DECLAN Rice is a title-winning player in a title-bluffing squad. He does and says the right things, i.e. he did everything and said nothing against West Ham United. He was pure theatre. He returned to his old club in an Arsenal jersey and showed both sides what they were missing. In the case of the hapless Hammers, it was a proper footballer. For the Gunners, it was a proper, trophy-chasing thespian.
The 25-year-old really has got the routine down. Impeccable set-piece deliveries, two assists and a nonchalant world-class strike, he did what Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane once did. He dominated all aspects of the game. That was the title-winning bit.
And then came the goal celebrations. There were none, just a pained expression, like a vet putting down his own dog. He had a job to do, but he didn't enjoy it. At the final whistle, he applauded his former fans, looking sombre and contrite, practically apologising for his own brilliance. Sorry for the hammering, fellas, but this is how we do it at Arsenal.
But they don’t, as a rule. That’s the brilliant, title-bluffing bit. The greatest trick that the Gunners appear to be pulling off is convincing the world that they exist among the legitimate title chasers. The suppressed celebrations, the humble brags and the rueful handshakes with annihilated opponents presented an air of expectation, as if this was all normal. Four consecutive victories and 16 goals scored would suggest just that.
But it’s a bluff; a wonderful, ingenious bluff that may sustain the pretenders to the throne as they perform a manufactured swagger towards the real thing. This is method acting at its finest, like a soap opera newcomer pretending he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, or Eddie Nketiah pretending he’s Erling Haaland, or Arsenal pretending they’ve got Liverpool’s squad.
They don’t. Not quite. Only Rice and Bukayo Saka are the flawless gems, the ones capable of dominating their positions at every other English Premier League club. Gabriel Martinelli and Leandro Trossard have their moments, Martin Odegaard benefits from Rice’s workrate and William Saliba will become a world-beater in time. The rest are flexing, peacocking, bluffing; call it whatever you like but it’s a treat to behold.
The Gunners are entertaining and distracting like a plate-spinning magician, pulling another rabbit from the hat, to draw attention from the obvious fact that the crockery is only ever one mistimed spin away from being smashed. Don’t look for a missing No.9. Look at the five different goal-scorers against West Ham. Don’t look at the baffling enigma that is Kai Havertz. Look at Rice doing the work of two midfielders to maintain the illusion. Don’t look at the flaws. Look at the theatrical cheering. And on it goes.
The puritanical celebration police missed the point when they phunted down Mikel Arteta for his spontaneous display of euphoria after beating Liverpool last week. With a smaller squad, it may be all he has to play with, to go a bit Spinal Tap and turn everything up to 11.
Creating the illusion of title-chasing verve
The Reds have a complete midfield. Manchester City had Kyle Walker, Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Bernando Silva on the bench against Everton (do take a moment to ponder the absurdity of that subs list). Arteta has theatricality, or illusion, or deception, or whatever terminology one cares to use to describe not so much the dark arts, but the grey arts, that area in the middle requiring something a little extra. And if it’s a bluff to make Arsenal look a little bigger, tougher and more formidable, to puff their chests out and totter like first-time models on a catwalk, then so what? Whatever floats their smaller boats and keeps the title race alive, we’ll gladly take, thank you very much.
Maybe Roy Keane’s little book of superlatives becomes vital to Arsenal in the coming weeks. They can’t match Liverpool’s strength in attack. They can’t rival Manchester City’s subs bench. But they can do spirit, desire and hunger. They can portray big characters, taking photos on the pitch, fist-pumping down the touchline. They can play it cool against a former club, like Rice, or score two and lament the chances that got away, like Saka. They’re all playing beefy parts right now.
In the movie "Gangs of New York", Day-Lewis stayed in character as Bill the Butcher throughout the long shoot, insisting on being called Bill the Butcher at all times. The Gunners must do likewise, looking and sounding like title winners until the very end. They must be like Vieira. And Keane. And Erling Haaland. And stay in character until the shoot is over.
The West Ham romp provided a terrific rehearsal. Beating opponents 6-0 feels like real title-winning method acting, even though West Ham were not real opponents. They were uninvolved extras pioneering a new version of anti-football, which involved sitting back and hitting on the break in a game with no breaks. So they just sat. At the back. And fell over. Six times. Manchester City would’ve reached double figures.
But forget that. Focus on the bluff. Only title winners score six at West Ham, eviscerate their former employers and stroll off at the final whistle like it's meant to be, a way of life. Title winners act like title winners, even if it’s just that. An act.
When the bums squeak, the trophy sniffers are advised not to fall for their own publicity. Don’t believe the hype and so on. Forget that, Arsenal. Believe the hype. Wallow in the self-inflated importance. Last season’s humble approach got lost in the weeds. Stand centre stage this time around and do the spirit, desire and hunger routine. The title-chasing performance may not always convince, but it’s going to be so much fun to watch.
Last season’s humble approach got lost in the weeds. Stand centre stage this time around and do the spirit, desire and hunger routine. The title-chasing performance may not always convince, but it’s going to be so much fun to watch.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.
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