Happy Friday you lovely lot. Man, that week absolutely flew by for me personally, as it feels only yesterday I was chewing my fingernails down to bone in anticipation and dread of what lay ahead of us come the Sunday with that trip to Anfield. Would our season’s attempt at the title falter and leave us questioning whether we had the staying power to go the distance against the ever-impressive Man City? Or would we set down a marker that would have even the most nervous and self preserving of Gooners like me piping up and saying “do you know, I think we could do this…”
The reality was, of course, probably neither of those and both during the space of one game. A first half which made every Arsenal fan think that “this Arsenal team is different”, then a second half reminding us that deep down, this Liverpool team isn’t that different. Not at Anfield, anyway. So we came out pretty much where we went in, which as I said on Monday this week, I would have absolutely have taken before and am still happy we got even a few days later.
But this weekend is another obstacle, another game and another hurdle we have to overcome in the shape of West Ham. And much in the same way that the game at Anfield was a bit of a mixed bag of Revels, it kind of reflects how West Ham have been this season in all competitions. They are only three points off the drop, yet they have beaten Fulham and Southampton in recent weeks. Although those games themselves were punctuated by an absolute battering at home at the hands of Newcastle. They’ve smashed Forest 4-0 at home, drawn 1-1 with away at Newcastle, yet Brighton gave them a pasting at the Amex 4-0. All of this has also had a Europa Conference League campaign in which up until last night they have won every single match and swatted their European opponents to one side.
Then to last night, in which they picked up a creditable 1-1 draw away to Gent and broadly speaking will probably feel quite comfortable about picking up the win at home they need to progress to the semi final. But in between those two games we travel to the London Stadium and I have to admit, I was hoping for a little bit of a helping hand from David Moyes in prioritising Europe over their Premier League status. Perhaps if West Ham would have been sitting in eighth, five points better off, with 35 points (like Liverpool are right now…) then he might have been tempted to do so. But I guess they are only three points off the relegation places and they need to make sure they don’t take their eye off the ball and drop back close to the relegation zone by the time they play on Sunday.
Having looked at the games this weekend I therefore suddenly find myself looking at the bottom of the table and thinking of the permutations that might mean that West Ham aren’t feeling as much of the heat in the league by the time kick off comes. Palace are playing Southampton and they are three points clear of the Hammers, so that game doesn’t really affect them either way (although Palace should win). Everton are at home to Fulham so from an Arsenal-fan-wanting-West-Ham-to-take-their-foot-off-the-gas perspective, you’d have to say you want Fulham to get the away win there (although their recent form hasn’t been great). Liverpool are away to Leeds and whilst normally you’d expect an away win, their form suggests that it could be a close encounter. But I’d still expect Liverpool to win that. Forest travel to United and that should be a home win and Leicester will almost certainly be beaten by City at the Etihad. Bournemouth go to The Scum and whilst I cannot go as far as wanting them to win, Bournemouth being beaten would make West Ham feel a little more at ease. I can’t think that is a positive result though and it would be hilarious to see their Champions League campaign properly fold by a defeat there.
Look at what this title run has done to me. It is like some kind of footballing Inception where I am not just looking at the Arsenal results, but I’m looking at the results of the opponents of our opponents to see if that gives them some kind of psychological safety blanket with which to be a little less caring about the result on Sunday. But this is only because regardless of the opponent, as we get closer to the conclusion of this season, every game feels bigger. A month ago we were heading in to the Palace game after the International break and I was looking at the fixtures and thinking “we should beat Leeds, Palace, Liverpool will probably be a defeat, then West Ham away should be another win”. But now we are on the eve of the game, I’m seeing West Ham players returning from injury, I’m hoping that there is European fatigue from a trip to Belgium, I’m looking at trying to find every tiny crumb of evidence that could be seen as a potential marginal game to The Arsenal.
I think I’m going slightly mental with this run in.
And do you know what? I was warned about this too. I go to games with a group of mates and one of the gents, Mark, was saying to me before the March international break that this is going to get worse. As each passing game goes by it will become more nervous, more tense, as the season reaches its climax. I’m old enough to have seen Arsenal win four titles in my time. I would have been old enough in 1989 but I’d only just started playing football with my friends at seven/eight and that was around 1990 that I started paying attention. I went to the game at home where we beat United 3-1 and won the league in 1991, but that was my first real foray in to football so I can’t even remotely claim to know the stress of the 1989 season. In 1991 thought we were imperious (not that I remember too much) and had the league wrapped up with a game to go, finishing seven points above Liverpool and that was WITH two points deducted for the brawl at Old Trafford (sound familiar? After all, we’ve effectively been docked two points through the PGMOL cheating us at home to Brentford…). So I would imagine that probably from mid April Arsenal fans at the time knew that the title was in our grasp. In 1998 we went on a mammoth winning run and at 16 I didn’t really feel the same football stresses that I do now as an adult. Then in 2002 and 2004 we were just easily the best team in the league, better than United and everyone knew it, which is why it didn’t feel as stressful to me.
But this season absolutely does. Not only is there no ‘wiggle room’ like in 91 (we finished on 83 points to win the league), but we’re up against a financially doped City side who have a monster of a squad and score goals for fun. If we somehow finish above City this season (I’m still not quite ready to believe that will happen btw), it will be arguably the best Arsenal title since I have been alive – in terms of consistency I mean, because we’ll have effectively have needed to have got more points than any Arsenal team since we had 38 league games in a season. The Invincibles got to 90 points. I don’t think that will be enough, as I’ve already written about this week.
I think I will leave it there for today. There’s been enough virtual hand-wringing for me for one day. Back tomorrow after we get an update from the boss on who is fit and who is not.
Catch you all tomorrow.