Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United
The story behind the story. My dream. Friday at the Arsenal training ground. Theo Walcott is staring at his opened locker door. Scotch-taped to the door is a carefully cut out newspaper photo of Rio Ferdinand. Theo is making his war face.
“You talkin’’ to me?” he says in his thin Berkshire boy-soprano mockney. “Are you talkin’’ to me?”
Rio just stares back, which makes Theo madder and madder. “Are you talking to me?”
He feints and then throws a left hook just short of the photo. Doesn’t want to dislocate his shoulder again, does he?
“We-ell I don’t see anyone else in this room,” he says real Yardie-like. “So I’m gonna have to kick your arse.”
Next to him, on the left is Gervinho, his funny, string and real hair toupée-cum-extention do making funny noises as it taps against his forehead while he swears in French at a photo of Jonny Evans. To his right, Per Mertesacker, lovingly referred to as “Der Meatsack” by his teammates, keeps staring at Wayne Rooney and calling him “Shkausser Schweinhundt!”
Meanwhile, behind them, an old skinny Alsatian named Arséne is smacking a riding crop against a bench while his even dourer assistant sucks his teeth. “Zey got our little gift on Sunday, right Steve?” Steve Bould, nods repeatedly.
“Venez sur mes garçons de poupée lttle. Montrez-leur ce qui, dans le coeur d’une poupée, est un guerrier.!” *
Theo does not know what his silly French boss is talking about. He never knows what his silly French boss is talking about. But he does know he’s going to beat that bloody Rio Ferdinand all the way back to Pinner or Peckham, or wherever he comes from.
A dream? How else can one explain Sunday’s comic draw? Arséne Wenger, Nick Hornby and Piers Morgan with their simpering platitudes about their team being on its best behavior proved to be about as sincere as a pregnant nun. One more desperate, tragic attempt to seize an early advantage. Sure, the crowd booed at Robin Van Persie and, sure, the Dutchman looked sad. The full human comedy had to be played out, however, and, at the end of the game, Robin Van Persie had scored 25 league goals for Manchester United, 29 in all competitions, and taken over the lead for the Golden Boot from the hungry one, Luís Suarez of Liverpool. Arsenal fans went home even more miserable than they had when they arrived
Nevertheless, the goal he scored against Arsenal may turn out to have a truly resonant impact. Should Les Gooners miss out on a top four place in the Premier League and thus the Champions League next season, it will be the first time they have gone without the most lucrative of cash cows for the first time in fifteen years. Let me reiterate. You know the cliché–the one that says revenge is a dish which tastes much better when served cold–it was one Arsenal fans had to swallow in a state of deeply deserved anguish on Sunday. Having booed their former hero throughout the first half, they got their comeuppance. Yes, irony was well noted on all sides as Robin Van Persie stepped up to rocket home a well deserved, icily dispatched penalty in the 42nd minute while the fat lady sang.
United versus Arsenal matches are by their very nature ugly affairs. Not ugly in the vicious sense of United’s tactically ugly matches with Liverpool are. They are, rather, emotional, slapdash, petty, often badly behaved matches on both sides, full of sneaky off-the-ball encounters, relentless speed races, shocking mistakes and always always always too chock full of drama for mortal referees to handle. In this case, with Howard Webb’s favorite assistant Phil Dowd running things, veteran United fans were all well aware that if anybody was going to make sure He was going to be the star of the show, it would be Phil himself. And so it came to pass!
Arsenal were shockingly dominant for the first half hour. Testing Dowd with every single tackle, ankle-tapping and rabbit-punching off the ball, the Arse were the 2005 team temporarily reincarnated, minus the purity of talent and finesse, though. Much quicker to the ball, playing with width, sprinting to fill every space, repeatedly taking turns kicking Wayne Rooney as if he were a sort of Scouse Guy Fawkes dummy, they kept United pinned back while repeatedly, relentlessly daring them to retaliate for a series of cheap shots. Yet United did not retaliate. It all being part and parcel of a season of ridiculously good behavior. Yet the crew of officials seemed to blow everything Arsenal’s way. It became pretty clear once they’d received their fifth yellow card in a row after Rooney collided 50/50 with Arteta and Rafael Da Silva took umbrage after receiving a throw-in in the mush, that Phil Dowd was not in a state of empathy.
The one goal Arsenal did score came in the second minute and was so clearly offside that United actually took it well, seeming to sort of collectively shrug their shoulders. Ironically, Van Persie was the culprit as he carelessly gave the ball away to the thieving magpie Rosicky. The Slovak schemer was quickly off to the races before firing a fine pass into the box which Walcott sped onto from an offside position before firing a finish at an obtuse angle past a stranded David De Gea, who had no chance.
And from then on, until about the 40th minute, Arsenal played well. Still, led by Lucas Podolski in place of the suspended Olivier Giroud, although they attacked relentlessly, they were mostly ineffective. In spite of the relentless energy displayed by Rosicky, Arteta, Ramsey, Cazoría and, later. Wilshere, they were simply never looked capable of executing that effective last ball in United’s third of the field.
To say United took a long time to get going is a copious understatement. The boys were obviously hungover, many said. But these young millionaires really are quite fit and surely young enough to shrug off what might well hinder lesser men. Yet how did Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones both end up passing the ball to an invisible teammate and out of touch under no opposition pressure? Sure we expect De Gea to drop a clanger under pressure, but how did he simply drop a corner kick he caught cleanly and make a bollix out of a subsequent clearance? Wayne Rooney was fine in the second half, but in the first half he seemed to spend a lot of time admiring the hue of his boots. Nani and Valencia were more or less invisible beyond passively absorbing cheap shots from Arteta and Ramsey. With Ferguson letting loose a very audible string of invectives at the fourth official and a grinning Phil Dowd, United’s ‘hangover’ seemed to be more of a case of narcolepsy. The kind of body-snatched stupor associated with absinthe, not champagne!?
Yet, as bizarrely un-United as they so often seemed early on, they still created a couple of opportunities of their own before Van Persie’s equalizer. Phil Jones, as cumbersome and awkward as he seems, was a more and more of a menace in midfield as Arteta and Ramsey’s off-the-ball bullying upped his ire. Well set up by Evra and Rafael Da Silva, he headed two gaping sitters wide of the goal. Then, having botched a series of half-chances, Nani sold Arteta an exquisite dummy, lifted a breathtaking cross into the path of Van Persie as he sprinted into the box. How Szczesny saved his shot is hard to know.
But, minutes later, Van Persie shrugged off the cobwebs again. In fairness to Dowd, his judgment was impeccable for the penalty because, at the speed the actual play was made at, it was anything but a straightforward decision. Picking up a Valencia pass, Van Persie took off at speed down the left-hand channel, leaving right back Bacary Sagna flat-footed and humiliated. Having made a mistake, Sagna swiveled and gave chase. In an attempt to make up for his mistake, he slid in on Van Persie’s ankles and threshed him down well inside the box. Dowd, who had already forgiven an identical foul by Sagna on Evra earlier, grinned back at a caterwauling Ferguson, blew his whistle and pointed at the penalty spot. Many in the crowd were amazed. A wall of boos accompanied that penalty, but Robin Van Persie is made of strong stuff. His shot, a piece of raw, pure, beautiful left-footed power, beat Wojciech Szczesny easily.
Whatever did go wrong on the day for United, I think none of us or them have any idea of what it was. Absinthe drinking offers up as silly a reason as any. The sad reality is that they had a fine opportunity to set a record and overtake Chelsea’s 95 points, from José Mourinho’s first title-winning side in 2005, but that chance is now gone. The game could have gone either way in the second half but it was an erratic performance from the champions. Indeed as monentous as some of the bad moments have been this season, it’s rare occasion when they look as disheveled and disoriented as they had in the opening 40 minutes.
I don’t mean to belabor this issue again and again, but, really, how is it that, despite being so close to London, the ruling class at the F.A. and by virtue of always having their noses up in the air and always out of joint, and thus, by implication, closer to God, why do Arsenal have no dignity or class? Poisoning Spurs’ buffet on the night before a crucial last match of the season over fourth place in 2007 typifies how they operate. Their willingness to form a guard escorting the champions on to the field was, their manager said, a sample of just how sportsmanlike they were. Yet any good will ended there as, clearly having noticed what everybody else has also clearly taken advantage of this season, that this current United squad, although massively talented, is both physically and emotionally the weakest Manchester United have fielded ever. Indeed, having been beaten up plenty this season, winning the championship surely is even more of an achievement. Taking one’s lumps goes with the territory. We understand that. Nevertheless, the petty acts of sly, underhanded , off-the-ball skulduggery perpetuated by Les Gooners and willfully turned a blind eye to by Phil Dowd should be duly noted by United fans. No matter what, I pray that Sir Alex Ferguson buys at least one player who is familiar with the dark arts of the game for next season. Those who doubt me might tune in to Bayern’s Champions Cup steamrollering of Barcelona. The natural toughness and adaptability of a certain Javíer Martinez they bought for 50m euros from Athletic Bilbao had made a world of difference to them which the Gaffer shouldnote
And so, finally, picture Theo in his parents basement in Compton, Berkshire. Still staring at the same newspaper cutout of Rio, only now it’s attached to a mirror and he’s wearing boxing gloves.
“You talkin’’ to me? You talkin’’ to me, Rio? Offside? Rubbish.” He throws a combination at the mirror. “Is there anyone else in this room?”
*”Show them that inside the heart of my doll-boys is the heart of a warrior!”