Upon waking on Saturday morning, and after a tough week at work, I did what all sensible, mature 50-something male adults do at that time and reached for my computer and started to feverishly tap tap tap away at the controls (or ‘keyboard’) to bring up the app for my favourite fantasy.
I’ve been playing football Fantasy Premier League for about ten years and started doing so in a half-arsed bid to ‘broaden my knowledge’ of the players of other teams. I was invited into a small league of gentlemen, some of whom I actually knew, most I didn’t. Over the years my teams have ‘graced’ around 40 online leagues, most of them featuring teams managed remotely by people I’ve never previously heard of, let alone met. As someone who rarely gambles, fantasy football is as good an alternative way to follow the Premier League as I can imagine and has provided an added dimension to my enjoyment of the game which invariably lasts from the first lunchtime kick-off on a Saturday through to the last fixture of the Game Week (or ‘weekend’ as it used to be called).
I mention all this by way of giving any stray reader the heads up on the parlous state of my own football knowledge. In all this time, I have only ever won two leagues. Just twice have I ended the season top of the league – one was a group of five participants, another a small group of 20. The very first thing you learn about fantasy football is how little you have learnt about football despite supposedly following the game for almost five decades.
I’m currently at a season-high 13th place in The Tollington league of 50, a full 120 points behind the leader, a certain James Lowe. The Tollington is the rammed pre-match Islington pub of choice for around 6,000 of us most matches, and located a short walk to the ground. Despite this, I’ve never actually met James, who, over the course of the season so far, has established an all but unassailable lead over my team equivalent to around 5% of the points so far. For a game of small margins, it’s a huge lead.
Unfortunately I can not even claim James has been lucky because, as with the real thing, we all know everything magically, and a tad randomly, evens out perfectly over the course of the season. James also, clearly, knows more about football than me.
There is a second reason I mention this by way of the post-Watford write-up.
As part of my frenetic online fumbling around first thing Saturday, I moved young Hector Bellerin into my fantasy football side. Given the ropey nature of our post-Xmas form, this was something of a gamble but one shared by 25% of other players of the fantasy game.
With even greater prescience, I added the even younger and less experienced Alex Iwobi – someone selected by no more than 0.3% of the entire Fantasy PL rank and file. Bellerin’s form this season has led to him being one point behind the highest ranked defender on FPL. It’s a remarkable achievement for the player who is someone I’ve followed closely since his move to the club in the same swap deal for Cesc Fabregas, when Barcelona paid the club around £30+ million in cash. Plus Hector.
Another dumb deal by our hopelessly out of touch manager there.
And of course, both Hector and Alex played splendidly against Watford, despite my frankly inspired selection threatening to put the hoodoo on both of them.
Bellerin was the last Arsenal player I was lucky enough to meet before I stopped working for the club and it was the morning after his phenomenal assist for Ozil in the dying seconds of the Bayern Munich clash last October, that he briefly entered my world. It was known he was in the stadium for filming duties but I had no idea he was heading in my direction until he popped out of the lift in the Directors’ Entrance of the Emirates. At 5’ 10” he is taller than I imagined him to be although to be fair, the closest I’d previously got to the guy was watching him play for the Under 21s on numerous occasions when he was invariably a blur on the landscape, such is his blazing pace when charging down the wing. Faster than Walcott, they say. Faster, even, than Usain Bolt, over 40 metres. But likely twice as modest, as I shook his hand and truthfully told him his assist to Ozil the previous evening, less than 14 hours earlier, had led to my favourite goal of the season so far.
To which his response was “Really?!”
Yes, of course it was Hector, it was a stunning effort.
So I could be forgiven for selecting Bellerin on Saturday morning for my Fantasy side but Iwobi was a far greater gamble. That he would even play was reason enough for sensible people to avoid picking him but play he did, score he did, and establish himself as one of the break-out talents of the season, that he also surely did.
It seems to have become a ‘thing’ this season that unless a team scores first, winning a game is said to have become something of a mountain to climb. Teams – at least those playing Arsenal – seem to go one up then shut up shop. We can batter them for the rest of the game but invariably the opposition goalie will have his game of his season (or career) and overcoming an early deficit, especially with the Emirates crowd reduced to their now traditional near-silence, seems to be the hardest thing in the world. So Iwobi’s remarkable cross to pick out a marked Sanchez in the fourth minute was just what was needed to set the tone of a match that went on to become something of a master-class of midfield domination, good defending and effective, exciting cutting edge attack.
That this was Sanchez’s first Emirates goal since his October brace against Man U is an unwelcome stat likely to crop up in any subsequent analysis of the season but yesterday, Alex to Alexis in the 4th minute was enough to set the place alight.
The seventh minute saw a moving tribute to our former number 7, David Rocastle and the presence of his family in the Arsenal Directors’ Box was poignant. In some ways, the tribute represents the Emirates at its best. It has been said that when Rocky first played for Arsenal he couldn’t see the goal from the half-way line. Contact lenses transformed his game and he went on to become one of Arsenal’s most favoured and fondly remembered sons. To this day on his frequent stadium tours, Charlie George speaks gently of the guy whose shirt is now stored in the time capsule buried beneath the Emirates.
On 38, Alexis to Alex pretty much sealed Watford’s fate on a day they hardly threatened to make a game of it. So two full league games, two goals for Iwobi. His first at the Emirates, an outstanding performance in Barcelona and a debut for Nigeria earlier in the week. There is so much to be admired in the 19 year old’s game and his development over the 13 years spent at the club. My only regret is he has not qualified to play for England. Perhaps he preferred to play for Nigeria but one can’t help but wonder if the FA have missed a big, big trick here.
The manner of Bellerin’s deflected goal in the 48th will be one for Heurelho Gomes, the Watford goalie to forget. Much like his comment earlier this month that “Small Arsenal won’t win the PL title”. Going on to concede four goals against such a small side must surely represent the low point of his season. Maybe his mind was on the FA Cup semi-final the Watford fans delightedly reminded the home fans of.
Our own fans gently pointed out we’d actually won the thing, once or twice.
The welcome appearance of Joel Campbell and his even more welcome assist to the much Twitter-maligned Walcott at the death, was pretty much the perfect end to a perfect afternoon for the Gunners.
For me, Joel is up there with Iwobi, Bellerin, Monreal, Coquelin and Elneny as THE break out players of the last 18 months or so. All players few had previously heard of, all likely mainstays of the first team for the foreseeable future, all players sourced, nurtured and selected by a manager routinely disrespected by sections of the club’s own supporters but rightly still revered all around the football world.
And what of the context of the win itself? Spurs went on to drop two points on Saturday evening but much will depend on Southampton’s visit to Leicester later today before the true measure of yesterday’s win can be made. To say we can only win with the pressure off is errant nonsense as we are clearly still in with a shout for first place.
That it is only a shout and not a fully-fledged expectation is the only regret of another injury-ravaged season. That the season initially promised so much – especially on the back of an outstanding 2015 – makes Wenger some sort of victim of his own success but the remarkable consistency of his Arsenal reign in some ways makes it harder for many to again settle for 4th, 3rd or 2nd place in the league.
The nature of the demolition of a previously vibrant Watford side, made to look poor by a resurgent Arsenal squad teeming with talent, suggests we will do better next season, especially given the emergence of those new names mentioned previously.
This season’s unlucky goals ruled out for non-existent off sides, the penalties resolutely not given in our favour, the scenes of carnage in the club’s medical facilities – statistically, all this must, eventually, surely turn in our favour.
At some point, Arsenal will simply run away with the league.
This season, however, I’d settle for a championship decided on goal difference.
You can remind me who you are on Twitter @arsenalandrew.