Thursday, June 20, 2024

Frankly, Mr Shankly, you’re wrong

One of my favourite things about football is the extent to which it constantly confounds finite conclusions. We’re all guilty of it to varying degrees. Just four weeks ago I used this space to contemplate the upsides of Europa League participation. 6 consecutive league wins later and we find ourselves favourites for third and ahead of Sp*rs – who were effectively 13 points ahead with a 2-0 lead over us just over three weeks ago. I’ve always been confident T*ttenham would hit a sticky patch this season, but I had my doubts as to whether we would be in a position to capitalise.

But the speed with which we’ve overtaken T*ttenham should keep the wheels of our own humility well oiled. Things can change very quickly. At Goodison last night, the latest scores from the other games were flashing up on the scoreboard periodically. Upon seeing the news that Stoke had taken the lead- with well over twenty minutes remaining in our own game, a section of the away support already began to chime, “10 points and you fucked it up!”

Premature crowing is the reserve of our long suffering neighbours. We ridicule them relentlessly for it and rightly so. Let us not exhibit the same antecedent boasting. Spurs will not stay in this funk forever. Arsenal will drop points again this season. Those spiteful cunts at Stamford Bridge have staged a successful coup on a manager whose major crime appeared to be not tickling Lampard’s belly on demand. Now their owner has been bended to the will of the kangaroo court, they’ll start singing for their supper again. We are in no position to take anything for granted.

It’s been said before but it’s simply no coincidence that our return to form has correlated directly with the return of a couple of specialist full backs. Bacary Sagna might just be the embodiment of dreamy, dreadlocked consistency. It’s clear Walcott’s form has picked up since his return too. But Kieran Gibbs has really begun to settle into the backline. His performance against Everton was his best of the season for my money. Timely too, with the return to fitness of Andre Santos (whom I happen to have a great deal of affection for. Perhaps more than is healthy for an effectively heterosexual man).

The challenge for Gibbs is to stay fit. He need look no further than the resurgence of Tomas Rosicky for inspiration. There’s no great secret behind the Czech’s boon in form. The most prolonged spell of fitness since he signed for the club, multiplied by a run of games. People underestimate how difficult it is for a squad player to flit in and out of the team and maintain any kind of form. It’s a simple equation really; anyone that manages is, by definition, no longer a squad player. They play themselves into the team in the manner Rosicky has done. There is competition for places across the pitch now. Gibbs fighting it out with Santos. Gervinho with Chamberlain. Rosicky and Ramsey. It feels like a long time since we’ve had that.

The rewards of maintaining a high octane pressing game are being made plain. I read this piece with interest this week studying Swansea’s win over Fulham last weekend and how it was as much a product of sweat and toil as it was balletic football. Interestingly, Rodgers appeared to exploit an opponent’s weakness too to devastating effect. Probing opposition weaknesses is something Arsene notoriously does little of.

But deploying Ramsey on the left at Everton seemed to suggest a hint of pre-study. Everton have a fairly functional right hand side with Hibbert not exactly providing the most threatening thrust from full back. Royston Drenthe starts from that side but strays in field with sometimes madcap abandon. Playing Ramsey from the flank allowed him to tuck in and match Everton’s midfield and leave Drenthe’s artful wanderings to Alex Song. Whether this represents a change in tack from the coach, or whether the players are just executing instructions better is open to conjecture. But it’s a pleasing addition to our repertoire nonetheless.

Concerns remain however. In the last two matches we haven’t been anywhere near clinical enough for my liking. The Newcastle game really ought to have been won long before the 94th minute. Last night at Goodison Arsenal had the opportunities to kill the game off completely in the opening 30 minutes. In recent away games I’ve seen United put Spurs and Wolves to the sword before they’d registered 5 shots on target, making games comfortable for themselves long before time. That’s the next level we must aspire to now.

We had Everton dangling and it was actually a needlessly sloppy piece of play from Song that let Everton back in. The assistant’s flag saved us from Drenthe capitalising, but what that did do was rouse Everton from their slumber and ensured a hard fought game from that point. Over-elaboration is a component of Song’s game that he really needs to iron out now. He’s prone to get too comfortable at times, taking unnecessary extra touches and complicating his actions when the team are in the ascendancy. Arsenal are on a good run but sooner or later, over ornamentation and poor finishing will be punished severely. The challenge for the coaching staff is to keep the players mindful that they can raise the bar still further before, to quote Wolf from Pulp Fiction, we start sucking each other’s dicks.

In closing I’ll address the misfortune that befell Fabrice Muamba this weekend. I was watching the game on Saturday evening and it’s always deeply shocking to see another human being suffer in that way. I have generally stayed away from the topic online this week because I find some of the levels of morbid fascination and the need some feel to “compete” in the grief stakes not to my tastes. But nor am I terribly keen on debating the worthiness of people’s reactions. In that respect, I’m fully with blogger here in simply reaching for the off button.

But I have seen the chestnut continually rolled out that “football is so unimportant” in light of such an incident. It’s one I dispute. Football is important. This situation shows that. It’s important to Fabrice Muamba and it’s enabled millions of people that have never previously clapped eyes on the boy to wish him well and unite over this. Sport is one of the few genuine meritocracies on earth that globally eschews creed, class and colour and bases its judgment solely on talent. That makes it important. It’s just not as important as someone’s health or life and death. I think this piece from Benoit Assou Ekotto eloquently frames that.

I’d like to think that’s self explanatory though and that we wouldn’t need a terrible incident like this to tell us that. I’ve long been of the opinion that many do take the events on a football field, not so much too seriously, as too personally. Too often on field events are taken as a personal slight by some. Football is a wonderful, absorbing pastime and we all become embroiled in its dramatic plot-lines. It’s what makes it so important and so special.

But if it really takes a young man’s heart to stop beating on a pitch to serve as a reminder that it’s no more, I do hope that some good can be extracted from this situation in helping people to realise that. I’m not sure the game professes to be anything further and those that labour under the impression that it does would do well to revisit, in my view. Perhaps then some of the bile and vitriolic anger that emanates from a minority of supporters can be diluted.

In the meantime, one simply has to lend their thoughts to Muamba, his family and the doctors and nurses that are fighting his corner. Keep fighting the good fight young man. Until next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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