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Bodø/Glimt, the most northerly opponent (67°16′57.72″N – thanks, bt8) we have ever faced in our long, though less than appropriately decorated history of European competition, pitched up at the Grove on a mild autumn evening for our second game in Europa League Group A. Their short history and recently highly successful playing style have been detailed in Dr F’s exquisitely researched match preview which I commend, even in retrospect, if you haven’t read it. Before kick-off, Bodø sat top of the group with 4 points from their first two games. The Arsenal are tucked in behind them in second place after our solitary match to date against Zurich. A win in tonight’s game would give us a measure of control of the group after only two games.

There was much pre-match speculation about Arsenal fielding a heavily rotated starting XI for this match, given the 9 matches scheduled for October and particularly with Sunday’s looming match against the Mugsmashers. Verily, the boss rang a series of changes but retained the first XI spine of Gabriel, Xhaka and Martinelli. Those two Brazilians had been able to rest during the recent Interlull while our new Mr Reliable, Granit Xhaka has made himself undroppable. Turner came in for Ramsdale in goal and our first-choice fullbacks from last season, Tomiyasu and Tierney returned to flank the previously familiar combination of Holding and Gabriel at centre back. Vieira came in again at ‘8’ for Ødegaard, despite the latter’s Norwegian connection while Lokonga got another opportunity to strut his stuff in Thomas Partey’s role in deep midfield. Up front we got another chance to see the exciting Marquinos on the right, with local boy Nketiah leading the line flanked by another Brazilian, Martinelli, on his left. Uncontroversially, Xhaka was captain. The calvary (© North Bank Ned) were on the bench.

Arsenal began by stroking the ball around deep midfield as if to draw the Glimters out before themselves initiating a high press. An early attack resulted in a driving run by Nketiah but his shot sailed past the far post then a high ball from the left was taken down well by Vieira in the box but his pass was cut out. There suddenly seemed to be lots of space to run into and Nketiah took the opportunity to run through the Bodø midfield to shoot wide from the edge of the box. Bodø, for their part, showed a willingness to commit players forward. Their winger Mvuka briefly looked dangerous racing down our left but was dispossessed easily as he cut inside. After 7 minutes there was an alarm as Vieira went down clutching his foot after a stamp by a defender but he resumed the field and promptly hit the bar after a neat turn and volley in the box from a deflected cut back from Tierney. 

After ten minutes Arsenal’s early surge seemed to abate. Bodø then showed their predicted high press and possession game, dispossessing first Xhaka then Martinelli in midfield but without threatening Turner’s goal on either occasion. In reply, Arsenal regained the initiative but Xhaka’s curving cross from the left sailed out for a throw-in with no one attacking the far post. Meanwhile the Bodø support spent much of the first half jumping up and down – presumably a Pavlovian response to generate warmth after finding themselves in a football ground despite the 14 degree ambient temperature!

A period of Arsenal pressure, as we came towards 20 minutes, enlivened the home crowd who finally woke up and were briefly vocal though a couple of penetrative surges down the left came to naught despite a spill from the keeper as he cut out a low cross. A lob from the left by Martinelli was then beautifully trapped by Marquinos in the box but he promptly ran into a defender and lost the ball. Shortly after that disappointment, Martinelli picked up the ball centrally, dribbled through their midfield and passed to Tierney on the left of the box. Tierney’s firm strike hit the far post and rebounded for Nketiah to make a difficult shot look easy as, under pressure from a defender, he found the back of the net from near the penalty spot.

1-0 to the Arsenal (Nketiah, 23)

Marquinos had frequently been getting joy from pressurising the Bodø left back and another challenge broke to Vieira whose run into the box unfortunately took him too close to the keeper. The resultant corner taken by Vieira from the right was headed away but only to Vieira who had rushed out to meet it and jinked past a defender to curl a beautiful left-footed ball into the box for Holding to head firmly inside the Bodø keeper’s right-hand post.

2-0 to the Arsenal (Holding, 27)

We then sat back and allowed Bodø a spell of possession during which they moved the ball around silkily but failed to penetrate our back four. Our comfortable scoreline encouraged a hitherto somewhat taciturn crowd to vocalisation and a round of Tequila/Saliba was forthcoming.

A Bodø defender handballed on the edge of their box as he tried to block a penetrative move involving Vieira and Nketiah giving Arsenal a freekick in a very good position. That freekick was rolled sideways by Vieira to Xhaka who fired the ball towards the far top corner forcing the Bodø keeper to tip it over his bar. Tierney then drove into the Bodø penalty area after a back heel from Xhaka but fired the ball wide. Shortly afterwards Nketiah dispossessed a centre back but failed to score as he ran in on the keeper.

After 37 minutes, a Glimter with the name of an Italian mineral water had a shot at goal that sailed well wide. Marquinos then showed him how to do it but his shot on target was deflected over. By 40 it was clear we were enjoying ourselves and were doing to Bodø what their coach had claimed they would do to us – we had possession and we pressed high. Xhaka was then carded for handball preventing a Glimter taking it past him as he lay on the ground after a challenge. A few seconds later, Xhaka cut the ball back to Vieira on the edge of the box but his sweet left-footed shot curled past the post. 

As half time approached we were sitting back with a low block, wingers alongside the fullbacks, a bank of three in front of the back four and looking very solid. 

HT: Arsenal 2 Bodø/Glimt 0

Although we were worth our half time lead, we were by no means imperious in that first half and didn’t control the flow of the game. Instead we conceded considerable periods of possession and initiative to the opponent. However, Bodó’s failure to threaten Turner’s goal in the first half contrasted with our clear threat in front of goal suggesting that there might be a gulf in class between the two teams. Bodø’s football in possession was pretty but their moves always seemed to break down against our defensive line. 

The Arsenal players began the second half as if Arteta had put a rocket up them. Martinelli dribbled past two defenders as he ran along the bye line and cut the ball back to Xhaka who struck a firm shot on goal that was parried by the keeper towards Nketiah who could only direct his header wide. Then seconds later, Nketiah closed down the keeper who just managed to clear a back pass. However, Arsenal’s early threat proved ephemeral. At the other end a back pass from Holding gave a Glimter of hope but Turner cleared it reasonably comfortably.

A Bodø forward then gave Turner the opportunity to catch the ball with their first shot on target. Berg then ran unchallenged from their half all the way to the edge of our box where he laid the ball off to another Glimter whose shot curved past the far post as another Glimter failed to connect. Bodø came forward again after sloppy possession in midfield and Saltnes shot over our bar. Turner then got down well to a Pellegrino shot in the box that had passed through a forest of legs. Arsenal’s early aggression had faded and our energy seemed to have dissipated. In those first ten minutes of the second half we had given the Glimters too much encouragement.

We were looking distinctly second best as 57 minutes rang up. This game was only going in one direction and action was required. Arteta promptly replaced Martinelli with Jesús, Xhaka with Ødegaard and Saka replaced Marquinos. The substitutions had an immediate energising effect and we began to regain and retain possession.

Nonetheless this remained more of a contest than the first half had been. A free kick wide left in their half for Arsenal was botched and led to another Bodø breakaway attack that was happily smothered. Our midfield now seemed easier to run through than it had been – no Partey and now no Xhaka? Mercifully, their breakaways still tended to fizzle out as they met out back line but on one occasion it was Jesús who made the critical challenge in our box. As the ¾ point came up, Bodø were again dominating possession but happily, still without too much threat. However, it felt that if they got a goal, we would have to survive a very nervy last few minutes. On 69 minutes a flagging Tierney was replaced by Benjamin White and Tomiyasu switched to left back.

A neat move up the left by Bodø led to a centrally directed ball to a forward whose shot cleared our bar before the flag went up for offside. On 72 minutes Solbakken and another Glimter replaced Mvuka and another Glimter. Arsenal responded with a nice run inside from Saka whose ball found Jesús but his instant return from the left was cut out before it reached the onrushing Saka. On 75 minutes, our brilliant number 7 took a hefty kick that left him limping for several minutes. Fortunately, he appeared to run it off. At this point it felt as if we were just trying to see this game out at 2-0. Turner showed his aerial ability firmly clutching a high ball from a Pellegrino free kick and to be fair had competently dealt with the ball at his feet all match.

A now rare flash from Arsenal saw a lovely through ball from Ødegaard to Nketiah to take him behind the Bodø defence but his shot sailed wildly over the bar. On 81 minutes, Nketiah was replaced by Nelson who made his first appearance in 14 months. Jesús moved from the left flank into his usual central position. 

Arsenal then appeared to wake up!

A beautiful mazy dribble along the bye line by Jesús who had received a ball in the wide left position from a throw-in, mesmerised several Glimt defenders and as he approached the keeper’s right-hand post he cut the ball back perfectly to Vieira who struck it first time with his left peg high into the net. 

3-0 Arsenal, Vieira 84

Jesús then set Nelson free on the left but his shot from the edge of the box was deflected for a corner. Gabriel headed the ball over from the resulting corner.

A swift and fluid move out of defence with passes from White to Ødegaard to Nelson finished with a cross from Nelson to Vieira who was quickly closed down by a couple of Glimters.

In added time, Holding had to hook the ball off the line to preserve the clean sheet after a pass from Pellegrino had found its way to Saltnes inside our six-yard box near Turner’s right-hand post. His shot was pushed upwards by Turner but span goalwards before Holding’s second critical contribution.

The game drew to a close with Jesús making a driving run from the left along the edge of the box, laying the ball off for nice interplay on the right between White, Lokonga, Saka and Ødegaard. The latter chipped the ball towards Nelson running into the box but his effort from the edge of the 6-yard box was blocked by a diving defender. The referee blew for time as a Saka breakaway ended with a heavy touch on the half-way line.

FT Arsenal 3, Bodø/Glimt 0

Three excellent goals, each with an outstanding assist, saw a team that rarely run out together claim a deserved victory over the piece. No-one had a poor game. It was just not as silky and free flowing as the first XI have made us come to expect. Caviar and sausages, as Arsene might observe. For me, Vieira was man of the match. We will see more of that silky left peg.

Yet this was one of those games of two halves. Despite several periods of silky possession, Bodø were distinctly second best in the first half and while we hadn’t exactly dominated the game, at half time it seemed possible that the second half might be a canter against a clearly inferior outfit. However, Bodø seemed a different outfit in the second half and dominated possession until the latter stages. Our second-string players seemed unable to rise to the challenge when Bodø began to assert themselves in that second half and the early appearance of Jesús, Ødegaard and Saka was essential to restore energy and competitiveness to see out the challenge. That second half suggests that we are in for a frosty experience when we visit the Arctic Circle next week.

We can safely say that unlike Grieg, Ibsen, Munch, Hamsun or in relatively more modern times Liv Ullman (a personal favorite), Jo Nesbø (a Goonerholics’ community favorite) or Magnus Carlsen, the Arctic harbor town of Bodø is not something by which Norwegians are likely to introduce their country.  With a population of less than 50,000, this town, one of the northernmost in the world, is not something your regular tourist to Norway may plan on visiting. However, like many such apparently nondescript places in the world under the surface of the quotidian, you can find stories and facts by which to remember it. 

One such fact I found is that it is the only city inside the Arctic Circle to have a temperate four-season climate, with highest and lowest recorded temperatures being 30.7 Celsius and -18.5 Celsius. For a Bostonian that’s a temperate range indeed. Dear reader, if this fact doesn’t impress you enough to stamp its presence in your memory forever (or at least until the next drink) you should definitely be able to remember the diplomatic scandal of the “Bodø Affair” from 1818 that rocked the then dual monarchy of Sweden-Norway over an English company engaged in – not an entirely unusual phenomenon in those days — illegal trading in Bodø and creating lasting disharmony between the different populations of the country. 

Then there is the football club, FK Bodø/Glimt, who having been formed 106 years ago, have only recently started to experience sustained success in the context of the entire country though they had always been one of the strongest teams in the Northern Norway set-up. Whereas Norway’s domestic top tier league started in 1937, being called Norgesserien back then, the first participation of Bodø/Glimt came in 1963, in the third division. They eventually earned promotion to the first division in 1977. Since then, except for a sustained period in the second and third divisions between 1981 to 1992, and some other relegations in between, they have mostly played in Norway’s top tier – now called the Eliteserien, having been the Tippeligaen until 2016 – winning the domestic top league for the first time in 2020, and then again last season in 2021. Currently in the 2022 Eliteserien, after the end of the 24th match out of 30, Bodø/Glimt is sandwiched in second place between Rosenborg and Molde, the two more traditional superpowers of Norway’s domestic football, trailing 15 points behind Molde. 

As domestic league champions, Bodø did qualify as a potential group candidate for the 2022-23 Champions League, and made good progress all the way up to the final play-off round – defeating Faroese, Northern Irish and Lithuanian champions along the way – only to lose out to Dinamo Zagreb. Last year also saw their greatest European success, going all the way to the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League, losing out to the eventual champions, Roma. Right now, they are standing tall at the top of Europa League Group A, having beaten FC Zurich 2-1 at home after a 1-1 draw away at PSV Eindhoven in the opening week, when Arsenal beat Zurich 2-1 away at Switzerland thanks to goals by Eddie Nketiah and the debutant Brazilian Marquinhos. Not having played in the second week, Arsenal is catching up from the second position in the group, albeit with one game in hand.    

FK Bodø/Glimt was named as FK Glimt when being formed in 1916, “Glimt” in Norwegian translates to “flash”, and their home kit is all yellow. It does conjure up images of a fast, high-pressing team with rapid movements on and off the ball, but it is the boys in the resplendent red-and-white that we hope will be upon the opposition in a flash, sending chilly Arctic waves of fear and trembling down their footballing spine, and sending them back with memories of wonderful hospitality away from the match, contrasted with memories of being completely dominated for the ninety minutes. I think topping the group should be a non-negotiable goal for Arsenal, to avoid having to play a Champions League group stage third-placed team to progress further in Europa. 

Arsenal has met clubs from Norway only on three occasions during many years of European campaigns: defeating Strømsgodset  (if you didn’t know, that is where our captain Martin Ødegaard started his senior career at the age of 15)  away 1-3 and home 4-0 in the old European Cup second round in 1971, drawing away with Rosenborg 1-1 and then beating them 5-1 at home in the 04/05 CL group stage, and just a couple of years back beating Molde 4-1 at the Emirates before losing away 0-3 at the group stage of the 20/21 Europa. A couple of victories against this year’s Norwegian opponents in consecutive weeks would set us up nicely to finish at the top of the group. 

However, it will not be easy. Bodø is a high energy possession-based team, playing in an attacking 4-3-3 format, and they produced some impressive performances in Europe last year, in addition to winning their domestic league. This season, even though they have underachieved compared to last season’s high watermark, they are still unbeaten in the group and will play with enough confidence. I found this tactical analysis – done earlier in the summer when the Norway domestic leagues were in full flight – about how their performances this season have dropped off compared to last season, and it is worth a read, if only to familiarize yourself with the team and their style:

 https://totalfootballanalysis.com/team-analysis/bodo-glimt-2022-their-struggles-this-season-tactical-analysis-tactics .

They try to push the opposition in deeper blocks and focus on keeping a 4-3-3 structure in the opposition’s half. They depend on their trademark counter-pressing to avoid being exposed to fast transitions, but against high quality oppositions who are willing to move up and take risks with the tactical security of technically strong players, the lack of pace in their backline is exploitable. 

Ødegaard is such a strong technical player and it might be tempting for Mikel to start him against his fellow Norwegians, pushing the versatile Vieira to play the Martinelli role, as ESR is out at least until the season resumes at the end of the World Cup. However, I think with Reiss being fully fit and a key weekend match against Liverpool looming on the horizon, and given Vieria’s own technical abilities, he would select this starting eleven:    

Turner

Tomiyasu – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney

Vieira – Lokonga – Xhaka

Marquinhos – Nketiah – Nelson 

With Lokonga playing a little deeper than the nominal 4-3-3 might suggest. Ødegaard, Martinelli, Saka, Jesús, Saliba, Partey and Zinchenko should all be on the bench as an insurance policy, in addition to the smattering of academy hopefuls. 

If we can find an early rhythm and convert some of our initial chances, we should be able to win comfortably. I am hoping for a 3-1 victory. 

Come on Arsenal!

On a glorious autumn afternoon in North London Arsenal destroyed Tottenham in a one-sided contest which Arsenal dominated for the vast majority of the game. Trev’s excellent preview alluded to the defeat in early May which was so damaging to our morale and our Champions League aspirations. There were questions asked about our mental resilience and Tottnumb fans crowed about the gap between us.

So, this game was played in a feverish atmosphere. I suspect other Gooners shared my nervousness before the game and during it I suspect my blood pressure was unhealthily high – at least until about the 70th minute. Arsenal have an excellent record at home against the Spuds and started with high intensity pushing the Spuds back continually. Martinelli and Saka were bright as buttons on the flank whilst Partey and Xhaka dominated midfield where our extra man threw into doubt the wisdom of the way Conte set up his team. Martinelli and Xhaka went close but the first big chance fell to the away team with Richarlison getting first to a cross with an untidy scuffed shot. Ramsdale saved well but I suspect Richarlison was offside.

White and Xhaka went reasonably close and then Arsenal took the lead with a superb and uplifting goal. The ball was rolled across the box after a 22 pass move and Partey swung his right foot 20 yards out. We’ve seen this movie many times before and it never ends well, in fact it usually ends high up behind the goal! This time was different! The ball swerved beautifully high into the top right corner and Arsenal had a deserved lead. 

Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0 (Partey, 19 minutes) 

So far, Tottenham had been playing in what the commentators called ‘transition’. To my untutored eye they were playing long-ball football and relying on the pace and power of their front three. Call me a cynical Arsenal fan but I could see no difference between this unattractive, rather random approach and those of Mourinho and Espírito Santo. Nevertheless, football is neither fair or inclined to award the spoils automatically to the more aesthetically beautiful or cohesive side and we all started to fear that Arsenal’s very high-octane offensive approach might leave them short of cover if Tottnumb managed a breakaway. 

The referee, Anthony Taylor, was letting the game flow and appreciating the context of a derby that was fiercely contested but never malicious. I thought Romero might have been booked for a foul on Jesús but the referee was pretty consistent. Arsenal were starting to concede space out wide which the Marshdwellers’ wingbacks could exploit. Emerson Royal seemed manifestly incapable of doing this but Perisic fired wide when he had a decent chance on the left-hand side of the area. 

Then it happened! Arsenal were caught out by a Tottenham break but their loose passing looked to have lost them their chance. Saliba produced a superb clearing header which (in his only mistake of the game) Xhaka miscontrolled and Richarlison was brought down quite clearly by an impetuous Gabriel. It was a clear penalty and Harry Kane (who gets plenty of practice taking spot-kicks in the North London Derby) fired it down the middle to equalize. 

Arsenal 1 Tottnumb 1 (Kane penalty, 30 minutes) 

A far post Kane header when he might have done better on 37 minutes was straight at Ramsdale and the suspicion was growing that Tottenham were taking control. Jesus lifted the pessimism with a brilliant dribble and close- range shot and a minute later our mercurial striker produced a fine piece of defensive play dispossessing Richarlison near our box. The question might be asked why he was back there doing that job but his work rate is phenomenal and it was a very important intervention. Neither Højbjerg or Bentancur are creative players and Tottnumb’s play was still very different in style to Arsenal’s but the presence of three international goalscorers was a concern as the interval approached. Half-time arrived with a feeling that Arsenal had lost momentum and that the Spuds might have sucked some of the life out of Arsenal’s verve and creativity.

Half-time: Arsenal 1 Tottnumb 1 

If Arsenal supporters felt deflated at the interval, it was clear as soon as the second half began that Arsenal were determined to regain their momentum. Jesús felt he had a good claim for a penalty ignored by the referee but a couple of minutes later his frustrations disappeared as Saka cut in past three defenders and fired in a fierce left foot shot. Lloris blocked Saka’s shot but the ball hit Romero and bounced back to him. Lloris then dived over the ball and Jesus pounced getting around behind him to run the ball into the net. 

Arsenal 2 Tottnumb 1 (Jesús, 47)

If Brazil can afford to ignore Jesús for their World Cup squad they are either richly blessed or their manager is an idiot. The fact that he prefers Richarlison may suggest that the latter conclusion is the right one! Jesús’ speed, touch and physicality caused all three of the Tottnumb defenders major headaches although he missed a good chance on 52 minutes.

Tottnumb started to get more possession and Højbjerg missed a decent chance on 59 minutes failing to emulate Partey in a similar position. Arsenal were now again clearly the better side and the main reason was the quality of Partey, Xhaka and Ødegaard in midfield.Tottnumb were not looking able to control the game but their speed on the  break was always a worry.

Then came five minutes that irrevocably changed the game. On 61 minutes, on our left wing around halfway, Royal aimed a malicious challenge at Martinelli raking his studs along the back of his leg. Anthony Taylor hesitated momentarily before brandishing a straight red card. It was the correct decision and underlined not only the relative hopelessness of the Tottnumb cause but also the mediocrity of a player that was an alternative option for us when we signed Tomayisu. Strike one for Edu! (Bloody Edu!) 

Arsenal needed to find a third goal to put the game to bed and did so five minutes later when sustained pressure inside the penalty area saw the ball transferred to our new attacking sensation (Xhaka!) and he thumped the ball home for his first NLD goal. It was richly deserved after another brilliant performance in this wide left role.

Arsenal 3 Tottnumb 1 (Xhaka, 67 minutes)

Conte is very much a creature of habit and decided to make five changes (four in one go). That two of them involved Son and Richarlison going off, suggested that his priority was respectability rather a glorious revival. The rest of the game was played largely in and around the Spuds’ box and Arsenal looked likely to increase the score most notably when Tierney, on for Zinchenko, hit a terrific left foot shot well saved by Lloris on 89 minutes. Partey, Jesús, Ødegaard and Zinchenko were replaced by Tomayisu, Sambi, Nketiah and the aforementioned Tierney and Gooners everywhere, particularly the lucky ones in the stadium, luxuriated in the enjoyable and unusual situation of a tension free denouement to the game. 

Final score:  Arsenal 3 Tottnumb 1 

This was a wonderful occasion for Gooners everywhere. Over the next few days we will undoubtedly dissect and replay some key moments. It is very notable that this season we have played teams that inflicted heavy and damaging defeats on us last year and with the exception of ManUre, beaten them all comprehensively. It is particularly encouraging to beat our noisy neighbours and in so doing revealing what I thought was a huge difference in the quality of our football compared to theirs. There have been whispers growing in volume that the quality of the Spuds’ performances have flattered to deceive and today they looked markedly inferior to an Arsenal team that maintained an intensity and possession based game to which Tottnumb had no answer. A penny for Harry Kane’s thoughts as he considers the prospect of struggling on in a side so devoid of midfield creativity.

But who really cares about them?! We were excellent today and there were a number of standout performances. I thought the pick of them were Partey, Saliba, Jesús and Saka but Man of the Match was undoubtedly Xhaka. He is a player reborn in a new role and the benefit to the team is clear to see. Nobody played badly but I worry about Gabriel who does some stupid things from time to time. I’m not sure we wouldn’t be better served by bringing in Tomi and moving White to play in the centre although it should be noted that Tomayisu plays left centre back in a three for Japan.

We need to avoid the mistake of prioritising this game above the other challenges that confront us but we all know Spuds who have been insufferable since May. They are silenced now and North London is Red and vibrant again!

Enjoy, Gooners! 

We Are Top Of The Leagues!

On 10th May this year, around a mere four and a half months ago, I handed over the preview for the Tottenham vs Arsenal match at the Armitage Shanks Arena to be played on 11th May. It was a pleasure to write, poked lots of fun at Spurs, included our new anthem by Louis Dunford, amongst other comedy songs, and the mood and expectations were high that a point from that game would virtually assure us of a coveted place back in the Champions League.

There, however, the fun, the expectation and the pleasure all ended.

We blew it. Or at least Mr Paul Tierney blew it – his whistle, that is – a time or two too many and our season was done. A penalty awarded against Cedric for a challenge you see go unpunished every week. Apparently he jumped, is my recollection, and stopped Son, from memory, getting to the ball. Those of a certain age will remember Frank McLintock making a career out of doing that with Peter Simpson. But those were different times. Now, or at least last season, defenders were required to go about their business like panicking waiters – hands tucked behind their backs and making all efforts to avoid the slightest brush with a paying customer. Who was Son paying, remains the only question for me ?

One – Nil to Tottenham – the penalty converted by the ever more gargoyle like Harry Kane. He who is causing concern to England’s management ahead of the upcoming World Cup as he just can’t seem to master the new words, since Queen Elizabeth’s demise, to our national anthem. Two more blasts of Mr Tierney’s whistle and two soft bookings for stand-in centre back Rob Holding, and our evening was done.


A little under five months later and things have changed. We sit proudly at the top of the league at the end of this latest international interruption, as indeed do the Arsenal Ladies following their 4-0 demolition of the Lady Spuds a week ago.


We have world class new signings in William Saliba (LANS), Gabriel Jesús, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Granit Xhaka. Whaaat ?! I hear you shout. Well let me tell you doubters, in his new role as a “left 8”, Xhaka is equal top chance creator in the Premier League this season. Equal, that is, with Kevin de Bruyne and Mo Salah – thereby proving that literally all things are possible.


“Top of the league ?” the cynics cry – “but we haven’t played anyone yet !” Well, as the cliché goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you and apart from Man Utd – who for the most part we comprehensively outplayed – we have. In climbing to the top of the table, we have played opposing teams in an average league position of 11.8. Tottenham’s opposition, meanwhile, has occupied an average position of 14.4, and Manchester City have been whacking teams down at 15.2. So, cynics, we are very worthy of our place at the peak of the hardest league in the world. So there !


Things have changed at Tottenham too. In the summer window they signed a total of seven players, the most notable being Christian Romero from Atalanta and Richarlison from Everton. Romero has already shown himself to be something of a thug with a series of nasty looking, violent challenges, while Richarlison will fit nicely alongside Kane and Son in a front three of diving cheats. I imagine long hours of planning were involved at the Lane, in working out quite how to make themselves even more dislikable than they already were. For his part Richarlison must have thought long and hard about where his greatest strength was most likely to go unpunished. 

Note: However objectionable I, or we, may find Richarlison as a player, following the recent incident involving him, it goes without saying that throwing bananas, or any other racist acts or chanting is totally unacceptable. Fortunately that sort of thing does not happen at the Arsenal, but it is still worth making the point.


The Statistics 


To be honest I would rather do a few Spurs jokes at this point, but the current cost of living crisis and general financial turmoil seem to have dampened down my, and probably all our senses of fun a touch. Well, that and the fact that there aren’t many good Spurs jokes left that haven’t been done before. Instead it might be worth a look at a few stats to give hope for optimism ahead of this difficult but very winnable game.

This fixture will be the 171st game between the two clubs but only the 162nd true North London Derby since The Arsenal moved up from south London in 1913. Tottenham were incensed at the time that we had invaded “their” territory and we have been royally – quite literally it turns out as the late Queen Elizabeth II was a gooner too – pissing them off ever since.

Arsenal actually lead the all-time Football League head to head record in this fixture, with 68 wins to Tottenham’s 55, although just four of those wins have come in the last 16 meetings (W4 D6 L6). Taking only our home fixtures, the record is very different as we have lost only one of the last 29 home league games against Spurs (W17 D11) and we are unbeaten against them in the last 11 encounters at The Emirates, since a 1-2 loss in November 2010. Overall, the clubs are closer, as in the table of Best English Top Flight Win Ratios, we sit 3rd behind Man Utd and Liverpool, with our ratio of 45.7%, while Tottenham are fourth with 41.8%. In total, we have accumulated 1,948 points while Tottenham are almost 500 behind on 1,471.

What does that all mean ? Basically, however much the Spuds huff and puff about power shifts every time they win a game, there never has been one. Their trophy haul will confirm that they are, as Jack Wilshere has famously had it, quite shit.


Team News


Firstly, everyone is no doubt aware that Emile Smith-Rowe has now undergone surgery on a tendon in his groin following around ten months of recurring problems. Countryman100 has asked me to give a view on that situation which I will try to do, as fairly as possible, after this preview is published as I’ve just run out of time.

Martin Ødegaard played both games for Norway and is fit for the weekend despite some previous concerns expressed by the Norway management. Kieran Tierney was subbed off during his Scotland game after a clash of heads. While that was thought to be precautionary, the club has not released any expected availability date as yet. Thomas Partey is also currently a mystery, having returned early from international duty because of a knee problem. Oleksandr Zinchenko is reportedly fit and available again. Takehiro Tomiyasu also returned early from duty with Japan, due to what they have reported as “club circumstances”. Your guess is as good as mine!

Bearing all that in mind, I am taking this as an optimistic stab at our line-up:


Ramsdale

Tomiyasu, Saliba, Gabriel, Tierney

Ødegaard, Xhaka, Zinchenko

Saka, Jesús, Martinelli

The Holic Pound

The bookies seem to have us as favourites to win this one with Paddy Power offering typical odds around 21/20, with the draw at 13/5 and a Tottenham win at 12/5. If you are looking for a bit more value, you can get Gabriel Jesús at 5/1 to score the first goal, or Gabriel Martinelli at 7/1 to pull off the same feat. In terms of correct scores, Arsenal are around 9/1 to win 2-1, or 17/1 to win 3-1.

Match officials 

The referee will be Anthony Taylor, who should have sent off the aforementioned Christian Romero for violent conduct against Marc Cucurella of Chelsea in their 2-2 draw this season – he threw Cucurella to the ground by his hair. Taylor was also in charge on the opening day of the season when we beat Crystal Palace 2-0 and had a pretty decent game. The fourth official will be Peter Bankes and VAR will be Stuart Attwell.

There are differing opinions on referees’ decisions, impartiality and VAR. Some are in the school of “everything evens itself out over the season”, some are convinced it doesn’t because their team are constantly on the wrong end of decisions and, in turn, some believe those unfavourable decisions are genuine mistakes while others are convinced of bias. VAR was supposed to end all the controversy but few people would deny that it has only made everything worse. Nobody seems to be sure when VAR is meant, or allowed, to intervene and when not.

VAR has made a total of 94 decisions so far this season and apparently the league table would look very different if those decisions were to be wiped away. ESPN has done an analysis of the effect of the first VAR decisions of each game, form and expected goals at the time of those incidents. In the new table Arsenal would remain top, having seen the 1-3 defeat at Man Utd converted to a 1-0 victory. Man Utd would drop down without those three points and Tottenham would rise to second, as their 1-1 draw at West Ham would be converted to a win. Leeds and Everton would rise while Liverpool would drop. Bournemouth and Wolves would each rise four places, while West Ham would regain one of the points lost to Spurs, as Cornet’s strike against Chelsea would ultimately have counted.

I can’t imagine anyone now has a mentally redrawn picture of the league table in their heads, but did anyone really imagine that VAR would be distorting the sport to this extent. Is this really what it was intended for ?

However, there will not only be VAR available to our match, but there will also be Olympic Diving judges on duty to help Anthony Taylor with controversial penalty box incidents involving the Tottenham Tumbling Team. They have a lot of experience in dealing with incidents like this:

 
Kick off is at 12.30pm on Saturday 1st October. TV coverage on BT Sport.

Enjoy the game, Holics! We are top of the leagues!

image courtesy of the author

It was a few weeks ago that the four of us, me, my son, wife and daughter were sitting in our living room watching the Lionesses win the Euros. The following day, Arsenal women were advertising their games at the Emirates in the WSL (Women’s Super League). I noticed that the game against Spurs was on the middle weekend of the interlull. Naturally my son was up for it, but to my delight so were my wife and daughter. Brought up in an Arsenal household, they “got it” but regarded going to games as something the lads did (I tried, my daughter was even a mascot against AC Milan, but once she hit teenage the interest waned). But they were up for this. Tickets were easily obtained (we even got our own North Bank seats plus the two next to them) and remarkably cheap, £12 for adults and £6 for concessions.

So, on a delightful early autumn day we found ourselves taking the familiar route to the Emirates. Holloway Road seemed a bit different, fewer replica shirts, the Ten Pins and The Tollington looked noticeably less crowded than usual. Parked up in the usual spot we strolled the ten minutes to the stadium. On the concourse the mix was apparent. Here the replica shirts boasted female names (Mead, Leah etc) and were sported by women and girls. Many family groups were apparent. The queues to get in were pretty lengthy and a bit slow, but we got there.

As is usual after the long drive, we scattered for a prematch pee. However while the gents were virtually deserted, the ladies, my wife and daughter told me, were very crowded. Into the stadium and the familiar walk down to Block 7, row 9. None of my normal North Bank buddies were there (I later found out that many of them were in the stadium but had taken the opportunity to watch from a different vantage point. Me I’m just a stick in the mud). Again there were lots of family groups, many of the Mums and Dads with quite young children, usually daughters. Lots of young women, either in groups, or with boyfriends. Many of them, I’m guessing, were regulars, judging by their enthusiasm and knowledge of the team. Oh and pizza. The pizza outlet at the ground must have made an absolute killing by the number of people going to their seats carrying pizza.

In the prematch slot, there was a lovely tribute to Maria Petri, a loyal follower of the Women’s team as well as the Men. This was followed by the chorus of North London Forever that has become a regular at the men’s matches. The fact that we had many irregulars with us was apparent by the fact that, around us at least, only my son and I knew the words. No matter. The sun was shining, the atmosphere was buzzing and we were about to watch The Arsenal.

So before I get to the football what was the atmosphere like? Well you won’t be surprised to hear that it was different. There were 53,000 tickets sold, but evidently 47,000 turned up. For some obscure reason, the front two rows of the lower tier were left deliberately empty. We all sat down, which we hardly ever do in the North Bank (except maybe for league cup games when again the very cheap prices mean many children around). There was virtually no swearing. There were songs but they tended to be generic (Arsenal, Arsenal) rather than player focused. There were a couple of choruses of “stand up if you hate Tottenham” but they soon fizzled out. But it wasn’t quiet. Lots of applause and appreciation. The young woman in front of me was clearly emulating Maria because every now and again she would come out with a huge shout of LEAH! She also celebrated the goals very enthusiastically.

So what was the football like? Arsenal were excellent, showing top level ball control skills, playing incisive passes inside and outside the full back and very, very quick. We played out nicely from the back and were soon 1-0 up, Beth Mead recovering her own blocked shot and firing in an unstoppable rocket into the top right corner of the goal. We pressed like crazy and this paid off later in the first half as Spurs lost control just outside their own penalty area. Caitlin Foord intercepted and calmly played in Viv Miedema who, one on one with the keeper, slipped it past her and into the corner of the net. As the first half developed, we could have had four or five more, but showed an Arsenal like tendency to want to walk the ball in.

Half time. 2-0. More pizza. More queues for the ladies (I’m told).

We started the second half as we had ended the first. Total domination. We won a corner on our right at the Clock End. A good high cross came in and Rafaelle Souza, our Brazilian right back, rose (I am contractually obliged to write “like a salmon”) and channelled her inner Bacary Sagna by thumping a glorious header into the Spurs net. Finally, for the scoring, Steph Catley clipped in a lovely ball for Miedema to head in. That was about that. Mead and Miedema came off to standing ovations. The game drifted a bit. But 4-0 was as comprehensive as it could be.

One of the problems with the WSL is that it is uneven in quality. The top four sides (Arsenal, Chelsea, City and United) are head and shoulders above the other teams in the league and it showed here. But Arsenal were brilliant. They only lost the league by one point to Chelsea last year. They have a difficult away game against Ajax mid week in the Champions League, having drawn the first home leg 2-2. But, like the Men’s team, they are great to watch.

The final whistle went. The PA cranked up with Beth Mead’s on fire, followed by (of course) Sweet Caroline. The fans loved it. There was literally dancing in the aisles. The woman in front of me did her best Shakira impersonation. More power to them.

I had a great day out.

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