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Wednesday 13 December 2006

Captain My Captain

As already mentioned, you might well have already read much of the following missive in the piece I posted last weekend. In the meantime, after I commented below about Gilberto not exactly having the sort of attributes I'd expect from a captain, it was interesting to note that in Sunday's game against Chelsea, it was the first time when GIlberto's been wearing the captain's armband that we really saw him assume the responsiblity.

Who knows whether something has been said, or whether up till now he's felt he has just been keeping the seat warm for Thierry and therefore hasn't really immersed himself in the role. However after I've given him some stick in my piece below, after having seen him standing there against Spurs, watching young Fabregas step in and put his arm around Manny Eboué's shoulder after a little spat with Robbie Keane, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday Gilberto was as demonstrative as I've ever seen him, jumping in immediately when the hot-headed youngster began to have a run-in with Doddier Drigba

It was quite amusing, as Manny came away from the confrontation holding his mouth, I wondered whether it was actually Gilberto who caught him on the chops as he dived in to manhandle Eboué away and prevent any escalation of the incident. Watching through my binoculars subsequently, it was plainly apparent that Gilberto was giving the youngster a right verbal roasting, I assume reminding him to concentrate on the job at hand, rather than getting involved in any petty spats

As someone else said to me about Gilberto's marvelous performance on Sunday, for just about the first time in an Arsenal shirt, you realised how this player had come to win the World Cup and I was well pleased to see him setting a captain's example both by covering every blade of grass and by encouraging his team mates. Mind you, so long as his castigation of Eboué doesn't discourage the youngster at all, as I would rather see our players losing their rag, demonstrating that the game means as much to them as it does to us (even if it does mean us incurring the odd yellow card), than to see no evidence at all of this sort of passion

But enough of my prattle for another week

It was like Groundhog Day at Craven Cottage last Wednesday, going behind after only 5 minutes, to another headed goal from a corner. McBride is good in the air and it was a great back header, looping up from the front of the six-yard box, over Lehmann. Perhaps the deflection from our keeper’s feint touch, prevented Flamini from doing his job on the far post and clearing the ball on the line? However what bothered me most was the fact that he got the jump on Touré and was able to rise almost unchallenged, without feeling the physical pressure that should’ve made his task that much harder.

I really struggle to comprehend how it is that one of the country’s (Europe’s?) top sides can possibly have a defence that hasn’t already spent years running through the sort of regimental drills, whereby it becomes second nature to remain touch tight to ones opponent. I’d a bruise on my arm for two days following Frank McKlintock’s demonstration of how they did it in his day. Frank was convinced Don Howe could drum such basic defensive principles into our defence, in a matter of a few training sessions. But sadly Howe’s sergeant major attitude must’ve proved too much “yang” to Wenger’s “yin” . I believe it’s some years now since the tranquillity of the Arsenal training ground was disturbed by the dulcet tones of Howe, who, with his red & white striped heart, has probably forgotten more than most coaches know about bringing on young players.

The “craic” at Craven Cottage has been brilliant in recent seasons. Up until last Wednesday, the adventurous approach of Chris Coleman’s side was a refreshing alternative to the dour defensive tactics of most other teams and always made for a highly entertaining game. What’s more, even the most fair-weather Gooners can get across London to Fulham, to fill the Putney Stand behind the goal, thereby guaranteeing a great atmosphere. In light of the somewhat antiseptic modernity of our new surroundings, there was an even more poignant feeling, approaching the positively ancient façade of Fulham’s main stand, for a midweek fixture under the phosphorescent glow of the floodlights.

However you could almost sense the air of all our enthusiasm escaping, as McBride prematurely popped the Gooner balloon. It wasn’t long before we recovered our voices and while on the pitch, Fulham looked like scoring almost every time they went forward, on the terraces it was definitely “1-0 to the Arsenal”. Alexandre Song struggled to keep his head above water the last time Wenger threw the Cameroonian kid in at the Premiership deep end and his continued need of water wings was evident to everyone, long before Boa Morte left Song thrashing in his wake, in the build up to the second goal.

The players tunnel at Craven Cottage is at the away end of the ground and as management and players trudged off at the break, we serenaded them with a hearty chorus of “We want Cesc Fabregas!” Wenger can be very stubborn when it comes to admitting the error of his ways (hence his persistence with Song) and I didn’t for one minute expect him to bow to fan pressure, until I was queuing for my half-time cuppa and I heard a cheer go up, which could have only indicated Cesc’s introduction for the second half.

It’s one thing to be bullied out of the game up at Bolton but the featherweight nature of this squad was evident in the way we were overrun by Fulham. Considering that we could’ve turned on the team after our third successive away defeat, there was some solace in the steadfast display of Gooner fealty at the final whistle, as the players exited stage right, with a loyal reprise of “We love you Arsenal” ringing in their ears.

Winding our way through the streets of the capital, back to the comfort of North London, discussion in the car centred on Wenger’s urgent need to draw a line under our inconsistent efforts to date. Otherwise we’d be in serious danger of our season being over, before Santa’s reindeer have had a run-out. With his first media free week in a decade, following his hoolie behaviour at West Ham, patently his first attempt to inspire a turning point had failed.

Gossip from the new gaff alleges that the Executive Box catering manager was given his cards during the Hamburg game, after being caught on a stairwell in a compromising imbroglio with one of his male colleagues and apparently a couple of East European Club Level bar staff were similarly dealt with, when they were discovered stuffing cash from the tills into plastic bags, before lobbing these through the metal grilles to mates waiting outside.

Yet as far as we’re concerned Wenger’s team selection on Wednesday was far more criminal than this Club Level larceny. Unaccustomed as Arsène is to accepting any blame (“I do not regret the team I named”), it would appear as if he’s taken the big risk of deflecting it all in the direction of the best player on the planet. Aside from being upset about being dropped for the first derby game at our new stadium, rumour has it that the real reason for Thierry’s distress was due to a request for him to hand over the captaincy to Gilberto “until the end of the season”.

Arsène seems to abide by the Continental practice of presenting the captaincy to the club’s most senior squad member, apart from when he’s committed the cardinal sin of using it as a carrot, to try and keep his star players from more avaricious temptations elsewhere. In my humble opinion neither Paddy nor Thierry are my idea of proper captain material and I’d be happy to see Henry relieved of the responsibility, so long as it results in the desired reaction, leaving him able to focus on his own game, without any distractions, rather than sending him off to Barcelona in a huff. However how on earth Wenger can believe Gilberto capable of a better job, is totally beyond me.

I remain an old-fashioned believer in having a centre-half as captain, who’s able to see which of his teammates needs a word of encouragement in their shell like and which of them requires a timely kick up the backside. A midfielder might be better than a striker who has his back to most of his colleagues for the majority of the match, but for heaven’s sake, the softly spoken Brazilian struggles to speak English. Consequently I’m convinced Wenger’s decision is based merely on seniority and it’s not the giving of the captaincy to Gilberto that’s intended to have a dramatic effect, but “resting” of our best player and his retirement as captain, which he’s hoping will prove to be the catalyst for the Arsenal’s “anno domini” after this season’s annus horribilis.

I don’t know who’s responsible for arranging 12.45 kick-offs, but come the revolution, they’ll be amongst the first to be lined up against the wall. It’s hard to say whether Wenger’s actions and the resulting hoo-ha in the tabloids will prove to be a new dawn, or whether our derby day delight is just the same sort of false dawn we experienced after the shenanigans at Upton Park, when we stuffed the Scousers 3-0 (I do know this unbelievable series of 1-1 and 3-0 results must be wreaking havoc with the bookies). We were definitely “up for it” on Saturday and in winning every 50/50 ball there was no doubt which of the two teams was hungrier. However I’m unsure whether it was our desire, or the surprising lack thereof in Spurs, that won the day.

Poll’s customary incompetence ensured a somewhat flattering scoreline. I found myself bawling out one of ours during the second half for falling over in the box. “Get up” I bellowed, “there’s no way Poll’s going to present us with another premature Xmas present”. Needless to say everyone around me who’d been in agreement at the time, about our prospects of being gifted two penalties in the one game, began taking the mick the moment Poll pointed to the spot. It was as if the tragicomedy from Tring had gone completely off his trolley and was trying right all the wrongs in one 90-minute match.

This Arsenal team has been crying out for some vocal leadership on the pitch since long before Paddy took his leave. If any proof was required of Gilberto’s unsuitability as captain, it came late in the second half when Eboué was involved in a confrontation with Keane. Gilberto remained a disdainful spectator, leaving Fabregas to play dad, putting his arm around his teammate and encouraging him to walk away. Cesc may develop into a leader once he’s sufficiently confident that he has the respect of his elders. However until such time it’s hard to imagine who in the Arsenal squad will have the “cahones” to bawl out a player of Thierry’s calibre, when he deserves a kick up the jacksey.

Although I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for some time. Perhaps le Prof has already done a discrete deal for a draw with Porto, since Arsène appears to be banking on qualifying for the last 16, with a fit and fully rested Henry. My reaction when I heard Thierry wouldn’t be playing against Spurs was that we’d managed without him at Old Trafford and in all honesty, I think we are better off without an Henry who’s body language in recent matches absolutely hollered out how unhappy he was. In his absence, not only are his teammates safe in the knowledge that they’re not going to get slaughtered by him for failing to pass him the ball, but they also have to take responsibility, knowing there’s no Thierry to effect a rescue.

Meanwhile according to the media, Henry can’t do right for doing wrong. He came out on TV Saturday morning, to counter the tabloid claptrap and to question their psychic ability to know what transpired and if you were to believe what’s been said since, you’d have cause to wonder how he manages to support the weight of such a big head. Whereas in truth he spent the 90 minutes of Saturday’s match unobtrusively sitting alongside Flamini and Senderos. In his funereal outfit, he was so inconspicuous that I needed my binoculars to find him.

Bearing in mind that this unbelievably majestic maestro has almost single-handedly kept the Arsenal ship afloat, with his 30 plus goal a season consistency, these past few years, I think we can cut him some slack for a couple of months. Henry’s no different to the rest of us, with his need to be loved. My biggest worry is that if Titi no longer feels the adoration of the Gooner faithful, he’ll be off to join his mate Sammy Eto’o at Barca, before you can say “big bucks”!

I’ve no worries about us doing ourselves justice at the Bridge on Sunday, but it’ll be our forthcoming trip to Wigan and the visits of Pompey and Blackburn which will really tell if Arsène has truly chanced upon the corner turning answer.

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