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Wednesday 5 November 2008

Sing When We're Winning!

Hi folks,

I filed the following piece to the Irish Examiner before leaving for work on Monday morning, but I had so much more to get off my chest and mercifully I'm not limited to a specific number of words here, so I wanted to wait until I found the time to elucidate a little. However I've been really busy in the meantime and as is invariably the case, I've calmed down quite a bit since, managing to put last week's two disasters into some persepctive.

I suppose Arsène is obliged to come out and attempt to deflect some of the criticism away from his squad but I hate the way in which Wenger has this unerring abillity for his whinging to sound like sour grapes.

Personally I felt that some of his trademark complaints have never been less justifiable as far as Saturday's defeat was concerned, since considering their substantial size and weight advantage, with virtually the entire Stoke first XI being refugees from the Land of the Giants, to my mind they went about their old-fashioned business in a decidedly honest fashion, with hardly a hint of malice or foul-play.

OK so we saw Adebayor needlessly taken out, outside of the field of play. But I certainly didn't get the sense that there was any intent involved on the offenders part. What's more, it might be obvious that Delap didn't have a hope of making contact with the ball and therefore clipping Theo's legs was somewhat cynical, but I'm certain he only intended stopping the pocket rocket, rather than causing him any harm. It was just unfortunate that Theo fell awkwardly and hurt his shoulder and I defy anyone out there who has ever played the game, to suggest that they've never been guilty of this minor indiscretion. Especially those who've played in defence and who've competed against a speedy little winger/striker who's effortlessly capable of embarrassing you, leaving you looking like you are running backwards. Personally speaking, this was my party-piece, in the latter stages of games when I was seriously beginning to flag, as instead of haring after my opponent in vain and ending up allowing them into the danger zone , I often found it impossible to resist the urge to concede a relatively harmless free-kick in the middle of the park by taking their legs away.

However compared to the way we've been roughed up in the past, at grounds like the Reebok, Ewood etc, Saturday's game was a relatively tame affair and it was more down to bad luck, than bad tackling, that we ended up with nine men, looking like the walking wounded.

Doubtless there is some logic to le Boss resorting to the bully boy card, perhaps he feels we might benefit by getting more protection from the officials in future. But as far as I'm concerned the disadvantages far outweigh any potential positives. Let's face it, we had only recently managed to shake off the "don't like it up 'em" tag by breaking our North-West hoodoo and to my mind teams (including the likes of Stoke) had stopped focusing so intently on setting out to disturb us with their muscular attentions. But we've now ended up back at square one, where virtually every single opposition manager will be instructing their sides to do their utmost to try and get under our skin and rattle us sufficiently to put us off our game.

What's more, I get the distinct sense that Arsène's insistence on publically complaining at every possible opportunity, about the fact that opposition teams refuse to politely stand back and invite us to weave pretty passing patterns around them, without any interference (what does he expect?), is offering our squad the perfect excuse. For someone who has proved himself to be psychologically so astute, it baffles me that Wenger doesn't seem to appreciate the negative impact of his actions.

When le gaffer leaps out of his dugout and stands on the edge of his technical area with his arms out wide, imploring the ref to protect his precious charges, every time one of them is clobbered by a full-blooded tackle, he's blatantly sending out the signal to the lads that they have every right to feel hard done by.

When he should be screaming at them to "kick the bleeders back", or to get up, dust themselves off and to do some damage where it really hurts, by taking out their revenge on the opposition's goal, he's basically giving them carte blanche to throw their toys out of the pram because the boss has said they are being hard done by and thus they're prone to losing their focus and getting involved in petty on pitch squabbles, instead of doing what they do best.

With this in mind, in some respects I am pleased we are playing Man Utd this weekend, as it's the sort of match where we will need no additional motivation and Man U will be coming to the Emirates to try and beat us, instead of merely trying to thwart us. Thus it should be a game where we can let our football do the talking and where, no matter what the result, I wouldn't normally have any worries about us acquitting ourselves well.

Mind you, I am just back home from watching us struggle to beat a Fernebace side who I believe are notorious bad travellers and if like me, you believe Fabregas needs to be on song, if we are to achieve any sort of result on Saturday, then there wasn't much cause for optimism based on Cesc's efforts this evening, especially second half, where the incisive, accurate orchestrator of all things good about our game, seemed to have been replaced by an impostor who kept casually conceding possession, with limp, wayward passes.

However Cesc is such an exceptional footballer, that as far as I'm concerned his dip in form must be a mental problem, resulting from the fact that he's not exactly enjoyed himself on the park in the past couple of games. Hopefully he'll be back on song come Saturday, relishing the prospect of going up against Utd with everyone and their mother having already written us off.

Obviously the circumstances aren't ideal, as it's hard to see where the Gunners goals are going to come from, in the absence of Van Persie & Adebayor and based on the woeful recent track record of our defence, it's hard to imagine us being capable of keeping a clean sheet against Utd's formidable front line (in fact it's far easier to envisage Berbatov, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez & Giggs running riot against our positively permeable back line!).

Nevertheless I'm always convinced of our ability to give a good account of ourselves against our immediate rivals and in spite of the adverse circumstances, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see us battle our hearts out to earn a creditable draw, which would be well received, considering all the pundits are expecting us to get a roasting and which might be just the sort of stalwart effort that could get our season right back on track, but which ultimately could condemn us to another season as "also rans", since it seems as if the team that's going to take the title this season, will be the one that takes the most points off the other top three sides.

Meanwhile, considering we've spent the past week, plumbing the depths of our disastrous capitulation against Spurs, with this resulting Saturday's horrible hangover, which seemed to still be in evidence in tonights uninspiring encounter, I would gladly accept getting our campaign back on track against Man Utd (as quite frankly, even on form, I can't really see us having a hope of demonstrating the sort of consistency necessary to mount a genuine title challenge).

Although in some respects, one might argue that it would serve us better in the long of a wake up call for Wenger which even he would struggle to ignore. Whereas any sort of determ to get mullahed by Man U this weekend, since this would be the sort of eye-openercent result against ol' Red Nose's Northern monkeys would only paper over the cracks which appear patently obvious to all but le Prof and it would leave Arsène gloating before his tabloid tormentors, telling them that he has never for one minute doubted his squad's ability to prevail against the Premier League elite

But the truth of the matter is that we've never had a problem competing against the cream of domestic competition. It's been our inability to shut shop and scramble three points from a single goal win, when the luck's against us, in games against the more obdurate of the league's lesser lights that has been the principal cause of the past few seasons of under-achievement.

I get frustrated by our repeated failings, but it's easy to gloss over them when everything is going well. But with adversity usually being the source of so much more material to write about, it's the ideal opportunity for me to do my broken record impersonation, by revisting the well-trodden path of some of my pet complsints, of the sort that regularly results in me throwing my hands up in exasperation.

Our problems at centre-back are legend but I've alwasy been convinced that a keeper with some real presence and the sort of stature necessary to dominate his area and unerringly mop up, by coming out to claim absolutely anything within a specific parameter, this sort of world class goalie would emit an aura of composure and security that's likely to cure many of our current defensive ills.

Meantimes, with most other Gooners believing that Gallas and Kolo Touré are not blessed with the necessary attributes to provide a suitable pairing (with many coming from the little and large school of centre-back beliefs), myself I can't help but wonder whatever happened to the Kolo who was always a far more influential all-round performer back in the day when he was playing alongside Sol Campbell. Back then, Kolo's defensive duties seemed to be accomplished almost instinctively, to the extent that he was able to bring his influence to bear all over the pitch. Whereas nowadays, sadly he appears to have become something of a more peripheral influence to the squad as a whole, perhaps with his lack of pitch time (or could it merely be the bias of the new kit?) accounting for the fact that Kolo seems to be carrying a crucial few extra pounds that perhaps detracts from his explosive ability to compete with the paciest of opposition strikers.

I often scrutinize our defence at set-pieces through my binoculars and am invariably flabbergasted at the seemingly haphazard way in which we go about our business. It's here where the lack of any real leadership is most apparent, as myself, I want a captain screaming and gesticulating at his team mates, reminding each of them of their specific responsibilities. Instead of which, I regularly find myself astonished at how little communication appears to be taking place. But then perhaps they have nothing to talk about?

At this level of the professional game and with Wenger's reputation for his remarkable attention to detail, I'd be expecting our team to be taking to the pitch, with each of them having been advised of their responsibilities at set-pieces, who they are to pick-up, their weaknesses and strengths, which foot to show them on to, whether they are a threat with their head etc. etc. And yet watching us take up positions to defend a set-piece, I've seen many a Sunday league side which appears to be more organised, as apart from two of our smallest players, Fabregas and Clichy, taking up their positions on the post, for anyone else who doesn't happen to be marking fresh air, it seems merely a matter of picking up whomsoever happens to be standing nearest them!

As a result we end up shipping goals like the one conceded the other day, when Abou Diaby switched off just long enough for the player he was supposed to be marking to steal into the six yard box and score. Instead of which, if everyone is allocated their responsibility beforehand, should their target escape their attentions, there can be absolutely no argument about culpability.

Up until recently, Clichy and Sagna have been two of the most effective full-backs in the country, but of late even their consistency seems to have taken a turn for the worse, suffering from the general air of insecurity that seems to have blighted our defending. Moreover, considering they and most of our team is blessed with so much pace, it drives me to distraction every time I seem them clip another floated cross in from close to the touchline, some 20/30 yards out, for the opposition keeper to calmly come and pluck the ball out of the air (that's on the odd occasion they beat the first man).

I simply don't understand why it is that they aren't being told to bomb all the way to the byeline and bang the ball in from close to the corner flag. As has been seen elsewhere in recent days with various own goals, a cross is so much harder to defend against when you are forcing the defending team to risk playing the ball in the direction of their own goal, rather than allowing them to face up and to hack it clear in the opposite direction.

Frankly this is not rocket science, it's extremely basic footballing principles and yet I can't help but glean this impression that le Prof is beyond bothering himself with such mundane matters, trusting to a belief that players who've reached this elevated level of the game, must already have these basics down pat.

Don't get me wrong, as I've stated below, as far as I'm concerned, our manager walks on water and I remain eternally endebted to the man for the utter privilege of watching some of the most entertaining football on the planet. Moreover I would hate to be thought of as one of the idiotic Wenger knockers, who've suddenly started crawling out from under their rocks to make all sort of preposterous suggestions on the radio phone-ins (bearing in mind that it tends to be the more outrageous and contentious lunatics who are allowed on-air by the editors).

However that doesn't mean there aren't occasions where, for such an incredibly sagacious geezer, I can't help but wonder where his head's at. For example, watching Arsène prowling his technical area at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, I could sense his frustration from all the way up in our stand behind the goal and so I'm certain this must've transmitted itself out on to the pitch. Additionally, I got the sense that Saturday's selection policy was based on the fact that Stoke are such an inordinately tall side and so Arsène chose to play all our tallest players. But we were still always going to suffer from a height disadvantage, no matter who Wenger played and personally I don't think it sends out the right message for a team such as ours, to be worried about lowly Stoke's one and only advantage.

We should be playing to our strengths, but by choosing a midfield comprising of Fabregas and Song in the centre and Diaby and Denilson on the flanks, Arsène was attempting to put round pegs, in square holes, as neither of these two is anything like a natural wide man and it left us playing without any width whatsoever, when going around the home side, instead of trying to pick a path through them, might've been the one tactic that could've yielded some success.

Although such was the hangover from our derby debacle that I'm not sure it would've mattered how we had lined up, as we appeared destined to forfeit Saturday's three points.

Hopefully all the reams of criticism that's resulted from events of the past few days will result in a battening down of the hatches, for a fortress Arsenal type "backs to the wall" response on Saturday that will silence all the gloom & doom merchants. And if it doesn't, I guess at least there's the prospect of salvation in another carefree Carling Cup performance against Wigan next week.

As we exited the Britannia on Saturday, my pal turned to me to say that he sure hopes Arsène takes the FA Cup seriously this season. But then considering how much pleasure there is to be had watching the youngsters, without all the tension that accompanies our first team outings, I'd almost prefer to see them selected in both competitions?

Keep the faith....Come on you Reds

The teeming rain that accompanied our miserable return journey south from Stoke on Saturday was an appropriate reflection of the melancholy mood in our motor. Or at least that was the case for myself and my Gooner pal at the wheel, whereas hard as she tried not to gloat, Monica, who’s been a staunch Stoke supporter for more years than a gentleman cares to mention, didn’t need a car to convey her back to Cobham. She was so high on her side’s surprisingly comfortable success that she could’ve floated back to her Surrey home, aboard the rain sodden layer of cumulus.

It’s impossible for those of us who take top-flight football for granted, to fully comprehend what just having a seat at the glamorous Premiership table means to those Stoke supporters who’ve endured 23 long-suffering seasons of lower league mediocrity. Let alone us being able to appreciate the unconfined joy of competing against and actually conquering, those sides who’ve previously existed on another planet all together.

Such has been the Arsenal’s misfortune in the past couple of encounters that I half expected us to end up on the hard-shoulder of the motorway with engine trouble. I certainly wouldn’t have been too disappointed to have missed seeing Lineker and co. picking the bones out of our Brittania Stadium funeral. But on an afternoon where most of the other results went Stoke’s way, Monica was desperate to get back in time for Match of the Day, as if she required this televisual testament, to confirm that it hadn’t all been a glorious dream.

I pulled the covers up on Sunday morning, burying my head in the comfort of a couple more hours of my own reverie, rather then confronting the woeful reality of the 5 points we’ve blown in the past few days, the worrying reoccurrence of Theo’s troublesome shoulder injury, the potentially significant injuries to Adebayor, Sagna, Gallas etc. and the prospect of playing Man Utd without them and the senselessly suspended Van Persie. Still, with one woman’s meat being another man’s poison, there was some slight consolation, as I envisaged Monica being up with the lark, to savour every last morsel of the fillet mignon of the match reports in her Sunday papers.

Having finally sensed some long-awaited signs that Van Persie had struck a vein of form against West Ham and Spurs, I was furious that the Dutchman could be so dumb as to not appreciate the obvious consequences of his petulant frenzy, according to the Fuhrer like Rob Stiles. But as if blowing our best chance of a recovery against Stoke wasn’t bad enough, I could’ve throttled him when I realised he’d ruled himself out of next Saturday’s big game. Some might point to Van Persie’s hot-headed track record as an excuse for his behaviour, while others might suggest his lack of self-control typifies the sort of irresponsible attitude towards the club, that makes an absolute mockery of the badge-kissing mercenaries of the modern era.

I also didn’t appreciate the way in which Robin waved a dimissive hand in the direction of his Danish teammate when he appeared as sub on Saturday. By the looks of things, Bendtner was equally unimpressed at being informed in this fashion that he was to play out wide on the left. Mind you he’d been so ineffective that never mind outside-left, I’d have preferred for him to have been left outside (the old ones are the best!).

Yet it was the wave of Van Persie’s hand which suggested to me that all is not sweetness and light in the Gunners camp at present. Doubtless it’s evidence of the sort of aggravation that only tends to raise it’s ugly head when the wheels begin to come off.

Both fans and players alike were all a little shell-shocked after Wednesday’s derby disaster. Under the circumstances, most of us sensed that Spurs might come away with something, but having demonstrated our undoubted superiority and when we should’ve had the result in the bag, it was the unbelievably bizarre, last gasp denouement of this game that completely knocked the stuffing out of us (and which has sadly provided a massive leg-up as far as the Lilywhite’s confidence is concerned!).
For my money, mentally, we weren’t even at the races on Saturday and it was no real surprise to see Stoke reap some reward from their most potent weapon. Rory Delap’s throw-ins were always likely to wreak havoc, amidst a defence that so frequently struggles to demonstrate the necessary composure, where an undercurrent of insecurity is only compounded due to a keeper who lacks the necessary presence to dominate his area.

Even at our imperious best, our current line-up all too often struggles to find a cutting edge up front and when our ability alone is not enough to break down a resolute defence, we regularly flounder for the want of the sort of “they shall not pass” leadership, capable of cajoling and inspiring his teammates in equal measure, to ensure we aren’t the architects of our own downfall.

Who knows, perhaps in adversity we’ll witness the sort of “backs to the wall” display against Man Utd, which will be just what the doctor ordered to restore the sense of unity needed, to get our season back on track. But as much as I adore le Boss, he seems to have a serious blind spot when it comes to recognising the need for an adjutant out on the park, with the strength of personality to pre-empt the sort of disasters we’ve witnessed alarmingly often of late. Moreover with each successive setback, I come away wondering about our failure to address extremely basic footballing principals at both ends of the pitch.

It’s the mixture of talent and steel necessary to prevail that makes the Premiership so attractive and sadly we seem destined to remain “nearly men” until Arsene gets this balance right. Nevertheless there are plenty of glory-hunting Gooners out there who need to appreciate that we are only so disgruntled because le gaffer has spoilt us rotten. If only they knew the taste of the sort of medicine endured by the loyal likes of Monica, they might not be quite so quick to throw their toys out of the pram!

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