Let’s get the grovelling out of the way first. And the excuses, let’s get those out of the way first too. Oh heck. Is there a mathematician in the house? Can I have two first things? Even if I can you’d need to discount the preceding five sentences wouldn’t you? All I was going to say is I am writing at a disadvantage after an heroic dosage of pain killers intended to alleviate the old nerve problem but actually just causing a dense fog to descend.
Also I’ve been forced very much against my will to take up gainful employment again. As a defence mechanism and the only way I can prevent my brain from imploding under the twin weights of tedium and loathing I have to switch off all but the basic cognitive functions from breakfast to bedtime. This means that the usual hunt for interesting or at least diverting topics with which to pad out my pre match ramblings have been suspended along with all other philosophical musings.
I hope the team doesn’t suffer a similar lack of motivation nor paucity of inspiration today. Surely they won’t. Surely they’ll be floating on cloud nine after their joyful six session with those tricksy Bulgarian visitors on Wednesday evening. If there is a problem with an improbably long winning run it is quite simply in our nervous and worried minds. We struggle not to harbour the superstitious dread that the longer it goes on the closer the inevitable hiccup, crash, fall from grace – call it what you will – must surely be. Granted it isn’t all superstition. If we accept that the winning run will not in fact last until the end of time then of course it must be interrupted at some point.
I believe the trick is not to think too hard about that. I also believe that for the players the key will be how they respond. Treat it as a bump in the road and they’ll be fine. Allow their morale to collapse à la Tottenham after the Chelsea result last season and things might become a little uncomfortable for all concerned. This is where having a manager who has been there and long since taken over the t-shirt factory, never mind just bought one, becomes a resource of incalculable value.
Pochettino, for all his undoubted talents, couldn’t transmit the necessary calm to his charges when the ordure and the air conditioning came into contact at Stamford Bridge last season. I’m guessing of course but I suspect that is down to not having been in such rarefied air before. Arsène has. He knows how a near miss feels and he knows the sweet taste of ultimate success. He has learned what works and what doesn’t and when the blip happens we should be grateful to have him at the helm to steer the ship back on course in double quick time.
But I don’t want to contemplate defeat just yet. I’m quite content to clamber up on the virtual surf board and enjoy the ride as long as the wave keeps rolling on in. If confidence is the huge intangible which drives all successful teams then we must have a full tank of the stuff right now. The victory on Wednesday, or least the margin of victory which seemed so improbable for much of the first half, must have done much for both the individual and collective spirit in the squad.
I have to give special credit to Arsène. His timing was impeccable. Sooner or later we all knew he would have to rest some players and would have to give others a start in the first team. That he chose to do so in the Champions League is a mark of a manager confident in the ability of his second string. It also must have helped boost their own confidence that they were so trusted to carry on the good work, much of which they’d had to watch from a seat in the wings.
The hunger on show from the understudies was to be expected but what impressed more was the quiet assurance with which they went about their business. From Kieran Gibbs’ seamless transition from bench to starting berth to the Ox’s sublime finish and on to Lucas Pérez’s wonderful little cameo they all showed the manager what they can do and did it with aplomb. The only reason I don’t mention David Ospina in the same sentence as those others is because I believe he deserved one all of his own. Sod it, I’m giving him this one too – viva Ospina!
I honestly don’t know if these guys are waiting for injuries to take their toll or whether Arsène has plans to gradually increase the involvement of some players as the season progresses. It is an intriguing prospect. Of all of them Pérez is the one I think most likely to feature with sustained regularity. Like George I really like what I’ve seen. His work-rate and intensity are high, his speed of thought and decision making impressive. That he can score as well as provide for others augers well. Above all he just looks the part.
The most compelling battle for selection is between Coquelin and Xhaka – unless of course they end up playing together. It’s Coquelin all the way for me. The most underrated, or perhaps the least overrated, player in our squad by some margin. Caricatured as no more than a hard tackling defensive midfielder, he actually prefers an Arteta style interception, his positional play is extraordinary, appearing to have stolen the opposition’s blueprints before kick off, and his close control and passing are far from that of a boneheaded midfield hatchet man. I give him the edge over Xhaka by dint of not being suspended today.
Middlesbrough haven’t won since back in August. In fairness they’ve not been properly turned over since then, losing the majority of their games by the odd goal. Regardless of their recent form any Premier League team has the ability to beat any other. If we’re going to see Shotta’s streak continue we will need the ruthlessness Arsène is so fond of calling for. With the usual faces absent and Santi a doubt following his early departure on Wednesday we may see Elneny and Coquelin at the heart of our midfield. As big a loss as our tiny Spanish giant may be I’d be quite happy to see them on the team sheet together. Discipline and fizz. They could have their own prime-time show. Other than that as much as I think the Ox deserves another run out I suspect Arsène will stick to his winning team. But what do I know?
If you’re at the game sing one for me, if not I’ll see you here at three.