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The Game No-One Expected


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Many games were on the schedule on opening weekend. One wasn't, but might as well have been.

The two veteran players who left over the summer were not the sort of squad filler you’d be comfortable losing. One a key to the team’s defense, the other a key to its attack. And coming off of a somewhat frustrating season, where basic requirements were met but lofty goals were not reached, most everyone felt that serious investment was needed to keep the squad moving forward.

The manager, a cautious and careful team-builder with a fine reputation, wasn’t idle. Money did part from between his fingers. But the team that lined up to start the season was quite close to the team that lined up to start a year before. Indeed, apart from the two departed veterans, only injuries kept the 2008 and 2009 opening day lineups from matching. The manager kept faith in his own abilities, kept faith in the players he had brought to the club already.

Many doubted that this was the right move. And they would be ready to pounce right from the final whistle of game one, for any weakness, any failing, any sign that the manager’s decision to stand pat was not the correct one. You don’t lose your senior defender, a point of strength at the back for several years, and lose nothing, would be the cry. You don’t lose the axis of your offense, the guy who provides key abilities his teammates lack, and lose nothing, would be the refrain. And don’t talk to me about one game meaning little, a decisive result tells you a lot, would be the inevitable accompaniment.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for that faith today in resounding fashion. In a game that was possibly more lopsided than the score, his chosen few, his band of brothers dispatched a worthy opponent 6-1. The thrashing was comprehensive, the devastation complete. A decisive result that told us a lot.

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I am not about to savage Martin O’Neill right now. I think the assaults on his basic intelligence and commitment that parade across this board and others every day are often disgraceful. He would be the first to say that it comes with the territory, but that doesn’t make it right.

I am about to point out that his noose came out today and must perforce start to be fitted. You can be cautious and patient in the transfer market and succeed. You can be tight fisted in the transfer market and succeed. But when you lose key personnel and respond by keeping the hand you have dealt yourself, you are doubling down in a way that everyone can see. And it just so happens that he wasn’t the only manager to do so this summer. And it also just so happens that the opening weekend has highlighted each man’s coolly calculated bet with neon tubing. You cannot realistically have a more drastic differential than Everton 1-6 Arsenal and Aston Villa 0-2 Wigan Athletic. Regardless of what happened last season, regardless of the fact that it is only one game, and any team, good or bad, will vary widely in its performance… you cannot ignore what those 180 minutes of football have just told you. I won’t.

This is not a call for a sacking. Personally, even if I had a much lower opinion of our current manager coming in, I would not be interested in seeing him sent off before the end of this season, at a minimum. Almost all teams at all levels are way, way too quick on the trigger with their coaching staff; and their fans are even less tolerant than their owners. While O’Neill may or may not be the man to take us forward, he certainly isn’t a man who will take us backward. Aston Villa will not stop being a threat to break into the top echelon if we finish sixth, or eighth, or tenth this season. Choosing to believe otherwise is, well I’ll say it, silly. And the man should be given the full opportunity to do what he came here to do.

Martin O’Neill may yet cut his way out of the rope that just got thrown up over the gallows. I would very much like to see that happen.

But the rope is there. Indisputably, inarguably, after capitulating to a relegation candidate at home on opening day, the rope is there. It will be swinging in the breeze this week, and next week, and every week thereafter until he either proves that today was a total aberration, or has the hood placed over his head. That’s the bet that Martin made. He doubled down on his own abilities, and lost. Spectacularly.

I’m sure he didn’t think he was playing against Arsenal today. Nobody else did, either, until the games were over. Then we all saw, quite clearly, that Aston Villa did play Arsenal on Saturday, the 15th of August. And there was only one outcome

by Grunthos

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