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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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