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Monday 21 April 2008

Surely “We All Agree…….”?

G'day fellow Gooners,

My missus is off to Tenerife shortly on an annual trip to meet up with the rest of the Ó Murchu clan from Dublin (or at least their own humble branch, as the island would undoubtedly sink into the Atlantic with the weight of the entire Murphy clan). I've grown accustomed to missing out on this annual family gathering in warmer climes, as it usually occurs mid-season, when it would mean missing out on far too many matches. However their trip is much later this year, which meant that the thought of joining them didn't even cross my mind, as I just wasn't about to disappear for the climax of the Premiership campaign and a potential Champions League semi/final.

I have to admit that I'm now regretting this decision somewhat, as a couple of weeks in the sunshine would be far preferable to what I imagine is going to be a couple of weeks of "could of, should of, would of" postulating, as the media hypes up the remaining Premiership matches and the penultimate round of Champions League matches, culminating in a Moscow Final, while we Gooners hide under the blankets, hoping not to have to show our heads again until August!

Meantimes, the further I get from the excruciating pain of the events of the past couple of weeks and the more I'm able to view matters from a dispassionate and considered perspective, the more I begin to appreciate quite what a miracle we have witnessed. If it was possible to put the events of the past eight months onto an Excel spreadsheet with some sort of complex formulae to estimate the outcome (doubtless the epitome of a Wenger wet-dream!) then it would've undoubtedly calculated that we didn't have a hope in hell of competing with our rivals this season.

I'm unsure as to the importance of set-pieces over the course of a season, but I’m sure the statisticians amongst us would be able to tell us how many goals the likes of Ronaldo has scored from free-kicks for Man Utd (more's the point, game winning goals?). Saturday's game served as a reminder quite how much we have missed Van Persie and it is quite astonishing really, that out of such a talented squad of players, we only have the one single player who is capable of being a serious threat from a free-kick. We've seen Kolo strike balls with power, but without the finesse and it seems Fabregas has the finesse, but apparently without sufficient power and the evidence we've seen so far suggests that only Van Persie possesses the complete package.

It was also great to see Van Persie taking corners, whipping the ball in with such pace that not only is the opposition keeper scared of being unable to control it, but any sort of contact could end up with it hitting the back of the net. Robin's corners are far more of a threat because of the pace he imparts on the ball. Yet for most of the season we've had to settle for Fabregas floating in balls which invite the opposition keeper to come for them.

What's more it was great to see the two of them trying a couple of training ground routines on Saturday, as I simply cannot recall the last time we witnessed a variation on the theme of whipping the ball in from the corner spot and I often have cause to wonder exactly what they spend all those endless hours of training doing.

Does it not strike anyone else as just a little bizarre that there aren’t any other Gunners amongst such a gifted squad who could pose a threat from a set-piece and that this side is as a result so disadvantaged by the absence of the injury prone Dutchman?

Where would we be now with another 15 plus goals to add to Adebayor’s 27? Additionally (and as much as I hate to knock le gaffer at a time when so many nincompoops seem to be having a pop at him, I guess Arsène has to answer for the following inadequacies) it’s also utterly unbelievable that our squad does not include a single natural winger and we’ve spent the entire season having to “make do” out on the flanks, either with a converted full-back, a converted striker, or a midfielder who’s lack of a left foot has meant that their first instinct is to head for the heart of the opposition defence, frustrating the hell out of me and every other Gooner for much of the season, as we’ve completely failed to heed that old adage that “if you can’t go through them, you go around them”

Eboué drives me as potty as everyone else, with his immature antics but it’s not so surprising that he’s never quite sure what to do with the ball when he arrives in the opposition area because he’s spent the best part of his young career playing at the other end of the pitch. Meanwhile we all assume Theo’s limited opportunities out wide result from the fact that a winger’s defensive responsibilities don’t come naturally to a player who’s only ever had to make runs into the opposition area in the past.

Meanwhile I’ve rarely seen a player who looks less suited to the role of a nippy little winger, than the gangly looking Diaby and sadly it seems to me that Abou has gone backwards this season because most of his rare run outs have been out wide where he doesn’t look at all comfortable.

Similarly Alex Hleb lacks the seering pace required in this position to burn off a full back and thus his instincts are invariably to head towards the middle of the park.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the Ajax brand of total football, where players aren’t limited by their positions to specific areas of the pitch and where anyone has sufficient ability to fill in for any of their team mates. But for us to be lacking a single player whose first instinct is to burn off the full-back by heading for the byeline and supplying ammo for our strikers with an early, whipped in cross, forcing defenders to play towards their own goal, this is a severe deficiency in the Arsenal armoury, limiting our attacking options to those which various opponents have been able to successfully frustrate and forcing us to depend entirely on our two full backs for any width at all.

However it is not only out wide where we’ve had to “make do” all season. I’ve lost track of the number of home games which we’ve started with Adebayor on his own up front, with Alex Hleb supposedly playing a supporting role.

Hleb’s status has increased considerably this season, with various pundits lauding the Bielorussian playmaker as the best thing since sliced bread. Yet in my humble opinion Alex is not suited to “playing in the hole” behind a sole striker, as he just isn’t fast enough to be able to link the play and as a result we’ve all too often conceded home advantage with the Togonator isolated on his own up front. Alex just doesn’t have the brief bursts of searing pace of a Freddie Ljungberg or Bobbie Pires, to be able to arrive in the box in time to contribute 15 plus goals a season.

Again I’d have to defer to the statisticians amongst us, but from the impression I’ve gleaned, the Gunners most recent successful seasons have all included a 15 plus goal contribution from midfield, whereas this term, apart from Adebayor’s 27 strikes and Eduardo’s 12 (only four in the Premiership!), the only other notable contribution has been from Fabregas, with a total of thirteen, but with only seven league goals.

As far as the limitations of our squad are concerned, I very much doubt anyone would be focusing on the lack of depth if it wasn’t for the loss of the likes of Van Persie, Rosicky, Eduardo for the majority of the season and with everyone fit, Arsène’s outfit wouldn’t look nearly so threadbare. Hopefully Van Persie’s had his share of injury woes and should be due a decent injury free run come next season, but with Eduardo out long term and with the doubts over Rosicky’s fitness, Wenger has no choice but to address this situation by getting his wallet out.

Many of us might dispute Arsène’s contentions in Saturday’s programme notes about the quality of this season’s play, as being the best during his time at the club. However I can appreciate his depth of feeling about his young charges, as Arsène has put his heart and soul into building this squad for several years now, on a relative shoestring compared to his immediate rivals.

Although we are led to believe that there’s plenty of funds available now - and I don’t begin to suggest that I understand the complexities of the financing involved, but if the income from the new stadium has begun to improve the club’s situation, it seems common sense to me that our circumstances won’t improve dramatically until the revenue from all those properties currently being built begins to reduce our debts? – this definitely hasn’t been the case during all those years that Arsène has maintained our competitiveness, without ever putting us into the sort of dangerous territory occupied by all those other clubs who have spent so much beyond their means, while merely chasing the sort of dream football that we’ve enjoyed.

It will indeed be interesting to see how (and if) le Gaffer adapts to the change in circumstances (when and if that time has come), whereby he has the purchasing power to compete with some of the other big spenders. I don’t think he comes in the same category as George Graham, who didn’t appear to want to bring in any egos to compete with his own. Yet it seems fairly obvious that Arsène is more comfortable moulding talent, than bringing in established stars who’s temperament might threaten the delicate status quo in his young dressing room.
Meanwhile there can be absolutely no doubting the extent of the miracle that Arsène has achieved up until now.

I’m led to believe young Jack Wilshire was seen doing the business for the reserves tonight against West Ham, so I’m off to check him out on Arsenal TV, whilst trying to eradicate all those agonising thoughts of a Premiership table, which, after events this past weekend, would’ve now left us only one point behind Man Utd, if we had only won at Old Trafford! Fine margins indeed.

Keep the faith
Big Love

Surely “We All Agree…….”?

There was a risible reaction to the stadium announcer’s customary report of the attendance figure, as Saturday’s match drew to a close. There was a time when this announcement would result in a relatively restrained round of applause, which used to tickle me for some reason. It just seemed somewhat bizarre that people should be clapping themselves, merely for bothering to turn up!

Nowadays it’s become a redundant ritual, as the attendance figures appear to hover around the 60,100 mark at every match, no matter who we are playing. Where once this was the principal litmus test of the waxing and waning of a team’s popularity, it’s become a pointless exercise at our place because it’s not representative of the number of fans passing through the turnstiles, as it would appear that season ticket holders are included, whether they are present or not.

Never was this more obvious than on Saturday, as aside from Carling Cup outings for our reserves, I can rarely recall seeing so many empty seats at a competitive match at our new stadium. Then judging by the huge swathes of empty terraces seen at other grounds on the telly later that night, the Arsenal’s attendances are far from alone in being affected by a bout of end-of-seasonitis.

To my mind, considering how many would give their eye teeth to watch this Arsenal side perform live, it is positively criminal that we should be playing in front of anything other than full-houses. However I guess that for many Gooners, to all intents and purposes, our season ended at 5.45 last Sunday, as any lingering dreams of success evaporated at Old Trafford.
A traditional 3pm start would’ve undoubtedly proved a more attractive proposition for all those who aren’t so fortunate as to have our new stadium on their doorstep. But sadly these have become the exception rather than the rule, according to the ever more disturbing demands of the TV paymasters (is it so far fetched to imagine that a time might come when we are expected to turn up in the middle of the night, in order to cater for a TV audience on the other side of the planet?).

Even taking into account my typically tardy dash from home, five minutes before KO, there was no mistaking the strangely subdued atmosphere in the local environs compared to most match days. Normally there’d be the sight of red & white scarves trailing behind the scurrying figures of loads of other latecomers, or Gooners still spilling out of the Bank of Friendship and the Gunners pub, having dallied long enough to neck another draught or two, obviously only for medicinal purposes, to keep out the cold of a winter which stubbornly refuses to abate. Yet the surrounding streets were so deserted that if it wasn’t for the distant boom of the stadium tannoy, announcing the names on the two teamsheets, I could’ve been forgiven for wondering if I’d got the wrong day!

On the pitch, there was a similarly impassive feel to the proceedings, in an opening period where it couldn’t have been more obvious that this was an exercise in damage limitation for Reading, if Steve Coppell had parked the team coach in front of their goal, along with the rest of his troops. However as the game progressed, there was almost palpable evidence of the absence of the sort of intense pressure our Young Guns have endured these past few weeks, as they relaxed and began to roll the ball about, with the carefree air of a bunch of mates having a kickabout in nearby Clissold Park.

Unfortunately (at least for all the lesser lights) there’s no disguising the huge gulf in class that exists between the two ends of the Premiership table and within half an hour we’d torn Coppell’s game-plan asunder. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for the earnest endeavours of the journeymen Royals (and their long-suffering, loyal support) as they were run utterly ragged. The Gunners flowing, one-touch passing game, which is so wonderfully easy on the eye, made a complete mockery of their efforts to man-mark, by dragging our guests all over the pitch, leaving them in a “stick or twist” quandary, fearful of following their target into unfamiliar territory and enabling us to exploit the resulting gaps in their five man rearguard.

Not for the first time, we failed to kill the opposition off, in a match where we were unable to take full advantage of the sort absolute dominance, which aside from a brief period in the second half, would’ve allowed Lehmann to take the day off. But then we witnessed a five-minute spell that was a metaphor for our entire season, as first Van Persie and then Walcott rattled the woodwork, with examples of the sort of breathtaking ball skills that are worth the extortionate admission price alone, but which failed to make an impression where it really counts. It was a matter of mere millimetres which was the difference between Van Persie’s free-kick bouncing down off the cross bar and over the line, instead of on it, but I’m reluctant to board Arsène’s “fates against us” bus.

More’s the point, the Dutchman’s unerring accuracy with a dead ball was a timely reminder of what might have been. If Robin had remained out of the treament room long enough to provide more than a measly eight goal return, we Gooners might not be spending the next month trying to avoid the back pages and enviously coveting our rivals involvement in all the Champions League ballyhoo!

Downhearted we maybe, but as the Gunners do their bit in the remaining three matches to try and ensure that their summer break isn’t curtailed by those extremely inopportune Champions League qualifiers, I’ve no doubt that they will continue to demonstrate their ability to produce football of a calibre that most Premiership fans can only dream of.

Sadly Theo Walcott failed once again to make the most of a rare run-out in Saturday’s starting line-up, as I’m desperate to see our “Wunderkid” develop into something more than an impact substitute. There are those who perceive the alternative as the worst player ever to wear the red & white. While it’s true that I’ve endured few more frustrating footballers than an unbelievably immature Eboué, I believe we can cut the young right-back a little slack, while Wenger tries to convert him into a winger. Moreover I find it hard to believe anyone can seriously think Manny Eboué is such a bad player that he brooks comparison with such big galoots as the likes of Gus Ceasar and Jimmy Carter?

Meanwhile, no matter how bare our trophy cabinet, how can we show anything but gratitude for the sort of entertainment witnessed in Saturday’s 2-0 slaughter, with Fabregas, our little Franco, the fulcrum around which all the most fabulous footie revolves. So long as our sorcerer’s apprentices continue to sparkle in this fashion, we’ve every reason to keep the faith. While those clowns clamouring for wholesale surgery would do better to consider those oh so fine margins between success and failure. Assuming Arsène learns from this season’s more obvious lessons, the Arsenal’s future remains incredibly bright.

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Anonymous said...

Great post. Always enjoy it!!

Anonymous said...

From the other reports I read it sounded like Theo had a great game. Since you were there could you fill me in Theo's performance and why it was disappointing for you?

Cheers - keep up the great work

Bern said...

Theo didn't have a particularly bad game, I was just hoping he'd have the sort of impact that would mean Arsene had no choice about starting him in the remaining matches.

In the absence of the likes of Shorey and Hunt, I kind of hoped Theo might run riot. Whereas aside from hitting the crossbar, there were a couple of other instances were either he attempted a shot, or lost possession, when it seemed as if he failed to look up and take account of a better option and it was perhaps this lack of perceptiveness that most disappointed.

However I've plenty of faith in the youngster and fully appreciate Arsene's efforts not to bring him on too quick. For example if Theo had been involved more this season and failed to do the business, there would be several people writing him now, rather than all of us wondering what might have been if Theo had been given more of a look in.

But it's been so long since we had anyone to claim as our own (even though Theo is hardly homegrown), that I'm desperate for him to do well and I guess that's the reason I tend to focus a little more on everything he does and am that much more frustrated when he doesn't get it right.

I think it was Graham Taylor who was the pundit alongside the Radio 5 commentator and he also pulled Theo up at least once for his failure to lift his head at the crucial point.

But I'm more confident about Theo cracking it than most youngsters nowadays. There's plenty of talented kids, but too many of them are so spoilt at such an early age, that they lose that intense desire, due to the fact that they feel they've nothing left to prove, when in fact they've proved nothing. Whereas at least Walcott appears to have the advantage of having his feet firmly rooted to the floor

Anonymous said...

cheers mate!

Anonymous said...

i agree wid u mate

Anonymous said...

I hope the Arsenal management took note of the empty seats (I was occupying one of the filled ones) against Reading on Saturday.
The basis of the move to the Emirates was to fill it with 60000 every match to generate the money to pay for such a magnificent stadium and to give Arsene Wenger more cash for the transfer market.
I spoke to many fans about Wenger's reluctance to spend any of it and without fail there was an air of frustration from everyone. It's no good keep quoting 'Wenger Knows' because he made too many mistakes this season that only the blind followers ignore. There is a growing unrest within the fanbase that should be recognised.
If he had just bolstered the squad with one or two quality experienced players, particularly in January when the worrying signs were there, then we would have been champions this season.
With supposedly a kitty of £70m at his disposal, if he doesn't sign a top goalkeeper, dominant centre half and possibly another goalscorer then we could look forward to another 'nearly' Season in 2008/9.
If this happens then sadly you will start to see a lot more empty seats at the Emirates.
Come on Arsene swallow your pride, spend some money and we will be winners next year.