Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Second Thoughts.....

Let 'em burn!!!

Good Night Dampened by Trademark United Comeback

The search for silverware might soon be over, but the the Premiership title still looks a lofty goal.

Alex Ferguson's Manchester United have an aura and a character that transcends the limitations of the players who wear their shirt. You were not surprised that Blackpool could take a 2-0 lead against a team featuring players like Darron Gibson. Nor were you surprised at the comeback, because that team is Manchester United.

Blackpool outplayed the league leaders for one half, but lost to the aura in the second. By the end they were frazzled and ragged. They lack the cynicism of more experienced Premiership sides who would accept 2-2 and sit back; United's winner, though scored as late as the 88th minute, was the result of a simple, though well-executed, through ball from Scholes, that found Berbatov completely unattended. Though the Bulgarian's lumbering stride gave the covering defender a chance, he accelerated through and bashed in a massive goal with his left foot. United's celebrations were suitably raucous.

Surely if Berbatov continues in this fashion, he must join the likes of Nasri and Nani in the running for Player of the Year.

A first defeat of the season for the Red Devils would have given hope not only to Arsenal, but to Man City and Chelsea aswell. Instead, United struck a psychological blow. A routine United win would not have been too devastating for the chasing pack. But a win after trailing by two goals is always symbolic. When it is achieved by Manchester United, at this time of year, it's ominous. It will inflate their belief and deflate that of their rivals.

Arsenal appear to be gathering momentum (although momentum is a fragile thing) and should not be too disheartened. United showed their vulnerability yet again. If Aston Villa and Blackpool can build two goal leads against them, chances are that sooner or later, a better team will do so, and will not so easily crumble.

After such a dramatic win, some in the United camp must be considering the possibility of an unbeaten league campaign, but there remain five particularly difficult looking games. Two of those are against Chelsea, who can only improve on their mid-season form. Kenny Dalglish would relish the chance to dent United's title hopes when they visit Anfield. A league trophy for United this year and they surpass Liverpool's total. Arsenal will hope to avenge recent embarrassments against Ferguson's team at the Emirates. And the Manchester derby will not be straightforward, although Roberto Mancini probably lacks the adventure to set his team out to win at Old Trafford.

Whatever the fate of their attempt at an unbeaten season, it is hard to imagine any team other than United lifting England's premier prize in May.

My Pal Andy Gray

There are many things that annoy me about Andy Gray.

His punditry is free of insight.

He is a hype merchant. He sells the Premier League. He spouts bullshit to promote it.

He is in love with the most overrated footballer of our time, Steven Gerrard.

Still, it seems slightly sad that he has departed Sky Sports. He has become, for better or worse, synonomous with their Premiership coverage. When I think of football commentary, I always think of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. They both have great, dramatic voices. I always found it funny that Tyler, though clearly the smarter of the two, always bowed to Andy's "knowledge". There was a great chemistry between the two, a whiff of Brokeback Mountain even.

Gray has made an art-form out of growling ostensibly dull, unimaginative cliches. He has a stock pile of go-to phrases to use during moments of drama. "Take a boo son". "What a hit". "That's what I love about this league". "WOW". His ridiculous Scottish accent somehow makes this work. When I think back to some of the great matches I've seen- like Liverpool's 4-3 win over Newcastle in 1996- Tyler and Gray's commentary at the vital moments is often as fundamental a part of the recollection as the very goals themselves.

Gray's other great on-air love affair was with the appalling, hairy, Richard Keys, who should surely also face the sack. Keys is a horrible man. On-air he fawns and banters in a bland, nauseating way with Gray and the mildly retarded Jamie Redknapp. Off-air he has proven himself just as big a cunt in a different way. Keys is a smug little fuck who ought to be replaced by the infinitely more knowledgeable and likeable Jeff Stelling, or, even better, the brilliant James Richardson (although a part of me would hate to see Richardson corrupted by the corporate smog of smugness at Sky).

Although I often find myself disagreeing with the opinions of Andy Gray, I also disagree with the way he is now being treated. His comments about the female assistant referee were not well-founded but he did not speak them on air and so it is harsh to say he acted so unprofessionally as to warrant this kind of punishment. What he said could be filed under 'banter'. Not particularly original or funny, but then he might not have even meant what he was saying. We've all used some simple, universal types of humour to endear ourselves to people, to fit in. It can be fun to say outrageous things, without danger of censure, to spark a bit of laughter. I've made 'racist' remarks on this here blog- it doesn't matter because nobody reads it- but I'm not a racist. I wouldn't say those things in an arena where there would be consequences, and, (hopefully?) I don't really mean them.

Andy Gray, Richard Keys, that other, sideline-reporting dickhead- they did not know the world would ever listen. It was like a few guys sitting in a pub having their idea of a laugh.

Of course, there is a greater context to it all, the idea that women are still being discriminated against in sport, which is sad. Most male officials are routinely lambasted. I wouldn't question a woman's ability to do the job at least as well as most of the men. Who knows, it might even inspire a few of those classless players to show a little more decorum on the pitch.

The views that Gray and Keys spouted were disappointing, but not intended for public consumption. In their "performances" on TV, they are able to hide their prejudices well enough. That should be all that really matters. Even if their mindsets are so outdated, I don't think anyone should really care too much what these guys think. If they do, maybe it's the public at large who need fixing. There is still this notion that people in the public eye should be morally upstanding in everything they do. They might earn monster salaries, wear better suits; inside, they're as dirty as me or you.

What is equally unsavoury, to me, is the clamour to judge. The mass climb atop the moral high horse. The Guardian's articles of condemnation are the best example of this I've seen. Typically middle class, pompous, liberal-minded, "all people should be perfect like us" rubbish.

Of course I like to judge people too. But wanton sexism is, to me, only a distant second when it comes to the worst sins of Richard Keys. Being a generally unbearable wanker still tops the list.

Arse Are On Their Way To Wembley

Not a wholly convincing performance, but Arsenal are but one step away from ending the drought.

Wenger went with a strong side: Szczesny; Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy; Denilson, Wilshere, Fabregas; Bendtner, Arshavin, Van Persie.

Nasri and Walcott held in reserve.

The first half bred nerves in the crowd and on the pitch. No real flow to the game. Ipswich were very well organised. Didn't have many attacks themselves, though they did threaten from set plays throughout.

An early, lengthy stoppage, following a collision with his keeper, saw a groggy Sagna replaced by Eboue.

At the back, Ipswich gave nothing away. They allowed little space between their midfield and defence, and were happy enough to push up the pitch because, as usual, Bendtner, Arshavin and Van Persie mostly looked for the ball to feet.

Early on, Arsenal already looked like they would need Walcott, to get in behind or to force Ipswich back and give the rest of the attack some space to work in.

That said, there were chances, despite the general lack of fluidity. Van Persie found the woodwork again, when he really should have netted, with a header from a Bendtner centre. Wilshere dinked a beautiful pass over the defence for Fabregas, whose control was exemplary, his left-pegged attempt less so.

The second half saw the discontent grow. Then Bendtner scored a beauty. He collected a long diagonal from the outstanding Wilshere, out to the left of the area. The full back chased, and Bendtner tricked his way inside, opening up for a lovely placed shot from the Robert Pires book of finishing.

Relief, then elation, when Koscielny rose unchallenged to power in Arshavin's corner. Still, the game was finely balanced- an Ipswich goal would force extra time. The game had been simple attack v defence, now blue shirts flooded forward, and Arsenal never looked wholly comfortable. Jason Scotland found himself free in the box but his effort was weak and Szczesny saved.

Fabregas finished the game with a left-footed finish after incisive interplay with Arshavin. Two assists should cheer up the Russian, even if his continued lack of belief was again betrayed by some wayward moments.

Overall, as is often the case in semi-finals, it was scrappy and, for a long time, nervous. Fabregas in particular looked for long stretches like he was almost trying too hard.

Although Arsenal were largely untroubled at the back, it was notable that Djourou seemed to win every individul battle he was faced with. And Koscielny's goal was deserved reward for his recent form. Bendtner's self-confidence annoys many but is his foremost asset. Just before his goal, he had tried to blunder his way in from the left, was easily robbed by the defender. His head never drops. He thinks he's the best player in the world and that is what makes him a useful one.

Foreign Footballer in Diving Shame
British Pundit Expresses Disgust

As usual on TV, everyone wanted Arsenal to lose. Mark Bright is the most insufferable co-commentator I've ever heard, and that really does say something. I hope he makes some ill-advised sexist remarks some time soon. In the studio, Shearer, Mattie Holland, and especially Alan Hansen stuck the knife into Fabregas over what was, admittedly, a dive.

"Continental" was a word pointedly used by Hansen, who belongs, like Keys and Gray, in a prehistoric age. You know what I would have said (that is, if I could go on television and not melt into a puddle of self-consciousness)? "Matt, you're English, right? (I know you played for Ireland, but only because you were shite.) When Arsenal went to the Valley in 2003, did you not crumple in the box under a non-existant challenge from Lauren, cheating to win a penalty which Paolo di Canio scored? (I remember everything) Did you? And where are you from again?" I'd bring up Rooney, Gerrard- repeat offenders- and Michael Owen against Argentina in 2002. They loved that. Hansen, you simple-minded prick: English, Spanish, French, whatever- almost all players dive.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Four Clean Sheets in a Row....

.....can only be a good sign.

Since the disappointment of the late draw at Wigan, Birmingham, Manchester City, West Ham and Wigan (in the reverse fixture) have all been kept out. Ten points out of twelve, and probably the most momentum Arsenal have had all season, what with the Chelsea win still fresh in the memory.

Djourou and Koscielny seem to be dovetailing well at the back. And the midfield trio of Song, Wilshere and Fabregas seems to be offering the protection that, last season and at times this, the Arsenal defence so sorely lacked.

Best of all, it seems we have finally found a proper goalkeeper, and one with many, many good years ahead of him.

In truth, there were some iffy moments in the first halves against Birmingham and West Ham. Man City showed no attacking intent, and Wigan yesterday couldn't put anything together. But there have been games in the past where Arsenal could be utterly dominant and still concede.

Newcastle came to North London this season with containment the priority. They didn't put a move together all game. But a free kick near the halfway line was enough to conjure a goal. Arsenal were abject and that was that.

Hopefully, the days of farcical defending are over. Arsenal's defence is functioning well- even Clichy looks wide awake for once- and the attack is banging goals in. Whether this is progress, or just a good run of form, remains to be proven.

One Thing...

Arsene Wenger on the search for a centre back:

"Trust us - if the opportunity is there we will take it, if it's not we will play with the players we have, and I will not use that as an excuse if we don't win trophies."

You might not use it as an excuse, but people definitely WILL use it as a stick to beat you with!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just the Three Against Wigan

If there's one disappointing thing about the consecutive 3-0 league wins against West Ham and Wigan, it's the blatant disregard for goal difference.

In the 2nd half at Upton Park, Arsenal settled for keep ball. At the Emirates today, Arsenal could have scored as many goals as the visitors have points (almost). Instead they ended with three, while at Old Trafford Man United ran in another five against Birmingham. In title race terms, they now hold the advantage on points, in games in hand and on goal difference.

Wigan on their travels don't tend to be the most fearsome proposition. Walcott terrorised their back line and twice his cut backs should have led to the opener. Van Persie and Fabregas were denied by a great save, then a great block. The seemingly inevitable opener came via the left foot of the Dutchman. Song's pass released Van Persie, and he finished with trademark power.

The rest of the first half comprised a tale of wasted chances and great goalkeeping, with Wigan offering NOTHING to divert Djourou and Koscielny at the other end. At half time there may have been anxiety at total dominance yielding only such a slim lead.

No matter, Fabregas and Van Persie combined to finish Wigan off. The Spaniard played a raking diagonal ball into the box, and the Dutchman slid to volley into the net.

Van Persie had never scored a hat trick for Arsenal until today. He might have been wondering, at one point, if he ever would. When Fabregas took advantage of minimal contact from Caldwell in the area, the defender was dismissed, and Van Persie had a gilt-edged chance. He sent his penalty into orbit. Then he shot from the edge of the box, and the ball hit the outside of the post. The 1045th time he has hit the woodwork in his Arsenal career.

Finally, he had his moment of glory, when Walcott held the ball up Shearer-style in the box, and RVP steamed in to shoot in at the near post, right-footed. Six goals in three games for a player who tends to score in bunches.

At the moment, all of Arsenal's attacking starters look to be in decent shape, and with a lot of home games coming up, they should look to record a few convincing victories. This will cement the sense of momentum suggested by the last few games, and consign the season's early, patchy home form to memory.

Next up, a vital game against Ipswich, much as we'd like to pretend the League Cup doesn't matter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Leeds 1-3 Arsenal: the Quadruple Dream Lives On

Wenger put out a strong team. Sagna back, looking fresh, demolished the Leeds left.

Nasri's well-taken goal settled any early nerves. Set up by Arshavin- busy early on, faded later. Maybe the lesson of the night overall was: if Fabregas does not play, Nasri must. He looks as important this season as the captain was last.

Chances came and went. Then Sagna got a deserved goal. He won the ball in his own half, bombed on. Bendtner miscontrolled in the box (!) and the hurried clearance fell to the Frenchman, whose shot had too much power for the otherwise excellent Schmeichel.

If that looked spectacular, better was to follow. At the wrong end.

Leeds had inconsequntial-looking possession in midfield when the ball was shuffled sideways to Bradley Johnson. His left-foot strike was as good as you'll see, rocketed right into the top corner of the net, and suddenly, without ever making a real chance, Leeds were back in the game.

The end of the first half and the start of the second held some hairy moments for Arsenal. After the break, Leeds started to press very high and disrupt Arsenal's passing. But by the time they had tired it was still 2-1. Sub David Somma missed their best chance, with his first touch.

Van Persie and Fabregas came on. The former killed the game with a back post header from Bendtner's measured cross. The latter annoyed the Leeds players by tippy-tappying around midfield and generally taking the piss. Took a few kicks for his troubles.

The fact that this win, which ought to be expected, has been so well-received shows the level of mistrust that goes with supporting Arsenal these days. But it bodes pretty well nonetheless, because as much as I obsess over the perceived inability to beat major rivals, what has threatened to derail Arsenal's season is the tendency to underestimate lesser sides.

The attitude against Leeds was right. So was the result. For talented teams, one usually follows the other.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Time for the Squad to Step Up

Leeds away and the question most are pondering is how good of a side Arsene Wenger will field. On paper, Arsenal's squad looks pretty strong. What the recent games against lower division opposition have shown is that there remains a mini-gulf in quality between Arsenal's "first" and "second" sides. A clear divide between the main men and the back up.

Despite his technical deficiencies, Walcott's work rate and the threat of his roaring pace means he has usurped Arshavin in the front three. Van Persie looks like coming back into form. Nasri has had a fantastic season. Behind them, the trio of Fabregas, Song and Wilshere are undeniably first choice. With Vermaelen out until March (at least) and Squillaci looking unconvincing, Koscielny and Djourou is now the clear preferred centre back pairing.

After an utterly abject showing by the team that faced Ipswich, following the lethargy on display against Leeds, and before that the league draw at Wigan, doubts have surfaced as to whether Arsenal can make extensive changes against even inferior sides and still win.

But the second string likes of Bendtner and Chamakh and Arshavin should be given another chance to prove their worth in the game at Elland Road. If they are not capable of exerting their superiority against this kind of team, you have to question their worth to a club of Arsenal's standing. With a League Cup final still, hopefully, on the horizon, the boss is likely to prioritise the Premiership over the FA Cup. The game at the weekend is at home to Wigan, which may seem soft enough, but Arsenal have already been punished too many times for taking games lightly, and Wenger won't want to lose more ground in the title race.

Two interrelated problems hang over the rest of the campaign. With Vermaelen's return date uncertain, much relies on the fitness of Djourou, who has a rotten record in that regard.

And Alex Song is Arsenal's only convincing defensive midfielder.

Arsene Wenger may be averse to spending what he perceives as silly money on short term solutions but he might end up looking silly if a couple of injuries (hardly inconceivable when you consider Arsenal's recent record) mean that Alex Song has to be moved back to centre half, thus weakening the midfield.

It's worth remembering that after a January of transfer inactivity last season, Arsenal faced big games against United and Chelsea with Arshavin at centre forward. Then, in the Barcelona tie, Thomas Vermaelen had to be partnerred by first, Alex Song in the first leg, and then at the Nou Camp, Mikael Silvestre (snigger)...

Sol Campbell was the stopgap signing then, and although the veteran acquitted himself with dignity and committment, his manager patently didn't even trust him to face Barcelona. If there is to be a signing this time, let's hope it's a more impressive one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MU 11: Closer to Unwatchable than Invincible?

Manchester United negotiated one of their season's tougher games on Sunday, leaving White Hart Lane with a point and their undefeated league record intact.

That's disturbing for Arsenal fans. We don't have a Treble or a Champions League triumph to look back on; but Manchester United have never ended a league campaign without losing a single game.

More upsetting still is the fact that it's this United team that are threatening to do it.

03/04 Arsenal: Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Edu/ Gilberto, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.

10/11 United: Van Der Sar; Rafael/ O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson/ Carrick, Giggs/ Park; Berbatov, Rooney.

United's defence now is probably stronger as a unit than Arsenal's was seven years ago. Individually, Ferdinand and Vidic are superior to the Toure and Campbell we knew in 2004. Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra are two of the best left backs you will ever see. Further up the pitch, would you take any of United's front six over their Arsenal counterpart from the unbeaten season? Maybe Nani for Ljungberg.

What's more amazing is that United are doing this without a clear first choice right back. And their defence remains the foundation for their likely success. This points to a fundamental difference between the two teams I'm discussing here.

Arsenal's triumph of 2004 was one of a great team of players. There was a clear dividing line between first choice starters and back up players, with the exception of Edu, who would sometimes be preferred to his less crafty countryman.

United's prospective triumph of 2011 would be one of a great squad. It is hard to decide what United's best eleven is; arguable, even, that they don't have one. This is probably part of the reason that they cannot approach the fluidity of that Arsenal team, who were enormously entertaining. Alex Ferguson changes his team regularly, extensively. He does not get slated for it, as Ranieri and Benitez sometimes did, because it has not obstructed United's success. If his switches were explored- they are more often ignored- pundits would find that they are canny changes.

Above all, they make it possible for United to maintain a challenge on multiple fronts.

United lack the sprinkling of stardust they have had in the past- especially with Rooney struggling for form- but they have a lot of players who are effective in differing ways. It's something of a boring cliche at this point, but they are better at grinding out results than Arsenal. They can play in more ways. They may not be capable of the possession football that Arsenal now play, but they are better on the break. They can soak up pressure. They can play with genuine width, and score headers from crosses. They can play in different styles, and Ferguson can tailor the selection to suit the style. Their attacking play will doubtless improve with the return of Valencia, who set up many of Rooney's headed goals last season.

But for now they remain the most prosaic of potential history-makers. Their midfield has running power, but is sorely lacking in flair. Even Anderson, Brazilian and a 'number 10' by trade, deals more in power than finesse. Darren Fletcher is a tenacious presence, but his passing is erratic and unimaginative. Michael Carrick was, even at his best, flawed; now he's gone backwards. Ji Sung Park is a tireless worker and a regular goalscorer but it's hard not to see him as Dirk Kuyt with slanty eyes.

They all play their part in making United tough to beat. Nani, unpredictable as he is, has become the Premiership's most productive attacker, when you combine goals and assists. He makes United tough to keep out. And despite Rooney's troubles, Berbatov has shouldered a lot of the goalscoring burden. Hernandez has the enviable knack of being able to come into a game late and shape its outcome.

1-11, you could look at any of United's line-ups this season and say, they're not a patch on Arsenal's of 03/04. In entertainment terms, they certainly aren't. But they get the job done.

Even with their deep and mostly injury-free squad, can they keep it up for the rest of the season? You'd hope not. It certainly wouldn't say much for the patented 'Best League in the World'. United have been outplayed by some poor teams. Aston Villa (relegation candidates) battered them before imploding in the 2-2 draw at Villa Park. West Brom (relegation candidates) battered them at the Hawthornes, just didn't take their chances. United are helped by the favourable treatment they get from referees- as in that game at the Hawthornes, when the over-the-hill Gary Neville should have been dismissed and a penalty given. Nothing doing, of course. Neville was also allowed to foul without reproach, while on a yellow card, at Stoke.

I don't suggest that it would have changed the outcome, but Rio Ferdinand suffered no scrutiny when, with characteristic physical cowardice, he entered an aerial challenge with Bacary Sagna studs-first. In the same game, Darren Fletcher was allowed to lay his hands on the referee, in the self-entitled way that is the hallmark of all United's players.

All of these things help. So, too, the fact that Ferguson is looked upon with awe by most Premiership managers. Few will cross him. They will happily gang up to aim their xenophobic ire at Arsene Wenger. Ferguson can actually bend these lapdogs to his will. This is not paranoia or conspiracy. Sam Allardyce, before his latest sacking, masterminded a seven goal spanking of his own Blackburn side by United. His Bolton side, who would resort to tackles bordering on assault against Arsenal, were, surprise surprise, always meek opponents when they played Ferguson's team.

When Gary Megson took over, his first game was at home to United. He was obviously not part of Ferguson's circle of friends, because Kevin Davies kicked the shit out of Patrice Evra. On the touchline, the Laird's purple face betrayed his incandescent rage. "Save it for Arsenal".

When Liverpool played Blackburn in 08/09, Rafa Benitez made an innocuous hand gesture with the Reds having established an early two-goal lead. Liverpool were challenging United for the title. Sam Allardyce, at the behest of his master, kicked up a fuss over the supposed disrespect shown by the Spaniard. His gesture had, apparently, signalled that the game was over. Benitez was at the centre of a storm. Over nothing. The Laird is omnipotent.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, United's power goes beyond the eleven players they put out on a pitch. And that helps. If ever a fairly average team was capable of going a season unbeaten, it's Manchester United.

Let's just hope that either Ancelotti's Chelsea or Wenger's Arsenal can put paid to this. If they don't lose a game, we'll never hear the end of it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

West Ham: It's So Easy

West Ham 0-3 Arsenal

Hard to read too much into this one, although winning away games 3-0 certainly isn't a bad habit to develop.

West Ham were without Scott Parker, and then lost Mark Noble to an early injury, so their midfield had no teeth, and Arsenal took control.

The opener was scored with almost embarrassing ease. Wilshere worked the ball wide to Walcott, who was given an eternity of time by Wayne Bridge. Walcott advanced to the edge of the box and slipped a sideways pass in to Nasri, who dummied brilliantly. Van Persie swung his lesser used, but strangely effective, right foot, and the finish was exemplary.

There were, however, some hairy moments. Djourou's poor back pass meant Szcesny had to save, and there were other sloppy moments at the back. Going forward, Arsenal met little resistance. Walcott got in behind but snatched at the bouncing ball. Van Persie was released by Nasri but could only continue his long-standing love affair with the woodwork. Then Clichy chipped the Dutchman in behind, he pulled back low from the bye line, and Walcott ghosted in on Bridge's blind side to smash in the second with his left foot.

Arsenal started the second half keeping effortless possession- at one point the figures read 80% to the away side. But they got sloppy again for a period, when they might really have built up the goal difference. West Ham never had the ingenuity to engineer any real openings. They played like a team who want their manager sacked.

Eventually, Arsenal roused themselves enough to properly kill the game with a third. Bridge completed a hat-trick of goal costing errors. This time he was beaten to a loose ball by Walcott on the left-hand edge of West Ham's penalty area, and chopped his tormentor down. Fabregas left the penalty to Van Persie, who finished clinically to Green's right.

Arsenal won handsomely despite a couple of our recent star performers having relatively poor games. Little went right for Nasri. And Djourou had a few hesitant moments.

It's a thin line between relaxed and lax. Djourou has a composed, almost laid-back style that inspires confidence when he plays well, but he can struggle with his concentration at times. He is pretty inexperienced, though, in terms of actual games played, despite having been around quite a while. A player similar in style, Rio Ferdinand, suffered similar problems early in his career- supremely talented, but sometimes too casual. For Ferdinand, focus came with experience. If Djourou's career follows the same trajectory, Arsenal may soon have a great defender on their hands.

Probably the biggest plus: Van Persie looking more mobile, more dangerous. His form and fitness will be vital.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Ipswich Beat Us By Playing Rugby"

I prefer the Cesc who has a go at Denilson, to the one who makes excuses for inexcusable results.

Ipswich are a struggling Championship side and are not going to take Arsenal on in an open way.

This pomposity, this air of superiority, has got to end. Arsenal try to play good football, ok, but it looks ineffective a lot of the time and if it's inadequate against lower division sides- as it has been in the last two games- then Arsenal need to look INWARD.

Fabregas's whinging probably derives from frustration with his own uncharacteristically sloppy performance, but it's embarrassing. Arsenal need to concentrate on saving face in the second leg.

There remains a complete lack of grand narrative about the season. Arsenal looked to have turned the corner against Chelsea, and provided themselves a blueprint for success. But they've failed miserably to kick on. With most of the squad fit, they seemed well placed to mount a charge for success, but so many of the players still don't look up to the task.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Let's be honest, the priority for Arsenal this season is to win a trophy. Any trophy. That means, as sad as it sounds, the Carling Cup semi-final second leg against Ipswich will now be a huuuuuge game.

You can't start a fire without a spark. If and when Arsenal win the Carling Cup, the begrudgers will belittle the achievement. That's understandable, especially considering the best team Arsenal have had to beat so far is Tottenham reserves. Still, Arsene Wenger would rightly see Carling Cup triumph as Michael Collins saw the Treaty: a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

There are not many players in the current Arsenal squad who have tasted sweet success; perhaps a perceived "small" victory could prove the catalyst for bigger ones. As it is, there still seems a disturbing lack of either desire or nerve in the Arsenal ranks. The side that faced Ipswich in the first leg was full of experience, and even had Fabregas at its core. Disappointing, then, that they failed to impose themselves against limited opposition. To say, honestly, that Ipswich are worth their first leg lead speaks of the poverty of Arsenal's performance.

Still, if they bring their A game to to the home leg, all this should be rendered irrelevant.

Paul Jewell will be in charge of the Tractor Boys at the Emirates, which rekindles horrible memories of a recent Carling Cup semi-final second leg. Robin Van Persie's extra-time whopper of a free kick had Arsenal leading Wigan 2-1, before two lumbering tanks allowed Jason Roberts to score a late, late, away goals winner.

Let's hope Djourou's fitness holds up, because Koscielny and Squillaci have together shown an ineptitude worthy of Senderos and Campbell that night in 2006.

They Need To Be Nastier

A couple of interesting moments in the Ipswich game.

Early in the second half, Koscielny blasted a clearance out of play off one of the Ipswich players. The player was winded. Koscielny went over and apologised!!! It's something you rarely see on a football pitch. Good sportsmanship, in a way, but is it really necessary to be so nice?

I'd rather have an unpleasant bastard at centre back, as long as he was good. Rio Ferdinand- now there's a cunt. Pretty good player though.

Later in the game, and not for the first or last time, a speculative hoof up the pitch caused havoc in the Arsenal defence. Djourou wanted to shepherd it back to Szczesny; the Pole was staying put. The ball ended up in the keeper's arm after a bit of scrambling. After the ball was cleared, the two players exchanged words and bemused looks. But there was no shouting, which is what the situation merited.

I remember Rio Ferdinand scoring an uproarious own goal a few seasons back. Eamonn Dunphy branded him a "tramp" for his reaction, which was to berate his goalkeeper. But if you watch Man United, they're always at each other's throats. Everyone is berated for any perceived or actual dereliction of duty. It runs from the manager, probably down to the tea lady. You can just imagine Rio scalding her because she didn't give him enough milk.

The nasty streak at Arsenal seems a thing of the past. They all seem to get on a little too well. Players should not be afraid to make a mistake, otherwise they wouldn't play with any freedom. But they shouldn't think it's ok to make the same elementary mistakes over and over. Without reproach from manager or team mates, the mistakes proliferate.

Fabregas actually voiced his disappointment in Denilson's schoolboy error against Leeds. Arsenal need more of that attitude, or they'll stay perennial bridesmaids.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Don't matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin' the same"

If Arsenal contrive to mess this up, it becomes hard to see where the next trophy is coming from.

In the past, the reserve teams that Wenger has put out in the Carling Cup have performed very well. They've reached a few semi-finals and a final. The feeling has grown over the fallow years since 2005 that if they fully committed themselves, they would win it.

This season, Wenger has fielded a strong side in every round. He has shown he is committed to trying to win the competition. But the players still have to match that. The first leg against Ipswich was yet another sad return to the complacency that has blighted Arsenal in recent years.

They should be itching to win silverware- any silverware. At half-time, Paul Merson said:
I think Arsenal have turned up and thought, we'll roll these over and we'll move on and we'll be playing at Wembley at the end of February
and it's hard to disagree with that. It wouldn't be the first time that their attitude has let them down.

Ipswich are, ostensibly, a club in turmoil. They've just changed managers and shipped seven at the weekend against Chelsea. At the same time, a new manager often has a galvanising effect. The players may feel liberated, with the tyranny of Roy Keane consigned to the past.

No excuses though. Any Arsenal team should be able to sweep aside lower division opposition. Coming off the back of a poor showing against Leeds, this is worrying.

A lot of the players look out of sorts. Cesc Fabregas, even, gave the ball away a lot. Bendtner's self-image continues to look delusional at best. Arshavin's travails continue. If Denilson is the answer, what is the question?

The fancy dannery around the edge of the box is making Arsenal look toothless again, and they can concede to any team, at any time. A bad mix.

The tie should, of course, still be salvaged. Arsenal will fancy themselves to win by two clear goals at home to Ipswich. But they have consistently struggled at home this season and if the players don't perform convincingly, the fans' frustrations will show.

The difficult and important games are piling on, and with the squad looking inadequate in places, the pragmatist knows:
the Carling Cup remains Arsenal's best chance of silverware.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The What If Years

2009/2010: What if Van Persie stayed fit...

2010/2011: What if Vermaelen stayed fit...???

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lay Off The Laid Back Russian

The most notable thing about the home support for the Leeds game was the sometimes vociferous abuse that Arshavin was being subjected to.

Boos and jeers were often audable. He bottled a one-on-one. He miscontrolled almost constantly, passed sloppily. Couldn't put a foot right.

Sometimes ITV cut to slow motion replays of rabid fans venting their frustrations.

He has become The Enemy Within.

There are parallels with the Eboue Situation of a couple years back, but also interesting differences.

Eboue was booed mercilessly during a home league game against Wigan. He had come off the bench and made some potentially costly mistakes. Towards the end, with Arsenal trying to hold onto a perilous 1-0 lead, Wenger had to substitute the substitute. He was clearly affected by the fans' wrath. He was going to pieces. Couldn't find a red shirt. As he trooped off, he was disconsolate, almost in tears. A horrible spectacle.

Arsenal's fans can be an unforgiving bunch. They fail to create the intimidating atmosphere that some other clubs have a reputation for. If the atmosphere is intimidating anyone this season, it's probably some of the Arsenal players.

Eboue is a grafter. The abuse he got was unsavoury. He makes technical mistakes because he is not a very good player but he works a lot harder than some of his more talented team mates.

The Arshavin situation is a little different because he is one of those talented team mates. Anyone who watched Russia during Euro 2008 knows that he is a terrific player on his day. Those days seem to have gotten more and more sporadic as his Arsenal career has progressed.

His attitude to defending is one of mild disinterest. And unlike, say, Robert Pires, who was lazy about tracking back but always used the ball in an intelligent and measured manner, Arshavin is frequently wasteful, seeming to clog the cogs of what should be a fluidly functioning machine.

He has seen Theo Walcott take his place in the team for recent big matches and his response has not been the one the boss must have desired. His performances have, if anything, worsened in the last couple of weeks, despite the eye-catching goal he scored at Wigan. That game summed up the Arshavin enigma. He scored one and set up the other of Arsenal's goals, but was otherwise a passenger.

It is hard, then, to argue with the ire of the Arsenal supporters. Their frustration is exacerbated by the knowledge that this is a team that cannot afford a lazy, free-floating winger, let alone an unproductive one. Robert Pires may not have chipped in with much defensive work but Arsenal had the likes of Vieira, Gilberto, Edu and Parlour back then. Back then, Wenger would often play with two players you could describe as "holding midfielders"; now he arguably doesn't even use one.

In short, Arsenal need a concerted, collective work ethic when out of possession, to offset their lack of physical power. Arshavin looks either unable or unwilling to be a part of that.

At the same time, the abuse he is now receiving will not do any good. By the end of the Leeds game, his confidence was shot to pieces. It may be that Arshavin can only play a fitfully effective part in the team's campaign for trohies, but the fans need to accept him for the flawed character that he is. If they continue to undermine him, he may lose his capacity to be that infuriating but vital part-time match winner.

Leeds: A Tale of Two Penalties

Iffy home form raises its ugly head again: Arsenal 1-1 Leeds

The Emirates is far from a fortress this season. There have been defeats against West Brom and Newcastle; the turning of a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 loss against Spurs; and a general air of tension even in ultimately successful games.

Arsenal's second team, though better on paper than many of our previous second teams, lacks leadership and spark and Leeds presented them with some problems.

Their previously leaky defence was good enough to comfortably repel most of Arsenal's attacks until they tired late on and the home side's pressure finally told in the shape of Fabregas's penalty.

Worrying that Arsenal again managed to concede despite playing practically the whole game in the opposition half. Denilson is no longer a first team pick so it is disappointing that he continues to show lethargy when he does get a chance. Leeds' broke down the left, but the attack was slowed down and the Brazilian should have been busting a gut to close the space occupied by Max Gradel. Instead he jogged back, and the Ivorian easily sidestepped his clumsy challenge- definite penalty.

Snodgrass blasted the penalty under Szczesny and Arsenal were on the brink of their first 3rd round exit under Wenger.

Again, the introduction of Theo Walcott made a difference. By the last ten minutes or so, Leeds were simply too tired to deal with his pace. He ran onto Arshavin's scooped through ball but only fired straight into Schmeichel's arms. Then he dived without reward. Then he was tugged back in the box before the keeper saved his effort and a penalty was rightly given- and the scores levelled in the 90th minute.

Arsenal had three chances to win it. Denilson's blast from the edge of the box was brilliantly tipped wide. Bendtner shanked horribly with his left foot from the captain's long through ball. And Walcott could only fire a short-range effort into the side netting at the death.

Leeds probably deserved their replay but Arsene Wenger won't appreciate the extra game.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Little Humility Goes A Long Way

Having questioned Andy Gray's supposed status as an authority on the game, I should probably point something out about myself...

Just some of my prophesies from recent times:

At the start of the World Cup, I presented 'THE TEAM THAT CAN WIN IT FOR ENGLAND' (the only team that could win it for England, as it turns out, is one made up completely of foreigners).

Later in the tournament, I stated that it was 'BRAZIL'S TO LOSE'. Lose it they promptly did, somehow beating themselves against a frankly rubbish Dutch side who were allowed to progress to the final and make a holy show of themselves. More a martial arts outfit than a footballing one.

At the start of this season, when Chelsea were steamrolling their way through some very handy fixtures, I pondered 'CAN ANYONE STOP THE CHELSEA JUGGERNAUT?'. A few months later, we have the answer. Sunderland, Birmingham, Liverpool, Wolves... even Arsenal!!!

So no, I'm not much of an authority myself. At least I don't sell a league for a living.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hype vs Logic

The hype machine predicted a FIVE HORSE RACE.
A look at the table tells you that it's closer to a one team PROCESSION.

The hype machine tells you it's THE BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD.
It probably is.... BY DEFAULT!!
Italian football has finally eaten itself. La Liga is, as we keep hearing, a two-team league.

But again, unless Man United collapse, the Premiership this season might not EVEN be a two-horse race. And who's going to catch them?

Is it Arsenal, who have lost at home to West Brom and Newcastle this season?

Or maybe Man City? The summit of their manager's ambition, despite the lavish expenditure, seems to be Champions League qualification.

Chelsea are out of the running after a disastrous run of form, and Spurs were, in truth, never in the running in the first place.

Some five-horse race!

Still, a season where the outstanding team is a flair-deficient United team who have barely rumbled out of second gear is not without its peculiar charm.

Most teams seem more evenly matched. Liverpool are in a state of perpetual gloom. Chelsea's double of last season now looks the last defiant victory of a dying empire.

What the hype merchants are probably missing most is a bona fide superstar to drool over.

This frustration is evidenced by the hyping of Gareth Bale, who is often as anonymous as he can be exciting.

A couple of weeks ago, Andy Gray questioned the hypothetical ability of Leo Messi to perform against the likes of Stoke (snigger).

He is a Premiership salesman more than a pundit or an authority on the game. He is forever banging on about the uniqueness of This League. He is also devastated by This League's lack of Great Players at the moment and so resorts to pointless, unintentionally hilarious jibes at the world's best footballer.

He misses Cristiano Ronaldo, no doubt. And he is disturbed by the decline of Gerrard (never that good anyway), Rooney, Torres.

He should give the hype a break.

It may be the most entertaining league in the world, but if a United team inhabited by the likes of Fletcher, Carrick and even, at times, Darron Fucking Gibson can stumble on undefeated, it casts doubts over the league's true "greatness", and thus over the state of football in general.

Was the Chelsea Game an Aberration?

The answer to this question will decide the ultimate success of Arsenal's season. I KNOW, Chelsea were rubbish. But Arsenal worked much harder when out of possession than we had seen in a long, long time.

Against Man City, there was less of that coherent pressing. But the game came at the end of a busy period, and it would be harsh to criticise Arsenal too much after a game they really deserved to win.

For the rest of the season, the Chelsea performance should serve as a template.

When Arsenal are lazy about chasing the ball, the resultant problem is two-fold. It is easier for the opposition to get the ball into the final third, and pressurise Arsenal's rickety back line. And not winning the ball in forward areas means Arsenal often have to build from the back, and face up to two banks of four. That places great pressure on the construction of the fabled "perfect goal".

While Arsenal's opener against Chelsea came after some narrow, intricate passing, the next two goals were more characteristic of the performance as a whole. Pressure was exerted in Chelsea's half. The ball was won. Pass. Shot. Goal. Simple and effective.

Perhaps Arsenal stand off opposition teams in the Premiership on the basis that they are not technically good enough to do much with the ball. But the fact that many Premiership teams are not so refined in possession should encourage Arsenal to chase them more. They won't like it. And it's easier to score when you win the ball in the opponent's half, because then have less bodies to pass around.

If Barcelona are the ideal to which Arsenal now aspire, you only need look at how hard they work when they don't have the ball. They have superior players to Arsenal, so it was particularly galling to see them run harder aswell at the Emirates last season. Let's hope that in this year's encounter, Arsenal can at least match them in that regard.

Arsenal and City Meet, United the Only Victors

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

I've talked up the contrast in philosophies between Wenger's Arsenal and Mancini's City before, and lastnight it was at its most obvious. Only one team showed a real desire to win the game.

Some will laud Mancini's pragmatism. But he's put a team together at a huge cost and they play as if they are battling relegation. Arsenal's defence is poor and teams like West Brom and Newcastle have come to the Emirates and had the balls to expose that. City barely had the ball all game and when they did they often seemed unsure of what to do with it. So they go away with a point, and perhaps their ultra-cautious manager will see it as a point nearer a Champions League spot at the end of the season, rather than two points further back from their Manchester neighbours.

He would do well to remember this: towards the end of last season, City visited North London with Arsenal in rancid form. Despite that encouragement, his team showed no ambition that day and came away with an eventless, goalless draw.

They ended up losing out to an attacking Spurs side in the chase for 4th place. Mancini's caution has backfired before, and as long as he remains a walking Italian stereotype, City will not win the league. City may lack flair in certain areas, but that is not an excuse- it is the result of Mancini's buying policy. And Sir Alex Ferguson would certainly make more use of players like David Silva and Adam Johnson. United continue to play attacking football even with a squad short on outrageous talent. Positivity pays, and that's why City won't win the league.

Arsenal deserve credit for sticking to their guns. The first half was unlucky at times. As early as the 2nd minute, Wilshere should have set Van Persie up for a tap-in, but overhit his pass across goal. The Dutchman hit a post from the edge of the area after bamboozling Kolo Toure. Then Fabregas slid a shot off the same upright from a measured Nasri pass.

As the game wore on City looked more assured in their defensive shape, less and less inclined to attack themselves with any purpose. Arsenal struggled to forage through the dense forest of blue, and Van Persie's long range thunderbolt was their best 2nd half effort- the ever-excellent Joe Hart pawed it away.

Whatever momentum Arsenal had was extinguished when the frustrating Arshavin replaced Walcott. The Russian was sloppy, criminally casual in possession. The hope was that Walcott's inclusion ahead of him in Arsenal's recent big games would provide a motivational kick up the arse, but his performances remain peripheral at best. It should be added that only last week he scored a fine goal at Wigan. But what's the bottom line- the goal, or the overall display it was at odds with?

Is he, as f365 often assert, a luxury worth having? Or is he a passenger in a team that can't afford one?

He's not the worst of this team's problems. The biggest one they face, now that they seem to be playing well, is the yawning gap between themselves and Manchester United at the top. It could stretch to seven points if United win their game in hand.

Assuming there is no collapse- and even this prosaic United team don't look to have a collapse in them- Arsenal need a consistent charge between now and season's end. The return of Thomas Vermaelen would have the squad looking very strong indeed, and silverware of some kind is hopefully forthcoming, although the Premiership title still looks, at this juncture, tantalisingly out of reach.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Big Test Passed, Bigger One Coming

Birmingham 0-3 Arsenal

Birmingham always look to rough Arsenal up. In 2008 Martin Taylor overstepped the mark and broke Eduardo's leg. This time there was an early, reckless lunge by Roger Johnson that could have done Fabregas damage. Arsenal responded well, kept playing their football and won comfortably.

Birmingham might lack flair but it is not just their physicality that makes them a tough proposition. They defend deep, almost never letting a team get behind them, and their home record shows that they usually succeed in keeping games tight even against far superior opposition.

Van Persie's opener was a vital moment because it meant Arsenal could play the rest of the game on their own terms. He dived when running onto Fabregas's sideways pass. The referee bought it, and the Dutchman's free kick hit Lee Bowyer and bounced past Ben Foster.

The game should have been over by half time, but it could have been level if the ref had spotted Van Persie's clumsy handball in the Arsenal penalty area. The same man was wasteful when he twice spurned point blank opportunities at the other end.

In the second half Birmingham offered no threat, but Arsenal continued to waste chances, until Nasri and Fabregas exchanged pinball passes and the Frenchman buried the ball inside Foster's near post from the edge of the area. The third, an own goal, was the result of more bewildering interplay between Arsenal's two best players, whose understanding seems to be growing.

Their creative capacities will be tested again on Wednesday. The match between Arsenal and City looks at the moment like a 2nd place playoff but either team would gain a lot of belief from a positive result.

They will both be disappointed that Manchester United were let off the hook by a wasteful West Brom during Saturday's lunchtime game. United benefitted from chickenshit refereeing from Chris Foy, when Gary Neville took out Graham Dorrans and appeals were waved away- no penalty, no red card. Then they benefitted from the hosts' profligacy when Foy did blow up for Rio Ferdinand's ill-timed swipe on Jerome Thomas. Peter Odemwingie sent a pathetic penalty yards wide.

That made United's winner seem inevitable, despite the poverty of their performance, and it arrived through Javier Hernandez, who continues to show the ability to turn tight games in United's favour.