Well we might have been away for over 100 days but very little seems to have changed. Against Aston Villa we utterly dominated but then lost a goal massively against the run of play, and then bombarded them for the rest of the game. Happily this time we got the goals we deserved and justice was done.
Other things that looked eerily normal were that N’Golo Kante still appears not to get tired, even after all those months out, Olivier Giroud was a perfect professional who deserved his winner, the gaffer got miffed at the team not being as clinical as he would want, and Cesar Azpilicueta has great difficulty in remembering where a right full-back is supposed to play! And I mean that in the most positive way possible.
Dave was brilliant throughout, with a whole bunch of quality crosses, and he spent more time positioned as a right winger than he did as a right full-back. My thinking before the game was that he would have his hands and head full keeping Jack Grealish quiet, but he decided he would be even more creative than one of the Premier League’s most exciting and creative players.
If you are playing number 10 and you get two assists, one from the right wing and one from the left wing in open play, you would be very happy, but doing that from right-back was amazing. I did some analysis just before the shutdown saying I thought he was becoming one of our most dangerous attackers and it got a few raised eyebrows in response. It doesn’t seem in the slightest bit weird now. He even had a near-post header at Villa Park that was unlucky to miss.
One of the reasons he can leave his position is because he has Kante in the midfield and our French phenomenon always sees where the gaps are left and covers them. This time was no exception, he did it all day long whether it was Cesar or Marcos Alonso who was heading forward.
I admit I thought Frank would have gone for Reece James and maybe considered Azpi at left-back, but it turned out to be the right call. There were other good calls. I expected Tammy to come on earlier but Frank brought on Pulisic and stuck with Olivier Giroud, and it turned out to be the most inspired decision. Both scored, the game was won and the rest of the Champions League-chasing teams got a metaphorical punch in the solar plexus.
It was of course odd with the empty stadium, but the lads seemed totally comfortable with the situation. Frank isn’t using it as an excuse and isn’t allowing the players to complain either. That was apparent in the tempo of the play. We kept it well and for the most part moved it quickly, which in the end was Villa’s downfall. Their concentration lapsed with the constant prodding from all angles.
It was really interesting doing the game on the 5th Stand app, with a whole bunch of different voices and ideas from the gang. It’s well worth a watch during the games, but we must be honest and say that although the never-less-than-lovely Tore Andre Flo was great to hear from, Roberto De Matteo nailed it in his brief appearance. 1-0 down when he came on air, we were 2-1 up 10 minutes later when he left us. Robbie, we might be needing you on speed dial on Zoom for the rest of the season!
I’ve rechristened him Robbie the Redeemer because of his influence and because of the name of the Salvador Dali painting in the background of his shot. Cool backdrop Robbie!
The games are coming thick and fast now, like never before, and I just hope the intensity shown in this first game is continued. Some other teams have looked sluggish in the openers but I thought we looked as lively, sharp and committed as anyone so far. Maybe it is partly because of the youthfulness of the group, but that would be unfair on Dave, Willian and Olivier Giroud who each put in as much of a shift as anyone.
So Frank has a whole different set of questions to answer when Manchester City come to the Bridge next. Pep’s players were generally superb against Arsenal, a game I was fortunate to be at. Actually I know I am fortunate to be at any game just now, whether it is good, bad or indifferent. It is however a huge test.
I started writing this from the very empty press box at the Etihad Stadium just before the Man City v Burnley game last night, so I will have plenty of info on City. I just wonder what team they will put out against us, because too many games too close together is tricky for some of their players, partly because their true focus is on the cup competitions they are still involved in.
Two things are certain, they will not sit back and neither will we. I expect this one to be a cracker and even if we do not pick up all three points, we will be in a great position in the league with a very winnable run of games to come. With as good and deep a bench as anyone in the league, right now I am more confident than at any time this season that we will make the top four. Apart from anything else, we deserve it.