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Sunday 11 December 2005

Hands Up

OK I guess I'd better admit it, never mind dodgy Dermott and the sending-off at St James Park, this evening's defeat was all my fault, as circumstances conspired to prevent me making it to Tyneside. Mind you with yet another kick-off inconveniently timed, with total disregard to the hardy legion of loyal travelling fans, I am almost relieved I couldn't get there. Or else I would've doubtless been holed up in a hotel room in Newcastle all night, too depressed to venture out until tomorrow's trip home, for fear of being recognised as a southerner and having salt rubbed in my open Arsenal wounds, by some smart-arsed Geordies.

Not that I, or any of the Gooners who actually did make the five hundred mile round trip schlep to Toon Town, had any chance of influencing proceedings and altering the outcome. At least certainly not from the seats right up in the gods, which away fans are allocated at St James. However as is always the case on those rare occasions when I can't get to a game and the result has gone against us, I can't help but feel that it would've all been different, if only I'd been there. It's totally illogical I know, but no more barmy than the idea that I can predict the score based on how substantial a "pony" I've had the previous evening, or that the Arsenal's success is dependent on me putting on a particularly lucky t-shirt that day

Then again it's probably more productive to be pointing the finger at me, than at Dermott Gallagher's incompetent and dreadfully inconsistent refereeing. At least I can guarantee I'll be able to turn up at the next game, whereas such awful officiating is just part and parcel of football's infuriating vagaries and rotten referees will continue to remain as ever present at the ball itself.

So to be honest I find it a bit of a wind up, and I'm sure I am not alone, when Wenger comes on TV afterwards, sounding like all those other broken record managers, by blaming the outcome on bad decisions. Obviously I appreciate he was annoyed, I was no less livid myself, and I realise he can't be seen to be coating off his own players in public.

Personally my immediate reaction was that the ref didn't realise he'd already booked Gilberto and it wasn't until Gallagher pulled out the yellow card, that it dawned on him he'd made a ricket and was then obliged to produce the red. Naturally it might be a complete figment of my imagination, but I thought that Gallagher was just trying to get to grips with the game and prevent it becoming too feisty. However I'm inclined to wonder whether he might have been a little more lenient, over what was after all a completely innocuous challenge, if he'd realised he already booked the Brazilian.

Nevertheless, in truth, instead of railing at the ref, really Arsène should be admonishing our World Cup winning midfielder about the totally cynical and entirely senseless foul on the stroke of half-time that resulted in his first booking. I can't actually recall whether there was the prospect of a threatening counter-attack and Gilberto could use the excuse that he was breaking this up, in order to give us time to retreat. Yet having committed many similar fouls myself in my youth, when I was flagging during matches, the way he dangled out a lackadaisical leg and took his opponent down, I'm inclined to believe Gilberto was already looking forward to his half-time breather and therefore decided on the laziest option, not to nullify any immediate danger, but because he couldn't be bothered to leg it after the zippy zebra.

Playing as our holding midfielder, the Brazilian should know much better than to pick up such unnecessary bookings. With the number of challenges he has to make, he's faced with the possibility of committing fouls all over the pitch, by being only a fraction of a second late. It occurred to me at the time that he could well end up regretting picking up the yellow card so carelessly and spending the entire second half on a knife edge. Although I wouldn't have dreamt he'd be taking an early bath for such a banal incident. Especially when Saint Shearer was causing actual bodily harm all over the pitch with almost absolute impunity. When Gallagher finally punished his umpteenth transgression, I almost expected the ref to apologise to the old war horse.

It might've only come to some folks attention a few years back, when he got off scott free with that stamping incident, which was conveniently ignored so that he could play for his country, but actually Shearer's been getting away with his dirty tricks for donkey's years. To the extent that these days some of the refs who've been around for a while seem to turn an increasing blind eye to many of his antics, as if there's an "old school" acceptance that there's one set of rules for everyone else and one for Shearer, in sympathy with his advancing years and the fact that he increasingly depends on maintaining such an unfair advantage over some of his younger, more naive opponents. However the fact that he's fast approaching his eventual retirement is no excuse for any such partiality. Shearer's been singing his "it's a physical game tune" his entire career, while leaving the imprint of his elbow on the ugly mugs of defenders up and down the country and the fact of the matter is that he's nothing short of the playground bully.

However with all this whinging I am beginning to sound like Wenger, when Shearer's been at St James for most of the nine seasons since our last defeat up there. We've also been on the wrong end of our fair share of incompetent officials, without suffering two successive defeats in the past three years, or more's the point, without failing to score in the two successive games in the past five years. What's more we had a full complement of players for the first hour of this game without making an impression on the score-sheet.

As with our other rotten results on the road this season, what annoys me most is that the media are likely to go overboard about a terrific Toon performance in the second half. Shay Given made a fabulous reaction save to keep out Thierry Henry's well struck volley, but the truth of the matter is that Wenger can contend all he wants that "we were the better team" but the fact that we only worked the Newcastle keeper once, in the entire ninety minutes just ain't good enough.

To date the centre-back partnership of Bramble and Boumsong has been the Toons' principal achilles heel. There was a time when I thought Bramble was quite a decent prospect and playing alongside Mexes, Boumsong was one half of a pretty effective defensive brick wall (I believe for Auxerre?). They are both big, strong and fast, but so far their performances in the Premiership have given me cause to question Souness' judgement as a manager. Perhaps they will build on this performance and go on to settle down into a redoubtable defence. However I rather suspect that before the season is out, there will be visitors to St James Park, like Chelsea or Utd, who will take advantage of their lapses in concentration, to positively tear the Toon apart. And it will be in the light of such results that we will fully realise quite how lame our efforts were tonight, in respect of our failure to get behind these two lummoxes more than a couple of times!

I was seriously hoping that our woeful display at the Reebok would prove enough of a wake up call. The reason we've not suffered successive defeats for so long has been that in seasons past we've only required one such reverse of the form book, to remind us that no matter how good you are on paper, football in this country remains sufficiently committed that the desired outcome in most matches requires a lot more than merely turning up!

There were a couple of minor consolations in this lamentable single goal defeat. I quite like the fact that we now get another chance to snuff out completely Spurs renewed glimmer of hope. The other was the fact that Cygan's "injury" meant we finally got the defensive lline-up most Gooners have been calling for since Cole and Clichy both broke the same bone in their feet. Personally I'd prefer to see the full-backs reversed, with Lauren in his regular position at right-back and Kolo at left-back. Then at least we'd only be playing the one defender out of their more customary position. Also I am not sure the right-footed Ralphie looks particularly comfortable on the opposite flank.

However I am not going to quibble, because anything is better than the sort of nervous performances we've seen from our back line with Cygan at full-back. Gawd love poor Pascal, I wouldn't wish harm on anyone, least of all a Gunner who, unlike some, can't be accused of not giving his all when wearing the red & white, but I can't help myself from hoping his injury is nothing too trivial! Personally I find watching the Arsenal play (so badly!!) live on TV much harder than being there in person. I wouldn't dream of giving Arsenal players anything but my support from the terraces and at least there's a sense, no matter how futile, that you can at least try and have an impact on the circumstances. Yet in the privacy of my own living room, I will scream blue murder over our every mistake and I find nothing more frustrating than bellowing my head off at an inanimate goggle box in the corner of the lounge.

Saturday's example reminded me that if it wasn't for the outlet of being able to vent my fervent feelings about the Arsenal at live football matches, so far this season I'd probably be blowing a gasket every other week and doubtless would've long since lost what remains of my heir, having torn much of it out whilst fuming in front of the TV. Moreove, never mind Treacle our monster of a pooch being petrified of firework bangs, my caterwauling would've probably have turned her into a nervous wreck. As a result Cygan's absence was a great relief because at least it meant I didn't have to spend the entire match hiding behind the sofa, absolutely bricking it every time our defence was called into action. It's not ideal for the Arsenal to be turning out without a recognised left-back, but at least with this line-up, you didn't get the sense that there was an overall air of nervousness pervading the squad, with everyone unsure of their roles and their responsibilities, whilst trying to cover for the inadequacies of our leaden-footed lurch.

Personally speaking, with Kolo Touré about to disappear off to the African Nations Cup in the near future, I was very pleased to see our Swiss centre-back brought back into the first team fold. I wouldn't have seen it unless I was watching the match on the box, but from the moment the live Sky transmission showed Phillipe Senderos geeing up his colleagues in the tunnel prior to kick-off, it was like a breathe of fresh air, carrying a feint but beautiful and much missed scent of the sort of spirit which used to be our trademark.

It was a slightly tentative shout of encouragement, the sort that one might expect from someone making his first start in a Premiership line-up since October. But then you'd hardly expect a Tony Adams type roar from Senderos, when he's only involved as cover and is not exactly secure about his place in the team. With a run in the side and his confidence completely restored, I am sure Phillipe will begin to growling like a lion. But in the light of the lacklustre showing of his team mates in the past two games and the absence of hunger and commitment, I was nonetheless extremely grateful for the first signs of some evidence that there is at least one member of Wenger's squad who is prepared to give some vocal expression to his desire. and who in time, will hopefully be able to inspire a little more of that special "Arsenal spirit" from the rest of the team.

After all we don't need Wenger to tell us that we were the better side, as we are all only too aware of the incredible ability of some of the players in this Arsenal squad. Yet since this is such an obvious fact, surely it is also proof positive that no matter the apparent weaknesses in certain positions, we are currently suffering, as a result, from a far more basic problem which can't be addressed so easily in the January transfer window, by simply throwing money at it.

I am beginning to feel like a broken record myself as I've been bemoaning the same problems all season long. However these past two defeats have made it patently evident that the answer to all our current woes is that certain "je ne sais quoi" which unfortunately does not grow on trees and often as not, no matter how big your budget, it's not easy to buyl.

There's a famous football mantra which says that every five years a football club either has to change it's manager, or the team. Whether or not we are currently witnessing some signs of complacency raising its ugly head, amongst an Arsenal side where some players are a little too secure about their places in the starting line-up because there isn't sufficient genuine competition for their places, or whether there are a few too many players in the team who've been listening to Wenger for so long that his words of encouragement no longer have the desired effect, in truth only those in the dressing room can answer this question.

However one of the first things I invariably look for at a football match is some confirmation that the Arsenal are sufficiently committed. From Lehmann's clearances, throw-ins and set-pieces, I want to see Arsenal players facing the ball and demanding possession from their team mate. All too often recently I've found myself bemoaning out loud "You've gotta look like you want it!". When we've been on top at THOF there are unmarked players appearing everywhere on the pitch and the ball flows from one end of the pitch to the other at pace, with everyone keen to participate. But far too often when we are away from home, when our opponents are pressing us all over the park, trying to prove "we don't like it up us", too many of the usual suspects are guilty of hiding.

To my mind it was ironic after last week's reprehensible display at the Reebok, to hear Freddie reminding his team mates that sometimes you need to "put your foot in" away from home, when Ljungberg's as guilty as anyone else of going on the missing list. So where was Freddie at St. James? I have to admit that for much of the match Ljungberg was so conspicuous by his absence that I forgot he was playing. Mercifully there were some more positive signs in Alexandre Hleb's return to action. At least we witnessed him running at the opposition with the ball, prepared to take players on and beat them.

I am hoping that in time, much like John Terry, Senderos will develop into the driving force of the team, capable of rallying the troops when the chips our down, but in the immediate future it's increasingly apparent which each successive performance where our opponents have managed to put us under the cosh, that we are desperate for a proper leader out on the park, who can inspire the best from his team mates with his "do or die". "they shall not pass" attitude.

With each passing week there seems to be a growing feeling of inevitability about the dreaded summer departure of our star striker. And many would suggest that his increasingly exasperated body language is only further evidence that Henry has had enough of carrying all the Arsenal's hopes on his shoulders. Whether Thierry goes, or whether he stays, to my mind it is more than enough responsibility for one man that, Van Persie apart, Titi bears almost the entire goal scoring burden. Sometimes Thierry remembers his captain's duties, trying to lead by example, dashing back to try and recover possession in defence and tearing back down the other end of the pitch, to do what he does best. But all too often these days, when things aren't going our way, we see our captain's head and shoulders visibly drop.

Perhaps I'm too much of a traditionalist, but I've always believed a captain should come from the defence, or certainly no further forward than the midfield, where unlike Thierry, he spends the majority of the match facing most of his team mates, instead of with his back to them for most of the 90. And we've never been more in need of a leader with a physical and vocal presence, who can put the fear of g-d into his colleagues and demand more from them. Whereas sadly at the moment the opposite is true, where you can't help wondering if Henry really cares where the Arsenal will be next season and should this be the case, then surely such negative vibes must be infectious.

I had a call from a fellow Gooner who watched George Graham's post-match analysis for Sky and who said they found themselves nostalgically longing for the boring, boring Arsenal of old. Whatever we lacked in entertainment, at least you knew that the result mattered to that bunch of players, as much as it did to you. After a result like that George would've had them out on the training ground on Monday, punishing them with the sort of exhausting and tiresome drills, which would've ensured they'd be doing their utmost the following week to avoid a repeat of his displeasure.

Doubtless much like Utd, we'll raise our game for next Sunday's glamorous occasion. But we are going to have to wait for our Boxing Day visit to the Valley to see if there is a positive reaction, or whether the current malaise is congenital!

Peace & Love


Anonymous said...

Dear Bernard,

Thank you for taking the time...


Martin E.T.

Anonymous said...

i love to see you southerners cry like babies when you lose.yes we played shit and are a poor team,yes shearers past it and gets away with alot.but you seem to forget jenas being sent off 1st game of season.was that fair? no it wasnt.its just a game.stop crying.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis mate, think you've got a lot of it spot on without resulting to the vitriol I wouldn't have been able to contain.
Keep it up

Anonymous said...

i agree with anonymous on 3.26 PM wen he said that we "seeem to forget jenas being sent off" at highbury but did henry(shearer) deserve to be sent off 3 times and did febregas (faye) do the same as jenas (gilberto) and should of gotten a red card too. and lets not forget how much u lot complained about the jenas thing, u even took it to court and got it down to a yellow so dont talk about crying and complaining!

Anonymous said...

Well though out piece. I'm a Magpie and thought the ref was crap but the reality is your players didn't have the heart to respond to our increased tempo and committment. You didn't deserve to win that game and we did more than enough to take 3 points - you have some wonderfully skilled players and in the 1st half you played some very pretty football but no team anywhere in the world wins trophies without some guts and bite in their team. You used to have it but when Viera left he took it with him. If you don't get it back you'll win nothing.

Anonymous said...

As a Gooner I doubt we'll win anything of substance this year. And unless we buy a no-nonsense player who can regain our midfield authority will remain in the wilderness for another season or two. Maybe more.
I cannot understand why the emphasis for Wenger's choice of talent is ALWAYS the eye-catching silken glove of skill. When sometimes the simple sledgehammer of physical power is required.
Sometimes I wish we had a Vinnie Jones out there - remember how a crunching tackle from him in the first few minutes of their Cup Final with Liverpool virtually guaranteed their midfield superiority for the rest of the game?
And that's part of our weakness.. The other part is taking too long to do the bleading obvious!
Too often there's a breathtaking string of skilful passes before one shot of goal is attempted. At least with Van Persie the occasional Route 1 is now attempted! But only occasionally.
And why can't we get a striker who can specialise in headers??
Oh why why why!

Bern said...

It drives me barmy that the majority of our lot seem to have adopted the Bergkamp way of thinking, whereby they appear reulctant to make contact with the ball with their head for fear of losing a few brain cells. I am always screaming at Lehmann (and every goalie during Wenger's reign) to keep the ball on the deck because if it's hit long, absolutely our only chance of winning possession is perhaps from the resultant knock down.

Personally I find it embarrassing that, our defence apart, most of our players seem to look like complete wusses when jumping for the ball, intent only on trying to put off the opposition, with it absolutely obvious that they aren't interested in getting their precious bonce's to the ball.

Newxastle's pressure in our half of the pitch forced us to hit it long a few times yesterday, either with no one making themselves available up field, or with us having no chance of winning the ball in the air and so posession was handed right back.

Also we've a perennial problem with our heading because it means that when we can't work our way past the number of bodies with our intricate passing game, we never have the option of going round the opposition and taking it to the byeline because there's no one in the middle capable of winning the resultant header (in fact there's often no one in the middle full stop :-)

I can't remember the last time we saw a Geordie Armstrong, or for not so aged Gooners, Anders Limpar flying down the wing and taking the ball to the byeline to put in a threatening cross. I have to admit that I haven't seen much of Spain playing at all, but I have to wonder whether this might be the reason Reyes appears to be so much more effective for his country that he is for the Gunners?

But contrary to ine of the comments above, I am not whinging. The officiating, Gilberto's sending-off and Shearer's customary "physical game" were all side issues. The fact of the matter was that the Toon won because of thier hunger, work rate and commitment, where we were largely found wanting in all three.

That's the main difference between us and Chelsea. Again as we saw yesterday, even without playing well Chelsea were more than capable of grinding out a result against Wigan because they have a backbone of the likes of Lampard and Terry who really want it. It was positively bizarre to see the Wigan player literally rugby tackle Terry in the penalty area in the first-half at the Bridge, but even in the faceof such close attention, later on in the game Terry showed his determination to get to the ball and head home a winner.

I actually had a totally illogical inkling prior to this game that Wigan might come away with something. Once again last week Benitez got it tactically right, in a boring chess match of a Champions League game. I imagine Paul Jewell would've been watching a worked out a similar plan to contain the league's runaway leaders.

It appears as if Wigan came close to achieving this. But I've now come to the conclusion that there is so much quality running throughout the Blues side, that it is not enough to try and come and merely contain them, as for the vast majority of time Chelsea are going to manage to conjure up at least one goal and then with their opponents on the back foot, they've little chance of rescuing a result.

It's going to take a Stuart Pearce, or a manager with similar "cahones" to go to Stamford Bridge and really take the Blues on to unsettle them and perhaps come away with something. Whereas it is becoming evident that the timid approach of not really wanting to win, but trying to stop Chelsea winning, is playing into the hands of Mourinho's effective percentage game,

Meanwhile the thought of losing Thierry Henry is daunting enough, but as I drive past our new stadium a couple of times every day, who could've imagined there'd be a possibility that we might end up opening our campaign there without the prospect of playing Champions League football?

Mind you, who know, there could be a silver lining to our unaccustomed position in the Premiership. After all if we can't qualify in the top three, perhaps we'll just have to go and win the bloomin' thing :-)

Off to be entertained by Kaka in the Milan derby. Thanks a million for the positive comments, they are most gratifying
Big Love

Anonymous said...

I wish us gunners will stop all this Physical Excuses crap….

I think what all gunners are forgetting is that a few seasons ago we where the hardest team in the league, what with Adams, Keown, Viera, Bould, Petit, Edu, Dixon, Merson, —- we have historically alway been a physical side,

Does anyone still remember Keown on Ruud HorseFace

I mean that was Ugly…..those images of Keown, but Us arses loved it.

Basically we used to be phsically a big team, in height and size, but now it seems arsene has a dwarf fetish……

Fabs, Reyes, lauren, lungberg, persie,

At the end of last season we needed to bring in 2-3 players to be a world-dominating team, instead we have become a team in transition…..

I didn’t choose this,,,,, I didn;t want this,,,,,,, what wenger is thinking only he knows……

Everyone new at the start of this season we would struggle except Wenger……

In terms of Henry, He is not capt material…….

No forward should every be capt.

They are not in a good position to capt the side……

Has to be a central def or midfield player……

I still think we can qualify for the CL, but this season is def. fucked……

and i’m not expecting anything to great next season as the new players that come in still need to gel and build understanding.. . .

Overall there have been just too many changes in this team……

Its all very very very bizarre……..

But then we’ve had a great last 9 years…… bit of rough with the smooth is required……

Pl all us arses stop whinging about shearer et el, we used to be the most physical and intimidating team only a few seasons ago….. have we all forgotten that? we used to dish it out week in week out……

Anonymous said...

just get over it you are on the slide as bolton will testify shearer is just a pussycat after keown and co. o also the top scorer the premier has ever had not bad for england either see how you do when henry goes to barca o my god ive said it! you can always try and get dogbreath from that team thats where you used to be but can you afford him can you fill your new stadium all will become clear when sourpuss wenger goes to real o my god ive said another no no!!

Bern said...

It's true we've all got short memories. Although I've always hated the likes of Shearer and Mark Hughes but that doesn't mean I'd give my right arm for just a little of their feistiness in our side at the moment.

The difference was that TA and Keown certainly gave as good as they go and didn't need anyone protecting them.

However football fans are born to whinge. Our problem is that Wenger has spoilt us in recent years. I've just been watching MOTD and most young Gooners don't know their born. I'm depressed after losing our first succesive matches in THREE years, or failing to score in successive games for the first time in FIVE years.

I've just seen a piece on TV following Sunderland fans on their trip to the Valley, their second 500 mile round trip schlep to the capital in seven days, having endured NINE successive defeats and these long-suffering Wearsiders were all still keeping the faith.

In general Southern fans tend to be far more fickle and we'd be tearing up our season tickets in similar circumstances, demanding a refund, while the Black Cats carry on regardless, merely hoping their season might reward them with a few goals and a few more points.

As they say for genuine fans of the beautiful game "hope springs eternal"

Anonymous said...

please stop your bitch ass whining for god sake so what you have lost 2 games in a row big deal, us mags have to watch our lot week in week out which at the moment is not much fun, however we had to get a big name scalp at some stage this season and I know we have been shocking lately but did you's just exepect us to roll over and play dead we are fighting for our lives at the moment and while a phisical and work man like display is true I thought your team was not any thing fancy One shot which forced a top save form given in a spell of half an hour after that I think we were in controll.
I can understand the feeling about the poor turn from the referee, but we have had more than our fair share of that aswell let me tell you. 2 penatly shouts at wigan in the league 2 at chelsea 1 at everton.
unfortunatly thats football so have a bit of hart and just let us enjoy our win I am sure you lot will have a lot more than us to celebrate come may.