At night the chimney fire shed the only light in the log cabin in the middle of nowhere.
They gathered around the fire once a year on the night of the winter solstice and told each other the most unbelievable stories. Despite what they would later tell their gallows priests, they were in this line of business for those stories. The loot and lay were bonuses. Every year the bounty on their head grew larger and the vigils for absent friends longer.
On one of those nights Haskay-bay-nay-ntay, Native Indian for the tall man destined to come to a mysterious end, known to us better as the Apache Kid, Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, hard men all, had collective chills running up their spines when each of them realised they were telling different parts of the same story. The protagonist was the man simply called Látigo – Spanish for ‘whip’.
At a distance of many thousand miles and a few hundred Winter Solstices, 19 days short of another, the lean, muscular frame of David de Gea was cracking his invisible whip against the Alamo-siege of Arsenal’s attack on Manchester United’s goalpost.
On the 2nd of December, Arsenal stitched 562 passes to United’s 147, amassed 12 corners to United’s 1, had the monopoly of the ball with 75% of possession, attempting to place it inside United’s goal 33 times, and still lost 1-3 at home. This was one of the finest goalkeeping displays of the Premier League era.
For everybody else, the battle might have been of a mere ninety minutes, but for David de Gea, it must have seemed like 14 days. Each of his 14 saves was stretched out in time, and time is always relative.
If Davy Crockett, the King of the Wild Frontier, survived Alamo (and many testify that he did – as folk heroes often do), a look at his namesake at the Emirates would send him down memory lane and onto a chance acquaintance with James Bowie who told him a tale of a spindly, shaggy-bearded man in a Mexican standoff. Látigo had steely-green eyes, compelling and piercing, a wolfen face and reflexes that preceded his reputation. “That man could catch bullets, I kid ya’ not,” his fellow frontiersman told Crockett over a drink, “ya’ gotta see it to believe it.”
In the 55th minute of the match Arsenal fans, players, management, errant stewards, and the tea lady saw something they couldn’t quite believe. Their counterparts did, only because they have seen it ever so often.
The overly-elaborate is the signature of Arsenal’s forward play. A bit like calligraphy on grass. In the 54th minute, a move on the left flank saw Arsenal almost sign their second goal off in style.
A loose touch from Lindelöf saw a ghosting Mesut Özil apparate and play the ball to Lacazette inside the box, who with his back to goal lays it back to an onrushing Granit Xhaka. By this time Lacazette took up a central position in the box devoid of any markers. Iwobi, now in Lacazette’s earlier position, received the ball from Xhaka and duly squared it off to a free Lacazette, who rifled the ball into the left corner. He raised his hands to celebrate and it stayed there only to grasp his head instead.
A low-lunging David de Gea’s right hand parried the ball, but into the waiting maws of Alexis Sanchez. Then, while still down, de Gea’s back shot up like the spine of a bullwhip and met Sanchez’s full-blooded drive with the studs of his right boot. This time the ball ballooned to the touchline to the left, 30 yards away. Such was the power behind the shot.
Miracles aren’t a premium if you are Manchester United.
The earliest intervention came in the 19th minute when a misguided nod from Matic was headed on by Xhaka in the box. It met the toe of a horizontal Lacazette, only to be thwarted at point-blank by de Gea’s standing feet.
In the 32nd minute, two pin-ball deflections off United defenders carried the ball to Lacazette who was making headway cutting in along the goal line. He waited for de Gea to commit, but the goalkeeper stood tall, closing his angles. A forced shot struck a left-diving de Gea on the chest and looped onto the top bar.
Soon enough, in the 44th minute de Gea had both his angles tested. First, by a 25-yard rasper from Arsenal full-back Bellerin from the left, and then an awkward bouncing equidistant shot from the boots of Arsenal’s left full-back, Sead Kolašinac.
Keeping with the theme, it came as little surprise when David de Gea even contrived to save a half-shot from Romelu Lukaku – his own team-mate.
A free kick from Sanchez aimed at the far post hit the Manchester United striker’s inner knee as he was attempting a spectacular-but-ill-advised aerial clearance. David dived knee-height to his left to palm it away. What followed was a melee of desperate feet trying to hack the ball further upfield, a turned-down hand-ball appeal on Lindelof, and Arsene Wenger strangling a bottle of Evian mineral water.
Manchester United and David de Gea played like they had the devil’s own hand on their shoulder.
These two clubs have met 226 times since the days they were called Newton Heath and Woolwich Arsenal. Familiarity has bred contempt, but there is a lesson to be learnt by Arsenal. A lesson in retaining your best players.
Arsenal FC of today suffer from a lack of legend.
Legend has it, Látigo’s whip was prayed over by pious elders and subjected to ancient Spanish devilry. It would outdraw the quickest of Colts, even in the closest quarters. With it, he fended off British and French bounty hunters, the Canadian coureres de bois, and Latin outlaws from his land.
Látigo may have never existed. But if he did, he housed in a one-room log cabin in the twilight of the Wild West, where the sun goes to set and heroes ride into. He tied cans and bottles to string for miles and miles around his cabin outpost. Whenever a prey or a prospector was nearby, he would know. He’d receive them with his whip.
Manchester United, however, has a legend of their own to look forward to.