Football possesses a peculiar mindset in just about everything it does. Not many sports would claim a group stage is the semi-final and the last four the finals. But hey, it’s UEFA’s Nations League and Germany continue to be the gift which keeps on giving. Two-up and pegged back by the Dutch who now reach the finals with Switzerland, England and hosts Portugal.
“Imagine if we end up with that lot,” the suits in Nyon quipped when they plotted outcomes from the groups. “What a disaster. Thank God for France, Spain and Belgium, eh?”
Today sees the final raft of matches in the international break. I was going to refer to it as the End of Days but that’s a bit biblical. While FIFA/UEFA may think they are gods, they aren’t. They are most certainly, however, cults *misprint.
With the squad heading back to Colney in dribs and drabs, attention turns to the coming matches. After a relatively straightforward sixteen-match run, it’s a small run of games which will test the depth of the recovery.
The trip to Bournemouth is one we arrogantly assume we’ll win. There’s no good reason for that arrogance; it comes naturally when you support a big club. We assume that we’re flat-track bullies and such games are the flattest of all.
However, the Cherries sit one place below us in the table and with one home defeat all season, can’t be taken lightly. History doesn’t exactly bathe us in glory at Dean Court – or Stalag 17 as it was lovingly known in ‘the good old days’ whe the fences gave it a brutalist feel.
We’ve won one in three since they came to the top flight and there’s little argument that they play an attractive brand of football. Newcastle, of all teams, exposed their flaws.
North London Derby
Is the analysis of a fixture against Bournemouth less extensive than against Tottenham? For supporters, there’s more riding on the latter, even though it’s worth no more than the three points on offer in Dorset from the professionals point of view.
Does the ‘bragging rights’ or derby element of it filter through to the video analysis? Is the mind a touch sharper because of the opposition? Whatever the case, we know Arsenal must be on top form to win. But win we can; Tottenham’s squad are very familiar since they didn’t sign any players during the summer. It makes the year of Cech’s arrival seem a hive of activity.
Perhaps the bigger match comes at Old Trafford the following week. Manchester United away; a bogey match for Arsenal, even when we have very good sides. Add in their manager to the mix and it’s an unholy alliance of evil formed in the queue in Blazing Saddles.
Too often, we’ve seemed beaten before we walk onto the pitch in that fixture but this time we have a better opportunity with a new coach. The players have a new-found resilience but more importantly, they have a coach with no history at the stadium.
There is no 8 – 2 for Emery, no sent to the stand in front of a baying crowd; no last-minute defeat. I wouldn’t say the same if we were going to the Bernabeu or the Camp Nou; he has more skeletons rattling around those closets than a Scooby Doo cartoon.
However, he is a blank canvas at Old Trafford; he has yet to PGMOL’d. And that helps (I hope) to clear the players’ minds of the past. Or some of it at least.
Jim’ll Fix It
On the pitch, they are more than United’s equal. While we have our own concerns about the vulnerability to Rashford’s pace and Lukaku, ineffective against most teams, bullying Mustafi, United too have a weak defence and spineless midfield.
Pogba is a hollow shell of a £90m player. Constant talk of a move back to Italy is that of a child. He couldn’t cut it at Old Trafford under Ferguson and now is struggling under Mourinho; it’s a player who needs to find a new home. The right manager could mould him into an impressive ‘Vieira-esque’ player.
Mourinho doesn’t mould; he stretches, bashes and breaks players, casting them aside when runs out of sellotape and superglue.
For me, the trip to Old Trafford is the match of the next quartet which will tell us more. Mainly, as you’ve guessed by now, because I have my own ghosts to lay to rest. Victory provides me as much of a catharsis as beating Tottenham.
We can play well and lose a derby as easily as play badly and win. It’s as close-run as that. But United? That’s a different kettle of fish. We have so much history to overcome with a manager who has none.
And that’s why I think we can win. Our heads will be clearer than theirs in the sense that Mourinho, as much as he despised Wenger, despises Arsenal as well. He believes he can beat the players himself; Emery is not a man to let that happen.