FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
For Arsenal, the only consolation is that it could have gone worse. Bukayo Saka could have retired at half-time and gone to live out his days on a small island somewhere in the south Atlantic. Granit Xhaka could have been arrested mid-game for fraud. Or Rob Holding could have been sent off a couple of minutes before he was actually sent off. Lucky escape, really. Don't know what Mikel Arteta's complaining about.
Conte reveals top four ‘joke’ on Spurs arrival as Arteta retains Arsenal 'hope'
The north London derby is only partly a football game. It is mostly a trembling contest of will and nerve, as the Premier League's two most existentially vulnerable big sides stare into each other's eyes and see there, reflected back, the deep uncertainty within themselves. Somebody always does something daft. The trick is to make sure the other lot crack first.
And that, more or less, is what Tottenham did. Put the pressure on, poke at the weak spots in Arsenal's defence, wait for the silly decisions to follow. Look, there's Rob Holding pulling Son Heung-min to the floor. Look, there's Cedric charging through his own penalty area and into Son's back. Look, there's Holding blocking Son's run. Whistle, whistle, whistle. Yellow, penalty, yellow and red.
Asked about the refereeing after the game, Arteta reinvented the classic "If I speak I am in big trouble", announcing that "If I say what I think I am suspended for six months". And you can understand his frustration. None of the decisions were wrong, as such, but all existed in that squidgy zone of refereeing discretion. Is this a let-things-go day, or a whistle-for-everything day? Ah. The latter. "A beautiful game was destroyed," continued Arteta, rather overlooking the fact that, for the neutrals, this was exactly what everybody had tuned in to see.
Reading the referee is a skill. So is playing the referee. Tottenham, collectively, were much better at the former, and Son might be the Premier League's finest artist of the latter. Everything that happens to him, happens to the referee as well; it's not so much theatrics as it is a constant checking-in. Felt that one. Felt that one too. Oooh, that stung. You getting all this, ref? Ouch, ouch, ouch.
This is not a criticism. It's high praise. In theory, football is a game about manipulating space and the ball; in practice, before any of that starts to matter, it's a game of manipulating people. Opponents, officials, and ultimately oneself. A big occasion, a fussy ref, a yammering crowd: these are weapons to be utilised or neutralised. Tottenham gave Arsenal the chance to make fools of themselves and Arsenal blundered in, all clown shoes and squirty flowers.
Perhaps the other consolation for Arteta, and Arsenal's hierarchy, is that little of what last night exposed about their set-up was new or unexpected. Everybody already knew that they were running a thin squad; everybody already knew that Cedric is a liability, that Holding is a vulnerability, and so an injury here or there could make things very awkward indeed. No summer plans will need revising. The weak points are the weak points, and they were the weak points in January.
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That Race For Fourth Then
You know, perhaps we expect too much of the teams scrapping for fourth place. After all, if Arsenal had a deep and well-balanced squad, with the ability to cover for injury and disciplinary crises, then they'd probably have more points and none of this would matter. And if Tottenham weren't the kind of team to randomly lose to Burnley for no good reason, they wouldn't be concerned about randomly losing to Burnley for no good reason.
At the beginning of the campaign, if you'd offered Arteta two games against 14th and 16th to seal Champions League football he'd have shaken you by the hand. If you'd then added: "Oh, but one of them's away at Newcastle and they've been bought by Saudi Arabia and are quite good now, and also all of your central defenders are injured or suspended," he might have started to ask questions. Like, "Who are you? Are you from the future? How do you know all this?" And then, "Where's security?"
Presumably, Arteta has some strategy in mind to keep his squad focused and to keep the fear at bay. But every Arsenal fan in the country will be spending the next few days dreaming, and they will not be easy dreams. Joelinton striding through midfield. Granit Xhaka back-pedalling. Chris Wood rising. Shelvey arriving… wake up! Wake up! It's only Friday morning!
So Tottenham have the easier job, right? Not just in terms of opposition - 17th and 20th, although with the caveat that Burnley may still need something - but in terms of the whole sense of how things have to go. Easier to chase than be chased; simpler to look forward than over your shoulder. Right?
It all depends. Which is stronger, footballing common sense or the magical narrative power of the Barclays? Arsenal the sensible, decent, broadly competent football team need just two fairly routine wins. Arsenal the exploding headache need to avoid a total meltdown in the face of their own inadequacies. Which will we get on Monday? Your guess is as good as Arteta's.
At 7.13 pm yesterday, Aston Villa announced the permanent signing of Philippe Coutinho for an "undisclosed fee". Four minutes later, Barcelona announced the same transfer, but happily fessed up to receiving a mere €20m in exchange. All that careful negotiation, and they forgot to be mysterious.
This is part of the Steven Gerrard effect: a sprinkling of elite charm that makes Villa stand out among the Premier League's mid-table. It's no disrespect to Dean Smith to note that this move probably doesn't happen if he's still in charge. It's also no guarantee that this will work, for any given value of work. But it's pretty exciting either way, and that's what having a big name earns you. The right to be exciting when you spend your money.
And this brings a formal end to the story of Coutinho at Barcelona, a wildly expensive lesson in how not to run a football club. They probably didn't need him, and they certainly didn't need to spend as much as they did on him. And they really didn't need him to head out on loan to Bayern Munich, then come on for the last rites of that 8-2 humiliation. We need the most obvious metaphor for a totally out-of-control club that doesn't know what it's doing. No, that's too obvious.
Luton Town begin their play-offs campaign tonight, which is all the excuse we need to pop this in here. 39 years ago today (er, tomorrow), Raddy Antic scored a really quite well-taken goal in the 86th minute to send Manchester City down and keep Luton in Division One. And off went David Pleat, a-skipping and a-hopping and a-shuffling across the Maine Road pitch.
Enjoyed this Guardian piece from Emma Kemp, a look back at the life and wild predictions of Celtic's newest title-winning manager, Ange Postecoglou. It turns out the key to being a successful manager is just to predict that you can win everything, in whatever context: mostly it comes true!
This is, after all, a man that has predicted on more than one occasion that Australia can win the World Cup. "To the neutral the sentiment appears mulish," writes Kemp. "To Australians who watched their national team squeak into the Russia 2018 finals via the playoffs (don’t mention three at the back) it is infuriating. But it is also somehow pleasing in its consistency. Wherever he goes, with whatever team, the unrelenting blueprint remains."
As noted, the Championship play-offs begin this evening. They play 46 games just to set all this up, just to break tens of thousands of hearts in a slightly more elaborate way than usual. What a sport this is. It's Luton against Huddersfield at Kenilworth Road.
Have a good weekend everybody. Tom Adams will be here on Monday to bring you all the build-up to Newcastle 1-0 Arsenal (Shelvey 87').
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