Football runs on narrative cycles as much as anything else in sport, culture, or life. We ride the troughs as best as we can and enjoy the crests because we know they won’t last. The good news is there is always the next game. The bad news is, well, there is always the next game. What side of the divide you fall on is determined by where your football club is within its own current narrative.
Arsenal versus Manchester United. Both teams with new managers, albeit not under the same circumstances or for the same duration. Both clubs searching to cement a new identity moving forward; a sustainable future without the last great manager to give them success and longevity. One, coming off the heady back of his team achieving the improbable in Europe; the other, well, let’s just say his team seems to be taking a few steps back for every three steps taken forward.
Unai Emery’s team had found themselves on a 22-match unbeaten run very early on in the new manager’s time in North London. A combination of fresh ideas, some very good performances, and also the shiny luck of the new. Going into today’s game at the Emirates, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were undefeated in domestic competitions (a run of nine games) and undefeated away from home in all competitions. The caretaker manager was responsible for an emphatic resurgence following the departure of Jose Mourinho; one that you had to admire even if you weren’t a Red Devil purely for the unexpected quality of the beautiful game.
What is the point of any of this, you ask? Well, big games are always subject to more of a narrative than the others over the course of the season. We are, after all, storytellers, creators and consumers, all of us playing each of these roles, sometimes at the same time. The stage for today’s match between Arsenal and Manchester United was set–top four in the balance, bragging rights to a fierce rivalry with lots of history, and manager narratives.
More often than you can count, such eagerly hyped matches end up as drab stalemates. Not today. Unai Emery got it spot on with a gutsy team selection, playing all his best offensive players together, something he had said didn’t fit his system. The press and the counter-attack made a welcome return, showing glimpses of the philosophy the man from Basque country wishes to inculcate. It may not be as free-flowing as his predecessor’s, but oh when it clicks, it’s beautiful. And, of course, it helps to have a keeper who is coming into his own, a captain who has already put his body on the line for this club, a striker pair who genuinely love and respect each other, and a sense of camaraderie that warms this much-burned Gooner Girl’s heart.
Statistics can be misleading whether taken out of context or incorrectly compared, but after this win, Arsenal have 12 points more than they did after 30 league games last season, and, this is the crucial difference, we have 10 points at home against our big-six rivals this season (12 overall). We have to go back all the way to the 2007-08 season for the total to be bettered. And that is one of the biggest positives for Arsenal this season.
One of the (valid) concerns in the second half of Arsene Wenger’s tenure was the lack of bottle at home against top sides. There would be glimpses, the odd fighting result, but the fragile mentality in these fixtures was endemic long before the end. Unai, not always inspired confidence in this debut Arsenal season, has injected some much-needed grit, effort and heart for these big games, complemented by the right formation (and mostly perfect substitutes) tailored to the opponent. Pressing is what the new manager promised in his first press conference and it had made its absence felt recently, whether through unfortunate injuries necessitating awkward reshuffling or just a plain lack of a cohesive identity. The draw to Liverpool, the comeback against Spurs, and today’s victory against Manchester United who had all the momentum–the common denominator was the team’s willingness to press as a unit, to tackle, to harry the opposition when they had possession, and to counter when they got it back. And yes, luck always plays a factor in these games, but everyone knows it doesn’t always go to the deserving team, so you take it when you get it.
Today, with their ninth consecutive home win, on a weekend where all of their immediate rivals dropped points, Arsenal leapfrogged United into the top 4. They have wrapped up all of their top-six games for the season and a bid for Champions League qualification for the first time in three years is well within their grasp. That said, they must now turn their attention to Thursday’s home game versus Rennes in the Europa League quarter-finals, where they face a 1-3 deficit.
Unai Emery, in his post-Utd presser, urged a controlling of emotions and a focus on consistency. “We must be calm, be patient, and continue improving.” I am the first to say that there is much work to be done (for one, our form away from home, whether against top teams, or otherwise, has been lacking, not to mention the Jekyll-Hyde nature of our defense), but we always knew this transition would take time. What matters is that tangible progress is being made. That’s all a fan can ever ask for, wherever they find their club in its current narrative cycle.
For Ole and the contingent from Old Trafford, their response to the first dent in the euphoria and belief surrounding the club under his tenure will dictate the rest of their season, where they are still competing in Europe and the FA Cup with a squad that is distinctly creaking under injuries. Top-flight football, as everyone knows, twists and turns on the finest of margins. We ride the troughs as best as we can and enjoy the crests because we know they won’t last. There is always the next game…and the next season.