Last Sunday evening some gentle consolations for having narrowly failed to beat one of the least adventurous Manchester United sides in my living memory weren’t too hard to find. Both Leicester and West Ham, just ahead of us in the table, had obligingly chosen the same weekend to lose, meaning that when the dust settled on that round of fixtures we had improved our relative position by a point.
And both Leicester and Man United have continued to be obliging since then, dropping two more points each in their subsequent games. So all good, you would have to say.
But, consolation-wise, and perhaps even more brightly for the long-term future of the game, VAR had once again, for the second consecutive game in which our team had been involved, come out on the side of truth, justice and the American way. Whisper it, but maybe the system is slowly but surely, and entirely against the odds, starting to deliver. Certainly the combined effect of its video imagery and the judgment of the onfield official last Sunday was to dismiss the notion that Callum Hudson-Odoi had committed anything like a punishable handball offence in our penalty area. Quite right too.
Interestingly, while consulting the pitch-side monitor during those deliberations, Stuart Atwell made a break with current trends and chose not to adopt the ‘hands on hips’ position which recently seems to have become the default stance for the elite-level official on duty at the replay machine. Atwell instead elected to stand and lean in from the upper back, with arms straight down by his sides. What did we all think of that? For me it perhaps lacked the heroic dynamic of the classic pose favoured by his peers, with fewer shades of Hollywood and more shades of someone in a car park trying to read the small-print on the ticket machine, but I’m willing to listen to other arguments.
The bigger point is, the right decision was reached at the end of those deliberations, and by extension one’s growing faith in the ability of VAR to deliver was further enlarged. Now, of course, one could point out that in a world entirely without VAR we wouldn’t have needed to be sitting around while a referee watched television in the first place. Following that particular incident, nobody flagged, nobody even really appealed, and the game would have happily gone on and proceeded to its goalless conclusion.
But again, it’s a freshly complicated argument, because, as we all now know, in a world without VAR, Olivier Giroud’s goal against Atletico Madrid wouldn’t have stood and that would mean we would now be going into the return leg with a) a significantly bigger task ahead of us, and b) a gap on the wall in the National Gallery of Great Goals.
Tricky, no? If the price of an Olivier Giroud bicycle kick is an eternity of Stuart Atwell and his colleagues squinting at flat screens in various postures, is it a price worth paying? Such is the philosophical conundrum the modern age has presented us with. And on balance, and factoring in last Sunday’s episode, I would say that at present VAR is earning its right to dwell among us – although, of course, if we go out in the second leg in a fortnight’s time, or if Liverpool get awarded something tonight at Anfield on the basis of a highly marginal decision involving one of those patently unscientific coloured lines that Stockley Park blithely swears by, I reserve the right to change that opinion.
Anyway, further consolation for Sunday’s mild shortfall could be obtained by getting the calculator out. Doing the sums, it seems to me that seven or even five points from the next nine (Liverpool this evening, Everton at home and then Leeds away) would leave us handily placed at the start of a month’s-worth of relatively unthreatening-looking fixtures against variously troubled opponents before we go over to West Ham who, with any luck, will have blown completely off course by then.
But first up, Liverpool at Anfield tonight. This is, without question, a very good time to be playing them – just after they have ended a truly shocking run of form. Maybe it’s even the perfect time. You’ll know what I mean. Normally teams wait to end their truly shocking runs of form until they play us. Arsenal had gone a spectacular seven Premier League games without a win and were heading into the relegation zone until they faced us on Boxing Day. Southampton were on a run of six consecutive defeats before they steadied themselves with that draw against us the other week. And Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick hadn’t scored since ‘Dallas’ was premiering on British television before we came along last July, at which point he went and got two. All bad streaks end somewhere, and we know where: against us. You could think it was personal, or something.
So, to that extent it’s something of a relief that Liverpool’s run of four successive defeats ended against Sheffield United at the weekend. It means it can’t end tonight, which it presumably would have been planning to do otherwise. And accordingly it stands to reason that one would much rather be playing them now than then.
On the subject of runs, though, in these strange and necessarily disordered times this is already our third experience in 2021 of Thursday night football – or, as we tend to think of it, that night that Arsenal normally play. And so far the experience has worked out well, with defeats of Tottenham and of Barnsley in the FA Cup.
And, yes, it’s not really a night that we would want to be associated with in the long term, but to put it plainly, we are currently 100 per cent in Thursday night football in the Tuchel era. Liverpool would be right to be worried. Let’s go.