A scene on Hornsey Road, north London, about a year ago said a lot about what Mikel Arteta has restored for Arsenal.
He had left the Emirates a bit early after the 2-0 win over Leicester City and when the lights went red his Audi was momentarily mobbed by autograph hunters and supporters of all ages who basically wanted to say: ‘Thank you. You made us happy.’
The smile on his face reflected the mood of an afternoon when his young, largely English side had shown something often overlooked in football. Satisfaction.
“They have a good time together,” Arteta had said before they left the floor that day. “If that’s not the case then we should go elsewhere as coaches because we’re doing something wrong.”
Those words sum up the zest for life we’ve seen in his young side and their wonderful football this season, although that seems to have been forgotten in the days since Arsenal’s draw at West Ham, which has led to cheerful conversation about that side “bottled” it. .
Arsenal dropped points in Sunday’s title race after throwing away a 2-0 lead at West Ham
Bukayo Saka (No.7) missed a penalty for the Gunners in the 2-2 draw at the London Stadium
However, Mikel Arteta has worked wonders to propel Arsenal to the top of the table
Nobody expects those with a Tottenham Hotspur disposition to show anything but joy as Arsenal sacrifice 2-0 leads at Liverpool and West Ham.
But where in the glee some have at this is the recognition of how Arsenal have brought some beautiful unpredictability to what would otherwise have been one-dimensional dominance by Manchester City.
Sentimentality is harder to find in football these days than ever when social media feeds on negativity and ridicule and there is a sea of GIFs to taunt and taunt yourself with.
There was a particularly nasty strand of it on Sunday night. And the social media bashing continued on Tuesday with a fake anger at players ignoring Sunday’s mascot.
But Arsenal’s season has been one of the Premier League’s great achievements in recent years – whatever the result.
They’ve fielded the second-youngest average starting XI in the division – behind bottom-placed Southampton – and given the stage to young British players. They have brought us Bukayo Saka which plays with such joy. He has become a jewel of British football.
Erling Haaland will certainly win the Player of the Year award next month, but for me it’s Saka – a player whose development over the past few years has been a joy for everyone to see. He has known more taunts than many others.
The “you’re failing your country” heard in some stadiums is brutal. Another proof of the times we are in. But despite everything, he prevailed.
Despite his missed penalty, Saka’s development with the Gunners was a feast for the eyes
Saka will be one of Arsenal’s biggest stars for years to come and has been key this season
Just 18 months ago, Saka featured in an Arsenal squad that was valued at £616million, earning an average of £104,000 a week yet still scoring just 35 goals in 27 games.
Arteta needed bold management to pull the club out of this madness. It was an exceptional save, although observers would much rather discuss his behavior on the sidelines than the creation of a hugely successful team. He’s actually toned down that behavior this season.
Mail Sport’s Ian Herbert says Arsenal’s season has been one of the great achievements of recent years
Arteta hasn’t been able to get the most sought-after players in the transfer market like Pep Guardiola did when he brought Haaland, Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez and others to the Etihad. City have Julian Alvarez, one of the World Cup stars, on the bench when they need extra firepower. Arsenal have Eddie Nketiah who, with all due respect, is not in the same class.
City have a galaxy of world-class defenders while Arsenal have one. City bought Kalvin Phillips who wasn’t even needed. Arsenal bought Jorginho, a player who is past his prime. It’s a wonder this team is so far at the top of the table considering how thin the squad is.
Arsenal fans will want nobody to say that second place would be an extraordinary achievement for them because they want to be at the top of the league and stay there.
But in the Sky Sports debate after Sunday’s West Ham game, they thanked Gary Neville for the wisdom and common sense and pointed out what an immense achievement this season has been for the club, while Roy Keane’s gloomy assessment denied that winning the title from here would be “a disaster”.
You won’t get a vibe from Keane, for football is black and white, but consider Arsenal’s total points of 74. In the 27 years since the Premier League became a 20-team division, there have only been two teams – Manchester United in Year 2011-12 and Liverpool 2018-19 – did not win the title after 31 games by that record or more. (City collected the title on both occasions). There has been a lack of composure at times in recent weeks – but what an achievement.
Were it not for Arsenal, we would have seen Manchester City saunter to yet another Premier League title
Arsenal may visit Manchester City later in April with the title goal still in their hands
From here you have it in your own hands. Win Friday night’s home game against Southampton and they will travel to the Etihad next Wednesday, knowing that a draw would keep them in the driver’s seat.
The game in Newcastle on May 7 could be more decisive. But there is also Chelsea. And Brighton. And a Nottingham Forest who will fight for his life on May 20th. Arsenal have a steeper hill to climb than City by May 28 and they will climb it knowing the Etihad machine is fully fired.
Strange for a team at the top, but Arsenal are still underdogs here; those trying to deconstruct the predictable one-dimensional narrative of power and money in football. What an extraordinary story it would be if they could bring it home. And what an extraordinary achievement, even if they don’t.
The Ashes’ influence is unrivalled
In a reception room on the Stockport County grounds, a local cricket club celebrated its centenary on Friday night.
The event was befitting of this milestone, with Matthew Hoggard the guest speaker speaking with humility and reserve about his life in the sport and how clubs like Stockport Trinity are the lifeblood of the game. Hoggard started out with Pudsey Congs in the Bradford League.
Matthew Hoggard (left) was one of England’s stars in a thrilling Ashes series in 2005
But it was something the club’s chairman Richard Higginbotham said that struck a chord.
Amid Trinity’s ups and downs, it was the Ashes summer of 2005 that produced a generation of young players inspired by England’s exploits.
Many emailed last week about my observation, criticizing this summer’s Ashes being locked in 41 days to make room for the Hundred. Lower the ash at your own risk.
The Dutch duo made a big impression
Frans Thijssen will be guests next month at the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year Awards, becoming the first foreign outfield player to win the award.
Ipswich manager Bobby Robson bought Thijssen and Arnold Muhren with the proceeds of Brian Talbot’s sale to Arsenal and still had £100,000 left to ‘put on the bench’, as he once put it.
Arnold Muhren (left) and Frans Thijssen are pictured in the Ipswich dressing room in 1981
The Dutch couple, Robson later reflected, were “wonderful architects of our style of play. They brought another dimension, another way of playing.’
When asked to pick his all-time best XI of foreigners who played in the Football League or Premier League for the excellent book England, Their England written by my colleague Nick Harris 20 years ago, Robson chose Thijssen before Muhren out.
But Muhren made it onto the all-time team, chosen by a 20-person panel of judges, and Thijssen didn’t.
You can read more about their influence in the book Game Changers by Tom van Hulsen. Wonderful players from a different age.
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