Honours even, it’s Boleyn over and out
A gripping, fast-paced and compelling derby ended in frustrating stalemate for both teams and their fans, with possibly the visitors feeling the dropped two points more keenly than the home side. Having been 0-2 up on the brink of half-time, Arsenal found themselves three-two down within minutes of the break. That their principal nemesis was a lump of a player taking full advantage of superb, almost militarily precise service and the determination of a referee to ‘manage’ the game as opposed to applying the rules of it, was typically galling. But as on so many other occasions, imagined or otherwise by this writer, Arsenal were again undone by a player having his best game-of-the-season/career.
The ‘Ammers were fortunate not to be hammered for Carroll’s use of the studs, the elbow and a haircut too horrific to describe in decent company. With the quality of service and the desire of the player himself in all too rare alignment for the East-enders, whilst the score line ended in parity, the disparity of a (relatively) height-challenged Arsenal side was exposed in all its limitations with the continued side-lining of both Mertesacker and Cech leaving them seemingly exposed to aerial attack at the back.
How we missed a player of the stature of Adams or Campbell opined the purists. Given the sunset creeping around Per’s career, this could well be an ‘item’ already down on Arsene’s summer shopping list, suggested others.
However, despite the disparity, it feels something of a revelation that Andrew Carroll only won 5 of his 12 aerial battles against the cultured midgets and, given his height advantage, that he scored from 3 of those 5 is indicative of our defensive endeavour. Sadly, an endeavour that proved not effective enough as it turned out, and the tactics of Bilic were as clear as daylight from pretty much the opening minutes of the game. Without more height in defence, it’s unlikely this will be the last time we will find ourselves targeted in this fashion, this season or the next.
The other worrying stat brought into ever-sharper focus as a result of this weekend’s draw is the scarcity of points taken off our London rivals this season – just 6 points out of 21. Yet there was evidently no lack of desire on the part of our players today and there was a point when we almost made it 0-3, just prior to Carroll’s towering contributions, where you might have thought West Ham would have been dead and buried with the concession of one more goal.
But this stat has also to be taken in the context of a superb home record with the Happy ones now unbeaten in 14 games. Without meaning to sound bitter, it is very evident that the teams relying on a more ‘robust’ variant of the beautiful game benefit the most from the abject failure of referees to apply the rules as opposed to ‘managing the game’. Players like Carroll know with absolute certainty they can get away with sporting murder and the fact he was booked in minute four did little to deter his muscular interpretation of the rules of the beautiful (but managed) game.
So we are left third on 59 points. Recent games have seen evidence of teams cottoning on to Leicester’s tactics as a spate of 1-0’s would appear to testify. Interestingly, the possession stats in Saturday’s game – 39%-61% – mirror the tactics of the Plucky Ones: concede possession but hit hard on the counter. Spuds seemed suddenly less confident in their last (drawn) game. But despite this it’s hard to imagine both teams now collapsing to the point where we can realistically hope to take the championship this term. My gut feeling is 2nd place IS realistic and very much up for grabs and would represent progress, on paper, at least. In our heart of hearts, this season will most likely go down as the championship that got away and it’s safe to assume the banner industry will enjoy a mini-boom thanks to the disillusion on the part of some and the willingness of others to show themselves up as spoilt brats, giddy on publicity, oblivious to context and circumstance.
All I’d personally wish for is one season – just the one – where injuries don’t come to the rescue of our rivals. I do think Leicester have played some scintillating football this season and whilst the refs have hardly treated them harshly (and no matter the size of the glut, penalties don’t score themselves you know), they have played with great spirit and largely deserve to be where they are today. Leicester aside, I genuinely do not believe there are any better sides than a fully fit Arsenal team. That we beat the Midlanders, home and away, tells some sort of story though their superior consistency remains undeniable regardless of the background detail. Congratulations to Leicester on an outstanding effort; their (initially) impudent victories against Chelsea, Tottenham, Stoke, Liverpool, and M City in particular will live long in the memory.
* * *
Back in December, the Premier League table did not make pretty reading for the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, and United in particular. It was close to the half-way stage of the season when I wrote a piece for PA which was based on observations of what appeared to be happening. It was not intended as a prediction but in many ways, I’m delighted, for the sake of football in this country, that the following words still appear to hold some truth as we hurtle towards season’s end:
“… despite Man U having the highest revenue at £433 million, with City on £348m, and Chelsea on £324m, the (relatively) smaller English sides are now earning enough to buy – and pay – players of a sufficient quality to cause real problems for all the ‘big’ clubs.
Yes, something rather wonderful is happening to English football.
The old guard is no longer having things entirely their own way and there will be many nervous eyes cast in the direction of the explosive impact all this [new TV] cash will have on the cosy cartel that once dominated English football.
Now everybody in the League have got their hands on the loot.
As the prospects for the biggest clubs hang in the balance, everybody has a chance to win again and, happily, things may never be quite the same again.”
The siren voices presently shrieking for the head of Arsene Wenger all fail to take account of the relative – yet colossal – failures of just three clubs who have joint annual revenues north of £1 billion. Banner owners everywhere wilfully ignore the debilitating impact of our own club’s injuries on an otherwise superb squad. And they naively assume Arsene won’t strengthen in the summer despite the imminent retirement of numerous players once considered a key part of the squad. The latest revolution within the game continues apace and yet still Wenger keeps Arsenal ahead of most of the pack, a club that is always there, always competing.
Yes, it’s possible that their activities today may drive him out in 2017.
But by then, we may all be begging him to stay.
ArsenalAndrew is on Twitter @arsenalandrew.