GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
Having carefully managed himself over the holiday period, Giles Smith has the energy for his first column of 2014, giving a supporter's-eye view of recent events...
The laws of football journalism - which are enforced with eye-watering fines and stiff custodial sentences - insist that I refer to what we've all just been through as a 'hectic period', and you can see why. Four games in nine days! As periods go, that's hectic, in anyone's definition. And at Christmas, too, when one is pretty busy anyway, what with having all the relatives to fit in, plus numerous appointments with various plates of mincemeat.
Yet have we ever looked so composed while being so hectic? OK, the defeat of Swansea was a little scruffy, but it took place on Boxing Day, when random things are apt to happen (we have been known to drop points at home to Fulham, of all people, on this day, remember) and when just getting home to a plate of mincemeat with a clean sheet and three points is more than enough.
The destruction of Southampton yesterday was, by contrast, inspiringly complete - and the more so for coming after the supremely efficient rebuttal of the pretentions of Liverpool, during which Luis Suarez, widely hymned as the season's most devastatingly effective striker, was so effectively neutralised he didn't appear to be on the pitch at all and eventually had to resort to throwing himself on the floor just to get noticed. (I suspect that's why Howard Webb didn't book him. He sympathised with his invisibility.)
Ten points from the available 12, then, over this 'hectic period'. And because the two missing points were dropped in the 0-0 draw away at Arsenal, they seem entirely forgiveable.
That said, managerless Cardiff came within a few moments of achieving exactly the same result at the Emirates yesterday, which would have devalued the currency a little bit. In many ways, as contradictory as it seems, we should be grateful for those oh-so-desperate, last-gasp Arsenal goals. They enable us to continue to feel good about what happened last week.
Conversely, Tottenham's result at Old Trafford yesterday has the slightly annoying effect of making one cast one's mind back to August and reflect that our own 0-0 draw on that ground really was two points dropped rather than, as one optimistically felt at the time, with the season freshly underway and the full impact of David Moyes' appointment yet to emerge, one point gained. Football, being an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, is always, rather irritatingly, causing one to alter one's perspective in this way.
Still, for now, the following perspective on things holds firm: 10 points from 12, two points off the top, coming into form. Sometimes being hectic works to one's advantage.
What happened to keeping it local at Christmas? Traditionally, thanks to sensitive, people-friendly scheduling by the people at the Premier League, our 'hectic period' engagements would involve nothing more taxing than a short walk to Fulham, or some other conveniently placed London ground not too far from a Tube station. This year, although we were blessed with a local trip to Arsenal and a relatively local trip to Southampton, our Christmas visitors were Swansea and Liverpool, both of which places, a quick glance at a map of the British Isles will tell you, are a long way away - even further away than West Ham, if such a thing can be imagined.
And, though it was no doubt nice for supporters of those two clubs to come to London and see our electricity and everything - especially at this time of the year, when we are using some of it to power pretty lights and Christmassy displays - I don't suppose many of them particularly wanted to spend quite so much of their annual holiday on a motorway.
Worse still, Manchester United were at HOME on New Year's Day, meaning their fans had to travel hundreds of miles on a day when the roads are traditionally crowded and public transport tends to be limited.
You would think the Premier League could have had some sympathy, in keeping with the festive season, and given United a game somewhere in the south. But that's just typical of the times, I guess. It's television and money that call the shots these days. No one is thinking of the fans.
There are moments when the world really does seem to have tipped completely upside down - when all the certainties that life has taught you to depend upon suddenly provide you with no bearings at all and you are left clutching about the place in bewilderment for support.
One feels that way, inevitably, about the controversy which, on New Year's Day, engulfed our old friend, the referee Howard Webb, following his handling of Manchester United v. Spurs, a performance which seems to have left him in some bad odour with David Moyes.
Ref in trouble for not giving United a penalty at Old Trafford? It's right up there with 'Man Bites Dog', 'Water Entirely Floods Gobi Desert' and 'Train Found In Sky' among the stories that fly in the face of all you thought you knew and make you dizzy with uncertainty to read.
The year is only hours old, but already one is wondering how 2014 going to outdo that for incidents which stretch the realms of the possible. You can bet it will have a go, though. Years always do.
There are a number of major issues arising from the yellow-carding of Oscar at Southampton, and the manager unequivocally addressed all of them in his comments after the game.
However, I wonder if there's a minor question which remains, over and above all the other important stuff, about the wisdom, from a straightforward tactical point of view, of finding yourself in the penalty area with a goalkeeper flailing away at your feet and seeking a penalty (and an accompanying red card for the flailing goalkeeper) rather than simply going round that goalkeeper and scoring a goal.
If Oscar had scored (and he did seem to have a more than reasonable opportunity to do so, despite the goalkeeper's temptingly penalty-worthy advance), we would have been 1-0 up. If the penalty had been given, on the other hand, we would have had a decent shot for 1-0 and Southampton would have been down to 10 men for the remaining half an hour or so. Which, perhaps, would have the left the game, as Jose Mourinho put it, 'in our pocket'.
On the other hand, penalties are sometimes missed - especially when your regular penalty taker isn't on the pitch. And don't teams reduced to 10 men notoriously become harder, rather than easier, to score against - particularly when the scores are level and they have something to regroup for and defend?
Quite apart from all the other issues, moral and otherwise, surely the smart thing to try and do in circumstances such as those that Oscar found himself in at Southampton is the simple one: bury it.