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IAN LADYMAN: Arsenal have won nothing yet but let them enjoy the ride

It is only 298 days since Arsenal’s players sat slumped on the turf at St James’ Park in Newcastle and readied themselves for what was to come. Another brutal analysis of failure. Another dissection of their character. Another mauling in public. Worst of all, another private annihilation at the hands of their manager Mikel Arteta.

It all came their way and then some. And when it did, it was familiar. It had happened before. This time it was particularly painful because they had looked to be on course for a top-four Premier League finish and qualification for the Champions League. That would have been a desperately needed sign of progress under Arteta’s guidance, an indication that old habits had finally been expunged.

But then, at the death, right when it really mattered, they fell apart. A 3-0 defeat at Tottenham came first. Then, four days later, a 2-0 loss at Newcastle. Season over. Fifth place. How very Arsenal.

Some were on their knees again last weekend but this time it was different. Because others were lost in the embrace of team-mates and unused substitutes and coaching staff too. 

This time it was a 97th-minute goal that did for them. Their goal. A 2-0 deficit against Bournemouth had become a 3-2 victory in the 97th minute of the game. The roof was coming off the Emirates. Arsenal were still five points clear at the top of the league. The dream of a first title in 19 years was still on. Bedlam. Joy. All inhibitions shed.

Arsenal have come a long way since the side that saw their top-four hopes dented last season with a miserable performance during a 2-0 away defeat against Newcastle United

There was jubilant celebrations after Reiss Nelson's winning goal against Bournemouth

There was jubilant celebrations after Reiss Nelson’s winning goal against Bournemouth

This photograph is my favourite of the season showing the chaos of the aftermath of the win

This photograph is my favourite of the season showing the chaos of the aftermath of the win

It made for a great photograph. My favourite of the season so far, it was carried in these pages. Taken from above, the absolute chaos of the aftermath is all there. Arsenal players consumed by joy, Bournemouth players prostate in sporting horror. It is fabulous simply because it tells us everything about what sport really is.

But some would not have it this way. Some believe such scenes are premature. The fun police we can call them. Or the ‘you’ve won nothing’ brigade. Captain of that particular team can be Roy Keane.

The FA are involved now. They are ‘investigating’ and that jars a bit but is also kind of okay. There are guidelines and I understand that. If we had all 79 subs and all 27 coaching staff on the field every time a goal was scored then we would never get home on a Saturday night.

But that is not to say we should begrudge Arteta and his players their reaction to a huge moment in their season. Because whatever we do and whatever the outcome of the FA’s probe, that would be wrong.

Arsenal have come so far since that awful afternoon at Newcastle but they hang you for all kinds of stuff in football these days. Manchester United’s Wout Weghorst is currently having to explain why he touched the ‘This is Anfield’ sign in the players’ tunnel last Sunday. Here’s a thought. Maybe a journeyman pro was just determined to make the most of his first and maybe last visit to a great football stadium. It wasn’t because of this that his team subsequently lost 7-0.

And Arsenal have certainly had all this criticism come their way before. Too many dressing room selfies. Too many pats on the back. Stop grinning.

Keane, much as we love him really, is one who doesn’t like footballers who smile too much. He doesn’t like footballers who swap shirts. Deep down, the former Manchester United captain only really likes footballers who win. All the time.

But here is the thing. Most footballers don’t win all of the time. Most spend their careers trying their damndest to do so but all but the really gifted and the really lucky ones spend just as much time losing or drawing. Or, in the grand scheme of things, just being a bit average.

Arsenal have won nothing yet but Mikel Arteta's side should be allowed to enjoy the journey

Arsenal have won nothing yet but Mikel Arteta’s side should be allowed to enjoy the journey

Roy Keane is the captain of the fun police and was critical of Arsenal's 'premature' celebrations

Roy Keane is the captain of the fun police and was critical of Arsenal’s ‘premature’ celebrations

Professional sport is hard, you see. It can be a grind. Often it is without reward, just like life itself. Arsenal may not win the Premier League. Players who have suffered on the field in recent years – players like Bukayo Sako, Granit Xhaka and Ben White – may not receive the ultimate reward for their efforts come late May. If so, there will be no celebration at that point. No smiles. Only disappointment and, having led the table for so long, perhaps even a sense of failure.

So let them enjoy the ride now. Let them play with freedom and spirit and ambition and, when things go well, take a photograph to show the kids one day. Life goes fast in sport and it doesn’t always take you where you think it will go.

Keane has more than a dozen big medals to his name. He played for one of the greatest sports teams any of us have ever known. He could afford to wait until it was all over to smile and have a look back.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Not everyone is so talented. For the majority, football is not about the pots and pans, as Brian Clough once called them. It’s about the thrill of the journey. Arsenal should now be left alone to enjoy theirs.

Arsenal have a five point lead over Man City at the top of the standings with 12 games to play

Arsenal have a five point lead over Man City at the top of the standings with 12 games to play

Anfield proof of added time issue 

World Cup games in Qatar were too long. Nobody needs 12 minutes of added time. But anyone who does not agree with recent moves by football’s lawmakers to solve a clear problem should have been at Anfield last Sunday. 

Five lots of second-half substitutions, six goal celebrations and all the other usual nonsense. Yet only three minutes of added time played by the referee Andy Madley. Something, quite literally, does not add up.

Liverpool scored six second-half goals yet only three minutes of added time were awarded

Liverpool scored six second-half goals yet only three minutes of added time were awarded

Officials don’t understand the game 

The officials who awarded Chelsea a penalty for handball against Borussia Dortmund clearly do not understand the game. 

Meanwhile, those ex-pros criticising the decision to give Kai Havertz another go after Dortmund players encroached clearly do not understand the rules. So it seems we have problems on both sides of that particular fence.

A task too difficult even for Salah! 

Much acclaim for Mohamed Salah as he passed Robbie Fowler’s total of 128 Premier League goals for Liverpool, but let us not forget that football did exist before the advent of the top flight in its current form 30 years ago. With that in mind, it is hard to see Salah, or anyone else, ever catching the great Ian Rush, Liverpool’s record modern goalscorer.

Rush – still looking as though he could give Jurgen Klopp half an hour off the bench at the age of 61 – racked up 229 Division One goals for the club during two spells straddling his time at Juventus. 

Salah, 31 in June, does have a significantly greater goals-per-game ratio (a goal every game and a half as opposed to Rush’s goal every two games) but the day we start to dish out awards for stats such as that is the day we should all go off and watch American Football.

And one more thing. Salah and Rush rightly take their place on an Anfield mural that sits at the top of Stanley Park depicting the club’s great goal scorers.

Dalglish, Aldridge, Keegan, Mane, Firmino, Torres. Kuyt, even. But there is no Michael Owen. Do three years at Manchester United count more than a century of Premier League goals for Liverpool? Maybe they do. Discuss.

Salah, or any Liverpool player, will find it hard to catch Ian Rush's goalscoring record

Salah, or any Liverpool player, will find it hard to catch Ian Rush’s goalscoring record

Southgate has decision to make 

If Kyle Walker is deemed by the police to have a case to answer after allegations he exposed himself in a Manchester bar then he must be excluded from Gareth Southgate’s England squad next week until the facts of the matter become clear. 

If he isn’t then all the FA say about women and inclusivity in our national sport means nothing.

Tottenham should look at Pochettino alternative 

Rather than dance another dance with Mauricio Pochettino Tottenham should take a look around London and then throw everything they have at Brentford’s Thomas Frank. 

And those issues that made you leave last time, Mauricio? They are still there.


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