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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Never Mind The Festive Spirit, Give Me More Of That Good Old Arsenal Spirit

The two giant screens in the opposite corners of Villa Park taunted the home fans on Friday, as they trumpeted out the utterly bizarre match stats, into a brass monkey Boxing (St. Stephen’s) Day night. With Denilson having silenced the Holte End 5-minutes before half-time, we duly took our cue to rub their faces in it, as a chant of “we’ve only had one shot” rung out from our end of the Doug Ellis stand. This was soon followed by a chorus of “we’ve only had two shots”, when Diaby knocked any remaining stuffing out of the Brummy turkeys, by banging in a second so soon after the break.

Yet in truth, I don’t want to contradict our manager, but it would’ve been something of a travesty if we’d trundled back down to the capital with all 3 points. Considering I would’ve gladly taken a draw, if offered it prior to the game and the fact that on a more fortuitous afternoon, Martin O’Neill’s side would’ve been home and hosed by half-time, I couldn’t really moan about us ending up with only a point.

Mind you, most displeasing is the emergence of an unwelcome pattern of matches in which we’ve been undone in injury time. Bad luck could account for the odd game, but when shooting ourselves in the foot, by giving away last gasp goals, begins to feel like Groundhog Day, you can’t help but question whether it’s complacency, or a lack of focus and commitment that’s to blame.

Who knows whether it’s pertinent that Villa had 9 English players out on the park, while our sole home grown prodigy was once again warming the bench in what’s fast becoming Jack Wilshere’s habitual pitch. But when I watched the replay later that night of Villa’s man mountain of a centre-back burying the equaliser with virtually the last kick of the game, thereby preventing us leapfrogging them into 4th, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they simply wanted it that little bit more than we did?

Still, compared to Sunday’s pedestrian affair against Pompey, the Villa game was corking entertainment. There’s some suggestion that Kolo Touré is still suffering from the after effects of a bout of malaria. In some respects I hope this is the case, as the former world-class defender would at least have a good excuse for his drastic dip in form. However Kolo was far from the only clown to contribute to the comedic defending, which had us all laughing, so long as our goal continued to live a charmed life.

Rarely have I seen the momentum in a match swing so dramatically, for where we struggled to string two passes together as Villa laid siege to our goal during the first-half, after our smash and grab goal and Bakari Sagna’s incredibly agile contender for goal-line clearance of the season, no sooner had Eboué and Diaby combined to score a second 4-minutes into the second half, than we were suddenly transformed, back into the passing machine, capable of laying waste to all before us.

We had enough opportunities to put the game to bed, before Gallas’ rash challenge resulted in a penalty and le Prof’s touchline altercation with O’Neill. Who could’ve possibly imagined that the man who arrived from Japan as the master of Zen and the art of football management, would be reduced to inciting his counterpart with “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” gestures!

Nevertheless, it’s good to know that the fire still burns so bright in our customarily phlegmatic manager. I only wish all of our players were equally as passionate, for as Villa sensed our fragility, they emerged from their shell, while we withdrew back into ours. If there’s one facet of Arsène’s management which I’ve forever found baffling, it’s his substitution tactics, where he invariably sticks stubbornly to a gameplan, when other managers might react more instinctively.

OK so he threw on a third striker, when the chips were down with 25 to go against Pompey on Sunday, knowing we simply couldn’t afford to drop more home points. But it was hardly a big gamble sending Vela on, when the visitors where barely venturing past the halfway line by that stage.

However against Villa it was patently obvious that Van Persie had run out of puff late on. Robin definitely isn’t cut out for the lone striker’s role, yet he’d done his best at a passable impersonation. I simply couldn’t fathom why Wenger didn’t replace him with some fresh young legs, who could’ve helped to take the pressure off our defence, by keeping the ball in the opposition’s half of the pitch.

Diaby’s goal was noteworthy because it’s one of the few times this season we’ve witnessed a midfielder in red & white making a run in advance of our strikers, whereas on Sunday Pompey had few problems containing our decidedly flaccid forward play. But instead of looking for an alternative means of picking the visitors lock, Wenger merely chose to try and overcome by weight of numbers. I really don’t see the point of carrying Wilshere around with them as some sort of mascot, when we know to our cost that this side hasn’t had the guile so far this season to break down the brick wall of a 10-man defence.

In Sunday’s programme notes Arsène claimed that quality wise, last season was one of his best teams ever. However never mind the 60,000 quoted attendance figures, the large number of empty seats at our place on Sunday was a litmus test of the lack of enthusiasm felt by the more fickle members of our not so faithful, towards the current first XI. Even those who turned up were more inclined to jeer than to cheer, saving the loudest song of the afternoon (other than the goal celebrations) to exalt Tony Adams.

While it might be a complete myth that players still exist in the modern game whose loyalty can’t be bought by the highest bidder, where Liverpool have the likes of Carragher and Chelsea have John Terry (I was going to include Gerrard but under the circumstances, its hardly appropriate to use the apparent bar room brawler as a suitable example but then I suppose the same could be said about Terry!!), in the long-term absence of Theo Walcott, we Gooners don’t really have any first team players we can truly relate to as one of our own, whose names can be applied to our replica shirts, secure in the knowledge they will remain at the club, long enough for us to get some wear out of them.

That’s why Tony Adams return at the weekend proved so nostalgic and since you just can’t buy this sort of sentiment off the shelf, if Arsène has anywhere near the sort of faith he claims to have in some of our homegrown crop, he needs to start giving them their head, if he wants to restore the sort of pride that is guaranteed to put bums on seats and the sort of team-spirit that will not lie down until the last kick of the game.

A happy & healthy New Year to one and all
Peace & Love
Bernard

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

you make an interesting point about villa having 9 english players and arsenal 0. but i would suggest that is not an issue of desire or commitment (the mythical value of the famous english 'commitment' is on display every 4 years in the WC) but in treatment by the referees. there can be no doubt whatsoever that english players get preferential treatment. ask yourself this: had gareth barry committed the same tackle against adebayor, would it have been a penalty? unlikely. but a french defender on an english forward (especially one that has been written up favourably in the media of late such as agbonlahor)? that's a penalty every time.

Sir Henry Norris said...

Anonymous, you are absolutely right about the treatment of foreign players by referees as opposed to English players. There are so many examples of this every single week.

How about Adebayor being sent off for shielding the ball against Liverpool and Rooney not even conceding a freekick for his deliberate elbow against Stoke a couple of days later?

Bernard said...

I agree wholeheartedly that the level of a player's desire or commitment bears absolutely no relationship to nationality nowadays and I couldn't agree more with your comment about seeing evidence in the World Cup.

To be perfectly honest, I'm no great fan of international footie but whenever I do watch England play these days, my one abiding impression is that I never get the sense that the players put much on the line by way of commitment (no matter what they might say in their post match comments) and in truth, in many of their performances I get the distinct impression that some of them are merely going through the motions, prepared to do just what is required of them and nothing more.

To my mind, this often appears to be a principal contributing factor when England fails to impress, as when it comes to the crunch in the last 20 minutes, they find themselves unable to shift up a gear.

As for your comment about English players getting favourable treatment from the officials, I am unsure whether this is the case. I have to admit that it's not something that I've really noticed whilst watching the Arsenal. Perhaps it could be argued that some of the more well known English players get treated differently by the refs, as there are times when I've felt that the likes of Rooney, Gerrard etc. have been treated more leniently, when certain refs seem to want to be their best pals, rather than get in their bad books.

However although in the modern game English players, just like their foreign counterparts, only tend to be loyal and committed to themselves, rather than to any one club, the point I was trying to make (in typically long-winded fashion!) was that I feel there is a growing problem of indifference among some of our more fickle fans.

I hear some telling me that they can't even be bothered to watch our games on the box and believe it or not, I have already heard someone say that if things continue in the current fashion, they don't plan on renewing their season tickets.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for this apparent apathy and the reason why so many of our fans are so quick to get on the players' backs (like they did on Sunday, when at one stage the radio commentator remarked about it feeling like a reserve game because of the total lack of atmosphere and then subsequent to this, the pundit alongside him expressed his shock at how quick the fans around them were to boo, as they began to lose patience with our failure to create goal scoring opportunities) is because we struggle to relate to the current first XI with our team devoid of the sort of characters who create the illusion that they bleed red & white.

While threatening not to renew ones season ticket must make us sound like spoilt, ingrates, in the eyes of for example a Charlton fan (who's team look in danger of dropping down another division), or to the vast majority of fans of other clubs, who've never had a hope of competing for the European Cup, or a sniff of any silverware of any description for much of their entire lifetime of "supporting" their club, I can understand such sentiments.

To my mind being a supporter is not something that one can switch on and off, according to how one's side prospers. However it does bother me when I think how my mood and my general well-being is linked to the success (or lack of it) of the Arsenal, if there's a sense that there are several players in our side who don't share anything like such extreme emotions and who can suffer a defeat on a Saturday afternoon and not let it stop them enjoying themselves out on the town that night.

I know that it's sentimental of me to believe that it still matters that much to our modern day stars, but I still need to cling to the perception that there are players out there for whom the Arsenal's success means everything and who at least perform with the sort of 110% commitment that suggests it matters as much to them as it does to me.

Not only is this important to create the necessary bonds between the fans and the team, but I also think that these sort of characters are a necessary ingredient to inspire and motivate the maximum out of the players around them. I remain convinced that the success of Wenger's first side was based on this mix, as the likes of Petit and Vieira where inspired to play with a level of commitment that wouldn't have previously come natural to them, by the way in which they saw the old guard put their bodies on the line for the cause.

It seems to me that while we can argue all day about the technical defficiencies of the current team, it this particular imbalance that Arsène truly needs to attend to

Anonymous said...

Bernard,

I agree with your comments on the fickle nature of our supporters nowadays. It seems as if half the crowd is ready to boo if we're not up 2-0 after 25 minutes. I think there are two issues here. The first is the type of supporters we've attracted following on from the success of 01-02 and 03-04. They don't realize that these kind of seasons are the exception rather than the rule. Its incredible that last season, when we finished 4 pts off the top and were a few questionable referee decisions away from the title, is generally regarded as some kind of dismal failure.

Second is the nature of the football fan in the Sky era, as crowds have grown from 30,000 in the mid-1980s to 60,000 at the Emirates. As Tony Adams put it, the new breed of fans tend to be consumers rather than supporters who understand the ebb and flow of seasons and the club. They've watched Fever Pitch a few times and think that every season ends dancing in the streets with Colin Firth. They don't remember the disappointments of 86-87 and 87-88 that built the foundation for 88-89. Along the same lines, the impatience with some of the younger players that we're trying to bring through at the moment is incredible. There seems to be this idea that Tony Adams and David Rocastle, etc just turned up in the first team and won the league. I can assure you that was not the case.

Finally, I don't agree with this idea that players were more committed in the past. Do you really think that Tony Adams and Steve Bould, or any of the other players from the 1970s and 80s were staying in on Saturday nights because of disappointing defeats?