Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wenger Delusion: Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea

A few days ago Arsene Wenger made the mistake of billing this a definitive, coming of age moment for the current Arsenal team. Our time had indeed come. For another demoralising spanking from Chelsea, that is.

On a day when we were second best in just about every department, ripped apart yet again by our Nemesis Drogba, toothless in attack, and bullied in midfield, the single most worrying aspect for me was Wenger's sour post-match interview. Ok, grace in defeat has never been the Frenchman's trademark, but if he really believes even half of what he says, our fallow period may be stretching further than we'd like to contemplate.

He refused to concede defeat in the title race. Fair enough, in November there's no need to concede anything, even if he is being a little optimistic. But the way he refused to give Chelsea much credit was embarrassing. Wenger said something along the lines of, not seeing anything in Chelsea today to suggest they wouldn't drop points...??? Ok, they will indeed drop points, but enough to affect such a swing that Arsenal will finish above them? Doubtful. And sometimes you've got to give the opposition some credit. I agree that they weren't THAT good but that's because they didn't have to be. If they can win so comprehensively without ever really getting into top gear, it's a COMPLIMENT to them and a damning INDICTMENT of the team you have built Arsene. Not cause for optimism.

The best that could come out of it is if he admits that, and tries to solve the glaring deficiencies that still exist. He's built a squad made for La Liga that gets bullied in the Premiership. I was very apprehensive about our lack of physical stature in the lead up to this game and my anxiety proved justified. True, we were unlucky to be without Bendtner, Van Persie and even Diaby for the visit of the league's most powerful side, but you'd wonder what difference it would have made. It' sad in itself that I'm pining for the presence of Diaby, a man I've constantly pilloried for months.

I've nothing much to say about the match itself. It was genuinely depressing to watch, as was Wenger's groping for excuses afterwards- the disallowed goal was disappointing but understandable; Vela's dive was reprehensible, never a penalty; and what of the foul commited by Sagna on Anelka in the first half? No mention of that from our myopic leader. We must have had about five efforts on goal all game. Our possession football was largely ineffective, rare were the occasions that the visitors looked stretched. And defensively, we gave up the chances that Chelsea knew were coming, and they were ruthless, efficient, all the things you expect from winners.

You can talk all you want about the good that can come from a chastening defeat against hated rivals. But last season we suffered the same at home to both United and Chelsea. Where is the progress? Is our manager too blinkered, too blindly idealistic to react in the necessary way? After the news on Van Persie- four to five months out- today's match added cutting insult to devastating injury.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arsenal 2-0 Liege, and more apprehension

It's job done in Europe. Arsenal are through as group winners with a game to spare, and with the group we were gifted, that would have been the expected outcome.

That said, as I've been repeating over and over, even on otensibly comfortable nights this team looks vulnerable and there are continuing signs they will come unstuck against top opposition. The next such encounter is upon us and despite the 100% home record so far, I'm far from confident.

The last time we triumphed against fellow members of the top four was at chelsea, in that strange league game around this time last season. As I recall, we didn't really turn up that day, were trailing to a Djourou own goal, and then somehow turned the game without really doing all that much. Van Persie got one goal where he was clearly offside, then another from a half chance, and chelsea offered little in response.

But that was a different chelsea to what we will face Sunday, although the personnel hasn't changed much. They were unsure of themselves at home at the time, and Scolari, in hindsight, was probably already losing the confidence of his players. Since then, the Hiddink version outplayed Arsenal in an FA cup semi-final, battered us on our own patch in the league; United taught us a lesson over two legs in Europe, and won the league with a comfortable draw at Old Trafford; and we've drawn twice with Liverpool. And then this season we somehow allowed an off-colour United to plunder a win from a poor game in Manchester.

That's eight games, five defeats, no wins.

If you want to factor in the city defeat of this season aswell, it leaves the sense that this Arsenal side don't really deal well with the big occasion. It's something they really need to start doing. The young players are building experience, but we don't want experienced bridesmaids, or perennial nearly men. They need to win these sorts of matches, or the trophies will never follow.

It's all very well Wenger lauding semi-final appearances; the fact is in both competitions Arsenal were well beaten as soon as they encountered genuinely strong opposition.

chelsea have been talking up their chances before Sunday, you'd hope Wenger will use that to provide a little added motivation. The last time we beat Man United, I got the sense that maybe Ferguson didn't show us the usual respect. They went for the jugular early and it led to an open game, the type in which Arsenal almost always come out on top. Since then they've returned to the more cagey style that serves them well against Arsenal. But I hope chelsea are now perhaps seeing themselves as the better side and will get a little over-confident. They haven't played many difficult away games, and have lost at both Villa and Wigan. They also struggled at home to United to an undeserved victory, so while they are gaining a lot of plaudits they have some difficult tests ahead, especially, one expects, during and after the African Nations cup.

But let's face it, they'll look at Arsenal and see weaknesses to be exploited. These were shown again in Tuesday's game. While dominating against poor opposition, Arsenal needed two fairly lucky goals- unlikely to happen against chelsea- and gave up chances very cheaply. Liege twice rattled woodwork, should have had a penalty and missed a sitter. And as I watched Arsenal attack, the ghost of a fit Van Persie again haunted my mind. There was some nice stuff played, but not the type of thing you expect to see chelsea troubled too much by.

As stated, I'm not too optimistic about Sunday, though I can imagine it being a draw. Obviously, it's vital that we get the first goal. Then perhaps we could show some of the discipline of the second half of the Spurs game, and maybe open them up on the break.

What's most damning is the palpable panic surrounding the loss of Van Persie and, potentially, Gallas. This situation perfectly illustrates the shortcomings of an uneven squad. We have, on the one hand, Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky, Arshavin, Walcott all available... but not one striker who you'd see as suited to the centre forward role. And when one of our first choice centre halves is doubtful, there is no talk of able deputies, only desperate prayers and nightmarish visions of what Didier Drogba could do to either Mikael Silvestre or, god forbid, his old buddy Big Philly.

Not that any of our rearguard has covered itself in glory against the big Ivorian. Arsenal have never beaten him, and the news that even Lamptard could be back is further proof that perhaps the gods are not smiling on us just at the moment. But then, this is the Premiership gentlemen- the gods will not save you. And the false one in charge of Arsenal should have done more in the Summer to prevent just this kind of "ill fate".

Monday, November 23, 2009

early chelsea thoughts

A bit early to be turning to the chelsea game, with the champions League job still to be done against Liege midweek, but it occurred to me today- personnel dictates that Wenger shall not be relishing the make-or-break game.

Again, my worries revolve primarily around the physicality, or lack thereof, in the current Arsenal team. And we know there's probably no team better equipped to exploit it than chelsea. The likes of Stoke and, in their Allardyce incarnation, Bolton can knock us out of our stride with their attritional assault, but chelsea have players with talent to match their grit, and thus have often proved our worst nightmare. In the FA cup semi-final last season, Arsenal were not just outfought but outplayed too by their London neighbours.

That game is an interesting case study. Wenger is usually stubborn in what he wants his team to do, doesn't take his cue from the opposition. That day was an exception. With the Wembley pitch in tatters, the manager seemed to anticipate a scrappy game, and chose to some extent to play the game on the opposition's terms, playing Diaby and dropping Van Persie into an ineffective five-man midfield. The diminutive Arshavin was benched (and scored four at Anfield when unleashed days later).
This last move by Wenger has been brought up many a time by his critics. But then, on some level you can see the logic. chelsea are lethal from set plays and Arsenal's team lacks height. More bemusing was the exclusion of the combative Song.

In any case, it seems that this weekend Wenger may not even have much of a choice. As I've been saying, the options that would be brought in when added stature is needed- Bendtner, Diaby and to some extent Van Persie, although he'd be playing anyway- are injured. I'm not sure about the Diaby situation, but I'm gonna have to contradict myself and say I hope he's back in time, because I have a bad feeling we could get murdered in the air otherwise. At least Denilson has returned as an option to add solidity in midfield, but he's not a man who'd add a great deal of aerial prowess.

It might take a large slice of luck to come through this game unscathed. The continued unavailability of Lampard, Drogba and Ballack would do nicely, but in unlucky November, I'll not hold my breath...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Kingdom For A Clean Sheet: Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal

There are probably Arsenal fans who are shocked and devastated by a result they will perceive as raising serious question marks over any possibility of a title tilt. Not me. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, as the question marks have been present this season in triumph and in defeat.

I did mention some weeks ago that Arsenal were in danger of straying into pygmy territory with the set of players Wenger has assembled. Now, shorn of Diaby and Van Persie, we finally managed to put out a team with, by my reckoning, not one outfield player standing six foot tall. After seventy minutes of hearing Matt Le Tiss describe very little of note from the Stadium of Light, I was starting to warm to the prospect of a goalless draw. You almost take it for granted now that Arsenal's rhythmic passing game stutters after each international break. So a clean sheet and a point wouldn't have been so bad. But it was always going to be the case that if there were set plays, there would be trouble. Vermaelen attacks the ball brilliantly and has great spring, but beyond him, do we have one player with any aerial ability? Gallas has a knack of drifting into goalscoring positions himself, but in his own box he's often found wanting. And further up the pitch we've got a bunch of diminutive playmakers and goalscorers who probably don't fancy aerial battles, or are not equipped to win them. As I said before, it sheds some light on just why Diaby and Bendtner were often getting picked ahead of ostensibly superior players earlier this season. With the team we had out today, it was always likely that if Sunderland beat Vermaelen from a set play, they could score. And so it proved with the only goal. Hardly ideal preparation for chelsea next week.

In the attacking sense, Van Persie's injury could be very costly. The team is potentially left with no kind of physical presence, no focal point up front. Eduardo has suffered a career-threatening injury, which may have changed his mindset when going into 50-50 challenges. Van Persie of course is no stranger to injuries but he's a big lad and always puts himself about. Eduardo's game is more about movement than physicality. Having him as our only real option up front will heighten the feeling in other teams that they can hassle us out of our stride; this puts great pressure on the silky passing because there is effectively no plan B. Allied to this is the worry that Eduardo has become hesitant in front of goal, his trademark cool efficiency having been absent of late.

In effect it seems that Wenger has assembled a lopsided squad. We have depth in certain areas, but at the moment we can't put out a team suited to a difficult Premiership away game. These selections should always be a case of horses-for-courses, but in a starting eleven like today's, the onus is on Alex Song to provide a platform, pretty much alone, for the rest to play. Reports suggest he was again impressive but he needs help, and Denilson's imminent return won't be a moment too soon. Even then, Wenger seems inexplicably content with the scenario of our only muscular midfield presence leaving for Africa without any adequate cover, and that, my friends, is farcical.

The result today need not be fatal to title hopes, chelsea at home next week providing the platform for instant impetus. But Arsenal's squad looks ill-prepared for the navigation of what is now a make-or-break fixture. And only for the loss of a few players- for all the talk of an extended injury list, that's all it takes for this group to look vulnerable. chelsea were today missing Drogba, Lampard, Ballack. Even if those guys don't make the Emirates game, I won't be overly confident. After all, Sunderland were without Gordon, Turner, clattermole and Jones and still won. The suspicion still lingers that this Arsenal side are flat track bullies who struggle against the better teams in the league. I'll be happy to be proven wrong, but it's the hope that kills ya, so I'll avoid the pitfalls of excessive optimism. For now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thoughts on "the Travesty of Paris" Part 2

Yesterday I focused mainly on France, and Henry, and mentioned little of the finest Irish performance I have ever witnessed.

As mentioned, nothing of what we'd seen in the campaign so far realistically suggested that Ireland could overturn the deficit from the home leg of the tie. Trapattoni had done a stellar job of organising the mess he inherited from Staunton into a genuinely hard to beat side, but he had done so at the expense of any flair or positive football. Andy Reid was thus exiled, despite his often excellent form for Sunderland. While there seems a personal grudge at the heart of the matter, it's also probably true that Trap felt Reid a luxury player for a side that would need ten outfield battlers. It's even worth wondering how the Italian would use the habitually adventurous Stephen Ireland, had he been available.

The ten group games became a success story- not one defeat among them- but six draws told the tale that, aesthetically, this was something of a slog. Of the victories- two against both cyprus and Georgia- none were particularly convincing. Against Bulgaria and Italy, Ireland had some good spells of play. In both of the Bulgaria games, a goal lead saw the Irish fall back into costly cautiousness, but it seemed the manager preferred this to potential defeat arising from a more attacking policy. Likewise the home game against Italy saw a strong start and a goal followed by a retreat into our proverbial shell. Even in the wins and the two goalless games against Montenegro, Ireland barely asserted themselves against the minnows, seemingly unable to take control. The only sustained instance of this was against the ten men of Italy, who dropped back on the defensive in typical style and were punished with Keane's late equaliser.

So, the question was, are these players simply not good enough to play in an expansive fashion, or are they being held back by a negative manager?

That hasn't been answered conclusively, but the Stade de France suggested that these players can play when not shackled by negative tactical constraints. One could counter that they only delivered when there was nothing to lose, but the fact remains that after their beautifully-worked opener, Ireland did not sit back and pray for penalties but continued to attack with conviction. Not just route one, "put 'em under pressure" football either, although there was some of that, but also some incisive passing play. Liam Lawrence was at the heart of a lot of the constructive stuff. The real joy was not in seeing the heroic work-rate, because we expected that of this team. It was in seeing Ireland have the moral courage to take the game to superior opponents.

We should have won it in normal time. First Duff, then Keane were released by Lawrence. Duff was denied by the outstanding Lloris (now there's a keeper, Arsene!), Keane by his own tendency for flash when efficiency is called for. Let's hope his miss does not haunt Duff,who turned back the clock to torture Sagna and was clearly devastated at the end. Even our much-maligned midfield pairing proved more than a match for a French midfield that apparently had a numerical advantage.

You have to wonder, though, about the manager's decisions regarding the two Reids. Even if he despises Andy, or thinks him too unpredictable to be a regular starter, surely he should be in the squad to provide guile when it is desperately needed? An exhausted Lawrence was replaced by the perennially ineffective McGeady and we barely toubled France after that. And while he may say that Stephen Reid is currently in no fit state to take part in a game of such magnitude, was that not also the case for Darron Gibson, the only real option we had to replace the injured Whelan? Either Reid would have been a preferable alternative for me in the circumstances but Trap does not seem to like options. The lack of depth was best illustrated by the game-changing introduction of the bumbling McShane for the limping O'Shea. There was more threat about France just for the presence of the Hull man, and amid all the furore over the handball, it's been largely ignored that the ball never would have reached Henry if the defender did his job.

A replay is highly unlikely, so I won't dwell on that. To be fair, FIFA are right to assert that it would set a dangerous precedent. Many games are decided by such unjustices. True, the stakes have rarely been so high, but ponder this. Ireland were gifted an equaliser at home to Georgia when awarded the most inexplicable penalty I've ever seen. Had that not happened, we might not even have made the play-offs. As Roy Keane said today, Ireland weren't offering Georgia a rematch after such inept authority turned that game.

That said, such incidents have rarely proved as cataclysmic as was the case Wednesday night. Surely now is the time to stop this madness and introduce some form of technology to aid the officials.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts on "the Travesty of Paris" Part 1

It was tempting to see the France - Ireland play off as a head to head between a limited group of players under a shrewd and decorated coach against a group of potential world-beaters under a comically inept one.

On the basis of the two games, the only part of that statement that is unarguably true is that Raymond Domenech is indeed a clown- he is threatening to turn France into also-rans before a ball is even kicked this Summer. As for those other assumptions: well, Trapattoni has undeniably had a very successful career at the highest level of the game over the last few decades, but the nagging, infuriating doubt remains over whether he maximised this team's potential in these World cup qualifiers. It seems churlish to say that, what with the apparent shambles he inherited, but Dunphy and Giles have talked throughout the campaign about the ability that we have, that the Italian hadn't seemed to elicit from the players because of his suffocating tactics. Many laughed as Dunphy overstated his point, talking about how half our team could apparently walk into better sides, but last night those players proved him half right. They'll never be Brazil, we all know that, but they can play when let off the leash.

France on the other hand were deplorable in most departments. Having an inadequate manager is one thing, but when your team is such a character-free zone that Thierry Henry is made captain you're really in trouble, something Arsenal fans know all about. While Domenech certainly makes it difficult for his players with strange selections, such as leaving out Benzema, and a clearly ineffective formation, it's not unheard of for a team of big characters to negotiate such obstacles. When they still had Zidane and Vieira, even while both seemed in decline, they should have won the last World cup despite having the idiot on the sideline. Not many in football have a great deal of respect for Luis Aragones, but his Spain side had the talent and the character to comfortably win the last European championships. And the man who was dubbed "Average Grant" by his own players very nearly presided over chelsea's first European cup win, only for luck to intervene on Man United's side. In all these cases, you would trust the players involved to deliver even if the man in official charge was not up to it. That's not the case with the current France crop.

Highly-rated players were made to look ordinary by their supposedly ordinary counterparts. This suggests that some- Lassana Diarra and Gourcuff in particular spring to mind- need a strong guiding hand and perhaps an odd kick up the hole. Others- Alou Diarra, Gignac- just aren't particularly good. And then there's the Henrys, the Anelkas, the guys who will never be remembered in the very top bracket of world class talent because they don't apply themselves well enough, often enough, and particularly not on the big occasions. Anelkas' been getting rave reviews lately and over the two legs he was the danger man but that danger was never frightening, as illustrated by his lucky goal in the first leg. He'd never before been to a World cup; to me, he didn't look that bothered on a night where surely hunger should have been there for all to see. So, he's languid, or lazy, depending on your personal view of the guy. With Henry, the problem is mental. We shouldn't deny it as Arsenal fans, the guy is a big game bottler. By my reckoning, he's played in eight major finals, had great chances in most of them, and not scored once.

My most bitter memory as an Arsenal fan is of the champions League final in 06, which we should have won with 10 men. Henry had the chance to seal it not long before Barca's equaliser, but bottled a one-on-one with Valdes that he would have buried in a low-stakes situation. He let out his usually hidden darkside in a risible post-match rant where he hit out at everyone- Puyol, Eto'o, Ronaldinho, the ref- but himself. I was devastated myself but even then I felt embarrassed for the guy- what a sore loser. Lastnight, in the same stadium, maybe Henry felt he was exorcising some demons but what he really did was show his weak character again.

The Irish reaction has been a little over the top maybe. He's hardly the first player to act in that manner. But that don't make it right and he's always been the type of poser who'd have you believe he would never try such a thing. He had an opportunity to break new ground in football, to be admired as no player ever before, if he held his cheating hands up and helped the referee out. Maybe that's overly idealistic, I'm sorry, Dunphy inspired me last night. There is something rotten in the state of football and lastnight was a chance to kickstart the game's redemption but it was always going to be too much to ask of Thierry the hypocrite Henry. He's always been a poser, always projected a facade. In the Highbury tunnel in 2005, Roy Keane berated Patrick Vieira for "pretending you're a nice guy". Sometimes I think he picked the wrong target.

One final thought for tonight. Human beings will always be fallible- the players in their actions, and the officials in their split-second perceptions of those actions- but surely the introduction of video technology in some form can't be far away.

Thierry Henry....

.... has been removed from the legend corner

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Striker crisis looms?

Arsenal, having sold Adebayor, started the season with only 3 real first-team strikers. Van Persie and Eduardo we all knew to be injury-prone. Question marks remained over Bendtner's ability. A characteristically stubborn Wenger insisted on naming Vela and Walcott as options, when both have only really played upfront in League cup games. And he even mentioned Arshavin, who is clearly a link player. I always thought that the lopsided nature of the squad would lead to trouble at some point. We have so many attacking midfielders/ wingers/ half-forwards, whatever you want to call it, and very little cover in other areas. As mentioned, two of the three players we would realistically be wanting to spearhead the current 4-3-3 are terribly prone to injury- in fact maybe all three now, as Bendtner is facing a longish spell out aswell. There's not enough cover there. And that's not to mention goalkeeper, centre-half, defensive midfield. All potential problem positions if we pick up injuries or suspensions.

Wenger may complain that RVP's been crocked while playing a meaningless friendly. But worrying about Van Persie getting injured is like wondering if the sun is gonna come up. The manager should have ensured that the squad was ready for this. It's not.

Of the players who can now play in the centre-forward position, Eduardo is the most obvious option. While he's been in and out since his return from the leg break, we can hope that those were just the inevitable niggles one suffers upon returning from such rehabilitation, and that he can now put together a run in the side. We all know he's an adept finisher, but it remains to be seen if he can master the role the way Van Persie seemed to be doing lately. I've always thought Eduardo's team play was underrated- he's far from an invisible poacher like Inzaghi, say- but at the same time Van Persie always had the ability to play in team mates and it's not such a natural part of Eduardo's game.

And what if he gets injured? There's no sign of possible emergency options, Walcott and Vela, of late. Maybe Diaby would finally find his true home upfront????

Or we could just try to finish the job that Wenger seems to be moving towards, a free-scoring team with no real focal point in attack, just five total footballers going wherever they choose?

The truth is, coming at a time when he was reaching the best form of his career, Van Persie's injury is a sickening blow.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Diaby shown up again: Wolves 1-4 Arsenal

I was surprised at Wenger's team selection against Wolves- coupling Ramsey and Diaby in front of the back four. True, I have been calling for the inclusion of the young Welshman, but I hoped it would be in place of Diaby, not in tandem with him.

Well, after 25 minutes or so of Wolves dominance over a lethargic-looking Arsenal, I got my wish, when we were granted the familiar sight of the brittle French midfielder breaking down injured. The difference in performance thereafter- albeit aided by two fortuitous own goals- illustrated that the once-maligned Song is now absolute streets ahead of the once-trumpeted Diaby. At the moment, Song is quite possibly the most IMPORTANT cog in the Arsenal machine.

In modern football, and certainly in a 4-3-3 as attack-minded as Arsenal's current system- the "Makalele" role is paramount. Wenger took a gamble on Saturday that, to me, looked risky from the start. He played six attackers- and two attacking full-backs don't forget- and in my opinion, though the result looks comfortable, a simple twist of fate- and of Abou's leg- may have been decisive.

It didn't take long for the folly of the initial starting XI to be consigned to memory, with three goals scored by half-time. Eduardo forced an own goal from a corner that Hennessy should have fielded. Then his chip after a quick breakaway involving Ramsey looped in (it was heading wide) thanks to a hefty deflection off the luckless craddock. Any likelihood of second period nerves was quashed with a timely killer third before the interval. Sagna- rediscovering the dynamism and accurate delivery that made him such a success two seasons ago- bombed forward, and crossed low to Van Persie's feet. The Dutchman's first-time layoff was subtle and perfect for the appreciative Fabregas who provided another cool near-post finish for this season's collection.

Arsenal were never truly out of second gear all game but what they were after Song's introduction was efficient. The midfield area is called the "engine room" with good reason, and, though I hate to be banging on about it, Diaby truly is a clunky player. Whatever the opposite of oiling the wheels is, that's what he often seems to do. Now, he can't be completely bereft of benefits to the side, otherwise recent results with him in the team wouldn't have been so impressive. But he must not play in the absence of Song unless necessary. Hurry back Denilson!

Second half involved some nice interchanges, some vintage Arsenal overplay, and a snapshot fourth from Arshavin from a half-cleared corner. craddock pulled one back late on when Vermaelen ducked as if expecting Manuel from Fawlty Towers, sorry, Manuel Almunia, to claim a corner. Another softly conceded goal to remind us of the potentially rough waters ahead, but at the moment things are going well. continuing to score at the rate they've kept up so far, Arsenal will not so much break as destroy the Premiership record for goals scored. But if a team this naively idealistic in its commitment to all-out-attack could really win the title, surely Kevin Keegan wouldn't be sitting in the ESPN studio?? The next two league games- Sundeland away, and chelsea at home- should reveal much.

Tomorrow, my long postponed ruminations on the title race overall- including perhaps some complaints about the chelsea-united non-spectacle and some guffaws about the state of Liverpool Football club.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Arsenal 4-1 AZ Alkmaar

The Liverpool match held a bit more intrigue, so I didn't really watch this properly. But I was switching channels so frequently that I didn't miss one of Arsenal's four goals.

The first came when Fabregas, possibly the world's best midfielder on current form, beat their suspect keeper at the near post, after one of those familiar forays upfield by Big Willy Gallas. It was a clever effort but one that should really have been reached by Romero. I guess at the moment cesc is having one of those runs where everything he touches turns to goals, reminiscent of his start to 07/08. Back then, his form was a big part of the springboard for a title challenge. He's surely having his best run of form since that time, and all after I questioned him only a month or so ago. I've gotta stop making these snap judgements.

Anyway, the game was pretty much up for AZ before half time, when Nasri shimmied beyond the last defender from the impressive Arshavin's slide-rule pass, and placed the ball beyond the exposed keeper. Arhavin was again the architect for Fabregas' second, which really illustrated his confidence in front of goal at the moment. Released on the left side of the penalty area, he opened his body out as if to line up a shot across the goal (copyright Thierry Henry 2000) but instead swung his shot high into the net at the near post.

This allowed for a couple of handy changes. I think Wenger's doing well with taking Fabregas off when the opportunity presents itself, not overworking him. He missed out, then, on any chance for a hat-trick, but there was a hat-trick of sorts. Before being replaced himself, Arshavin set up Diaby at the end of a champagne breakaway, which involved Eduardo finding the Russian with a brilliant back-heel. Diaby, I read some fan say somewhere, had a great game. I recorded it so I might watch the whole thing, just so I can destroy that assertion. Or eat a slice of bitter humble pie. He took his goal well anyway.

I must add, for all the flowing football, I thought the midfield was again looking a little too open. Too often that area in front of our back four looked undermanned, and while the Dutch side never really opened Arsenal up, they had a fair few moments that they could have made more of.

Ok, I know, we were in control of the game, and I'm being contrary, but when we come up against the top sides these are the things that simply have to be right. Otherwise your pretty football will be no real comfort. And I'll be disappointed on those days, but I'm a very petty man so I'll also be clinging to the petty comfort of saying "I told you so".

A case in point was their consolation goal. You can say, "it doesn't matter, we're winning 4-0", but to the best, all the pieces matter (I love throwing in little quotes from The Wire). You could argue, maybe, that Almunia is a decent keeper who switches off at times, and what better time than at 4-0 up. But those who've endured his "reign" as number one will know that he does it a lot, at different moments, often very costly moments. So that, allied to his general lack of saves that make you go "Wow", well, it makes him.... shite, doesn't it?

Now, he did make a good save at 3-0, so a pat on his silly peroxide head for that. And I am glad he's back in the team (despite him being kinda shite- I reserve the right to contradict myself). I think it might be good for the team's stability not to be relying on the rookie Mannone. But I think we should buy an experienced keeper in January. Because to me, that seemingly insignificant goal on Wednesday night held the promise of future horror.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Pointless, predictable prelude"?

"I'm not gonna talk about the rest of the European games, as we all know that the group stages have become a pointless, predictable prelude to the real business of the knockout rounds."
September 17th 2009.
Another gem from the prophet who stated a matter of weeks ago that Liverpool would win this season's Premiership.

Arsenal's progress in Europe looks set to continue unabated, after a 4-1 spanking of the rotten AZ, yet for some of Europe's other big guns, some nervous nights lie ahead.

Barcelona and Inter, along with the less illusstrious Dynamo Kiev and the largely unknown Rubin Kazan, have contrived to produce an unexpected Group of Death. In yesterday's afternoon kick-off, the Russians defended doggedly to hold the possession-hogging catalan giants to a goalless draw, proving their win at the Nou camp was no fluke. Later, in Kiev, it looked like Inter were heading for an early exit. Trailing 1-0 to a goal by Shevchenko, and with a daunting trip to Barca on the horizon, even the ultra-confident Mourinho must surely have been shellshocked. But his team conjured two goals in the final minutes to send themselves from bottom to top of the group table.

This leaves us with an unlikely scenario. The heretofore imperious Spanish and European champions could, if they are beaten by Inter and Rubin beat Kiev, exit the competition in the next round of group games. While most neutrals will be hoping that Barca pull through, the high stakes that have been added to the remaining games certainly add some needed early lustre to a competition whose format has been relentlessly criticised of late.

And for Liverpool, the situation is much more grave. It briefly looked, after Ryan Babel's long-range strike, as if Benitez had inspired another Liverpool triumph in adversity. But in the end, the inadequacies of his squad proved decisive. Kyrgiakos' slip allowed Lisandro an opportunity he did not pass up, and in the dying seconds ignomy was snatched from the jaws of victory, and the fortunes of a great but struggling club took another downward swing. Now, with Lyon qualified, Liverpool need them to go to Italy and beat or draw with Fiorentina, or it's hello Europa League. Even a draw in that game, ASSUMING Liverpool beat Debrecen, leaves the Reds needing a win by three goals at Anfield against the Italians. As unlikely as that sounds now though, I wouldn't be altogether surprised if it panned out that way. Benitez' reign has been riddled with bizarre, do-or-die nights like that. But we'll see.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Arsenal seamlessly rotate injury list

Good news: Rosicky's latest lay-off turned out to be a very short one by his exceptional standards, and he's back in the squad for tomorrow night.

Bad news: clichy looks to be out for a month with a back injury. But at least it's a position that's relatively well-stocked, and Gibbs already has a bit of big-game experience. Indeed, until clichy's recent mini-revival, many were calling for him to be dropped in favour of his promising English understudy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Back in their Box: Arsenal 3-0 Spurs

There was a lot of bluster coming out of the Tottenham camp in the lead up to Saturday's derby, so no wonder Harry Redknapp was bitter and graceless in his post-match comments. Robbie Keane's missive about Spurs having superior strength in depth proved particularly ill-advised, for his side looked largely toothless without Modric, Lennon and Defoe. For all their pretensions of swashbuckling football, Redknapp chose to leave Kranjcar out, pack the midfield, and use Keane from the left. This left Peter crouch, to whom Spurs constantly pumped long balls, mostly isolated.

And for all that, Arsenal weren't overly impressive, and maybe that's the most satisfying aspect for us and the most chastening for Spurs. For 40 minutes or so, it was fairly sluggish stuff, but there had been signs that Spurs were there for the taking. Andy Gray praised their well-organised play during that time and he was right to a point but they were probably only impressive because Arsenal's attacking was a bit off-colour. Nonetheless, Gomes had made a great save to keep out Fabregas, and Van Persie had snatched at a couple of passable opportunities (two of these chances came from Spurs giving the ball away carelessly, so the signs were there); at the other end, Keane looked to get in off a crouch knockdown, but the impressive Song tracked back to good effect, and just before the opener, Keane seemed to slip our offside trap but his touch let him down.

And then the vital goal, and it was, for a team with a reputation for over-complicating things, refreshingly simple. The defending was questionable no doubt. Sagna and Fabregas worked a one-two under little pressure to the right of the area, and where the former would usually perhaps begin to work the ball back across the pitch, he swung in an early cross. Ledley King was beaten to the bouncing ball by Van Persie who stabbed it in at the near post, Gomes' hand not enough to repel the effort. Bassong seemed to be missing in action, and King a little slow to react perhaps, but few are the goals that do not arise in some way from an error and I'd prefer to praise a bit of classic centre forward play by RVP. He's flying at the moment. Afterwards, Wenger called him a cross between Bergkamp and Henry. Now, that sounds like some kind of mutant super-footballer, but he has a point in a way. While not having the electric pace of Henry, he is much more a consistent goal threat than Bergkamp, and while not quite capable of the sheer creative genius of his countryman he is fairly adept also at dropping off and threading passes to his fellow attackers. And you know what? Neither of those guys, for all their godlike abilities, would have scored that goal on Saturday.

And it certainly raised the crowd, but that was nothing compared to what followed. In a moment that evoked memories of Jose Reyes' belter in the 5-3 against Boro in 04/05, Arsenal had the ball in the net again with Sky Sports barely finished showing replays of the first goal. I heard a roar from the crowd, saw the camera return to Fabregas bearing down on goal, and gleefully threading a shot past Gomes for number two. Thrilling stuff. And after the devastating sucker punch of Spurs' two-goal salvo in injury time last season, this was a particularly apt way to restore primacy in North London.

The replays showed what had transpired- Van Persie blocked a lazy pass straight from kick off, Fabregas evaded a lunge by Palacios, nutmegged the panicky tackle from King and fooled Gomes with his shot. It was schoolboy stuff from Spurs but a great goal nonetheless, and another moment to illustrate the greatness of Fabregas. He's not renowned for such driving runs- it almost looked like the work of a diminutive Steven Gerrard- but what it showed again was his peerless appreciation of the requirements and openings in each moment of a game. He saw Spurs rocking on the ropes, and where it is his natural style to probe and be patient, here he went for the jugular, and finished the game.

Not that I was willing to admit that at the time, after our troubles in the corresponding fixture last season and last week at West Ham. Two goal leads are a cause for nerves at Arsenal, and the players seemed aware of the danger second half. When Spurs had the ball, we defended with a vigour that I haven't seen in a home game since the 2-1 win against United last season. The next goal was clearly going to be vital, and we did have a sticky period just before finishing the job. The backline seemed to drop a little deeper, which was always going to suit crouch (who Vermaelen dominated throughout), now joined upfront by Keane. Gallas had to be alert to deny Keane once more. He was starting to look a little panic-stricken, and gave away a free kick right on the edge with a handball when challenging crouch in the air. Bentley's free kick was easy for the returning Almunia; he made it look difficult, as is his wont. Then Gallas pushed crouch on the edge- nothing doing this time. Then the nerves were killed off with a third.

Eduardo was floored with a rough tackle on the right but Sagna burst onto the loose ball and beyond the Spurs defence. He saw the linesman flagging for the foul and slowed up, as did the opposing players, but clattenburg had played a good advantage, and when the Frenchman finally realised this he cut the ball in low. Somehow, it evaded the grasp of Gomes and the lunge of the luckless King, and Van Persie was left to gobble up his second.

Thus the contest was ended and I could finally relax. Spurs offered little, but it was encouraging to see Wenger get agitated on the touchline, just after Eduardo had missed an opportunity to make it four, over an inability to communicate defensive instructions to Song and the infuriating Diaby. As acknowledged afterwards, Wenger saw the significance of holding onto a clean sheet.

I thought, yet again, that Diaby had a poor game. To me it's shocking that we've had such a run with him in the side. He plays like the anti-Fabregas. Forever taking too many touches on the ball, he will pointlessly try to hold off a tackle himself when a simple pass would suffice. This sees him surrender possession too much, and he does it all over the pitch. His passes never have the right weight, always short or long or not into the receiver's stride. He has some talent, no doubt, but lacks the intelligence to use it efficiently. Likewise, his physique is misleading because he rarely tackles with conviction and seems disinterested in the defensive side of the game. He was surely the source of Wenger's ire because Song has been playing diligently in front of the back four and has played a big part in our good moments this season. When we are in command of a game, and the opposition striving to turn it, we need another midfielder to drop back more and allow cesc to pick out the front three. Unless you think that Diaby is better at that. Ha. But I worry that he simply lacks the brain and the team spirit to sacrifice his attacking instincts. You'd possibly have similar reervations about Nasri if deployed in the same position but at least he does not disrupt the flow of our attacking as well as burdening the defence.

Anyway, Wenger definitely has to think long and hard about adding to our squad in January, because Song will be going to the African Nations and with Denilson yet to return from a fairly serious injury, the last thing we need is opposition teams marauding through our midfield unchallenged (and in any case I'm still unsure that Denilson can effectively perform the role that Song does).

But here's to a week that saw Spurs talk themselves into a corner and not have the fight to get out of it. Tomorrow I will ruminate at length to nobody about the relative strengths of the established top four and the chasing pack.