Football,

Heroes and villains

ASTON VILLA vs BRIGHTONSaturday 3pm

Aston Villa @ 7/5
Brighton @ 2/1
Draw @ 23/10
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LIVERPOOL vs ARSENALSaturday 5:30pm

Liverpool @ 4/9
Arsenal @ 11/2
Draw @ 15/4
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An unheralded reason of why football is such a popular and compelling sport in this country is the constantly shifting landscape.  Even when you think nothing is happening, and it’s all becoming rather stale and predictable, the quick sands are silently moving beneath you – single tiny grains at a time – between your exposed toes…waiting to pull you down…

One day, for example, as a manager, you may be thinking that you’re safe in your job at a stable, wealthy, mid-table Premier League club…and then, following a poor performance, you awake the next morning to find that you, personally, have somehow been relegated to the fourth tier of the Hungarian League – that’s right, Megyei Bajnokság I – where you will be expected to mould an unruly coop of 15 young chickens into a functioning, competitive football squad in the space of a few days.

Obviously, that’s not exactly what happened to former Aston Villa coach Dean Smith – Norwich City aren’t quite at Hajdúböszörményi TE levels yet, despite what all the erudite TV pundits are tweeting – but I think my wider point about how quickly change can happen, and how briefly subsequent windows of opportunity stay open, stands on firmer sand.

Never one to slip up when a chance to progress is presented before him, Steven Gerrard saw that window slightly ajar at Villa Park and went flying in with both feet off the ground.  The Liverpool hero turning into a Villan before Rangers fans could even begin to fully evaluate where he stands on their particular spectrum of worship.

But while the Aston Villa faithful will be generally upbeat about the fact that they have just secured the services of a hungry, big name prospect, clearly on an upward trajectory – they will also be very much aware of what Gerrard himself sees as the final destination of his upward trajectory.

And it is not having a hospitality suite named after him in the Doug Ellis Stand.

Gerrard’s Premier League managerial debut comes at home on Saturday against Graham Potter’s Brighton beach boys.  Both sides are currently nursing lengthy winless streaks and will be looking to apply some invigorating salve to their respective bruises and strains, hopefully instigating some propulsive good vibrations in the process.  So who will come out on top in this intriguing collision of ambitious young coaches?  God only knows…

A couple of months ago, Liverpool v Arsenal might have looked like a grossly one-sided encounter.  And the majority of Gunners fans – so sure that a feeble, humiliating defeat would be the eventual outcome – would have recorded and posted their tearful, histrionic vlogs and angry, kinetic ‘Arteta-Out!’ TikTok dances online before the game even took place.

Such actions would now, however, appear foolish. (Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that someone posting an opinion on TikTok might end up looking stupid, but these remain strange, unprecedented times).

Mikel Arteta seems to have finally instilled some belief and verve into his undoubtedly talented squad, to the extent that they can now approach any forthcoming fixture with garden-fresh optimism.  They have also hurtled up the Premier League table and presently sit – remarkably, menacingly – right in Liverpool’s rear-view mirror.

The imperceptibly shifting Premier League sands have, conversely, triggered negative consequences for Liverpool; and an unexpected home draw against Brighton, followed by defeat at West Ham, will have sown small seeds of doubt in hitherto bullish Anfield minds.

The last five Merseyside-staged Liverpool/Arsenal Premier League clashes have ended 3-1, 4-0, 5-1, 3-1, and 3-1 in the home side’s favour, so Arteta will need to accelerate his upward trajectory further still if he is to redress this unfavourable balance.  But while he is far too mild-mannered and uniform of hair to ever be viewed as a villain, could he be beginning to exhibit the qualities that might soon elevate him to the status of a hero?

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