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Thursday 30 December 2010

It's Behind You

I guess a comic ending at Wigan was fitting, considering it's the pantomime season. But as much as I adore Arsène Wenger, in my most humble opinion, if le Gaffer has one almighty blind spot, it's in his cold clinical attitude to the game and a statistical mindset, which apparently leaves him unable to weigh up the significance of such intangibles as gut feeling and the sort of instincts that might've convinced some of his peers to put out their best XI at Wigan, in the certain knowledge that we'd have been travelling to Birmingham on Saturday far less burdened by legs (or minds?) filled with lactic acid and any thoughts of fatigue, with a victory under our belts.

I can fully appreciate Arsène's logic in wanting to rotate his squad, during the hectic run of fixtures over the festive period. However I've always firmly believed that those players on the bench who spend long periods of the 90 mins running up & down the touchline and who then come on like Nasri & Walcott, to chase the game for the last few frantic minutes, they expend just as much adrenaline and end up no more refreshed than those who've played the entire 90.

Moreover, you only had to look at the disappointment etched on the faces of some of our players, as they came over to acknowledge the travelling faithful at the final whistle, devastated by their failure to consolidate Monday night's spanking of the Blues, with a win at the DW, to be able to appreciate quite how much more important it was for us to build some momentum tonight by maintaining that winning feeling, than to try and give so many of our best players some R & R.

That's not Diaby, Denilson & Squillaci in the starting XI?

Surely some mistake?

Instead of which, sadly, as is all too often the case, we end up climbing the ladder against Chelsea, only to carelessly slip back down the Lactic's snake. Pray tell me what exactly is the point in trying to keep players fresh for the business end of the season, if we are to end up with nothing to play for, before there's any blossom on the trees?

AW might be obliged to talk up a point away to Wigan, but we've patently failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity to try and exert a little pressure on Man Utd and perhaps more importantly (in light of the fact we've hardly performed this season with any hint of the consistency necessary to mount a concerted title challenge), we've wasted a rare chance to put a little breathing space between us and all those other Champions League wannabees.

We've also managed to ramp up the pressure on us to produce a result at St. Andrews on Saturday. Whereas I fancy that if Arsène had focused more on winning tonight's game than on maintaining his team on a statistical even-keel as far as fatigue is concerned, we could've been travelling to Birmingham at the weekend with everyone feeling a far greater sense of well-being, following a midweek victory and as a result with everyone able to perform with far more freedom, in hope of a win, rather than in fear of defeat.

As astute as Arsène was with his team selection on Monday night, he couldn't have been more wide of the mark tonight, if he'd tried. In fact the injury to Diaby was about the most fortuitous thing to happen up to that point in the match (although many might argue that we'd have been better off if Denilson, Fabianski or Squillaci to name but three, had been injured instead). However prior to Jack Wilshere's appearance from the bench, we struggled to put our foot on the ball and control possession.

Worse still Denilson & Diaby presented Wigan with such a powder puff core at the heart of our midfield that the likes of N'Zogbia & Rodallega were able to breeze through at will, to cause our backline a major headache.
Although I've often criticized Denilson as being neither sufficiently manly, or committed enough to play the holding role, nor nearly talented enough to replace Fabregas, I've always been reluctant to write the Brazilian lad off completely, trusting in AW's belief that the best is yet to come.

However from where we stood behind Fabianski's goal in the first-half, I caught sight of Denilson crouching down, seemingly trying to catch his breath, from as early as 10 mins in and enough times after that to leave me in some doubt about the lad's match fitness.

Yet far more disconcerting (and perhaps not unrelated to his fitness level) was the number of times during this evening's game that I was unable to contain myself from bawling out the Brazilian for ball watching. Now I come from the school of terrace thought where I've always believed that as supporters, we are there to support our team and as much as I might coat off a players in private, I've always felt that they are hardly likely to be encouraged to try harder & to work their socks off, when they're receiving untold stick from our own fans.

Perhaps I'm growing more intolerant in my dotage, or perhaps a midweek trip to Wigan, with a return to Euston in the wee hours, followed by a hard day's graft for the ballet, is such an exhaustingly long schlep, that the very least I expect in return is some evidence of earnest endeavour on the pitch. But where once I might have bitten my tongue and responded to the catcalls of other Gooners, by offering the target of their ire even louder encouragement, last night, on the many occasions Denilson wafted out a leg in his downright feeble attempts to halt the Lactics' progress, I found myself growing increasingly irate at his patent failure to put any effort into trying to recover the situation.

Although Alex Song still seems to get caught, failing to get goalside of his opponent on far too many occasions for my liking, to Alex's credit, he's in the habit of working like a Trojan to rectify matters, even if he does concede a few too many naive free-kicks around the edge of the area, in trying to make a challenge when chasing back towards our goal, when if he'd had the forethought to get goalside, he'd be tackling face on. Whereas this evening we witnessed a stark reminder of those miserable occasions from seasons past, when the TV pictures of us conceding a goal, shown from the camera behind the onion bag, these have frequently portrayed our Brazilian midfielder in the background, ambling back towards the goal, hardly busting a gut to get back and offer our defence some support.

Watching a game as an away fan, from behind the goal at the DW Stadium, this apparent indolence was that much more obvious, as time after time Denilson was bypassed in midfield and I stood there apoplectic with rage, at his lack of urgency to even attempt to make amends. It's as if the lad believes that once the opposition have breached his feeble midfield bulwark, the responsibility becomes that of our defence alone to deal with the threat.

By contrast, you only had to watch the likes of Scott Parker busting a gut all over the pitch at Upton Park the previous evening to appreciate the opposite end of this energy level spectrum. Where Parker has the experience to know that even if he has no chance of getting there to prevent the player with the ball from taking a pop at goal, he continues haring back at full pelt, in the knowledge that if the keeper should parry the ball, he might just make it in time to prevent a tap in.

Having done my best to argue that Denilson might still need time to mature into the sort of talented all-round ball player that Arsène obviously believes he has the promise of becoming, sadly I have to admit that I'm finally coming to the conclusion that if such basic tenets of the unglamorous, "water carrying" aspects of the beautiful game still haven't been banged into his seemingly impenetrable bonce by now, then they never will be?

If like life, the Gunners are a box of chocolates, I'm afraid that Denilson is always going to be the soft centre at the crucial heart of our side, that's likely to melt at the most inopportune moment!

But it's wrong of me to save all my disapprobation for the Brazilian. I'm yet to reach home on my long trek back from the North-East and so have yet to suffer the masochistic act of watching the highlights on MOTD. But on seeing Wigan score their equaliser from the opposite end of the pitch, it seemed to me that Flappy Handski had absolutely no chance of ever getting to the corner which resulted in the home side's second goal and if Lucasz had stopped on his line, it might have been a relatively easy save to make.

Moreover, I couldn't see enough to say quite how culpable Squillaci was for this goal, but whether or not the French centre-back was at fault, whenever I've cause to focus my attention on him, the one single thought that always comes to mind is that at his elderly statesman like age, if Sebastien was truly anything more than a journeyman pro, then surely he'd have been picked up by a bigger club, long before le Boss came a calling?

Thomas Rosicky was earnest enough in his endeavours and I've a feeling that amongst some of his more incisive passes was one that led to our second goal. Nevertheless for all Rosicky's hard graft, I invariably get the sense that ultimately his efforts result in very little end product. What's more, studying Thomas through my binoculars in the build up to a Wigan free-kick and his passive part in putting a seemingly haphazard wall together to protect Fabianski's goal, the Czech lad patently doesn't have the necessary personality to lead the troops as the Arsenal skipper.

But then who does in the current Arsenal side? To be perfectly frank, while I'm sure there were others out there on the park this evening who were keen to prove a point (if only the disappointment Bendtner expressed at the final whistle was mirrored in his performance, but then Nicky is no more a winger than I am!), as far as I'm concerned, the only player who I noticed demonstrating the necessary desire was Jack Wilshere and I left the ground thinking that (unless I missed the evidence of others in a yellow shirt showing their commitment to the Arsenal's cause) Jack alone proved to me that he wanted the three points on offer this evening quite as much as I did.

Having travelled up to Wigan on the travel club's "footie special" train service - a throwback to days of yore and something I hope they will persevere with, despite the fact that of the amazingly healthy turnout of 5,000 Gooners (so I'm told), only about a 100 of us came on the train - this at least ensured that I arrived at the DW Stadium sufficiently early that I was tempted to turn around and head for a stroll down Wigan Pier for an hour or so, for fear of ruining the tardy reputation that I've been cultivating for so many years.

The Gunners mimic this Gooner's tardy habits

Mind you I was somewhat surprised to discover that I'd arrived there even before the team, who's coach only rolled up to the ground an hour before KO. I'm don't usually arrive early enough to know whether this is the Gunners' customary schedule, but some might conclude that this sort of approach would suggest to the home side that we aren't really taking our opponents particularly seriously.

Add to this the revelation that Arsène had made eight changes, with the likes of Van Persie, Song and of course our club captain Fabregas not even bothering to make the journey, leaving what amounts to basically the weakest possible side Wenger could have put out, what more encouragement did Roberto Martinez require in order to motivate his team, by demonstrating to them that we were under the impression that we only had to turn up, in order to return back down South with all three points in the bag!

Still at least I was inside the ground early enough to take advantage of the free mince pies that were on offer on the counters of the bars on the concourse. Can anyone imagine the Scrooge-like suits in charge of the catering at the Arsenal making such a generous, festive gesture at our gaff?

Then again, they'd have to break open a few thousand boxes of mince pies to please a full-house crowd at our place, whereas I'm sure the local late-night grocers would've been able to cater for the shamefully meagre turn out of home punters at the DW (another reminder if one was required, that Wigan will always remain basically a rugby town).

Everyone (in red & white that is) left the stadium bitterly disappointed at having blown three points, against a team, which despite the best efforts of what appears to be Martinez's astute management, look very likely relegation candidates. Mercifully for the few of us returning back on the 23.15 charter train, not all was lost.

Arriving back at the station after an obligatory stop at Burger King to kill the waiting time with some fast food polyfilla, I was surprised to see the team coach once again, pulling into the station car park. Enquiries with the rozzers who were tasked with keeping the baying hordes (half a dozen weary Gooners and a handful of well lubricated locals) from bothering the occupants, resulted in the response "this lot....taking the must be joking". According to him they were heading back to Blackpool airport for a flight home to Luton.

However, after hanging around for half an hour or so, getting my nicotine level up for a four hour train trip, envious of the Gunners, with their feet up on the coach watching Match of the Day on their TV screens (wondering what they'd make of the highlights and whether any of them would groan at Fabianski's gaff for the equalising goal), it eventually came to light that there was fog at Luton airport and as a result, we were to be ejected from our First Class seats, as the team would be joining all the plebs on the return train trip and the front three carriages were reserved for their exclusive use (it was ever thus!).

While the typical "angry of Tunbridge Wells" whinging Gooners were threatening to write to the Travel Club for a refund, the rest of us were chuffed to bits, as (immature kids that we are when it comes to the slightest chance of fraternizing with our heroes) it positively made our day out. I was hanging out the window of the train, with my iPhone at hand, the video app all set up just waiting to hit the record button, only to discover that I should've remained in my seat, as I'd missed them all, as they'd taken a back route.

Mercifully I didn't make the same mistake twice and was hanging out the window, eagerly waiting to record their departure from the train when we arrived at Watford Junction. You'd have imagined that there would've been plenty of us who would've been eager to give the Gunners (or some of them at least) a peace of our mind. However in a world where our heroes have become more and more detached from their fan base (although nowadays at least the likes of Twitter has begun to redress this imbalance), hidden behind electrified fences and 12-foot metal gates, unless you have upwards of a couple of hundred quid to fritter away, in order to join the prawn sandwich supporters at any of these "black tie" charity dos, the prospects of an opportunity for any face-to-face interaction with these superstars of modern football have become so few and far between, that everyone was far too delighted to see them all, up close and personal, to even consider any negative comments.

Never mind the distress of schlepping all the way to Wigan only to see the Gunners blow it (again!), as you'll hear the lunatic comment (more then once) in the attached video, such a soppy thing as seeing your heroes pass by on the platform of Watford Junction positively made our trip!

What's more, I'm not sure we'd have flown through green signals all the way back down South, arriving back into Euston an hour earlier than scheduled, if it wasn't for the VIPs aboard our train?

Now if only Nicky Bendtner can answer my call for a hat-trick on Saturday, we'll all be happy bunnies. But then I thought I'd better get this posted before I go to work, as I very much doubt I'll be in quite such good humour after barely any kip before a hard day's graft for the ballet!

Come on you Reds
Big Love

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Michael, Denver said...

He cares about the result and he cares about the fans: Wilshere for skipper (when Cesc is out).