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Tuesday 19 October 2010

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick, Jack Don't Jump Into The Candlestick

(seems a bit pointless posting this now, considering we've seen us mullah Shaktar 5-0 and the Spuds larf a minute match in Milan, since - poor luvs, I was almost jealous of how excited they were about their big outing and it was a poignant reminder quite how much we take the Champions League group stages for granted - but since I've had this missive sitting on my machine these past few days, I wasn't about to delete it. Read or ignore as you so choose....)

Howdy fellow Gooners,

Saturday's win began to look all the better, by the time both Man Utd and Chelsea had dropped a couple of points. I had the bore draw at Villa Park on the box live, but wasn't really concentrating and so I'm unsure whether it was Houllier's side's performance, or a little complacency from the Blues which was most responsible (as usual it's more likely to have been a little of both). Moreover, having only seen the highlights on Match Of The Day, with the Baggies coming back from two goals down at Old Trafford, I don't really know if this was a reflection that our defeat wasn't quite the disaster if first appeared, or merely further confirmation that (on current form) Man U really don't look like a team that's likely to mount a challenge for the title.

I'm loathe to tempt fate, because as Fergie has proved time and again, if his side are still in contention come Christmas, the old dog is capable of inspiring the troops to the point where they become a totally different animal from their current lacklustre incarnation and it would be downright foolish to write them off so prematurely, knowing that they are more likely than not, to maintain a consistent run at some stage in the Premiership proceedings.

Nevertheless, although to all intents and purposes Ancelotti's side appear to be head and shoulders above the competition as title favourites, the weekend's results have served to reiterate that the sort of dogged, week in, week out three point consistency of the main contenders, which has served to demoralize us in recent seasons as we've struggled to make inroads into a significant points deficit, is perhaps not going to be attainable, in the way this campaign is beginning to shape up.

This would be a source of genuine hope for our own title credentials, if I truly believed the Gunners to be capable of the sort of consistency that meant we'd be breathing down the opposition's neck every single time they slipped up. But sadly to date, I've seen little evidence of the sort of unquenchable thirst for glory that would see us positively laying waste to lesser opposition and rarely ever looking the least bit vulnerable to defeat.

One of the aspects to the majority of our encounters which most epitomizes quite how far the Arsenal still have to go to become the real title challenging deal, is my reaction and that of the crowd in general to corners. Considering we were the club that pretty much perfected the art of the near-post flick on, back in the days of Stevie Bould and co., it's a downright tragedy quite how ineffective our set-pieces have become nowadays (or have been for several seasons now). In fact, we've grown so accustomed to our profligate failure to make corners count, constantly either failing to beat the defenders at the near post, or merely wafting the ball into the keeper's hands, that the lack of anticipation in the air whenever we're awarded another corner has become positively palpable.

There was a time when the award of a corner on home turf would be the catalyst for the crowd to exercise their vocal chords, rising to a crescendo of 'Come on you Reds' or 'Arsenal' as we did our bit to try and suck the ball into the back of the net. Whereas nowadays Arsenal corners are almost greeted with a groan, as we anticipate yet another wasted opportunity.

By contrast, such is the level of insecurity that we've grown accustomed to from our own rearguard that you can almost smell the scent of fear any time we have to defend a corner and whether we're playing table-topping giants, or lowly minnows, we end up gripping our seats, with our hearts in our mouths, in utter dread of the impending disaster possible at every single opposition set-piece.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the watermark which indicates why we continue to be the competition's most entertaining team of nearly men and as much as I've enjoyed Arsène's efforts to prove that success is possible by means of simply outscoring the opposition in every game, I always find myself harking back to that age old cliché about all great teams having been built from the back.

Who knows, with their growing confidence, perhaps Marouane Chamakh and Thomas Vermaelen will develop into the sort of players who have the knack of getting themselves into the right spot in the box and the determination to go through a brick wall if necessary, in order to get their heads on the end of our corners.

We can at least be grateful that Theo Walcott appears to have the resolve to make the very most of his talent, by seemingly spending hours on the training pitch perfecting the art of imparting velocity on a dead ball. As a result this will hopefully mean that we are no longer solely reliant on Robin Van Persie to spank set-pieces into the box with the sort of pace that gives cause for concern to even the most assured of defences.

Considering the amount of time our players spend on the training ground, I've always found it somewhat incredible that for all our squad's bountiful talents, RVP seemed to be the only really decent free-kick taker. And considering our renown in recent years for being vertically challenged, quite frankly I've never understood the point of the Fabregas and others simply floating balls into the box, which have invariably proved meat and drink to the opposition defence, when it seems so blatantly obvious that a ball struck at pace is always going to be more difficult to deal with. Instead of just one and now potentially two, surely a team like the Arsenal should have at least half a dozen players capable of curling one in from thirty yards. Shava has shown himself capable of doing just this in open play, as I suspect have Nasri and Rosicky.

But where Theo appears to have spent his summer fuelled by a burning desire to prove himself worthy of all those teenage plaudits, perhaps the reluctance of others to want to take such responsibility is symptomatic of the Gunners' malaise?

I shouldn't be knocking Nasri or Rosicky, as while many will marvel at Nasri's ability on the ball, what I admire most about little Samir, is his willingness to give as good as he gets and Rosicky is a grafter and all I ever ask of our players is that they at least work their socks off. As I've said in my piece below, Tommie covered more ground in five minutes than Shave had the entire previous seventy and while we all adore the diminutive Russian's special footballing gifts, there's a growing mood of displeasure amongst Gooners on the terraces at what is perceived to be a blatant lack of effort on Shava's part. It might not be so obvious when watching on the box, but there's many an Arsenal break where the ball will just pass him by in the middle of the park and it comes across as downright disrespectful to those of us who make such sacrifices for our Arsenal pleasures, to see players who don't even deign to make some pretence at putting in a little effort.

Perhaps we will yet see the likes of Squillaci and Koscielny developing into the sort of formidable centre-back partnership which is capable of restoring some much needed composure to our defence of corners and set-pieces. Although I've always contended for more seasons than I care to remember that our defensive woes can only truly be cured by means of the reassurance of a world class keeper.

As Edwin Van Der Saar demonstrated at Old Trafford on Saturday, even the world's most experienced goalies are liable to the occasional major boo-boo. Who'd be a keeper eh? Every other player on the park will make several mistakes a match, a goalie can make a million marvelous saves but his gaffes will always make the headlines.

I can forgive a goalie when he makes a near-post blunder, or a hare-brained dash from his line but it's never been our keepers errors which have bothered me most, but their patent lack of authority which has always been my greatest cause for concern. Without it, our defence is always going to appear panic-striken in their efforts to nullify the opposition because they need that crucial reassurance of an authoritative keeper to be able to defend with any real composure. Otherwise they're left feeling obliged to try and deal with every ball coming into the box, as they never know for certain if Almunia or Fabianski is going to come and get it, when what they really need to know is that within a specific area, they had better get out of the way, as the bloke behind them is always going to come barreling through them and anything else that gets in their way, in order to reach the ball

As it has turned out, perhaps Jack Wilshere's automatic three-game suspension could prove to be a blessing in disguise, with it seemingly perfectly timed to coincide with our captain's comeback. Wilshere has been playing so well, that it would be harsh to have to drop him the moment Fabregas returns to fitness and in most matches Wenger might have some trouble accommodating them both in the same team. I can't remember if it was Zigic who was the culprit, but as my neighbour suggested might be the case after Saturday's game, it seems to have gone unnoticed by the media that Jack was flattened by what might've been a flailing elbow that seemed to strike our precious young prodigy flush on the conk.

I've had my say about the tackling debate below, but having read Arsène's programme notes since, it seems ironic that le Gaffer returned to this favourite old chestnut, in advance of what transpired. He talks about a good tackle being one where "your feet are on the ground" and this is all well and good but a challenge only has to be slightly mistimed for the tackler's feet to meet his opponents limb in mid-air, instead of colliding with the ball on the ground and I suspect that with the vast majority of these offences, the players concerned were attempting to come into contact with the ball, not the man, on the deck but the tackle has either been badly timed, or the opponent has been too quick to shift the ball.

In my most humble opinion instead of having officials rule to the letter of the law, they have to be able to use their discretion (although this would've made little difference to Saturday's incompetent twat in black), as such hard and fast regulations only end up with farcical situations where the most perfectly timed tackle is penalised because it's been made from behind, or one of the game most artistic manoeuvres, a scissors kick, resulting in the most spectacular goal, can end up being ruled out because its deemed dangerous play, due to the striker's foot being in the air!

I was surprised to see Koscielny warming up on the pitch with the rest of the subs (apart from Bendtner, who obviously doesn't need the exercise and who I fully expected to end up straining something when he eventually came on because he was too lazy to stretch his legs!) as according to le Gaffer's programme notes, he pulled a back muscle the previous day. Considering how often I've complained in the past about Arsène's failure to focus on the opposition and select his team to best take advantage of their relative strengths and weaknesses, I have to admit that there was some speculation on Saturday as to whether he'd included Djourou amongst our tallest possible team selection, in an effort to combat Birmingham's behemoth of a striker, the 6'8" Zigic?

It annoys me when our defence have one single point of attack to focus on and they fail in their TCB duty (as I believe is the trendy current acronym for "taking care of business"). But when you are always likely to struggle to prevent the giant from getting his head on the ball, surely the answer is to ensure that you do everything possible to prevent the Croatian from being supplied with any ammunition. Could it be that Wenger has our troops so pumped up with belief in their own ability, that there's an element of arrogance in their failure to close down the Birmingham player and prevent him putting the ball into the box for Zigic to break the deadlock.

Contrast this with the spirit and work rate of the Seasiders, in their enthralling efforts to contain Man City the following day. All credit to Ian Holloway's side as they weren't so far from doing us a big favour and provided great entertainment in the process. Everyone seems to be suggesting that Mancini's battalion of mercenaries are set to pose the biggest threat to the established top of the table aristocracy. While the new Man City owners might be working according to the theory that if you put enough monkeys in front of a typewriter, they will eventually come up with Shakespeare and the law of averages should eventually favour their Italian manager with a sufficiently potent line-up, it might well prove that this massive collection of egos is just as likely to implode.

Meanwhile events have contrived to make next Sunday's encounter a massively significant clash, as it down to us to travel to the North West to demonstrate to the nouveau riche Man City monkeys that money can't buy class. Should we fail in this task, you can rest assured that the tabloids will point to this result as evidence of the demise of the natural order of things as far as Chelsea, Man Utd and our own stranglehold on Champions League qualification is concerned. There couldn't possibly be a more timely occasion for us to put a spoke in City's wheel, to impede the momentum of the Mancini charabanc, before it gathers sufficient impetus to roll right over the Gunners.

Sure it will be good to see a fit and healthy Eduardo return with Shaktar tomorrow night. But unlike all those Spurs fans under 50 years of age who are looking forward to the club's biggest night in their lifetime, with them all wetting their pants at the prospect of visiting the San Siro, I've become so blasé about the somewhat tedious six-game format of the Champions League group stages, that you'll have to forgive me if I find the prosapect of Sunday's encounter at Eastlands just a tad more intriguing

Come on you Reds
Big Love


I never thought I’d be so relieved to see Nicholas Bendtner back fit and in the squad, but along with Theo Walcott, it was great to see the return of some genuine firepower on the bench for Saturday’s game against Birmingham. The scent of imminent competition certainly didn’t seem to harm Marouane Chamakh, as the Moroccan lad had one of his most effective games in an Arsenal shirt to date. OK so the replays of the penalty incident left his tumble in the box looking just a little iffy, but from where I sit, it certainly appeared to me at the time as if there was contact.

I’m usually the first to complain about players going down too easily, especially when they choose to hit the deck, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to beat the keeper. Not that I don’t celebrate the award of a penalty, along with every other Gooner - especially on Saturday, after Birmingham had taken the lead with just about their only effort on goal, as we were desperate to get back on terms before the break, so as to prevent the visitors coming out for the second half, shutting shop on their slender lead and perhaps punishing us on the counter as we became increasingly forced to throw caution to the wind – but I want to see strikers playing in red & white with such a voracious goal poacher’s appetite that the thought of passing up a genuine goal scoring opportunity, in the hope of the ref awarding a penalty, simply wouldn’t occur to them.

It’s the absence of this sort of blinkered hunger for putting the ball in the back of the net that left us on the edge of our seats for the remainder of the afternoon After Marouane began to make a name for himself, with the sort of goal that demonstrated the very best of his goal scoring talents, only a couple of minutes after the break, we really should’ve gone on to put the result to bed, by going for the visitors throat and proving the overall gulf in class between the two sides. But while we once again dominated possession, as ever the Gunners were guilty of overplaying around the edge of the penalty area and on the terraces we were left pleading for the love of Mike (whoever Mike may be?) for someone to please take responsibility.

When Rosicky replaced Arshavin in the latter stages, he had more efforts on goal in five minutes than the little Ruski had the entire time he’d been on the pitch and Tommie’s shoot on sight policy was a refreshing change from the Gunners customary “after you Claude” habit of always looking to a team mate. In fact Shava seems to have taken to Arsène’s Zen philosophy just a little too enthusiastically, with an economy of movement which appears to have restricted the Russian to taking up one particular spot out on the park and remaining there like a little Buddha, the entire afternoon, contributing merely with the occasional wayward backheel, should the ball ever come within range of his diminutive legs.

With the tendency of opposition teams to work their socks off when they come to our place, we just can’t afford to carry any such passengers. But the problem is that Shava is one of the few (fit!) players with the natural ability to unlock the tightest of defences that you always want him out there, in the hope he might conjure up that one single moment of breathtakingly inspirational genius. Sadly such hopes went unrequited on Saturday, as the lazy little bugger left the pitch, having hardly broken sweat.

Still as events elsewhere subsequently proved, all that really mattered against McCleish’s side was the three points and hopefully the home win which might enable us to begin gathering some momentum, as our squad returns to some semblance of side capable of challenging for honours. Sadly, no sooner are players restored to fitness, than we lose others to suspension. Considering how influential Jack Wilshere has become in the Arsenal midfield of late, it will be interesting to see how we cope in his absence.

I suppose the more Arsène ranted on about the lack of protection, the more inevitable it was that fate would intervene to see the bitten biting! But perhaps the most annoying thing about Wilshere’s red card was that his OTT tackle became the focus, instead of a display where Jack was both nimble, quick and constantly making mugs of Blue-shirted candlesticks.

In an age where we’re always complaining about the lack of commitment of many of football’s modern day mercenaries, I find it just a little perverse that we’ve managed to start a witch-hunt, which is invariably going to end up punishing any evidence of over-enthusiasm. Personally I like the idea that Wilshere was so peeved by his clumsy first touch that he let rip in trying to recover the ball.

Give me this manifestation of how much it means to them, any day, over the sort of laidback indifference that really leaves devotees like me losing their rag. And if the price we have to pay for such an intense brand of football is the occasional broken limb, as far as I’m concerned this is far preferable to seeing our frenetic version of the beautiful game over-officiated, to the point where it’s unrecogniseable from the sedate, quite frankly, boring version of the sport played elsewhere.

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