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Monday 7 April 2008

Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent....Or Is It?

I returned home from Round 1 last Wednesday, just in time to hear Strachan and Souness arguing the merits and demerits of a zonal defensive system on the box. Sadly I’m still none the wiser as to why Benitez, or any manager would choose to defend in this fashion. It might sound logical when players are merely static ‘Os’ and ‘Xs’ in a tactical manual, but in the melee in and around the six-yard box, man-marking is the only option that leaves players without any excuse for losing their man. If the first two-thirds of the Liverpool trilogy have served any purpose, they’ve surely settled this debate, as if Arsenal set-pieces in successive games can expose the shortcomings of a zonal defence, anyone can!

It’s been a far too familiar routine this season, to find myself slumping back down into my seat, after Fabregas has floated yet another corner into the out-stretched arms of the opposition keeper and so Van Persie’s long-awaited return was cause for celebration, if only for his ability to strike a dead ball. It’s hard to believe that for all the talent in this Arsenal squad, the Dutchman is the only truly potent weapon at set-pieces. Mind you, it’s never struck me as ideal that one of our main threats to the opposition goal at corners is nullified, because even our injury prone ‘boy wonder’ can’t get on the end of one of his own corners!

Sadly Van Persie’s return to proper match fitness seems destined to fail for this season at least and I was extremely disappointed to see us cede home advantage on Saturday, by lining up with Bendtner operating as lone striker. For most of the first-half you could be forgiven for wondering which was the home side, as the Dane was so utterly isolated up front that we hardly posed any threat. It was a perfect demonstration of how and how not to play 4-5-1, with almost every ball played up to Peter Crouch sticking to the lanky striker and Liverpool’s midfield making the runs to enable him to play them in.

I’m not sure whether Walcott was instructed to hug the touchline, or whether he’s been playing out wide so frequently that spearheading an attack no longer comes naturally to him. Only that morning they were showing Theo’s three favourite goals on Sky and although one of these was in an Arsenal shirt, the other two were scored for Southampton. It occurred to me that while we’ve witnessed plenty of examples of Theo’s blistering pace, we’ve rarely enjoyed the benefits of his predatory instincts.

The only good thing about the Scousers scoring first was that at least it guaranteed a proper contest breaking out second-half, compared to the decidedly tepid, almost testimonial like first-half fare. It felt as if this game was an unwanted inconvenience for everyone concerned. Then again, the Gunners never seem to turn up for these early kick-offs, until after the break. Come the revolution, the person responsible for the fixture schedules will be first up against the wall, as these are exclusively dictated by the TV paymasters, with absolutely no consideration for the poor punters on the terraces, or the prospect of turning a potentially thrilling spectacle into a bit of a wet fish.

Le gaffer had no choice but to throw caution to the wind and go for it in the second half. Yet despite developing into a far more exciting contest, for all our possession, there was an air of inevitability about the eventual outcome. I’ve rarely seen Wenger quite so animated but his touchline attack of St. Vitus Dance was merely an expression of the angst felt by us all, as any last title prospects ebbed away. Many had arrived at Saturday’s match wearing t-shirts in the warm spring sunshine, but as the temperature dropped dramatically, the weather seemed an appropriate metaphor for our winter of discontent.

Mind you hope continued to spring eternal with Man Utd’s slip up on Sunday. Perhaps this will merely prove to be a stay of execution for the optimists amongst us, when others might think it kinder to put us out of our misery already. However crucial injuries to Vidic and Ferdinand offer further prospects of a possible reprieve and at least it means we can go to Old Trafford next weekend still with something to play for, rather than the awful prospect of being caught between the red devils and Chelsea’s deep blue sea, whereby a win would only offer a leg up to our South London enemies.

However watching the highlights of Utd’s game only served to demonstrate the difference between the two teams at present. There’s a vitality to Utd when they’re on the attack, which has been absent from the Arsenal for some time now. Utd seem so much more incisive going forward because when the ball reaches their front men, invariably there are three our four teammates making more advanced runs, enabling them to maintain their forward momentum. Whereas by contrast when Adebayor or Bendtner receives the ball, having looked up to find the penalty area bereft of red & white, they are left with no option but to allow both teams to catch up with the play, or to pass it sideways or backwards.

Then again, we’ve hardly had the rub of the green in recent games and if we were scoring goals for fun, like ‘our friends from the North’, fatigue just wouldn’t be an issue and I’m certain we’d be looking no less dynamic. Hopefully Tuesday will prove a big enough occasion to inspire all concerned and if there’s to be a 12th man effect from the Anfield atmosphere, it could just as easily be the Arsenal who end up being the beneficiaries.

Fabregas has every right to comment on our fickle home crowd and the fact that our support isn’t as staunch as some. When you consider how often this season we’ve rescued games with last gasp goals, I couldn’t believe the air of resignation enveloping the Emirates as the clock ticked down on Saturday, signalling the now customary mass exodus. In some respects I’m almost relieved to be playing the second leg at their place, as at least I’ll be surrounded by the sort of loyal Gooners who won’t give up the ghost until the very last.

I’m not nearly so confident as I was prior to playing AC Milan, but I remain quietly optimistic, as I can’t help wondering if the passion of the home crowd will play into our hands, by forcing Liverpool onto the front foot. If the occasion is all it’s cracked up to be then no matter their manager’s instructions, I can’t see the Scousers tolerating the sort of tactics seen to date, where they’ve sat deep and allowed us to keep the ball

Invariably it’s the big game players who hold the key to such crucial encounters. I remain convinced the tie will be decided by Gerrard and Fabregas and whichever of the two turns it on most on the night. Gerrard undoubtedly won the first round on points and with second ending all square, hopefully it will be Cesc’s turn to inflict a TKO on Tuesday?

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Anonymous said...

The latest statement by AW that Arsenal can win the cl and pl is borne of desperation It is to deflect criticizm of his faied policy of not not strengthening the squad in Jan.
If Arsenal go on to do the double, I would eat my words.