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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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Anonymous said...

Arsenal and Arsene must get used to the fact teams aren't going to give the gunners time and space to play their beautiful football.
The next game against the Moscow team could be the type where the Russians would have have nine men behind the ball.Arsenal shd in all honesty by now know how to play this type of teams.The perpetual passing would not work
against such teams. MU have shown how to play this type of game against this type of teams and won.
It wouln't surprise me to see the RD go all the way in pl and cl.