Yesterday I watched the Southampton v The Scum game in the absence of any proper football on TV. I wanted to get a proper look at Antonio Conte’s team and given the good run of form they were on I wondered what I’d see. Of course at this time of year it is difficult to judge because of the close proximity of games, but Conte only made three changes from the game they played on Boxing Day, whereas Hassenhuttl admitted that because of the schedule they had to mix it up again and make six changes. Which I thought was interesting for him to say because it was very clear to my eyes that Southampton were the better team until they had a man sent off.
Then they got to play two-thirds of the match with ten men and couldn’t huff and puff their way to three points despite an opponent being down to 10 men for the fifth time this season. That’s nearly a third of their games they’ve played in the Premier League when they’ve had a player advantage. Mad that, isn’t it?
I’ll stop talking about them in a minute but given that they’ve got so many games in hand and with two wins they can go above us, it makes it topical for The Arsenal and also more interesting to see how they perform because it looks right now as though United and the Scum will be our big rivals for top four. West ham are a good team, they’ve had a good season, but in recent week’s we’ve seen what happens when the fixtures start to pile up on top of themselves and they’ve stuttered a bit. Hopefully that can continue and they fall away as the European football starts to kick in, but more than that I hope that we see United and the Scum start fluffing their lines too. United looked poor against Newcastle and should have lost it at the death and I thought they got away with Arsenal shooting ourselves in the foot in our game. Tottenham seem to get a slice of fortune about them wherever they go and if it isn’t players sent off against them it’s dives to win penalties or an England Captain who has the freedom of the Premier League to do what he likes.
So as it stands I am of course biased, but we look like the side that is clicking the most right now. Offensively it has always felt as though it was the last piece of the puzzle and in the last few weeks that has certainly looked like it’s been unleashed. We’ve suddenly started to see those passing moves come off; players are finding their teammates with accurate balls in the final third, the likes of Odegaard are drifting in to pockets and being impactful as a result, as well as players from the bench making an impact. Martinelli is starting to find those extra ‘gears’ Arteta has talked of and as we enter a massively tough January, it is good to know we’ve at least got some decent December points on the board and have players who will start the new year with bags of confidence.
And confidence does wonders for football teams. You can see it in the play. Remember about 13 months ago? Slow, laborious, tentative passing that could be easily cut out by opponents. Now we’re seeing crisp passing hit with purpose and the right level of pace. Sure, the personnel have changed, but also the ability to play the ball more quickly to feet has had an impact too. Perhaps if you want to add a touch of the “yeah but”s to our recent games you’d say we have been afforded space against opponents who have been all too willing to oblige, but you still need to execute the actions and the fact we have done that will perpetuate more confidence, which in turn leads to more purposeful passing from our players.
That’s why I find this game against Man City on New Year’s Day fascinating. They are clearly the best team in the country and it is more than likely that we will lose, but how the team reacts to that will be as crucial as anything else after the game methinks. We’ve lost our last nine in a row against City and are probably going to make it 10 on Saturday, but what the game will represent is an opportunity to see how far we have come. Has our crisp passing and ability to find those flowing moves that lead to goals so easily been because we’ve been given the freedom of football grounds like Norwich’s? Or Can these players perform and deliver that pinpoint passing accuracy with the right weight of passes that lead to good chances against the likes of Man City? It will be a very interesting litmus test.
But as I mentioned I’m torn on the timing of the game. That’s because I almost wish we had a few more games to get a bit more momentum going. The Scum play Watford on New Years Day and that will be a relatively easy three points for them I suspect. And if they win and we lose then they have two games in hand and are only three behind. Points on paper are important but there is no doubt that as we enter the new year they could be in a very good position to usurp our spot in fourth.
This is a very delicately balanced part of the season and so points feel like psychological weapons at this stage. Which means playing the best team in the country at this crucial stage could probably end up being quite a tough bump back to earth for us.
Of course there is the other alternative. That alternative is that we beat City on New Years Day. Not impossible, however improbable, but a win against City would be huge in terms of that psychological boost and weapon against our opponents. A win on Saturday could spearhead maybe something even bigger…After all…Chelski and Liverpool are only six points in front of us…
Catch you all tomorrow.