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Tuesday 1 January 2008

Half-Term Report - Could Do (Will Do!) Better

(not one bob, two bob, or shish kebob, you get three for the price of one this week, as it seems that I left this half-term review saved as a draft but neglected to hit the "publish post" button - I don't know about a prize, but read all three and the one thing you will get is...committed :-)

Hi folks,

It's that time of year when we're asked for a half-term report for the Irish Examiner's mid-season roundup in their Arena supplement and you will find mine somewhere down below a typically long-winded preamble!

It was a strange game today. Unless my memories are somewhat rose-tinted, this somewhat tepid encounter with West Ham bore very little resemblance to New Year's Day London Derbys of yesteryear, where plenty of liquid festive cheer would guarantee a great atmosphere on the terraces and on the pitch, the frenetic football would be up to ninety, with tackles flying in all over the pitch in a contest where no quarter would be given.

I guess to a great extent the game was killed by such an early goal, where once again Eduardo served notice of his ruthless killer instinct in the penalty box. And when Gael Clichy lumped the ball up to Adebayor after 18 minutes, this contest was all over bar the shouting. Most of which came from the corner of the stadium inhabited by the Irons' fans, as they tried in vain to tease us into responding and raising the atmosphere with their "It's like a funeral" and "We hate Tottenham more than you" chants.

I know that London Derbys these days don't tend to be anywhere near as heated because so few of the players on the pitch can relate to their importance (mind you we had a record TWO English players involved today :-) to those of us who spend our days consorting with the enemy at work and amongst friends and where a Derby win can guarantee us a couple of months peace, putting a sock in the mouth of the more gobby opposition fans. Yet the temperature on the terraces can usually be guaranteed to inspire a somewhat more heated contest out on the park than today's decidedly tame affair.

Obviously my tardy nature ensured that I was still trotting around to the ground when Fabregas teed up Eddy's goal and I should've known then that this match was unlikely to catch fire, as the roar from those watching in the Gunners pub drowned out what must've been a fairly muted response inside the ground!

Mercifully I made it to my seat in plenty of time for our second and even after seeing the replay on Match of the Day, I am still not sure how Ade managed to find the back of the net from such a tight angle, with his weaker foot. I'm also unsure how it was that the Hammers defence didn't manage to prevent the ball from going in, as two of them seemed to stand there watching as the ball bobbled back of the far post and over the line. I thought at first that it was an own goal, as they stood there looking like frightened claret and blue rabbits, caught in the glare of Gooner headlights, as their car crash transpired in what seemed like slow motion.

With only a single goal cushion, I always have some trepidation about tempting fate with a chorus of "we are top of the league" for fear that our boasts might be a little premature if events should take a turn for the worse. But being two goals up after only 18 minutes, I was amazed that we've already become so blasé about our elevated status, that we can't even be bothered to rub our success in the faces of watching/listening Spurs fans and the rest of the footballing world.

Personally I still want to take every opportunity to celebrate straddling the Premiership summit, as not only has the novelty yet to wear off, after looking enviously up at the leaders for the last couple of seasons, but I want to keep singing this ditty until I'm bored, because you know full well that the moment we begin to take top spot for granted, fate will pounce on the opportunity to sink it's teeth into Gooner backsides. And for those of us long in the tooth to have endured more than one era in a silverware bereft wilderness, we should know to enjoy the novelty to the full, as you never know if it's going to be your last chance to give this chant a run out before falling victim to the cyclical nature of success.

The most we Gooners could lift ourselves out of our lethargic mood, was for a half-hearted response to the Hammers' fans, to remind them that there is indeed now only "one team in London". Chelsea might be scrabbling results like their marginal win at Craven Cottage to maintain contact with our coat tails and it would be wrong to write them off. But even while they maintain the basic ingredients within their squad that was responsible for their unlikely bout of success, I sense that when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the run in come the spring, the aura of disquiet which has enveloped Stamford Bridge is unlikely to inspire that 'run till you drop', 'die for the cause' ethos from the uncommitted likes of Ballack and Carvalho and it would take a supremely talented outfit, that was head and shoulders above the opposition, to be able to prevail in the Premiership without this staunch spirit.

Perhaps I should be thankful that I wasn't left exhausted after another edge-of-the-seat drama, but enjoyed instead a relaxing afternoon, where we rarely looked in any danger of dropping points. However I found myself sat next to a young Gooner who'd travelled all the way over from Sweden. Having been scalped for seats at the Spurs game and having only escaped returning for a second sucker fitting, courtesy of a kindly copper who warned them off paying 150 quid for tickets which the Swede thought must've been fakes because the old bill told them that they wouldn't get into the ground with these, I was grateful that the lad at least got to see the second goal (and that I wasn't alone in missing the first!).

But they'd also been at Upton Park on Saturday and I didn't want them going home thinking our gaff really was the library of legend, compared to the noise made by the Neanderthals at the Boleyn. With the team relaxed at 2-0 up, I was truly hoping the crowd would up the ante and inspire us to really go for their throats, as the Irons were suffering from a touch of "after the Lord Mayor's show" syndrome and were ripe for the sort of plucking, which might have eroded Man Utd's goal difference advantage in one game.

Yet in truth, the "hurdy-gurdy" lad was happy as Larry just to be worshiping at the altar of his Gooner pilgrimage, furiously snapping away with his digital camera until the memory was full, only to turn to the one on his phone, doubtless texting pictures to all his envious Gooner pals back in land next to the one with the midnight sun.

It was me who ended the match feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Phoning friends who hadn't seen the game, they all seemed to have been given the impression that it was an impressive Arsenal performance. It was a great result, but in my humble estimation, it was little more than a workmanlike display, aside from a ten minute spell towards the end of the game, when West Ham had given up the ghost and for just about the first time since Villa Park, we strung a sufficient number of passes together, resulting in some muted "olés"

I guess I should just be glad that we got the job done, after a gruelling festive fixture schedule. But I couldn't help but feel that with West Ham a beaten side, there for the taking, we wasted an opportunity to rediscover some of that early season sparkle which has been so noticeable by its absence of late. There was some evidence of our efforts to tune-up the Arsenal engine, with the occasional backheel, wall pass and the odd one-two, but we're still some way from recapturing the E-type Jag like roar referred to below. Maintaining the motoring analogy, hopefully West Ham was just an opportunity to top up the anti-freeze and we're saving the "full service" for Sunday's trip to Turf Moor and it will be a case of holding onto our hats, as we let leash all the horse power under the Gunners' bonnet?

Meanwhile with Arsène revealing the suprising news that Song will be joining Kolo and Eboué at the African Cup of Nations, we're going to be thin on the ground for centre-backs. According to the post-match interviews, either Le Prof is perfectly comfortable with the replacements he has in reserve, or perhaps his assurances that there will be no additions to the squad during the transfer window are merely part of a ruse, a strategy designed to ensure that every club with an available centre-back prospect (or keeper?) hasn't already inflated their price in expectation of our interest?

Personally I like the fact that he's come out publically to express his confidence in our current squad, as it not only saves us from all that pointless speculation but in truth there are very few bargains to be had in the January sales, with so many clubs chasing so few quality players. Basically, for the most part, transfer window purchases all too often smack of desperation, as if you look at the majority of business that is likely to be done in the coming month, it will comes from those clubs who have no choice but to try and salvage something from an unsuccessful season.

Matthew Upson's recent form is bound to cause many Gooners to ponder what might've been if we hadn't let him leave the club. Yet Upson's hirsute change of image only suggests to me that there's still a young lad hiding under all that facial hair, struggling to acquire the sort of gravitas that he obviously feels he doesn't possess.

Yet even as a lumbering centre-back Upson looks a whole lot more lithe than at least one of his team mates. At 2-0 down, I couldn't understand why Curbishley appeared so reluctant to throw Dean Ashton into this unenergetic fray. That was until Ashton eventually made an appearance, looking far more stuffed than our Xmas turkey. Considering the young centre-forward is being touted as a future England no. 9 and with players supposedly courting the eye of Fabio Capello, I'm dumbfounded by Ashton's fat-boy "who eat all the mince pies" appearance.

It doesn't say much for Curbishley's man management skills either and it's downright disrespectful to the fans, considering so much of their hard earned cash is being diverted into the striker's wallet. You'd think the least he could do in return would be to count a few less calories.

Then again perhaps I'm making a mountain out of an overweight molehill, as I guess Xmas wouldn't be Xmas without a bit of a calorific blow-out. But in Ashton's shoes I'd keep my tracksuit on, until trimming back down to an acceptable level otherwise he's soon going to end up acquiring the slimline Frank Lampard's old label.

But that's more than enough of my babble for one post, so wishing you and all your nearest and dearest a very happy & healthy New Year

Peace & Love

Back in August, we Gooners would’ve undoubtedly bitten the hand off, that offered us the opportunity to reach the halfway stage in this campaign, top of the league, having qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, with the kids facing the tantalising prospect of humiliating Spurs in the Carling Cup semifinal.

Considering the way in which we were being written off prior to the start of the season, as the top four team most likely to struggle to cling to the coat tails of the other three, it’s utterly amazing that we’ve managed to establish ourselves as the current frontrunner, in what many perceive to be a two-horse race.

Personally I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the prospects of Chelsea and Liverpool. If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it was the one Avram Grant chose to drink from. Obviously, the Gobby One was always going to be an impossible act to follow. Where Blues fans wouldn’t of dreamed of questioning Mourhino’s decisions, it’s patently clear from their discontent with their new gaffer that even if Grant had been the most qualified person on the planet, there’d be more chance of peace breaking out on the West Bank than the Israeli being accepted at the Bridge.

Few could’ve predicted Chelsea’s imminent implosion prior to the start of the season but it seems almost poetic that their spoilt child of a sugar daddy chose to break his toy, rather than let anyone else play with it. Abramovich’s influence over the management structure might have had a negative impact on the spirit in the Chelsea camp but the basic ingredients remain the same. Even if Grant should fail too harness these, if their owner should so choose, he’s more than capable of buying Chesea’s way back into contention!

As for the Scousers, one look at the depth of talent in their squad suggests that even if Benitez is incapable of setting aside his European ambitions in favour of a more blinkered focus on the Premiership battle, there remains the possibility that this Liverpool side could click at some stage, in spite of the Spaniard’s compulsive tinkering.

Meantime the tone of the Arsenal’s campaign was set in the opening game, reiterating the extremely diaphanous difference (a matter of millimetres!) between success and failure. Our entire season might well have taken an entirely different course (and Lawrie Samchez might still be in gainful employment) if it hadn’t been for Alexandre Hleb’s 90th minute winner against Fulham.

Subsequent last-minute goals to win games against the likes of Man City, Spurs, Sunderland and draws against Liverpool and Man Utd, have helped to bond our disparate squad and foster the development of this marvelous sense of purpose. The more the media and the pundits have written us off, as being unlikely challengers, waiting for us to fail so as to validate their predictions that we are too young, our squad is too shallow, or too foreign to be able to tough out a marathon Premiership title challenge, the more determined we’ve become to demonstrate all the vital credentials necessary for a successful campaign.

While the red-top tabloids seize so predictably on every wooden spoon opportunity to stir the pot, with their scurrilous stories of disquiet and disenchantment in the Arsenal camp, amongst the likes of Diarra, Gilberto and Lehmann (although our sour Kraut keeper does little to disguise his disgust!), the resolve and grit that we’ve witnessed on the pitch tells an entirely different tale.

There wasn't a single player from these shores, amongst the 11 different nationalities that made up our 15-man squad at Everton. Consequently, across the length and breadth of the country, almost every time we’ve taken the lead, we’ve taken great pleasure in responding to earlier taunts of “Ing-ger-lund” from xenophobic home fans who blame Wenger for everything from the woes of the national team, to the unemployment rate, with a much-favoured reprise of “you need more foreigners!” And as we enthusiastically bellow this out, full blast, I must admit to being tickled by the irony, as I look around, at some of the stereotypical Gooners with crew cuts and moody Prada, who look every inch like founding members of the BNP!

We were extremely privileged early season to be watching some unbelievably attractive football. According to all the pundits, the likes of Fabregas, Hleb and Van Persie were all emerging from the huge shadow cast by Thierry Henry’s presence, to begin to play to their full potential. Perhaps there was some truth to this but personally I tend to believe that it wasn’t so much that they were inhibited by the great man’s presence, but more a case of them being able to count on his magic when the chips were down. Whereas in his absence I sensed a renewed determination from the squad as a whole, to demonstrate that this Arsenal team was anything but the one-man band many perceived us to be in the recent past (including plenty of Arsenal fans).

You didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to appreciate that having lost a 30 goal a season striker, if others didn’t step up to the plate to pick up the slack, we were going to be in big schtuck. It’s been this realisation that has re-energised this Arsenal side and seen us develop into a potent and far more resolute force. Just about the most common comment to be heard coming from Gooners this season, every time we’ve pinched the points with a last gasp goal has been “we would’ve lost/drawn that game last season” and it’s very true. Where once our new stadium’s premature evacuators would’ve already been on the platform at the Arsenal tube station, having long since resigned themselves to our fate, hopefully many of them will now have to remain in their seats right up to the death, not daring to make an early exit, ever since this side has acquired the marvellous attribute of not knowing when to give up.

It’s become evident that Cesc Fabregas had only hinted at his greatness before now, as Cesc has blossomed into a fully rounded player, acquiring Stephen Gerrard like status as the Arsenal’s very own midfield general. Our little Franco has become the fulcrum about which the blur of all our best one and two touch, mazy passing movements revolve. Moreover, Fab has now added goals to his game, as where once we’d be left tearing our hair out in frustration, while the Arsenal tried to pass their way right up to the goalline, at long last the Gunners are grasping the mantle, with Fabregas leading the way with his preparedness to shoot on sight.

You know something is in the air when Mathieu Flamini starts appearing on the scoresheet. Previously the Forgotten Man, Flamini has been the revelation of the season so far, after being left out in the cold by Arsène, supposedly subsequent to expressing his reluctance to play at full-back. However having managed to make his way back into le Gaffer’s good book, Matty has rapidly become the indispensable heart of the Arsenal engine room. With his wholehearted graft as the perfect foil for Fabregas’ genius, the former utility player has forced Wenger to leave Gilberto, the Brazil captain, cooling his heels on the bench for most of the season.

Gael Clichy regularly takes my breathe away with his unbelievable bursts of pace and there can be few Premiership players who can match the French youngster’s astonishing energy levels, late on in exhausting games. While the way in which Bakari Sagna has slipped so seamlessly into our back-line, instantly adapting to the frenetic pace of our football, suggests he was borne to be a Premiership player. To my mind Flamini and our two full-backs, Clichy and Sagna have been the standout players of the season so far.

Alex Hleb also deserves mention, as Arsène appears to have instilled the confidence that’s finally enabling Hleb to fulfil some of that early promise. Yet while he’s winning many new admirers amongst the neutrals, we Gooners continue to whinge about the lack of end product to much of his best work. Nevertheless Hleb has been brilliant to watch, with periods in some matches where he’s almost been unplayable. Alex started the game against Man Utd in such great form, that for a while there it looked as if the only way the visitors were going to get a touch, was if they were given another ball to play with. Such a comparison might sound like sacrilege, but it’s not just the sagging socks and dishevelled general appearance, but his bustling body shape and peculiar poise on the ball that put me in mind of the great George Best.

Inevitably William Gallas arrived at the club with the baggage of several preconceptions, which made us all suspicious of his ability to devote himself to the Arsenal cause with the necessary selflessness. It wasn’t just the fans who were somewhat taken aback when Arsène awarded Gallas with the captain’s armband and it’s not the first time I’ve criticised le Gaffer for using the captaincy as a carrot. I’m of the opinion that players won’t tend to respect the captaincy as a position of authority, unless they believe it’s been earned.

However I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong and in Willie’s case, it would seem to have been an astute move on Wenger’s part. Gallas appears to wear the responsibility well, to the point where he takes the club’s success so personally that we’re fast becoming accustomed to the sight of our centre-back storming forward, to single-handedly influence the outcome, contributing to date with three crucial goals, rescuing a psychologically significant draw with a 93rd minute equaliser against Man Utd and reaffirming the proper order of things in the capital, with the winner against Chelsea.

The Arsenal’s early season sparkle left the media in raptures. Yet while we might have appeared absolutely unbeatable on the highlight packages seen on Match of the Day, in truth these purple patches of purist football were rarely strung together in performances that have provided cogent proof of our title contesting credentials. Although Adebayor has been nose to nose with Ronaldo in the leading goalscorer stakes, avid Arsenal watchers will confirm that Ade has been struggling all season to find his touch. You can’t knock the gangly Togolese striker, as he’s grafted like a Trojan, often on his own up front in the absence of the injured Van Persie. What’s more, if he somehow manages to maintain his current strike rate, few Gooners will give a monkey’s if his first touch continues to fail him.

However he’s far from the only Arsenal player who’s spluttered in and out of form to date. If I was comparing the Gunners to a motor car, up until December and more precisely, half-time at Villa Park, we resembled a V12 E-type Jag, an utterly unique, rip-roaring wonder to behold when all 12 cylinders were firing in tune. But an absolute pig to maintain, all too often coughing and chugging because the timing needs attention every time it’s taken out of the garage.

Yet perhaps I’d have been best counting my blessings, as the team that came out after the break against Aston Villa and the one that’s appeared ever since, has looked more like a clapped out FSO Polonez, held together by string, after clunking all the way over from Kracow. We might’ve risen to the occasion against Chelsea on “Grand Slam Sunday” but our two previous outings in the Northeast were woeful. The point we earned against Newcastle was more of a reflection of quite what a rudderless ship the Toon are under Fat Sam and although I was absolutely gutted to see our unbeaten run come to an end against Boro, it was an upset waiting to happen and only came as confirmation of our poor form.

On reflection it’s hard to believe that we’ve made it to the New Year back on top of the Premiership pile, whilst we’ve continued to struggle to produce any of that early season razzamatazz. I suppose we can credit this to more fine margins, in two game changing penalties (Almunia’s save in the N. London derby and Ronaldo’s miss at Upton Park) and three long balls at Goodison!

Nevertheless we are still top (as I write) and the important thing is that if we’ve managed to maintain our challenge through such a miserable spell of form, it bodes very well for the coming months, when Fabregas and co. inevitably rediscover the magic.

Having been so solid early season, even Kolo Touré has been guilty of mistakes of late. Thankfully recent events have proved that Man Utd’s centre-back pairing is not infallible, as if there is one area where are where our rivals appear to have an advantage, it’s in the calm assured partnership at the heart of their defence, compared to the frantic lack of composure we’ve so frequently displayed whilst dealing with set pieces. I have to begrudgingly admit that Vidic was a wonderful signing for Utd, as not since Bruce and Pallister, have they looked quite so resolute at the back.

By contrast we’re not overly blessed with reliable centre-backs and with Touré (and Eboué) joining up with Les Elephantes for the African Cup of Nations, January could prove to be a telling period. I’ve always believed that if we could remain in contention until Kolo returns and providing Van Persie can recover full fitness long enough to offer a significant contribution to this campaign, we will be in their with a shout come May.

Then again, considering we’ve already been scrabbling around amongst the also-rans by this time of the year in recent seasons, with the treat of a trip to Milan and an opportunity to knock out the holders in the Champions League, most Gooners will be more than grateful to be back where we belong, mounting a credible title challenge, rather than merely making do with the sop of 4th place qualification for a return to Europe.