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Thursday 30 September 2010

The Real Deal Or Merely A Repeat Of The Attack Of The Time Bandits?

While I’m somewhat loathe to pass judgement on a game that I’ve watched on the box, as from experience, I know the TV pictures can provide a warped view of proceedings, from where I sat (in my armchair), Tuesday night’s encounter in Serbia served to emphasize the failings of both the Champions League format and (AFAIC) the patently obvious Achilles heel in this Arsenal squad .

It’s very easy to point the finger of blame at Manuel Almunia for the calamity against the Baggies, but viewed with the benefit of some time for considered reflection and after watching our utterly uninspired display against a poor Partizan Belgrade side, who would’ve been swallowed whole by many other, more driven Champions League opponents, it seems to me to be a complete injustice to single out poor Almunia as the principal scapegoat for Saturday’s defeat.

Sure Almunia was responsible for a couple of obvious cock-ups, allowing WBA’s second goal to slip by him at the near post and being dragged out into no man’s land and presenting the visitors with an open net, for them to score their third (doubtless paranoid about conceding a second penalty by diving at the players feet. But we mustn’t forget that there were a couple of half-decent saves during the first forty-five, which kept us in the game. In fact if you want to blame anyone, then my neighbour at our gaff might have to hold his hands up, since he must’ve tempted fate when he pointed out that the much maligned Manuel had up to this point, hardly put a foot (or a hand) wrong in any of the matches he’d been involved in so far this season.

In my most humble opinion, it’s never been the Spaniard’s shot stopping capabilities that have been the cause for greatest concern, as he’s often demonstrated himself to be a decent enough keeper, when it comes to making reaction saves - although how mad do they look now, those misguided meshuganas in the media who were proposing Almunia as a potential answer to England’s goalkeeping woes?

It’s always been Manuel’s timid and introverted personality that have proved his biggest handicap, preventing him from being able to dominate his area and to provide our back line with that all important air of calm assuredness, that exists amongst a defence, where everyone knows exactly how the other will react in any given situation

But whatever you might deem his greatest faults, Almiunia only goes out their to do his best and if this isn’t good enough, we can’t blame him for his lack of natural ability. While Lehmann might have been a much bigger personality and offered us the sort of presence in the Arsenal goal that has been on the missing list ever since he left the club, I always suspected that all the Kraut’s bluff and bluster was to mask the fact that he didn’t really enjoy throwing himself in where the boots were flying.

With eleven season’s worth of diary pieces, I am sure I can prove it, if I was sufficiently smug to dig back into my archives, but ever since Spunky hung up his goalkeeping gloves, I’ve been saying that until the Arsenal invest in (or uncover!) a truly world class, dominant presence to play between the sticks, the sort of personality who’s sufficiently respected throughout the game, for him to appear two feet taller to opposing strikers and who will thereby make opponents feel they need to do something special to beat him (rather than looking at our collection of shrinking violets and thinking a punt at any old pot-shot might prove fruitful), any genuine title aspirations rest solely on the complacency, or inconsistency of the competition.

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t get too excited about Fabianski’s performance against Partizan, as quite frankly I’m terrified of the thought that the Pole has thereby guaranteed his place at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. At least Almunia has the experience on his side that might enable him to put his mistakes behind him, whereas Fabianski appears equally fragile to me and I find the thought of him playing behind our novice centre-back partnership on Sunday fills me with even more dread than Manuel.

If Sczczny is all he’s cracked up to be, why not give the kid given a fair crack of the whip, by throwing him in at the deep end, to see if he can sink or swim. Based on what we’ve experienced of our three other timid goal-tenders to date, we know full well that they can’t cut the mustard. Albeit that Mannone hasn’t had that much of a look in, but I’ve seen little to suggest he’s any more extrovert and authoritative than Almunia or Fabianski.

Or will Arsène insist on continuing to rotate the three of them, as and when they’re responsible for mistakes which cost us games, until they’re all shorn of any remaining confidence and the Arsenal are long since out of any title race?

Meanwhile, much as against Partizan last night, on Saturday it wasn’t just a world-class keeper that was required to raise the Arsenal’s performance beyond the mundane. I know that ultimately the boys have done their job and will be bringing those all-important three points back from Belgrade, but their were times during this low-tempo display, especially at the start of the second half, that with this being just the second of the six game group stage marathon, both sides seemed perfectly happy to settle for a face-saving single point.

With one of the three wins that will usually guarantee progress through to the knockout stages, already under our belt, after bashing Braga 6-0, the vast majority of Arsène’s side seemed to display the same lethargy seen on Saturday, safe in the knowledge that they exist in a comfort zone that offers four more matches to secure qualification.

It amused me to hear the pundit acclaim Denilson’s “brilliant midfield tackle” as the Brazilian prevented a Partizan player from making a point-blank effort from close to the penalty spot in the opening moments, with Gooner hearts in mouths due to the panic-struck way in which our defence dealt with the various hair raising moments that resulted from our decidedly indolent start to this game

What the commentator failed to mention (as far as I could see) was that Denilson was only forced to bust a gut to prevent a potential disaster so early on because he’d been ball watching as the move built up and his failure to track back and protect our defence had left them exposed, forcing him into attempting this last ditch effort.

As far as I’m concerned, football’s a simple game. The obligations of a holding midfielder are to sit in front of the back four, doing their best to thwart the opposition’s attacks, by preventing the opposing attack from getting at our defence. But just as was the case with Song and Diaby on Saturday, against Partizan, it appeared as if neither Song nor Denilson were aware of their responsibilities, or perhaps they just weren’t feeling sufficiently enthusiastic to afford their colleagues the required protection.

Time and again they allowed the opposition to pass them by, into the space between the two of them and our defence, only eventually waking up to the potential threat, when it was already imminent. And so instead of being able to face up to the opposition and putting themselves in the way of further advance, they invariably end up forced to try and recover the situation, by attempting to tackle the opposition whilst haring back towards our own goal (far too frequently conceding fouls in a dangerous position just outside the box).

I’m unsure whether this is down to pure naivety, or downright laziness. Despite the memories of several similarly infuriating instances last season, where replays of goals scored against us, shown from behind the goal, all too often revealed the sight of Denilson hardly breaking his neck to get back to help out, I continue to try and give the Brazilian lad the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he’s still learning his trade.

However I have to admit that after last night’s match I can’t help but have some concerns whether all those who have already written off the Brazilian youngster, might have a point and that for all the faith Wenger has in Denilson’s natural talent, perhaps he just lacks the faculty for the necessary speed of thought to ever become the sort of midfield general that we’ll soon be needing at the heart of the Gunners’ game (assuming that sadly Cesc is destined to be out the door in the none too distant future).

Could it be that Denilson is just too dim-witted to fulfill his promise? It would be easy to draw this conclusion from the penalty he conceded against Partisan. It seemed a fairly aimless ball into the box, giving him plenty of time to either take evasive action, or to withdraw his hand and his dumbfounded reaction didn’t exactly paint the lad as the brightest button in the box.

But if both midfield partnerships have looked ponderous and leaden-footed in recent days, the answer to inspiring a more dynamic display out of this duo might lie elsewhere. Although the goalkeeping issue might be glaring, quite frankly there is sweet FA we can do about it until January and so instead of us only aggravating the problem by getting on our goalies backs, we need to do our part and get behind them, to try and build up their confidence.

Personally I believe Arsène needs to back a horse in the Arsenal goal and stick with it, as you can’t have them playing under the sort of pressure that leaves them certain that they’ll be out of favour with every single mistake.

Perhaps a less obvious but no less pivotal problem is evident in the fact that Wenger seems to be rotating the captaincy with every performance. Last night it felt as if Thomas Rosicky was the umpteenth Arsenal player to have worn the armband this season. I can recall personally questioning Arsène on the captaincy issue and hearing him respond that we have eleven captains in his team.

But the constant change in the captaincy is either a reflection of the fact that Arsène doesn’t think the armband issue particularly significant, or perhaps it’s more indicative of the fact that there are so few obvious leaders in the current Arsenal squad?

Myself I’ve been hoping that Thomas Vermaelen might have the necessary leadership attributes and as he grows more confident in his role within this squad, we might begin to see him cajoling and encouraging his colleagues. But at present, in Vermaelen’s absence from our last two outings, it’s seemed to me as if both of these low-tempo displays were crying out for some leadership, for someone to drive the Gunners forward, in an effort to stir us from our apparent lethargy.

Let’s face it the centreback partnerships of Koscielny & Squillaci , or Djourou & Squillaci aren’t likely to be sufficiently comfortable in an Arsenal shirt to be bellowing at Song & Diaby or Song & Denilson, when the players in front of them switch off and let go of opposition runners.

It was interesting last night, as just as was seen at Eastlands on Saturday, in a Serie A style uninspiring sparring contest between City and Chelsea, the only goal of the game came from Carlos Tevez’s single injection of pace, we saw the Gunners opening strike resulting from the first time Arshavin and Wilshere put their foot on the gas and drove at the opposition defence, where instead of standing their admiring our passing, it was the first time that Partizan were forced to try and deal with it.

In my opinion, Jack Wilshere was one of the few players to come away from last night’s performance with any credit, as although Jack might’ve faded somewhat in the latter stages, early on, he was one of the few Arsenal players putting himself about that pitch with any real intent, looking as if he was reveling in this opportunity to impose his talents on the big European stage..

I don’t know about last night, but at our place on Saturday, when I looked around the pitch and for the most part when I watch the Arsenal play live, I invariably find myself disappointed with the lack of communication occurring between the Gunners. Instead of talking to one another, encouraging one another and digging their team mates out when they don’t appear to be pulling their weight, they all appear far too uninterested in what their team mates are doing, only opening their gobs occasionally to complain about a pass which has been played behind them, instead of being played into their path.

Sadly it’s not just in goal where the Gunners appear to lack big personalities, it’s all over the pitch. But then this is not just an Arsenal problem, as there are few big personalities in the Premiership game nowadays because the mercenary merry-go-round nature of modern football isn’t really conducive for local stars to step off the terraces, so steeped in their club’s history, desperately keen to work their socks off towards the cause of bringing the sort of success that they would’ve celebrated equally as a fan and as a player.

How many of those involved in Saturday’s humbling defeat departed THOF2 as disappointed as you and I? Unfortunately I can’t help but believe that there weren’t many Arsenal players who had quite as miserable a weekend as the rest of us Gooners, positively dreading seeing the humiliating headlines in the Sunday papers, as I tend to think that the vast majority of them will have already gotten over the miserable events at the Emirates on Saturday, by the time they were driving their supercars out of the players car park.

But then unfortunately not every player is a Tony Adams, or a John Terry, Jamie Carragher type devoted servant of their club’s cause. But I feel that you’ve got to have something of this spirit within the camp for a team to truly prosper, with players who are prepared to bawl out their colleagues, when they’re deserving of it, after a below par performance. Otherwise there’s no one to tell Andrey Arshavin that it just won’t suffice for him to have a significant part in perhaps helping us to take the lead, only for him to switch off for the rest of the 90, making like a teapot standing with hands on hips in the middle of the park, believing he’s done his bit and spending the remainder of the game lazily laying the ball off, choosing not to take any further responsibility in the outcome.

When we missed two or three chances last night to put the game to bed, we just seemed to take our foot off the pedal, accepting that perhaps it wasn’t going to be our night for a conclusive three point win, when I want someone to be driving the Gunners forward, refusing to accept anything other than a victory.

I want someone to be bellowing at Eboue, Song and Chamakh to get back on their feet, when they hit the deck, lying there waiting in vain, for a whistle which isn’t going to come. OK so Marouanne secured a penalty with his blatant dive against Partizan, but the Moroccan lad did not know that the ref was going to be brave enough to blow up and award a spot-kick to the visitors, in front of such a frighteningly partisan Partisan crowd.

Having got goalside of the defender and being clean through on goal with only the goalie to beat, in advance of realizing the ref had blown up for a penalty, was I the only one screaming blue murder at our new striker for having hit the deck? I also wonder what it says about his striker’s instincts, as in most cases you would expect a genuine goal scorer not to want to give up an opportunity to score a goal, in the feint hope of being awarded a penalty?

Still at least we’re going into Sunday’s game on the back of a successful outing when there were times during the game in Belgrade when it looked as if we’d blown our best chances. Moreover, with six points already in the Champions League back, the pressure is off somewhat in the remaining group games.

Although I’m not sure this will prove in our eventual interest, as if we end up qualifying with games in hand, Arsène’s likely to send out a lightweight line-up for the last couple of games if the results are irrelevant. When this has happened in the past, I’ve got the distinct impression that by doing so, le Gaffer has been giving out the wrong signals to his side and instead of some of the fringe members of our squad going out there with something to prove, our entire team fails to turn up and we invariably either end up having to bring on the big guns to try and effect a rescue at the death, or we end up with an embarrassing result, which will often have repercussions in our Premiership campaign, as far as our momentum is concerned.

Besides, as we’ve witnessed on our two most recent matches, bringing on the big guns as substitutes often doesn’t have the desired effect because when you start matches playing at such a low tempo, it’s invariably impossible to suddenly shift through the gears and inject some pace into the match (even when you go two or three goals down!!).

It’s strange because as the season has progressed, Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge has assumed increasing importance for both teams. If Chelsea are unable to turn us over, this will only confirm the suggestion that their dominance to date has been misleading because their season commenced with such an easy run of games. And should the Gunners fail to stand up to the Blues and offer them some serious resistance, the media will immediately be writing off the Arsenal as serious title contenders, believing us to be a team of flat-track bullies who simply roll over and play dead when faced with more experienced, more physical and equally talented opposition.

I guess it’s also a massive game for le Gaffer, as nothing less than a draw at the Bridge will suffice, if we are seriously to believe our manager’s mantra about his squad having developed in stature and having acquired the necessary maturity and resilience.

Myself I invariably fancy the Gunners to always at least give a good account of themselves against the big fish because we can rest assured that they’ll be sufficiently motivated. But, like most other Gooners I imagine, quite frankly I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I’m bricking it, for fear that the Blues will once again thwart the attack of Arsène’s team of “Time Bandits” and we might end up humiliated.

Here’s hoping I’ve tempted fate, Fabregas (if he makes it!) and of course Fabianski all to prove me wrong

Come on you Reds

Big Love

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Anonymous said...

Eleven years you've been commenting? One wouldn't know it, to be honest. And I don't think you can blame the TV. Maybe you should ask yourself why you blame a holding midfielder for an opponent forward getting free in the box for a point blank tackle. Personally, I'd want the midfielders to make sure no one else supports the guy, and allow the FOUR BACKS to handle that forward -- but no doubt you know better.

Do you think your bellowing back would have yelled at Denilson because he failed to pick up the PB forward himself?

Not all your analysis is nonsense. The three goals from West Brom are clear proof of Wenger's remark that it takes 4-5 mistakes to give up a goal. One less -- like a sliding tackle from behind to cover other mistakes -- and there is nothing. But, no, you blame Denilson.

Who ran more and passed more than anyone on the field -- how does your "lazy" remark answer that?

What I think is that like most frustrated fans you are on autopilot most of the time -- your comments and thoughts are never original or incisive, but repeat what one can read from 20 other sources -- so this means Denilson and Song are lazy, poor, brainless, don't care, and certainly without the spark of English Jack. Its sad you let your bias and laziness interfere with your appreciation of the game. One poor game by Song negates all the past -- he is crap. No effort on your part to speculate why -- just lack of good old English effort and focus. How lazy and complacent.

I expect your Chelsea coverage to repeat the meme about them being bigger and heavier, and why that is the cause of their success, and yet another reason why AW is a failure. Of course, that height and weight hasn't cut it in the Champions League, has it

Bern said...

(your comment inspired such a long-winded response - nothing new there then! - that I've had to split my reply up into answers of less than 4096 characters :-)

Nonsense it may be (in your opinion) but you can't accuse me of regurgitated nonsense, as I rarely read anything in the newspapers nowadays, or online, so whatever I have to say is based on what I've seen (with perhaps the Sunday Supplement on Sky, although 90 per cent of that is nonsense and Alan Davies Up For Grabs podcast as the only possible sources of plagiarism)

My missive was so long that I'm not sure if I accused Song of being lazy and I can't be bothered to check. I believe I accused him and pretty much the entire team of being lethargic, which is definitely not the same thing.

Arshavin strikes me as having a tendency towards laziness, whereas there are others in the current side who in my humble opinion, can be perceived as having an air of laziness about them but as far as I'm concerned, this is largely due to their laid-back attitude.

Song is invariably one of the hardest working players in an Arsenal shirt and I would guess that the stats might demonstrate that he covers a lot more ground than many of the others. But in partnership with Denilson, I believe both of them have a tendency for not sensing danger early enough and as a result they all too often seem to end up trying to recover situations, by making difficult tackles when the opponent has already got goalside of them, instead of spotting the potential problem early on and sticking close to an opponent so that he might not receive the ball in the first place because he's too tightly marked.

I'm certainly don't view Wilshere, or any other British players for rose-tinted specs. While I think it would be absolutely brilliant for the club as a whole, to have a core of players who are genuine Arsenal, this doesn't prevent me from criticizing them any less when merited.

For example, in his first couple of performances this season, I was moaning that Jack looked like he was playing with the handbrake on. I questioned whether this was due to him having been instructed to keep things simple and to avoid making major rickets, or whether he was just finding his feet in the first team, or perhaps he just lacked the balls to try anything, for fear of being made to look foolish.

In my opinion Wilshere is bound to make mistakes, it's part of the learning process and I would much prefer to see him making errors, trying something audacious, than for him to be playing in fear and ending up giving away a two yard pass.

No sooner had I said this, than we witnessed Wilshere getting caught in possession four times, by hungrier opposition (Sunderland?), trying the exact same dragback on each occasion.

Personally I believe that the fact that our two most recent performances have been nothing to write home about is not down to laziness, it's the lack of leadership that's the big problem, as unfortunately we seem to be getting back into the habit of starting games at such a low-tempo and just don't seem to be sufficiently fired up for my liking (in the past I blamed that Elvis dirge, as I hardly think it's the sort of tune to get the adrenaline pumping). When we really need to be coming out of the starting blocks (as Lynford would say) on the "B" of the "bang" so that our opponents don't get time to settle and grow sufficiently comfortable on the ball that they begin to believe they can get something from the game.

Bern said...


It's all too easy to thwart our intricate passing game if it's not played at a high-tempo because the opposition always have enough time to get eleven bodies behind the ball, making it impossible to pick a path through them. What's more, we know only too well from past experience, that when you start a match at a slow plodding pace, it's very hard to turn things around and it will often take conceding a goal and the crowd getting stoked up, before we can stir ourselves out of our slumber.

How often have we sat watching the the closing stages of an Arsenal game in recent times, when we've been either trying to salvage a result, or to secure three points, asking ourselves why we couldn't have exerted the same sort of pressure early on?

Who knows what the causes of this problem are and whether it's just that the players have been so assiduously taught to be patient and to be confident that their superior quality will eventually prove telling, that they believe that if they wait long enough, a goal will come their way. But as far as the answer is concerned, I've always felt that it's the lack of leadership that prevents us from reacting to games where we have no momentum and the sort of Tony Adams type figure who can stand in the centre of the park, gesticulating with both arms, driving the team forward whenever they've a flat-footed tendency to be stood on their heels.

Bern said...


As far as Sunday's encounter is concerned, I guess I should refer you back to my diary entry following our ignominious Champions League and FA Cup exits. I've always argued against the whole, simplistic "boys v men" theory. I refer to Wenger's diddy men as "Time Bandits" because I recall a Chelsea fan at work commenting that it was like the Attack of the Time Bandits, long before others used this analogy and I was sufficiently tickled by his description to plagiarize it.

However as far as I'm concerned, the size issue is not so much a physical matter, as a psychological problem because we've lacked the sort of "they shall not pass" big personalities, who are capable of inspiring their team mates to believe themselves capable of competing with Chelsea's experienced (aging?) stars.

I must admit that I do have the odd mate in the media, one of whom tried to reassure me this evening with a reminder that traditionally we've not struggled to give a good account of ourselves at Stamford Bridge.

I'll never give stick to an Arsenal side, so long as I feel they've given us 100 per cent and that is all I ever ask for. When the final whistle goes, no matter the result, so long as they leave me feeling that they've left everything out on the pitch then they deserve my applause.

While I would never boo anyone in red & white, the only time I get aggravated is when I'm left feeling that we haven't done ourselves proper justice.

I imagine that like every other Gooner, if we play badly on Sunday and fail to run our socks off but still somehow manage to fluke a single goal win, I won't be complaining. But to be perfectly honest, if we fail to win, after giving it a good go and end up hit by a swift counter attack, after piling on the pressure, I won't be too upset, provided we've produced a performance which doesn't leave the media believing we can't live with the likes of Chelsea and don't deserve to be challenging for the title.

On the evidence we've seen to date, I'm yet to be convinced we are a match for the Blues over the course of the Premiership marathon and Sunday's three points won't prove crucial unless we're going to end up challenging them for the big prize(s). Naturally I would love to return to Highbury Sunday evening to gloat over the three points, but at the end of the day, I will be content so long as Arsène's team have proved our manager correct and have given us cause to believe in his assertions about this squad's developments, rather than having to endure the sort of performance that will only end up with us thinking that Wenger doesn't really believe the tosh he keeps feeding us and is merely sticking true to his beliefs about toeing the party line.