'New Arsenal against Old Arsenal' lived up to its billing, with Swansea winning by the odd goal in five
Fabio Capello timed his return to English football perfectly. However little the Italian may have taken away from the Liberty Stadium on Sunday in terms of new information about players likely to make his squad for the Euro 2012 finals, he was able to watch an exhilarating match that produced a thoroughly deserved winner.
The fixture had been billed as New Arsenal against Old Arsenal, but it was far more than a matter of "You play tiki and I'll play taka". Brendan Rodgers' Swansea City embody many of the virtues associated with Arsenal in their prime under Arsène Wenger, but they are no mere carbon copies. On Sunday they played with a spirit and a sense of purpose that were all their own.
Nine years ago to the day, Swansea were at the bottom of the fourth tier and Arsenal were top of the Premier League. Here they were fighting as equals in a contest of strike and counter-strike, with the points taken by the side showing more self-belief and resilience.
The Welsh side's response to going a goal down after five minutes was replicated when Arsenal drew level at 2-2 with 20 minutes to go. They simply kept going with a driving confidence that Arsenal never quite matched.
A significant message came via Twitter only a couple of minutes after the whistle had blown on the 3-2 victory: "Great win for Swansea! Looking forward to join the team on Tuesday!!" That was @JMcEachran20 – otherwise known as Josh McEachran. The 18-year-old Chelsea midfield prodigy could hardly have chosen a more appropriate berth for his gifts, which are to do with instinctive decision-making and superlative passing, for the remainder of the season. Assuming, we now have to say, that Rodgers can find a place for his England Under-21 loan signing in a midfield whose members got the better of their direct opponents in every particular on Sunday.
Not for a moment were Swansea overawed, even when Robin van Persie glided on to Andrey Arshavin's through ball after five minutes, cocked the trigger, then paused to put Steven Caulker off balance before releasing a shot that beat Michel Vorm at the near post. At that moment Arsenal looked like the aristocrats of old, running smoothly on well-oiled bearings, rather than the defective mechanism they have often resembled at other times this season.
By the end it was Swansea who were running cleanly on all cylinders while Arsenal wheezed and backfired. "I like to coach my players to manage pressure with the ball," Rodgers said afterwards. "In the last few minutes they were able to play some nice little triangles to get out of trouble and launch some attacks of our own." In fact they were doing it long before that, thanks to the neatness and composure of Leon Britton at the base of midfield and Joe Allen in front of him.
The buzzing Nathan Dyer, the diligent Danny Graham and the slippery Scott Sinclair formed an all-English trio of troublesome forwards for Capello to enjoy, and they became even more dangerous when Gylfi Sigurdsson, a 22-year-old Icelander once of Reading and now freshly arrived on loan from Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, came on to fill the playmaker's role with zest, inventiveness and precision.
Rodgers paid ample tribute afterwards to Wenger's achievements in north London, but it was one of those increasingly frequent afternoons on which the Frenchman fills his technical area with dramatic gestures of exasperation. Things being as they are, the way he reacts to an Arsenal mistake by throwing his arms wide in barely suppressed rage hardly looks the best way to go about imbuing his players with inner confidence.
To lose by the odd goal in five, away to this Swansea team, is hardly a disgrace, particularly when your squad is depleted by the enforced absence of such players as Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, Abou Diaby and two complete sets of full-backs. Sometimes, however, you have to wonder about Wenger's judgment – and in particular a stubbornness which so often sees him avoiding the obvious course of action.
There have been rumours, for instance, that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the 18-year-old midfielder for whom Wenger paid Southampton £12m last summer, is becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities to start games. By contrast, the perennially disappointing Arshavin continues to be given opportunities. The English teenager was thrown on with 13 minutes to play against Swansea, and looked more dangerous than the veteran Thierry Henry, who was allowed twice as much time on the pitch.
In his brief press conference, Wenger cast doubt on the validity of the penalty award from which Sinclair made the score 1-1, claimed that his players had made enough chances to have won comfortably and blamed his side's defensive mistakes for the defeat, but managed to dredge a moment of graciousness out of his disappointment. "Well done to Swansea," he said. "They played well and they deserved to win."
It takes one to know one, you could say, but although Rodgers and Swansea may never scale the heights reached by Arsenal under Wenger, they showed that they are much more than just another newly promoted side flushed with the adrenaline that comes from a first exposure to the top flight and taking advantage of tactical surprise to ambush their opponents. They looked like the real thing.