Wednesday, December 29, 2010

After Relief, Grief

Man Utd played Sunday afternoon, then Tuesday evening; Alex Ferguson did not make many changes from one starting eleven to another. United visibly tired towards the end of the Birmingham game and shipped an equaliser that might yet end up proving costly in an unpredictable title race.

Arsenal had even less recovery time between the euphoria of Monday night and the mundane trip to Wigan. Wenger decided to use the fullness of his squad. Only Fabianski, Sagna and Koscielny survived from the previous line-up. Wilshere joined them when Diaby all-too-predictably broke down in the first half.

After a high-energy performance on Monday, there was probably little choice; wholesale changes had to be made. Unfortunately, this impacted on the team's fluidity, and Wigan often looked the better side. The absence of Gibbs meant Eboue had to defend on his "wrong side". Arshavin was vintage Arshavin: lethargic and frustrating- he scored one brilliant goal and set up Bendtner's.

That sent Arsenal into half-time with a lead they scarcely deserved. Wigan had started at a high tempo, hastling the Gunners much as the Gunners had hassled the Blues. The dangerous Nzogbia had Arsenal on the ropes early on. Arsenal attacked dangerously but- surprise surprise- were opened up on the counter. The winger advanced to the edge of the area where he jinked by two challenges. The latter came from Koscielny, and N'zogbia fell over it into the box. Penalty. Watson dispatched it with minimum fuss.

The goal was a little unlucky for Arsenal. The challenge was not inside the box, for a start. Secondly, Koscielny merely wafted a foot in N'zogbia's direction, then pulled out- the contact was no more than a slight brush, if that. It was a dive, albeit the kind of dive that never gets condemned.

Before half time, Arshavin acrobatically gobbled up the rebound after Bendtner's shot had been parried to level matters. The Russian had been abject to that point but the goal provided him with a boost and he glided forward minutes later to flick a pass to Bendtner. The Dane benefited from a lucky ricochet to bear down on the keeper but his finish was assured and Arsenal had turned it around.

Of course a one-goal lead is never safe for Arsenal. Sadly, despite the perceived freshness of the starting line-up, they failed to work as hard without the ball as the team of Monday night did against Chelsea. Wigan threatened at intervals throughout the second period; Arsenal merely sat back and invited it. They surely ought to have better tested the soft centre of their opponents, in trying to put the game to bed.

Wenger's changes came too late- he was reactive rather than proactive. The reaction only came after Wigan equalised. As the final ten minutes loomed, N'zogbia got himself sent off for a headbutt on Wilshere. Instead of closing the game out, however, Arsenal duly conceded. Squillaci underlined his rotten form by finding his own net from a corner. As Wenger said, an extra man doesn't count for much while your team is defending a set play. Especially when the team in question CANNOT defend a set play. I don't think Arsenal could defend effectively with 15 men.

So, belatedly, Nasri and Walcott stepped onto the pitch. The former had a free kick handled in the area in the death throes of the match- no decision. But Arsenal should not have left themselves needing last gasp decisions.

UNITED's draw at Birmingham presented an opportunity for Arsenal to assert their credentials as closest challengers for the title. It was a vital chance to gain ground. Instead, the gap remains at two points, but may as well be viewed as five, with United holding a game in hand. Such a lead would not be insurmountable but the question hangs in the air: can Arsenal put a run together? Are they good enough to stop dropping points to the lower lights of the league?

They have a decent squad in numbers and there is more depth of quality than at some of the other leading clubs, but no depth of character. They seem to lack the necessary confidence when Fabregas is missing. The absence of Vermaelen is cruel but Wenger could surely have scouted for a more able centre back than Squillaci. The team's lack of a winning mentality was perhaps summed up by Koscielny's resigned acceptance of the contentious penalty award. That happens to United or Chelsea, there would be some unseemly hounding of officials.

The story of the week so far: Arsenal can beat Chelsea after all, but look no closer to winning the title.

Monday, December 27, 2010

3-1: What a Relief

The first time Arsenal have beaten either of Man United or Chelsea in two years, and despite Chelsea's grim run of form, it was the home side's most accomplished performance since they went to the San Siro and outpassed another Ancelotti-managed team in 2008.

The key was tempo and pressing. At last, Arsenal worked as hard without the ball as they did in possession. They hounded the Blues high up the pitch and when this happens, there is less onus on Arsenal to score the "perfect goal". Arsenal looked most dangerous when Chelsea had the ball in their own half.

This, and the criticism Song has attracted for his apparently over-adventurous style this season, made the nature of the first goal ironic. It was the result of a short passing move, the type that Chelsea usually repel with ease, but this time the weight of Arsenal's numbers undid them.

I worried in the build-up about Arsenal's tendency to overcommit in attack, leaving gaps behind them, and their attendant inability to attack any other way. This time it paid off as the red shirts swamped Chelsea- everyone but the back four ended up in or at the edge of the box. Song passed to Wilshere and continued into the box. The younster flicked it back his way, and Fabregas took over only to be tripped by Ferreira. Both Van Persie and Song were on hand, and the latter provided the finish with his lesser-used left foot.

Coming close to half-time, the goal was thoroughly deserved. Arsenal were comfortably the better side, without creating many clear opportunities. Chelsea looked deflated after their recent travails, didn't deal well with the pressure Arsenal exerted, and only really looked threatening from Cech's kick-outs.

Lampard looked rusty after his lay off. Drogba was matched by Djourou, who was at last allowed to replace the unconvincing Squillaci. The Ivorian had his moments early on. When Koscielny ventured too far into midfield and gave the ball away, one Chelsea pass exposed Arsenal's often fatal flaw, and Drogba was running at a back-pedalling Djourou. His shot was angled just wide. Then he attacked a cross well but was tracked by the Swiss defender who managed to deflect the header wide.

Michael Essien was a shadow of his usual ubiquitous self, and Florent Malouda seems to have gone off the boil completely after being one of the players of 2010. But despite Chelsea's problems, Arsenal deserve praise for exploiting them and, hopefully, banishing that debilitating inferiority complex.

Arsenal's half time lead seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. The memory of the North London derby debacle was fresh and painful.

Within minutes of the restart, the Emirates exploded into the greatest scenes of euphoria seen there in quite a while. Van Persie was crowded out by blue shirts, but Essien only nicked the ball inadvertently behind Ashley Cole and into the path of the onrushing Walcott. He advanced on Cech and slipped the ball sideways for his captain to slide the ball into the unguarded net.

Less than two minutes later, Fabregas returned the compliment. Again, Walcott's anticipation was crucial. Malouda accepted the ball from Terry but was immediately robbed by the Englishman. Fabregas took the ball on, and dinked it over Terry's challenge. Cesc's pass was weighted so that Walcott needn't take a touch before shooting. He again exhibited his finishing prowess, blasting across Cech and into the bottom corner.

The worry remained that Arsenal could blow any kind of lead, and nerves were set to jangling just four minutes later. Drogba's free-kick was flighted superbly, so that Fabianski was left in no man's land when Ivanovic rose above Koscielny to head in. There was a period of uncertainty- at one point Ivanovic broke a couple of tackles and surged into the Arsenal area, but Drogba dithered and the chance was gone- but it soon became apparent that Chelsea lacked the confidence to put anything together in open play, and Arsenal played the game out with only a couple of scares from set plays, and once when Ramires shot wide.

Nasri and Diaby fluffed chances to finish Chelsea off, but overall one could have little complaint about the way Arsenal played. Deficiencies remain- there was almost comical panic at a stoppage time set piece, the ball eventually rebounding off Fabianski into his own net, only for the "goal" to be disallowed- but the high-energy pressing that Arsenal put into action gave them a much better chance of overcoming those flaws.

Song and Djourou probably merit special mention. Walcott and Fabregas were the match winners despite both suffering nervous starts in differing ways. Nasri was always dangerous, especially when delivering a clever chip at 0-0 that Cech had to tip over. Clichy, though not hugely tested by Kalou, hounded and harrassed. Sagna was typically steady, and Koscielny, despite having a few uncertain moments, looked far more assured in the absence of Squillaci. Wilshere was the perfect mix of graft and craft, his growth continues. Van Persie's movement bothered Chelsea and he is still not at his sharpest.

Still, the result should be viewed as more a challenge than an accomplishment. Arsenal must now match this level of performance for the rest of the season. Wenger picked the right team, they played the right way, and the whole club should be re-energised.

will the big-game hoodoo continue?

Chelsea have been in rotten form of late but seem to love playing against Arsenal.

Their last two visits to the Emirates have both yielded victories of a three goal margin.

They have Frank Lampard, who has been sorely missed, making his first start since his injury a few months back.

Fabregas returns too, but he's often been bullied out of games against Chelsea. And you could say that that's the problem in microcosm. Chelsea tend to have too much power and pace for Arsenal. It's almost like the ghost of Wenger's successful Arsenal sides is haunting the current bunch, in the form of a Chelsea team that have all of that old power and poise and character, and the trophies to match.

The tables have turned in a big way over the last five years or so. Pre-Abramovich, Chelsea went almost ten years without beating Arsenal in the league. Chelsea were the team who entertained at times, but too often looked a team of style without substance.

Now the upper hand is Chelsea's and Arsenal are the ones who crumble when the big matches roll around.

After meek defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, it is undeniably crucial that Arsenal produce some kind of performance. But it remains difficult to back them because they continue to look naive tactically and lacking in the necessary mental fortitude.

At Old Trafford, there seemed at least a desire to keep things tight. But the toothless result of that shift in emphasis worryingly suggested that when Arsenal play in a more balanced manner, they lose a too much of their attacking threat. Overcommitting seems to be their style, but if they overcommit that will play into Chelsea's hands. And if they sit back a little and play with more caution, it may lead to a closer game, but also take away from Arsenal's ability to create chances.

And perhaps the greatest worry of all is that Drogba has made meat of far better Arsenal centre halves than Koscielny and Squillaci.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Barca Again...

Strangely looking forward to another tonking at the gifted feet of the newly anointed Greatest Team of All Time (TM).

NOTHING TO LOSE

Barca are superior in every area to Arsenal.
It seems strange to think that, more than halfway through last season's weird quarter-final tie, Arsenal had worked themselves into a winning position. Especally when you remember the grinding humiliation of the first twenty minutes of the first leg, when Barca took Arsenal's aristocratic pretensions and stuck them where the sun don't shine (and somehow failed to score).

While the lead that Bendtner gave Arsenal lasted only a couple of minutes, it still said something. It spoke of Arsenal's spirit and Barca's potential profligacy. They should have had the tie done and dusted within a half hour of the first leg, instead they needed Messi's genius to dig them out of a little trouble.

Of course, few would expect David Villa to be as wasteful as Zlatan was at the Emirates (despite his eventual two-goal-haul), and Barcelona have probably improved since that tie.

To push them close, Arsenal would have to try to impose a tempo that is no longer in their own comfort zone. They are Barca-lite. They would enjoy themselves in Spain and come 3rd. They no longer have the power and the pace to trouble a technically superior side. You know that Chelsea or United would give Barcelona a lot more to worry about.

In fairness, it should also be noted that even when Arsenal were a "power team", they often found themselves outplayed by technically adept teams- most memorably, Deportivo la Coruna in the second group stage in 2002. As I've said before, I think that game and similar chastening experiences in Europe inspired Wenger to change tack and prioritise possession and technique over power and pace.

It has backfired spectacularly. Chelsea and Manchester United routinely overpower the New Gunners, and an admittedly special Barcelona side shows up their passing game as comparatively poor, inefficient and unexciting.

TO EVEN BOTHER Barcelona, Arsenal need a Vieira, or even just a Flamini. Alex Song is going backwards with every step further up the pitch but even if he is redeployed as a dedicated holding player he is not good enough or mobile enough to stem the flow alone and Xavi, Iniesta and company will relish the chance to tear into Arsenal's woefully ragtag rearguard.

Expect to be watching fireworks through your fingers.

Friday, December 17, 2010

50% Chance of Disaster

In the 2nd round of this season's Champions League, Arsenal will play Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Schalke.

Barcelona would absolutely muller Arsenal.

Real Madrid would absolutely muller Arsenal.

In the other two scenarios, the Gunners would be expected to win through, but as the group stage has proven, anyone has a chance against Arsenal these days.

I would struggle to get excited if the draw presents a tie against either of the Germans. The sad fact is, Arsenal's continued progress in the competition would represent only delayed disaster. They will be turfed out by the first good side they face.

Wenger has never beaten Mourinho and the chances of that ever happening decline with every new day of misguided, myopic idealism.

And if Barca can beat Real Madrid 5-0, logic dictates that they could aim for double figures over two legs against Arsenal {they could have had five after twenty minutes at the Emirates last season).

The further Arsenal get, the greater the chance they will meet another of the English sides.

Arsenal cannot beat Manchester United over two legs.

Arsenal cannot beat Chelsea over two legs.

Arsenal could beat Spurs over two legs, but imagine they didn't.

So I will finish this by saying I hope Arsenal get Madrid or Barca. I pray that elimination comes soon so the winnable tournaments may be focussed on for the remainder of the season.

And with that I return to drinking this half-empty cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

United 1-0 Arsenal: Out-Thought and Out-Fought

Arsenal lost a tactical and a physical battle on Monday night. This incarnation of Manchester United is far from the most sophisticated but they consistently come out on top against the Gunners: Ferguson has found Wenger out.

While tactics have never been Wenger's strong point, the lack of physical presence in the Arsenal team is very worrying. As I've said before, Wenger's successes have been based as much on power as on technique. These days, his team is made to look feeble against United and Chelsea.

Alex Song is, supposedly, the closest thing this Arsenal side has to an "enforcer". Late in the game, he was brushed aside by Patrice Evra- one of United's more diminutive players. The same Patrice Evra who was confident enough in United's superiority to insult Arsenal BEFORE the game this time!

Were his harsh words used as motivation in the away dressing room? There were many fouls by Arsenal, but not enough winning of the ball, United first to every 50-50, still looking like they want it more, despite being a team who've won it all, playing against a team who've won fuck-all.

Arsenal have nothing to match the tenacity of Fletcher, the running power of Anderson, Park and Nani. United have a rock-solid defence whereas Arsenal have a charitable one.

But it's not as simple as Arsenal lacking United's robust element: Arsenal's passing game is grossly overrated. They barely put a move together in the entire game. Wenger indulged in a bit of trademark excuse-making afterwards, which doesn't even deserve discussion. The pitch was bad, yes. So what? Will United be complaining after the next encounter that the pitch was "too good" for their game? Probably not, because they'll have won the match.

Bottom line: No Surprises. United win big games, and Arsenal lose them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dunphy in Rash Statement Shocker

"Barcelona are way ahead of the rest, they're gonna win the Champions League this year Bill".

They may be way ahead of the rest, but Eamo is getting way ahead of himself.

Few were betting on Inter this time last year....

Arsenal 3-1 Partizan: Job Done...

A performance that does not bode well for Old Trafford next Monday.

4-4-2 returns- Chamakh and Van Persie in tandem.

Arshavin and Nasri struggle to get into the game from wide positions.

Denilson + Song = creativity deficit in the centre.

The crowd: edgy, frustrated.

The Kurse of Kieran Gibbs strikes again- another addition to the brittle brigade.

An abject first half hour ends with Van Persie cleverly buying a soft penalty. The Dutchman buries it for 1-0.

There is no sense of danger- Partizan are woeful- but Arsenal fail to kick on. A disjointed showing. The penalty is the only shot on target.

HALF-TIME
Dunphy: "Denilson and Song are nothing players.... they don't have a playmaker" (suggesting Nasri move to the centre).

SECOND HALF
If Wenger's bottle-throwing antics betray anxiety, it is justified by his team within minutes. Partizan work an opportunity on the edge of the area- Squillaci hesitates- dives in- Cleo's shot hits him and loops over Fabianski's dive.

1-1 against this frankly rubbish team!!!

What's the score in the Braga game?? Goalless.

Tension up, heads down, Partizan get bold, threaten again.

Arsenal struggle to reassert themselves but the players look as edgy as the crowd sounds.

Arshavin- having a stinker- removed for (ugh) Walcott.

A poor defensive header falls for the Englishman. A position in which he often snatches at things. This time, good chest control, super volley, placed into the far corner. Relief.

3-1 minutes later. Nasri in the goals again. Song and sub Bendtner play one-two, Song finds Nasri, clever feet, left foot finish, job done.

The poor overall performance is underlined by a sloppy end to the game.

Sagna dismissed for a foul as last man. And Shakhtar win, which means Arsenal finish second- could play Barca or Madrid in the second round.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nasri's Improvement Helps Arsenal Cover The Cracks

Arsenal 2-1 Fulham

It's always exciting when you see a player of huge potential start to realise it.

Samir Nasri has been Arsenal's player of the season so far, adding consistency and goals to his game.

After the opening day's poor showing at Liverpool, I bemoaned the lack of midfield "runners" in the Arsenal squad- it too often seemed that everybody wanted the ball to feet, and nobody made clever runs off the ball. Credit to Arsene Wenger, he saw in Nasri the latent potential to add this aspect to his game:

I'm happy because he had a game that was, at the start, only based on coming to the ball.
But now he has more variation in his game: turns, runs in behind without the ball, and as well coming to the ball and taking it to his feet.


Nasri's newfound directness has also triggered an improvement in Arshavin. The Russian is less inclined to look sideways than most of his team mates, and his passing has looked more incisive this season. Both Nasri and Chamakh have contributed to that. On Saturday, Arshavin twice released Nasri for goalscoring opportunities; once for the first goal, and before that when Nasri poked the ball wide of goal.

The winner was the result of a pass Van Persie probably wouldn't have made a few years ago. He had the chance to shoot on the edge of the box but instead pushed a clever pass to the onrushing Nasri.

Both goals showcased the Frenchman's confidence, composure and close control. But confidence and composure are not words you'd associate with the Arsenal team as a whole. While early on they looked like swamping Fulham, again the swagger was all-too-easily punctured. Squillaci and Koscielny summed up their Arsenal careers so far by crashing into each other. Koscielny was concussed, as it turned out, but failed to do the professional thing and lie down for treatment. As he stumbled and staggered, Dempsey found Kamara whose finish was, on this occasion, unerring- his profligacy would later aid Arsenal.

Koscielny was replaced by Djourou, which would have pleased many, but Squillaci and his new partner parted like the Red Sea for Kamara before half-time, and Fabianski had to save Arsenal from facing yet another home deficit.

Nasri's magic was vital- either side could have come out on top, which is pretty damning when you look at this Fulham side. And it is, by extension, pretty damning for the Premiership in general that this Arsenal side is top, because they simply cannot defend.

Slip-ups in the next two games- must win vs Partizan and must do better vs United- will do more damage than the one that was rendered a footnote by Nasri's brilliance.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Whiff of Silverware

The much-maligned Carling Cup now appears to Arsenal an oasis in the desert of their trophy drought.

And (he said conveniently) what an unfairly maligned competition it is. Despite the top teams using it as a testing ground for young talent, there are still a lot of competitive, exciting games.

And to those who would poo-poo Arsenal's prospective triumph, it should be remembered that either Manchester United or Chelsea have won five of the last six League Cup tournaments- success breeds success, trophies can lead to more trophies, Arsenal should be going all out to win it.

In the semi-finals, they will play Roy Keane's Ipswich, who have just dispensed with West Brom. The other semi will be contested by Birmingham and West Ham. There is certainbly nothing to fear in this line-up.

You'd be tempted to say that Arsenal should be able to win it while continuing to rotate. That said, an understrength United team has been humbled by the Hammers, showing the dangers of complacency. And Alex McLeish's Birmingham have never proved an easy touch against Arsenal.

It has to be said that a defeat over two legs against Ipswich would be little short of a disaster.

This Arsenal team's inability to win big games, and the lack of silverware that has led to, has surely become a burden for the players now. Here they are presented with three distinctly winnable games and a trophy waiting at the end. There are no more excuses. Field a weakened side and go out, Wenger will be crucified. Field a strong team and lose, it would be a new low for a team that at times seems scared of success.

Obviously, winning the Carling Cup after beating Spurs's 3rd team, Newcastle, Wigan, Ipswich and either Birmingham or West Ham would not prove a whole lot, but lifting that trophy could be a big psychological boost. It could lift that invisible weight off the players' shoulders and give them the hunger to chase more glory.

Let's hope that the end of the drought is in sight.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Barca: Even Better Than The Real Team

Barca 5-0 Real Madrid: Special Team Crushes Special One, But Remember, It's Only November

Surely this Barca team must now rank as the best club side of recent times. Jose Mourinho had never been so heavily defeated in a competitive game; his teams are always well-organised and hard to beat, and filled with world class players of their own. But Barca blew Madrid away.

Perhaps Mourinho's mistake was to be a little less cynical than he sometimes is in this kind of encounter. Real did not park the bus- they came to play on the break, no doubt, but there were spaces for Barca to exploit, and they did it to devastating effect.

Of course the first goal was vital- it came early, and highlighted an unexpected softness to the centre of Madrid's defence. Typically sharp approach play saw Messi find Iniesta; he fired an early pass towards Xavi, breaking into the box. The ball took a kind ricochet off the tracking defender and Barca's midfield metronome dinked a cool volley beyond Casillas to give Barca the ideal start.

The second goal suggested that perhaps Mourinho is not working with the calibre of defender to which he is used. Again, the approach work was beautiful. This time it led to Villa taking on Ramos on the right side of Madrid's box. The striker beat his international teammate far too easily and fired a cross which squirmed beyond Casillas' grasp, for the onrushing Pedro to gleefully prod in.

Real had their moments in the remainder of the opening half. Ronaldo fired a decent free kick not far wide, seeming to draw some determination from a silly altercation with Guardiola on the touchline, after the Barca chief had refused to hand him the ball for a throw-in. At half-time, Mourinho replaced the subdued Ozil with Lassana Diarra. It had the look of damage-limitation, and if that was the intention, it backfired spectacularly.

Madrid looked to break Barca's hypnotic rhythm, pushing further up the pitch. The space they left behind them was invaded over and over. There were two near misses before the imperious Messi showed the main reason for his superiority over Ronaldo. Two wonderful pieces of vision, two assists for the ruthless Villa.

In the thirty-minutes plus that remained, Barca largely settled for embarrassing and frustrating their arch rivals with their peerless possession play. In stoppage time Jeffren iced the cake with a tidy finish from fellow sub Bojan's cross. Ramos had had enough and got himself sent off for a wild, dangerous lunge on Messi, followed by some kind of handbags with Puyol.

On the way off, he also raised a hand to Xavi. He looked set to take on the whole Barca team. But Real were no match for them in the footballing sense.

Mourinho will console himself with the memory of Barca producing a similarly-accomplished performance last season against Inter in the Champions League group stage. We all know who had the last laugh... would you bet against him repeating the trick?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't Get Fooled Again

Arsenal apparently bounced back against Villa. But they did not really show anything new. It was a good attacking performance- aided by Villa's first half woes- but far from a solid one, which is what Arsenal need to start producing.

Despite Villa not really turning up for 45 minutes, the game remained in the balance until stoppage time. There was no evidence to suggest that there will not be future implosions. The best thing for Arsenal now would be the return of Vermaelen, as Koscielny and Squillaci look vulnerable all the time. Of course, the Belgian could not solve everything alone. There is a long-standing problem with the team's balance as regards attack and defence and it's hard to see that being fully remedied before the season is out.

What was impressive was the team's ability to step it up in Fabregas' absence. An interesting point about the captain's importance is that sometimes when everything is going through him it can slow the game down a little. Other players tend to bow to him and shirk some of the creative load. On Saturday, the interplay between Rosicky, Nasri, Arshavin and Wilshere was impressive and again suggested that life after Fabregas may not be a desolate wasteland.

Chamakh's excellent start to his Arsenal career continued, as did the team's generally impressive away form. After losing home games to West Brom, Newcastle and Spurs, you would expect to be out of the race altogether. Instead Arsenal only trail by two points. Every team looks flawed and the one that improves most will win the title.

Villa 2-4 Arse: Arshavin Wakes Up

but Villa looked sleepy at the start of this particular early Saturday kick off.

Arsenal, on the other hand, were very quick out of the blocks. Their pressing and approach play was lively, but not matched by the necessary ruthlessness in front of goal. Chamakh was denied by Friedel in the first minute, and the otherwise impressive Rosicky spurned a couple of chances.

Villa missed the pace of Agbonlahor. Carew is not mobile enough to turn a defence, and the result was a half played mostly in Villa's half. Bobby Pires was rendered redundant.

Still, until the first goal you worried Arsenal would lack cutting edge.

Arshavin seems to have at last awoken from his slumbers. When Luke Young and Collins misjudged a high ball on halfway, the Russian attacked Dunne, cut inside and smashed a shot that Friedel got a hand to but couldn't keep out of the far corner. It was a goal that summed up the "something different" that Arshavin would ideally provide on a more regular basis.

Immediately after, he released Nasri, who danced around Friedel but could only waft a shot into the side netting from a difficult angle. A flowing move then ended with Sagna crossing for Chamakh, whose close range header was brilliantly repelled by Friedel. From the corner, Arshavin lofted all the way to Nasri. He caught the volley well, but it took a hefty deflection on its way past the keeper. 2-0 right on half-time, game over? Not for this team.

Villa had been abject to that point but were perhaps spurred on, so to speak, by recent events at the Emirates. Sure enough, the early goal came, smashed in by Clark after some fatal hesitation by Gael Clichy, and you thought, "here we go again". In fairness, the goal should have been disallowed- Carew stood offside, right in the line of Fabianski's vision, and the keeper may well have saved the piledriver had he not been unsighted. Still, the concession highlighted Arsenal's terminal inability to soak up a period of opposition pressure.

The Gunners, on this occasion, responded well. Only a few minutes later, Rosicky's slide rule pass released Chamakh who outpaced Dunne and slipped the ball under Friedel. Villa looked deflated all over again and there followed a period in which Arsenal should really have put things to bed, but fell into the old habit of overplaying around the box. And it looked like this profligacy was set to be punished when Villa pulled another back, Clark heading in via the bar after Arsenal predictably failed to clear a corner.

Nerves were jangling anew but strangely, Villa did not seem to gain a whole lot in momentum, and failed to make another clear-cut chance. The game was fizzling out a little so Arsenal decided to go chasing a goal in typically naive but entertaining fashion, and got it in stoppage time. Four forward, Denilson's blocked shot sat up for Chamakh, who unselfishly lobbed across the goalmouth, and Wilshere stooped to nod in his first Premiership goal for Arsenal.

Crisis averted? Until next time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Villa: Not an Easy Opportunity to Bounce Back

The wallowers face another test of their questionable mettle at Villa Park on Saturday.

Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger are good buddies with clashing philosophies. Houllier teams sit back and counter-punch. Wenger is, as we all know, committed to attack.

There are signs that Houllier's style of play has already taken root at Villa. In truth, it is not a huge departure from that of Martin O'Neill, who also seemed to lack any interest in aesthetics. But, by accident or by design, there is now less emphasis on the Big Man Upfront. Carew and Heskey have been unavailable and the long ball has become pointless. Villa now attack down the flanks at great pace and, as they showed against United a couple of weeks ago, are not afraid to commit bodies forward at the right moments. They were superb on the break for a lot of that second half and really deserved to be out of sight by the time they ran out of steam and let United back in.

Arsenal, in their current incarnation, are hugely susceptible to counter-attacking football. Manchester United and Chelsea have shown that it's the best way to beat them. Keep it tight in your own half- stay compact- defend deep. Spring into the space that Arsenal invariably leave open behind them. Sprint past the dawdling Denilson and the gawking Gael Clichy. BANG BANG they're dead.

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law but to Arsenal it seems a fair fraction of the problem. Possession alone doesn't score goals. Barcelona play the possession game best but they very rarely lack for a cutting edge and only use it in a defensive way when they're in a winning position. Too often, the Gunners lack a high tempo and their supposedly thrilling football starts to look like the dull swinging of a pendulum.

Houllier will relish the opportunity to sit back and let Arsenal worry about holding onto the ball. Even before Wenger became a purveyor of the possession game, his fellow Frenchman enjoyed the upper hand in their head-to-head battles.

That said, Arsenal have been either unusually solid or wonderfully lucky away from home in the Premiership this season. Only Chelsea have beaten the travelling Gunners, but this is a bit of a paradox to my mind because Arsenal haven't looked in complete control of many of those away games. Maybe that's a lesson in itself to Wenger. In the English league, sometimes it's GOOD not to have the ball. Teams don't tend to be that good with it. And you're more likely to score three passes after they give it away than after 33 tippy-tappy-touches.

I'm not suggesting we return to the days of George G but a little variation goes a long way...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

97/98: The Revolution Wasn't All Televised

Arsenal 4-0 Everton, 3/5/1998

Most people remember.... "Tony Adams put through by Steve Bould would you BELIEVE it..... THAT sums it ALL up".

The tastiest ever cherry on the icing of a cake.

But the big turning point that season came about halfway through, and behind the scenes.

Arsenal had just been turned over by Roy Hodgson's Blackburn at Highbury, 3-1 after leading. After a promising start, the season looked in turmoil- defeats to Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool having punctured early optimism. Tony Adams, much like the current captain, was dogged by injury. And just like now, an overexposed defence was struggling to keep a hold on opposition attacks.

The team held a meeting to air some views on the mini-crisis. It was agreed that the aging legs of Dixon, Bould, Keown, Adams and Winterburn needed more protection, and the pairing of Vieira and Petit were tasked with adapting their respective games to suit that. Ahead of them, Arsenal had raw pace in the shape of Overmars and Anelka, genius in the shape of Dennis Bergkamp, dynamism and graft in the shape of the fast-improving Ray Parlour. The 'kick up the arse' that the two Frenchmen received worked a treat, and by the time Arsenal suffered their next league defeat, they'd already been crowned Champions- Wenger the first continental coach to win the Premiership.

Adams had been sent to France to recuperate, and came back energised. He and his old cronies forged a newly formidable rearguard and a run of 1-0 wins, including a memorable one at Old Trafford, was the catalyst for the title victory.

This illustrates the fact that Wenger did not revolutionise Arsenal alone. He has always been a fairly autonomous figure at Arsenal- that's surely why he has stayed so long having received many tempting offers- but from 1997 until around 2004, there were plenty more very influential figures at the club who had been around longer than the manager had. You can ask the question, could Wenger have assembled a defence as good as the one he inherited, and the evidence we've seen since suggests that the answer is no. Of course, he deserves credit too for helping change the lifestyles of Adams and co. and adding longevity to their careers.

And, to be fair, when most of the old guard had stepped aside, he was able to piece together a new, almost equally formidable unit, comprising an ex-midfielder (Lauren), an ex-Spur (Campbell), an unheralded Ivorian, who'd also played midfield (Toure), and of course the young Ashley Cole. It seemed at that time that Wenger could put a decent defence together.

But Arsenal have never been as solid since. And crucially, there seems little chance of a clear-the-air meeting to match the one that turned the season in 97/98. The big characters just don't seem to be there anymore. There are no battle-hardened, decorated soldiers, only a bunch of fragile nearly men. Even Fabregas only has one fortuitous FA Cup medal to his name.

Surely Wenger's autocratic ways have become a problem. Nobody on the pitch has the experience or the influence to challenge him and it seems to be a similar story off the field. Interestingly, when Arsenal set a record for minutes without conceding in the Champions League of 05/06, Martin Keown was a temporary part of the coaching staff. This was a defence that had a right-footed midfielder, in Flamini, playing left-back, an excitable clown, in Eboue, opposite him, and Big Philly Senderos, who's been useless ever since, partnering Kolo Toure in the middle. Surely that goes to show that organisation is more than half the battle. As individuals, you'd take Sagna over Eboue, Vermaelen over Senderos, Clichy over Flamini (well, at left back anyway...), but the defence of four years ago was, as a unit, much better than the one we see today.

Wenger's disregard for defence means that someone else needs to help hold things together. There is now a culture at the club of half-assed, clownish defending and the concession of soft goals is as much a trademark of Arsene FC as the beautiful football that is sporadically on show. Arsenal need another link to the solidity of the past but Wenger's tunnel vision won't allow for any perceived challenge to his flawed idealism.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Messi > Ronaldo

Some stats
CRISTIANO RONALDO: FIFTY-TWO GOALS in 54 GAMES since signing for Real Madrid.
LEO MESSI: SEVENTY GOALS in 72 GAMES in the same period.

The Primera Liga title race has become a two-team procession and two men are at the forefront.

Debate will forever rage over who is the better man. I think people who understand the true beauty of football will give the little Argentine their vote. Football is a team game after all. Messi is undoubtedly a better team player, as well as matching Ronaldo's superhuman goalscoring feats.

The contrasts are fascinating. Messi is a diminutive magician with a silky touch. Ronaldo a towering athlete, strong in the air and with either foot. An excellent finisher. A poacher-winger who can score from four yards or forty. While Messi may not quite have Ronaldo's pace and power, he is a better footballer. Messi's dribbles are all about skill and close control; Ronaldo just knocks it and runs. I don't enjoy watching Ronaldo play because there's always an unsavoury, self-obsessed edge to the guy. He has little of Messi's vision and none of his humility. But nobody can deny that he is a phenomenal goalscorer.

The one question mark that persists about both is whether they excel in the very biggest games. Ronaldo's self-serving style is unsuitable to the tight, marquee encounters and his temperment is sometimes questionable. Messi can be silenced by tight, physical marking by good defenders. Mourinho hatched a plan for Inter that worked a treat in subduing the little man last year.

So the latest 'Classico' may be another opportunity to appreciate the brilliance of the respective supporting casts. Mesut Ozil is an exceptionally gifted playmaker who plays with an admirable selflessness- a perfect partner for the walking Ego that is Ronaldo.

For Barca, Xavi and Iniesta run games- most memorably, they deflated Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final. Xavi has been, for a couple of years, the best midfielder in the world, controlling the rhythm of the game with consistently precise, probing passing. Iniesta at his best may be the most enjoyable to watch of the lot. He combines Xavi's vision and Messi's dribbling skills.

But what will be decisive when the two teams meet next Monday? Maybe organisation will trump collective talent. Barcelona always give the opposition a chance- they defend high up the pitch and so are always susceptible to an accurate long pass. And Mourinho is always capable of putting a plan together to suffocate attacking football. It might not be as pretty a picture as the all-star cast suggests.

Nothing to Brag About.

Braga 2-0 Arsenal: They Hit Rock Bottom, and Keep on Digging

I said tonight's wasn't a big game- but defeat has made Partizan at home into a massive one.

One of this team's myriad flaws is that they get bogged down in bad runs of form. Some teams come out fighting after a disappointment. Arsenal tend to sulk, whine, wallow. And this ugly characteristic was evident again tonight.

Great man though he is, Arsene Wenger embodies the side of Arsenal that fosters resentment, as well as he does the side that everybody loves. He is a sore loser and his team are sore losers. You could say that his reluctance to ever blame things on his players is a tactic used to protect them; if that is the case, I think it has been backfiring for a while now.

It is true that the officiating was generally poor. Carlos Vela was clearly taken out in the Braga area. It was the kind of decision that even the worst of referees would usually get right. But this one, and his "behind the goal" partner, missed the foul. To compound things, he brandished a yellow card at the luckless Mexican.

Then there was the injury to Eboue. Wenger claimed afterwards that the Ivorian had been kicked out of the game. I remember a couple of bad tackles but Eboue's not averse to dishing out a few of those himself. In fact he's committed some disgusting ones. I'm just being balanced here. He should have been sent off against Barcelona in the Champions League final, almost straight after Lehmann walked the plank, for a knee-high assault. And was dismissed in the '08 0-4 against United for something similar. Maybe Wenger was suggesting that there was systematic rough stuff from Braga but I'm sure I've seen worse.

In any case, he shouldn't hide behind that. The injury to Eboue, which looks bad, meant Arsenal were down to ten men for the remainder. But the remainder was only about seven minutes plus stoppage time. A draw against poor opposition was going to be disappointing in itself, but it would have been enough to ensure progress to the knock-out rounds. Surely even Arsenal could keep it relatively tight for a few minutes against this rabble...

Eboue had barely departed before it happened. What a soft goal. Trademark Arsenal. After a free kick was cleared by Braga, they launched a simple ball right up the middle, and Matheus was through. That simple. He knocked it past Fabianski, and for the FIFTEENTH consecutive away game in the Champions League, Arsenal had conceded.

With the centre halves forward, Denilson had been left to man the fort. He was beaten so easily. Abdication of responsibility has become his calling card.

But think about it for a moment. At 0-0, Arsenal are going through- and with minutes to go they concede a counter-attacking goal of such pathetic simplicity, it takes the breath away. This kind of self-harm has become habitual. You usually only see this kind of goal when a team is madly chasing a goal and has abandoned any sense of caution. But Arsenal can do it at any time. The desperation should have been Braga's. They were on their way out. Instead, Arsenal get caught over-committed. Staggering stupidity.

Having fallen behind, there was an excuse to get caught again on the break, and Arsenal did in the game's final moments, with Matheus again released into the gaping hole in front of Fabianski. Three Arsenal men caught up, but seemed to obstruct each other more than their opponent, who was allowed to check on to his preferred left peg and bury an unerring shot in off the crossbar. A fitting end to a dismal night.

The misery does not stop there, though. Fabregas is set for another lay-off after pulling up with yet another hamstring injury- now both his legs are riddled. This raises more questions. Wenger made seven changes after Tottenham. Surely Fabregas should have been first in line for a rest. I know that hindsight is 20:20, but I was already thinking that it was stupid to play Fabregas before he went off. If Wenger thought that he could navigate this fixture using the full extent of the squad, why not make use of its best-stocked area- creative midfielders? Nasri, Rosicky, Wilshere. All of them can be deployed in the same position as the now-knacked skipper.

Arsenal have now made an absolute meal out of a pisspoor group. Braga, Partizan, Shakhtar: these are not particularly good teams. Arsenal's forte recently has been lording it over the dregs of Europe and England, but even that strength seems to be deserting them. While Braga and Shakhtar were both smashed at the Grove, home form in general has been uncharacteristically poor this season. Three defeats already, and some of the wins unconvincing. The natives will be restless when Arsenal line up against Partizan. The Serbs have not yet collected a single point and the pressure will be on to make a convincing statement. And at the moment this team is not delivering the statements it needs to.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mollycoddled Kids

Wenger: I want so much for this team to win that I am giving every drop of my blood to make sure that they win. I want them to be successful because they deserve it.

Don't know where to start with that statement.

You can bet, though, that telling these guys they deserve success is not the kind of encouragement they need. They are already complacent, unjustly arrogant. They have, at times, the swagger of success but not the success itself.

They need to be told to buck up their ideas- but guess what? The manager won't do it, and there isn't a single player in the squad with the ability to pull the troops into line.

It looks like this here Prophet of Doom was not being so rash in his pessimism...

That said, we should not lose sight of the fact that things could be a lot worse.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will Arsenal Beat Braga? Who Cares?

In football, every game matters, but some games are bigger than others.

Something hit home again on Saturday. This Arsenal team can build no momentum. They cannot learn lessons or show anything new. People got carried away by two good but fortunate away wins, but against Spurs Arsenal reverted to type. Every time a game reaches a level of symbolic importance, they blow it. The symbolic importance of bottling the chance to go top can surely not be ignored.

In the cold light of day, it won't really matter a damn if Arsenal beat Braga. They tend to beat rubbish teams. Given a run of games against rubbish teams, they can even put together a run of form. In 08/09, Arsenal embarked on a long, unbeaten run against mid-table Premiership sides. How did that end? 1-2 v Chelsea. 0-1 v United. 1-3 v United. 1-4 v Chelsea. The "confidence" that unbeaten run supposedly bred didn't really count for much in the end, did it?

Equally, Arsenal tend to breeze through the Champions League group phase, turning over substandard continental sides. Often, this is when Arsenal are at their most impressive, as teams stand off and invite a hammering. But when the top sides come calling in the knock-out rounds, Arsenal turn from bullies to whipping boys. In the last two seasons, there has been no suggestion that Arsenal can win important games or games that truly matter.

Big picture-wise, Saturday's game should have been routine- especially at 2-0 up. For a big team to beat a team that they have habitually beaten for ten years, in order to top the league in November, should not really be a big deal. The fact they even managed to bottle that is very worrying indeed. It suggests that rather than lessons being learned, things are getting worse.

Will Arsenal beat Braga? Doesn't matter much- wait for the next big game.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Question for the Ages




WHAT is the point of Denilson???











Today, he looked even more pointless than Jermaine Jenas. Watch with horror as he repeats his patented party trick, watching attackers overtake him while he jogs towards his own goal.

Cesc Fabregas is one of the best midfield players in the world; I've said it a hundred times before, he shouldn't have to share a midfield with the likes of Denilson. When I first saw the Brazilian play, I actually thought he was a similar player to Fabregas. Either he's regressed, or I was hallucinating: the only thing they share is a lack of pace. Which points to a general problem with the Arsenal midfield that has persisted since the departure of Flamini.


TOO PEDESTRIAN.

When on top form, as he was at times today, Fabregas controls the tempo brilliantly. He can slow it down, speed it up, his passing is exemplary. But without the ball, he can seem a slight presence. He needs a minder. Instead, we have Song and Denilson. Song engages in a bit of midfield scuffling, which is necessary, but he is no flyer himself, he seems to shuffle around the pitch. And Denilson is either ridiculously one-paced or just can't be arsed.

It's no wonder Arsenal concede a lot of goals on the break, with Bale's today indicative of just one of this team's catalogue of flaws.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

APPETITE FOR SELF-DESTRUCTION

Arsenal 2-3 Spurs: the Decline reaches its Nadir

I GUESS Tottenham had to win at Arsenal eventually, but the circumstances of this defeat make it very hard to take.

A strange game in many ways. A strange atmosphere- maybe the lunchtime kick-off curse again. Neither side really playing well.

Arsenal built a two-goal lead without hitting anything close to top gear. Nasri- a lovely finish from an acute angle after breaking Gomes' challenge. Chamakh- nicely deflected the ball in after a sweeping counter-attacking move.

Spurs' midfield seemed non-existent at times but Arsenal took no further advantage.


The Worst Second Half Ever.

Complacency rears its ugly head again. It's like Spurs were so bad in the First Half, they convinced Arsenal that the job was done. But this is a team with Van Der Vaart, Bale, Modric and, after the break, Defoe. Three of those four linked up, and Bale flicked the ball beyond Fabianski. Game on.

Arsenal had looked bright first half without being brilliant. But the second half saw no real cutting edge. And things got edgy after Bale's goal. Spurs still not playing amazingly, but the crowd go from subdued to... subdued. There was never any atmosphere, as far as I could tell, even at 2-0.

Song fouled Modric not far outside the box, 67th minute. Fabregas handled blatantly from the free kick. Penalty.

Sometimes you feel sorry for Fabregas because of the immaturity that sometimes seems to surround him and drag him down at Arsenal. But this was so fucking stupid. People say he's too professional to lower his level after his summer disappointment but was that really the action of a fully-committed captain? I'm not saying he's decided not to try, and overall he had a decent game, but subconsciously, the whole Barcelona debacle may have compromised him a little. And he still doesn't look fully fit.

Van Der Vaart stuck the penalty away.

Despite the apparent momentum swing, Spurs didn't really kick on, and Arsenal made some chances. Koscielny headed over from a nice Van Persie cross.

Then Kaboul headed in from Van Der Vaart's free kick and the comeback was complete. Wenger doing his Basil Fawlty routine on the sideline, overcome by impotent rage at his troops.

PEOPLE ARE, or were, saying Arsenal can win the league. As far as I can see, they're plumbing new depths all the time. As against Newcastle, they couldn't even muster a late assault on the opposition goal.

A really horrible game all-around. Gallas colossal at the back, definite man of the match.

The best you can say is that it's a strange result in a generally strange Premiership season, but that lets Arsenal off too easily. If they really are capable of winning the league, this season represents a big opportunity. I restate my belief that they can't do it. They'll always find a way to balls it up. At half-time, Arsenal were heading top. By full-time, they'd capitulated to a Spurs team that didn't even have to be that special.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What a Wanker



Memories of Aaron Lennon's equalising goal in that 4-4 draw will always haunt me, but they're not as half as annoying as the memory of the shit-eating grin on David Bentley's face afterwards....

Ah well, let's hope he's enjoying his perennial bench time at Spurs

Is the Gulf of North London Closing?

May not seem the most suitable time to pose the question- Spurs league form has been patchy at best. This has generally been put down to their participation in the Champions League, but Harry Redknapp will have to learn how to juggle the dual demands of league and European competition, because, assuming Spurs can't win the Champions League, it does not look like they'll be in it next season.

But, to be fair, despite their frailties, Spurs are threatening Arsenal's supposed status as the most entertaining team in England. As was seen during the World Cup, the prevailing trend of 4-5-1 formations can lead to a lot of negative football, but Spurs' version of it has a striker supported by not only Van Der Vaart, but two fliers on the flanks, and the usual central duo of Modric and Huddlestone is more attack-minded than pretty much any I can think of- Huddlestone does sit, but he's more a quarter-back, a poor man's Xabi Alonso, than a Makalele-style terrier (stupid analogy- Huddlestone is clearly more a St. Bernard than a terrier).

That said, away to Arsenal there is a possibility that the strangely out-of-favour Wilson Palacios will be called on to add a bit more steel.

Arsenal have a strange record at home this season. Some of the wins have been less than routine, and then there were the woeful defeats to Newcastle and West Brom. Of course, Spurs ought to be a different proposition. They don't really have the personnel to play cat and mouse football. Both teams tend to play open football, and each will be confident of hurting the other. Signs are that it could be a thrilling encounter, although a kick-off time of around noon Saturday often leads to yawns of boredom, a poor atmosphere and a listless game.

With the injury crisis that has hit Chelsea, and United still struggling to convince, a win this weekend might have me eating my own pessimistic words. Could Arsenal emerge as leading contenders thanks to the flaws of the top sides? I remember asking similar questions last season, and that's the problem really. People seem to expect Arsenal to succeed almost despite themselves. It is only a fortnight since they capitulated so feebly to Newcastle and that shouldn't be forgotten just because Chelsea lost a couple of games. Ok, the Blues and Man Utd don't look as formidable as previous years, but that was the case last year aswell. Arsenal have to improve to take advantage. If United or Chelsea throw it away, Arsenal still have to catch it.

And watch out for that shnake Gallas...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Riddle Me This

Young Gunner Henri Lansbury, a midfielder, played in goals for half hour tonight after the England U-21 keeper was sent off. He conceded the resultant penalty, but no further goals.

Does that make him the best goalkeeper at Arsenal?

Monday, November 15, 2010

United Stumble On Undefeated

Hard to believe it after Sunderland swept Chelsea aside, but until the whirlwind finale of Saturday's game at Villa Park, it seemed the performance of the weekend was going to be Aston Villa's.

Ok, this is by no means a vintage United side, but nobody had really shown them up either. They had drawn a lot of games but nobody had come out and played them off the park.

After a dull, goalless first half, Villa came out and battered United. Pressing hard in midfield, springing quickly onto the front foot. Stewart Downing looked a player for once, tortured Wes Brown and swung in teasing crosses. Albrighton headed one just wide. Collins hit the bar, Agbonlahor a post. United could barely mount a meaningful attack.

Finally the home side took a deserved lead, when Brown shoved Ashley Young over after Agbonlahor had, in a signature move from recent encounters, left a sluggish Nemanja Vidic floundering. Young buried the penalty, minimum fuss. Minutes later, Villa struck a classic counterpunch. Macheda lost the ball, Villa zoomed forward. Young fed the onrushing Downing, whose cross was perfect for Albrighton, the finish a formality. The goal recalled Germany's swashbuckling football from the World Cup and seemed to herald the end of United's inexplicable unbeaten record. Their performance had been abject and they were getting the roasting they deserved.

But this is United.

They may lack the class of Ferguson's great United sides but they have character, because Ferguson's teams always do. When Villa lost the attacking impetus, United responded, as if a switch had been flicked. Ferdinand had already had an effort cleared off the line before Fletcher's clever back flick was whacked in by sub Macheda. The writing was on the wall for Villa, who have a wretched record against United.

Still, they were unlucky. Downing drove down the left again, cut in onto his right and unleashed a piledriver that shaved VDS's bar. The near miss probably only cemented the sense of destiny in the minds of both sides. Sure enough, Nani duly redeemed his otherwise poor display with a peach of a ball, left-footed to the back post, and Vidic arrived on cue to nod it in.

Five or so minutes still to play, it seemed inevitable that United would complete the turnaround, but Villa stood firm for the remainder. Obertan did pierce their rearguard, only for Friedel's face to stop the ball finding the net.

So another away draw for this stuttering United team. Had they come from 1-0 down to salvage something having played badly and been lucky not to concede more, you could call them flukey, but you have to give grudging respect to any team that recovers a 2-0 deficit. And surely only United could play THAT badly for more than 70 minutes, and still find the belief to salvage something from such a gloomy position.

Absurdly, having played so poorly, they could feel frustrated at the end not to have plundered three points. But their frustration will have been tempered on Sunday, watching an unfamiliar, flat Chelsea get flattened further by a top-notch Sunderland performance. United have fallen well below their self-set standards this season, but they are still in touch at the top, and we all know how United tend to get after Christmas...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Depleted Chelsea Torn aSunder

see what I did there?

Chelsea let a few squad players go in the summer. Carvalho, Deco and Ballack weren't exactly setting the world alight but they were reliable pros who could step in and do a job. Their squad isn't as deep as it used to be and the signs are that it's already starting to creak. They've dealt well with Lampard's prolonged absence, but losing Essien was a Bridge too far and their impressive home record this season was obliterated by an adventurous Sunderland team. Fair play to them. It's all very well saying Chelsea were under-strength but it still needed a team with the balls to exploit it.

As well as their midfield problems, Chelsea were without Terry and Alex, and Gyan and Wellbeck were breaking their makeshift backline almost at will. Cech actually kept the score down, and Ivanovic should have seen a red card for a blatant professional foul, only for a gutless Chris Foy to wield a wimpy yellow one.

Sunderland's first two goals were great efforts, a slalom and scuff from Onuoha and a sweeping move finished confidently by Gyan. Their third was slotted by Wellbeck from a beautiful Ashley Cole cross.

Fortunes are changing so regularly this season. Arsenal's season felt doomed to mediocrity last weekend. Liverpool thought they'd turned a corner. Now the gloom has returned to Merseyside and optimism will rise again in North London. Chelsea were until recently seen as hot favourites to retain their crown; today has raised serious questions about that assumption.

But who will push them closest? United are still struggling to win away games. Arsenal will hope to lay down a marker in the North London derby next weekend.

Everton 1-2 Arsenal...

For almost eighty minutes, it is just about the best performance of the season from Arsenal. Difficult venue. Tough opposition. Arsenal solid at the back (!) and looking fairly sparky in the final third, too. An unlikely scorer gives the Gunners the lead. After Nasri's shot is parried by Howard, Arshavin retrieves and lays it off to Sagna inside the area. Everton stand off, maybe thinking he can't score. Wrong, 1-0.

Second half kicks off with a lovely finish from an otherwise still below-par Fabregas. Denilson looks to have over played things on the edge of the box. Finds Fabregas. Fabregas- Chamakh- dinky pass- Fabregas- goal. Job done?

Nasri and Chamakh should seal it. First the Frenchman threatens another classic solo goal. Howard saves well. He plays in Fabregas, whose driven cross finds Chamakh. Spooned over the bar from point blank. Will it be punished?

Probably would have been but for the erratic Fabianski. Today, as against Wolves, is one of his good days. Arsenal slacken in the final 15 (complacency? fatigue?), and Everton find the reserves for a stirring finale. Should be on the scoresheet before Cahill scores, but Fabianski denies Beckford, Pienaar, Saha. Wenger responds to the goal by replacing Chamakh with not Bendtner, but Eboue. Invites late onslaught, but little trouble materialises.

A GREAT WIN, the weekend that's in it. Chelsea lose. United draw again. City in turmoil. A strange season so far, as unpredictable as any in memory.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wenger: Hypocrite?

It's a legitimate question.

Arsenal have gotten a bit holier-than-thou at times when players have been injured by bad tackles. But their own players make some bad tackles too. Fabregas could have done some damage to Ward lastnight and if a tackle like that was made against Arsenal, a lot of their fans, their manager and players would be up in arms.

I was listening to the Guardian's podcast just there and one of the journalists was insistent on Wenger's hypocrisy. He said that Arsenal fans he'd spoken to used Karl Henry's bad tackle in the same game in defence of Fabregas, and his response was "so what?".

Here's what: Karl Henry is a repeat offender. Cesc Fabregas's bad foul deserved attention, but so did Karl Henry's. In fact, Karl Henry's deserved MORE criticism because he seems to do it every second game. He's made more of these tackles in a year than all the Arsenal players put together. Instead, it seems, the Arsenal player gets all the negative scrutiny. It's understandable in a way because they want to portray Arsenal's stance as hypocritical, but what is the more pressing agenda? Ridding the game of the attitude that it's ok to do what the likes of Henry and De Jong do, or making fun of Arsenal?

They make big news out of bad fouls by Arsenal players. Only twice a year or so, because it doesn't happen much. And they gloss over the habitual thuggery of a talentless nutcase who never even acknowledges he's in the wrong.

Dangerous fouls happen. With th modern game played at such a high speed, the players are always at some risk. But Danny Murphy hit the nail on the head: some managers encourage a kind of systematic recklessness. How can anyone suggest that Arsenal are not deliberately subjected to rough treatment? Diaby, Eduardo and Ramsey all suffered leg breaks in recent years. It can't be a coincidence.

Fabregas's foul was petulant, but that's human nature. Anger, flashes of temper will lead to mistakes. Dangerous tackles will never be completely eradicated but I don't think that's what Wenger calls for. There are players at other teams who seem to be in a state of constant recklessness and that is surely more worth criticism than Arsenal's perceived double standards.

I find it sickening that on a night when Henry and Michael Essien, repeat offenders both, made shocking tackles, Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal were condemned for what was, on the whole, an aberration.

Wolves Tamed, Not Convincingly

Wolves 0-2 Arsenal

After embarrassment against Newcastle, the result was paramount against Wolves. Marounane Chamakh stepped up to the plate after a poor showing at the weekend- it's good to see that his confidence wasn't damaged.

The first goal came very early and was the type that Arsenal would score a lot more if the full backs could only cross consistently. Rosicky spun into space in midfield, drove forward to pass to Song who found himself wide. His cross was measured onto the head of Chamakh who nodded it in nicely.

I only saw highlights so I can't be too critical of the overall performance, but the impression was that Wolves started slowly and Arsenal started well, and could have finished the game if Arshavin wasn't (again) wasteful when through on goal. As the match wore on though the home side exerted a lot of pressure. Fabianski was in fine form despite his latest catastrophe on Sunday. He made a few very good saves, one from a Kevin Doyle shot that seemed destined for the top corner, another in stoppage time from a low, powerful shot (Arsenal's second goal came directly after this).

Bacary Sagna also deserves credit for a great block early in the second half, right in front of goal, to deny Hunt. If that low cross was coming from the other side, would Gael Clichy have made a similar block?

Chamakh finished the game from a Fabregas through ball at the death but Arsenal were lucky overall. If Wolves had a more potent frontman than Doyle or Ebanks-Blake they surely would have scored. It's worrying that Arsenal can't seem to control away games but it's a good habit aswell to grind out apparently undeserved victories. Hopefully November will improve from here.

Also, it has to be pointed out that Karel Henry is an animal who shouldn't be allowed on a football pitch. Fabregas's tackle caused uproar but the BBC ignored a worse one on Arshavin by the Wolves clogger, just as they made a joke of it when he was kicking the shit out of Joey Barton earlier this campaign. His assault on Jordi Gomes, which thankfully did produce a red card, was almost hilariously bad, and the guy doesn't seem to recognise that he is a danger to everyone else on a football pitch. He's not learning his lesson and the football media would do well to be a bit more critical. The ex-players talking on TV seem scared to condemn, perhaps believing they have an obligation to "protect their own". Especially when the player is British.

Nigel De Jong probably wouldn't enjoy the same support.

Alan Hansen: C***

Alan Hansen's anti-Arsenal bias really takes the biscuit.

Against Fulham, Michael Essien went in over the ball, with both feet, and was rightly dismissed.

"Is there any intent there?", asked the over-the-hill pundit, missing the point entirely for the 1000th time this season.

As Lee Dixon said, regardless of whether or not Essien wanted to hurt Dempsey, he was reckless and endangered his opponent's safety. I hate to bring THAT incident up again, but Ryan Shawcross probably didn't intend to break Aaron Ramsey in two... does that mean the Stoke blunderbus didn't deserve his dismissal?

Essien's been getting away with tackles like that for years. He has a dangerous habit of stamping down into tackles. At best, it's poor tackling technique; at worst, cowardly.

Hansen defending this showed him to be a misguided fool but soon he proved himself a hypocrite as well as that.

First things first, Fabregas' tackle on Ward was very bad. Initially I thought maybe it was one of those where the attacker dives to try to block a clearance and the defender kicks the attacker's foot. But the replays showed that Fabregas went in hard and nastily. It was a dangerous tackle borne out of frustration and a petulance that often darkens his game. He was lucky to get away with just a yellow.

But Hansen, in condemning Fabregas and absolving Essien, showed up his own double standards and his bias against a team that, no doubt, just aren't "British" enough for the prick.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

MC + MU = zzzzzzzzz

Man City 0-0 Man United

It would take a horrid little team to have me almost wishing to see Manchester United score yet another late winner. Roberto Mancini has crafted such a team.

I used to resent Mourinho's Chelsea on the basis that a team built on hundreds of millions of pounds in transfers should be hugely entertaining rather than just functional and effective. But this City side makes that Chelsea side look like Barcelona. And they aren't even proving particularly effective.

Their whole game plan seems based on the idea that the opposition will overcommit. United were a bit too clever or cautious to do that, and the game was murdered as a spectacle.

There is an idea expressed in the Guardian by Jonathan Wilson recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/nov/09/carlos-tevez-city-the-question) that Mancini is effectively deploying a strategy that was prevalent in Italy about a decade ago- having seven mainly defensive players, and three attack-minded ones. People say he conforms to an Italian stereotype but at least Juve at the turn of the century had Zidane in the playmaker role. Where is City's playmaker?

To be fair, while City did ostensibly field seven defence-minded players against United, Yaya Toure was clearly given license to get forward to support Tevez. Despite some buccaneering runs, he seems ill-suited to that role. It doesn't help that Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong provide passing that's about as incisive as Jamie Redknapp's punditry.

With David Silva still apparently acclimatising to the unique rigours of the English game, you would expect Mancini to allow Adam Johnson the opportunity to provide the creativity City so desperately need; instead, James Milner invariably starts and looks busy while doing very little at all.

They're a miserable little team. Their best player is Tevez and even he is more a gifted workhorse than a superstar. They run all night and work hard but they make the creative side of the game look so laborious. Fuck off Manchester City.

And Out Come The Wolves

Not an easy game to follow a rotten result: Wolves away.

And Arsenal have a habit of letting one bad result become two or three, letting a mere setback become a poor run. This has been the case for even the strongest of Wenger's Arsenal teams. When the unbeaten run ended against United in 2004, instead of forgetting a fairly unfortunate defeat and moving on, Arsenal were dragged down into a dreadful run that saw them unable to beat the likes of Crystal Palace.

Now is not a time for self-pity: this week sees a trip not only to Wolves but also to Everton, who usually, with the obvious exception of last season's surreal opening fixture, give Arsenal a stern test.

Excuses are, at this point, not well stocked. Injuries are fairly few by Arsenal standards (although many players, most obviously Fabregas, don't look 100% fit) and there have been enough warnings this season. Some games have been lost abjectly, and others have seen poor performances let off the hook. There's been little or no fluency to Arsenal's play, despite the myth that they are the league's great entertainers. Not being able to find top gear is forgivable but what isn't is the inability to find a way to dig out results consistently. The same mistakes are being made over and over, with no accountability. Bad as Arsenal were against Newcastle, they shouldn't have lost the game. Newcastle barely made an opportunity. But if you keep giving goals away as cheaply as Arsenal do, you're making a big problem for yourself.

There's a fundamental difference between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. I don't think 'nice' men would make great football managers, but Sir Alex Ferguson is a complete bastard. I mean this as a compliment. You can imagine the terror that United's players would feel after 45 minutes of poor play. The knowledge that you're about to be eaten alive. For some, this would motivate, for others, it would be paralysing. That, rather than than pure technical ability, is what defines good players. Character.

What other reason could you give for United continuing to outperform Arsenal? Their team features the likes of O'Shea, Park, and others. Players nobody would ever get excited about. But they're effective.

Arsene Wenger, at this juncture, seems hopelessly obsessed with technique at the expense of character (and arguably physical power).A lot of the Arsenal players don't look particularly bothered when they lose. In interviews, they talk a good game. Maturity and mentality are the buzzwords. But that's all bullshit. They have to do their talking on the pitch and the writing on the Emirates turf on Sunday carried a stark message. It said that these guys could be humiliated by West Brom, come back only a month or so later and repeat the trick.

How many times do they have to relapse into mediocrity before you just give up? You might see a win against Wolves as evidence of charcter, of bouncebackability, but a couple weeks back they beat Man City and it proved just another in a long list of false dawns.

If, sadly, a top four finish is the genuine summit of the club's ambition, Spur's dropped points at home to Sunderland are a boost. But with the top clubs generally looking vulnerable, it's an awful pity that we aren't looking at an Arsenal side capable of winning the league.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Just One More About Walcott

Comparisons between Walcott and Henry are wildly unfair on the Frenchman, who despite being a preening ponce and a big game bottler was probably in the top five players in the world for quite a stretch, and, lest we forget, is Arsenal's all-time leading goalscorer. That is a status that Theo will certainly never threaten. He doesn't have the talent, he doesn't have that ego (the size of a small country)... he does have pace and finiishing ability but Henry in his pomp was about so much more than that.

But there is one other similarity. Thierry Henry spent a chunk of his early days pre-Arsenal marooned where Walcott is now: out on the wing. And because Walcott has only excelled in one area other than speed- his finishing- it makes sense that his future, if there is one for him at a top level club, is up front.

If that's the solution for his own development, though, it may only be another problem for Arsenal Football Club, who haven't played 4-4-2 since 08/09 and arguably no longer have the personnel to do it. Sure, you could pick two out of Bendtner, Walcott, Chamakh and (when available) Van Persie up top (and I haven't forgotten Carlos Vela, he just doesn't deserve to be even seen as an option), but if the midfield looks lightweight with three men, it would be even worse off with two. And the position behind a front three is the area in which Arsenal are best stocked- Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere, Rosicky, Diaby (if he ever returns from injury hell), Ramsey (back soon apparently)...

If anything, this prospective dilemma underlines the lopsided nature of the current squad. Walcott is NEEDED in a wide position, despite being ill-suited to the role, because his pace offers a penetrative threat that is otherwise largely absent. Nasri and Arshavin don't really run beyond opposition defences when they don't have the ball. And Walcott, despite his pace, hasn't learned to do it consistently, which leaves Arsenal, on a bad day, looking one-dimensional and predictable.

Manchester United: RANK RANK RANK. . .

...but still only TWO POINTS off top spot.

What that underlines is that it's an open year in the Premiership. People, myself included, have portrayed Chelsea as obvious favourites but they are now only a couple of points ahead of the worst United team in memory, who started the season dropping silly points all over the place.

Chelsea have failed to score in their more testing away games: a goalless bore draw against Villa, the loss to City, and now the defeat to Torres and Liverpool.

What does it say about Arsenal? This season should be a huge opportunity, but they just don't look ready to grasp it. Had the home games against West Brom and Newcastle been won, Arsenal would now be top. Instead, they're five points adrift and, to turn that around, they'll probably have to turn around that woeful record against United and Chelsea. And remember how to beat the lesser lights. It's a sizeable task.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Absolutely Shite!!!

Arsenal 0-1 Newcastle

At the start of last season, it seemed Arsenal had reverted back to the pressing style that was a hallmark of Wenger's successful years. Unfortunately, that was a false dawn.

The Newcastle performance, if not the result, was typical enough of recent years. The whole game was played at a pre-season pace. A complete lack of dynamism or tempo. This happens a lot with Arsenal, but most of the time they get away with it. Not today.

Newcastle were only a notch above average themselves. They were as comptent as they had to be in defence, and did not even make a clear chance- their goal being the result of a trademark mistake from Fabianski. Nonetheless, they were comfortably good enough to repel Arsenal's feeble attacks and at times were allowed to knock the ball around midfield, under barely any pressure at all.

There's been plenty of competition in recent years, but this has to be one of the worst performances of the Wenger years. It pushed the lethargy and complacency to new depths. Some of the players tried, but just looked inept. Walcott made a mockery of the ridiculous comparisons to Henry. Yes, he scored an Henryesque goal recently, but in general style and ability, Thierry Henry inhabited a different planet to Theo Walcott.

Arsenal have now lost AT HOME to two of the three promoted sides. This kind of result can no longer be described as a shock or an aberration. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single positive. Van Persie's return maybe, he showed some nice touches as always. He'll be an asset until his next injury.

It hasn't taken long for my predictions about the MONTH FROM HELL to be affirmed. This makes me, on recent evidence, less of a false prophet than the Arsenal manager.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

COMPLACENT

is a word all too often used to describe this Arsenal team.

And Wenger's own comments after the Shakhtar game suggested that it remains a problem.

I find it hard to accept that. What have they got to be complacent about? None of them have achieved anything. I suppose you see great teams become complacent. But when do you see complacent teams become great?

You can imagine that, after achieving everything, a team or an individual may lose some of the hunger. But if you've not done anything of note, and you lack the hunger to put in the hard yards, it raises serious questions over your character and your potential.

It is sinful that this Arsenal team can play with arrogance. Wenger speaks of maturity and lessons learned. I hear bullshit. These would be the same lessons that the same players have been learning year after year, season after season.

What kind of students are they?

Or is the teacher to blame...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Arsenal: Ominous?

Time for some trademark pessimism

November has begun in traditionally rank fashion with a familiar Eastern European capitulation from the Arse. The one positive note was Walcott's goal, uncannily Henryesque. Wilshere knocked the ball into space for Theo after Arsenal had, shock horror, successfully defended a set play, and the rest was very impressive indeed. Walcott comfortably left the Shakhtar defenders puffing in his wake and placed an early shot low past the keeper.

As Arsenal's scorer admitted afterwards, however, Shakhtar could have been out of sight by half-time. They spurned a couple of glorious chances before Arsenal reverted to the all-too-familiar self-destructive mode. It is a sad hallmark of this side: they do not make the opposition work hard to score.

First, Eastmond headed into his own net from an admittedly vicious in-swinging free kick. This was followed, on the stroke of half-time, by yet another goal-costing gaffe by the liability that is Gael Clichy. He fannied about when he should have just been clearing the ball, was robbed, and Eduardo placed a nice first-time finish from the low cross.

On the face of it, the result is no disaster. Arsenal still top the group with nine points and one more win would secure qualification. Absentees included Fabregas, Denilson and Song. When you consider that Diaby and Ramsey were also unavailable, it's a wonder they were able to field any kind of midfield.

But poor results, even in relatively insignificant games, can sometimes dent momentum. Let's hope that's not the case. The next league game is a distinctly winnable one at home to Newcastle... but what happened last time Arsenal had a soft-looking fixture at home to a promoted team??? Yeah.

Newcastle have Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi, two in-form bruisers. Carroll in particular strikes me as a man to cause the often feeble Arsenal defence all manner of problems. Obviously, it's a game Arsenal ought to win well, but only if they bring their best and don't succumb to their habitual nemesis- an unearned complacency.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Spurs Make The Grade: 3-1 v Inter.

At 4-0 down in the San Siro a couple weeks back, it looked like Spurs' trademark naivety might have been terminal to their chances in Europe. Bale's hat-trick was not enough to earn a point but it salvaged pride and restored a sense of belonging that might otherwise have been destroyed. Inter's complacency allowed Tottenham to snatch some kind of moral victory from the jaws of humiliation.

And tonight at White Hart Lane Spurs built on that. They lack the habit of winning big matches domestically so three points at home to the European Champions is a landmark achievement. It was secured with three fine goals that illustrated the flair at Harry Redknapp's disposal. First, Modric danced forward to the edge of the area and played a clever reverse pass through to Van Der Vaart. The in-form Dutchman smashed home to continue his prolific scoring ratio since his cut-price move to England.

The other two goals were all about Gareth Bale.

The Welshman emerged at Southampton after Theo Walcott left for Arsenal; it must be said that the Gunners signed the wrong pacey winger from the Saints. Bale is a far, far better player than Walcott, certainly if both are viewed as wingers. A better dribbler, a better crosser, more powerful in his running. Maicon is widely regarded as the best right back in the world but Bale gave him a torrid time. His runs and crosses for the Crouch and Pavlyuchenko goals were electrifying.

Over two games he ripped apart a defence that was, only last season, close to impregnable.

Nobody can be sensational every game, and in successive Premier League weekends Bale has been subdued by Everton and Manchester United who have tried to usher him inside and largely succeeded. Maybe you could argue the Premiership's more tactically aware managers have started to come to terms with his threat, but Rafa Benitez is no stranger to nullifying tactics nor to Premiership pace, and his team have had no answer. When a game is wide open, there is no better player in England at the moment.

Re: Walcott

Walcott's brace of tidy finishes in the Carling Cup cakewalk at Newcastle last week will have given his detractors (myself included) food for thought.

It's always been clear that Walcott is a confidence player. When he scored that hat-trick for England against Croatia in the autumn of 2008, it proved the catalyst for his best run of club form. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury quickly curtailed that run.

And, despite my habitual dismissals of Walcott, maybe he has been unlucky with frequent injuries. Maybe they have stunted his progress. Maybe he could yet become a footballer.

His hat-trick against Blackpool this season had him again threatening some form, and again, injury struck. You started to wonder at that point. Every time his game progressed, it seemed, he was ruled out for a period, meaning that upon his return, he would take weeks to build his fragile confidence again.

This time, though, Walcott hit the ground running. He was clinical against Newcastle and showed the importance of a genuine threat in behind the opposition defence. It is his pace and the potential penetration it offers that makes him important to this Arsenal team, despite his status as the least "natural" footballer in the squad.

It is his very difference that makes him an essential weapon.

Fabregas had, by his own admission, a stinker of a first half against West Ham on Saturday. But when Walcott came on, the Spaniard immediately released him with a great slide rule pass, and Theo struck a post. Fabregas is the best creative midfielder in the Premiership and it seems a shame that a lot of the time the team seems to lack runners that the captain can pick out. Chamakh's arrival has been beneficial in this regard, and Walcott offers another target for Fabregas's penetrative passing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

November: The Month From Hell

Tonight, Odhran steals an idea from Myles Palmer as the theme of his post.

As long as I've supported Arsenal- since the days of bungs and cocaine addictions- they have been shit in November. And the next month could make or break this season.

ARSENAL 1-0 WEST 'AM
The first half against West Ham was sadly familiar in its lethargy, its lack of tempo, and we can be grateful that the opposition lacked the adventure to test that rickety back four.

To be fair, Arsenal did up their game after the interval. The visitors, while dogged in defence, were far from watertight; Robert Green however had one of his rare good days and kept Arsenal out until the final knockings when after seven years of flattering to deceive Gael Clichy finally produced a final ball worthy of the name. When he cut in ono his weaker foot, I was expecting the now horribly familar excited slice into row Z; instead he dinked a lovely cross into the goalmouth for Song to gleefully head in. The Hammers defence had completely gone missing, probably buying into the Arsenal stereotype and anticipating an ineffective pass across the edge of the area.

Funnily enough, good as the cross looked, Green just froze when he should really have claimed it. In fact that probably sums him up- on his best day, he'll keep you in the game... until he costs you the game.

Sub-par performances can still contribute to a sense of momentum when they are capped by late winning goals. After the resounding result at City, there is the temptation to believe that Arsenal have turned a corner but we have said that many times over recent years and as yet nothing tangible has been found around any of those corners. Except maybe a few head-on collisions with juddering disappointment.

So now we are faced with the start of a long, hard winter- the dreaded November looms.

Some dirty looking fixtures. Wolves and Everton away in the space of a few days. And the home derby with Spurs- who, while inconsistent, have a vibrancy on their best days that few English teams can match at the moment (and they have Gallas, who's bound to score). The month from hell will be rounded off with a trip to Villa- and Wenger doesn't have a great record against that doyen of dourness, his pal Houllier.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

City 0-3 Arsenal, Significance Uncertain.

Is a win in a big game automatically a big win?

Regardless of circumstances, the result on Sunday must have lifted a great weight off this Arsenal team's shoulders.

It had been almost two years since they defeated a team that could be described as title rivals, so we can hope that this game will go some way to erasing the inferiority complex that seems to infect Arsenal against Chelsea and Manchester United.

At the same time, there is a tendency to judge matches only on their scorelines and this is something that should be avoided. For instance, when Chelsea beat Arsenal recently, the consensus was that the Gunners were outclassed, despite dominating the game and failing to take some early chances. Chelsea scored from two half-chances, and their second goal came late, but they were depicted as comfortable, superior winners. All on the basis of the scoreline.

Arsenal having won 3-0, at Eastlands, suggests a gulf in class, but that is not so.

A fifth minute red card is going to have a huge effect on any game. Even more vitally, Arsenal scored soon afterwards, leaving City with a mountain to climb. But Arsenal gave up chances throughout the game and so any praise for a newfound maturity may be a little unjustified.

When you break it down, the game told us little about Arsenal that we didn't already know. Their defending is rotten. Djourou was roasted by Tevez in the first minute, leading to a chance for Silva. He was embarrassed again by Micah Richards with the score at 1-0. Despite playing against ten men, there was little sign of the game being killed off until Song buried the second goal. City always looked threatening up to that point.

City enjoyed large doses of luck against Blackpool last week and here it ran out. The red card was justified but they were unlucky to lose Tevez early in the second half. Yaya Toure looked formidable first half but he too had to be teken off (his replacement, Wayne Bridge, teed up Song's goal with a lovely lay-off). They had chances but encountered a keeper who is finally finding some form.

There were of course poitives for Arsenal. If the first half was a little hot-headed and nervy, the players did more to defuse the situation after half time. Fabregas, Song and Denilson had all been booked but curbed the instinct to lunge into any more silly tackles.

Nasri was outstanding, took his goal beautifully. He set up Bendtner's too. And he has been steadily improving since the back end of last season, moving out of Fabregas's shadow.

Chamakh has already proved a wonderful signing; it becomes clear why Wenger was happy to wait for him rather than rush into buying another striker last January. While Van Persie may be a more explosive player, Chamakh arguably has a more rounded game, and the Dutchman may find it difficult to regain his place at centre forward when he returns from his latest injury.

The Moroccan's falling over skills were in evidence again- how many red cards and penalties has he forced already this season??

Fabregas, despite the missed penalty, showed few signs of rust despite having just returned from a fairly lengthy lay off. He provided the pass slide rule pass that sent Chamakh through, having already released a wrongly flagged Arshavin moments before. These facts form a riposte to Mancini's assertion that City would have won 11 v 11. Of course we'll never know, but the signs were that both sides would have made chances, and it may well have gone either way. But that game never materialised, and instead, maybe this Arsenal team got exactly what they needed in a big encounter.

The significance can only be decided by what comes next. Remember West Brom, that's all I'll say.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Re: Imaginary Card Waving

WHY, WHY, WHY, WHY
do people constantly complain about imaginary card waving in football?

It is the single most trivial probem that has e'er been stressed over in the history of civilisation.

Sympathy for a Shawcross, spite for a foreigner who waves his hand to signify that, well, maybe the referee should book the clogger that's just scythed somebody down. Criminal stuff.

It strikes me as a TELEVISION problem. We see what goes on on the pitch, but hear none of it. A foreign player may not have the grasp of the English language necessary to suggest politely, THAT'S A FACKING RED CAAAAWWWD REF!!! and so he uses sign language to communicate. Guess what? We can't hear, so we don't know beyond doubt, but we can assume that every footballer tries to influence the referee into making important decisions that favour their team.

Only the mime artists get condemned.

Friday, October 22, 2010

City - Arsenal A Match of Contrasts

Arsenal play a positive, attacking game, while City are as dull as ditchwater.

City are solid at the back, where Arsenal are porous.

The midfielders in blue are robust but limited. In red, they are slight but creative.

City have two of the best keepers in the league... Arsenal, two of the worst.

HOPEFULLY, Nigel De Jong is suffering, distracted by the negative press he has received of late. Last year, he muzzled Fabregas at Eastlands in City's 4-2 victory, but last weekend, he and City's other midfielders couldn't get near Charlie Adam of Blackpool.

You would hope, then, that Arsenal's creative players can give City problems.

ADEBAYOR's hat trick in Europe could bode badly for us. While essentially a part-timer now thanks to his rotten attitude, he is unlikely to need motivation against Arsenal. His replacement by David Silva last weekend pretty much won City the game, so he's hardly going to start against Arsenal, but substitutions could be vital in what ought to be a close-fought game.

Arsenal continue to struggle with the oppressive weight of their recent failures in big games. That makes this weekend another crucial one. City have the players to soak up pressure and hit a team on the break, and Arsenal invite that kind of strategy, as has been seen against Chelsea, Manchester United, and City themselves in the recent past. Scoring the first goal would be a nice change, but even in such a situation, can Arsenal's rickety defence ever be trusted to hold firm? It promises to be an interesting game.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Enough of the Rough Stuff [Typical Arsenal Fan]

Danny Murphy’s recent comments on the overuse of physicality in the English game were laudable on many levels. He was honest, and brave- especially when you consider that he still has to play against the teams he condemned.

The most significant aspect of this is an easily overlooked one. With so much negativity surrounding the English national team, critics should spend less time decrying the substandard performances of a substandard team, and more worrying about changing the culture of their game.

Every time there is an incident like the one involving Shawcross and Ramsey last season, and many in the game show sympathy towards the perpetrator and not the victim, they help cement an outdated attitude that it is ok to go in hard and hurt players. Not many would accuse Shawcross of intending to do the damage he did- that would make him a sociopath- but he has a proven track record of causing injury and so he is clearly acting recklessly.

Physicality is something that is important to the Premiership’s image as arguably the most exciting of the world’s football leagues. Rightly so. But in a game played so fast, by big, strong athletes, there has to be more emphasis on the safety of the players. It would serve England well.

Few seem to see the link between the encouragement of brutal play in the Premiership and the perceived underachievement of the English national side. There is plenty of artistic play on show in the league, but it must be said that most of the technical excellence has, in recent years, been provided by the continental players who have flooded it since the mid 1990s. There are less and less English players of the technical calibre of a Glenn Hoddle, a John Barnes, or a Paul Gascoigne, perhaps because the English clubs know they can import class from abroad, and look to their English players to provide grit and hard work.

And when an unpolished gem like Jack Wilshere is unearthed, look at the treatment that is dished out- he has already been the victim of some unnecessarily tough tackling this season, with more undoubtedly to come.

I don’t mean to be too black and white about the debate. It’s not only British players who apply brute force on a football pitch- Nigel De Jong plays like an assassin, and George Boateng has been at it for years, and there are plenty more continental examples. But I do think that aggression is over-emphasised in English footballing culture. Even looking at a Gerrard or a Rooney- they often have the look of a bull in a china shop, and they are regarded as the most skilful of English players.

This aggression, when allied to a reckless nature like that of Karl Henry or Ryan Shawcross, is dangerous and destructive. It can destroy careers. And if it is weeded out of the game, I believe it would be of immense benefit to the English national team, as technical brilliance may finally come to be privileged over the clich├ęs of 110%, putting ‘em under pressure, and kicking the skilful players in the air until their spirit- or their legs- are broken.