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Monday 13 February 2006

Will You Be My Valentine

Hi folks

As usual I struggled to fit everything into a 1000 words below. Mind you some of you might have seen I've started contributing a post-match comment for the Observer's "The Verdict" column (I've been whinging at them that it's not available online!), where I get a call shortly after the game on a Saturday and have to fit my thoughts into a mere 100 words, which is virtually impossible for someone with such a severe case of verbal diahorrea as myself.

What's more I don't think I've ever been much kop at doing anything off the cuff, as like most people, I invariably end up thinking seconds after I've put the receiver down "if only I'd said" this that and the other! So I end up having to dash back and type something out (or for away games I've got my pad out and scribbled something down). I've copied this week's below, although I've left out my marks out of ten for individual players as I detest doing this because it feels decidedly unfair to translate 90 minutes of blood, sweat and toil (or shirking in some cases!) into a single figure. I've forgotten about the need for these marks out of ten each week so far but instead of spending all my time worrying about what to give each player whilst waiting for the call, I end up agonizing all night about whether I've been too harsh.

So far I've been cutting the likes of Larsson and Flamini plenty of slack, since it's hard to criticise a player who's grafting his socks off in such an unfamiliar role. Still this doesn't stop me and every other Gooner fretting because they both look suspect to being turned over at any time during a game. The best defences work like a well oiled machine where everyone instinctively know when to step up, when to drop off and when to cover each other. You can't expect to come into a side, moving from ones usual position in midfield to full-back without being responsible for the occasional inevitable cock-up, unless you've spent endless hours practicing the sort of boring defensive drills to the point where you run on automatic, because your every move is instinctive.

Apparently Kolo Touré and Manny Eboué are both back in the squad on Tuesday. I only hope Arsène doesn't leave them out of the starting line-up because he feels they need more rest. At their young age there should be no problem with them playing two matches in two days and under the desperate circumstances, I think most of us would have hoped the club had hired a private jet to fly them both back after the final of the African Nations Cup, so they could've at least made some contribution on Saturday. I was amazed last week when Pompey's Zambian player performed in Egypt on Tuesday and played for Pompey on Wednesday. Surely our need was at least as great as that of Harry Redknapp?

Watching Kolo & Manny play Egypt in the final was a sore reminder how much we could've done with both of them these past few weeks. I think Kolo was one of the pundits' choice for Man of the Match, while Manny could have easily won the competition for Côte d'Ivoire with a storming run into the penalty area in extra-time, which only lacked the finish to go with it. Mercifully Didier Drogba was guilty of missing a worse sitter and at least neither of them will be returning mentally affected by the immense pressure of having missed the crucial penalty kick.

It will be interesting to see what Wenger does at Anfield. Personally I would like to see him leave the current centre-back partnership of Senderos and Djourou and play Eboué in his usual position at right-back and Kolo at left-back. But I rather suspect Arsène will want to go for more experience in the middle and will therefore play Kolo with Senderos. And then it will be perm any one from four for the left-back slot and hopefully Manny, full of confidence from his exploits against some of the best on the planet, might be allowed to bring this to the party at right-back. I actually think this will be unfair on young Djourou, as the youngster has done nothing to deserve being dropped.

Myself I think the two Swiss lads work well as a partnership. A chap who sits a couple of seats from us was drawing comparisons with Ledley King and having said it, I can't help but notice that there are some distinctive similarities in their physical shape and the way they both move. With Djourou having the pace and Senderos the strength of personality, I think they make a great double-act. In fact Phillipe is perhaps the only member of the current squad with the sort of character that makes him genuine captain material (in my humble opinion)

Some people seem to have forgotten that Senderos was playing so well last season that he kept Sol Campbell out of the FA Cup Final and as a result Phillipe was first choice at the start of this season, with the Sol only risking injury as a result of splinters in the bum, warming the bench. However he's not been the same since Didier Drogba made a monkey of him a couple of time in only the second game of the season. I can't remember if there was any injury as an excuse, but if not, I am sure that getting dropped and being replaced by Pascal Cygan must've put a big dent in his confidence.

I was seriously hoping Senderos would put it all behind him by keeping Drogba quiet in the home game against Chelsea but sadly this was not to be and so at this point in time, it remains to be seen whether Phillipe is capable of developing the skill of all the best centre-backs, who are able to make up for their lack of pace against the nippiest of strikers, by being so adept at reading the game. I am seriously counting on Senderos being the real deal because there are so few candidates around these days in the Arsenal squad with his sort of demonstrative nature.

Personally I'd love to see Kolo replace Gilberto in the holding role in midfield, as I believe he's ideally suited to the Makalele type midfield enforcer role and we wouldn't have to worry about him waving a limp leg in the direction of the opposition like his Brazilian colleague. As I've mentioned below, I am convinced that Senderos wouldn't have been made to feel quite so foolish, so frequently this season if he'd received a little more support from the likes of Gilberto.

As my mate Nell pointed out Gilberto's best period at the Arsenal was when he was out injured for a long period and everyone began to believe we couldn't win a game without our "Invisible Wall". While he's been far from alone this season in looking like he's guilty of going through the motions, Gilberto's role is the one position on the park where a lack of a sufficient energy level just doesn't hack it

Freddie Ljungberg spent the entire fifteen minutes of half-time going through a warm up routine on the pitch. Personally I reckon he must've knackered himself out completely by the time he came on as sub for Diaby in the second half. At least this would be some explanation, since far from providing Le Prof with the answer, Freddie only produced more questions with one of his most anonymous performances yet.

However a side can cope with a player or two hiding when they're out on the wing (mind you, when FL8 moved into defense when Larsson went off, who could've possibly imagined at the start of this season that we'd end up watching a defensive line-up of Freddie at RB, Djourou & Senderos at CB and Flamini at LB !) but at the heart of the team, in an age where there are no easy games, there's just no way we can get away with a soft spine in the middle of the park.

In fact most of us were wondering why Wenger took of Diaby. I get the feeling from the way in which Diaby has hardly played 90 minutes in any of his appearances so far, that Wenger feels the need to try and break the youngster in gently, perhaps because he doesn't feel Abou can cope with the pace of Premiership football without a build up to 90 minutes. But I am sure I am not alone in thinking I would've much preferred to see Arsène play a tired Diaby for 90 minutes than the hair tearing frustration of watching Gilberto wander around the pitch, rarely winning possession and on the odd occasion when he does, producing a careless pass which presents the ball straight back to the opposition.

If there's been a principal cause for our inconsistency on the road this season, it's been the lack of grit and physical presence in midfield. Obviously this has resulted in everyone pointing the finger at the sale of Paddy, but my personal feeling is that even though he spent his last couple of seasons treading water, Vieira was capable of papering over the cracks in this Arsenal side without really breaking sweat. And so in his absence, the problems that were always present have become that much more apparent, as the opposition became increasingly bold and every side wanted to have a go at us because of their belief and our lack thereof without any real physical presence in our soft centred side.

The other main difference between then and now was that previously we didn't really need to worry about conceding goals, because we were more than capable of outscoring any opponent and with this in mind, I am not sure where Van Persie was on Saturday, but I sure hope he's back for our trip to Anfield.

While Jose Reyes is a player of undoubted natural ability, he appears to lack the instinctive genius of true footballing greats, the sort of quality that just can't be taught. I've not seen Jose play for Spain but I assume he's quite effective when utilised in a position where no brain power is required. I envisage Reyes flying down the wing and whipping in dangerous crosses for the sort of striker who patrols the penalty area. If he did this for the Arsenal, invariably there would be no one in the box for him to cross to and while Jose is gifted enough to get himself into good positions, all too often he seems to make the wrong decision when he gets there.

Jose Reyes certainly ain't the sharpest Sabatière in the knife barrel (see by comparison how Cesc Fabregas can already speak English fluently, while Jose still needs a translator - but then Pires is still struggling to hold a conversation after all these years, although in his case I'm sure it's laziness more than anything else) but Wayne Rooney proves the theory that you don't require an IQ to become an outstanding player. However there's an undoubted intelligence necessary, a perception of the players around you and an ability to appreciate football as if it was a chess match in which one is always thinking three moves ahead. It's a rare asset that a footballing god is either fortunate to be born with, or is destined to remain a mere professional mortal like the vast majority.

Hopefully we might see Van Persie blossom into one such heavenly being, but sadly I've seen little to suggest Reyes is ever going to scale such celestial heights.

As for all the salacious gossip which has occupied the tabloid press in recent weeks, I pride myself on thinking I am above such titillating tittle-tattle. I actually stopped buying the News Of The Screw some time ago. I think it was when this trash filled tabloid acted as agent provocateur in exposing the rugby player (was it Dallaligio?) as a fiendish pot smoker, that was the straw which broke this particular camel's back.

Nevertheless none of the other comic book red-tops are any better. Although I kid myself that I buy the Sunday Mirror for the missus, I am not above taking it to the karsey to glance at the latest gossip and so I am no less guilty than anyone else of giving them license to print such scandalous libel, slaughtering the lives of innocent individuals along the way. In truth I could really only justify taking any such trashy tabloids to the loo if I was to make use of them as toilet paper!

However I guess I don't ride sufficiently high on my righteous horse to rise above all the recent ridiculous allegations completely. When you consider the sort of constant teasing that has gone on in recent weeks, with first Spurs fans taking the piss out of Sol Campbell, with the sort of outrageously disgusting ditties which only deserve oxygen to demonstrate quite how low the Spurs scum will sink (personally no matter how much enmity I felt for an individual, even in jest I could never wish anyone "hung from a tree with HIV") and now us Gooners giving it back to them in spades, subsequent to all the rumours about Jermaine Jenas being one of the players in the NOTW story, I found it most amusing when I received an e-mail from the Irish Examiner's resident Man U fan, with a link to a comic cartoon that portrays Jenas, Will Young and Ashley Cole as the participants in the pervy goings on.

Now I wouldn't dream of suggesting there's a grain of truth to any of these sordid insinuations but it would indeed be ironic if those involved turned out to include players from both teams and so I've only included the link for its comedy value:

Meanwhile there'll be at least one extremely grateful Gunner if all the stories about football players sexual preferences end up focusing on someone else. Most enlightened folk find it absolutely unbelievable that the Age of Aquarius has waxed and waned without having absolutely any impact in the world of football. The only surprising thing about the lurid allegations in the NOTW is that they've not happened up until now. If its an actual fact that 10 per cent of the male populations is gay, then it stands to reason that the ranks of professional football are absolutely crammed with several closets full of frightened pooftas (s'cuse the decidedly un-PC terminology)

Those of us who are long enough in the tooth to recall the incessant stick suffered by poor Justin Fashanu, of the sort that must have contributed to him eventually taking his own life, you will also remember that it was quite tame compared to the bilious hate filled language of the modern day barbarians. "You couldn't score in a brothel" sounds positively sweet compared to the sort of songs being dreamed up by the very worst of the Spurs scum.

Sadly as a result, it's patently apparent why any professional footballer would be absolutely petrified of being publically "outed" because it would be absolutely unbearable for any of them to have to try and perform each week whilst being slaughtered by several thousand heartless fans

Meanwhile it seems to me that we wouldn't need to be worrying what any of our players got up to of an evening, so long as they're getting plenty of satisfaction out on the pitch. So let's all hope they're making plenty of whoopee come Wednesday

Big Love


Will You Be My Valentine?

The bloke who sits beside me returned from his halftime libations on Saturday with a handful of Liverpool tickets. It seems that there weren’t many takers for the trip to Merseyside this Tuesday. The prospect of a 10 hour road trip involves taking at least half a day off work and then you are hardly going to be particularly bright eyed and bushy tailed for a full day’s graft after getting back in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

What’s more many will already be testing their employer’s patience and perhaps their partner’s, with next week’s trip to Madrid. Mercifully I don’t have a boss to answer to, as I’ve always marvelled how committed Gooners manage to arrange all the time off work to follow the Arsenal around this country and much of the Continent.

Doubtless there must plenty of TV viewers who’d love to be at Anfield in person, drinking in the live atmosphere. But there are probably few who truly appreciate the sort of commitment and the sacrifice necessary for the most staunch footie nutters.

Many a marriage has floundered because the better half hadn’t fully appreciated that they’d be involved in a bigamous relationship for ten months of the year, sharing their partner with thirty odd players in a football squad. You could argue that the bond between the club and its supporters is much stronger than a marriage, since divorce just doesn’t even exist as an option. What’s more, most are a little wary about admitting it, but I’d guess that few Gooners went home after Saturday’s game, to experience anything quite so ecstatic as the elation felt when the ball finally hit the back of the net in the 93rd minute!

Such salacious metaphors were most appropriate for this particular match. The Arsenal’s feeble fumbling during the first 45 minutes of foreplay, ensured that by half-time most Gooners at Highbury would’ve been happy to cry off with a headache, in the hope of rolling over and at least getting a good night’s kip. However the improvement in the second-half saw us spend the last 20 minutes suffering the torture of a totally exhausting conquest, eventually reaching a point where, as a result of Bolton’s desperate but doughty defence and the goal defying feats of their keeper, we wondered if we were destined never to reach climax.

Some were already heading for the exits, believing Wenger’s Arsenal side in dire need of some footballing Viagra in order to satisfy the faithful. While the rest of us were just about ready to give up the ghost, when the least likely amongst Highbury’s harlots finished us off in fine style.

It’s strange because in light of the sort of amazing success the Arsenal have enjoyed in recent seasons, I could’ve never imagined a mere equalising goal against Bolton galvanising us Gooners into such a euphoric state. While plenty were more than happy to settle for a point, the greedier amongst us were hoping that there might even be just enough time for us to come again and take all three.

It remains to be seen whether Gilberto’s goal and the point it earned will prove to be crucial in the great scheme of things. Yet it’s importance can be measured in quite how gutted we would’ve been and the melancholy mood which would’ve enveloped the club if we hadn’t managed to score.

I’m sure the inept officiating was a factor, but it seems I tempted fate in last week’s piece, as Gooner patience finally gave out on Saturday, when, I believe for the first time this season, the boos rang out loud and clear as the players left the pitch at half-time.

However in our results driven society, where football supporters aren’t exactly renowned for their solidarity when things go awry, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the rare sensitivity demonstrated by Arsenal fans thus far. Few Gooners have got on the backs of players like Flamini and Larsson for the occasional ricket, as it’s appreciated that they are being asked to graft their socks off in an unfamiliar role. Similarly we’ve suffered the odd lapse in concentration, or manifestation of a lack of experience from Senderos and Djourou, without too much gnashing of Gooner teeth because this young Swiss centre-back pairing has shown incredible promise for the future.

By and large, most Gooners remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of watching the most wonderful football Highbury, or any other stadium for that matter, has ever seen in recent seasons. But the senior squad members have traded on their stock of goodwill, to the point where it’s eventually been exhausted. The fact that he’s spent the most time on the pitch probably doesn’t help his cause, but Gilberto’s perhaps the most obvious scapegoat and so I’m not sure it was a coincidence that the Brazilian ran away from the North Bank after scoring his astonishingly skilful goal

From what I’ve gleaned from the surprising result at the Riverside (where suddenly our 2-1 defeat doesn’t look quite so awful), Chelsea suffered from the fact that Essien, Makalele’s replacement as midfield enforcer, was forced to withdraw to left-back. With Bridge loaned out to Fulham and Johnson not even in the squad, at least it’s evidence that perhaps “the special one” ain’t quite so prescient as many would have us believe.

Yet this match lends credence to the crucial role of the holding player in the centre of the park in the modern game. Watching Gilberto dangling a limp leg out, in an ineffectual attempt to thwart a Bolton attack, I can’t help but surmise that the majority of our defensive inadequacies, have all too often been exposed due to the lack of protection they’ve been afforded from the players in front of them.

I have to tell you, that as one of his loudest critics, I must give credit where it’s due to Robert Pires. You could hear the sound of gobsmacked Gooner jaws hitting the floor all around the ground, at the sight of Pires actually getting stuck-in. Possibly the penny has dropped, or the more cynical might suggest that, coming off the bench for Reyes, Robert was merely making the most of the window dressing, which was about as subtle as a ‘come and get me’ plea on eBay!

Up until Saturday there were only 3 games all season where we’ve come away with something after going a goal down (and one of those was Gilberto’s last gasp goal at Doncaster!). So it was great to witness this rare fight back. Yet most will be left wondering why the intensity of the last 30 was lacking for the first hour of the game.

The Gunners are going to need to be on their game for the entire 90, if we are going to get anything out of our trip to Anfield. All but the hardiest of the Highbury faithful will be watching from the comfort of their living rooms, rather than risk yet another awayday disappointment. Now if we were 4 points behind Chelsea with a game in hand, instead of Spurs, it might be a different story. I only hope my missus can forgive me for spending Valentines night shouting at my only other true love.

For The Observer's The Verdict column:

The little girl sitting with her dad in front of me was crying that she wanted to go home at half-time; well she was far from alone. A sarcastic groan greeted the customary showing of the first-half highlights on the big screens. There weren’t any! In fact the club have taken to firing t-shirts into the crowd at the break with an air-pressure cannon that could take someone’s head off. It was the most excitement we’d had up until then, Admittedly we Gooners ended with broad grins, utterly elated over the injury time equalizer. Yet most were left wondering why we couldn’t bring the intensity of the last 20 to the rest of the game?

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