Something very unnatural happened at the Emirates the other day when Arsenal met Man Utd which I still can’t get over. The stakes in that game were high: for the winner was the right to the best view of the rear end of Pep Guardiola’s, out of sight, Man City team. The same fixture last season had seen Arsene Wenger break the spell that Mourinho had over him in Premier League fixtures. He was determined to show that it wasn’t a one-off.
At the beginning of the match, all the omens were good especially as it seemed that Mourinho had left the spare team-bus back in Old Trafford or else it was held up in heavy traffic on the M1 north of Watford. Our relief was to prove short-lived. What he had brought along instead, was worse; much worse. His new weapon was nothing less that the most powerful form of Voodoo!
The first manifestation was on our defenders. We were wearing our home strip, red breast with white sleeves and Man Utd were in all black so that the difference was clear. The sun was shining and the sky was cloudless so that visibility was good. There was therefore no natural reason why Lauren Kolscieny, our captain, should have played the ball square to his opposing captain of the team in black having won the ball so adeptly to set up a counter-attack. But that is what he did and Antonio Valencia received the ball with glee leaving Khalashnikov-Kolasinac heading the wrong way down, fast, down the wing.
As the ball was played into Pogba on the edge of the box, his feint drew in four of our players in panic ( Mourinho must have been working the pins on the dolls at that point) before he laid the ball neatly back into Valencia’s path. The juju could be seen at work again as the ball sailed through the legs of both Nacho Monreal and Peter Chech, one after the other, and into our net. It was 1:0 to Man Utd and we were only 3 Minutes into the game.
No sooner had we recovered our composure than the juju was back at work again in tying the legs of our Schodran Mustafi together under harassment from Jessi Lingard. He had dropped his shoulder once to lose the chasing striker; when he attempted to turn back in on his right foot, instead of playing the ball safely away with his left foot, his brain went into momentary relapse. By the time his head cleared and our sore eyes re-opened, Lingard had placed the ball past our un-rushing keeper to graze the inside of the post before nestling into the bottom of our net. It was partly Calamity-Xhaka’s fault in delaying the pass a tad too long. As it was, the only artistry on show was Anthony Marshall’s sublime lay off with the outside of his boot to place the ball into the path of his on-rushing team mate. With just ten minutes gone, we were 2:0 down to our arch enemies both goals being the outcome of generous endowments by our defenders.
But this was Mourinho and Manchester United: all my hates were in the one place. It became clear that I was not alone in my anguish as our players, to a man, now stirred and rose to the occasion, playing like the damned. Every pass we made was with purpose and every tackle was with ‘bad intention’ (ala Mike Tyson).In one attack in the 32nd minute we rattled the bar and shaved the post in the same breath.
Our reward came in the 48th minute with a goal that was quintessentially Arsenal. Sanchez,receiving the ball at the edge of the Man Utd goal, spotted Ramsay making one of his trademark foraging late runs into the box on the blind side of the Man Utd defensive line. When the ball came on cue, he could have attempted to edge it past De Gea first time but that is never the Arsenal way when you can find that last pass. What he did instead was magical and unexpected. He calmly cushioned the ball back to Lacazette on the edge of the six yard box who in turn calmly picked his spot past the completely isolated and befuddled Man U goalie. I foresee that that team goal will be the subject of many doctoral theses in sports psychology in years to come.
As we huffed and we puffed and we threatened to blow United away, only one man stood in our way: that sorcerer from Spain, De Gea, masquerading as a goalkeeper. There was one double save in particular that he pulled off that merited a call for the clock to be put back for him to appear before the Inquisition to confess his devotion to the occult and to forces from the underworld. Iwobi had drilled the ball square into Lacazette inside the enemy camp with guards stationed all around. The Frenchman expertly cushioned the ball with the instep of his right setting it up for an instant full-force strike with his left. De Gea had no right to save that shot as it was taken fast, low and hard from close up. Though the ball was past him De Gea somehow clawed it back.
As if that was not enough, as Sanchez moved in to lift the loose ball over the Spaniard then prostrate on the ground, the sorcerer managed to raise his left boot just in the nick of time to block the effort. Had that ball gone in we would have ripped them apart as we were on fire. It did not and that was the point at which that game was lost to us. The end was predictable as we knew that it was only a matter of time before United would hit us on the break which is precisely the outcome that Mourinho had requested from the team’s witch doctor. You now know why these guys are called the Red Devils.