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Saturday 4 February 2006

Invisible Wall? Humpty Dumpty more like!

Considering that we actually didn't perform too badly in Wednesday's debacle against West Ham, where we had countless efforts on goal without a sniff of good fortune, compared to the Hammers, who seemed to have three bloomin' chances and hit the back of the net with each of them and on the basis that the babies in Wenger's current crop were once again without doubt the best of a bad bunch and didn't deserve to end up on the losing side, while the senior squad members were guilty of the crime of going missing the moment things went against us in the match (sadly an all too frequent occurrence these days), for me the Arsenal's current plight was summed up most succinctly (although no doubt it'll take me a few thousand words to tell you about it!), when without a bye or leave, Ray my West Upper neighbour just got up and walked out without a second glance, as Etherington's goal hit the back of the net on 80 minutes last Wednesday.

Now I've never been able to target Ray in the past, as I tease all the other "leave early to beat the traffic" type Gooners. Then again, taking the piss out of such kettle "part-timers" is more than a little bit hypocritical, coming from a black pot with my tardy arrival habits!

Ray's not in the habit of exiting THOF before the final whistle and the only other time I've seen him walk out before the end of a game was against Man Utd at Old Trafford, where, while everyone else spent the second-half slagging off poor Igor Stepanovs as their principal scapegoat, he and his mates were already halfway back down the motorway, having walked out at half-time with the score already 5-1 (I think?).

So when Pires actually pulled one back on 89 minutes on Wednesday, I turned to the bloke who sits beside him and said that Ray would be absolutely gutted, if we ended up getting the point he'd been prepared to settle for at 0-2 down at the break and he'd missed it, having walked out in disgust after conceding a third

But I sympathised entirely with his sentiments, as I'd done exactly the same last week. As usual I was tuned into the earpiece from my terrace tranny during the Wigan game and when Jason Roberts mugged our two central defenders at the death, whilst everyone else in the North Bank was still contemplating the away goal ramifications, I was up and out of my front row seat, heading home to check on Treacle (our spoilt pooch), after freezing my cods off for 120 minutes, absolutely indignant that we'd been done up like kippers as a result of an inexcusable last gasp lapse in concentration.

However this was hardly a risky sacrifice, as there were only seconds left on the clock. Whereas on Wednesday there was another ten minutes to go. Yet while Le Bob did manage to pull one back, I think that for me, without doubt the most depressing factor this season has been that game over inevitability about it all, whenever we've gone a goal down

I've been watching footie long enough to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with relative good grace. But what I simply can't abide is the apparent lack of spirit, the patent absence of hunger and passion. We've sacrificed a substantial proportion of the traditional Arsenal values during the Wenger era. Yet we've been more than duly compensated by the incredible entertainment we've enjoyed in their stead.

Nevertheless I grew up on a diet of typically gritty football for which the Arsenal were once renowned. I had to suffer the piss taking of my Spurs relatives for years for choosing the dour brand of the beautiful game, over the far prettier but ultimately hapless fare on offer at White Hart Lane. Looking back I always find it hard to put my finger on it. There was this air of opulence at Highbury, the smell of old money in the Marble Halls and all the history that came with it. Yet perhaps it was ultimately just the fact that my bony nine year old bum preferred the padded seats, instead of fidgeting for 90 minutes on the painful wooden ones found at Spurs.

Still I like to think that my choice (as in those days my old man would often take me on alternate weeks to see both teams play) was based on my attraction to the Arsenal's "never say die" spirit, our trademark steadfast refusal to accept a dodgy hand dealt by the fickle fingers of fortune, until the final whistle eventually sounded the battle's end. This is where I learned never to leave before the end, despite my old man's best efforts to literally drag me out by the hand.

And this is what I find most disappointing, as I can forgive footballers anything, even the combination of a lack of pace, one footedness and limited natural ability of poor Pascal Cygan, so long as I am confident they've left it all out on the field - to the extent that I can feel confident that the result matters as much to them as it does to me.

At least against WHU on Wednesday there was a rare demonstration that there was a little fight left in the Arsenal dog after going a goal (or even two) down. Whereas sadly this was decidedly absent in the FA Cup against Bolton. In the past, if we were unfortunate to concede an 84th minute goal, at least we'd be guaranteed there’d be a little hope left in a six minute onslaught, which would have us glued to the seat in hope of some last gasp redemption

Can you imagine Martin Keown suffering the opposition wasting time, holding play up by the corner flag? Plug would've clattered both ball and man into the stands before you could ask "how long?"

But then I guess this all comes back to a lack of leadership. I think Arsène has twice made the error of awarding the captaincy as a carrot, instead of rewarding the sort of character who might use it as a stick with which to encourage their team mates to play to their full potential

It's easy to point the finger at the sale of Paddy as the principal cause of all our current problems and it is indeed true that this squad has been left devoid of the focal point of Vieira's immense physical presence at the heart of our midfield. Perhaps Paddy would've prevented this season's calamitous inconsistency. Perhaps not?

My feeling is that in his last two seasons treading water at Highbury, Paddy was only helping to paper over the cracks. I'm not one for recalling the stats, but I can't imagine there were too many games where we were forced to try and turn the match around after conceding goals

To my mind we were and still are a fair-weather team, capable of producing the sort of marvellous football that few sides can live with when everything is going in our favour. However it seems as if it’s only been this season that suddenly the opposition have begun to find us out and to quote Gooner gal Amy Lawrence (see the Observer) “les poulets have come home to roost”!

I’ve heard several pundits picking the bones out of our defensive errors. But while Sol and Senderos have played like complete strangers, they’ve both been exposed by the lack of protection in front of them, as our World Cup winner has looked less like an “Invisible Wall” and more like Humpty Dumpty !

Ironically Gilberto’s best period at THOF was when he was out injured last season and suddenly all the loudmouthed hindsight pundits were singing his praises, suggesting to those of us who’ve never quite understood exactly what he does, that our poor performances were proof positive of how much we missed his presence.

I’ve studied the enigma that is Gilberto, giving him more attention than most in the Arsenal squad, as I’ve tried to comprehend the arguments of those who’d contend he offered essential but ultimately inconspicuous protection. Last season I often commented that I’ve never seen a player who was quite so capable of this amazing feat of achieving a successful challenge, yet somehow failing to come away with possession of the ball.

Meanwhile watching the Brazilian in recent weeks, one of the most bemedalled members of the Arsenal squad, I’ve been less bemused and more infuriated by the sight of Gilberto dangling out an ineffectual leg in a vapid effort to prevent the opposition’s progress.

To be honest there’s a sense of relief about poor Sol Campbell’s plight (as they say in yiddish, I should have his £100k a week “tzores”!). If there’s any truth to the salacious gossip that Campbell is cracking up under the pressure of feeling that the possibility of him being “outed” in the tabloid press is always imminent, then at least this would explain where his head’s at, since it’s quite plainly not been in control of his physical faculties in recent weeks.

Then again, despite the amusing images I’ve had of the Highbury suits desperately scanning the small print of Sol’s insurance policy with a fine tooth comb, searching for the get-out clause which would cover them in the event of a psychological breakdown, as opposed to a physical one, as far as I am concerned, ever since I witnessed Senderos and Djourou’s centre-back partnership in the demolition of Boro, I’ve been convinced that this could be the Arsenal’s future and on the basis that Sol was already on the downward spiral of his career beforehand, we should be allowing the two youngsters to develop their partnership.

I am sure that when Kolo returns, hopefully this weekend, in spite of the contributing factor of the feckless protection in front of them, our recent defensive errors will ensure Kolo is returned immediately to our back line. Although I am inclined to wonder if Kolo isn’t one of the few players in the Arsenal squad capable of providing the crucial grit, which we’ve been found so wanting of in our midfield

As it stands at the moment we’ve suffered watching our side crack each week because there’s no backbone running down the middle of Wenger’s invertebrates and it’s the senior players frailties that show then up as totally spineless

I am no xenophobe. I could care less where players come from and hopefully when Diaby adapts to the pace of the Premiership, he’ll prove to be the panacea for all our Paddy-less problems

However Arsène has always complained about the fact that his choice of buying players was limited to foreigners because of the over inflated market prices in this country. Yet if you look at the current Spurs squad (and perhaps it was Arnessen who takes the credit prior to being poached by Chelsea?) with the likes of Carrick, Lennon and Huddlestone - who having seen him play in the England U21s, I haven't understood why Huddlestone’s had to wait so long for his Spurs debut? - they've managed to achieve a backbone of British players without breaking the bank

Some would point to our failure to purchase Carrick as a potential replacement for Paddy. I’m yet to be convinced. But I would've loved to have seen him and some more players from these shores within our squad.

I doubt Wenger’s crop of kids would’ve got anything like the sort of exposure they’ve received lately, if it wasn’t for recent circumstances. And so while we are now blessed with this bunch of extremely promising youngsters, the other distinct group of elder professionals amongst the first eleven have existed in a comfort zone for far too long. They might have dropped in and out of the starting line up, but ultimately their places in the squad have been so secure that elements of complacency have been bound to creep into their game

Whereas I think if you look at the other four teams above us (perhaps with the exception of Man Utd), you get the distinct feeling when watching them play, that the vast majority are working their socks off to impress because there are players waiting to replace them. Even watching the likes of Blackburn I get the sense that there's an edge to the players game due to competition in their squad (perhaps I'm stretching the imagination here)

And if you go through the other clubs, taking the likes of Julian Gray, Jermaine Pennant, Jerome Thomas. David Bentley, Steve Sidwell, Graham Stack - you could make a good case for a half decent eleven of the youngsters who've left THOF of late

I only hope that Pennant doesn’t get an opportunity to prove this particular argument tomorrow. But more than this I can’t bear the thought of Wenger’s Arsenal side going to St. Andrews and handing the home side a substantial psychological advantage, by suggesting that our far more talented team need adapt their game to counter the line-up of far less adept opponents. For a devoted aficionado of 4-4-2, I’ve already suggested Arsène might be losing the plot if Le Prof once again makes the mistaking of being drawn into slugging it out with a brawler, when we should be dancing our way around this bunch of losers and bamboozling them with our punching speed

Amy Lawrence got it spot on when she reversed the line in my last blog entry and I sincerely hope that for once we can begin to turn it around for real tomorrow, instead of us having to suffer another 90 minutes of a Gunners side “stinging like a butterfly and floating like a bee!!”

Until we can ditch those dead unlucky shirts and get back to playing in our proper colours…come on you Redcurrants

Big Love