face they are now forced to pretend that Coquelin is just that type of player. They therefore ignore his range of passing. They ignore his wonderful snake like twisting to guard possession while looking for a pass. They ignore the sublime touch and skill with which he brings the ball under control and they ignore his wonderful slight of foot when going past the opposition. I think he has the potential to become a complete player. My message to these fools is that just because you are too stupid to see what a brilliant footballer Mikel Arteta is doesn’t mean you have to close your eyes while watching his understudy. If Coquelin can learn to read the game like our captain then his other attributes will ensure he has everything needed to succeed at the very top. Just don’t pretend to me that he is a big brute tackler who can’t do anything else simply because that is what you want to see.
We can probably expect some changes today. Maybe Theo, maybe Gabriel. Personally I’d love to see Tomáš. Please Arsène, please. Whoever starts at three o’clock I hope they can continue the good work of Tuesday night. I also hope that we can go into the enforced misery of No Football Fortnight with a win under our belts and that West Brom, Leicester, Liverpool and Hull can all give us something to smile about. I trust you will find suitable diversions with which to entertain yourself during the Arsenal drought, I’ll be back on April the fourth with my Liverpool preview, until then, I bid you farewell.