Straight down to business and last season’s corresponding fixture saw us lose 1-0 courtesy of a Robin Van Persie header. It was a game in which Arsenal were largely in control without ever dominating, thanks to some decent football from ourselves.
From our perspective, Freddie Ljungberg fully justified his £85,000 weekly wage and £6million pay-off by having a goal wrongly disallowed for offside and Dean Ashton should have done better with a late header.
Generally, our recent record against Arsenal has been surprisingly even – in the last four seasons we have won 3, lost 3 and drawn 2. We can’t expect this equilibrium to last forever, though. Nothing lasts forever, especially not the pre-season bravado of tottenham fans.
The season so far has been a little baffling to say the least, notwithstanding the off field hi-jinks. I have continually checked the current league standings, convinced that I must have made some oversight in that we appear to be outright 8th having lost half of our games.
This is more symptomatic of the fact that outside the top 3, no-one has made a particularly blistering start, as opposed to a fair reflection of our steadfastness.
2. Arsenal’s Arsenal
The attacking threat and midfield fluidity of Arsenal is well documented and largely without parallel in the Premiership. Their assembly of talented youngsters is also well established and enough to make Hammers fans yearn for Academy protégés of old.
(Although it’s worth noting that Arsenal’s young guns are more often than not poached from other clubs as opposed to brought through their own youth system - Arsene Wenger is the cradle-snatcher extraordinaire of the modern game. But he's not a paedo. Repeat - Arsene Wenger is not a paedo.)
Recent displays have seen near-flawless performances from midfield up, but there remains a lack of stubborn resolve in defence to perhaps remain serious title-challengers come April. The Gunners have already suffered surprise defeats to Fulham and Hull City and drawn away to Sunderland, but remain only 4-points off top spot thanks to a lack of total dominance elsewhere in the league.
These blips have been interspersed with some savage attacking displays including wins by 6-0, 4-0, 4-0 and most recently 5-2 away to Fenerbache in the Champions League. With Wenger’s boys now 2-points clear in their Champions League group and cruising, their attention will turn to making up lost ground in the Premiership and we can not expect any players to be rested with one eye on Europe.
Eduardo da Silva is rumoured to only be a matter of weeks away from returning after his horrific leg-break in February (left) to further bolster their attacking options.
Now let’s see – February to November, that’s a 9-month turnaround from the Arsenal medical team. Kieron Dyer broke his leg in August 2007, 14-months ago and is still being made to sit in a darkened room while our “medical team” dance around him in bearskins and Haitian headdress, singing ‘you can make me whole again’.
3. Lost In Translation?
Frank Zola came out with a peculiarly paradoxical quote this week regarding the re-emergence of Craig Bellamy:
"You can't ask too much from him after such a long time out, but we really rely on him a lot.”
Bellamy’s return to contention must surely see him start. And start upfront. None of this ‘last half an hour playing as an advanced midfielder who drops deep to collect the ball’ nonsense. If he has energy enough to lead a couple of Hobbits on a merry dance up Mount Doom, then he has the physical capacity to put in an hour of running for West Ham.
In the opposite hot seat, Arsene Wenger (left, roaming the technical area, not beckoning kids into his car) has this week criticised fans and the media for their stifled support of his young team:
“I do not feel that either from the media or our supporters that this team gets the support it deserves”.
Wenger moaning about the media is an almost hourly occurrence, but his criticism of Arsenal fans is rare. Even grandiose, internationally-respected think tank The Arsenal Supporters Trust are in agreement, taking time away from their Hedge Fund analysis to issue the following statement:
“We share Arsene Wenger's view that the matchday atmosphere at the Emirates sometimes needs galvanising.”
All those years at the Highbury Library have surely tempered the expectancy of crowd participation at Arsenal home games, the passing Tube trains must sound like an onrushing tsunami to the natives.
I was going to write a piece about how the FA have written to the Court of Arbitration for Sport stating that they do not recognise the body as a final right of appeal in Tevezgate and the implications of that, but I really can’t be arsed.
Can’t we all just behave like adults and settle this torrid affair with a game of paper, scissors, stone? Best out of three and if we lose we beat up Sheffield United and nick their lunch money.
5. Captain’s Cap In Hand
Lucas Neill (pictured right upon being told by a foolish work expeience trainee at Gregg's Bakery to "queue up like everyone else") has detected the whiff of contract expiry in the air, above the overwhelming stench of baked goods. Our captain has therefore deigned us with the following diplomacy:
“My contract runs out next summer and I am open to them giving me a few more years at the club.”
Very kind of you, Lucas.
“If it doesn't work out, so be it, but I'd love a long-term commitment."
We’ll do our best for you, you tubby oaf.
This tactless attempt at courtship is rife with veiled language, roughly translated as ‘If the money’s right and it’s a minimum of 4-years, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll see out my current deal and look for a huge signing-on fee elsewhere.’
Well, after a distinctly average few years at Upton Park bar his first six months, I can’t see many clubs queuing up with bags of cash. Like we did. I fear that we, Lucas, are your Golden Goose and one that you have ravaged so brutally that we now limp around the barnyard with all the allure of a syphilis-despoiled, penniless Mallard riddled with H5N1.
Neill would do well to use actions rather than demands to attract a renewed financial commitment from the Board. A little understatement and honest to goodness hard work would do him some good, something like Hayden Mullins came out with this week in response to rumours of a departure from Upton Park:
"I'm just knocking on the door and if I get my chance I've got to put in a performance. I don't really want to go and knock on the manager's door and ask why I'm not playing. It's just a case of waiting for my chance.”
Despite Hayden’s confused door-knocking policy, the sentiment is there and he has the right attitude. If not the charm of say, a Lee Bowyer who would simply kidnap Zola’s first-born until his demands were met.
6. Sink Or Swim
Sunday’s game, like any other week, could provide a rousing display or a deflating experience. Recent history and Arsenal's recent form lead us to a few conclusions.
Everyone knows that if you try and play against Arsenal, they will more often than not take you apart. The way to get a result against them is to sit back, nullify and frustrate whilst hoping to nick a goal from somewhere – a’ la Sunderland.
Our problem is whether the home support will stand for a cautious display at the weekend, despite the sound reasoning that against this team it will provide our best hope of a result.
In midweek, Arsenal achieved the impressive feat of an emphatic victory away to Fenerbache, a team who had gone unbeaten at home in Europe for 15 games. This was largely possible because Fenerbache had a go at the Gunners, who were content to bide their time and hit the Turks incisively on the break. Not that they took their time too much, having gone 2-0 up after 10 minutes.
A fleeting hope I was all set to grasp to was the absence of Kolo Toure and William Gallas from the Arsenal defence, both of whom were unfit in midweek. Of course, they have recently been declared available for Sunday and so the encouraging prospect of facing a centre back pairing of the defensively suspect Song and the ageing Mikael Silvestre has disappeared faster than last year's X-Factor winner.
I’m curious to see what Zola’s tactics will be, whether he’ll stick with his favoured 4-3-3 and risk a hiding, or tailor the formation to the opponents, keep things tight and try to prevent his third defeat on the spin.
As for ourselves, would we rather go out all guns blazing and risk a potential cricket score, or suffer a negative Curbs-esque encounter and steal a point? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
It goes without saying that I’d love to see us pull off an unlikely victory on Sunday, but if a more likely defeat is coming our away, I wouldn’t be upset to see Arsenal keep the pressure on in the title race. After a few years out of the running, it would be good to see another team taking Man Utd and Chelsea to task and no-one could moan too much were Arsenal’s brand of football to win them the League.
Besides, wishing Arsenal well in the grand scheme of things is no blasphemy when you consider that history dictates at least one team from north London should remain in England’s top flight.