The history, trophies and wealth drip from the very walls of the Emirates. Triumphant years circle the cavernous stadium from Chapman to Wenger, with the former hinting at what may have been for a Yorkshire club which, with even a semblance of good management and vision, could have built on not only a glorious decade but the solidly successful era until the mid 50s.
Now, however, the gulf between Town and the huge clubs with whom they now try to compete is a yawning chasm. Last season, the Terriers simply collapsed in the face of genuinely overwhelming odds; a supine performance without a scintilla of pride and the team prostrating themselves before a mid game collapse which screamed helplessness.
Perhaps assisted by the Gunners recent schedule – including a frantic draw at Old Trafford 24 hours after Town’s promising but unsuccessful trip to Bournemouth – the contrast this season could not have been more stark.
Disciplined, aggressive and unfazed by either the talent they faced or the unbeaten run stretching back 20 games of the hosts, Town forced Arsenal to dig deep in to their reserves (including 2 very good ones at the break) to gain a slender if probably deserved win to maintain their momentum.
That the visitors frustrated the North Londoners for over 85 minutes was admirable but hugely irritating when a brave point seemed more likely as time slipped by.
It is of some solace that, yet again, Town substantially improved their performance over last season but this does not add to the points tally and, crucially, can only be of some use if replicated against non top 6 sides in general and the increasingly stranded other 6 in particular.
Pressing high, Town largely subdued Arsenal’s redoubtable fluency and flair in a first half which rarely rose above the level of mundane and descended in to a scrap at times with referee Paul Tierney dipping in to his pocket 7 times before half time. The tetchiness emanated from both sides, lest anyone feels the need to suggest that the underdogs were simply undermining the aristocrats with foul play, though there was a condensed spell of Town indiscretions which resulted in Tierney calling over Smith to provide a warning that the visitors were going too far.
Disrupted early, the home side rarely moved through the gears as efficiently as they can; indeed, reverse was selected on several occasions, prompting some rare, not particularly encouraging noise from their supporters.
Stout and disciplined defending largely stemmed the Gunners in the final third, but just short of the half hour, they created two excellent chances for their two celebrated forwards, Aubameyang and Lacazette. The first saw the Gabonese put a very presentable chance wide with an instinctive shot, while the Frenchman made a complete hash when alone in the area, hitting a shot against his own foot with the ball ballooning over the bar.
Both were let offs, but Lacazette latched on to a horribly under hit back pass by Zanka, rounded Lössl to slot home and turned away in half celebration to come face to face with the linesman’s flag. Shortly before Zanka’s error, the excellent Kongolo had deliberately played the striker offside, allowing him to go forward beyond Town’s defensive line, and the linesman was fully aware of the defender’s clever move – the decision was correct.
At the other end, Town struggled to cause much concern and until late in to the half, a reasonable effort from Löwe was all they had to show for their not inconsiderable efforts away from the danger areas. A typically tepid attack appeared to have been easily broken up as the break loomed, but a poor clearance handed the initiative back to Mooy who found Smith unmarked on the right. The captain found Pritchard who curled his first time effort over the bar. It was similar to an effort he had at Watford and really should have hit the target.
Half time parity seemed inevitable but there was time for Arsenal to almost take a season first lead in to the break when Torreira hit an excellent shot which appeared destined to end that particular, remarkable, statistic only for Lössl to claw the ball away with a fabulous save.
From the subsequent corner, Mustafi fell down in the area under the slightest contact from Depoitre and was duly booked for simulation – the second of three Arsenal players to be booked for Sean Dyche’s favourite transgression. Comically, and for reasons only known to himself, Xhaka had been the first, seeking advantage in the centre circle following his leg being brushed by Mooy.
A mixture of high energy, some good fortune and a largely stuttering home performance saw Town through a highly creditable first half, during which the visitors had, unlike last season, looked largely comfortable in elevated company.
Mkhitaryan and Iwobi were introduced by Unai Emery to increase his team’s creativity and threat and the change of shape rather pushed Town deeper and less comfortable than they were against the twin strike force deployed in the first half (the out of sorts Lacazette was sacrificed).
The change nearly paid immediate dividend as Mkhitaryan shot wide following a move of some menace, though a rare Hogg mistake had put the visitors in danger when he lost the ball with too few colleagues behind him. Town’s all action central midfielder had suffered an arm injury in the first half which required lengthy treatment and another knock finally ended his participation after just 5 minutes of the second half, necessitating the introduction of the inexperienced Bacuna, who acquitted himself very well.
Williams, who ran himself in to the ground on his first appearance, was understandably replaced midway through the half for Durm, shortly after Smith had to go off with injury with Hadergjonaj coming on.
The disruption caused by the change of personnel could have spelt disaster for the visitors, especially with Arsenal stepping up a gear with their own, voluntary changes at the break, but the substitutes performed well and Town’s resilience remained intact.
Whenever the Gunners tried to inject pace and fluidity to their game, Town hassled and disrupted their movement leaving few gaps and little space to the extent that the only danger after the first moments of the half came from a weak back post header by Aubameyang following a corner.
Forays forward were few as Town adapted to the introduction of substitutes but there was little desperation in their defending and the rather scrappy nature of play continued to help their cause. The only moment of real promise for the visitors came when the lively Pritchard created room in the box but his intended ball to Depoitre was intercepted by Leno.
Arsenal’s frustration was palpable. Unable to break down a defence increasingly comfortable with the uncharacteristically leaden forward movement they faced, and not entirely convincing when Town went forward, the mood in the stadium was gloomy and very quiet.
The exasperation translated in to some further theatrics with Guendouzi falling over in the box and collecting, remarkably, a third Arsenal booking for simulation (surely a record). Torreira could have added to the tally when he collapsed to the ground after Mooy’s hand accidentally created turbulence around his head but the referee – otherwise quite excellent – awarded a ridiculous free kick.
At the other end, Town had a genuine appeal for a penalty waved away when Pritchard was caught as he tried to bring down a ball in to the box and turn his defender, though the defender was probably rightly given the benefit of the doubt.
With time running out, another apparently mundane Arsenal attack was turned in to a winning goal by a piece of skill rather out of place in a game of endeavour and sweat. Kongolo and Löwe tried to defend a loose ball at the back post, with the former putting in a decent block, but Aubameyang was quickly on to it and chipped a delightful ball in to the unmarked Torreira to finish from close range. The extravagant bicycle kick took the headlines, but it was the chip from a not altogether promising position which finally undid the visitors.
It was a cruel blow after a resilient display and the relief of Arsenal and the home crowd was evidenced by a ridiculously elongated celebration which, and again to the referee’s credit, was reflected in the 7 minutes of injury time awarded.
Depoitre was the subject of a slight push in the area which saw him fall rather optimistically, though the anger of Papastathopoulos was hilariously hypocritical.
The Belgian was also narrowly beaten to an excellent Pritchard cross, but an unlikely equaliser never seemed on the cards.
Beaten, but far from disgraced, Town can take many positives out of a game where their game plan was interrupted but not disrupted by injuries. The spineless defeat last season left no doubt that they were a long way away from being competitive with the top sides – this one was precisely the opposite. While Arsenal’s class remains significantly superior, Town looked worthy of being their opposition and were only undone by a piece of creative skill late on.
Bacuna’s assured performance in the middle of the park and the successful return of Williams meant that the absence of Billing wasn’t particularly felt, but the lack of genuine threat in the final third continues to hamstring the overall competency of the side. Depoitre worked hard again, and was vital to the high press in the first half which so subdued the Gunners, but he, and the onlooking, gift distributing Mounié in the away section, must add goals and quickly.
It is dispiriting that two fine away performances have not added to the points tally, and with no solutions apparent for the lack of goal threat, the struggle is plain and obvious. Wagner’s calm head will prevail, however, and it does feel as if reward is on the near horizon – Town now must take advantage of 3 home games to collect points to give us a chance in the second half of the season.