As I climb up the stairs to the Croeso stand of the Liberty Stadium where the Arsenal away fans are allocated I can hear the crowd, see the open sky, and smell the damp grass and I am immediately taken back to my first experience at Highbury in 2006. The stairs at Swansea aren’t nearly as worn as Highbury and the walkways are wider but as I mount the top of the stairwell, the sounds of the Arsenal fans singing grow to a roar and then, like the triumphant crash of symbols in some symphony, as soon as I reach the top of the stairs my eyes are greeted by an emerald green pitch laid out beneath the charcoal grey sky. The away fans are singing, the home fans right next to us are singing, the pitch is perfect, and there is football mere feet from where I am standing. This is what I love about football.
There’s no time to reminisce however as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gets the first good shot off of the game. We can’t see the action because it’s all the way down on the other end of the pitch, but it looks like the Ox gets past his man with a dribble and tries an audacious curler that rings the bar. We all groan in disappointment for a second and then start back up chanting, appreciative of the effort.
It’s a wakeup call for Swansea City and they start controlling the game. There’s a sustained bout of pressure on our goal as the Arsenal midfield is caught lollygagging about and giving the Swans channel after channel to get passes into dangerous places. Nacho is bypassed a few times, Jenkinson as well, as Swansea execute what Arsenal Letters called the principle of horizontal width perfectly.
Their best chance of the day was when they finally got the ball to Michu in a real dangerous place in the 17th minute. Jenkinson tries to play a ridiculous ball out of defense to Arteta, who is surrounded by three Swansea players, and Johnathan de Guzman simply steps in and robs him blind. De Guzman then makes a simple pass to Michu which was just off enough to force the Spaniard to turn.
Michu’s shot took everyone by surprise: Koz was caught ball watching, Fabianski was stock still in goal, Mertesacker turned with the pace of a Zeppelin, and as Michu’s resulting shot fluffed just inches past the post, even the Arsenal fans joined the Swansea fans in a huge groan. Theirs was disappointment, ours was relief. But that shot reinforced my belief that Michu cannot stay with Swansea long. He’s the kind of rare player who knows what he wants to do with the ball before he gets it, and even if he gets it in the wrong place, has the ability to think faster than nearly everyone else on the pitch. He’s a really rare talent and I would be very surprised if he’s not with a top team somewhere next year.
I think that quality is what makes Oxlade-Chamberlain different as well. The Ox showed that bit of brilliance again a few minutes after Michu’s let-off as he grabs hold of the ball, dribbles past a couple in midfield and unleashes a corker that dips and swerves and again hits the crossbar. Two in one game!
As half time starts to approach, though, I’m disappointed in the first half performance by Arsenal. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the Munich match in which they played their hearts out but on this day the Arsenal just seem sluggish. No one is pressing, Swansea are getting as much of the ball as they like, and the Arsenal fans get so bored that we start singing “We’ve only come to see your belly” at this Swansea fan:
We seem sluggish in midfield and Diaby, in particular, looked like he could use a swift kick up the ass. He was jogging back in defense and not putting in challenges where I thought he needed to. The away fans were keen to this and it got so bad that more than once, I heard a fellow fan say they wished he would break his own leg in a challenge and end his Arsenal career. It’s a horrible sentiment but it’s there and gleefully shouted from the terraces which, with the distance we are from him and the way that the stadium is designed to amplify sounds from the fans, I’m sure he could clearly hear.
At one point (in the second half) Diaby turned his defender and dribbled straight at us away fans, his touch let him down and the ball went out of play. The away fans let him have it, his head dropped and when he jogged back to the center circle. I couldn’t help but feel we are witnessing the last few games of a broken man. Broken physically by a Dan Smith tackle and broken mentally by the demands of the Arsenal fans.
As the second half gets ready to kick off, I have a look up at the team sheets on one of the televisions. The score is 0-0 and Arsenal’s only attacking sub is Gervinho. At that moment I think, fuck it, I’ll take a 0-0. We had been pretty poor, Swansea looked kind of disinterested, and with only Gervinho as our “impact” sub I figure a dour draw would be a good result.
Keeping true to form, Arsenal start the second half not really doing much. With nothing on the pitch to feed off, we start having a go at the Swansea fans and there’s some lively chanting going on. Worryingly, some of us even decide that the other Gooners are the real enemy and there are some very tense words exchanged between some rather hard looking blokes.
Meanwhile, I try to focus on the pitch and with my great view straight down the left line it looks like Arsenal are allergic to using width. I’ve complained about this before and I still think it’s true: younger footballers just hate playing wide. I’m not sure if they take it as an insult to their ability or what but Theo and Ox are almost never in a wide position ready to receive the ball and when they do get nominally wide, they instinctively dribble in to the middle.
Arsenal finally show some width when Jenkinson comes bombing straight at us and puts in a cross that is cut out by the Swansea defense. I had a feeling something was going to happen as soon as Jenkinson came running at me so I switched on the video camera and took a one minute clip.
In Shakespeare’s plays there were often a play within a play. Think of Hamlet hosting the troupe in front of his parents as they reenact the murder of his father. And here, in this one minute clip, there’s a play within the play of this game:
The resulting corner is taken by Theo Walcott but it’s too long and Swansea clear it weakly back to Arteta. At this point, a series of weird events occurs: Arteta fails to control allowing Dyer to get the ball. Dyer, in turn falls over, and Nacho nips in, passing to Mertesacker, Per is taken down from behind but the ball lands at Cazorla’s feet. Santi pulses past several men in a great diagonal dribble, crosses to Giroud who can’t control, it’s cleared, but only as far as Nacho (who is way out of position), and the Spaniard kicks the ball into the corner for his first ever Arsenal goal.
As my friend Adrian put it “One minute. Optimism, fear, surprise, excitement, disappointment, potential, elation, mayhem all included. And they wonder why we watch football.”
Cazorla was simply brilliant in that second half and deserves special mention. I saw him at the Allianz Arena in Arsenal’s win over Munich but we were so far away that a lot of his ability was lost on me. But up close yesterday was something special. In terms of pure talent, he is the best player at Arsenal. But when he hustles and presses from the front, like he did on several occasions last night, it’s truly a sight to behold. He’s the kind of player who can get you a win.
Arsene deserves credit for removing the two villains of the day (Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby) and putting on Ramsey and Gervinho. If you’re going to rip Wenger when he makes mistakes, I feel you have to give him credit when he gets things right. For two games in a row now he has made the perfect substitution to change the game.
Diaby was having a nightmare and so he introduced Ramsey. The Welshman was roundly booed by the Swansea fans every time he touched the ball because of his association with Cardiff but ironically, this booing by them caused the normally anti-Ramsey Arsenal fans to really get behind Aaron and he, in turn, played his heart out for us. It’s no surprise that both Arsenal goals came after Ramsey was introduced.
Meanwhile, there was a ball over the top to Theo and he looked to have beaten his man, but was muscled off the ball far too easily so the boss yanked him and brought on Gervinho. The Ivorian will never satisfy some, but he showed all his best qualities in his little cameo yesterday. Unlike the younger wingers, Gervinho provides width to the Arsenal attack and also tries to take on defenders, which can delight and frustrate in equal measure, but both are important to cause havoc in the defensive lines.
In the end, it wasn’t a “vintage performance” from Arsenal, or maybe it was? Arsenal conceded possession to the Swans and let them pass around in the backfield for most of the game. Limiting Swansea to just 9 shots and forcing zero saves from Fabianski. Arsenal may have conceded possession but they dominated territory, spending more time in the Swansea half than they did in ours and beating the Swans in overall passes in the final third. Then for about 20 minutes toward the end of the second half, the Gunners turned up the tempo and started hitting Swansea for counter attacks — two of which eventually led to goals.
That said, I’ll caution against thinking that these two games were similar in any way. Against Munich Arsenal played more like they were fighting for their season, the action was non-stop and the emotions were raw and there for everyone to see. Against Swansea there was a more relaxed approach followed by a few minutes trying to really go for it.
That latter is the kind of performance that really turns the nuts of the Gunner’s faithful and frankly that showed in the differences between the two terraces. In Munich, the fans were amazing and almost never stopped singing apart from that one moment, after the second goal, where everyone though “are we really going to do this?” and a hush spread over the crowd. At Swansea the mood was more contentious with fans quick to turn on a payer and even one another over the slightest insult.
All in all it’s been a great week of results in both Munich and Swansea and just like every time I come here I have met some really tremendous Arsenal fans both in Germany and here in Britain. It was a day that started with me chasing buses at 9am and ended with a pint at the Faltering Fullback with two great fans, Kieran and Matt, at midnight and I was well wrecked from the drive(s) and the booze.
And despite being broke and needing about a week to detox my liver, I would do it all over again. Not just for the results and the experience, but for the Arsenal and my fellow Arsenal supporters. Amazing.