It’s rare that I sit here in the morning to write this blog and don’t quite know where to begin. This is one of those mornings.
I guess there’s only one place, isn’t there? The 79th minute of Arsenal’s FA Cup tie against Leeds. We’ve dominated the game, in terms of possession, in terms of shots on goal, in every department, yet the game is heading towards a dreary, goalless conclusion. A replay at Elland Road beckons.
Except it doesn’t. Not really. Because those of us watching, whether in the ground or on TV around the world know something’s going to happen. It feels like the script has been written already. Thierry Henry has made his Arsenal return, coming on for Marouane Chamakh with just over 20 minutes to go, and it’s all set up for him to make his mark.
He comes on, runs about a bit, gets caught offside, points a bit, scowls at a misplaced pass, oh there’s the Thierry of old. Then it happens. Alex Song plays a ball into him inside the Leeds box. His first touch is immaculate, you never lose that. It takes him away from the defender, he looks up, opens up his body and finishes in inimitable style into the far corner. The classic inside of the boot, curling it just inside the post.
His reaction is raw, visceral. From sheer delight to chest thumping, from crowd waving to an embrace with Arsene Wenger, it’s a moment that nobody will forget. You can see how much it means to him and how much it means to the fans. And on top of all that, everyone knows it’s the goal we needed to win the game. We’ve huffed and puffed for 79 minutes now the big bad beardy wolf has come along and blown Leeds house all the way down.
The cynical out there might say it was just a 1-0 win in the 3rd round of the FA Cup againt a tired Leeds side who’d been under the cosh all night. Maybe on paper. Thankfully football isn’t experienced that way. In the grand scheme of things it might be easy to play it down but football is about moments. We have 90 minute games during which the mundanity is broken by skill, controversy, human error and more, and anyone who can’t enjoy what they saw last night, well, that’s their loss.
Ever the man for the occasion, Henry’s reaction at the final whistle tops it all off. He stands, eyes closed, his arms in the air, savouring the moment. He’s then interviewed on ESPN where he calls his award of man of the match ‘a joke’, but talks about what the goal meant:
The feeling I had when I scored was amazing. I rejoined the club as a fan, I wasn’t before, scoring when you support the club is amazing. Now I know how some of the guys who play for Liverpool or Man United feel.
I will always remember tonight, I don’t know why but when it comes to Arsenal, there’s something happening with me. Sometimes in a bad a way, but most of the time in a good way.
227 times in a good way, in fact. When we spoke about Henry’s return we spoke about the decision being made for footballing reasons, not because of sentiment, but that’s the great thing about the game, sometimes the two things can marry themselves perfectly. And so it was last night. Henry showed that he still has the quality to contribute to this Arsenal side, while the emotion that contribution provoked is something that will live long in the memory.
If you saw it live you’ll never forget it. There’s no qualifying it, there’s no putting it in any other context other than the one in which we all saw it, there’s no downplaying it. It was perfect, beautiful. Arsenal needed a goal to win a game last night, a legend came off the bench and scored it. As I said above, if that doesn’t push all your buttons I suspect your mechanics need tinkering with.
Afterwards Arsene said:
It was like a dream when he scored, it was the story you would tell a kid. It is not often like that in our game. He was already a legend and tonight he added a little bit more.
No arguments with that from my part either. And if we want to look at it from a more analytical point of view, it showed exactly why the manager brought him back. I don’t wish to spoil the positivity of Henry’s goal in any way, but poor old Chamakh could still be out there now and he’d be struggling to find the back of the net.
Football is very often a game of fine margins, a goal here or there generally makes the difference, and Thierry Henry did that last night. He may not have the pace to make defenders wet their pants but he’s got still got the touch and finishing ability to make them rue giving him any kind of time and space. It just took a second or two last night and Arsenal went through to the next round of the FA Cup, Leeds went out.
How much he can contribute in the 6 weeks he’s going to be here remains to be seen. There’ll be tougher games, tougher opponents, and maybe the pace of the Premier League will test him more than last night’s pedestrian affair, but he’s gotten off to fine start. A start that’s sure to be replayed and enjoyed countless times today.
As for the rest of the performances, some brief thoughts. Sad to lose the Coq whose hamstring went limp meaning he’ll miss 2-3 weeks. Nico Yennaris came on and did very well, although he was rarely tested. At left back Ignasi Miquel (that’s Mee-kel NOT Mee-gwel, commentators/pundits) put in another solid, disciplined performance which augurs well for his future. I do like the look of him, I have to say.
Up top Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had some fine moments, more than enough to put himself forward for at least a place on the bench for the rest of the season. You can see he’s still raw but he works hard, creates openings for himself and others, and in games when the opposition are tired and a bit stretched, throwing him on for 20 minutes has got to be a real option now.
And finally, Andrei Arshavin. Overall I thought his game was mediocre at best. He should have scored early on but blazed a shot over, he should have scored late on but blasted one wide, and many of his passes fell short. However, the big, big difference between the Arshavin we saw last night and the one from recent times is that he worked hard. He tried, he really tried, he was always looking to be involved and even if nothing much came off for him if he keeps that kind of workrate up he’s got a much better chance of finding some form again.
So, a 4th round tie against Aston Villa awaits and we can now focus on the weekend’s Premier League game against Swansea.