Five Thoughts: Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Arsenal

Photo: Getty Images

Welp, that sure was 96:30 (counting injury time) of absolute dross, brightened by one moment of magic from someone who sure seems to keep producing them for a guy who, if you believe the Twitter/AFTV troglodytes, isn't any good at this game.

Funny how they seem to keep getting it so wrong. Also, Petr Cech was fucking great, too. Dipshits.

1. The second half opened up some and it became semi-watchable, but man alive, that first half was utter rubbish. Cech made a great save on one of their guys towards the end of the half, Milan Borjan made a better one earlier on to keep out Theo Walcott. That was honestly about it for any kind of excitement. The thing was, Theo really should have scored. Cech's save was more about his positioning and his reflexes, whereas Borjan just kind of made himself as big as possible and hoped Walcott hit him. The shot was so lacking in conviction, too.

I don't know if we're ever going to figure this guy out. All you remember is chances like this, or entire games spent on the periphery doing his Casper the Friendly Winger Ghost impersonation, and then the end of the season comes and he's got like 15 goals and 7 assists. Like, from where? Is this some kind of rip in the space-time continuum? It turned out not to matter today, but, well, look on the bright side. Theo Walcott is basically the talent ceiling for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, best I can figure. You can score against Slovenian wheat farmers all you like, bucko, it still doesn't make you worth 40 pee, let alone million quid.

Yeah, there's going to be petty-ass cheap shots at the guy all season. Get used to it, kids. It's not as hilarious as Alex Hleb-to-Barcelona, but it's up there.

2. On the other hand, Jack Wilshere looked as good as he's done in a million years. He was everywhere, pressing like a madman (and yelling at his mates to do likewise), picking out top-notch passes, and generally making a nuisance of himself to anyone in a red-and-white shirt (that's....weird to type, but we were in that awful raspberry-cola clobber today, so there you go). He clearly understands the opportunity that these Europa League games present to a guy in his position, and bless his heart, he's going for it balls to the wall.

Here's the thing - Aaron Ramsey's been hurt all season, Granit Xhaka has been hot and cold, Mohamed Elneny is a squad player, Francis Coquelin is fine in certain situations but not for 38 games, and I don't believe at this point that Santi Cazorla is ever coming back. Central midfield is right there waiting for him, if he keeps playing like this and can stay fit with any sort of consistency.

We all ought to hope that it happens, too. The balance of the team is better with a fit Wilshere in it, as he is one of the few who always, ALWAYS, wants to go forward and make something happen. Many of the rest of this lot default to slow and sideways. The other thing is, we haven't had a situation yet (I don't believe) where Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez and Wilshere were all playing. That's our best team, by miles, and it's absolutely a case where I believe the sum would be far greater than the parts. People will talk all kinds of nonsense about some of them, especially Ozil, but put them all together and let's see what they do. You gonna tell me that our team is any worse off than Chelsea's lot if they're all out there? Go ahead, fight me.

3. Sure, David Ospina was "injured." Also, I'm the Tsar of all the Russias. Even when things have gone wrong for him in a Gunners shirt, he's always been able to hang his hat on his international form. Colombia are no mugs, and he's their undisputed # 1. On the other hand, this last round of qualifiers? Woof. If we beat this same lot on Match Day 4, we'll be already qualified and then we can throw him in there and see if his case of the yips has left him yet.

Conversely, Mathieu Debuchy made his first start for us since approximately the Later Han Dynasty, and he looked all right. A few shaky moments here and there, but given how hard it is to just pop back into a team after that long out, and given the makeshift nature of his partners (Elneny in central defense? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over?), you have to say the lad done good.

Still, I'm not too sure how much I'm in love with this idea of midfielders playing the fullback positions. Ainsley Maitland-Niles looks like a lost soul out there on the left, which I'm not sure is even his dominant foot. Reiss Nelson was OK as well, but, I this the best way to develop these kids? Wouldn't it make more sense to have them go out on loan somewhere, play every week in their normal positions, and get some journeyman guys to play these Europa games? I know, I know, I've managed zero games, etc and so on. Just a thought. Either way, the kids handled one of the tougher away days in all of Europe with aplomb, so maybe I oughta just shut my word-hole.

4. By now, you've all seen Giroud's ridiculously amazing bicycle kick goal. Poor old Borjan just watched it go like he was watching his wife go out the door with the kids, the dog and the good set of china. Wilshere started the move, and to be 100% fair to the man, Walcott kept it going by getting stuck in amongst two or three of their big lads in the back to pop it back into play for Ollie to do his thing. I could watch a replay of that all day.

You do wonder, though, if the unbelievably soft second yellow their guy got had anything to do with that little bit of space opening up, though. My god, I'd be incandescent if one of ours walked for that. If I remember correctly the guy's first yellow was legit, but the second was a situation where he went up for a header with Coquelin, and his arm got away from him some. The referee did have an outstanding view of it so maybe it was the same kind of sneaky-on-purpose deal that I insist Bellerin's was against Watford. If so, fair play to the ref. In his shoes though, I might have pulled him aside for the final "Mate, you know you're on a yellow, yes? You so much as breathe on anyone again and you're off" conversation.

I did say in the Watford report that we haven't gotten any luck at all this season, so nice to see my conjuring spell worked. You're welcome, one and all.

5. So, onwards and upwards in the competition, as we're monstering a group that I thought might have a few tricky games in it. Considering it's been done with fringe players and fetuses, you have to file this way way way into the "job done" folder so far. There are big(gish) teams that are stepping all over their dicks so far, against far worse clubs than this. What Athletic Bilbao are doing should have seen their manager sacked already. Hertha Berlin lost to something called Zorya today. AC Milan drew 0-0 at home with AEK Athens. Everton are a dumpster fire in progress. Copenhagen and Villareal are punching below their historical weight.

We're doing more than OK, in other words.

It will be an interesting transition as we get to the knockout stages, and we a) start seeing better teams and b) probably start seeing more first-teamers in the starting XI. But, will they stutter as they have so often in the Premier League already? It's an interesting conundrum. I don't know if I'd want to start Nelson or Maitland-Niles or Joe Willock against someone like, say, Zenit St. Petersburg, or one of the clubs that drop in from the Champions League. On the other hand, maybe they've earned it at this point?

A bridge to burn when we get to it, I suppose. For now, nothing but positives out of this one. Moaners will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.

Preview by Numbers: Red Star Belgrade v. Arsenal, Europa League Group Matchday 3

Rajko Mitić Stadium, Belgrade
Thursday, October 19
1:00 p.m. EDT, 18:00 BST
  • Match Officials from France
    • Referee: Benoît Bastien
    • Assistants: Hicham Zakrani and Frédéric Haquette
    • 4th Official: Julien Pacelli
    • Additional Assistants: Benoît Millot and Jérôme Miguelgorry
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Red Star Belgrade win, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's Overall Form: D-W-W-W-W-L
  • Red Star Belgrade's Overall Form: W-W-W-L-W-W
Arsenal Squad News

Out: Mustafi (hamstring,) Cazorla (ankle)
Doubts: Coquelin (hamstring,) Welbeck (knock,) Koscielny (Achilles,) Chambers (hip) 
  • There are rumors that Mathieu Debuchy may get a start in defense. The Frenchman has not played since getting injured against Bournemouth on his only appearance of last season, nearly a year ago.
  • Danny Welbeck and Laurent Koscielny were both removed from Saturday's loss to Watford due to injuries, so I can't see either of them being risked.
  • Francis Coquelin appeared in some training photographs, so I've moved him into the doubts column. This would be an ideal match to get him minutes.
Predicted XI: Ospina, Debuchy, Holding, Monreal, Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Wilshere, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott, Giroud.

Red Star Belgrade Squad News
  • Number one goalkeeper and Canadian international (?!) Milan Borjan is expected to be out, meaning Damir Kahriman will deputize.
  • Defender Milan Rodić, midfielder Branko Jovičić, and defender Vujadin Savić are also all expected to miss out through injury.
Predicted XI: Kahriman, Stojković, Le Tallec, Babić, Gobeljić, Krstičić, Donald, Srnić, Kanga, Radonjić, Boakye.

Domestic Form
  • Arsenal went unbeaten between the September international break and October international break, then returned to blow a 1-0 lead and lose 2-1 at Watford.
  • The loss dropped Arsenal to sixth in the table, still behind Chelsea on goal difference after the Blues became the first team this season to lose to Crystal Palace. Watford, for their part, are now fourth.
  • Red Star Belgrade are four points clear at the top of their table; they've won 10, lost one, and drawn one in Serbia this year.
  • The loss came on October 1, 1-0, at Napredak. The draw was at home, 0-0, against Partizan in the Eternal Derby on August 27.
European Form
  • Arsenal have picked up a maximum six points from their group stage exploits so far and have not lost a European group stage match since November 4, 2015.
  • You have to go back to Arsenal's ridiculous 3-2 home loss to Olympiacos on September 29, 2015 to find the last time Arsenal lost a European match to a club that wasn't Bayern Munich or Barcelona.
  • Red Star started their European campaign in the Europa League's first qualifying round, meaning they needed to beat four teams to get to the group stage.
  • They racked up those wins 6-3 over Malta's Floriana, 3-1 over Kazakhstan's Irtysh Pavlodar, 3-0 over Sparta Prague, and 4-4 on away goals over Krasnodar.
  • They drew BATE Borisov 1-1 on matchday one before beating Köln 1-0 on matchday two. That leaves Red Star second in the group, behind Arsenal by two points.
Match Facts
  • Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade have only met in one previous European tie, in the 1978/79 UEFA Cup third round.
  • This might go without saying, but not a single player on either side was alive at the time of that tie.
  • Cvijetin Blagojević's goal gave Belgrade a 1-0 home win in the first leg of the tie.
  • Alan Sunderland put Arsenal ahead at Highbury in the second leg, leveling the tie on aggregate, but Dušan Savić's 87th minute equalizer earned the visitors a 1-1 draw, winning the tie 2-1.
  • Arsenal's only other matches against Serbian opposition came in the 2010 group stage of the Champions League, against Partizan Belgrade. Arsenal won both matches 3-1.
  • Red Star Belgrade have played 16 matches against English opposition. They've won six, lost five, and drawn five.
The Referee
  • The match officials are from France.
  • The referee is Benoît Bastien.
  • This is Bastien's first match for either team.
  • Bastien had the honor of working last summer's Under-21 European Championship final, in which Germany beat Héctor Bellerín and Spain, 1-0.
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and promises these previews will get better after his upcoming wedding. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat to pressure him on that, but only after this weekend.

Five Thoughts: Watford 2-1 Arsenal

Well, that was pretty much the dictionary definition of how a match like this is decided on fine margins. I don't even think we were all that bad today, but the other mob got 100% of the rub of the green on the day, and we didn't have enough quality to overcome it.

1. This was never going to be a walkover, not with Marco Silva having these guys humming along so well in the league. It also doesn't help that our best players seem to all be crocked, "crocked", or knackered from the latest godforsaken international break. We weren't much at the races to begin with, as Watford used their pace and power on the flanks to excellent effect. They also tried to take advantage of our lack of speed in central defense - especially with Per Mertesacker pressed into duty - but we counteracted that by having Petr Cech play almost as an auxiliary sweeper. It was an interesting tactical cut-and-thrust, even if the chances weren't overflowing.

For me, the best player on the pitch was this Richarlison kid that Watford bought for a song from Fluminese. Everything he did was at pace, and always pushing forward. We were more ponderous than Gunnersaurus by comparison. The only one who was trying to make something happen was Granit Xhaka, who had one of his better games. He was raking long diagonal passes all over the place, but there was a precious little amount of movement from the forwards in front of him. He also took some pokes from distance in the second half, which was sadly some of the better chances we had in the game.

Long story short, Watford just about deserved this on the balance of play.

2. That said, we did take the lead right around the 40th minute or so. If you had told someone from 2007 that Watford vs. Arsenal would have a first half where the team with the quick, nippy forwards huffed and puffed and stretched the opponent, then went down in the 45th to a bog-standard header off a corner, they'd have asked who on the Hornets had scored. Instead, it was the BFG himself, taking advantage of a height mismatch with Tom Cleverley to nod home.

I don't know what Watford were playing at with that marking scheme, though. I mean, I know enough in my 7-a-side games to give a "Height on height!" yell on set pieces...why didn't Gomes?

Minutes later, Danny Welbeck (in about his only positive contribution of the day) picked out Hector Bellerin with a gorgeous pass, but the Spaniard could only screw his shot wide.

3. The second half kind of ambled along, looking for all the world like both sides had already downed tools. Welbeck looked to have picked up an injury, so on come Mesut Ozil. You know, for all everyone talks shit about this guy (and there was apparently a 1-v-1 chance that I missed somewhere in all of this - he's many things, but a dead-eye finisher is not one of them), his first touch of the game put Alex Iwobi in alone (not hearing too much about that one), and the second forced a corner. It was practically more positivity than there was in the entirety of the first half. Speaking of, Iwobi honestly should have scored, though you have to give credit to Gomes for an outstanding save.

The other thing causing much Twitter-screeching is Alexandre Lacazette coming off for Olivier Giroud in the 70th minute or thereabouts. Quick, name a chance Lacazette made or took in the game. Like, anything. The same people with cartoon steam coming out of their ears about this are, I'm guessing, the same ones that bitched about our lack of depth and options in seasons past. The truth is that a lot of players need time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the Premier League, and there's further nothing wrong with going with another look if what you're doing isn't working.

4. As we all know, though, the match went pear-shaped in the last 20 minutes. I was telling a few people yesterday that my homerism is just about dead now that I've joined the ranks of referees, and this is no different. It was a penalty, folks. Embellishing contact doesn't mean contact wasn't there - Bellerin slyly nudged their guy in the back when he was on the dead run. The worst bit is that it wasn't even that dangerous of a run - there were other defenders back, and it wasn't straight at goal. Hector's still a kid and all, but he has to get better at on-the-fly decisions like this.

Anyway, it was a penalty, and Cech was in goal for us, so of course Troy Deeney scored. I defend Cech a lot, and rightfully so, but he tips his dive on PKs as I've said on here many times before. It's frustrating.

It was basically all Watford from then on, the first warning shot coming in the 82nd when a deflected shot caught Cech going the wrong way, but rebounded off the post. Then, Laurent Koscielny went off for Rob Holding, having picked up some kind of a knock. Outstanding.

Finally, at the death, they scored. It was one of those pinball deals - Cech brilliantly saved the first shot, BFG deflected the second, but it came out to another of their guys to hammer it into the empty net. Bugger. The worst bit, though? The first shot was offside. I mean, if Lacazette was off earlier this season when his big toe was beyond the last defender, then this one was too.

We just don't seem to be getting any luck this, at all. I hope this shit evens out, and quick-like.

5. Like I said, this was never going to be an easy match. While you need about 10-12 matches for the table to reflect any kind of objective reality, Watford are currently in 4th place. Their goal differential is 0, meaning this isn't entirely sustainable, but on the other hand they're not Sutton United or anything, either. We saw it yesterday - they're a fairly decent lot who play good football at times. Losing away to these guys isn't some kind of international disgrace.

On the other hand, that's now three losses on the season for us, two of which were utterly preventable. However, when you ask yourself what our realistic expectations are for the season, you should get some perspective out of that. We're not winning the title - the second we re-signed Arsene, we were condemning ourselves to two more years without being seriously in that conversation.

Going back the last few seasons, as far as fourth place goes: Liverpool lost 6 last year, Manchester City lost 10 (!) the season previous, and United lost 8 the year before that. We're not doomed as far as that goes, but we are losing a little bit of our margin for error.

But, we truly need to shit or get off the pot where it comes to Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, and if they are no longer the answer, we need some kind of creative force to take advantage of the talent we have at forward. I mean, that first half was *dreadful* - workmanlike, almost Stoke-esque.

There's work to do.

Preview by Numbers: Watford v. Arsenal

Vicarage Road, Watford
Saturday, October 14
12:30 p.m. EDT, 17:30 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Neil Swarbrick
    • Assistants: Scott Ledger and Adrian Holmes
    • 4th Official: Graham Scott
  • This Match, Last Year: Watford 1 - 3 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 14 Arsenal wins, 11 Watford wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-L-W-D-W-W
  • Watford's League Form: W-D-W-L-W-D
Arsenal Squad News

Out: Mustafi (hamstring,) Coquelin (hamstring,) Cazorla (ankle)
Doubts: Alexis (match fitness,) Kolašinac (hip,) Koscielny (Achilles,) Chambers (hip) 
  • The worst news out of the international break comes from Germany, where Shkodran Mustafi hurt his hamstring in a meaningless qualifier against Azerbaijan. He'll miss four to six weeks, so eight weeks.
  • To make matters worse at the back, doubts remain over Laurent Koscielny, who you may recall will forever be dealing with a chronic Achilles injury, and now Sead Kolašinac has a hip concern.
  • Calum Chambers, who might be in line for an appearance if both Mustafi and Koscielny can't play, has been hobbled by a hip injury all season himself and is doubtful.
  • So, at the worst, it'll be Nacho Monreal, Per Mertesacker, and Rob Holding.
  • In good news, Mesut Özil (knee) and Danny Welbeck (groin) should both be back to full fitness.
  • Arsène Wenger was unsure about the status of some of his players as of yesterday's presser, as Alexis Sánchez, for example, had not yet returned from international duty. At least Welbeck could start in his place if he's short of fitness.
  • I didn't hear anything about Francis Coquelin's hamstring injury, so I'll assume he's still out.
Predicted XI: Čech, Holding, Koscielny, Monreal, Bellerín, Kolašinac, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Welbeck, Lacazette.

Watford Squad News

Out: Kaboul (thigh,) Hoban (knee,) Cathcart (knee,) Chalobah (knee,) Success (knee)
Doubts: Carrillo (match fitness,) Prödl (hamstring)

  • Sebastian Prödl picked up a hamstring injury on international duty back in September and is about a 25% chance to return to Watford's lineup here.
  • André Carrillo is a late return from international duty with Peru and is a doubt in the same way Alexis Sánchez is.
  • Younes Kaboul is out with a thigh problem. In September, a specialist determined that surgery was not necessary, but the rehab may be extensive.
  • Watford have four players out with knee injuries: Isaac Success will be out for four to six weeks. Tommie Hoban has no timeframe for a return. Nathaniel Chalobah is expected back some time during this calendar year, but it's at least January for Craig Cathcart.

Predicted XI: Gomes, Femenía, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Carrillo, Cleverley, Richarlison, Gray.

Current Form
  • Arsenal rebounded nicely from two losses in August to climb up to fifth in the Premier League table. They trail fourth place Chelsea on goal difference.
  • Don't sleep on Watford, though. They are only a point back of Arsenal, sitting eighth in the table. They trail Burnley and Liverpool on goal difference themselves.
  • Arsenal are unbeaten across all competitions since their 4-0 loss at Liverpool, but they still have not scored a goal away from home in the Premier League this season.
  • Watford have only lost one league game so far this season, but it was by six goals at home to Manchester City. So, you can see why they might trail on goal difference.
Match Facts
  • Arsenal and Watford split their league meetings last season, with each side winning away from home.
  • Arsenal won 3-1 at Vicarage Road last August. Santi Cazorla put Arsenal ahead from the penalty spot within two minutes and the Gunners led 3-0 at halftime. Watford pulled a goal back on 57 minutes, but that ended the scoring.
  • Watford returned the favor at the Emirates in January, taking a 2-0 lead inside a quarter of an hour. Alex Iwobi pulled a goal back on 58 minutes, but the Gunners could not find an equalizer.
  • Overall, Arsenal's record against Watford is mixed; in 19 league encounters, both sides have won nine with one draw.
The Referee
  • The referee is Lancashire-based Neil Swarbrick.
  • This is the first time Arsenal have seen Swarbrick this year.
  • Last year, Swarbrick worked only two Arsenal matches, both against West Brom. Arsenal won 1-0 at the Emirates and lost 3-1 at the Hawthorns.
  • This is also the first time Watford have seen Swarbrick this year.
  • Watford split their matches with Swarbrick last year as well, winning 2-1 over Leicester, but losing 2-0 at Stoke.
Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Liverpool v. Manchester United; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Burnley v. West Ham United; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Saturday: Crystal Palace v. Chelsea; Selhurst Park, London
  • Saturday: Manchester City v. Stoke City; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Huddersfield Town; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Bournemouth; Wembley Stadium, London
  • Sunday (early): Brighton & Hove Albion v. Everton; American Express Community Stadium, Falmer
  • Sunday (late): Southampton v. Newcastle United; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Monday (night): Leicester City v. West Bromwich Albion; King Power Stadium, Leicester
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and sixth planet from the sun. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for information about his many, many moons.

One Thought: Tangentially Related At Best to Arsenal 2-0 Brighton & Hove Albion

"Just a second where we're leaving all this shit behind.
Just a second but it's leaving just this much in mind:
To resist despair, the second makes you see.
To resist despair, because you can't change everything.
To resist despair in this world is, what it is what it is what is to be free..."

- Operation Ivy "Sound System"

A few weeks back, I said on here that match reports are going to have to...evolve...shall we say, due to my ongoing adventure in refereeing soccer matches all over the lower New York area on the weekends. Along those lines, the only bit I saw from this one was a clip of the second goal, featuring that other-worldly back-flick assist from Alexis Sanchez. My general plan for these over the next few months was to talk less about the actual things that happened in the game in question, and more using what happened in the match to talk about some larger point about the team, football in general, that sort of thing. I had a rough outline in mind for this particular edition, centering on Brighton hitting the post early on - I will at some point definitely get back to that idea about luck and how much it determines outcomes in a low-scoring sport such as this one.

But, then, Las Vegas happened.

Given that I possess some degree of perspective and humanity, I can't bring myself to drone on about statistical variance and how this sort of thing clouds supporters' judgment of the team and of individual players at times. This football lark is so damn important and central to our lives, right up to the point where it doesn't fucking matter at all.

Well, on second thought, that might be artlessly stated. The nuts and bolts of football - who won, such-and-such is ace, that referee is a wanker - of course, that's the bit that recedes to insignificance when the darker side of real life roars into the forefront. The other aspects that we often take for granted, however, matter an unbelievably great deal.

The thing is, it's difficult at times to see the point of keeping on when it feels like evil always wins. We live in exhausting, troubled times...times that I can't say I could fathom five or ten years ago, when the world felt more centered. I fully understand how imperfect humans are. Hell, I am one, after all. But the sequence of events and decisions that can occur in a person's soul to get them to a point where they're capable of  doing what that man did? It's incomprehensible. It's the kind of thing that makes one feel helpless, small and insignificant. At the surface, it makes a mockery of the idea of any kind of balance in the fabric of the universe.

But, take a breath. Stop. Think. We come back to football, now, to those seemingly-auxiliary features of the experience. The picture I used for this post is old, done by design. It was taken in front of the Blind Pig after some random match on some random day, an indeterminate number of years ago. One moment in time, among the uncountable number that have made up the ten years of our supporter's club's existence, and the formative years before it at Nevada Smith's. At that bleak and gray surface level where despair perpetuates, it doesn't register as worthy of a second glance. However, go back to that breathe-stop-think bit, and look for it. There's power here.

There are two people in this photo who are about to be married later this month. They met here, doing this, screaming in unison at the latest Manuel Almunia clanger or Denilson midfield disasterclass. Just a bunch of people going to watch the football, and all of a sudden it's the rest of two peoples' lives. Fight past the seeming banality of that and *think* about it for a second. It's astonishing. It's awesome. It resonates. Holy shit, I was there as that happened and evolved.

There are some in this photo that I haven't seen in years, or once or twice at most. I miss them terribly. But, thanks to the magic of social media I know they're out there doing their thing, as disparate as that may be. Some are now married, some are killing it at their jobs, some are off exploring the far corners of the world. Whatever it is, it's a great comfort to know they're there, and that they're happy. I'm proud to say that they're my mates, whatever geographic or chronological distance they may be away.

Conversely, there are two different people shown here that I recently ran into again after a significant amount of time. One came to O'Hanlon's on a trip back up to New York, where he became engaged to a lovely woman. The other, I turned up to referee a few matches and there's his mug standing there in one of the goals. You know, it gets lost in the immediacy of the act, but catching up with old friends is a joy matched by few other things in this life. It buttresses a part of the soul that romance or money or slices of NYC pizza leaves unattended.

One woman here, who I also miss terribly, is about to give birth. We also like the same baseball team, who just had the type of horror-show season that we as Arsenal supporters are lucky to have not experienced in our lifetimes (in most cases). I truly hope she hasn't been able to see the games out there in Leeds.

One man here crossed the finish line to parenthood a bit before, and has been a father for a little less than a year. New life! Here! Existing and breathing and...well...pooping everywhere, unless I miss my guess.

Then for something completely different, I almost literally came to blows with one guy here over an NHL playoff game, but I type that with a smile on my face. That's just so fundamentally HIM, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Sometimes brothers gotta hug, and sometimes brothers gotta fight.

The woman in the top left is as Arsenal as it gets, the torch passed down to her from her father, who supported the club himself going back to when he was a child. It's a literal connection to our history, to the earliest days of the club. It lives and breathes in us. I think about it sometimes, as I'm watching our current's not that different from the sepia-toned pictures of the folks in suits and flat caps packed like sardines on the old terraces.

There's so many more stories that this picture can tell, stories of amazing people and shared camaraderie, of title wins and the corresponding jumpy screamy beery celebrations, of shared heartbreak. THAT night in Paris. THAT night in Copenhagen. The stunned silence and welled-up tears in the aftermath of THAT fucking League fucking Cup fucking Final. The Bar End of O'Hanlon's, linked arm in arm to will Lukasz Fabianski and the boys to see off Wigan in that FA Cup Semifinal penalty shootout. The Invincibles. Our songs for the bartenders pouring our pints, or the songs sung by the band that the punk kids over there in the corner formed. Going to Papaya Dog or Artichoke at halftime. Oh god, that awful man at Nevada's who hounded you if you didn't have a new pint in your hand every 2.4 seconds.

OK, I get it, I'm taking you down some winding side roads here. Enough with the scenic route, I can hear you saying...what's the point? Despair...bleakness...evil....hopelessness...these things are monolithic. They're big and brash and rage with hurricane force all at once. It seems like an unwinnable fight because of the size and scope of it all. But, goodness and light and hope and love, these are manifested in small, everyday things. You don't even notice them if you're not looking for them. It can add up awfully quickly though, if you let it. It's like that old saw about how much a ton of feathers weighs compared to a ton of lead.

Again, it's just a bunch of people turning up to watch a bunch of dudes kick a ball around. One infinitesimal part of life, but with the power to contain this much. Friendship, love, a shared sense of purpose and identity. These are things you can cling to in times like this. This is what matters.

These may be scary, awful times, but I got all of this, and that ain't nothin'.