Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Men Against... Fucking Embryos!!: Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

Tom Waits- "Singapore"

Ha, I finally found a way to fit in a reference to the great man.

A lot of myths have been propagated about Arsenal, some of them encouraged by the manager himself. Big games now seem to function only to strip these myths down to some harsh truths. Not good enough, boys.

There is so much to be said here, about the game and about the wider context of things. Where to start but with the obvious, yawning gulf between the two sides. Barca are achingly superior in every nuance of the game. Arsenal had an attack straight from kick-off that came to nothing; for the ensuing twenty minutes, they endured the most frighteningly one-sided spell that I have seen at any level of football. It could and should have been over. Almunia, to be fair, made some great saves. But it was, already, humiliating.

After that, Arsenal mustered the odd decent forage forward, and Barca were not quite so rampant, but still very superior. Their possession play was great, but Arsenal miserably failed to exert pressure. In contrast, the home team were slow and sloppy on the rare occasions they got it, and wilted in the face of Barca's pressing high up the pitch. Arshavin went off injured. Gallas went off injured. Fabregas was harshly booked, and thus suspended for the second leg. It was as comically disastrous a first 45 minutes as has ever finished goalless.

How did Arsenal react to getting out of jail? They started the second period by immediately conceding a goal so simple you'd barely see it in a testimonial game. Long chip over the top, amateur offside trap breached, emergency centre-back Song in no-man's land, Almunia tottering out to join him, Ibrahimovic, profligate to that point, accepts the opportunity to lob the clown. It was such a ludicrous goal to concede, but nothing really surprises me with this team anymore.

For another fifteen minutes or so, the same old pattern continued, and Ibrahimovic plundered a quite similar second, this time a finish as powerful as his first was elegant. Before that, Bendtner had crashed a header at Valdes after our first decent move. But now it seemed a mere matter of how many, how humiliating.

Barca's tempo dropped somewhat, and the pace of Walcott, sprung from the bench in a last desperate roll of the dice, worried Maxwell on the left of their defence. From Bendtner's slide rule pass, the player I have ceaselessly maligned passed the ball under the body of Valdes, and the scoreline had an element of respectability that had been absent in the general balance of play. Barca struggled to regain their impetus, the crowd got interested again, but Arsenal struggled to create much until Fabregas engineered a penalty, and a terribly harsh red card for Puyol, by kicking the defender's legs from Bendtner's cushioned header. The skipper, clearly unfit and pretty much anonymous to that point (more of which later), buried the penalty, but injured himself in the act. For the remaining few minutes, he hobbled around ineffectively, but was not taken off, despite Barca also being down to ten. This merely added to the surrealism of a game that was as ridiculous as it was sublime.
2-2 it finished, with the blows of injuries to Fabregas, Gallas and Arshavin apparently softened by the loss of both Barca's first-choice centre-halves to suspension ahead of the return. Still, I find it hard to rustle up genuine optimism for the game at what Bill O'Herlihy calls the "New Camp".

On the surface, it seems a rousing comeback, one that should engender optimism for what remains of the tie. But there was just far too much evidence suggesting that Barcelona will finish us off next time around. Before the game, in spite of my general pessimism, I thought that Arsenal playing at a tempo could worry Barcelona. Herein lies the most disconcerting conclusion. Barca are superior not just in possession, but also in the supposedly "English" traits. Their style has the same idealistic bent, but their system is also tactically astute. We could not live with their pressing, or match it when they had the ball. I remember how Graeme Souness peddled some vaguely xenophobic poo about how foreigner teams cannot deal with the pace at which the best English sides play, after Liverpool hammered Real Madrid last season. He needs to watch this game back.

Barca moved the ball so much more quickly and effectively. It really made a mockery of any notion of a great similarilty between the two sides. That idea is clearly mere rhetoric, one of those Arsenal myths. We are not on Barca's level, or even close, it is just a distant goal to which we aspire. And I know, what other way could it be, with the financial constraints Arsenal are run under. But we are underdogs unable to play underdog football. Wenger, in his football philosophy, does not have a pragmatic bone in his body. No tactical ideas to counter the primacy of a patently superior team. With every big game, his rallying cries are exposed as hollow, naive.

Another appalling element, for the first half particularly- desire. The team who have won everything were first to every ball. Their forwards more willing to track back. The team who have won nothing looked lethargic; some were unfit, some looked unforgivably disinterested- did they freeze? Again we arrive at the same old question about character that hangs over this side.

It is an interesting topic, because on the face of it, the obvious thing to say after recovering a two-goal deficit in a game of such magnitude is that it shows a steely mental fortitude, an unwillingness to lie down. And that is true to some extent, and perhaps something that I would have clung to, only for John Giles producing one of the post-game nuggets of wisdom that he is still capable of. REAL teams built on character start at their business from the first whistle, get on the ball, impose themselves. Arsenal failed to do that, as they have done in all the marquee fixtures this season. Barcelona did it, it was a masterclass for about an hour. Then, it seemed they had the tie done and dusted, and they got slack. It takes a great team for complacency to be their greatest enemy. At that point, as Gilesy said, with the game apparently over, suddenly Arsenal want to play. They lacked the balls, the moral courage, to do it from the start. In any case, it still took a dubious penalty to snatch an undeserved draw. We shouldn't forget how limp Arsenal were for most of the game, and that it should have been an embarrassment in scoreline aswell.

What does it say about the team that they again misfire when it matters? Do the players let the boss down? Maybe, to a point, but they are HIS players, a team he has built, and a team that he claims to have faith in, so he is far from blameless. And what of his continued follies? This ineffective ploy of playing Fabregas off the striker in the biggest games. All it serves to do is rob the Spaniard and his team of his ability to dictate. Did he expect Song and the abysmal Diaby to shape the game from central areas? Really? Because Fabregas never seemed in a position to do it, and this is a familiar sight. Quite apart from the fact that he was clearly in no fit state to play, and may now miss the World Cup because nobody at Arsenal has the balls to tell him he shouldn't start a game. The injuries to Gallas and Arshavin didn't help either, but clearly, Wenger rushed players back, betraying his lack of trust in a squad he constantly professes his supposed faith in. What about the cover at centre-back being so meagre that we had to move Song there, a move that contributed to confusion and the concession of two soft goals? Wenger invites this kind of disaster.

Again, I understand that we have no right to expect to beat Barcelona. They are as good a team as I've seen in many a year. But as I said, if we are underdogs, we cannot afford to go in without a plan. The way Arsenal played suggested that they'd expected Barca to come and sit back. As if they'd never seen them play before. Wenger even said afterwards that ahead of the second leg we need to "study how to win the ball". Seriously? I've never heard an intelligent man say something so stupid. Barcelona thrive on possession, and NOW we think about how to combat that? If we are not as good as a team, let's admit it, and introduce some element of pragmatism, of tactical nous. You can go on and on about our pretty football, but it gets us raped against the best teams, over and over, trying to play that football. It's been found out. Arsenal are not as good as they think they are. Fair enough, the pass and move is an effective weapon against the dregs of the Premiership, but otherwise, our brand is a joke. A piss-poor pastiche of what Barcelona do. Sir Alex Ferguson is probably the best manager ever, and loves attacking football, but he never goes into a big match without a plan. We go in every time begging for our pants to be pulled down. What's so entertaining about that?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Birmingham 1-1 Arsenal: anti-climax

There was always the possibility that the prevailing talk of a three-team-race going to the wire was a bit premature.

The primary lesson of today was that dreams of Arsenal winning this season's title were always on the fantastical side. Why? Because you'll never win anything with a keeper like Manuel Alumunia. In stoppage time, he produced another clanger to add to his greatest hits collection, thus denying his team a hard-won three points. The momentum we had is now gone, and we are left with the all-too-familiar prospect of a once-promising season falling to pieces in the space of a few days.

I make no apologies for what I am about to say. The blame for today, and all the other adverse results he has contributed to, should not lie at the bumbling Spaniard's door. When a player is so painfully out of his depth, it is the manager's responsibility to take the appropriate measures. I appreciate everything Arsene Wenger has done for Arsenal, and I share his vision as to how the game ought to be played, but he has, as I've been saying through the poor results and THROUGHOUT OUR WINNING RUN, handicapped Arsenal's tilt at trophies this season.

It beggars belief to hear people say that Arsene spending a bit of money on a decent goalkeeper would be "spending for the sake of it". That is quite apart from other undermanned areas of the team, areas in which we've had to play players out of position because only our FOURTH-choice centre-half can't be trusted. But the goalkeeper was the big one. Everyone knows our goalkeeper is shit. It's the worst-kept secret in football. To the people who say that to spend on a goalkeeper would have been needless, I say, add up the points we've lost through goalkeeping errors (not just those of Almunia, but also his inexperienced back-up), and tell me where we'd be with those extra points. It's not rocket science.

This was, as it turned out, a HUGE opportunity to win the title. In theory. But where the practise fell short was in not giving ourselves the best possible chance. It is in a way almost like the manager applies for a license to lose every summer. I'm not saying it doesn't hurt him, because it clearly does, but I just don't understand how he cannot connect these things in his mind anymore. It is not just the goalkeeping situation, there are other flaws aswell, but the goalkeeping situation is the most glaring. It has run all season long. Every fan saw it as a ticking time bomb. And today, off it went.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More Ramblings

The appeal over Vermaelen's dismissal has, as expected, been rejected, so for the first time this season he will miss a league game, this weekend against Birmingham.

The manager is left with something of a conundrum. Does he play the rickety-looking duo of Silvestre and Campbell? Or use Song and Campbell, a partnership that looked solid in the second half against West Ham? This would theoretically make us stronger at the back, but weaker in midfield, with the loss of any real anchor.

Another possibility is that Campbell will be rested, and Silvestre will partner Song, because it's already been said that Sol will struggle to play two games in a week, and the thought of him facing Barcelona is frightening enough without him being knackered before the game even kicks off. Apparently, there is a chance Gallas will make it back for the first leg... Let's hope so.

I also wonder whether Sagna could play centre half in the league, with Eboue at right-back, but in fairness that is Championship Manager logic, and it is probably too vital a time for that sort of tinkering. What all this does illustrate is that Wenger really should have shelled out on a little more cover at the back.

Gallas has never had a season free of injury for Arsenal; he's always missed a month or so at some point, so that was to be expected, as I've said all season. I know I moan a lot, and Campbell has generally done well, but to have only he and Silvestre as back-up always had a potentially costly look. Wenger just seems to prefer that sort of costliness to the financial kind. Fair enough, he will say he trusts in the unity of the squad, and perhaps point to Song's versatility, but the fact is it could be damaging to lose Song from the midfield, particularly away from home (or indeed against Barcelona, if his deployment in defence is being considered there).

In any case, the longer this team can renew their claim to a trophy (or two), the more heroic and surprising they become, and likewise Wenger. I feel compelled again, though, and for the umpteenth time I know, to add that I think he has unnecessarily handicapped himself by not buying. Obviously, his vision extends beyond this season, whatever its outcome in silverware terms, and the last few weeks have at least suggested that any failure this season will probably be as heroic as last season's was abject.

Monday, March 22, 2010

could it be that rarest of things?

A genuinely exciting, three-way title race?

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

Blackburn 1-1 Chelsea

After Denilson's sweetly-struck opener, a sense of complacency descended on the Emirates. Arsenal overplayed, West Ham were allowed to play, and the crowd was, characteristically enough, quiet.

Adversity, then, was invited, but there was still a sense of injustice over how it arrived. There was little contact between Vermaelen and Franco as the ball bounced through. The flawed rules indicate that a red card was always likely once the linesman flagged for a foul, but this was particularly harsh, and seemed like a potentially season-defining moment.

After Almunia's great save from Diamanti's penalty, Arsenal were galvanised ahead of a difficult-looking second half. And throughout that second 45, it never looked like West Ham had an extra man, except perhaps for a few jittery early minutes. Song, moved to centre back, took a lot of the plaudits, but Fabregas deserves special mention aswell.

The temptation when talking about ten-man performances is to laud the players who provide that extra bit of running and hard work, but you need someone like Fabregas aswell. Remember that, aside from Larsson's cameo, the arguable turning point that night in Paris was the impetus-surrendering replacement of Fabregas with Flamini, after which Arsenal became terminally pinned back.

On Saturday, the captain was wonderful on the ball, not because of his usual incisive passing but the way he zealously held onto the ball, finding space, giving it simply, never pushing things needlessly. And the second goal summed up this captain's performance. He won the ball with a sliding tackle, drove forward to collect Eboue's pass, chipped the ball against Upson's arm and then buried the resultant penalty, to defuse the building tension as the game entered its final stages.

A word for Eboue- his performance was brilliant again. Going forward, he continues to provide a threat that Sagna does not, and his decision-making seems to be improving, as evinced by his clever pass to Fabregas for the penalty. Another player who I've reserved special criticism for, Diaby, made a positive impact after replacing an unfit-looking Arshavin. Thankfully, the officials gave EVERYTHING Arsenal's way after the red card, starting with the linesman ignoring Almunia's little hop off his line to aid his dive for the penalty.

Typically, Man United are playing ok, not making mistakes, winning their games as the season draws to a close. They are clear favourites now to win a fourth consecutive title.

Liverpool were poor, as they have been all season. Gerrard looks an almost spent force. Torres a wantaway striker, sulking through the game. Their manager has possibly lost the dressing room; perhaps the players have grown tired of his relentless negativity. Babel, Benayoun and Aquilani were all left out of the starting eleven.

Many expected a positive reaction to their Inter disappointment- it didn't happen, desite the ideal start in the shape of Drogba's early opener. United will now stay top even after Chelsea, presumably, win their game in hand against Portsmouth in midweek.

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's Barca...

Viewed objectively, this is a cracker of a tie.

From the perspective of cynical Arsenal supporter, the excitement is replaced by trepidation.

Barca can struggle at times against English opposition, but Arsenal can not produce a performance like Chelsea in 05, Liverpool in 07, or United in 08. They won't do it. There is no evidence to support the prospect of Arsenal suffocating Barca, playing a tactically astute defensive game. And if Arsenal try to do that, chances are they will fail miserably.

So it seems we have to outscore them.

While they haven't been as spectacular in attack this season, Barca have only conceded sixteen league goals. Arsenal? Thirty-three.

This may seem strange. Victor Valdes is no Almunia, but he's certainly no Iker Casillas either. Carles Puyol has always looked a player whose reputation far exceeds his ability, more of a Catalonian cult hero than a genuinely solid defender. They also have full backs who can look suspect. But the fact is Barcelona defend better as a team than Arsenal do.

Arsenal's only games against opposition of that calibre this season have ended in comprehensive defeat. Last season was largely a similar story.

Ultimately, it is a team with a better goalkeeper, a better defence, a better midfield, and a better attack. On paper. When you say "on paper", the implication is usually that tactics, motivation, or some other such factor can have a say. Arsenal should be highly motivated, and theoretically I'd always say that a success-starved team should be at least as hungry as the holders of the trophy. But those were the roles against United last season, and frankly the boys were borderline disgraceful over those two games. I'd love to say I think Wenger can come up with some kind of new trick, a way of bridging the gap in quality, but it has never really been his style to tailor a game plan with the opposition in mind.

Look, it's gonna be Messi against Campbell. Xavi and Iniesta will look to play in that massive hole that often exists between our overworked defence and midfield. Arsenal will need to produce two performances the like of which they have not mustered for a long while to even have a chance. I genuinely believe that. It's not that Barcelona are some kind of super-team, although their recent exploits suggest they're pretty close- it's that Arsenal are simply not the kind of team that can show up their weaknesses.

But the single biggest worry for me, bigger than the mullering that may await, is that Fabregas may really see a battering from Barca as the final straw for him at Arsenal.

Still, let's end on a positive note. This is one tie that surely won't revolve around anti-football, or negative tactics. To many idealists, it should represent a glimpse of a footballing Utopia that will never truly exist, an oasis in the desert of cynicism that is the modern game.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Last Eight

With Barcelona and Bordeaux winning their ties tonight, the quarter-finalists are as follows:


I suppose the great fear for a lot of Arsenal fans, after recent experiences, was the thought of drawing a big gun in the next round and getting another hiding, which could also help derail our league campaign. To that end, it is positive that Real Madrid and Chelsea have exited. Playing either of the French sides,CSKA Moscow or Bayern would of course bring a different sort of pressure, that of being expected to win. But that is the pressure that this team has so far dealt with best. That is not to say that any of those four teams would be a walkover, but you would be fairly confident in our ability to beat them. As for the other three teams, not so.

Arsene Wenger has never beaten Jose Mourinho, and I think the Inter manager would relish a chance to reignite their often bitter rivalry. While Arsenal have a surfeit of talent that Inter might well envy, the Italians may feel substance is on their side, especially after their impressive showing against Chelsea. That said, you would hope that Arsenal could, given the opportunity, pose Inter more varied problems than a rather one-dimensional Chelsea did. One may retort that Arsenal are equally one-dimensional, but if the quick passing clicked, it would be one dimension that Inter would be less confident of dealing with than they were Chelsea's physical approach.

Barcelona- Arsenal would be an exciting tie for the neutral, but I would quite honestly worry about what they could do to us. We've shown an inability to keep games tight this season, so the impression is that if this match-up happens, it will be playground, end-to-end stuff. In those matches, you have to expect the team with the best players to prevail, and even the most blinkered of Arsenal fans would accept that Barca are streets ahead in that regard. The situation is best summed up by the fact that our best player, if and when he does go back, will have to fight to hold down a first-team place. There are only two players in the world, in my opinion, who can rival Fabregas for sheer creativity, and they are both Spaniards playing for Barca. Add Messi to the mix and you have a frightening proposition for any team, but especially one that fails to adequately protect its back four. And on that sunny note we come to Manchester United.

The Emirates game in the league, coupled with the Champions League semi-final last year, suggested that United have our measure. It is worth remembering also that we outplayed them at times at Old Trafford early this season, without Fabregas- although we lost that game aswell. So logic does not encourage optimism. Another two-legged tie would give Ferguson an opportunity to show his tactical superiority to Wenger. Then again, the Scot has often been guilty of bringing his tinkering too far, especially in Europe. I think that happened in the San Siro a few weeks ago, but Milan failed to take advantage before their legs went. United are not as exciting a team as they have been in the past, but most would expect them to get the job done comfortably against a naive Arsenal team. Wenger seemed optimistic, though, after the Porto game, about the prospect of an all-English tie, and maybe he feels his team can show something different next time they face United. He'd better be right.

Chelsea 0-1 Inter: Premiership Primacy has been Exaggerated

The rampant smugness of English football took a hit lastnight, with Chelsea comprehensively outplayed, and beaten 1-0, by Inter. But in a way this is how the hacks would have wanted it, a defeat engineered by the Prodigal One, who they can now shower in adulation.

English pundits, on the whole, want it to be about Mourinho. More so than, say, Wesley Sneijder, best player on the park, a player who left Madrid on the relative cheap in August and would have made a great signing for Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool.

Chelsea appointed Ancelotti to bring entertaining football to the Bridge. But like Scolari before him, he's struggled because it is still, essentially, Mourinho's team. A team of attritional warriors. They will bludgeon their way past most of the Premiership also-rans without fuss, but their reliance on Drogba has reached new levels this season. Over two legs, Lucio and Walter Samuel tamed the Ivorian beast in much the same way Nemanja Vidic has done for United on numerous occasions. Seeing how toothless Chelsea looked with their talisman marginalised, it is disappointing that Arsenal have so miserably failed to come to terms with the threat he poses. But that particular threat is one we will not face again this season.

Overall, Chelsea are an aging side, who were missing dynamic figures in Essien and Ashley Cole, and those absences proved too much for them to compensate for. Mourinho's gameplan worked to a tee, but his deployment of three frontmen was not as daring or as surprising as some made out. It is oft-remarked how Chelsea are blunted when their full-backs are pinned back. After that, the difference was in the midfield battle.

Chelsea's midfield is really quite overrated. Mikel looks a nothing player. Lampard is past his prime and always lacked the guile to function as an effective playmaker. Ballack? A plodding parody of a long-forgotten good player. For all the talk of Ancelotti's bringing aesthetic pleasure to their football, it is telling that the big loss was Essien, a snarling beast of a footballer, who would add power and drive to their midfield but bring little by way of guile.

Inter look like potential winners in what has become a weakened looking last eight- and that is assuming that Barca and Bordeaux prevail tonight. CSKA Moscow provided the other shock lastnight, subverting the stereotype about Russian teams on their travels by winning 2-1 in Seville, and 3-2 overall. With the identities of the last eight to be completed tonight, I'll take a renewed look at Arsenal's chances in what is proving an unpredictable year in the Champions League.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hull 1-2 Arsenal: Lucky Boys

I don't know who it was who first said, "I'd rather be lucky than good", but it seems an apt quote for Saturday's game. For long stretches Arsenal looked rubbish, a team that does not deserve to be mentioned in the title reckoning. But after another scrambled goal from Bendtner in stoppage time, that sense of destiny that was present at the end of the Stoke game helped Arsenal through again, and hope remains.

There was little to get excited about in the performance. After Arshavin bundled his way through to plunder an early goal, it had the look of an easy afternoon. But as so often, that situation had a negative effect on the players, who began to go through the motions instead of putting Hull to the sword. Campbell duly gave away a penalty. Venegoor was well offside from Marney's flick through, but the linesman missed it, and a clumsy coming-together yielded the inevitable point to the spot from the referee. When Wenger re-signed the sturdy but slow Campbell, we all knew there would be times when he'd get embarrassed, and this was unfortunately one, although as I said the flag should have been up for offside. Bullard stuck the penalty away and it was level at half-time, but not before George Boateng got himself dismissed, twice over. His petulant poke in the eye of Bendtner should, by the letter of the law, have earned him a straight red; he got booked. Then, right before the break, a reckless, high lunge on the marauding Sagna finally got him what he deserved. At this point, I started to relax. Surely we'd make hay against a depleted Hull in the second period? Not so.

I thought the players looked lethargic right from the off in the second half. You could put it down to tiredness after the Porto game, as I suppose there was not much room for the usual rotation. But I hate to give the players that excuse. I think their attitude was poor, Hull's was the opposite, and we could have been punished in the good spell that the home side had. You could invest some symbolism in Campbell's rough but fair tackle on Zayatte (which, with delicious irony, left the Hull player on crutches), but there was no huge improvement in Arsenal's play thereafter. With twenty or so minutes to go, they finally woke up and started to show some urgency. But Nasri was withdrawn and this left us with little invention; it was a struggle to put a move together, especially on that bobbly surface. Arshavin and Bendtner suffered moments of trademark wastefulness, and it seemed that a clearly knackered Hull had held out for a deserved point.

Then, it happened. Denilson decided that desperate measures were called for. His long range effort moved a bit in the air, the keeper parried it weakly when he should really have held, and Bendtner was on hand to keep the rebound down and bouncing into the net. A real moment of euphoria, and three undeserved points. This must be what it feels like to support Man Utd.

This entry would doubtless have comprised a petulant rant had that goal not happened. Instead we can cling to the cliche that leagues are won by teams that win while playing badly. And, to be fair, it is (hopefully) unlikely that we will again be missing Gallas, Song, Fabregas and Van Persie all at once. From that perspective, you'd have to say again that the fixture list seems to be working in our favour at the moment. Is everything falling neatly into place? I'm still sceptical, but if we have Song and Fabregas back next week, it SHOULD become six wins in a row against West Ham.

I've jinxed it now haven't I?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Beckham's Delayed Testimonial/ Galacticos Gone

For the sixth year in a row, Real Madrid fail to make the quarter-finals of the premier club competition in Europe. And Manchester United waltz through against miserable Milan side. While one result suggests that the tournament retains an element of unpredictability, the other strengthens the sense that the group of prospective winners continues to be narrow.

Milan are such a pathetic shadow of their former selves that the second leg of that tie quickly took on the air of an exhibition match, or maybe a long-delayed testimonial for the returning David Beckham, who was given a second half cameo. The Italian side were again so painfully lacking in dynamism, despite the inclusion at last of Flamini. United have shown that old players can remain effective at a high level of football if their younger team mates can compensate with high energy; at Milan, there are just far too many creaking limbs. The first leg saw one of the most ridiculous team selections I've ever seen- a front three that did not track back, and a trio of pensioners left to do all the work in midfield. That Milan should really still have won that game was mostly down to United's own early ineptitude, but there were no such mistakes tonight. It was a similar job as we've seen them do against Arsenal: sitting back, allowing the ineffective possession, and striking on the break. United have become quite functional in recent seasons; Ferguson never tires of trumpeting their commitment to attacking football and while that remains the United way, they are more prosaic now than they've been in a long time. Even Rooney, now in the best form of his career, seems somehow less exciting to me. He has adapted his game quite brilliantly to the needs of this team, and his ruthlessness in front of goal is a new string to his bow, as is his aerial prowess. But as effectively as he's performing, it seems, at least to a contrarian like me, to detract from his genius somewhat to see him functioning almost exclusively as a lone frontman, no matter how efficiently he performs the role. Still, it only demonstrates the amazing talent he is, that he has immediately filled the hole left by Ronaldo.

The Madrid-Lyon game was reminiscent of our quarter-final second leg against chelsea in 2004. The away goals rule can leave a team lacking clarity of purpose in the nervous late stages of a tie. Madrid, like Arsenal six years ago, could not attack for their crucial second goal with total conviction because they knew a goal at the other end would prove fatal. And so it was, Lyon conjuring a wonderful sucker punch to match Wayne Bridge's late strike on that heartbreaking Highbury night. In the remaining fifteen minutes, Real offered little. The best the strangely guileless galacticos could muster was a set play scramble or two, and some risible penalty box swan-diving that fooled nobody.

While the four ties that have thus far been settled have all held some intrigue, it's hard to escape the notion that the European cup is suffering a bit of a decline. That is something to be pondered while viewing the rounds to come, but I'll be hoping that Inter can prevail against chelsea, if only because it will stop the gloating of English pundits who believe that their league now monopolises the power in European football.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Arsenal 5-0 Porto: A Feelgood Night (in the end)

A bit of a misleading scoreline, perhaps, but Arsenal have been belittled so many times for not taking chances that you can't help feeling satisfied with a handsome haul of five from what was not a five-star performance.

It turned out everyone talked Porto up a little too much, although all they were really doing was talking Arsenal down, and there were moments of justification for such an outlook. The visitors enjoyed spells of danger in both first and second halves, particularly the latter, in the fifteen minutes or so before Nasri's astounding goal. Campbell looked jittery at times, others sloppy. Arshavin had a vintage Arshavin night- involved in three of the goals, but also so erratic that he was starting most of Porto's best moves in the first half. If Porto had scored with either of their big chances after the break, the nerves that were so obvious to that point would have turned to dread; instead, a two-punch combo of high quality ended the contest. Bendtner's hat-trick sealing penalty iced a cake that every fan should enjoy because we could all be eating shit again soon.

It was really a night for unsung players. Bendtner is really quite valuable now. The first two goals are goals that we simply couldn't score in the spell without him and RVP. His finishing is erratic, and he is not always the most aethetically pleasing of players, but only a fool would argue that he hasn't improved the team since his recent return from injury. And make no mistake, there are plenty of fools following football (myself included- as I had an unfair pop at him after the Burnley game). But if you go back I think you'll find that I've often defended Bendtner, whereas some people see fit to call him the worst striker ever. His attitude is great. As has been pointed out by a few, he never hid on Saturday, kept getting into goalscoring positions. Some people find his disproportionate ego offensive, but it is surely his best trait aswell. Not many could follow up an experience like Saturday's with a hat-trick. That's not overconfidence, it's character. And now, again, Arsenal have some semblance of that mystical "plan B" that everyone's always bemoaning the absence of. Crosses are no longer aimless, longer balls are not necessarily hopeless.

Nasri has become an irritant to some followers, but as alluded to in a recent post, I think his inconsistency is more down to being played out of position. He is a quite different player to Fabregas, but would doubtless prefer to play in a similar area of the pitch, and it is in a central prompting role that he has shown us glimpses of his best. A bit of a paradox then, I guess, that his wonderful goal stemmed from receiving the ball out wide, but the confidence to produce that audacious slalom probably derived from his providing a generally influential display in the middle of the pitch. It suggested that maybe we could abstain from cesc for a short time without suffering TOO much. Although he is the most creative player in the league, an attacking triumviate of Arshavin, Nasri and Rosicky behind Bendtner is hardly lacking in artistry. But the 5-0 scoreline hides somewhat the chaotic aspect to the game that was also evident after the captain's departure against Burnley, and his inherent ability to control the tempo of a football match will prove difficult to replace, so one hopes that his lay-off is a very short one.

While Arsenal looked less than organised at times, Song and Vermaelen continued their outstanding seasons by, as usual, covering for the team's collective deficiencies. Vermaelen threw himself into plenty of heroic challenges. Song patrolled in front of the defence, and in possession showed again that he is really too good of a footballer to become just another Claude Makelele, even if that is exactly what we need him to be. His habitual marauding runs through the opposition midfield embody the gung-ho attitude, equal parts charming and infuriating, that seems to define this incarnation of Wenger's Arsenal.

Eboue's cameo was very effective; he's become a useful sub and a bit of a cunt, sorry, cult hero. His goal proved Arsenal can, despite my recent reservations, still do devastating counter-attacks, and the way it followed so hot on the heels of Nasri's belter inspired a rare sort of euphoria. It was, in the end, a feelgood night.

In defence of a pundit

chris waddle has been subjected to an insane amount of abuse for having the temerity to state the BLATANT TRUTH about Theo Walcott.

It's sad in a way that I have to praise someone for saying something that is so obviously true, but that is the state of football punditry. I thought it nice, though, to hear someone actually state a perfectly valid and honest opinion about a footballer, particularly an English one. It ceratinly beats the inane platitudes of a Gray, a Shearer, a Hansen.

No football brain? No shit! More brutal honesty please...

Everyone Who Likes Football Should Read This

The Guardian's football coverage is, quite simply, unparalleled. Jonathan Wilson in particular writes lucidly on the often impenetrable subject of tactics. I often complain of the phenomenon of what I like to call YouTube Footballers, and this article by Wilson, from a few months ago, deals with a similar theme.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Underestimate Porto...

...or, more accurately, don't overestimate a Fabregas-less Arsenal.

It looks like Nasri will have another chance to show why he he would be infinitely more effective in a central role than he is marooned out wide. It is a pity for him that we have not seen more of this. I mentioned earlier in the season that there was a possibility in this formation of Fabregas working in tandem with either Nasri or Rosicky (or, more fancifully, Arshavin) as dual central playmakers, with Song doing the "donkey work" behind them and in front of the defence. Unfortunately but understandably, the manager has generally sought greater balance by playing Diaby, Denilson or Ramsey as the third midfielder, thus allowing Fabregas play with the freedom that makes him most dangerous.

One of the idiosyncracies of this squad is its enviable collection of creative players. Nasri, Rosicky and Arshavin are all players who would prefer to play behind the front man/ men, but are most often asked to do a shift out wide. It's not unheard of for a player to be able to pull the strings from a wide position; just ask anyone who witnessed Bobby Pires' awe-inspiring 01/02 season. But these players all look a little ill at ease on the wing. Again, with the balance of the formation seemingly a little off, it is amazing that we're so close to the top of the Premiership. We have a plethora of square pegs in round holes, not getting the job they want because Fabregas is just so good at it.

I still wonder about this 4-3-3, about whether it diminishes Fabregas, in a funny sort of way, to push him up the pitch. He is, after all, really a throwback, a midfield general who can control games from the middle of the park. But this is the age of specialised midfield play. Players like Lampard and Gerrard are said to run games, which is actually laughable, as good as they are. The truth is not many midfielders today are as influential as Keane, Vieira, or Scholes in their pomp, or generations of greats that came before. Usually, nowadays, one is "attacking" or "defensive", "creative" or "destructive", and those who shuttle from box to box have great athleticism but average technique. What I used to especially love about Fabregas was his difference from the average 21st century midfielder, but now he too is doing a specialised job. Of course, it wouldn't be a viable option if it was not effective, and fourteen league goals this season is ample justification for Wenger's tactical ploy. I just can't help thinking back to 07/08, when he and Flamini forged a brilliant partnership in a 4-4-2 that allowed him to dictate and to roam in equal measure. Sometimes you look at Denilson and think that he's not good enough to find an incisive pass from deep that will release Fabregas or another player further forward. It's hard not to feel short-changed by the penny-pinching that denied us the chance to see Alonso in this Arsenal team, but that ship has long sailed.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to play Fabregas a little further forward is that he has developed in to the best finisher in the team in Van Persie's absence, and this is what worries me ahead of tomorrow night.

I think we will need three goals to get the job done in ninety minutes. If we can't keep a clean sheet against Burnley without Gallas, we'll be lucky to do it against Porto. And the truth is we have become reliant on Fabregas for goals. We have a lot of good attacking players, and a likely front five of Diaby, Nasri, Arshavin, Walcott and, er, Bendtner suggests that even without Fabregas we shouldn't struggle to create chances. But who do you trust to TAKE them, on what is a very high-pressure occasion? Eduardo and Vela have not exactly been banging them in either. The profligacy of Saturday afternoon does not bode well, as Porto will surely not prove as easily opened up as Burnley did.

My feeling is that, if we are to progress, it might be time for Arshavin's long-overdue big night. Successful Arsenal sides since the early nineties have often relied on big contributions from left-wingers: think Limpar, Overmars, Pires. If this Arsenal team is to hit those heights, we need Arshavin to begin making a greater impression, even if he would probably tell you in that brutally honest way of his that Anders Limpar, Marc Overmars and Robert Pires were not asked to be square pegs in round holes.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Arsenal 3-1 Burnley... Unconvincing, but Welcome

I thought that if there was a game in which we'd really send the goal difference through the roof, it was Burnley at home. And that should really have been the case, but Bendtner's profligacy made it a nervous afternoon, in which the worst team in the league right now sporadically showed up our continued soft centre (although we were without Gallas, or campbell, and Song).

Walcott hit back at the critics with a generally threatening performance and a lovely goal with his left foot. The cynic in me has to add that Burnley seemed to be giving him a ridiculous amount of time on the ball, and if he didn't play well yesterday he never would. But there were a couple of super crosses in there aswell, from which Bendtner somehow contrived to miss (the simple header he put wide was particularly amusing, since he's scored whoppers of headers in the last week alone for both Arsenal and Denmark. You start to worry when a "confidence player" plays like that after two great goals in a week. But then "confidence player" is sometimes just a way to say "rubbish").

I don't think it's worth dwelling too much on this game, except to say that it provides a note of caution to anyone who seriously thinks we can win the league. This was the "easiest" game of our "easy" run-in, don't forget. Also, Samir Nasri in the middle is, as mentioned before, something we should see more often. His pass for Fabregas' goal was beautiful, and when the captain went off, he shouldered a lot of the creative load, as he did when given the opportunity in the middle last season in Fabregas' absence. He's surely better there than he is on the wing. If Fabregas does miss Porto, Nasri should have another chance to pull the strings.

Something I'd like to talk about is the situation with Gallas' contract. This shows, I feel, Wenger's lack of appreciation for continuity, which when allied to a lack of appreciation for the benefits of transfer business is pretty damning. Why does he only offer one year to a guy like Gallas? I know it's his policy, but surely some flexibility is called for? Who would Gallas be holding back by staying at Arsenal for two more years? We have no young, promising centre backs who are ready for the first team. Djourou, when he returns, is NOT GOING TO BE READY! And when this season's improvement has largely been down to Gallas' partnership with Vermaelen, why break them up?

Gallas has been our best player of the season after Fabregas, and now he's probably going to leave. If it's because he's not been offered more than a year in his new contract, I'm sorry but it's more BOLLOcKs from Arsene Wenger. He can talk all he likes about developing a team but it's bullshit, frankly, if he willingly strips said teams of key components on a regular basis. But wait, look at Man Utd, look at the problems they've had from keeping Scholes, Giggs, and Neville arou... oh.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Stoke 1-3 Arsenal . . .

Where to start but with the injury to Ramsey. As with the Taylor- Eduardo incident, the most commonly stated fact in the aftermath is that the tackle was not malicious. True. We do see some malicious tackles in England- studs up, over the ball, those are the worst. But this does not absolve Shawcross. As with anything, it's a matter of degrees. This one was not "malicious", but it was also a level above merely "commited".

Recklessness is endemic to the English game. And against Arsenal, the media and British managers have elevated it to a virtue. It is to be commended when it leads to a victory, as it did for Stoke in the corresponding fixture last season. But when it leads to the kind of needless devastation we saw on Saturday, excuses abound.

Last season, indeed, there was little mention of a tackle by a certain Ryan Shawcross, that took place with the ball out of play, that must have been close to breaking Adebayor's ankle. On that occasion, an intent to do some damage was clear. So it's difficult to feel wholehearted sympathy for the defender, especially when he can return to action while Aaron Ramsey sees the long road to recovery stretch endlessly before him.

That said, the reaction to this incident should condemn the culture, not the player. This antiquated aggression is something that the English game needs to rid itself of, because the more quick and skillful players get, the more we will see of these kind of injuries. This neanderthal aesthetic is surely part of the reason for England's continued under-achieving at international level, but most of the press and pundits would prefer cling to it, and instead moralise over comparitive trivialities like diving, spitting, imaginary card-waving.

Sure, it is a physical sport, and yes, the pace and power of the Premiership is what renders it uniquely entertaining. But there is a line that is too consistently crossed, and as Wenger and Fabregas say, it is no coincidence that it keeps happening against Arsenal.

There is a xenophobic aspect to this aswell. Arsenal are not the only attacking team in the Premiership. But they're the only team who are systemically subjected to such rough treatment. Sir Alex wouldn't stand for it for a second, but Allardyce, Pulis and his other minions would never risk his wrath by even trying it against United. I remember all those years when Allardyce's Bolton were kicking lumps out of Arsenal, they would never do more than bend over for Man Utd. And then when Megson took over and told Kevin Davies to assault Patrice Evra in his first game, Ferguson was fucking apoplectic on the touchline. Welcome to our world.

On to the game. Our continued, debilitating lack of defensive prowess was again predictably exposed early, but character was on show this time. Bendtner scored a brilliant header, showing what having a tall, physical player up front can do for us. And then, after the injury and the red card, the ghosts of Birmingham two years ago were laid to rest as this time the climax was positive. A debatable enough penalty slotted in by Fabregas, returning to form. And Vermaelen scoring from the same player's typically clever cut-back. Job done, very late on; cue plenty of fist-pumping and a huddle at the final whistle. If McFadden's late penalty two years ago convinced the players that it wasn't to be their title, maybe this is the opposite.

I have questioned these players, and the manager, a lot. I still think those questions remain. I don't think any fan asks for him to put the financial safety of the club at risk. But this has transpired to be a great chance to win the title, and we are quite simply not in the best possible position because the manager has refused to spend even a small amount of money on problem positions in the squad. Some do have faith in these players, that if they are kept together, we will see success. I'm not sure of that but a strong end to the season, even if it does not end in a trophy, would of course be a step in the right direction. That said, I don't think we will see another season in which the competition has been so weak, and it is our inability to grasp the possibilities of the moment, in favour of hypothesising about the future, that I fear may prove fatal in more seasons to come.

But now is a time to be positive, as the players showed their mettle in what was a massive moment. Ten games to go and, against all my expectations, we're in with a shot.