You don’t need me to say it, as soon as you saw the picture those very words went through your head.
It’s the best day of the weekend, isn’t it? Matchday, Saturday. Over the years, the connected world has made it easier to stay in touch with the goings on if you are not able to go. Rather than waiting for Ceefax – I always found it more reliable than Teletext – to flip from page 2 to 3 and then back to 1, to find out the latest score, now you can hunch over your mobile phone, tablet or computer to find out. Instead of being one of the crowd outside Radio Rentals or Granada, you stand next to your fellow supporter in the supermarket in the Audio & Visual aisle. And it is great, feeling more involved but you still miss things, listening to Radio 2 and the luxurious tones of Peter Jones and Bryon Butler transporting you to the ground, the imagery forming in your mind’s eye. That cannot be replaced with a live text report or the current generation of commentators whose style is frowned up by those keeping a watchful eye from above.
Arsenal travel to Swansea for the teatime kick-off, a ghastly side-effect of television’s ever tightening grip of football. I don’t mind Sunday kick-off’s although lunchtime is never good, necessitating a hellishly early start but tea-time? It’s a meh time for football, not an evening game with the inimitable atmosphere that brings and not an afternoon kick-off, a time for traditions. A Goodies kick-off, an inbetweener.
Arsène is not alone in being a manager who welcomed a vote of confidence from a club owner but not many others will be sitting atop the Premier League table when they get it. Being new football, it wasn’t a traditional one of course, just him acknowledging the fluttering of Stan’s eyelashes. Talk of contracts like that of challenging for the title this season is premature, a point of which Wenger is acutely aware. He wants to sign and reiterated his love for the club. I assumed everyone knew he was sweating blood and tears in his attempt to rebuild the squad; whether he can or not is an entirely different matter.
Arsenal have recovered well and assuming that the coach driver remembered his change for the tolls, cross The Severn top of the Premier League. Despite being three points worse off than last season’s corresponding fixtures, they have capitalised on the failings of those deemed to be contenders and this morning find themselves anywhere between two and five points better off than their rivals. It’s a good start. I thought we made a good start to last season as well; the draws against Sunderland and Stoke were followed by good wins domestically and a French trip which saw them hide three points amongst the baguettes and wine from the hypermarket.
And it was this weekend when the wobbles began with a home defeat to Chelsea. Swansea are not quite at Chelsea’s level but are good enough to offer the sternest test of Arsenal’s away form this season. Having recovered from an opening day mauling by Manchester United, they put together a useful run of results before this week’s surprising League Cup exit at Birmingham. Arsenal will need to perform well to repeat last term’s two-goal victory. A record eleven consecutive away victories – when you progress in a one-off tie, surely it is a win – shows Arsenal are capable of doing so. The weekend’s fixtures suggest that the top six will have a more familiar look to it come the final whistles tomorrow. Both Mancunian clubs and Liverpool have routine matches, the sort they will win eight times out of ten, drawing and losing one of the remaining two. Chelsea meet Tottenham and whatever that outcome, Arsenal will find themselves knocked off the top spot before kick-off but then again being top in September means nothing beyond having further to fall.
The current run of fixtures are matches that the club expects to win. Before the season started, I observed that if we could get to Old Trafford in November only having dropped three points, we would be in a good position for the stronger opposition that month and December provides. That hasn’t changed, this is the fixture where I thought we might come unstuck. Arsenal can only beat those in front of them and when those they face are weaker, they have to avoid the tribulations of the past.
Dropping points happens, it’s an occupational hazard for football clubs. Every season has matches lost that should have been won, even champions fall into that trap. Minimising those mistakes is the difference between champions and also-ran. I don’t expect the current squad to win the title but I do think they need to show progress on last season, aiming for a top three finish for anyone to take this season as moving forwards. Crucially, you sense from Kroenke and Wenger this week that achieving that aim will be at the core of his decision about his future. Arsenal have made no attempt to hide their wishes, Wenger the same.
In an ideal world, Arsène would want to field the side which beat Stoke City quite comfortably. This world is far from ideal though and enforced changes may be required although the manager is optimistic that both Flamini and Ramsey will play. He has cover for one in the returning Mikel Arteta and a strong case can be made for his inclusion in what is expected to be a carnival of passing. Indeed I think he will at the expense of Serge Gnabry, forming a solid barrier and allowing Aaron Ramsey to continue in support of the attack. Flamini the scurrier, the bossy worker ant, would hassle, harry and cajole possession allowing Arteta to dictate the play, Özil on the right with Wilshere opposite; a quintet supporting Olivier Giroud as the XIs spearhead. The downside of that is a bench which possesses an abundance of youthful energy but no game-changer and risky given Arteta’s lack of matches this season. It leaves the line-up something like,
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Özil, Ramsey, Flamini, Arteta, Wilshere; Giroud
There is a strong case for either of Miyachi or Gnabry to play in place of Arteta, pushing Özil into a central position. The former has the pace to stretch the game but the latter displayed a good defensive awareness against Stoke which may be the deciding factor with Swansea’s full backs effective in supporting their attack.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.