What a difference a prod makes. With one flash of his foot, Aaron Ramsey set Arsenal up nicely for their crucial Champions League clash with Besiktas tonight, winning the game, brightening the mood and sending the club to Istanbul in high spirits. If Ramsey had missed, if Julian Speroni had caught Mathieu Debuchy’s initial shot, or even parried it elsewhere, the mood around the club would now be very different.
Ifs, of course, are of limited use in football or indeed anywhere else. If the plumbing on my Aunt Martha had been different, she may very well have been my Uncle Arthur. But the tightness of the scoreline illustrates just how fine the margins are in an increasingly hysterical league where every result is either the trumpet blast of an emergent title challenge or the wailing siren for an impending ‘crisis’.
Over at Old Trafford, it took 90 minutes for Louis van Gaal to go from being the statesman-like captain of a refitted cruise liner to a red faced cabin boy flailing helplessly at a spinning wheel with butter-coated hands as an iceberg loomed up in front of him. At Anfield, Liverpool endured a terrifying second half when it transpired that they hadn’t cleaned Southampton’s dressing room out of talent thoroughly enough. Like Arsenal, they rescued the situation, but like Arsenal again, you wonder what the headlines would have been had they not.
For the Gunners, there were plenty of encouraging signs. Yes, there were times that Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere appeared to be closing their eyes and then passing, in some kind of ill-fated attempt to demonstrate Jedi powers. And yes, Yaya Sanogo followed up a promising performance at Wembley with a display that was a synchronised and graceful as trolley full of hot drinks rolling down a flight of stairs. But beyond those minor issues, there was at least more evidence of the resolve that has carried Arsenal through their bouts of nervousness and that has enable them to drive through the efforts of their straining handbrake. And it wasn’t just the players who impressed in this regard.
All crowds have their signature sound. At my own Southend United, for example, it is impossible to ever be more than three rows away from a man who sounds like Eric Idle and will cry out, “Oh, not *again* Southend!” every time the ball is lost. Arsenal’s signature sound for many years has been a wordless, widespread groan, sometimes accompanied by the slapping of heads in hands. It’s contagious, it spreads across the ground with every misplaced pass. I’ve found myself doing it in the pressbox and I’m not even emotionally involved. But it wasn’t there on Saturday, even though the misplaced passes certainly were. Perhaps it was the addition of that giant white picture of an FA Cup in the corner of the stand. Perhaps that victory has sated the immediacy of the demands for success. Either way, even Arsene Wenger noticed it and acknowledged that it had made a difference.
You can read too much into these things. Last season, Arsenal crashed at home to Aston Villa and very few people in the crowd held back from expressing their feelings. The mood was one of rebellion, an angry crowd suddenly realising that the coin wasn’t under any of the cups on the table and that they’d been had. And it led to one of the most impressive runs of form that the Emirates Stadium has ever seen. And yet, it’s surely preferable to have everyone at the club happy and settled, supportive and confident.
You still suspect that Manchester City and Chelsea, after their own display of resolve at Burnley, are better suited to the demands of a title challenge, but if Arsenal can shed off those mental issues, both in the team and in the stands, you wonder if they might yet have a chance.
Arsenal are 1.65 to beat Besiktas tonight