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Monday, 14 January 2008

Caught With Our Pants Down By Birmingham! But A Repeat Against The Cottagers Will Prove A Right Royal Pain In The Backside

Hi Folks,

At least Fat Sam's impromptu departure from the Toon means he won't be chasing Diarra (but that doesn't preclude others from sniffing around the discontent midfielder, not to mention the queue of clubs who'd be lining up if Gilberto was perceived to be unhappy).

Alardyce's Bolton side was renowned for being well organised and I knew something wasn't right when we played on Tyneside. At one point during the match when Newcastle were awarded a corner, I happened to focus on their full-back (Habib Beye?) through my binoculars and I was surprised by the look of bemusement on his face. The former Marseille captain didn't know whether to stick or twist, as he made a movement as if he instinctively wanted to head forward to the penalty area and then stopped, not knowing if he was supposed to be stopping at home to guard the back door.

I couldn't believe that such a shambolic lack of organisation could exist in a professional (let alone Premiership) outfit and I construed from this that the Geordie faithful were merely paying for Fat Sam to have a bit of a free ride?

Meanwhile if I don't get this piece posted now, it will be another week before I get around to it, so....

Peace & Love

There seemed little point to rushing home after Saturday’s match, as it wasn’t as if the managerless Toon were about to do us a favour in the live broadcast from Old Trafford. Then again, there was a glimmer of hope that we might retain top spot, when this game reached halftime without any goals. But within five minutes of the re-start, I was heading for the kitchen to eat my way out of a depression, after Man U had struck twice. While I sought solace in the consolation of a chopped liver sandwich that was exactly what the Mancs made of the Toon, with a win which was worth an extra point, both in terms of its positive effect on our rivals goal difference and the psychological impact of retaking the box seat in the title race, in such an emphatic manner.

I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of twists and turns still to come in this season’s contest, but if it’s destined to go all the way to the wire and the Gunners end up only a gnat’s whisker away from glory, we might well look back on this weekend’s failure to convert our almost total domination of possession into three points as pivotal.

I stood there right up until the last moment, willing the whistle out of ref O’Dowd’s mouth, whilst imploring the lads on to nick a winner. Considering we’ve made quite a habit of stealing a victory out of the jaws of a draw in recent times, I couldn’t believe that the vast majority had long since started flooding out of the exits. I’m sure I must sound like a broken record and I know it’s easy for me to talk, when I’m already at home with my feet up, whilst others are queuing at the station for a couple of hours. But when we go to so much trouble and such expense to watch live football nowadays, I just can’t fathom why folk are in such a desperate rush to get back home on a Saturday evening?

Maybe it’s just another soul-destroying symptom of the recent cultural trend towards football as theatrical entertainment, rather than a participatory sport. It’s been a long couple of seasons since we last enjoyed the excitement of a title challenge at this time of year and to my mind far too many amongst the “audience” at our new stadium lack the ability to appreciate quite how privileged they are. With Saturday's game balanced on a knife edge, I don’t care how much longer it’s going to take to get away from the ground, even if it ends up doubling the length of one's journey home, surely this is a paltry price to pay to be cemented to one’s seat along with sixty thousand other bricks, in a wall of sound that’s capable of sucking the ball into the back of the net, for the last gasp winner that would’ve nailed top spot for another week and crushed the premature hopes of leapfrogging us amongst listening Utd fans?

Surprisingly, this Arsenal squad continues to display plenty of never-say-die spirit, in spite of this infuriating amount of movement in the stands. Yet I’m convinced they can’t possibly be oblivious to it. As I marveled once again, in complete awe of Gael Clichy’s seemingly limitless energy levels, as our flying full-back produced yet another lung-busting charge, along almost the length of the pitch in injury time, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more inspired the Gunners might be to ignore the build up of lactic acid in their legs for one last unstoppable surge towards the opposition goal, if half the crowd weren’t already resigned to the result, with their backs to the action in their habitual dash for the exits, but were instead displaying their solidarity by remaining in their seats, refusing to accept our fate by roaring the lads on to the last?

Meanwhile, in truth we should’ve had no need for a late winner on Saturday, since, in such a one-sided contest, Birmingham should’ve long since been put to the sword. Wandering home afterwards, I overheard glum looking Gooners everywhere, proffering their ‘backseat’ punditry. Many seemed to think we’d lost some momentum, after the majority of our first XI had enjoyed a ten day break from competitive action, having been omitted from our two cup encounters in the interim. Myself I’ve always been an advocate in the past of not messing with the team sheet, once they begin to achieve a winning groove. The way in which we conceded a sloppy equalizer, so soon after the start of the second-half, perhaps lends credence to this theory, as there was some suggestion of complacency involved in this costly lapse in concentration.

Although it felt like a defeat, Saturday’s draw suggest a refocus is required, to return to the sort of concentration levels that have been such a crucial factor in our challenge to date. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been necessary, without the distraction of a couple of days off. Yet there were some signs on Saturday that they might’ve benefited from their break, as I believe we caught brief glimpses of a return of our passing game, which has been markedly absent for more than a month, while we’ve resorted to “Plan B”.

Hopefully this last hiccup won’t seem nearly so significant, if fresh legs begin to bear fruit, by reinvigorating the Gunners. There’ve been plenty of occasions in the past when we’ve questioned Le Prof’s selection policy and in his shoes, many of us would’ve had a half-fit Van Persie on the bench, in the hope Robin might be able to pull a match winning rabbit out of the hat. But if there is one area in which Wenger has demonstrated his expertise over the years, it’s been in the extremely precise monitoring of his player’s fitness, developing this science to the point where (with the exception of Walcott and some of the other more accident prone amongst his charges) he’s often in a position to be able to rest players, before they succumb to fatigue related injuries.

Mercifully Arsène has avoided Rafa Benitez like incessant rotational tinkering, as he appears to appreciate the need to maintain a balance between this pragmatic science and the ethereal art of encouraging the sort of cohesion that can produce a tightly knit first XI who are prepared to die for one another.
Another common complaint from disgruntled Gooners, whilst we whinged our way home on Saturday, was that following a scintillating first-half of sublime skill, Alex Hleb was almost anonymous after the break. It seems that having lost his cool, as a result of the opposition’s painfully close attentions, Alex was distracted to the point of disappearing, in stereotypical “don’t like it up ‘em” fashion of the Arsenal of yesteryear.

When one sees a virtuoso talent of Hleb’s class, haring after an opponent to exact his revenge by blatantly hacking them down, I want to shake him by the shoulders, to remind him that the most painful reprisal is to let their feet do the talking (with the football!). Yet even at his best, for all his ability on the ball, Alex’s artistry all too often amounts to nought where it matters. However, against City, he was far from alone in being culpable for this lack of impact in the last third, as for all our domination in midfield, actually Maik Taylor was actually little busier than Almunia.

With Beckham and his boy sitting in the players seats behind the bench, it occurred to me that for all the hospitality he's received, in return you'd think he could at least hand out a few lessons in the art of hitting a dead ball (and perhaps give Almunia sufficient practice that he has the confidence to come and take them!). We're on the edge of our seats whenever we concede a corner but we're hardly on tenterhooks when taking them, as we grow increasingly exasperated at the sight of Fabregas floating yet another ball straight down the keeper's throat.

It’s hardly like for like, comparing Birmingham’s obdurate defending, with the basket case of the Toon backline. But watching Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Giggs rampaging forward on TV later that evening, even through Gooner tinted glasses, it was hard to deny that Man Utd seem to possess a far more incisive threat, compared to our patient but all too often fruitless probing. Not that we haven’t seen the Arsenal carve up opponents who dare to allow us time and space, like a knife through butter, but when it comes to genuine pace, as a full-back, Clichy isn’t going to spend much time in the opposition penalty area and Theo Walcott is without doubt still a work in progress.

Channel hopping on Saturday night, I happened upon a “Classic” Arsenal performance which showed Thierry Henry gliding past opponents as if they were running backwards. There was no reeling Henry back in, once he’d beaten a defender, whereas stopping the Arsenal nowadays is a matter of simple mathematics, which merely involves getting sufficient numbers behind the ball.

Unless we resort to Plan B, Wimbledon stylee, planting long balls onto the head of big strikers, for the likes of Eduardo to profit from the knock downs, we rely on the guile of Fabregas and Hleb to pick a path through the massed ranks. Although we’ve demonstrated that we’re not totally dependent on Cesc, the more matches I see, the more convinced I become that it’s only when Fab is on top form that we truly purr like a well-oiled machine. When he’s below par, the Gunners tend to grind like an ungreased engine, crying out for “Little Franco” and his can of WD40.

Obviously I’d be much happier if we were still looking down on all our rivals, but if we can continue to maintain our challenge whilst out of sorts, I’m sure we’ll be handing out a hiding, or two of our own before long. I only hope the Newcastle saga rumbles on for a couple of weeks. Should the Toon win their replay against Stoke, we’ll be playing them twice in three days and with so many virulent winter bugs about, I really wouldn’t want to be struck down by a bad case of “new manager-itis”!

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