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Sunday 29 October 2006

The Kids Are Alright

Hi folks,

I can fully appreciate most manager’s desire to do their utmost to influence proceedings from the touchline, as I’m sure that in their shoes I’d want to be doing exactly the same. However it was interesting to note that according to the pictures on MOTD, Ol’ Red Nose appeared to be watching Man Utd’s sadly all too impressive performance at the Reebok from the stands this afternoon.

I know not whether Fergie was only sitting there because of a touchline ban. But I can’t recall a recent transgression and I only mention it because I often wonder if Wenger wouldn’t benefit from watching the odd Arsenal performance from a slightly higher perspective than the dugout. Far be it from me to feel the least bit qualified to be offering le Boss advice, but it seems pertinent to mention the matter after the frustrating events in this afternoon’s match.

In truth the football we played this afternoon was no less entertaining than that which we’ve been watching all season. However unlike last week’s four-goal romp at Reading, we failed to secure the crucial advantage of taking an early lead.

To be honest I am quite confident about maintaining our form away from home, as when we are on the road we’re invariably going to find more space in the opposition’s half because the home crowd are likely to encourage their team to be that little bit more adventurous. As a result we are always likely to create the opportunities, from which we might secure the early lead that will force the home side even further out of their shell, thereby leaving themselves even more exposed to us breaking them down on the counter attack.

However the stats from today’s match tell an increasingly frustrating tale to the similarly dissatisfying home results against Villa and Boro. With an unbelievably dominant 78 per cent of possession, where we managed to amass 8 shots on target and 15 off target, compared to Everton’s single only strike on goal and a corner count of 16 to the visitor’s 3, the conclusions which will be drawn by all future opponents at our new stadium, are that notwithstanding the Arsenal’s obvious advantage in ability, if you are able to get enough men behind the ball and maintain a work rate for 90 minutes whereby you are able to throw a sufficient number of bodies between the ball and the goal, sadly it’s all too possible to thwart the Gunners’ far too predictable style of play.

To my mind there’s an all too obvious maxim which should apply to our problems playing at home and this should be plainly apparent, no matter which particular vantage point one has of the game, whether it be from the dug-out, or from my point of view in row 18 of the lower tier, from up in the gods in a seat in row Z of the upper tier, or even watching on the box. However I have to wonder if Wenger had a view from slightly higher up, the thought might strike home after a fruitless hour, spent banging on Everton’s door without being able to break through their industrious defence, if we can’t go through them, why the f**k don’t we try to go around them?

That’s why I think we might suffer in the absence of Eboué, as Manny is about the only player in the current first XI who offer us natural width and who will instinctively tear down the flank all the way to the byeline. For a right-footed centre-back, William Gallas does an incredibly admirable job, but he’s never going to have the natural instincts of a left-footed wing-back. I was hoping Theo Walcott might make a difference when he came on, by using his pace to bring some much needed variety to our play, burning defenders off an crossing the ball from the byeline.

I suppose it’s not so surprising with his striker’s instincts, but seemingly like every other f***er in this Arsenal side, when heading down the wing, the moment he reached halfway inside their half of the pitch, he seemed programmed to turn and make a diagonal run towards the heart of the oppositions defence, where once again our tippy-tappy attempts to plough our way through the middle with our intricate passing, would inevitably flounder on the number of bodies Everton were able to throw between the ball and their goal.

I imagine some might suggest that there’s little point in us whipping in outswinging crosses from the byeline, on an afternoon when Stubbs and Yobo appeared to be quite comfortable in getting their head to everything which came into the penalty area. However aside from corners, where they had time to face up and set themselves, I can’t recall a single instance where we whipped in a cross from the byeline which forced them to make a dangerous attempt to play whilst running back towards their own goal. I know this Arsenal side ain’t exactly renowned for its heading ability (despite some surprising recent success), but is it any wonder Stubbs and Yobo had such an easy afternoon, when on the rare occasion we threw a cross into the box, it came from halfway inside their half of the pitch, enabling them to face up to the ball and play away from their own goal.

Moreover, even on those occasions when we are up against the sort of defensive colossi who aren’t going to allow us any change in the air, at least if we end up making full use of the width of our enlarged pitch, we’ve more chance of stretching the visitors defence, thereby providing the sort of space in the middle which might allow us passage with our intricate passing.

Whatever the case, we are not going to challenge for the title on our away form alone and the only way we are going to be able to establish the sort of fortress ethos on our home turf, that’s going to frighten visitors into thinking they’ve little chance of taking points off us on our own pitch, is by finding some means of varying our attack to the extent that we are not nearly so predictable.

All credit to Arsène, as he really went for it this afternoon, with all four strikers on the pitch at the final whistle. Yet the numbers game will not work in our favour and only adds to the congestion, if the defending team can continue to cling on, knowing that so long as they have all eleven piled up between the limits of the penalty area, there’s every likelihood of preventing us progressing to a point where we can create sufficient space for a shot. It’s not rocket science when you consider that all our best efforts this afternoon where long range shots from the outside the area!

I have to admit that I missed the Everton goal, arriving late as ever (surprise, surprise!) Yet from what I saw on the box tonight it appeared as if Johann Djourou might have been guilty of not being completely switched from the first whistle, as it appeared as if it was Johann who was guilty of failing to track Cahill. However from this incident and from the Toffees other rare forays into our penalty area, it would appear that we are still using a zonal marking system which leaves us looking vulnerable at set-pieces.

Doubtless we will soon find out, when we visit the Reebok in a couple of weeks time. Myself I’m much happier with man-marking and I am still waiting to hear exactly what are the supposed benefits of a zonal marking system. As far as I can work out, when you pick up an opposition player in your penalty are and stay touch close to him, you have the advantage of being able to follow his run and end up travelling at the same speed, with the same momentum to leap for the ball when required. Whereas with a zonal system, first off, obviously the opposition aren’t going to be kind enough to run in your direction, but are going to be looking for the gaps between each of our players and when they reach their intended destination, they have the advantage of transferring their horizontal speed into vertical height, whereas we’re inevitably at the disadvantage of having to jump from a standing start. So if anyone can enlighten me as to the advantages of zonal defending instead of man marking I will be most obliged.

I had the privilege of chatting to Frank McLintock some while back, at a time when our defensive failings where under close scrutiny. According to Frank, if permitted a couple of training sessions, Don Howe could’ve sorted out all our problems and for the next few days I was left with a black and blue bruise on my arm to show for Frank’s demonstration as to how they ensured an opposition striker didn’t evade a defender’s attention in his day. Needless to say, when someone else quizzed Frank a few minutes later about the Arsenal’s inability to keep a clean sheet at that time, I leaped out of my chair and away from his reach, before receiving another bruising, allowing him to use someone else as his dummy!

This nonetheless memorable experience was brought to mind when watching MOTD, as Tony Adams was wheeled out to comment on Pompey’s performance. Then again who needs TA when we still have Steve Bould at the club, as I am sure Bouldie could teach our teenage defence a trick or two about preventing opposition strikers from finding the space for free header in our penalty area?

But then that’s more than enough of my whinging. It’s a sad fact of life that this Arsenal team have acquired a reputation for playing football of such prodigious quality that we are going to have to get used to the fact that teams are going to come to our place with such negative ambitions and although Thierry might still be way off the boil as far as I’m concerned, while the likes of Fabregas, Rosicky, Hleb et al continue to produce such high quality entertainment, it’s a bit rich of us to complain. Nevertheless we still have to find some form of variation on our style of play to ensure that results like today’s remain a one-off, rather than a habit

Additionally the dropping of two points against a durable Everton side wouldn’t have looked quite so bad if it wasn’t for results elsewhere. I am glad we got an opportunity to beat Man Utd a few weeks back, as what frightens me at the minute is that the only points our immediate competition look likely to drop are those which will be up for grabs when they play each other. While sadly Chelsea continue to garner three points from every game without finding top gear (you would have at least thought that with both goalies out of action they’d have been good enough to give up a couple of points?), it’s Utd’s challenge which currently looks most formidable.

In the recent past I’ve always felt that it was Ferdinand’s partner at centre-back who was Man U’s weakest link (whether it was Sylvestre of Brown). However unfortunately, from their prolific performance at the Reebok it would appear that Fergie might have found the solution with the introduction of Vidic. The jury is still out on Evra in my humble opinion, but if Heinze returns with the sort of form he produced at the start of his Utd career, I am afraid we might not be enjoying many wet dreams whilst watching them produce clean sheets at Old Trafford!

Meanwhile I wrote a match report for the Gooner about last Tuesday night’s performance at the Hawthorns and in order to end on a far more optimistic note, concerning the Arsenal’s incredibly bright future, I have tagged it on below

Big Love

PS. On a similar note, while the first XI might have struggled to find the back of the net today, at least one Arsenal youngster was firing on all cylinders, with Dubliner Anthony Stokes scoring a hat-trick whilst out on loan at Falkirk

The Kids Are Alright

The sun was splitting the trees on a gorgeous afternoon as we headed North to the Hawthorns. With the M1 banjaxed by roadworks (so what else is new!), thanks to the marvels of Sat Nav, we set off cross country, through the Chilterns, enjoying the charms of the English countryside as the autumnal hues flashed past the car window.

Our arrival in Birmingham was signalled by the green scenery of the Shires giving way to the grim, grey concrete vistas of Britain’s cheerless second city. Having beaten the worst of the rush hour traffic, we had a couple of hours to kill before kick-off. As a lasting reminder of the bad old days, there’s an annoying segregation ritual at the Hawthorns, where visiting fans are directed on a circuitous detour away from the stadium after the match. So having sussed out a leg saving parking pitch, we abandoned the motor. Yet with few gastronomic delights in the immediate vicinity, other than the ubiquitous Mac D’s, we boarded a bus to a nearby hotel.

From the sound of the optimistic banter of the Baggies fans at the bar, we assumed our youngsters were in for a tough night. Apparently the home side had been playing some of the best footie they’d seen in many a moon. With my perennially tardy habits, it was a rare treat to be able relax and stuff my face with a tasty bar snack, before a brisk walk back to the ground.

There were tickets aplenty at the Box Office, when I collected one for a mate on Monday, half an hour before they stopped selling them. I was therefore surprised to see so few empty seats in our section behind the goal. Doubtless some decided they didn’t want to miss out, after the romp at Reading a couple of days prior, but it was marvellous to discover that we were surrounded by a noisy cacophony of kids, many of whom must have been enjoying a late-night, half-term treat.

I immediately pulled my ticket out of my pocket to reveal the principal reason the average age of the Arsenal crowd was even younger than that of the reserve team out on the park. Kids tickets for a fiver! Considering the increasing need for parking Zimmer frames, rather than bicycles at our new gaff, wouldn’t it be marvellous if the club used just a fraction of all that corporate moolah, to subsidise kids ticket all over the stadium, instead of a mere 5 per cent in the family enclosure!

No doubt I’ll get caned for encouraging them, but it was nevertheless amusing to hear this gang of lary hooli-bairns beside us, teasing the “West Brom w*nk*rs” to our left. However the huge number of young Gunners at the Hawthorns only served to highlight quite how many are missing out on regular live footie, due to prohibitive ticket prices.

In recent seasons the Carling Cup has taken on an importance all of its own, as a showcase for the Arsenal’s young talent on the pitch. On the terraces it’s now become the only building block of our future fan base, but sadly a fan base that might never be able to afford to grow into the habit of going to every game.

These youngsters might have been disappointed by the absence of some of their heroes, with Djourou the single only player who wasn’t rested from the team that tonked Reading. But from the confident way in which the Arsenal’s baby-faced side retained possession out on the park, it could’ve just as easily been our first X1.

With the exception of Barnet born debutante Connolly, our defence had a familiar look to it, with both Senderos and Clichy returning from injury. Anything that passed Phillipe was dealt with by Almunia and apart from a speculative strike by Ellington and Connolly’s efforts to cope with a bustling Kamara when he first appeared as a sub, we looked fairly comfortable all night.

Obviously with his two goals, Aliadière deserved the glory. It’s hard to believe he’s been with us for 7 years. After all too often failing to fulfil his early promise, at 23 the Clairfontaine graduate must be drinking in the last chance saloon of his Arsenal career. However at long last Jeremie seems to be showing signs of benefiting from the experience he’s got under his belt with his various loan spells. Titi himself would’ve been proud of the way Aliadière turned out on the wing and left respected defenders Watson and Mcshane for dead, before steaming into the box, with such intent that the penalty was almost inevitable.

Moreover special mention must go to Denilson, Walcott and Traore (coming on for an injured Adebayor), all of whom caught the eye with their purposeful runs. Even Song, who hasn’t impressed me up to now, shone, with an early opportunity whistling over the bar. However it was the overall team performance that was most pleasing on the eye. Unfortunately Milton Keynes born Mark Randall only had the last ten minutes to make an impression. But as one of four debutantes on the night, there wasn’t a player out on the park who didn’t do credit to the red & white.

In fact I’m beginning to wonder if playing the kids might work to our advantage, as there was an intensity lacking from the Baggies performance which one might have expected in a Cup competition that represents just about the only sniff of silverware for most clubs. Whereas West Brom might well have resorted to trying to compete with Henry and co. by kicking them up in the air, perhaps they fancied their chances against the kids.

However you couldn’t possibly want for the antithesis of Theo Walcott in John Hartson. I didn’t recognise the hefty looking Hartson until I spied the ballheaded Baggies striker through my binoculars. He would’ve looked less out of place in a penguin suit, as a Llanelli nightclub bouncer! Our young guns meted out a lesson in pure pace, athleticism and technical ability that will have served as a reminder to the Baggies of the gulf in class between Premiership challengers and the Championship.

It was game over only 4 minutes into the second half, when apparently Aladière gave Walcott ‘the eyes’, indicating where he wanted the ball and Theo’s free-kick duly teed up Jeremie’s sweet volley. However it was the hunger in evidence in the lead up to this set piece, which most impressed me. With Walcott in support, Denilson harried the West Brom defence down by their own corner flag, forcing Watson to commit a second costly foul as he brought the Brazilian down.

The “olés” rang out during a 10 minute period of possession, as the home side chased red & white shadows. This was soon followed by a hearty chorus of “Man of the Match, you’re havin’ a larf” after Jonathan Greening was awarded this unjustifiable accolade and only served to emphasize our point, by ending up on his backside as he skied the ball into the stands.

Carling Cup encounters have become really enjoyable evenings in recent seasons. With Wenger giving his reserves a run-out, it’s a rare pleasure to be able to relax somewhat, knowing a defeat wouldn’t be cause for quite the same sort of bout of depression, if our big guns had been subdued. Nevertheless it’s obvious how much the competition means to our kids and I’d have been gutted if we’d gone out, if only for being deprived of another opportunity to watch them prove themselves.
I would’ve much preferred an opportunity to tick off Saltergate or Roots Hall on my list of grounds yet to be visited, rather than an uninspiring trip to Goodison. Yet I’m already looking forward to seeing some more of Denilson, Traore, Connolly, Randall and maybe the likes of Merida and Barazite in the next round.

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Monday 23 October 2006

Many Happy Returns

It was interesting to hear all the accolades from the media after Sunday’s romp at Reading. To be perfectly honest it was an average sort of performance as far as I was concerned. Average that is, when you consider that we’ve been producing that same sort of quality football for most of the season so far. To my mind the major difference on Sunday was that we managed to find the back of the net so early on in both halves.

With the Royals squad containing a number of youngsters, who were deemed surplus to requirements at the Arsenal, I imagined that, with the likes of Sidwell and Harper having such a point to prove, we could expect a similarly robust encounter as was witnessed at the Madjeski last weekend. However if a somewhat less combative performance resulted from Reading being a little shell-shocked after the Gobby One’s outrageous allegations, then I guess they’ll all be needing counselling for a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder after Sunday’s pummelling.

Moreover with any of Steve Coppell’s containment tactics becoming redundant so soon after the start and the break, Reading were forced into a slightly more positive approach. Without us taking such an early lead, I’m fairly sure Reading would’ve been content to try and suffocate the life out of the game, by getting all eleven behind the ball, thereby ensuring sufficient congestion around their penalty area to stifle our passing game. However with the home side chasing the game from minute one, we were afforded the rare luxury of the sort of space in Reading’s half of the pitch that left them looking so exposed to our swift, incisive movement of the ball.

Following on from our midweek defeat and a long journey back from Moscow, you’d think I’d be delighted by such a demolition job away from home. Perhaps it’s Le Prof’s fault, as there was a time when I’d be more than happy for ‘boring, boring’ Arsenal to have hung on to a 1-0, whereas we now all crave perfection. Rubbing shoulders with so many of his ex-Arsenal youth team roomies, I was hoping Justin Hoyte might do himself justice and demonstrate why he’s been the only homegrown youngster to make it onto the first XI. However despite Hoyte having his best game in an Arsenal shirt, I still get this sense of panic at the heart of the Arsenal defence, that a more seasoned strikeforce might take advantage of.

Once Clichy returns to full fitness and we no longer have to merely make do at left-back, Gallas might be able to lend his air of calm, authority where it really matters. And in the meantime, should we concede the odd goal, I guess it’s no big deal, as in our current vein of form, we look capable of outscoring any opposition.

Having never been to the Madjeski before, it might well be a fairly homogenous, identikit type stadium, compared to our lavish new surroundings. But whether his motives are self-aggrandisement or not, you have to marvel at the accomplishments of their chairman, having taken a club that was on the brink of bankruptcy back in the 80s and created an outfit that doesn’t look out of place in the Premiership, with a home to match their new found status in the upper stratosphere.

Come the final whistle on Sunday, I wasn’t sure whether I felt a little pissed off we’d been somewhat profligate in front of goal and in switching off for the last fifteen, we’d failed to really capitalise, on what could’ve ended up the sort of scoreline, which would’ve been more familiar to the philistines from London Irish who share Reading’s ground. Or whether I felt some sympathy for the 20 plus thousand Royals’ fans who hadn’t suffered such a heavy loss since before their chairman started wearing his ridiculous rug and who, at 0-4, would’ve gladly settled for being thrown the bone of a single goal to celebrate, amidst a marvellous family atmosphere

I for one will be well happy for the Royals to hang on to their seat at the top table, if only for the fact that it is such a short hop, that we were back home in time to put my feet up and enjoy coverage of El Classico. Apparently I wasn’t alone and I adored the idea that Arsène Wenger was celebrating his birthday by doing likewise. Yet while I cheated on my first love, by following my Madrilleno main course with a desert of not so light-entertainment (after all I’d already invested a couple of hours in the first part of Prime Suspect), there was no such frivolity for Le Boss, whose idea of a crème brulée was to watch a roundup of “all the goals from around Europe”!

In the past we’ve been used to returning down the M4 motorway with some silverware to show for a schlep to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. However aside from the three points that will keep us breathing down the necks of the competition, we brought something equally important back East on Sunday. Such a commanding result against Reading might not only prove significant in terms of providing this Arsenal side with the confidence to continue to express themselves. It also sends out the sort of warning which might instil sufficient fear in future opposition, that they end up standing off us, showing us the sort of respect which will only aid us in our beautifully elaborate objective.

What’s more, if Wenger has indeed been successful in establishing this entertaining ethos throughout the club, what price Walcott, Traore, Randall and co. running riot at West Brom on Tuesday?

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Monday 16 October 2006

Diamonds in the Soles of Theo's Shoes

Despite a reported crowd of 60,000 plus, there were empty seats in evidence on Saturday, most of which were in the astronomically priced Club Level. Mind you Club Level costs aren’t even close to the obscenely priced Diamond Class (as seen in a feature on MOTD2 on Sunday night), where 160 high-rollers pay nearly five hundred quid a match, or £25 grand a season for a pair of seats, which come with exclusive access to the Michelin starred grub in the Raymond Blanc Restaurant. Nevertheless, considering it costs the 7000 Club Level punters anything from around £100 to £175 a game, you’d imagine they’d be taking their sleeping bags, in order to make the very most of their ‘meshugana’ priced pitches at our new stadium.

I was fortunate to be able to check out the Club Level facility a couple of weeks back when we played Porto. It’s evident where much of the decorating budget disappeared, as the plush Club Level concourses make those of the Upper and Lower tiers look positively sparse by comparison. I know of plenty of staunch Gooners, with sufficiently deep pockets, who’ve plumped for the best view in the house, along with others who weren’t high enough on the waiting list to be guaranteed a seat elsewhere and they’re understandably defensive about all the ‘prawn circle’ piss-taking.

However, never mind the free half-time booze, or the sprauncy décor, my Club Level treat the other week confirmed that it is not the same as the perfect pitch we used to enjoy at Highbury, but it’s without doubt the best seat in our new house. For this reason alone, I’m perfectly happy to admit that if money was no object, we’d both be making like a couple of well-dressed shrimp.

Amongst the most common complaints heard to date, is that from where we sit, in the “cheap” seats, it looks dreadful and can hardly encourage the players, as they kick-off the second half with such a conspicuous area of the stadium seemingly half empty, with Club Level punters more interested in cuddling their complimentary pints. Moreover apparently it’s a metaphorical and literal pain in the arse for those who are intent on making the most of their fabulous view, as they’re forced to suffer the distraction during the first 10/15 minutes of the second half, with the slow trickle back to the Club Level seats following the break.

Another bugbear for the genuine Club Level Gooners is that the faces around them change from game to game. Whereas at Highbury there was a sense of being surrounded by the same folk, the members of one’s Arsenal family, for umpteen seasons. I suppose this high turnover at our new home is due to the fact that many of these prime pitches are company owned. Whatever the case, it was a pity to see so many of them unoccupied on Saturday and I couldn’t help but wonder if Watford weren’t a sufficiently glamorous enough draw for the Arsenal’s less committed, new corporate ‘clientele’?

Money, or the lack thereof, and ill health are about the only issues that would make me miss an Arsenal match. How dare the credit card companies put the kibosh on me travelling to Moscow this week! Then again they might be a little miffed about the several thousand pounds worth of outstanding debts, largely due to European trips over several seasons?

However I’d have to be on my deathbed to miss a home game and I certainly wouldn’t have missed Theo Walcott’s debut for the world. Having waited patiently for the past 9 months, it was great to see Theo’s feats for the England U21s rewarded with his first start in an Arsenal shirt. Wing play might not be instinctive for the young striker, but considering the tendency of nearly all of our forwards to want to cut in, it’s been Eboué who has provided the only natural width. With the Ivorian full-back now out injured for at least a month, Walcott might be the ideal solution for stretching opposition defences with his turbo-charged pace.

William Gallas is an incredibly versatile player. To my mind it’s amazing quite how competent he’s been in recent weeks, when overlapping down the left flank as a full-back, considering he’s a right-footed centre-back by trade. However last season it seemed as if the left-back slot was cursed, with both Cole and Clichy suffering the same ubiquitous metatarsal injury. After missing almost the entire season, with one injury setback after another, it was marvellous to witness Clichy’s long-awaited comeback for the last 10 minutes of Saturday’s match.

Gael might still have some way to go, to acquire the consummate defensive nous of his predecessor. However there’s little doubt in my mind that Clichy is far hungrier than a player, who might not live up to the expectations of Blues’ fans, by resting on the laurels of his “best left-back in the world” tag (if Cashley finds time in between counting his roubles!).

The only disappointment on Saturday was that I was hoping Hoyte might silence his critics with his rare outing in his natural position at right-back. Sadly his unconvincing efforts on the opposite flank, have seen his confidence taking a battering from the Gooner boo-boys. As a result Hoyte appears far too pre-occupied with his defensive responsibilities. I pray that during Manny’s month long absence, we can afford the patience required for Justin to recover sufficiently to start roaring down the right wing, in a manner that would mean we wouldn’t miss Eboué.

Meanwhile young Johan Djourou doesn’t deserve to be dropped after his impressive displays in recent weeks. Also, far be it from me to second-guess our great leader, but I’ve always had this inkling that Kolo Touré could be even more effective in midfield. I’m actually rushing this piece in the hope of making it to Underhill tonight, to check on the progress of all the other promising young talent playing in the reserves v Chelsea.

If I were a Hornets fan I’d have some serious concerns about their prospects of retaining their highly-prized Premiership status. There’s little doubt that Ade Boothroyd is one of the brightest young managers around, but there’s still no making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. While Watford grafted their socks off, I wonder if there’s sufficient guile to score the goals necessary to stave off the dreaded drop. Boothroyd is in an unenviable position, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, where he daren’t capsize his well-run ship, by bankrupting the club whilst chasing the Premiership dream.

Nevertheless compared to last season’s derby at a dilapidated Kenilworth Road, the Hornets’ fans are already in dreamland. The vocal succour they gave their side on Saturday, suggests they’re intent on enjoying every second of the ride while it lasts.

The visitors did come close to exposing the vulnerability at the back that’s been responsible for several soiled sheets so far this season. However, despite Eboué’s injury, Clichy’s return might soon afford Wenger the luxury of finally selecting a team, in which his back line are all playing in their best positions. If Willie’s air of serene authority at the heart of our defence enables us to shut out the opposition, we can truly relax while the firepower of Henry, Van Persie, Rosicky and Walcott run absolute riot up front.

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Monday 2 October 2006

Ten More Years

According to reports that suggested Van Persie should’ve received a red card and that Gallas could’ve given away a penalty, some might think we were fortunate to come away from Saturday’s outing with all three points. However from my perspective behind the goal at Charlton, it was nothing short of a 2-1 slaughter.

The Valley has proved a happy hunting ground in recent times and along with West Ham, it’s one of the easiest trips of the season. As ever I was late leaving home, having to tear myself away from the TV tributes to Arsène’s glorious 10-year reign over the Gunners. Yet after weaving my way through the East London back doubles, trying to avoid the queues of traffic from the Saturday afternoon shoppers, I emerged on the south side of the Blackwall tunnel, past the unmistakeable landmark of the dormant white elephant that is the Millennium Dome and was parked up down the road, in plenty of time for kick-off.

The ten minute hike from the Asda car park seems that bit longer with each passing season, but superstition decrees that I daren’t change the habits that have resulted in such a successful run of results against the Addicks. However they’re in the midst of such a rotten run of form that they were going to require a lot more than a mere change in my routine, to overcome an Arsenal side that’s really started to hit its stride.

Up until this season Man Utd were the only Premiership club whose wide format matchday programme drove me potty, as the only one which wouldn’t fit neatly onto my shelves with the rest of my collection. Charlton might’ve changed their programme format as part of an effort to escape the shackles of the small club mentality, but its awkward size is a literal pain in the butt, when one is forced to spend 90 minutes sitting on a folded copy stuffed into a back pocket.

Moreover with most of Dowie’s new signings sidelined and with a team so short on confidence, they’re truly pissing in the wind, tinkering with their programme, when the performances of the players listed on the back always looked second rate, compared to the purring engine that was the efforts of those listed on the opposite side of the page.

Thankfully this meant we were on our feet for much of the 90 minutes. With us occupying the entire South Stand there’s invariably a great atmosphere in the away end at the Valley. But one of the bugbears of being behind the goal is that one is up and down like a bloomin' jack-in-a-box, as those in front jump to their feet with every attack. I’m happy either standing, or sitting, but it’s the up and down that drives me bonkers, as I’m forced to juggle with my binoculars, my radio and my jacket, whilst rising quick enough so as not to risk missing that crucial bit of action, or to avoid standing, just as everyone else is returning to their seats.

Such was our dominance during the opening salvoes of Saturday’s encounter that we hardly had a chance to warm up our seats. We threatened to score with almost every attack and it was appropriate on Arsène’s anniversary that we were being entertained by a well-oiled machine, moving the ball around with the sort of one-touch, rapid fire precision passing which left the home side chasing shadows.

Although Dowie’s side weren’t lacking in commitment and endeavour, it was evident which team was coming into this game on the back of 3 confidence draining defeats and which was obviously bubbling with belief after 4 successive victories. Arsène seemed somewhat embarrassed to be the centre of so much attention, as his every appearance in the technical area was greeted with a rousing Gooner chorus of encouragement for “Ten more years”.

However having failed to capitalise on this period of dominance, I turned to my pal to predict that sod’s law would dictate that Charlton were bound to score with a solitary attack on our goal and before we knew it, they’d done just that.

Poor Justin Hoyte has never really had an opportunity to prove himself in his natural position at right-back, but playing on the left the youngster is without doubt our “weakest link”. No one looked more surprised than Hasselbaink, at the ease with which he’d ghosted past Hoyte. It was obvious from his glance up at the lino that he half expected to be flagged offside. But unlike our defence, which was culpable of the schoolboy error of failing to play to the whistle, Hasselbaink didn’t hesitate, as he raced on to put the ball on a plate for Bent to slot home.

In the past I would’ve been pretty pessimistic about the uphill task of breaking down a home side which, having taken the lead, was likely to get all eleven men behind the ball. But the Arsenal of recent weeks is an entirely different proposition to the frustrating team that was failing to find the net at the start of the season. In truth there’s little difference to our style of play, as we’ve dominated almost every single game. However we’ve witnessed a return of the swagger and the conviction in recent weeks, which was sorely lacking at the start of the season. Obviously the win at Old Trafford was significant, but I don’t think you can over-estimate the impact of the arrival of William Gallas.

Moreover if there were ever any questions about the French defender’s commitment, these were answered on Saturday. In an age where sadly we’ve grown accustomed to some of our more mercenary footballing stars crying off at the first sign of the slightest niggle, it made for a pleasant change to see Gallas turning out for this relatively unglamorous occasion with his thigh heavily strapped

What looked a great deal on paper has proved even more significant than anyone could’ve imagined (perhaps bar le Prof), as Gallas lends just that air of experienced authority which was lacking in our immature back line. There’s a sense of solidity about the Arsenal now, that’s relieved others of some of their defensive responsibilities, allowing them to play their natural game.

Perhaps Fabregas started the season somewhat jaded from the World Cup but in musical terms, he had the look of a performer who might struggle with that awkward second album. Whereas suddenly Cesc looks capable of totally dictating the play in any company. Against Charlton Fab was the hub around which everything revolved, often starting moves and being the first to arrive in the area to finish them.

Doubtless a combination of short legs and long shorts don’t help, but both Hasselbaink and Andy Reid hardly have the appearance of svelte athletes. Mercifully my second prediction didn’t prove accurate, as I suggested that our constant teasing of “you’re just a fat Eddie Murphy” would probably inspire Jimmy-Floyd on to score a hat-trick.

However from the moment we appeared for the second half, I was convinced there was only going to be one winner. I was desperately trying to scoff a scalding Cornish pastie and down a swift cuppa before we scored a second, certain the resulting celebrations in such cramped conditions would see the bloke in front on the receiving end of my remaining half-time refreshments, all over his head! One only truly begins to appreciate the luxurious amount of leg-room afforded to us at our new stadium when sardined into the knee crushing seats at stadiums like the Valley.

In fact it should’ve been Van Persie going home with the match ball. After having scored a contender for goal of the season, Robin fluffed a far easier opportunity from only two yards out. Our Dutch striker has proved previously that he’s capable of scoring incredible goals, but he now needs to demonstrate an ability to take some responsibility from Henry’s shoulders by delivering not just quality, but quantity.

Titi managed to take our breath away on a couple of occasions on Saturday, leaving defenders for dead, absolutely bedazzled by the conjurer’s ‘wanna see it again’ magic. However many of his more flamboyant touches failed to find the mark. An Henry on form would’ve casually circumnavigated Carson, when one on one with the keeper, instead of snatching at his opportunity. Heaven help defences when Henry does hit a purple patch, but in the meantime the likes of Hleb, Rosicky and Ljungberg are taking up the slack, as the Arsenal come nicely to the boil.

Thankfully Lehmann pulled off a stunning reaction save at the death thereby preventing me from returning North of the river, cursing our profligacy in front of goal. Considering the auspicious occasion it was ironic that a couple of thousand Gooners suffered a case of selective Wenger-vision, when it came to the handball at the opposite end of the pitch

With there being an ever increasing need for a competitive edge within the professional game, I am sure most clubs would’ve eventually adopted the sort of attention to detail that Le Prof brought to the Premiership party. But there can be no denying Arsène was the catalyst in what proved to be a complete revolution in the approach to football in this country.

Thus we witnessed a far more fitting celebration of Wenger’s ten-year tenure during Saturday’s four minutes of injury time. With the Addicks still chasing an equaliser, they struggled in vain for a touch as the Arsenal indulged in a consummate symphony of keep ball which epitomised the style and verve of Wenger-ball. I was whistling “Aye, yay, yippee” as I walked back to the car but the chant I had in mind was “Have you ever seen Chelsea play like this?”

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