It’s Not How You Fall…
One of the greatest lessons we can learn from this season, from the petulance of Tevez and the ignorance of Dirty Suarez to the Jenga collapse of Arsenal, is that it’s not how you fall, or how far you descend that’s important, it’s how you recover afterwards. Both Tevez and Suarez have shown a pig-headed inability to react sensibly to their situations (just imagine how different it could have been had either man stood up and said, “Sorry, I was acting like a bit of a twat there, it won’t happen again” instead of getting into a strop and fleeing to Argentina or unreality respectively). For Arsenal, whose usual Bad Week In Spring had, like the balmy weather, arrived a little earlier this season, this match was a game changer.
Aaaaaaarooooo! Arsenal 5 – 2 Spurs Now That Was Liquid Football
Normally Arsenal’s Mid-Season Collapse is like the first cuckoo of spring. Erudite commentators write in to Radio 4 or the like to mention its passing. And normally, it follows a clear pattern. The knockout round for the Champions League is followed immediately by some FA Cup shenanigans and a critical game in the Prem, all of which Arsenal flop in and the previous rosy glow of early season Carling Cup wins with the Under-16s and the February exhortations that they are, still, capable of winning 1, 2, 3 or even 4 trophies, quickly gives way to a sense of impending doom and the realisation that, yet again, there will be no winners at the Emirates. Wenger goes into a funk and the top one or two players begin to plan their mid-Summer exit strategies.
This season has been particularly painful for Arsenal. Not content with selling the best parts of their entire midfield and left hand side (goodbye Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy, hello nearly £50 million annual profits), having yet another key player out injured for the best part of the season (witness Wilshire adopt the position of Eduado in 2009 or Vermaelen in 2010) and apparently having no well thought out strategy to cope with these somewhat predictable events, Arsenal had pulled together a team with bungee chord and forgotten to give them even a basic grounding in defensive play. The result, a year’s worth of relegation form accompanied by a plunge to the bottom of the Prem reminiscent of that of Spurs in 2008 or Liverpool in 2010, and games like the 4-3 defeat away to Blackburn, or the comedy loss at home to Liverpool.
That Mid-Season Collapse Is Coming Earlier Every Year
So the Mid-Season Collapse came a little early this year. And it came hard. A 4-0 spanking away to AC Milan has made continuing in the Champions League unlikely, while a 2-0 defeat to Sunderland had done for the FA Cup. Surely a North London derby against a Spurs side who had just put 5 past Newcastle on the anniversary of Arsenal’s astonishing Carling Cup Final loss to Birmingham was just going to rub a whole load of deep heat right into the already suppurating wounds?
And for the first half of the first half it all looked to be going to plan. Catastrophic central defending once again allowed Arsenal to concede a calamity goal in the 4th minute, while their suicidally high line and lack of pace allowed Bale to run through on goal and gain a penalty, which was converted (inevitably) by Adebayor. And with Arsenal seemingly incapable of providing any threat and Walcott being exceptionally frustrating on the right, it seemed as if the game would be a perfect summation of the team’s last 12 months. And then everything changed.
So That’s What Mental Strength Looks Like
Arsène Wenger talks a lot about ‘mental strength’, most of which is met with howls of derision as we witness his players collapse and fall over and over again. Certainly the perception is that there is no one in the Arsenal team who has the mental strength or will to win that, say, Viera had, that Arsenal are, at their core, mentally weak and that if you push them hard enough they will crack. I suspect Bacary Sagna’s bullet header may be the start of the demolition of that perception. After he broke his leg in the last North London derby, you sensed that his viciously headed goal meant something to him. And with Van Persie scoring his 29th goal of the season just before half time to level the scores, you felt that it really was game on.
Except it wasn’t. Spurs made changes to shore up their midfield and somehow lost control of the entire game. Arsenal weren’t just dominant, they were imperious. And, unlike their usual game, they were pressing all over the pitch, denying Spurs time on the ball and maximising their own possession. That said, all three Arsenal goals came on the counter, in those moments after they regained possession in their own half. Rosicky’s first goal in ages came immediately after Spurs lost the ball and Arsenal charged forward outpacing the midfield and overwhelming the defence, the rest as the result of great breaks at pace.
Theo Walcott Breaks That Stick
Theo gets a lot of stick. He gets stick for having been very fast while young, for having been selected for England when he was 17, for scoring a hattrick against Croatia and, most bizarrely, for not improving as fast as we would have liked. Certainly he has suffered from poor choices, no more so than in the first half when he appeared to have the opportunity to run at the defence but passed to Van Persie. And certainly his shooting form has been poor. Witness the moment in the second half, when he cleverly escaped the offside trap and shot narrowly wide of the post. You saw his own frustration echoing that of the crowd. Then, in a moment of genius, he put all the doubts to bed.
Another quick break saw Van Persie take on the Spurs defence on his own, holding up the ball magnificently on the left. And then there was Theo. He had run approximately half the length of the pitch to catch up, received the ball, jinked to his right and popped the ball over the onrushing Friedel. An outstanding goal. And his first at home for over a year. You sensed that his reaction wasn’t just a goal celebration, but a sense of release for years of frustration.
His liberation was complete moments later when a glorious over the defence pass from Song put him through again. And, once again, he pulled the ball clear and popped it into the same left-hand corner of the goal. Game and, apparently, hoodoo over.
That Wasn’t Tactics ‘Arry
‘Appy ‘Arry famously doesn’t do tactics. According to ‘Arry his tactical nous extends to telling a striker substitute to ‘f**king run about a bit’ (check out this great post on ‘Arry tactics) and in playing and signing better players. In this match that proved a big problem. After his initial strategy, playing 2 strikers to pressurise the Arsenal defence, seemed to peter out, his response, attempting to shore up the midfield with the addition of Van Der Vaart and Sandro, failed spectacularly. Rather than strengthening the midfield, it seemed to cede the entire space and the game to Arsenal. Not the best example of work to pimp him for the England job.
The Manchesters Stroll On, But Is The Race For Third On?
With the Manchesters playing their own game of Real/Barcelona Catch Up, a dangerous game of bluff and counter bluff where neither can afford to drop points, it’s down to the Londons to provide some actual drama to the season. And with both Arsenal and Chelsea winning and Spurs losing, has the previously impregnable third place suddenly become up for grabs? Spurs now face both Man U and Chelsea in the next few weeks and the gap is merely 7 points. After a season of utter chaos, could Arsenal actually improve on their position of last season?
That Dead Cat Bounce In Full
Down among the dead men, there are a few who have played the ‘New Manager’ card. And the stats show alarmingly divergent results. Sunderland, who replaced potato-faced bungler Steve Bruce with superbrain Martin O’Neill, have turned their season around, showing that replacing dross with class is an effective strategy. However, QPR’s recruitment of spendthrift Mark Hughes and another bunch of disparate mercenaries, doesn’t seem to have done much, except for Fulham fans who will have been delighted that their team slapped down former manager Hughes’ latest ‘big’ club.
Wolves move to replace dour Mick McCarthy hasn’t been simple. Turned down by the usual media suspects (Curbishly, Walter Smith etc), they’ve gone down the Blackburn route and promoted McCarthy’s no 2, Terry Connor. And while Steve Kean’s promotion at Blackburn hasn’t spared them from another relegation battle, Connor may just be able to get the best out of a Wolves team that at least has some goals within it.
And, yes, there is still the outside chance that Alex McLeish could get two different teams from the same city relegated in successive seasons. Now that would be a real dead cat bounce.