After a gruelling November, writing every day until I’d hit 80,000 words, I’ve not really had the stomach to pound the keyboard since opening the first window of my vegan chocolate advent calendar last Tuesday. I still have a couple of chapters in which to bang the final few nails into the coffin of my misbegotten, ill fated central character but the thrill at sitting down and spooling a blank sheet of foolscap into the trusty Remington has all but left me.
You may readily imagine my horrified reaction therefore to waking up and discovering that not only is it Saturday but my team is in action today and I am expected to find a few hundred of the old mots justes for the entertainment and delectation of the blog hungry hordes of Positively Arsenal. The problem is not only are my index fingers sore and my Tippex supplies running dangerously low but apart from writing the other thing I’ve steered well clear of lately is bloody football.
We have, after a great start, stumbled in the league. It’s no big secret and I hardly need tell anyone not recently arrived from Betelgeuse. We all know the reason and I’m sure those of you with a greater appetite for dissection of the bleeding obvious have been over and over and over every possible nuanced nook and rooted through each over rooted cranny where our injuries are concerned. I shall not add to such a tedious and sterile debate as worthless and pointless as it is other than to say that it just makes me sad.
I try to enjoy following my team. I wish with all my heart that our manager might get some reward for all he has done for the club and I begin each campaign full of optimism and hope. Then every single season we suffer the worst possible rotten bad luck with injuries and fall behind the leaders. It sucks the fun out of the thing as it ceases to be a contest in any meaningful way. One is left with watching a handful of knackered first teamers augmented by understudies and often understudies to the understudies going through a Sisyphusian nightmare when they ought to be strolling to glory gaining in confidence with every victory and filling their supporters with joy.
How the few remaining fit players find the will to go on when it’s such hard work just to sit and watch them on the telly I do not know. It is a testament to both their professionalism and the manager’s motivational expertise I suppose, but as I watch them standing hands on hips while another two and sometimes three team mates limp out of the fray for an unknown length of time I wonder how much longer they can keep their spirits up.
A gloomy state of affairs I hear you cry. Even the most resolutely positive among us are starting to feel that the whole journey is a bit of an uphill one, and who could possibly blame us? However there is a whiff of something different this season. A tiny crack in the darkness through which the weak and febrile light of hope may just still give off a small glimmer. Despite a disappointing run of results with points dropped left, right and centre the league tells a story unusual and, in light of recent seasons, perhaps a little encouraging.
Before going further I must apologise for even mentioning the table so early in the quest. As those of you familiar with my funny ways will be all too well aware I don’t pay the league table no nevermind this side of New Years Day. Some like to get all excited after a few weeks have passed, others pore over the relative standings and goal differences virtually from the moment the first ball is kicked, while those more seriously deranged fans like to play fantasy league table from the day the fixtures are published. You hear it all the time, “We’ve got West Brom and Norwich and Sunlan so that’s a guaranteed nine points which with the others dropping on average 1.6 points over the coming weeks should see us seven points clear by the first week in December.” that kind of lamp oil makes me fear for the well being of these people. I suppose it’s all harmless fun really but I swing the other way dear.
I prefer there to be a good chunk of the season done before I get interested in the table, when there’s more to get my teeth into so to speak. I’m making an exception today because despite a November horribilis we have somehow contrived still be very much in touch with the leaders and some might say fairly well placed. I know those with a tendency to self harm will say we’ve blown a golden opportunity to establish a lead over our rivals what with them all dropping points like a one armed juggler with crabs. I prefer to say they’ve failed to capitalise on our poor results and as such have left us with a slender lifeline. Whether it breaks under the strain or not remains to be seen but as Joseph Addison said (or at least is purported to have said) there are three grand essentials to happiness in this life, “something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”
What of our opponents today? According to the form guide Sunderland are only three places below us so this ought to be another tight, close encounter. They sit ninth in the table based on the most recent six matches with a real half and half, Jekyll and Hyde run of results. They’ve lost three and won three whereas our results are more mixed having won three, drawn two and lost one.
Sam Allardyce was playing down his sides chances in advance of today’s fixture trotting out some historical nuggets such as when Sunderland last beat Arsenal in London he and most of his coaching staff were still in short trousers. He also pointed to the Black Cat’s hard fought draw last time they travelled south to play us and it will be no surprise if we see a similar tight, organised defensive display from them today.
If that is the case then we can expect to hear and read much muttering from our fans. My Arsenal Twitter Bingo card will have ‘We need to move the ball faster’ scratched through very early in the game I’m sure. I just hope we at Positively Arsenal have a little bit more wit than to trot out such clichéd gibberish. When teams pack the defence and have their midfield sit deep you simply will not see lightning fast football. That kind of speedy interchange comes about when we counter attack. So obviously we need the opposition to be attacking for that to happen. Teams aren’t well organised at the back because our build up is too slow, our build up is necessarily cautious precisely because of their defensive organisation.
In games like that we need to be hugely patient and keep possession. Working the opposition, pulling them wide, switching the ball to the other flank, taking it back into defence rather than pissing away possession with hopeless high balls into a crowded area. We need to tire them out, wear them down and then exploit the gaps as they appear. If the first goal comes early enough then we can look to control the game, draw them out in search of an equaliser and counter. Of course, given that these are eleven premier league footballers and not a collection of shop mannequins we’ll be facing it is just possible that in this stage of the game they might actually succeed and score their equaliser. This is not unusual in football, trust me, it happens a lot. If so we need to start over and build the pressure again. Calmly and patiently.
A few years ago the popular stick with which Arsenal was beaten was that the players lacked maturity. They would go chasing a game even when they were ahead and leave themselves vulnerable. Nowadays it seems the fans are even more venomous if the players attempt to play with control and professionalism after going ahead. The popular opinion now is that we should put the opposition to the sword. Never mind a second goal we ought to be chasing a third a fourth. People piss and moan and wonder why we let the other team back into the game as if we just walked off the pitch after scoring and left them written directions and an invitation to a party in our goal. It shows a lamentable lack of appreciation for what the players are trying to achieve and is so inconsistent that I just feel we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.
Here’s an idea. Give the other team credit when they manage to score rather than blaming your own. Try to stay positive, and if it all gets too much scream into a pillow rather than trying to infect everyone else around you by a public show of dejection. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live their lives, these are just suggestion to perhaps help spread a little happiness and limit the dispersal of despair.
We all know that the Arsenal team trying to stay in touch at the top today is not the one we would choose given even a half way decent run of luck with injuries but it is what it is and the result will be the same whether we grin and bear it or wail and gnash our teeth. Let’s all try to hang on through the difficult days, there may still be salvation on the road ahead.