A scene on Hornsey Road in north London about a year ago speaks volumes about what Mikel Arteta has restored to Arsenal.
He had left the Emirates a little early after the 2-0 win over Leicester City and when the lights turned red his Audi was briefly beleaguered by autograph hunters and supporters of all ages, basically wanting to say to him: “Thank you. You have brought us joy.
The smile on his face captured the mood of an afternoon in which his young, mostly England side had shown something often overlooked in football. Satisfaction.
“They’re having a great time together,” Arteta said before leaving the floor that day. “If not, as coaches we should go somewhere else because we are doing something wrong.”
Those words sum up the zest for life we’ve seen in his young team and their wonderful football this season, although that seems to have been forgotten since Arsenal’s draw at West Ham, which fueled gleeful talk about the squad. . .
Arsenal dropped points in the title race on Sunday after losing a 2-0 lead at West Ham
Bukayo Saka (No 7) missed a penalty for the Gunners in their 2-2 draw at the London Stadium
Mikel Arteta, however, worked miracles to take Arsenal to the top of the table
No one expects those in a Tottenham Hotspur layout to show anything less than joy at the sight of Arsenal sacrificing 2-0 leads to Liverpool and West Ham.
But where in the enjoyment some get out of it is the recognition of how Arsenal brought beautiful unpredictability to what would otherwise have been a season of one-dimensional Manchester City dominance?
Sentiment is harder than ever to come by in football these days, when social media thrives on negativity and ridicule and there is a sea of GIFs to poke fun at and poke fun at.
There was a particularly vicious part of that on Sunday night. And the social media bashing continued on Tuesday with some manufactured fury at players ignoring Sunday’s mascot.
But Arsenal’s season has been one of the great Premier League achievements of recent years, regardless of the outcome.
They sent in the second-youngest average starting XI in the division – behind bottom club Southampton – and gave the stage to young British players. They brought Bukayo Saka to us, playing with such joy. He has become one of the jewels of British football.
Erling Haaland will surely win the Player of the Year award next month, but for me it’s Saka – a player whose development in plain sight over the past few years has been a joy to watch. He has experienced more taunts than many.
The “you have dropped your country” that resonates in some stadiums is brutal. Yet another proof of our times. But he triumphed, despite everything.
Despite his missed kick, Saka’s development at the Gunners has been a joy to watch
Saka is set to be one of Arsenal’s biggest stars for years to come and has played a key role this season
Just 18 months ago, Saka was playing in an Arsenal team valued at £616m, earning an average of £104,000 a week and managing just 35 goals in 27 appearances.
Arteta needed bold management to deliver the club from this madness. It was an extraordinary save, although observers seem much more eager to discuss his behavior on the touchline than creating a hugely successful team. He’s actually toned down that behavior this season.
Mail Sport’s Ian Herbert says Arsenal’s season is one of the great top-flight achievements of recent years
Arteta was unable to reach the most coveted players in the transfer market like Pep Guardiola did, bringing Haaland, Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez and others to the Etihad. City have Julian Alvarez, one of the World Cup stars, sitting on the bench if he needs some extra firepower. Arsenal have Eddie Nketiah who, with the greatest respect, is not in the same class.
City have a galaxy of world-class defenders, while Arsenal have one. City bought Kalvin Phillips, who wasn’t even needed. Arsenal bought Jorginho, a player who has surpassed his best. It’s a miracle that this team is close to the top of the standings, considering how thin their team is.
Arsenal fans will want no one to say second place would be an amazing achievement for them as they are top of the league and intend to stay there.
But in the Sky Sports debate after West Ham’s game on Sunday, you thanked Gary Neville for wisdom and reason, underlining what a huge achievement this season has been for the club, while Roy Keane offered the grim record that not winning the title from here would be “a disaster”.
You won’t get the sentiment from Keane, for whom football is black and white, but consider this about Arsenal’s tally of 74 points. In the 27 years since the Premier League became a 20-team division, only two teams – Manchester United in 2011-12 and Liverpool in 2018-19 – have not won the title by this tally or more after 31 matches. (City won the title on both occasions). There has been a lack of composure at times over the past few weeks – but what an accomplishment.
Without Arsenal, we would have seen Manchester City heading for another Premier League title
Arsenal can visit Manchester City later in April with the title destination still in their hands
It’s in their hands from here. Win Friday night’s home game against Southampton and they go to the Etihad next Wednesday knowing a draw would keep them in control.
The match at Newcastle on May 7 could be more crucial. But there is also Chelsea. And Brighton. And a Nottingham Forest that will be fighting for its life on May 20. Arsenal have a steeper mountain to climb than City by May 28 and they will climb it knowing the Etihad machine is at full blast.
Strange to say for a team at the top, but Arsenal are still the underdog here; those who seek to deconstruct the predictable one-dimensional narrative about power and money in football. What an amazing story it would be if they could bring her home. And what an extraordinary achievement even if they don’t.
The Ashes are unrivaled for influence
In a reception room at the Stockport County ground on Friday evening, a local cricket club celebrated its centenary.
The event was fitting for this landmark, with guest speaker Matthew Hoggard speaking modestly and self-effacingly about his life in the sport and how clubs like Stockport Trinity are the lifeblood of the game. Hoggard started at Pudsey Congs, in the Bradford League.
Matthew Hoggard (left) was one of England’s stars in an exciting Ashes series in 2005
But it was something club chairman Richard Higginbotham said that struck a chord.
Amid Trinity’s ups and downs, it was the Ashes summer of 2005 that brought in a generation of young players, inspired by England’s heroism.
Many emailed about my sighting last week, criticizing that this summer’s Ashes were blocked in 41 days to make way for the Hundred. Reduce the ashes at your own risk.
The Dutch duo made a strong impression
Frans Thijssen will be among the guests at the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year awards next month, as the first foreign outfield player to win the award.
Ipswich manager Bobby Robson bought Thijssen and Arnold Muhren with the proceeds of Brian Talbot’s sale to Arsenal and he still had £100,000 left to ‘bank’, as he once put it.
Arnold Muhren (left) and Frans Thijssen are pictured in the Ipswich dressing room in 1981
The Dutch pair, Robson later explained, were “wonderful architects of the way we play. They brought another dimension, another way of playing”.
Asked to select his all-time top XI from foreigners who have played in the Football League or Premier League, for the excellent book England, Their England, written by my colleague Nick Harris 20 years ago, Robson chose Thijssen in front of Muhren.
But Muhren made the all-time team, selected by a panel of 20, and Thijssen didn’t.
There is more information on their influence in the book Game Changers, by Tom van Hulsen. Wonderful players from another age.
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