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Thursday 29 October 2009

We've Got Fran Merida

Hi folks,

I hope you’ll forgive me, but with my regular weekly diary missives I tend to avoid offering my own analysis (for what it is worth) of weekend matches, since I write these pieces on a Sunday/Monday, to appear in the Irish Examiner on a Wednesday and with games invariably having been analysed to death by then, elsewhere in the media, I try to come at it from a slightly more anecdotal angle.

But I’ve no such excuse this evening and so I apologize in advance for boring anyone, by repeating the exact same opinions that probably feature in a hundred other blogs!

I was delighted that Arsène didn’t compromise with tonight’s team selection. With the winners of our encounter with the Scousers only being two games, 180 minutes of football away from a Wembley final and with Wenger having made recent public assurances that the Arsenal would end up with something to show for this campaign, I’ve no doubt that there must’ve been some temptation to send out a slightly stronger looking side.

I know it’s easy for me to say, after we’ve earned a place in the quarter-finals, but win, lose or draw this evening, I would’ve been glad that le gaffer stuck to his principles. After so many barren seasons, Arsène is bound to be feeling some pressure to bring home some silverware bacon of any description whatsoever. But there are several reasons why Wenger shouldn’t let himself be influenced and bow to this pressure.

In contrast to the vast majority of high-profile matches that players are involved in nowadays, relatively speaking, Arsène has created a situation for his players to perform in a pressure free environment in the Carling Cup. It’s a “no lose” situation, as they win plenty of plaudits by beating the likes of Liverpool, but if we’d been beaten, it would’ve been no disgrace and no one would’ve been too hard on them.

Moreover, there’s a fluidity and a certain intuitiveness about the way we played tonight which makes them an absolute pleasure to watch. It certainly doesn’t look like a team that’s been thrown together for the first time, as with the backheels and the flicks, they look like players who’ve been playing together every day of the week. But the moment Arsène breaks up the vibe, by adding in some more heavyweight individuals, we’d be risking that special team spirit.

No matter who we draw in the quarter-finals, in my humble opinion, either Arsène plays the first XI, or he continues to keep faith with the kids, because otherwise the youngsters would be likely to feel so much more inhibited if Wenger tinkers with the make-up of the Carling Cup team and would undoubtedly defer to the more senior players, losing some of the confidence and the freedom that makes them so entertaining to watch at present.

Mind you, it was interesting that he went with Fabianski tonight, as I was certain Wenger would take the opportunity to give Almunia a run out. Perhaps, by not playing Manuel, he’s merely avoided any chance of a goal-keeping performance which might put some doubt in his mind with regard to the line-up at the weekend. Far be it from me to second guess le gaffer, but I am assuming that the absence of Almunia tonight means that Wenger will continue to keep faith with Mannone (then again, this conclusion is probably the kiss of death for our goalkeeping godfather!).

I am also sure I am not alone in being totally perplexed as to why Arsène played Sylvestre and Senderos as a centre-back pairing. With Djourou a long term casualty, I appreciate that the choice is limited, but personally I would love to see the likes of Kyle Bartley given a first team opportunity. Phillipe Senderos comes across as a diamond geezer, but it seems to me that Arsène has long since written him off as first team material. Considering how disappointed we would’ve been to have exited the competition tonight, if Wenger’s only reason for sticking with Senderos is because he likes the lad and therefore wanted to take the opportunity to put him in the shop window, then for my money, this wasn’t the game to do that in.

Perhaps Arsène felt that with Gilbert and Gibbs playing at full-back, the pace of these two combined would be sufficient to make up for the absolute total lack of speed of our two centre-backs?

Frankly I wasn’t impressed with Voronin the first time I saw him play for Liverpool and he’s done nothing since to change this opinion. Also I have yet to see anything from Ngog, to suggest he’s going to set any Premiership fires and if I was a Liverpool fan, considering how susceptible tonight’s two centre-backs are to being attacked at pace (because basically they both have the turning speed of an oil-tanker), I would’ve been seriously disappointed with the Scousers fairly impotent performance, where the threat they posed to Fabianski was largely limited to a smattering of somewhat limp, long-range efforts.

I was shocked a couple of weeks back, to hear Graham Souness reveal on Sky’s Champions League coverage that Benitez has signed 67 players in his five years at the club. I suppose Rafa’s stock of Scouse credit is largely due to his success in Europe, but to my mind, this is a pretty damming statistic, which suggests that there’s an element of “the Emperor’s new clothes” about the levels of faith the fat Spanish waiter has engendered in the Merseyside faithful (to the extent that they were prepared to march through the Merseyside streets to show their support for their manager). My memory is extremely suspect at the best of times, but from what I can recall of six football teams that could be made up of all Rafa’s signings, I’ve only ever coveted Fernando Torres (possibly Mascherano?), but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single other player that I would’ve been desperate to see play in the red & white of the Arsenal!

Nevertheless, Liverpool could’ve been a lot luckier this evening with the way the ball fell in a couple of goalmouth melées and with only a single goal advantage and those two at centre-back, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in absolutely bricking myself, right up until the final whistle, nerves a jangling every time the Scousers pumped the ball forward.

Considering the calibre of teams left in the competition, I can’t help but feel that Sylvestre and Senderos are a nightmare waiting to happen. Their luck simply cannot hold out indefinitely and eventually the two of them are going to end up seriously exposed by some pacy opposition capable of ripping this partnership to shreds. So for the sake of my blood pressure and the few remaining hairs on my head that have yet to turn grey, I sincerely hope that Arsène quits while we are ahead!

I’m not knocking Sylvestre’s performance as our captain tonight, as there were a couple of instances where his years of experience were a telling factor in a timely intervention. Likewise, I don’t recall Phillipe Senderos making any serious rickets – I do know we made some incredibly over-confident and downright suicidal efforts to pass our way out of defence and were extremely fortunate on at least a couple of occasions to have avoided committing hari-kari (one of the very first lessons I learned as a defender was not to pass the ball across my own penalty area!!) but while I believe there was more than one culprit, I don’t actually remember Senderos being guilty of any such mistakes.

On their own, I could accept either of these two centre-backs being involved, so long as they had a pacier individual alongside them. But together I am afraid they are an accident waiting to happen!

It could be that Phillipe’s biggest problem is that basically he’s far too intelligent. A centre-back’s greatest asset is their composure, especially under pressure. With the featherweight balls used nowadays, modern day centre-backs don’t have the same excuse as their predecessors, who, having spent their entire careers trying to get their head to high balls, or banging skulls in the process, could claim that they’d lost many of an already limited number of brain cells, to the damage done by the sort of old-fashioned leather balls that were capable of leaving an impression of the laces on ones forehead.

In general, I imagine that not being too intelligent is probably an advantage to a centre-back, as they don’t have the sense to appreciate quite how scared they should be of certain opponents. Or for example, in Anton Ferdinand’s case, perhaps his composure on the ball is not affected by his inability to appreciate that there is no centre-back gene for him to have inherited along with his brother.

Mikael Sylveste appears to be aware of his limitations and for the most part, he seems to have the experience to try and make allowance for his weaknesses and play to his strengths. Whereas unfortunately Philippe appears overly aware of his perceived limitations and although it was heartening to witness a couple of no-nonsense “row Z” moments this evening, when an opponent does get the better of him, it seems to have a lasting impact and you can tangibly feel that he is on edge, every time the same player takes him on after that.

I’m sure it wasn’t just the sound of our nerves I could hear jangling and the problem playing these two becomes compounded, as I felt that tonight the Scousers sensed how uncomfortable Senderos and this only encouraged them to put pressure on him, in hope of forcing him to lose control, or to risk a dodgy backpass and Senderos seem such a nice chap that I would hate to see a more accomplished strikeforce make mincemeat of him!

I wonder if Wenger’s team selection in the next round will be influenced by who we pull out of the hat in Saturday’s draw, as should we come up against the likes of Chelsea, surely he wouldn’t dream of risking Senderos against Drogba because we don’t need a crystal ball to know how this encounter would turn out!

Meanwhile on a more positive note, after having waited for some time to see Fran Merida justify the faith that has been shown in him and having been largely disappointed with his previous outings, I was delighted to see him shine (at least in the first-half) this evening. It was also great to get home and watch the highlights, to see Cesc Fabregas celebrating his compatriot’s goal on the sideline, with perhaps more enthusiasm than if he had scored himself.

I’m aware that Merida has yet to sign a new contract and you can understand the kid not wanting to commit to another five years waiting on the sidelines. But after having invested so much faith in the young midfielder, it would be awful if he went elsewhere, only for some other team to bear all the fruits of his fabulous education. Besides which, considering most in the know seem to view Fran as a potential alternative to Cesc, he could get his first team opportunity sooner, rather than later, if our club captain should decide that the time is right for a return to Spain!

Similarly I seem to think everyone present was suitably impressed with Eastmond and Gilbert. Truth be told, I haven’t seen much of Eastmond before now, other than his name being familiar from the reserve and youth team match reports in the programme. But I was under the impression that his natural position was at right back and if I’m correct, I felt he looked very comfortable with being asked to do a job in midfield.

Kerrea Gilbert also caught the eye, with his muscular and confident interventions at right-back. I’m glad that Sanchez Watt got another run out, albeit only for the last quarter of an hour. Then again, at the time, I wasn’t particularly happy to see Bendtner depart the field because if the Scousers had managed to score an equaliser and we ended up going into extra-time (or even penalties), I would’ve been much happier with Bendtner on the pitch rather than watching from the bench.

I’ve been critical in the past about the Dane’s arrogant attitude but all credit to the way in which Nicky has knuckled down to do the job his manager asks of him. Playing in this Carling Cup side, I could’ve previously pictured Bendtner sulking about being asked to play out wide, but I could have absolutely no complaints about his work rate this evening and his all-round contribution to the team.

Arsène was perhaps thinking that Sanchez Watt’s pace might trouble the tiring legs of the Liverpool defence and as they chased an equalizer, he might be able to expose them on the counter. As it turned out, Watt didn’t really see enough of the ball to have an opportunity to take the Scousers on and after the positively criminal way in which we’ve blown wins in our last two successive matches, we were all left holding our breath during the closing stages, praying history wasn’t going to repeat itself again. Especially as in this particular case it would’ve likely proved fatal if we’d conceded an equalizer late on, because we would’ve gifted the Scousers the momentum going into extra-time.

Mercifully, despite momentary scares, where the memory of our last two matches probably resulted in the somewhat frantic, decidedly un-Arsenal like way in which we “cleared our lines”, although we were on the edge of our seats, on the pitch they appeared to have everything under control. And it was ironic really that it took our youthful Carling Cup side to demonstrate to the first XI, how it should be done, taking the ball into the corners and seeing out injury time, without any of the sort of gung-ho attacks that could end in disaster.

I only hope that along with Fabregas, the rest of the first XI were there, to watch this lesson in how to see out a victory :-)

If the prospect of Saturday’s derby wasn’t excitement enough, we now also have the draw for the quarterfinals to look forward to. I suppose fans of every club will be hoping to pull Pompey, or in current awful form, Blackburn out of the hat, but personally I reckon we might do better to be drawn against a stronger side. For one of the lesser lights, a quarterfinal appearance in the Carling Cup could be the highlight of their season and in some respects I feel the youngsters are more likely to rise to a big occasion and another opportunity to embarrass a top side. It would certainly be fun to see the kids perhaps put an end to any chance Spurs have of getting a sniff of silverware!

Apparently there was plenty of testosterone in the air earlier this evening, around the away pub and the concrete Arsenal sign by the south bridge, but I imagine it was calmness personified compared to the likely atmosphere on Saturday.

I know one particular Gooner who chooses not to go to the derby game because he just doesn’t enjoy the horrible atmosphere that invariably materializes around the ground and although personally I wouldn’t miss Saturday’s match for the world, I know exactly what he’s talking about, as the hordes of police in riot gear, the helicopters buzzing overhead and the baying German-Shepherds (not to mention the odious behaviour of the scum from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road and I know that all clubs have their share of objectionable “fans”, it’s just that Spurs seem to attract so many more of them!) often make for a particularly unpleasant vibe about the place, one where you feel you just want to get in there, stuff ‘em and get home too gloat! Here’s hoping…..

Meantimes, all together now ”He’s got a twitch……”

Big Love



gunnerkid107 said...

Excellent blog like usual. Though, aren't the semi-final's of the League Cup two-legged? So we're technically three games, or 270 minutes away from a cup final at Wembley.

I hope we can get their with this beautiful mix of youth and experience, but if we're drawn away in the next round, I could see this team struggling like they did against Burnley.

gunnerkid107 said...

Wow. I meant 'there' instead of 'their' in the second paragraph.

Also, I disagree about who will start in goal on Saturday. I expect Fabianski to start.

Anonymous said...

Are you the dude in the pics? How did you get to Stanstead with the team? Heh, back in the day no Heathrow luxury!!

Erm, nice blog!

And yeah, every time I see Senderos I'm actually quite staggered by his extremely lofty center of gravity. He is so incredibly sluggish.

Oh well!

Share the same thoughts about CB pairing. But ya know these guys are in reserve so if our other CBs get injured we need these "Oil tankers" to step up!

Cheers m8.

Tokyo Neon

Anonymous said...

Are you the dude in the pics? How did you get to Stanstead with the team? Heh, back in the day no Heathrow luxury!!

Erm, nice blog!

And yeah, every time I see Senderos I'm actually quite staggered by his extremely lofty center of gravity. He is so incredibly sluggish.

Oh well!

Share the same thoughts about CB pairing. But ya know these guys are in reserve so if our other CBs get injured we need these "Oil tankers" to step up!

Cheers m8.

Tokyo Neon

Anonymous said...

Other Benitez signings I wouldn't mind seeing at Arsenal: Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger (when fit).

MordiMan said...

Although my viewing experience has not been nearly as exhaustive as yours Bernard, I have like Senderos when I have seen him before. I guess I hadn't noticed that he was so slow, but I will keep an eye out for that to try and see what you mean. Last year I watched him play for Milan a fair share of times and generally I thought he did quite well, and actually had above average composure.

I also haven't thought of Silvestre as being nearly as bad as everyone claims. To me, it just seems like these guys are missing a bit of that no-nonsense attitude or aggresiveness that would make them be top notch. But the speed point is very interesting and I will think about that next time I watch.

Great blog as usual -- also, could you put a link to yourself on the IE so we could all look at your brilliant stuff there as well?