International breaks can often disrupt the rhythm that a team have, especially nuisance ones so early in the season. So it was a concern when, after a controlled and impressive victory at Anfield, the squad dispersed to various locations around the world to represent their country. Would the promising signs still be there when they got back?
Turns out we needn’t have worried. Since the domestic season restarted, we have seen a 6-1 demolition over Southampton followed by a 2-1 win in Montpellier in the opening exchanges of the Champions League. The former was a reminder of how difficult we are to play against when ahead – Southampton’s entire gameplan was destroyed by the early own goal that gave us the lead, and had no answer to the multi-pronged onslaught that followed. Montpellier, meanwhile, represents a more interesting mindshift to me – early in the season, particularly after the sales of Van Persie and Song, many were exceptionally pessimistic about the campaign ahead, but just a few short weeks later, there was a considerable amount of criticism after a victory at the home of the French champions.
For me, that is extremely interesting. The bar has been raised – we are not so wary of this team’s ability that we’ll snatch any three points with relief, instead we will look with a critical eye over things that may cost us those points in the future, even though they didn’t on the night. It is certainly no bad thing to analyse in this way, but it certainly shows a change in expectation level brought on by that impressive victory at Liverpool. An understandable shift – the defence looks more solid, while the seamless integration of Cazorla and Podolski must surprise even the most hopeful. We knew they had quality – watching them slot it so quickly and effectively has been a sight to behold.
Tomorrow, the season takes a turn for the difficult, with a trip to Eastlands to play Man City, themselves unfortunate not to win in the Bernabeu midweek. It is already being described as the acid test of our season, of how far we have come since the summer, and a marker for how well we can expect to do this season.
I say that is nonsense. It is a single match, nothing more, nothing less. A big match, no doubt, but a single match all the same. Our recent encounters with City have all been close, all able to change on a single moment, so to draw too many conclusions from tomorrow, irrespective of the result, would be erroneous.
If we win, it will be a fantastic three points, and further evidence that this team is moving in the right direction. But do not forget that we have had spectacular results in big games before – last season we scored five at Stamford Bridge and another five at home to Spurs, with a crucial late season win against City also fully deserved at the Emirates. The issue is consistency – if we are to move forward it isn’t by winning those games, but by not screwing up so many ‘simpler’ games, as we did last season. In short, consistency is what we aim for, and what we need to turn into genuine title contenders. Tomorrow doesn’t give that – more performances like the one against Southampton could ironically prove more important.
Likewise, if we lose then we should not react by throwing our hands up and claiming that nothing has changed for the better. All that would have happened is that we would have lost at the home of the champions, something that will happen to most clubs this season. The positives from the last few weeks would not suddenly be eradicated, the players who have made forward strides would not have regressed, we would simply have lost a football match against a very good team.
That might sound boring, but it is true – tomorrow really is about three points, and nothing more. The team should be judged over a longer period than ninety minutes. If, over the next ten games, we win seven or eight, then we might just have ourselves an excellent season. If we win two, we’re likely to be waving hello to Liverpool in the standings.
The point is – we could win, lose or draw tomorrow and it wouldn’t enormously affect the bigger picture. The squad is growing together and has an efficiency I haven’t seen in a number of years, so I’ll remain optimistic even if the result doesn’t go our way.
Tomorrow is a big game, no doubt. But a barometer for the season ahead? Nonsense.
Enjoy the game.