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Monday, 10 April 2006

A Rainy Day In Manchester

Hi folks

I've been meaning to post this piece for the past few days but to be perfectly frank, after our decidedly unsatisfying trip to Portsmouth (never mind "Play up Pompey" what about "buck up Adebayor!"), listening to the radio on route home there was a caller on one of the phone-ins who succinctly expressed most of what I have to say about Sunday’s match in two poignant comments. Basically he felt Le Gaffer had made a big ricket because its seems fairly obvious that you always play your best XI away from home and I also found myself nodding my head in agreement when this Gooner decreed that momentum is everything.

But since I spent hours typing out pages and pages basically emphasizing these two thoughts, I'm not about to merely trash them and as I was forced to ignore the actual footie in my 100 word diary piece, or wind the Examiner ed up (again) with yet another over-sized effort. So you'll have to forgive me for being unable to resist wasting your bandwidth with this opportunity to opine on the match, with doubtless many of the same sort of comments which have been made by more informed pundits than my humble self.

Apart from the first 20 minutes, we were second best on Sunday. We came out of the traps playing with the same confident verve of recent weeks, but we patently failed to sustain it.

However it's not so much the getting beat that is the bitter pill to swallow, but the fact that we so obviously deserved to get beat which is what I find so hard to accept. Especially when most of us know that on our day we are more than capable of tearing this Man U team to shreds.

Leaving Henry out of the starting line-up wasn't Arsène's only error in my opinion. If it is true that Thierry was physically in need of the rest, then he should have been left out entirely. But if Arsène had it in his head that there might be any likelyhood of playing him, then he should have been in the starting line-up and taken off if the game went our way. Titi is hardly going to show any benefit of not playinh 90 minutes on Sunday, after spending much of the match warming up on the touchline. And despite the fact that he hardly touched the ball when he did come on, you can be sure there was no appreciable difference the amount of fatigue felt when he trudged off the pitch thann if he'd played the whole game.

Sure it's easy being critical with hindsight, but my instincts are that Wenger would've been best doing his utmost to maintain that winning momentum, as a triumphant team doesn't feel anywhere near as tired as the defeated one. Moreoever, just as we were finding the necessary levels of that ephemeral confidence factor for the first time this season, it was important to send out our best possible eleven.

Then again I did a 100 word preview comment on the match for The Observer in which I said that the best evidence of our good form was that same Invincible feeling, when it seemed that no matter who slipped seamlessly into the side, our confidence continued to peak. Yet I don't think this quite applies to our current captain and most crucial Arsenal cog, at least not until the Gooner steam roller has gathered some momentum.

Can you just imagine the expressions of relief on the Utd defenders faces when they heard they weren't having to go up against perhaps the greatest player on the planet on Sunday. If only for the huge boost this must've given to the Utd side, it was a big mistake to leave Thierry on the bench.

Not to mention making Gilberto captain in his place, possibly the least vocal member of our entire squad (not so much on account of his linguistic capabilities but merely because the Brazilian is about the most softly spoken geezer in the entire Gunner's camp. Nor is he a "lead by example" sort, as I hardly recall him throwing himself into the sort of bone-crunching tackles that are required if one is going to insipire ones team mates in this fashion. Personally , after making the fateful decision to leave out Henry, I would've thought it might've been a perfect afternoon to let Phillipe Senderos try out the armband for size. Although perhaps Arsène feels the Swiss lad's confidence might not be sufficiently robust enough as yet to have coped mentally if his first game at the helm hadn't gone our way.

True enough, there certainly isn't a long list of candidates for the captaincy in the current squad, but surely at 25 Kolo has the psychological strength to cope with anything thrown at him and he at least would've been one player to tyr and get his team mates to rally around him by following his own example?

The other ricket Wenger made, which was the one I heard most complaints about from the terraces, was his patent failure to appreciate quite how uncommitted Bobby Pires was in this particular game. Apparently some seem to feel Wenger left Pires on the pitch because he's most atuned to the timing and direction of Thierry's runs.

Henry had some excuse, as we all know how hard it can be to come on in this kind of match and try to immediately pick up the appropriate tone of intensity. But neither of these two musketeers were worth a light on Sunday and to my mind Robert should've been the first player pulled off the pitch because it seemed so incredibly obvious that he wasn't at the races. As just about the most experienced player in an Arsenal shirt, he should've been trying to take this game by the scruff of the neck and impose himself on it, like we all know he's capable of doing.

Instead of which, all bloomin' afternoon, he constantly passed off his responsibility, laying the ball off to the likes of Fabregas and even then, we witnessed several of Robert's relatively simple short passes going astray because of his lack of focus. In fact if I am not mistaken it was Le Bob letting the game pass him by in the build up to Utd's second goal, as we endured another episode of the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, as far as the tackling Pires who took the ball of Vieira for the first against Juve, was concerned. Or perhaps more accurately, sadly it was "normal service resumed" for an anonymous Robbie!

It would be easy to point the finger of blame at our two central defenders for a decidedly off day at the office as far as Phillip & Kolo were concerned. Then again an in form Wayne Rooney is capable of getting goal side of any defender. What's more I can't help but have some sympathy with Senderos. I've seen a couple of comments in recent weeks from those in the now who've confirmed that there's absolutely no specific defensive coaching at London Colney. When Senderos has a mare like he did yesterday against Rooney and a few months back against Drogba, I would like to think of him going back to the training ground and getting drilled incessantly until he could mark either of them in his sleep.

Yet it would appear Arsène doesn't do any work with the defenders. It seems that once they make the first team at THOF, they're expected to already know their trade inside out. But our current makeshift set up with it's young average age must still have loads to learn from the art of defending and would surely benefit from working with someone like Steve Bould who could pass on a career's worth of tricks of the centre back trade?

I'll never forget having this discussion with Frank Mclintock. Apparently Don Howe's sergeant major style hullabaloo wasn't really compatible with Arsène's zen approach to football. But back when our defence was on the rocks, Mclintock was confident Howe would have them sorted after a mere few training sessions (the club should never really have let Howe go, as he has such a passion for the Gunners, that I'm pretty sure he'd have been happy to stay on in any sort of capacity and you just cannot buy the sort of effect Howe's infectious enthusiasm is capable of having on impressionable youngsters). I still had a bruise to show for it a few days later, after Frank gave me a physical demonstration how they remain touch tight to the attacker they were marking in their day. Mclintock may be knocking on a bit but you can still feel his wiry strength transmitted through his touch and he gave me such a dig in the ribs, that when someone else asked him the same question some minutes later, I couldn't jump out of the way quick enough, before I got another dig as his practice dummy.

Surely the only way our inexperienced defenders can learn from their mistakes to the point where they've been ironed out of their game completely, is if they have someone to show them the right way? But then what do I know!

Meanwhile even if our two centre-backs were somewhat culpable with both goals, as far as I am concerned it was our midfield where the battle was lost in this game. Not only was their contribution going forward so insignificant that the limited number of chances created by Van Persie all had to be snatched from relatively long range, but the graft and grit across the middle of the park was so lightweight that our defence was left looking exposed by the lack of protection they were offered.

Many reckon Fabregas is battling through the pain barrier to play for 90 minutes. Since Cesc has been the engine at the heart of virtually all our creative efforts in midfield in recent times, it would seem that Wenger doesn't have the luxury of giving him the rest which would enable his bumps and bruises to clear up, or for Fab to replenish his energy banks. So while Fab buzzed away at the beginning of the match, he soon faded. Proof of this and how dependent we've become on the youngster was evident in how very little we created up front for the majority of the match.

I heard Hleb take some stick from Gooners around me as is usually the case, but he was also busy at the beginning of the game. Yet even if he faded I would've left him on in preference to pulling Pires off. It seems to me that Hleb's biggest problem is that when he does get anywhere on one of his mazy runs, after doing all the hard work, he seems clueless about what to do once he reaches the penalty area. Hopefully the coolness of thought necessary in the heat of battle is a facet to Alexandre's game which will improve as his understanding with his team mates grows.

However I struggle to recall Hleb helping Eboué out by tackling back down our right flank and sadly our midfield enforcer had one of his more fey games, dangling a limp leg out, when you'd be expecting our captain to be clattering the opposition up in the air. To highlight Gilberto's lack of suitability as captain, you only have to compare the laid-back Brazilian with Chelsea's whole-hearted John Terry.

It's no wonder that Fabregas is completely knackered when he's having to produce all the graft and the guile, as the likes of Pires and Gilberto keep laying the ball off and expecting the young legs of our Spanish prodigy to make all the running.

The other problem with bringing on Thierry late on was that with everyone around him flagging, it was always going to be hard for Henry to pick up any momentum. However it's obvious that with nine games in a month (compared to Utd's 6 or Spurs' 5!) Arsène is going to have to make use of our squad but I would've been a lot happier at the thought of him bringing the likes of Diaby and Djourou into a winning team

After blowing three points on Sunday, the importance of Wednesday's game is magnified and we'll soon find out which of the Arsenal players are prepared to put themselves on the line to seure fourth place. Although there is a side to me that can't help but wonder what a sweet irony it would be if Spurs qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever, only to be thwarted by us actually winning the bloody thing!'

A Rainy Day In Manchester

It’s been some years since I last travelled on an organised day trip to a European game. Sitting watching the quarterfinal draw with 6 pages of notes, listing all possible permutations of cheap flights, I let out a squeal of delight when we drew Juve, as I knew I’d already found 25 quid returns on Ryanair. However although I was making my booking before the ball had come to rest, these seats had already soared to £140 and even when I tried to confirm them, I got an error message telling me to try later, as the web site was too busy.

I’ve had two 75 quid compensation vouchers for a cock-up in Copenhagen, sitting in a drawer since 1994. Sadly an almost free trip with the Travel Club didn’t quite materialise, as they’d only let me use one at a time. So it was that I set off for Stansted at 6am last Wednesday. Yet it appears I’m no longer fit for such arduous outings. Even after finding a hotel in Turin, to crash out in for a couple of hours that afternoon, by the time I found my seat at the Stadio Delle Alpi I was seriously flagging.

Still there was noise enough in that vast arena to prevent me from nodding off and I found the 0-0 fare quite satisfying. I would’ve never dreamed the Arsenal’s inexperienced ship capable of lasting the entire night without springing a single leak, against such distinguished opposition. In truth we prevailed over more of a toothless bag lady than the illustrious Old Lady of Turin, as demonstrated by the far sterner test of our defensive credentials at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Nevertheless as the exhausted Gooner army clambered aboard our return flight on Wednesday night, there remained only one team in Europe and it was well worth schlepping North this weekend, if only to remind a record crowd of Moaners of this inescapable fact.

It’s aptly labelled the Theatre of Dreams, as the decibels appear to drop in inverse proportion to the ever-increasing amount of punters. It takes Wayne Rooney at his rampant best to raise the energy levels inside this swollen stadium. Instead of “70,000 muppets”, a more appropriate taunt might be “70,000 insomniacs”. This would certainly sound less offensive than the rhythmic “DVD” tease every time the poor Korean, Park, trotted down our wing (although ashamed as I am, it did tickle me) - I don’t know if it’s quite so commonplace to hear Oriental dealers of dodgy DVDs touting their wares in Ireland, as it is in many a shop car park over here?

I bid farewell to some mates as we boarded the plane in Turin, for fear I might be falling into the arms of Morpheus on the way out of the airport at t’other end. When I confirmed to them that I was going to the game on Sunday, a small bag of grass was shoved into my hand, for me to take with me to Old Trafford. Real grass I might add, swiped from the clippings of the hallowed Bernabeu playing surface. A sample of which had travelled to every subsequent success filled game.

However my appearance might be deemed somewhat more bohemian than the previous bearer of this Gooner ‘obeah’ and so their reassurance that they’d had no trouble passing through customs with this tiny package of pseudo contraband, didn’t really cut any ice!

Moreover with my tardy habits I didn’t really fancy finding myself singularly responsible for conceding an early goal on Sunday because this essential talisman and I were still stuck in traffic on the M6. In light of what actually transpired, I would’ve happily settled for such a surmountable drama.

Since my pal Stuart took charge of Sunday’s travel arrangements, we headed out of London with loads of time. However unfortunately one of our number turned out to be totally allergic to travelling North of Watford. At first I thought his puffed cheeks and waving hands were merely an enquiry as to who had ‘cut the cheese’ in the front seat. But thankfully I translated his signals just in the nick of time for an emergency stop on the hard shoulder and a huge technicolored yawn.

Poor George spent the remainder of the journey hanging out of the window, heaving his guts out. We diplomatically diagnosed travel sickness, as it seemed somewhat insensitive to suggest he’d fallen ‘tom & dick’ only seconds after consuming roast-beef sandwiches, lovingly made by his own Ma.

Our day didn’t get any better as we got caught in an April snow blizzard on our way into Old Trafford. Whatever lurgy had afflicted him, George seemed to settle down for the duration of the game. Then again there were a couple of thousand Gooners feeling sick to the stomach, when first Wayne, and then Park wrote off any chance of a good result. However he again deteriorated rapidly as we departed Manchester and spent most of the return journey either writhing around in his seat, or with his head hanging out the window.

Eventually we stopped at some services on the M6, to try and get some medicine and hot water into him. Now if ever a paltry football match was put into proper perspective it was then. As I stood queuing for coffee Stuart appeared from the karsey to inform me that our sick as a parrot pal had just received a phone call with the news that a close mate had been killed on his motorbike that very afternoon. It may sound inhumane and I hope this is not being read by any of the deceased’s kith or kin, but the two of us just couldn’t stop ourselves from bursting into a fit of involuntary giggles at all this g-d awful tragedy.

After taking him to A & E on our return, poor George was admitted immediately and after spending the night in hospital; he was diagnosed with a particularly excruciating gastric bug. He’d been seemingly at death’s door the night before and lost a much-loved mate. So a mere 0-2 defeat to Man U was small potatoes. As for the grass, I guess I’ll be sticking that in my pipe and smoking it!

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