I know that I’m supposed to start blog posts with an anecdote or wax lyric about some lyrics. That’s the convention. So, here’s my opening metaphor: I made lemon curd this morning while listening to the Guardian Football Weekly podcast.
The lemon curd turned out great. The recipe I used was from Bon Appetit and it’s just the right amount of citrus to sugar. It’s also a simple recipe to make, you just kind of put everything in a pan, set the pan on medium and cook it till it’s thick. I like simple. I added an extra step, I strained the curd while it was still warm. And now I have a pot of lemon curd, perfect for mixing into the lemon mousse I’m making tonight.
I’ve made lemon curd dozens of times and I don’t always get the balance right. Too much lemon, too much sugar, sometimes it even curdles. And I’m sure that me even telling you about my lemon curd recipe will now elicit responses about what I could have done differently. Cool. Cool.
The Guardian podcast, on the other hand, didn’t turn out great. See, they had to talk about football and when they have to talk about football, and not whether Indiana Jones is a good movie, they struggle. But what was most hilarious was how they were (I believe) unanimously despondent about Spurs losing to Juventus.
They had to spend time asking the big questions: are Spurs as good as we think, and is Pochettino as good as we think. It was funny to listen to them struggle only to conclude that Spurs are fun to watch, that they were kinda robbed, and that Pochettino is promising jam tomorrow.
It could just be that there are suddenly a few little cracks in the Tottenham facade of greatness. After all, they have won precisely zero trophies in 10 years.
I’m a Gooner, they would say, a bitter Gooner and wave away my criticism. Fair enough, I have done my fair share of research on Arsenal in the early days and I can report that the press were equally glowing about Arsene Wenger – how little he spent, how Arsenal were underdogs, how he revolutionized training – up until about 2010. But then Arsene Wenger won three doubles in that time and deserved praise.
There is a marked difference, though, between the way that Wenger’s project youth – with Cesc at the helm – and stadium building project was written about and the way that Spurs are being written about now. Virtually no one is criticizing Spurs and yet that period of Arsenal’s history is called “the Banter era”.
Metaphors and complaints about media coverage aren’t why I’m here. I’m here to ask the question that’s on everyone’s lips after Arsenal beat AC Milan 2-0 away: how come they don’t do that all the time?
The first answer is that they sort of do. Up until December, Arsenal only had five losses including a draw against Chelsea and a 2-0 win over Tottenham in the “North London Power Shift Bowl”. But then things started to fall apart and I suspect that player angst was at the heart of it all.
Arsenal had that fantastic match against Man U, where we really stripped that United team bare, only to lose 3-1. After that, the team looked in shock. The next 9 matches, Arsenal won 4 and drew 5. Then there was the loss to Nottingham Forest. After that match, Arsenal won 4, lost 8, and drew just once.
So, what happened all the sudden at the San Siro for Arsenal to put in a performance and get a 2-0 win? That was Arsenal’s first win in 4 matches, since beating Ostersunds 3-0. Perhaps the dressing room clear outs and team meetings with the tears and gnashing of the teeth have finally made the players realize that this is the manager they have for the rest of the season and they might as well put in performances.
But I’m much more cautious. I don’t think we have “turned a corner” with this team yet and even if Arsenal win this weekend I don’t think we can confidently say that this is a new and revitalized Arsenal team. Against Milan, Arsenal did something we’ve seen them do a number of times over the last few years: they played one good half of football.
Arsenal scored a goal off a piece of individual skill – Mkhitaryan’s opener – and then played on the counter. Arsenal created several great chances against Milan late in that first half, all in the span of about 10 minutes before half-time. Arsenal scored a second off a great late run by Ramsey and went into the locker room with a 2-0 lead.
Why I’m cautious here is because the problem is that in the second half, Arsenal didn’t create anything for themselves. Two total shots, both from distance, both after the 90th minute. Even if you’re just a counter attacking team, you should create something in 45 minutes. That’s worrying because AC Milan stifled Arsenal with their midfield duo and I wonder if Gattuso (who, like all Italian managers can and does change tactics to try to win games) saw something in the first half, changed his system, and made a real go of the second half?
That second half also had me worried because Arsenal didn’t really play proactive defense. We weren’t trying to win the ball back and when we did have the ball, they snaffled it back up. That’s why we didn’t create anything in the second half.
I am also worried that Gattuso decided to pressure the Arsenal defenders, and especially Arsenal’s fullbacks, and there wasn’t any help for them as an outlet. Because of that pressure, Ainsley Maitland-Niles had three unsuccessful touches, all in his own final 1/3 (yeah, I know “because he’s s**t” which is the criticism he seems to get now). But Chambers (who I guess is also “s**t”) had two turnovers and made an error. Meanwhile, Bellerin (who I have been informed on a daily basis is absolutely “s**t”) is out injured and Kolasinac (who is a steaming pile of “s**t”) was replaced in this match because he was injured. I guess all the Arsenal fullbacks are just awful.
It’s telling that Gattuso was asked about Arsenal’s formation and he was almost dismissive – saying that we always line up the same way. It’s also telling that he saw weakness in the Arsenal fullbacks, or their cover, and exploited that in the second half.
While I’m one of the first to laugh at Spurs getting beaten by Juventus, we would do well to remember that this tie is far from done and dusted. Gattuso will remember the lessons this match taught him and come back looking for revenge. The next match, all the pressure will be on Arsenal.
And yes, I mean both Watford and AC Milan.