Exceptional Swansea City eye Gunners scalp
SWANSEA City have had smart new car seats put into the Liberty Stadium dugouts this season.
For a while on Wednesday night, Michael Laudrup's felt more like an armchair.
So smoothly were things going for his Swansea side that they could have filmed a cigar advert in SA1, with Laudrup puffing away while his players waltzed round West Bromwich Albion in the background.
Swansea completed 402 passes in the first half against the Baggies — an extraordinary total — but it was not possession without penetration.
Swansea passed the ball with precision and pace to leave Albion, who had arrived as the Premier League's form side, chasing leather.
The best 45 minutes of Swansea's season so far?
"A lot of seasons," Laudrup suggests.
"It's not very often as a manager you can sit and enjoy watching your team playing.
"There are nearly always things you want to improve or spells where you are not so good.
"But the first 45 minutes on Wednesday were just outstanding. All 11 players played at their best, with one-touch or two-touch football.
"It's one of the few times I can recall in my managerial career where I have just sat there enjoying the game.
"It's only happened once or twice before in my career."
Laudrup may now have to brace himself for a few disappointments.
He has seen what his team can do when they are at their best, but feels it is inconceivable that they will be able to maintain Wednesday's standards on a consistent basis.
Even the second half in midweek saw a drop in performance level. After the Baggies grabbed an undeserved lifeline in first-half stoppage time, the balance of the game shifted and suddenly Swansea's first thought was to protect what they had.
Ultimately, they defended their advantage with relative comfort, which was more good news for the manager.
But Laudrup is a boss who likes his teams to look forward, and his primary aim at Arsenal tomorrow will be to inspire another attacking performance like the one which did for the Albion.
But is it possible to expect a repeat at the Emirates?
"I don't know," Laudrup concedes.
"But now at least we know what we can do at our best — and I really enjoyed seeing that.
"It pleases me a lot because it does not come out of the blue.
"We are training to do these things, playing one and two touches day in and day out in small areas on the training ground.
"It doesn't just happen."
Some will argue that Swansea have no chance of dominating Arsenal as they did West Brom, for they are going to the home of one of the top flight's heavyweight sides.
But while there is no doubt it is a big ask to go and outplay the Gunners on their own patch, Swansea will have a golden chance of doing so if they reach the standards set on Wednesday.
What happened then was not about West Brom's failings, it was about Swansea's quality.
The problem is, of course, that such performances do not come round too often.
Having said that, Swansea head for North London in buoyant mood, having lost only once in their last nine matches and reached 20 points for the season thanks to the West Brom triumph.
"Of course the players are confident," Laudrup says.
"But it's a completely different game at Arsenal compared to West Brom.
"We play against a very good side with great players who play very well with the ball, moving it around.
"There's no pressure at all on us — we go there as underdogs and we can only surprise.
"Everybody expects Arsenal to win and that's normal, but we go there with four points this week from games against Liverpool and the surprise of the season so far, West Brom, so we go with no pressure."
Swansea's remarkable progress this season means they head for Arsenal with no weight on their shoulders.
Their points tally puts them well ahead of schedule after 14 league games, so tomorrow is an opportunity to go and perform with relative freedom against opponents who should give them a chance to play.
Arsenal were lauded at the start of the season for their defending following the promotion of Steve Bould — a member of that Gunners back four — to assistant manager.
But they have looked a little creaky in recent weeks, and take on Swansea having won only one of their last five league games.
A section of the Arsenal support suggested that Arsene Wenger did not know what he was doing during the drab stalemate at Aston Villa last weekend.
"Are the majority of the fans still with me? I don't know," the Arsenal manager conceded this week.
There have been various spells of frustration for Gooners in recent times, thanks chiefly to the fact that their team have gone seven seasons without lifting a trophy.
There are many, many clubs with a lot less going for them, but Arsenal's followers have grand expectations.
They are through to the next stage of the Champions League and they remain in the Capital One Cup, but already a challenge for the Premier League title looks unlikely.
Arsenal, after all, are only one point better off than Swansea.
No doubt their fans will expect that margin to stretch to four tomorrow, when the visitors' chances will be dismissed by most outside these parts.
The bookmakers have Arsenal as 1-2 favourites to triumph, while Swansea are a distant 7-1.
The likely loss of Pablo Hernandez will not help Swansea's cause, but they are long odds for a team who were exceptional only a couple of days ago.