My last article finished with me singing ‘Wemberleee, Wemberlee, we’re going to Wemberlee and we’re going to win fuck all’, such had been our form at our ‘home from home’ this season. Accordingly, perhaps I could have been forgiven for starting this one in a self-congratulatory tone (albeit a bitter one, because I’d much rather, of course, have been proved wrong). But, for once, I’m going to try to inject a bit of that substance that is a rare and precious commodity amongst football fans everywhere: perspective. Once the terrible news came through on Friday that Ugo Ehiogu had died after suddenly collapsing at our training ground on Thursday, frankly, how we performed against Chelsea paled into insignificance. Your team loses a game? So what?
Of course, the romantic in me thinks it would have been nice if we could have ‘Won it for Ugo’ but romance often gets trampled underfoot in the higher echelons of our beautiful game and it was not to be. There was no sign that the players had allowed the shock of his sudden death to affect their attitude to the game, though, and we cannot argue with any of the referee’s crucial decisions, so there can be no excuses.
So, given that: we lost, yet again, at the place that is apparently going to be our home next season, which doesn’t bode well for our league chances; we, a team who once had a proud cup-winning record, haven’t won the FA Cup since 1991 and have set an unwanted record by losing a semi-final for the 7th time in a row; the result almost certainly means yet another season with no silverware to go in a trophy cabinet that hasn’t had to be unlocked since 2008, the year of our League Cup triumph over Chelsea; and that we have a manager who seems to have developed the knack of winning lots of games but with no tangible end result (let’s face it, we’ve always taken great pleasure in pointing out to Wenger that top-four finishes and Champions’ League qualification aren’t trophies), why am I not thoroughly miserable and despairing of our chances for the remainder of the season
The answer is simple, really. A couple of fellow fans asked me during pre-match beers outside the stadium on Saturday how I thought we’d do and I said that I’d reserve judgement until I saw how we played in the first five minutes. If we came out, nervously passing square across our back line, putting Lloris under pressure with stupid back-passes, as we did so often in our European games, then I’d be confident of only one thing: a pitifully timid surrender. If we played as we have done in the league recently, then I’d give us a decent chance of winning against the best team and squad in the league.
Sure, we gave away a very early goal, with Willian despatching the free kick as if it was a penalty, possibly due to less than satisfactory wall and/or goalkeeper positioning, but we responded well, as we did after the penalty just before half time. We dominated Chelsea for large periods of the game, with Eriksen on particularly good form, and scored two cracking goals from open play. I think most people in the stadium felt that, after we’d hauled ourselves level for a second time, whoever got the third goal would win. At no time did I feel that the players weren’t up for it or were overawed by their opponents and, hopefully (the ghosts of seasons past warn me not to enter a wholly confident prediction here), we can take comfort from that and maintain good form for the remainder of the season.
But there were two things about which I did end up ‘spitting feathers’ on Saturday. Forget about Conte’s mind games – however much he protests to the contrary, it seems clear that benching Hazard was an attempt to wind us up by showing he could either achieve a lead or, at the very least, parity, without his best player on the pitch with a view to bringing him on at a psychologically crucial time. It wasn’t Conte that made this work so well, it was Pochettino. When I first saw our line-up, while I had no real concerns over Trippier starting, I was bemused by Davies’s absence, and thought that Pochettino had reverted to a back four, bizarrely switching Vertonghen to left back. It wasn’t long after kick-off when we saw Son covering for Vertoghen deep in our half that I saw that I was wrong and he was expecting Son to act as a wing-back. Now, Son has been great this year but he is not Danny Rose, or even Davies, and, defensively, he was an accident waiting to happen. If that wasn’t bad enough, when still 2-2, he decides to bring on Walker, then switch Trippier, who’d been playing well and linking up very well with Eriksen on the right, to the left, which clearly unsettled him. Trippier was unable to cross as he does from the right, instead slowing things down by having to cut back onto his right foot and he seemed to be unbalanced and out of position when Chelsea broke to win the corner (their first of the game, if I recall correctly!) that led to Hazard’s goal. For the life of me I don’t understand why he didn’t bring on Davies on the left, or even Wimmer and move Vertonghen there. Sometimes, it just seems to me that Pochettino uses cup games, including European ones, to piss about, tactically speaking.
The other thing that gets to me is the number of fans who depart early. Come the final whistle, the number of empty seats at our end was an embarrassment; a Chelsea fan I spoke to on the tube home said it looked like we’d had a fire drill. Do these people go to a music concert and leave halfway through the main act? Do they go to see a thriller at the cinema and leave before the climax just so they can get an earlier bus home? What is it with them?
Anyway, there may be one good thing to come out of Saturday’s result. Pundits were saying beforehand that we could inflict a psychological blow on Chelsea had we won. Had that been the case, perhaps the players would’ve been tempted to start the kind of ‘we’re coming to get you’ mutterings that so derailed us at the end of last season. Forget Chelsea and concentrate on securing 2nd place. And if that proves too hard, then, at the very least, secure 3rd place and for God’s sake, for once, don’t let Arsenal overhaul what should be an unassailable lead and overtake us. That really would be unforgiveable.
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