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Monday 22 October 2007

A Hair Raising Fortnight

For a while there on Saturday it appeared as if Bolton might achieve their objective, with the sort of bullyboy tactics we’ve grown accustomed to from Wanderers, which distracted us from doing what we do best. That was until Theo Walcott‘s introduction somehow seemed to energize our entire side and suddenly, instead of battering our way through the Bolton rearguard, we managed to produce the finesse that eventually found the visitors out.

Theo has been the source of much frustration up until now. There’s never been any doubt that the youngster’s been blessed with absolutely blistering pace and the sort of natural ability that first brought him to the attention of the footballing world (at least one World Cup too early!). But there’s been a worrying possibility that Arsenal fans would lose patience with Theo and would begin to get on his back, if his struggle to have an impact on games had continued for very much longer.

Football fans are a remarkably unforgiving bunch and if it wasn’t for the fact that Theo has acquired the mantle of the Arsenal’s latest great, not-so-white hope, there’d be few allowances made for the fact that he’s still a mere teenager, learning his trade. He hasn’t been afforded too many opportunities this season, as I’m sure Wenger is similarly aware of the need to tease the talent out of Walcott, without our more fickle fans doing irreparable damage to his confidence. Yet with him being the only English player in the current squad (as Justin Hoyte appears to have slipped down the pecking order), Gunners fans have been understandably desperate for the day when we could gush that “the boy done good”.

And such high levels of expectation have also been reflected in the groans of exasperation, as up until Saturday all Theo’s appearances have proved rather ineffective, other than to demonstrate that our teenage prodigy is only a “meep, meep” away from being able to pass himself off as Roadrunner. Even I have to admit that I was beginning to have my doubts as to whether Walcott was going to be able to transfer all his training ground promise, to the Premiership’s pressure-cooker stage and there were others who were prematurely writing the teenager off as a one trick pony. Such breathtaking speed is a marvellous asset in modern day football, but in order to tear top-flight defences asunder, it needs to be matched by the sort of instinctive speed of thought necessary to prevail, in what is the mental equivalent of an amphetamine fuelled chess match

I watch a good game of football, just like I watch a good game of tennis. By which I mean it is very easy, looking on from the stands, to be able to assimilate the information, the way the defence is lined up, the potential gaps to exploit and translate this into the optimum point of attack, but only the very best, the Dennis Bergkamps of this world, are able to subconsciously interpret this overview. For the vast majority of more mundane professionals, their performance comes down to a series of far more simplistic decisions, as to whether to take on the player directly in front of them, or to lay the ball off to a team-mate.

To date, Theo’s appearances on the sidelines have always resulted in an audible buzz of expectancy around the ground, rising to a roar the first couple of time he’s flown past a full-back. But sadly the excitement has soon dissipated as he’s invariably dribbled down a dead-end and once his initial bubble of confidence has been burst, Theo’s decision making has become decidedly suspect, hesitant whether to stick or twist and all too often ending up bust.

It’s difficult to say what the difference was on Saturday. Perhaps some of the players were enervated after their International exertions and Campo & co’s infuriating repertoire of rhythm-breaking roguery had run its course. Whatever the cause, Wenger deserves the credit, as in the past I’ve frequently bemoaned his failure to intervene until the last 15 minutes. But the introduction of Walcott and Rosicky with half an hour to play was just what the doctor ordered, as it lifted the crowd (at 59.5k our lowest of the season, which I assumed was due to a few hundred Club Level suckers for punishment choosing to pay through the nose to watch England’s defeat in Paris, until I noticed the empty section of away seats that Bolton must’ve been unable to sell!) and stoked up the tempo sufficiently to put the visitors properly under the cosh for the first time in the match.

It was very gratifying to see a training ground routine come to fruition with Kolo’s industrial effort on goal finding the back of the net. It’s by no means easy to welly the ball on the deck, into the corner of the net with sufficient power to pass the keeper. But this was function over form and further evidence of the additional attributes that make this Arsenal squad a more formidable proposition.

Watching Villareal v Barcelona on Sunday night, Robert Pires’ mastery of a football made me feel quite nostalgic. Although there was an instance in this match where Pires’ trickery took him through, to be one on one with the keeper inside the penalty area. But instead of taking a crack at goal and perhaps killing off the game by making it 4-1, Le Bob tried an utterly audacious backheel, which rolled harmlessly behind the supporting striker. It would’ve been ‘magnifique’ if it had worked out but the fingers of blame would’ve been pointing in Pires’ direction if Barca had gone on to drag themselves back into this game.

I doubt the artist that is Pires would’ve approved of Kolo’s attempt to take the cover off the ball, but then in seasons past, the Arsenal’s efforts to caress the ball into the back of the net might’ve prevented us from getting the job done against the likes of Bolton. Meanwhile there was still time for the pretty passing patterns, as the game opened up once we’d taken the lead and Wanderers were forced to advance into our half of the pitch.

It will do young Theo’s confidence a power of good that he’s being acknowledged as the catalyst for Saturday’s success, but it could easily have been all so different, as the margins between back page golden boy and anonymous bit-part substitute are very slim. I happened to notice Rosicky having a word with our wunderkind after his first burst along the flank ended down a blind alley, with him failing to cut the ball back across the area to his unmarked team-mate. Whatever was said between them, their exchange bore fruit when Walcott arrived at a similar spot a few minutes later, as on this occasion he showed the awareness to pick out Rosicky, to provide the Czech with the relatively simple finish that secured us the three points.

On an off day for the likes of Eboué and Adebayor, Gael Clichy again stood out. Admittedly he had very little to do defensively but it’s his energy level that so impresses, with a couple of storming forward runs late on, one where it looked as though he was intent on jinking his way around the entire Bolton team. Meanwhile Bakari Sagna stood out mostly because of his ‘barnet’. After the Samson like effect of losing his conspicuous blonde locks, with it coinciding with his first below par performance in red & white against Sunderland, it seems as if Sagna is no less superstitious than the rest of us. Bakari’s hairdresser must’ve been busy growing him some new day-glo extensions while Sagna was away with the French squad. Long gone are the days when boots and shin-pads were the only accessories a footballer needed!

Losing Van Persie for some crucial clashes over the next few weeks was a lamentable outcome of the International break. Albeit offset slightly by Togo’s exit from the African Nations Cup, which at least means Adebayor won’t be accompanying Kolo and Eboué in their disruptive three week disappearing act at the end of January.

Many pundits seem to feel that the forthcoming fixtures against Liverpool and Man Utd will prove the first genuine test of our squad’s title credentials. However based on our experience in the recent past, we’ve not had any trouble raising our game for these glamorous, so-called title-deciders. It’s been our tendency to blow points against the likes of Bolton that has cost us dear and it’s been a real wind up watching these also-rans work their socks off to knock us off our stride, only for them to roll over and play dead against our immediate competition in subsequent matches.

It’s amazing to witness the increasing effect of that aura of invincibility. Where last season Bolton might have considered Saturday’s fixture with the outside chance of picking up a point, suddenly you know deep down that such opponents aren’t really expecting anything out of the game and their unambitious approach is merely an attempt to come away with their pride intact.

Based on recent results, in truth there’s no greater risk of dropping points at Anfield than there was at Upton Park the other week and the three points earned against the Hammers are worth exactly the same as the three points on offer on Sunday. My main concern is that to date this young squad is used to going into such games as underdogs, hungry to test themselves against the Premiership’s greatest talents. It will be interesting to see how they react to their new-found elevated status and whether they can retain the same intensity, as our main rivals take their turn at shooting us off our perch.

Finally this week’s column can’t end without paying my respects to the passing of Denton, perhaps the most renowned ‘face’ amongst the entire Gooner tribe, who died tragically in a car crash whilst looking after the Pet Shop Boys in Moscow. I can’t be a hypocrite, since it was the serious violence of the 70s that turned me off football as a spectator sport, as the thought of getting stabbed on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t my idea of entertainment. Yet I was driving past the new stadium all last week, wondering about the increasingly impressive tributes, as by Friday the area around the two cannons had become a floral sea of red & white. It wasn’t until the weekend that it dawned on me that the wreaths were for Denton, who sadly might be gone but who certainly won’t be forgotten.


MoHoops said...

well written bernard, esp the point that the next to games arent what makes us as we've proved we can go toe to toe with anyone in the premiership last season & that it was the niggly little teams we slipped against...a point i thought was markedly clear yet almost everyone seems to have forgotten that...did the whole nation forget we done the double over united last year!! neway i agree with everything but just wanted to point out that rosicky's finish was actually far from simple because it came slightly behind him at pace when he was running in & for him to caress it into the net with ONE touch was truly a testament of his magnificent 'mozart'esqe technique! it was just luvleh :)

Bern said...

Thanks for pointing it out Mohammed and I bow to your better memory (which is no real compliment as I have such a sieve like bonce that I often have to ask the missus who scored, before we've left the stadium - I blame premature alzheimers :-) and am going to go back and watch a replay of Rosicky's goal on MOTD.

Another positive from Rosicky's goal was that he and Walcott were making the sort of runs, å la early Freddie and Pires, arriving late into the box to contribute goals from midfield. I'm not much of a stats man but I am sure if you look at the records it will show the important relationship between our title winning seasons and the 15 plus goal contributions from midfield.

While the focus of media attention was obviously directed at Theo (at a time when multicultural Britain is delighted to be holding up the likes of Walcott, Lewis Hamilton and Amir Khan as pillars of their community type role models, there's a delicious irony that the WASP bigots are left "kvelling" over the lowbrow likes of Wayne Rooney - or "Wazza" according to Rio Ferdinand), it must be remembered that Rosicky was equally desperate to bring something to our Premiership party, as Tommi's lack of impact has been one of the disappointments of the season so far - or the optimist would say that it's the promise of untold riches to come, when Rosicky does start firing on all cylinders.

As every engine needs that initial spark, hopefully Tommi's goal will do just nicely and with a perfectly timed encounter against his old Czech rivals coming in quick succession, it couldn't have been timed better for Tommi to take advantage (although that's what I said about our trip to Prague, where I promptly put the mockers on his performance!)

For someone who's such a pessimist about most matches, I rarely fret anything like as much in the build up to the really big games, as I am always confident we are going to do ourselves justice and at the end of the day we're only playing for the same three points that's on offer against the likes of Derby.

Apart from the Stepanovs aberration a few years back (when poor Igor was the unfortunate scapegoat, as he was far from alone in embarrassing us that day) and perhaps a trend in recent seasons to settle for a point against Chelsea, when I've felt Arsene might have shown more ambition and gone on to bag all three (but perhaps that's why he's le gaffer and I'm le blogger!), most in the know will appreciate that we've fared well in a table of head-to-head fixtures between the top four and that it's been our performances against the lesser lights, relative to theirs that has been our big bugaboo.

MoHoops said...

yes i think lot of gooners are subtly aware of rosicky's enormous potential & if it means i have to go down to his house & personally drag him out & wrap him in 10 inches of bubble wrap in order to get a fit season out of him then so be it!
on his day he's a matchwinner & as you mentioned what we really missed the past few seasons have been pires & ljungberg's goals that were absolutely vital for a winning side, i believe rosicky can get 15 if he STAYS fit, nothing needs to be said about fabregas (just bowing motions), & if hleb can reach double figures for the season (though i have to see i think he's been playing superbly thus far) then i definately think we'll win something this year!

i think european qualification's in the bag even if its not secured this week, but im gutted that robin will miss the up & coming 'big 2' as he was on a nice scoring run, of match winners no less.
However with healthy competition up front i guess its a big big chance for dudu or even bendtner to hit a chord on the gooner symphony thats been sliky smooth thus far.

Who knows maybe as we're watching the fireworks on the 5th we'll still be talking about the same two we just were..the new 'ljungberg & pires'!!(btw speaking of pires isn't it great that he's been tearing apart barcelona this season & last , ill always love that guy!) come away undefeated & ill be delighted! come on u gooners!!

phatosas said...

I don't have much to add but say it is a very well written article. Keep up the good work.