Well, what a difference two weeks make:
13th Feb, the Dortmund tie balanced very much in our favour, enjoying the warm rosy glow of a four-match winning streak in the Prem, and relishing the prospect of beating Burnley away to possibly go within two points of the big boys at the top of the league;
27th Feb, six points dropped, our faint chance of a title-tilt gone like a gooner in the Nutty League, and the cold hard fact that losing to Arsenal will see us well and truly dragged back into the battle for fourth with away trips to Anfield and The Etihad to come, not to mention the nagging fear of an all time Spursy performance rearing its head out in Dortmund.
As well as Arsenal, Chelsea and United suddenly breathing down our necks, so are last season’s Tottenham, who had just beaten Arsenal at home and Palace away, meaning we’re now ‘only’ five points better off than we were after the equivalent number of games last season.
In terms of games against equivalent opposition, we also beat Burnley and Chelsea away, so our gain there is now down to four points.
It’s all starting to look a little bit tight.
It’s all starting to look a little bit squeaky.
But it’s still way more exciting than the vast majority of seasons I’ve suffered through as a fan of this great, great club, though it’s threatening to turn out just as frustrating as the disappointing ones as well.
Not that I’m bitching about losing to Chelsea: Strip away the pain and humiliation of Trippier and Hugo going all Laurel & Hardy, and it wasn’t that bad a performance – two big clubs coming off the back of poor performances mostly cancelling each other out, the only real difference between them being one individual moment of quality and one collective moment of madness: Had Winks’ moment of individual quality dipped beneath the bar and Luis’ moment of madness resulted in Kane winning the ball and scoring after we punted the ball back to them following a blatant assault on Trippier, how would we suddenly be a different team, different club? No. All that happened on Wednesday is that we lost narrowly to a team who can beat anyone on their day – the only humiliation was the nature of the second goal, and the fact it gave their fans eight or so minutes to rub our noses in it the way we did to them for vast stretches of second-halves earlier on in the season and a couple of seasons ago in their last ever trip to The Lane.
No, it’s still the Burnley result that burns. And the performance against Burnley. That’s what’s really put us into the negative spiral a defeat at ‘home’ to Arsenal threatens to create, not the loss against Chelsea.
But, at the same time, the two performances have again highlighted the issues we have at full-back: Against Burnley, Rose and Aurier didn’t make enough of the space our system provides for whoever’s in those positions; against Chelsea, Davies and Tripper offered very little in attack and were both found wanting in the moves that led to their goals.
Which brings us back to Dortmund, and the influence Jan had in the second half, because, I don’t mind admitting, there were times in the first half when I looked at him standing stationary on the left in acres of space and wished I was looking at Rose. And then he put in that second half performance and showed us all what sort of difference true quality in our full-back positions will make to this squad; width, precision-crossing, and the ability to overlap the opposition full-back and get in on goal. Of our present options, Rose is capable of width and overlapping, and Trippier is capable of precision-crossing, but that’s about all that there is, and Rose hasn’t consistently been at his best for two seasons, Trippier looks mentally shattered, and KWP, Davies and Aurier feature too inconsistently to suggest Poch truly trusts them. I don’t envy him the task of picking which ones to send out against Arsenal today, but I’m looking forward to watching whoever he chooses play a key part in restoring the points gap over the chasing pack to a more respectable margin.
Well, when I say ‘looking forward’ what I mean is ‘desperately hoping’. My actual expectations for this game are horribly low. In truth, I fear we might be in for bit of a hiding. Which is more of a reflection on us than them, because Arsenal haven’t exactly been setting the world alight themselves, especially away from home, where they’ve lost to Chelsea, West Ham, and, more recently, Liverpool (5-1), and Man City (3-1), managed single-goal margin victories over Cardiff, Newcastle, Bournemouth, and Huddersfield (their last Prem away game, where Huddersfield had 55% of the possession and 16 shots to Arsenal’s 9), and drawn with Palace, Brighton and Mourinho’s United at the fag-end of his time there. It’s hardly awe-inspiring stuff, though wins in their last two home games against Saints and Bournemouth mean they approach us with the foul wind of Arsenal momentum behind them.
They will also have the fact they outplayed and outfought us for the majority of the league game at their place in the backs of their minds, though that knowledge should be tempered by the fact we did exactly the same to them on their home turf in the Carabo Cup not so long after. Also, the fact they beat us pretty comprehensively at the Emirates last season didn’t do them much good when they visited Wembley last February – the score-line might only have been 1-0, and they might have missed a good chance at the death to steal a draw, but we were head and shoulders better than them and should have won by three or four.
In a spooky coincidence, we actually went into that fixture with the gap between us having been reduced back to four points following our draw away at Anfield and another 5-1 home victory for Arsenal, but this time the fodder was Everton, not Bournemouth. The two teams were fifth and sixth ahead of that game. Three matches later, we were fourth, thirteen points clear, and they never got near us again.
The previous season, in their last ever visit to The Lane, we ran out quite comfortable two-nil winners, the satisfaction of victory sweetened by the fact victory meant they would be finishing beneath us for the first time in too long.
The season before that, and probably the last time an NLD has felt quite so important as this one. Both teams still had ambitions of capitalising when Leicester finally capitulated, but we’d blown the chance to go top of the Prem by losing at West Ham earlier on in the week with one of our no-show performances. The game against Arsenal looked to be going the same way, with Ramsey putting them ahead in the 39th minute and us looking incapable of doing very much about it before Coquelin got himself sent off in the 55th minute. What followed could have been one of the best NLD’s for us in living memory – Alderweireld lifting the mood with a 60th minute equaliser and Kane lifting the roof with that absolute stunner two minutes later – but Sanchez pulled them level and the points and the spoils ended shared.
The season before that, Poch’s first season with us, saw one season wonder Harry Kane pop up in the 56th and 86th minutes to make Mesut’s eleventh minute opener meaningless.
So, we’ve never lost at home to our immigrant neighbours in the Prem under Poch, with our last home league defeat to them coming under the auspicious reign of Tim Sherwood in March 14. Before that, we have to go back to 2007 for their last victory on our patch in the Prem: If patterns mean anything in football, they can do one until at least 2021. North London, and three points, are hopefully ours.