That was the most enjoyable international break I’ve ever known. Like the Arsenal players I had been feeling a little jaundiced after a frantic start to the season. I was ready for a rest, a change of pace and a diversion from the usual routine. The Dreaded Break coincided with the November writing marathon that is National Novel Writing Month, popularly abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, and so I needed to remove all other distractions from my life, get my head down and focus on my characters.
Surprisingly this year’s novel has only referred to football twice and then only in passing and on neither occasion was the greatest team in all the land even mentioned. My subconscious telling me perhaps that I’d overdosed a little. I really must stop watching the pre season friendlies, charity shields and such. If my various addiction afflictions have taught me anything it is that you derive far less not more pleasure from an over indulgence in the things you love.
I am in fact not even going to watch the match at 3pm today. I’m going to write this, then my daily NaNoWriMo diet of two and a half thousand words and then I’m taking my mum out for the day and will catch the game on Football Origin later this evening. We’ve all seen the insane over reactions and complete lack of perspective exhibited on the internet by those who can’t keep a lid on their obsessions and I do not intend to join their ranks. Let’s face it the result in the Midlands won’t be affected by my not being there or not watching the game live. At least the picture quality will be better this way and I can fast forward any time wasting, which we all know is a Pulis trademark.
I actually won’t be too far from the action this afternoon. After throwing mum from the Skoda in Tintern I’m driving on up the Wye Valley to Hereford to take some photographs as part of a long term project. I’m engaged in photographing all the river crossings over the Wye. I started as you can readily imagine with the title Bridge On The River Wye which has doubtlessly been used before but was too good to miss. I do like a good bridge from the merest plank over a small stream to the mightiest suspension bridge and I would love to dovetail this paragraph with some clever football/bridge metaphor without sounding trite but I can’t so I’ll just go on to discuss the two sides and compare their contrasting styles and standings.
Pulis against Wenger has always leapt out as a beauty and the beast encounter. One a baseball cap wearing troglodyte sending his budget players out to rough up the opposition and stick it high and often into the box all the while hoping for a lenient referee to allow multiple and rotational fouling to go unpunished. The other a debonair, highly intelligent aesthete sending out his expensive hugely talented show ponies to dance and trick their way around the opposition in a dizzying paso doble of dexterity and devastating one touch deftness. In truth this is often seen as a cliché, an attempt to reduce the achievements of one man and raise the profile of the other. You and I know it may be a cliché but it also happens to be entirely true.
Pulis is in some pretty poor company. From Phil Brown to Jose Mourinho to Fat Sam and Mark Hughes there have always been managers who have bought into the media pedalled illusion that you can simply kick Arsenal off the park and that they are weak at defending the high ball and set pieces. Statistic after statistic proves this isn’t true and it is only when one of these brutalist managers is given unlimited funds and the unequivocal support of the match officials that any of them have had any appreciable success over monsieur Wenger.
There are, in fairness, also stats which point to Pulis strengths as a manager of lower ranked teams. No one questions his ability to motivate players, nor to grind out points and occasionally take big scalps from unlikely places. He improved West Brom’s fortunes more than any other new manager when comparing the twelve months before his appointment with his first year in charge.
“West Brom won just 21 per cent of their games in the 12 months prior to Tony Pulis’ arrival at the club. They’ve won 40% of them since then though, an increase of 19 percentage points.” source http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/west-brom-data-improvement-under-10123175
This might be considered nothing more than New Manager Impact Syndrome, but that is thought to be only a short term phenomenon. I think there is more to it and Pulis has doing a reasonable job with the Baggies. He has still said and done many unforgivable things where Arsene is concerned and as such should not and will not be forgiven but he has at least attempted to soften the public comments of late. Nowadays he says things like
“I’ve got absolutely no problems with any of the managers. Nine times out of ten you will have five minutes with them after a game. I don’t know the person. I couldn’t say whether he was a nice guy, bad guy whatever… because you don’t spend time with them. And when you are involved in football a lot of people see you and they perceive you in this image that is projected. Nine times out of ten you turn the cameras off and we are different human beings. Softer.”
He even has a go at being humorous with predictably lamentable results saying that he would be happy to ask Arsene to sponsor him in his attempt to row the English channel, wait for it, here comes the punchlines, hold on to your hats, “I will also ask him the quickest way to Paris!” cue sound effect or Arctic wind blowing across the tundra.
Anyway today’s match isn’t about the relative cerebral gifts of the managers, it’s about one team’s quest for glory against another’s for mid table respectability. Both sides have their goals and both will, I’m sure give their all in their respective campaigns. Historically we’ve always done well over the Albion and in the last 18 premier league encounters we’ve only lost two and drawn two. More recently their home form has been uninspired. They’ve only won one of their previous six and that was against a Sunderland side who have been so poor this season they are only one place above Chelsea in the league. Overall Albion have lost four of their last six whereas the only blemish on our record is the two dropped points against Spurs.
Much today will depend on how well our patched up injury riven squad comes back after the break. Olivier Giroud is still in fine form in front of goal, it’s just a shame Manuel Neuer doesn’t play for West Brom as our huge Gallic symbol can’t seem to stop scoring against him. Good news about Hector but only if you’re not Matthieu Debuchy who was just getting back some sharpness and now will be relegated once more to the sidelines. The life of a millionaire premiership footballer can be tough sometimes.
A question. Am I hoping for too much from Joel Campbell? He’s had a few games lately and should be over any nerves and ready to start strutting his stuff. But time is of course running out for the lad and being so far down the pecking order that it takes every other possible starter in your position to be injured or on loan before you get a game must be dispiriting. He needs to do a Hector or a Koscielny but he surely needs more time to do it. Looks like Ox will soon be back so I fear for the boy, but again Arsenal is a big club and the very best of the best is all that is good enough.
I anticipate West Brom holding out for a draw while hoping to nick a win but how we will approach the game is less easy to predict. We’ve seen our side bamboozle opponents and we’ve seen them incoherent, tired and shattered by injuries. Something in between the two ought to be good enough but a return to form will be really heartening. People say the league isn’t won in November but that’s poppycock. It is won in August, September and October it is won in November just as much as December, and all the way through to May. It’s the one true test of greatness in the sport we love and if we want to win it we need to be able to ride the storms as well as coasting on the crest of the waves. Can we do it? Of course we can. Will we? Today might be a good indication.
Those of you with the outrageous good fortune to be at the game will, I trust, be treated as welcome guests by the Baggies fans, as to the rest of you I hope you get a half way decent commentator and a stable stream. I’ll catch up with you all later on and should you be canoeing under the Wye Bridge in Hereford this afternoon and you see an old man setting up his tripod – please don’t shout out the score.