Vibrant colours were at one time treated suspiciously. Any period drama will tell you that a man with a touch of flamboyance was a dandy and as you hurtle through the ages toward today, the insults were far worse if you opted to wear pastel shades. In the era of professional football, men were men; there were no hugs after scoring, even if the footage makes the jog over to proffer congratulatory handshakes seem balletic. There was no clasping of legs in the draft of an opponents flailing limb; this was a time when broken necks were de rigueur in cup finals.
It was a time when international football was played midweek and club football resumed the following weekend. It was a time when Newcastle United were one of the great names of English football. Yesteryear and in a no way contrived is this morning’s playlist, Good Times Gone, which you find in the right sidebar on Dad’s Jukebox, here or in the archives, here.
Arsenal head to St James Park for a fixture which resonates through the club’s history. Newcastle were the visitors to Plumstead for the club’s first Football League match, a two-all draw in September 1893, whilst the reverse journey was made for Arsenal’s début in the top flight of English football. The 0 – 3 defeat made for what I should imagine, was an even longer journey home and a more costly one than the £2.70 Tottenham are charging their fans to fly to the north-east next month for their away match.
It isn’t often you will ever hear me praise them but on this occasion, they do deserve it.
But onto the important stuff. Whichever way you cut it, Arsenal’s recent good Premier League form is going to be negatively affected by the impending international break. Quite why FIFA believes this to be necessary is unclear but then this is an organisation which believed holding a summer World Cup in Qatar was a good idea. A win this afternoon helps consign the midweek European exit to the history books and occupies minds with a more positive train of thought for the next fortnight.
The Premier League fixture list is in middle of a little run which can go a long way to resolving the shape of the top four. Or making it more cloudy. Last weekend didn’t really help but with Liverpool and United meeting tomorrow, an Arsenal win today strengthens their position irrespective of the result at Anfield. Win at St James Park and the worst outcome is four points clear of fourth. It’s a gap which allows for one slip without immediate consequence.
Despite going out of the Champions League, Arsenal should be confident of winning. Domestic results have been good with six straight wins; performances are now coming together with the initial trepidation of the wins over Leicester and Palace replaced by the confidence needed at this time of the season.
A key improvement has been defensive. Five clean sheets since the turn of the year is as good as was managed in the previous twenty. That is down to the unit as a whole but key performers have been Monreal and Ospina. The former is closer is style to Winterburn, a traditional left back, uncompromising in defence and better in attack than he is given credit for. Or probably believes himself. When you see goals like the opener at Old Trafford, you wonder why Monreal doesn’t score more often. Winterburn, possessed a thunderous strike and never scored with the frequency he should have.
It doesn’t mean Gibbs is a poor left back. His style is closer to Cole or Clichy with the scampering runs down the flank and the speed to recover. It’s just that the back four at the moment is particularly built to accommodate that consistent attacking verve and with Bellerin on the other flank, Monreal’s discipline is a better asset. Which means Arsène will opt for Gibbs this afternoon…
Ospina meanwhile is proving more assured than Szczesny. Even at six foot, he isn’t the tallest goalkeeper by several inches but The Guardian interview nails it; calm. The Colombian, like Monreal, is consistently calm, not prone to rash attacking bursts or tackles. It’s an influence which is much-welcomed, especially for Per Mertesacker who seemed rattled by Szczesny’s unpredictability even though they have played together for a number of seasons. When he was injured, it was thought Koscielny was the missing component but it’s proved to be the calm that was needed. It works for this season, who knows whether the same will apply next?
Arsène has to decide whether he needs to rotate any players ahead of the friendlies and Euro2016 qualifiers or to take a risk with them. Personally, I don’t see many changes from Tuesday as being needed. Wenger has admitted Sánchez needs a rest but when that will happen, who knows. He isn’t publicly admitting to having a particular game in mind and away on Tyneside probably isn’t it.
The main change will probably be Aaron Ramsey’s inclusion, shifting Cazorla further forward. Theo Walcott is still feeling his way back into full fitness and is probably better suited to home games at the moment. I am sure that the theory of Walcott’s exclusion due to contract difficulties is going to gain traction and with reports of the negotiations being put on hold until the summer, it will be reported with increased intensity as the number of non-appearances grows.
Arsène is nothing if not practical. Just as it suited him to drop Szczesny with a replacement available, the same applies to Walcott. If his performances warranted inclusion even half-fit, he would do so. As it is, Wenger can take his time with the winger, easing him back in. Oh alright, there is bound to be an element of exasperation on the manager’s part but the team has options which mean he doesn’t have to use Walcott if he doesn’t have to. Better?
It’s a team which is good enough to take three points and with Newcastle suffering an injury-catalogue which has Arsène casting envious glances, one that ought to win. Must-win? Actually, yes; all the games until a top four finish is assured are must-win.
From The Vaults
Not far to dip into the past. Six years ago to this very day, Arsenal went into the match level on points with fifth-placed Aston Villa. How quickly football changes; the prospect of Villa threatening a European place is as remote as Bendtner living up to his billing as a bright young talent or Diaby, well, in an Arsenal shirt. Perhaps Villa returning to the upper echelons of the table is more likely. Easier. More believable.
By the end of the weekend, the gap to fifth would be three points and grow to nine by the end of the season. But you knew how that story ended anyway.
Enjoy today’s match wherever you are watching it.
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