The Plight of The Swans.

The story broke nationally earlier that a fracas, accessorized street-gangster-stylee, had broken out on a Premier League training ground yesterday. Allegedly in this case we’re talking full-on foaming low-brow lunacy – i.e. ragamuffin with brick – as opposed to gold-toothed sophistohoodlum with diamond-encrusted firearm. Whilst this may arguably endow the event with a kind of old-school bunch-of-fives credibility, the whole shebang seems particularly absurd when traced to its geographic location – Swansea FC.

Prior to this un-Swansea outrage, the feeling has been that a side built in the dreamboat image of their manager have absolutely led the way as the most civil painters of precious doodles, or as makers of footie-as-sculpture, turning that theoretically dull, flat space (the pitch!) into kinetic, smoothly sensual linkages. If that makes them sound more like a love-object than a togger team, then so be it. Laudrup has developed the inherited football culture and this sense that material has been skilfully – artfully? – tweaked and moulded persists. Then they started getting beat. Then they started reaching for bricks – allegedly.

Suddenly and darkly, there’s the danger of tragedy interloping, via a) some geezer getting badly hurt b) The Swans going into unthinkably graceless free-fall. Even for neutrals, this is not happy territory.

It figures, of course, that any bitterness between Chico Flores and the former skipper Garry Monk will be appropriated from now ’til the end of the season as the sign – the moment – when the Swans terminal dance began. ‘Course they’re arguing – because the club is full of prima donnas!’ That may be the reaction from the cynics and from Cardiff, should the weeks claw away and the battle for survival harden. Personally I hope and trust that they will play their way out of this but the obvious argument against –that a team so apparently obsessed with football of the choicest kind may be less well-equipped than say Sam Allardyce’s mob to battle – rings true enough to worry us purists. But say it anyway; Swansea are good for the Prem and they deserve to do their classy lil’ thing.

Meanwhile t’other Welsh relegation contenders – also now led by a Scandinavian, remarkably – already sit in the bottom three. Despite some signs of encouragement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew were ultimately duffed up 4-2 at The Etihad, by a Manchester City side who look both profoundly capable and ready to take the title this year. Solskjaer will have to really work some restorative magic to keep his team afloat – they look rather cruelly short of quality all around the pitch – but he seems a good sort and both realistic about what may be necessary and up for the challenge. Critical may be who he, as a name, can bring in.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, is in sky-blue clover. Money has bought successive City regimes everything a manager could dream of but this one has shown the wit and the authority to corral the extravagant forces available. To the extent that they are now, unquestionably, amongst the elite handful of clubs chasing the pigs bladder anywhere.

Although it may be possible to imagine that amongst his brilliant mercenaries lack of loyalty for the club badge might cause the occasional blip in the next year or four, City seem perdy close to impregnable and should Aguerro or Toure depart elite replacements are no doubt, for this empire of the nouveau riche, buyable. The question then may be more about how prominent or even dominant might City be – and over how long a period – rather than whether they pip Arsenal or Chelsea this time round.

Down at The Emirates, the other birdlike senior presides over another fabulous and indeed intriguingly classically Gooniferous phenomenon. The perennial Norf Landun storyline, featuring dashed attractive football and an inevitable falling short is again emerging as the business end approaches. Only this time the falling has missed its reassuringly early cue so that we can’t quite be sure (can we? Can we?) that Wenger and co will again be damned to disappointment.

In fact a delicious tension is beginning to unwind, given the actual possibility that Arsenal may be in it to the death, as it were. Where once we had the certainty of failure, we now have something that twinkles with possibilities – something life-affirming, something which teases – and I for one think that’s great.

Okay on balance the brutal truth remains that the bulk of us fear recent history will again repeat; that because of the goddamn inviolability of Mourinho’s Chelsea and the power and depth available to Pellegrini, Arsenal will be undone. If like me you understand Arsenal/The Wenger Project as a worthier, more genuine and longer lasting investment than either of the other two candidates, that does seem unnecessarily cruel. However, a couple of things strike me;

  1. The Arsenal are far from hanging on in there in this title race – they are playing with too much zest and purpose for that.
  2. The Premier League run-in will be a far richer and more exciting place should Wenger’s side remain competitive to the last.

I say two candidates. And this is both disrespectful to Liverpool and contradicts my oft-repeated esteem for their gaffer, Brendan Rodgers. The former Swansea man has invented something so threatening at Liverpool that the Scousers have re-found their roar as well as their lust for the title. Rarely is the incongruously lame phrase that ‘anything is possible’ more appropriate than in the case of this Anfield side, where the world’s most deadly player and his medium tasty English sidekick do have the potential to radically unpick the wider narrative… only to find themselves (let’s say) two-down home to Villa after 40-odd minutes.

Rodger’s Liverpool can and will beat almost anyone on merit on any given day and can even go on the kind of run that snowballs towards glory. But, honestly… I don’t quite see them as Champions. His squad is palpably less impressive than Pellegrini’s in particular and the ‘Pool defence (and keeper?) is just too ordinary. Suarez-led, they have lit up the league; whether this claim is undermined by the Uruguayan’s propensity or ability (you call it) to gain free-kicks or penalties is, whichever way you judge it, one of the issues of the season.

Spurs, Everton and Manchester United are not contenders for the title; they must target Champions League Football instead. United, as always, draw the most coverage – just not here – where the subject is essentially top… Wales… and bottom.

Advertisements

What it is with The Gooners.

Okay, so here’s the context and the central beef. Arsenal have been criminally non-durable for years; which is why we all doubt them. Wenger’s beautiful but psychotic purism has left them vulnerable to the memory of boggy pitches, the assumption of intimidation, or real-world Bigger Blokes or teams playing with simply more passion. In an ideal scenario perhaps a Gooner title triumph might elevate the lot of us… but the bulk of us still suspect this is contingent on the absence of (say) Tony Pulis and Cheik Tiote from the Prem landscape. Because if the level of inspiration dips at all, that seductive, metronomic not to say metrosexual heartlessness of Arsenal is just not enough; we know that. Like we knew The Arsenal came up to the Etihad early in crunch-month, with games against principal rivals rammed together. This is tough – like life.

But Arsenal’s perennial weediness kindof gets on our nerves, right? How can it be that they remain, so endlessly, a side unprepared for inevitable, sinewy, earthbound onslaughthood? How can that flaw persist so? Through year after year of more or less successful butterfly meadows later sprayed out. Wenger, to his credit and to his detriment and ‘midst the gnashing of our teeth, produces teams that will not set their sights so low as to block or to crunch or to stifle with physical oomph when they need to –that’s all we ask! They look to outplay the opposition only.

Look he knows – we’ve been telling him for years – that in this bitterly anti-meritocratic universe that ‘quality’ alone ain’t enough; sadly. He may even know (but not accept) that the result of the Arsenal Concept’s near-perfect one-dimensionalism is there will be a slide into capitulation (to generally lesser talents) and that it’s looming now. Six weeks, maybe, in which that lead at the top is swallowed up and the likes of Ramsey return to planet ordinary. And we watch as the mood music changes, as Arsene turns from the pitch again, exasperated, cut further by the sheer unfairness of everything, the anti-perfectness, the No Santa-ness, his Arsenal shot down by a sequence of either worthy and slightly unfortunate defeats and/or that dispiriting leakage of points to opponents that might a month ago have been imperiously (or should that be impishly?) dismissed.

Naturally then, after an emphatic win for City, in a pret-ty fabulous game that Arsenal, as always, contributed to generously, the odds have shortened on this Wenger trauma revisiting. For me their chief real-life weakness today concerned the failure to press the ball around the 35 yard mark. (Mind you, City weren’t much better at this.) Despite the presence of Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere, City had abundant time to play heads up football – to pick their runs, their passes – as they faced the Gooner defence. Toure and Nasri and Silva are all half-decent; you don’t need to be giving them time and space to consider things. And if Zabaleta ends up with acres to race into… lookout. This stuff happened, infuriatingly commonly for the Arsenal bench.

From early in the game City were allowed some comfort where for me it should have been denied. Without the ball, Arsenal dropped into two banks – midfield at about thirty yards out and Mertesacker’s posse on the eighteen yard line; give or take. It might have been nerves but for me they looked worryingly slightly like England in World Cup mode – faux resistant, unconvincingly solid – deep. Like England, they let the opposition play. Whilst this undeniably led to a hugely entertaining game – and some well-constructed goals – the policy of late (or non-)intervention demonstrably failed. Maybe the predictability of the concessions brought out the miserablist in me; I found myself forever tweeting about dreadful defending rather than glorious attacking. (Shit! Did I just sound like Alan Hansen and Morrissey in the same paragraph?!? HANG ME. Irrespective of whether I have a point on this…)

But lest I inadvertently take too much away from City a sentence or two about them – and their incontrovertible topness. Firstly – hey – they put six past Arsenal.  Secondly, they are surely the best-equipped side in the league – by some distance, perhaps – though this may not necessarily be reflected in the stats come the end of the season. They have that sureness, in particular going into the final third, where an intimidating mixture of power and movement is often irresistible and proved so again today. Thirty-five goals in eight home games is absurdly good going.

Aguero is close to sublime every week, Toure is often unplayable, Silva (even at 70% capacity) just class. And with Zabaleta unzipping defences on his own – nominally, from right back – no wonder they are pulverising anybody foolish enough to turn up at the Etihad. I expect this dominance to convert soon enough into stronger away form and for City to go on and win the Premiership –chased home, I imagine by Chelsea rather than Liverpool… with the Arsenal somewhere behind… (inevitably.)

Perhaps fair (to the other home keeper) to mention that the home keeper was Pants today and also that City like Arsenal were hardly error-free in their own half. But Pellegrini’s boys are candidates alright – not just for the Prem but at European level. So tangible was their superiority that it’s truly hard to imagine that they could finish behind Arsenal come May.

Further notes from the Arsenal angle might include reflections on Walcott and Wilshere. The former was often ineffectual or absent then scored his second with a fabulous curled stroke for the far corner; the latter is buzzing less productively currently and was I think guilty of an offensive sign to the opposition support. Up front Giroud – who, for me has received lashings of praise more for being present in the line-up than being brilliant in it – was mixed again and Ramsey has understandably returned to mortal levels. Ozil jogged round.

On the plus side Arsenal rallied bravely after the catastrophic third goal had been conceded but the necessary withdrawal of Flamini left them increasingly open to counter… not ideal against the free-running Nasri and a Toure with licence. The Southern Softies had little luck with borderline calls from the officials but City simply had bigger and better gears with which to travel and they travelled with ominous purpose.

So, after a Match of The Season So Far which really probably was match of the season so far… this. Just as we feared or imagined. A Christmas unravelling and a statement of intent. The Wenger stocking still needs filling (as it were) with urgent physicality, whilst the Pellegrini equivalent looks short of very little. Unlucky, unlucky Arsenal.