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Monday 2 April 2007

Zen And The Art Of Premiership Maintenance

Hi folks

For the want of a title, I didn't post this piece on Monday and subsequently I was so utterly crestfallen following that night's FA Youth Cup exit that it was probably best that I do so that same night, or else I would've ended up writing one almighty moan of preamble, whinging about what appears to be the Arsenal's own Groundhog Day.

I was at Villa Park on the night of the first leg of this semi-final, along with a couple of thousand Gooners, watching good fortune favour the first XI with the only three points we've managed to filch from the last nine. I was flabbergasted to hear on the phone that there was an FA Youth Cup record 38,000 crowd watching the kids at our new stadium. Where by all accounts, an Arsenal side made up mostly of first year pro's, dominated a Utd side of second years who were obviously older, stronger and bigger, taking a single goal advantage up to Old Trafford for the second leg.

Having schlepped up to Liverpool these past two successive weekends, to watch us get beat on both occasions, I was hardly full of the sort of enthusiasm necessary to encourage me to travel all the way back up to the North West on Monday. Thus for the first time, I watched an entire match courtesy of the Arsenal's online TV facility.

For an absolute age I cursed the fact that the techies at Arsenal TV weren't interested in catering for us Apple Mac users. Then eventually, some couple of years after everyone else, I was finally able to check out this service, courtesy of some third party plug-in. This was a real novelty, being able to watch all those various lists of "ten best" Arsenal clips, but then no sooner had Arsenal TV added some details to advise Mac users of the availability of this plug-in, than suddenly it stopped working properly, as the option to increase the screen size, or watch clips full screen had somehow disappeared.

As a result, my opinions of Monday night's match were gleaned whilst watching the game on a three-inch window! It was like sitting up in the gods at the Bernabeu, watching these ant size players, waiting for a close-up to be able to see where the ball actually went. And yet even whilst suffering such a disadvantage, there was no mistaking the total dominance of the Arsenal kids during the first hour of this game.

In fact, one of the most infuriating ramifications of this distressing defeat is that on the face of it, Utd's youngster's progress to the final justifies Fergie's claims that their kids are every bit as good as our own. Whereas in truth, you'd have to have been a blind man to have not been able to appreciate the Gunners' youngsters' superiority over the course of the two legs.

Sadly the kids seemed to bottle it completely over the course of the closing stages. Even watching on my laptop, I got this sense of their belief draining from them as they virtually invited Utd back into the game, nervously giving the ball away and dropping too deep. Having got the goal which gave them a two goal lead on aggregate, I was hoping that we were home and hosed and was looking forward to playing Liverpool in a two-legged final and perhaps a chance of at least having something to put in our new trophy cabinet by the close of the season.

However once the Man Utd kids managed to get one goal back, it was as if they suddenly realised that our superior ability wasn't going to get us to the final by right and when it got to ninety minutes and the ref unsurprisingly found four whole minutes of injury time from somewhere (no doubt in fear of facing the wrath of Fergie, who was sitting in the stands with his Mancunian timepiece!), it seemed as if an equaliser was inevitable.

With Man Utd having all the momentum, I was certain they were going to win in extra-time. Yet even then the Arsenal kids ensured that false hope sprang eternal, as they scored a great goal with just about their only attack of the first 15 minutes. "Surely they can't blow it again", I thought. But I should've known better!

If you'd seen the tearful youngsters dropping to the turf when it was all over, having conceded the two goals which ultimately denied them a cup final appearance in doubtless their first major competition in an Arsenal shirt, it was obvious from their apparent distress quite how devastated they all were. Thus you couldn't question their desire or commitment. However the evidence of what we've endured over the past few weeks would suggest that the Arsenal is currently suffering from a club wide malaise.

Arsène deserves all credit, as he appears to have struck an incredibly rich vein of naturally gifted youngsters, many of whom appear capable of mounting a credible challenge for first team places. However having endured a succession of painful defeats against patently inferior opposition in the likes of Blackburn, PSV and Man Utd's youth team, the nature of our agonising under-achievement this season makes it hard to ignore the evidence of an apparent blind-spot, in spite of Arsène's studious attention to detail.

I felt sorry for poor Maria, the elderly, retired schoolteacher whose foghorn like "Come on you Gunners" will be familiar to anyone who's ever watched the Gunners play live. I heard Maria at Goodison and I saw her last Saturday, sitting in front of us at Anfield and even through the tinny sound of my laptop speakers, there was no mistaking the distinctive cry coming from the stands at Old Trafford, confirming that she'd schlepped all the way back up to the North-West to support the kids. Such unstinting loyalty deserved more than yet another defeat and the outcome only confirmed quite how callous fate can be, as I would've thought that we might've been rewarded with a win for Maria's remarkable effort alone.

Moreover, with Man Utd still having so much left to play for, you would've thought they could've thrown us this small crumb of comfort, especially when they are so blasé about success that only eight thousand bothered to turn out to support their kids (compared to the 38k who came to watch them perform at home). If football was based on ability alone, we would've beaten Blackburn and we would've still been in the Champions League, but unfortunately no one bothered to inform these two opponents that they didn't deserve to beat us and similarly the Man Utd youngsters weren't about to lie down to their betters and wave us through to the final.

The all-important difference between these two teams was that the home side seemed imbued with the same sort of resilience that we are used to witnessing from their first team (and which used to be the Arsenal's own trademark!!). If it weren't for the fact that they were playing the Arsenal, I would have nothing but admiration for the equaliser Utd scored in the 93rd minute and the eventual winner in the 116th minute. The Utd kids were no less knackered than our own, as I'd imagine that there's very little difference in the fitness of the two teams. But unlike our lads, who seemed to suffer a bout of stage fright as the prospect of reaching the final loomed, the opposition appeared to be driven on by that heady mixture of youthful hunger and fear of the wrath of their manager and the bollocking they'd be due for getting beat by the Arsenal, if not the dire consequences for their prospects of a future contract.

Obviously you can't expect the Arsenal to be playing with a smile on their faces when the game is going against them, but watching the Arsenal at every level these days, they might all display remarkable ability on the ball and wonderful technique, but apart from those occasions when it is invariable too late and we've gone a goal down with seconds left on the clock, you never really get the sense that our lot are playing as if their very lives depended on the outcome, as if a lack of commitment this week, might see them left out for the rest of the season.

Commenting on the difference in Wenger's management style, Paul Merson once spoke about how Arsène treated his players as adults and infamously, how he instilled them with "unbelievable belief". Yet while there can be no doubt that Wenger is a winner, who suffers every defeat with just as much pain as us punters, I sometimes wonder if he credits some of his players with this same level of blinkered commitment to the Arsenal's cause, when in truth, psychologically speaking, many of them are still big kids who need to be cajoled and encouraged, by both the carrot and the stick, if he wants to get the best out of them.

Meanwhile along with every other Gooner, I might have struggled to fathom some of Arsène's stranger decisions this season (like a backline where no one is playing in their natural positions) but unlike a few fickle Arsenal fans, I am not about to lose faith in the fact that ultimately "Arsène knows". In truth the extent of our disappointment about a second successive season sans silverware is merely a reflection of how high Wenger has raised the bar in his time at the Arsenal, to the point where our expectations are such that we demand to win something every single season.

As someone suggested the other day, this mood of disgruntlement has only been magnified by the distressing sight of the rubble that remains of our ancestral home and the fact that our move around the corner has now fallen flat on its face. Yet if we can step back and view our circumstances with some perspective, many of us are long enough in the tooth to have endured several unsuccessful seasons of dour depressing football, of the sort where the prospect of a top four finish including wins over Spurs, Man Utd and Liverpool, a Cup Final appearance, five minutes from a Champions League quarter final with some fabulous entertainment along the way, would have seemed a resounding success by comparison!

You can analyze it all you like, but at the end of the day without the thirty plus goals that Thierry Henry has chipped in these past few seasons and without the guarantee of 15 goal contribution from the likes of Pires and Ljungberg in midfield (where once we could count on the midfield to come up trumps if Titi wasn't on top form, this source has almost dried up completely), you don't need to be a brain surgeon to work it out! As they say, football is a simple game and no matter the superb quality of our football, matches are won by scoring at one end and stopping them going in at the other. Since we've been struggling so badly on both fronts, in truth we should be counting our blessings that we are still above an in form Tottenham and still in with a shout for Champions League qualification.

Mind you, the increased revenue which should begin to filter down to the transfer kitty at some point in the near future, this won't make up for what we stand to lose, both financially and in our ability to attract top players, if we don't make it back into the Champions League. And at this precise point in time, with Adebayor as our only effective striker, we should be thankful for our five point advantage over the teams below us (and Everton have chipped away at this today!) and personally I will be very grateful of we can cling to fourth place.

With Berbatov banging in goals for fun for the enemy and considering the farcical climax to last season (with Spurs campaign for a Champions League spot coming to its comical conclusion in the karsey - at least they've got their brown kit in case of a repeat performance!), Martin Jol won't have to work too hard to motivate his lot for what might yet prove to be a crucial trip to White Hart Lane.

Before that, to my mind a Bank Holiday trip to St James Park is bound to sort the men from the boys as far as any end of season apathy is concerned and we have our unbeaten home record to cling onto, against a Hammers side coming to play at our new place for the first time, on the back of two successive wins, for only the second time this season (the last included our 0-1 defeat at Upton Park!). Time was when West Ham was a home banker, a guarantee of three points with goals aplenty and yet tomorrow I would gladly settle for a good old-fashioned, boring "1-0 to the Arsenal", as other than Adebayor, it's hard to envisage anyone else finding the net on current form.

With Róna in Dublin, my West Ham supporting boss is using her ticket. Dave has been to a game with me since we absolutely mullahed West Ham, with something like four goals in the first twenty minutes. Apparently they are already resigned to their relegation fate and are merely intent on enjoying the football from their mercurial Argentinian wizard while it lasts, before he high tails it out of East London. You would've thought that the pristine expanses of the Emirates playing surface would be made for the likes of Tevez and I'll be surprised if West Ham prove to be a pushover.

Hopefully there will be a bit of a backlash, after last week's abysmal performance and with Gilberto back, the Brazilian might plug some of the gaps in our sieve like defence. Whatever the outcome, I have explained to Dave that I'm no longer seated in the sedate environs of the old West Upper and personally I will be praying the Hammers don't score just so I don't have to panic about his reaction. As I joked with Dave's missus, myself I will just be grateful if I've still got a job come five o'clock Saturday afternoon.

Big Love

It’s a pity there are no Premiership points awarded for the fan’s contribution off the pitch. If there were, perhaps we Gooners would’ve cancelled out Peter Crouch’s perfect hat-trick at Anfield on Saturday, as we shamed an increasingly taciturn Kop, with the sort of staunch, stentorian support, that left me feeling proud to be a Gooner and which proved to be some slight consolation for such a slovenly performance.

However after trouncing the Scousers in our three previous meetings, with our “under strength” cup sides banging in nine of twelve goals against them, I guess that according to the law of averages, Benitez was bound to catch a break at some point. Along with everyone else, I might have taken the Mickey out of the Rafa’s incessant tinkering with his team, but the Spaniard was spot on on Saturday, trumping Arsène’s reliance on a teenage midfield, with the relatively mature, Argentinian World Cup warhorse.

Any respect I might’ve previously held for Alan Curbishley’s managerial capabilities disappeared during Saturday’s game. Perhaps Curbishley had ulterior motives, but on the face of it, the West Ham manager’s seemingly criminal failure to avail himself of the masterful abilities of Javier Mascherano is utterly incomprehensible.

I spent half-time hoping that the Argie might flag following the break and that his influence might ebb accordingly. Obviously Benitez had sussed that if you suffocate Cesc Fabregas, basically you prevent the Arsenal from orchestrating any footballing arias. And until he was subbed late on, Mascherano managed to snuff out this threat, sadly with consummate efficiency.

It would’ve been embarrassing for Benitez to have suffered a fourth stuffing on the spin from his mate’s team and perhaps Le Prof still has a trick or two to learn. Apparently Rafa reminded his troops of their previous drubbings, by sticking details of the scores up in the home side’s dressing room. This was an interesting discovery, as it accounted for the apparent indignation, which saw Liverpool approach the game, right from the opening whistle, with a level of intensity and fervour that meant we were already a goal behind, by the time we’d languidly emerged from the starting blocks.

Before the game I’d suggested that if we could get to the break with only a single goal deficit, we’d have a decent chance of at least a draw, on the basis that we rarely seem capable of pulling our collective fingers out, until the second half of these early kick-offs. Yet there was no mistaking the massive difference in the respective motivation of the two teams.

Time was when the Arsenal were capable of beginning matches, playing football at a tempo that was totally overwhelming for many an adversary and where it would be game over, before the opposition even had a chance to get to grips with the game. Whereas these days, following the now slightly cheesy pre-match love-in, comprised of all those somewhat insincere hugs and kisses in the centre circle, we appear far too chilled out, starting games with an absence of zest, as if Arsène has introduced the art of zen meditation into the warm-up ritual.

In truth, I suspect Le Prof probably sets too much store by their professionalism, expecting them all to be self-motivated, for what amounted to a third place play-off. When I’d imagine many of them fall some way short of Wenger’s blinkered focus, at this stage of a less than gratifying season, with their adrenaline levels hardly surging whilst they tie up their boots, pondering on which tropical paradise they’ll be parking their backside once this season’s “work” is done.

So we kicked-off, hoping to be able to patiently pass the ball about, with an almost over-confident conviction that if we could string enough passes together, a goal would eventually manifest itself and if it didn’t, after three wins against the Scousers, a draw wouldn’t be such a disaster. By contrast there was a nervous energy to Liverpool’s approach, as if their very lives depended on the outcome and thus they went for the throat, with a ferocity that caught us cold and kept us on the back foot, until it was already too late.

It’s perhaps wrong of me to perpetuate the mythical Scouse stereotype, but it is still the case that either you stump up seven quid to leave the car in a car park, or you spend ninety minutes fretting about whether it will still be there, intact, on your return. So for the second successive week we found ourselves inching our way out of a Merseyside car park, but as I reminded my mates, at least the sun was shining, we weren’t being bombarded by hailstones the size of marbles and we hadn’t conceded to a gut-wrenching 90th minute goal, as had been the case at Goodison the previous week.

Sadly such defeats are fast becoming far too much like the norm rather than the exception. Although I have to admit that while a more fickle home crowd would have moaned and groaned their way through the match, as the away fans, I am reminded of what it was like many moons back and what fans of most other teams experience all the time on their travels.

Perhaps it was far too splendid a spring afternoon to be totally spoilt by the Gunners lugubrious failure to live up to expectations. But there was this sense of strength through adversity amongst the travelling Gooners, where we were all lunatics together, following a crack of dawn departure and a four hour drive North, paying 34 quid to endure 90 wretched minutes before schlepping all the way back.

With his unrelenting work rate, one could be forgiven for thinking Adebayor was operating as a lone striker. Having grafted like a Trojan, Manny deserved far more reward than his acquaintance with the Anfield woodwork. However aside from Adebayor, in contrast to Crouch’s clinical finishing, no one in yellow looked vaguely like troubling Reina. The extent of our current woes began to sink in as I stood soaking up some rays at the break and a mate enquired if Aliadière was on the bench. Bizarrely, after Ljungberg, Jeremie might be the Arsenal’s longest serving player and gawd love him, he’s never short on effort, but you just know were in big schtuck if we’re left counting on our other French striker to be the Gunner’s saviour.

Most were left puzzled as to why Le Prof hadn’t played Diaby in the middle of the park, where he might’ve made more of an impact than out wide on the flank. Denilson never fails to impress with his ability to retain possession, despite the muscular attentions of much bigger opponents. But the Brazilian disappeared second half and at this precise point in time, his partnership with Fabregas at the heart of our midfield leaves us looking a little lightweight at the highest level.

Obviously I’d much prefer a return to the winning habit, rather than this new found familiarity with defeat that promises awaydays devoid of optimism for our prospects on the pitch. But I have to admit that there’s some solace to be found in the sort of gallows humour that often results in the best terrace banter. I actually can’t recall the last time we had any new material and I’m not certain it’s entirely original but top of the terrace pops on Saturday was “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he kisses the badge on his chest and hands in a transfer request, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard!”

It will be interesting to see if Man Utd supporters respond to the record FA Youth Cup attendance at our place for the semi-final first leg, by turning out in such vast numbers for the return game. With a 1-0 advantage we might yet have an opportunity to avenge Saturday’s defeat and to put our new trophy cabinet to some purpose, if we can get past Utd, to play the Liverpool in the final. I only hope the Scousers youth team doesn’t contain any more 6’7” surprises!
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Anonymous said...

Wenger will get it right next year and the fast pace of the youngsters will outgun most of the opponents.

Expect a reaction today against w ham

Anonymous said...

Although I went through the same emotions as you, while watching the Youth Cup match, I think you have got one point wrong - the most important point, in fact.

You are wrong to say that there would be no difference in the fitness levels of the two sides. You did mention that the majority of ManU's players were second year scholars while ours were mostly first - that does make a difference at that age. Secondly, because we have pushed our young players into the first team and have a high number out on loan, most of our 16 & 17 year olds are playing both in the Reserves and in the Under-18 - just look at the appearance stats in the programme and you will see the same names - which explains a higher fatigue factor in our squad. But much more important is that 7 players from the Arsenal Youth-Cup squad had been playing in an international tournament the week before and some (e.g. Fran Merida) had already played 3 games in 5 days just before the Old Trafford match. Fran Merida only joined up with the Arsenal squad the night before the Utd game, which explains why he had no legs after 60 minutes of the match; he was brilliant up until then. By the way, Man Utd had only one player involved in that international tournament.

For the first hour, we were excellent and miles ahead of Man Utd. I too was shocked to see our legs go after 60 minutes and the level of our player drop so low but when you understand the reasons, it is quite understandable. There is no reason at all to criticize our players or coaches - unless you think they should be able to coach players into playing 4 games in 6 days, at the age of 16.

Anonymous said...

Should there be a Salary Cap in Football?
Personally I think there should be! It’s just getting to be stupid money in football at the top of the premiership!
It’s always the same teams at the top proving that football success is based purely on money which ruins the idea of it being a sport! They’ve done it in rugby, basketball, hockey and American football and it makes the sports more competitive and better to watch!
I do a little Football Betting Online from time to time and most matches don’t hold much surprise who is going to win, its boring! I want to see a team at the bottom pulling off an amazing season beating last seasons winners in a close fought battle!
Make things fair! It shouldn’t be about money!