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.


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


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


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.