Even though I was there to witness it with my own eyes, it is still hard to believe that the performance on Saturday evening came from an Emirates-era incarnation of Arsenal. All too often in recent seasons we have been served up slow tempo sterile possession football that has failed time and again to break down deep-lying well organised defensive sides. What we saw on Saturday was altogether different; what we got was high pressing, fast-paced, fluid football that reminded us of the glory years before the stadium move. In a similar, but more deadly, vein to the way that Liverpool had ripped into them the week before; Chelsea’s defensive shortcomings were brutally exposed by the hosts’ quick tempo combination play.
So many times before Arsenal have succumbed to Chelsea, often through a combination of naïve defending and foolish indiscipline; the case in point being last season when the Gunners managed a total of 3 red cards and to lose both matches to the worst Chelsea team of the Abramovich era. This time it felt like we were being a shown a glimpse of the way things used to be before everything went stale, when the Invincibles thrilled us with their futuristic play.
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and the result, and as someone who has had to endure so many capitulations in the past, believe me I did(!); there was still the nagging doubt in my mind that we have been here before, there have been times when Arsenal have looked like the world beaters only to be exposed as also-rans a matter of weeks or at most months later. Almost exactly a year ago Arsenal did pretty much the same thing to Van Gaal’s Manchester United with a stunning first half blitz, but less than two months later, after a defeat away at West Brom, they were in the midst of their annual injury crisis and back in their customary fourth place.
The signs from the first half against Basel on Wednesday night offered further encouragement for the Gooner faithful, even if the profligacy in front of goal provided an unwelcome reminder of the chance-conversion failings of last season. Playing Alexis Sanchez centrally as a false-9 finally seems to be working and his effervescent style allows the fluidity and movement amongst the front four that leaves defenders not knowing whether to stick or twist.
Theo Walcott in particular looks like a player transformed and seems finally to have got to grips with the wide forward role, even if it has taken him the best part of ten years.
For me the most encouraging aspect of the last two performances has been the new defensive solidity that has seen not only two cleansheets, but has provided the platform on which the fast-paced counter-attacking play has been based, as epitomised by the third goal against Chelsea.
If this is truly to be a new awakening of Arsenal then consistency of performance will be the key; while the last two games have been thrilling and brilliant to watch, the trip to Turf Moor on Sunday afternoon may well tell us more about the Gunners ability to maintain a credible challenge this time around.
The other big news of the week was the departure of Sam Allardyce as England manager after a grand total of 1 game and 67 days in charge. Ten years ago the BBC Panorama investigation alleged that both Allardyce and his son Craig, a football agent, had taken bungs for signing certain players. While it was never proven, the cloud of accusation continued to hang over Allardyce even as he took up the role of England manager. To then be caught in a newspaper sting operation, offering advice on how to circumvent transfer regulations has to be regarded as stupidity of the highest order. Despite his claims that his comments were not of a corrupt nature and telling the journalists that he would need his employers’ approval before taking on the proposed contract; the FA had no option but to terminate his employment. It does however leave them back at square one.
When the FA appointed Allardyce it felt very much like it was with the expectation that he would pick up the pieces after the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, rebuild confidence and shape the team’s identity; but this scandal has put them in an even more difficult position. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, to appoint the second choice candidate from the summer in Steve Bruce would be to replace like for like in terms of managerial pedigree; but the danger is that he will forever be seen as second choice, unless he were to achieve the seemingly impossible and take England to the latter stages of a major tournament.
We have pretty much exhausted the approach of bringing in a high profile manager as both Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello failed to get the best out of their respective squads.
For me the key job that is needed for England is to start again, to almost write off the current situation and produce a development plan and framework to transform the national game. In this situation the job would be less about team management and more about overseeing the implementation of the development strategy; and would be more suited to a young manager given a long-term remit, someone such as caretaker coach Gareth Southgate or the highly respected Eddie Howe at Bournemouth.