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Monday, 22 September 2008

Can We Play In Lancashire Every Week?

It wasn’t so long ago that there was an inevitable sense of foreboding about our outings to the North-West. Even on Saturday, as I strolled towards the Reebok, admiring its pleasant rural setting (if you ignore the ubiquitous adjacent retail park) in the late afternoon sunshine of our Indian Summer, considering our long trek back from Kiev in midweek and the news that Van Persie and Theo had been left on the bench, I have to admit that I would’ve been happy to accept a draw.

I don’t think that under the stewardship of messrs Megson and Ince, the manner in which their respective sides attempt to shackle the Arsenal’s silky skills is any less robust. Thus it would appear that we are learning to cope with these more muscular encounters, without getting rattled. What’s more, with our impressive form of late, the physicality of our opponents is only really a factor at set-pieces. In open play, for the majority of the time the pace of our passing is so rapid that strength just doesn’t come into it, if they simply can’t catch up with the ball.

The more inappropriate the “don’t like it up ‘em” sobriquet becomes, the less our opponents focus on tying to kick the crap out of us and as we’ve witnessed in the last couple of games, in a straight contest of ability, there’s only likely to be one winner. In fact, compared to the uncompromising, route one footie we’ve grown accustomed to from the Trotters in recent times, I can rarely recall a Bolton display that was more pleasing on the eye.

However, with the Gunners having been galvanised by going a goal down, we should really have been home and hosed by half-time, as we were all hypnotised by a positively breathtaking half hour spell, during which we virtually laid siege to Jaaskelainen’s goal, weaving scintillating waves of the very best of Wenger-ball. But there was no disgrace upon the home side in this demonstration of the huge gulf in class. Bolton, Blackburn and most other Premiership sides are likely to find that resistance is futile, when we’ve all guns blazing in such a fabulous fashion.

Meanwhile, considering Clichy was left to hobble home on crutches, I think it’s safe to assume that the likes of Davies and Nolan are hardly practicing for their Boy Scout badges in hospitality! Don’t get me wrong, in the words of Mark Lawrenson, I don’t want to see football turned into a game for “Jessies”, as to my mind (as a former full-back in my all too dim and distant youth), it wouldn’t be nearly so beautiful without a balance between the physical contest and the fleet footed artistry.

Doubtless I’m in the minority, but with Davies seemingly totally focused on the ball, I felt it was merely a typically committed, “let them know you are there” type full-blooded tackle, with no apparent malice involved. However while our manager’s acerbic comments might not be entirely without motive (since Arsène is obliged to seek any advantage by focusing officials’ minds on offering us more protection), it’s perhaps not so surprising that we remain a tad irascible, with the images of Eduardo’s dreadfully distorted limb still fresh in our minds.

Perhaps it’s their fading memories of former glory but something seems to inspire Davies and Nolan to raise their game against the Gunners. In our centre-backs’ shoes, these bellicose Bolton stalwarts would probably be two of my least favourite opponents as they invariably prove to be such a handful. Then again, watching the replay of Bolton’s goal on the big screen at half-time, Clichy appeared to be somewhat culpable. We might have kept a clean sheet if he hadn’t strayed from his post.

Although it could just as easily have been all-square at the break, if it wasn’t for Kolo’s goal saving tackle, where I had to marvel at how he managed to avoid conceding a penalty. But it’s both a compliment and a criticism, as where our main competitors might have the defensive composure to avoid getting themselves into such a pickle, Touré and Gallas are all too often forced to use their pace and their ability as a frantic “get out of jail” card, for a situation which shouldn’t have been allowed to develop in the first place.

We rarely appear as secure at the back as Man U or Chelsea, but unlike all those who feel our centre-backs lack sufficient height, I tend to believe the solution lies in a keeper capable of dominating his area. Almunia performed well again on Saturday and as a shot-stopper, I’ve absolutely no complaints. But against a team with Bolton’s aerial strength, the key to defensive composure lies in the centre-backs having complete confidence in a keeper who’s going to come barrelling out to use the 3 foot advantage of their arms, rather than timidly being blocked off on their line.

I found myself chuckling as we serenaded Ewood Park last weekend, with a sarcastic chorus of “You’ve only come to see Eboué”. Whereas a reprise of the same ditty on Saturday was both amusing and accurate, as even the biased Northern pundit on BBC Radio Manchester admitted at the break that our Ivorian hothead had run the show up until then.

However trust the Arsenal to fail to capitalise on their dominance, leaving us without the comfort of a two-goal cushion to luxuriate on second half. Instead of which, as the intensity of Eboué and his teammates diminished after the break, the tension on our terrace behind the goal increased, knowing we were only a hoof up field, or a set-piece away from being knocked off our top of the table perch.

Neither Sagna nor Djourou looked particularly comfortable playing out of position after Clichy’s departure. Moving Gallas to left-back seemed the more logical solution, but what do I know? All credit to Bolton, buoyed by their drummer boy, their crowd maintained a relentless racket, inspiring the home side to continue to chip away at any frailty on our flanks.

Thankfully Le Prof produced our “pocket rocket” with 15 minutes left on the clock. Theo’s injection of energy and dynamism eventually resulted in Denilson slotting home the “get this party started” third goal, enabling us to give vent to all that second half tension, by way of a lusty last five minutes “top of the league” chorus.

Obviously you win nothing in September and it remains to be seen how the depth of our squad stands up to the test of the winter months ahead. But there was little in Sunday’s big clash at the Bridge to suggest we have anything to be scared off (apart perhaps from the lack of solidity required to grind out 1-0 wins). In the meantime, hopefully all the pundits will continue writing off our prospects, as we continue to savour just about the most enthralling entertainment in the country. And for all their millions, we have the advantage over Man City of a Premiership table with North London bookends that has rarely looked more satisfying!

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