Monday, February 28, 2011

Blue Sunday

Carling Cup Final: Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal
Some are hoping that Arsenal can pick themselves up from this, and win one of the three bigger tournaments they are still competing for this season. I am asking whether they will win another trophy under Arsene Wenger.

The team were on a decent run of results until yesterday. Unbeaten since the meek surrender to United at Old Trafford. But there had been signs of weakness. Most obviously, there was the amazing collapse at Newcastle, drawing a game they had led 4-0. More relevant to yesterday, perhaps, was the struggle during the FA Cup ties against Leeds, Huddersfield, and Leyton Orient. These games suggested that Arsenal's reserve players struggle to beat limited, but well-orgainised and highly motivated underdogs.

Against Birmingham, Wenger did not want to play too many of his back-up players. But injuries to Fabregas and Walcott forced his hand. Still, that shouldn't have mattered. The only non-regular to come in was Rosicky. Positionally speaking, he is a direct replacement for Fabregas. Quality-wise, he is now painfully inadequate. But the biggest blow, as it turned out, was to the mental side of Arsenal's game. Without their captain and best player, they looked nervous and failed miserably to impose their much-vaunted passing style. Still, big teams win without playing well. They do it by hanging in, not making mistakes...

The game started with Arsenal enjoying a huge slice of luck.

Zigic, found by Fahey, played the best pass of his career through to Lee Bowyer, making a vintage Ljungberg-style run beyond the Arsenal defence. Bowyer reached the ball ahead of the on-rushing Szczesny, and was bowled over by the Pole. It was a clear penalty, and quite possibly a red card, but the linesman had wrongly raised his flag. Clichy was playing Bowyer yards onside.

Arsenal rallied a bit. Their first good bit of play came when a nice reverse pass from Nasri found Arshavin in the box with his back to goal. He shimmied to leave Jiranek flailing, but his left foot shot was repelled by the legs of Foster. The first save of many.

The favourites failed to build on this moment of promise, however. Their play was littered with sloppy moments. Alex McLeish had recognised Arsenal's lack of pace sans Walcott, and the Blues defence played high up the pitch. Arsenal offered no direct threat in behind. Birmingham's pressing was aggressive, fair and very effective. Arsenal players didn't look interested, at times, in getting on the ball and playing their football.

Birmingham took a deserved lead. Sagna gave the ball away with the latest of many poor Arsenal passes. The Blues forced a corner. From it, Djourou went wandering instead of marking the towering Zigic. Johnson won the header over Koscielny, and the big man did the rest, nodding the looping ball into the net from close in. Arsenal, characteristically enough, went to pieces for a spell after conceding. Birmingham threatened a second. Szczesny had to save at Zigic's feet. Arsenal were failing to deal with his aerial threat.

Then, an undeserved equaliser. Wilshere was one of few Arsenal men not buckling under the pressure of expectation. He drove forward on the break. Arshavin eventually found him with a pass from the right, and Wilshere's shot from the edge hit the crossbar and looped out. In the same passage of play, Arshavin got the ball again, beat Ridgewell and crossed for Van Persie, who somehow conjured an agile righ-footed volley on the spin, finding the far corner. Another brilliant goal from the Dutchman, but he took a knock in the process which bothered him until his eventual second half withdrawal.

So Arsenal had, for the second time, got out of jail. Surely they would not mess things up now.

The second half began promisingly enough. Van Persie released Sagna to the byeline, and he measured a ball to the edge of the box where Rosicky was steaming in. The Czech struck on the half volley and the shot went just wide.

Birmingham responded. Fahey struck from the edge of the box, Szczesny well beaten, the inside of the post rattled.

As the half wore on, Birmingham dropped deeper, and the threat of Zigic faded. Arsenal finally imposed themselves for a spell, but still failed to create a gilt-edged chance. Mostly, there were shots from the edge of the area. One such, from Nasri, was batted away by Foster. Arsenal continued to attack with a Birmingham player down injured, and Bendtner, on for RVP, saw his deflected shot clawed away impressively. Rosicky had a backheeled attempt blocked by the on-form netminder. Nasri hit one straight at him.

As the half-chances came and went, and Foster kept out the shots, you started to feel that maybe Birmingham's name was on the trophy. Martins came on to provide Zigic with some company. As the 90 approached, the Blues launced another hoof, Zigic beat Djourou to flick on. Martins stood still and the ball was bouncing through to Szczesny. I'm not sure if he should have even had to shout, but if he did do that, Koscielny heard him too late. The Frenchman pulled out, mid-kick, of what was already an unnecessary clearance. The ball rebounded off his confused keeper, and the loose ball fell comically to Martins, who couldn't miss.

Four minutes were added, but Arsenal failed to mount a meaningful attack. The game was up; they had failed on the big stage yet again. Birmingham celebrated wildly and it was hard to begrudge them their success. They had got the tactics spot on, used Zigic well. They were brave, and correct, to push high and deny Arsenal time to settle. They were denied an early penalty. I was happy for Stephen Carr, one of the outstanding full backs in the Premiership. Birmingham plainly had character in spades, the one attribute that Arsenal most glaringly lack.


You have to say, it was apt.
Not particularly unexpected, either. When a massive game is lost late in that manner, you should be surprised. With Arsenal, that's not the case. Defensive mistakes have become routine in recent seasons. Although there has been a brief period of semi-solidity, the CC final saw a return to black slapstick comedy. The first goal was the kind Arsenal concede all the time. But the second was one of the worst we'll ever see. Koscielny was highly impressive against Barca, but the constant aerial barrage against Birmingham clearly frazzled his nerves. There was no need for him to even go for the ball, but I guess he thought Martins was chasing it, and that his keeper hadn't come out to claim. Maybe Szczesny needed to shout, or shout earlier. Maybe Koscileny just should have hoofed now, asked questions later. Maybe the keeper could have been more assertive.

In any case, it's the kind of mistake you just don't see big teams make. But a lack of communication between Arsenal defenders is, at this point, a sad trademark. Something that clearly seperates them from the kind of teams that win things. The goal brought together two fatal flaws that have stained the years since Arsenal's last trophy. Defensive ineptitude, and the absence of experience. Szczesny looks set to be a very good goalkeeper, but he's a rookie. So too, despite the hefty price tag, is Koscielny.

Equally worrying is the unavoidable proof, throughout the game, that Arsenal lack the big game mentality. They looked terrified in the first half. Second period, they improved, and could have scored, but none of the saves Foster was forced into, with the exception of that deflected effort, were amazing, and Arsenal didn't make any great chances. I think they missed Fabregas mentally, but also on a simple, footballing level. None of Arsenal's other attacking midfielders are as incisive, either in their passing or in their running off the ball. Nasri seemed to lack the swagger that has made him so impressive this season. Arshavin was typically erratic, but surely shouldn't have been taken off, especially not for Chamakh, who has been hopeless in recent weeks. Rosicky flitted in and out in his now familiar ineffective style.

Birmingham defended narrow, and Arsenal failed to respond to that by getting wide and making crosses. With Bendtner and Chamakh on the pitch late on, this should have been an obvious tactic, but maybe at that stage Clichy and Sagna were too drained to get forward often enough.


I had said beforehand that victory could be significant. I am sorry to say I think defeat will be equally significant.

Everyone assumed, since West Ham knocked Man Utd out, that Arsenal would win the Carling Cup. They will not often be presented with opposition like Birmingham in a game of that magnitude. That is no disrespect to Birmingham. But Arsenal tend to struggle to beat the likes of Chelsea and Man Utd. So this was a huge opportunity to end the fallow period.

If they cannot beat Birmingham in a Carling Cup final, how do you think they'll do in the Nou Camp? Do you think they can win an FA Cup quarter final at Old Trafford? Do you think, even if United drop points in the league, that Arsenal are able to take advantage? I think they'd bottle it. I think they will lose in the Nou Camp and lose at Old Trafford. As has happened in recent years, I think the season will fall apart in the space of a couple of weeks.

If Arsenal had played convincingly, and won, I would say it was the first piece of silverware this season, promising the possibility of more. Since they lost, and because of the way they did, I can't help feeling it was actually the last chance to win something this season.

Friday, February 25, 2011

WEAKNESS: if the mental don't get 'em...

... the physical will

Should Arsenal win the Carling Cup this weekend, the club's harshest critics will rain on their parade, dismiss the competition as an irrelevance, and deny that Arsenal have taken a meaningful step back towards the power and poise they exhibited seven years ago. I disagree. I think that Sunday is a huge day for the club, even if the League Cup in itself is the least important trophy they are fighting for. The first taste of genuine success could be the making of this team; defeat, on the other hand, could mean desolation in this campaign and many more.

Of course, this being Arsenal, injuries have taken hold at the very time the campaign is reaching its highest level of intensity. Fabregas is now, sadly, one of the many Arsenal players who can be called injury-prone. His absence, and that of Walcott, will be felt on Sunday, adding to the pressure on the shoulders of players who have, sometimes, buckled. Vermaelen's continued stint on the treatment table is far from ideal, but Arsenal have been living with that for most of the season. More worrying is the prospect of Van Persie missing out, if he cannot recover in time.

Birmingham are pretty far from formidable, but they will not feel as much pressure as Arsenal will on Sunday. Not much is expected of them. They have a dogged, defensive work ethic throughout the team, and the kind of physicality that can ruffle the feathers of those of a more artistic temperament. Up front, they have Zigic, a towering, immobile lump, the kind of player recent Arsenal defences have struggled to deal with. He opened the scoring at the Emirates this season, and back then, he was acclimatising to the English game. Now we can expect him to play a more substantial role and Arsenal will hope he is not to be a central figure in the final.

Djourou is the man who will be expected to quell whatever sporadic aerial threat Birmingham pose. He and Sczcesny, along with the ever-dependable Sagna, have been instrumental in making Arsenal look a little less brittle in recent months. That the Polish keeper was under threat at times from Stoke's grenades will not have escaped the attentions of Alex McLeish, however. As much as Arsenal will try to win the match on the floor, Birmingham will try to do it in the air. Still, the Gunners defence ought to be confident of producing an effective enough performance and providing a platform for the attackers to go and win the game. Gael Clichy has rediscovered some consistency, and Koscielny, assuming he is able to start, has improved immensely since finding a semi-regular partner in Djourou.

Can Arsenal produce when it matters, and without their talismanic captain? Much may be expected of Nasri, but although many believe that the position of central playmaker is his most natural, he is not yet a player who can shape a game, or indeed provide habitually incisive passes, like Fabregas does. An interesting subplot will be whether Nasri actually plays centrally at all; with Walcott's injury, the Frenchman may prove a more natural right-sided attacker than Bendtner, the other obvious option.

Tomas Rosicky could perhaps step into Fabregas's boots, although, after a promising start, his season has lapsed into inconsistency. Perhaps his goal against Leyton Orient will provide a spark. One man who has found one is Arshavin- the jeers of a few weeks ago no longer ring in the Russian's ears and the goal against Barcelona cemented his rehabilitation- and he is no stranger to shaping the outcome of big games.

Wenger could even, if he chooses, bring Denilson in alongside Song, and allow Wilshere the liberty to roam that his talent probably deserves. But would Birmingham be obvious opposition for the sideways passing and general conservatism of Denilson? Probably not.

After the unfortunate picking off of some of the physically brittle members of the Arsenal squad, those who still stand need to cast away the clouds of mental fragility that have hung over them in recent years. Wenger has constantly praised what he sees as a growing maturity: if Arsenal play in a mature manner, focussed and professional, without compromising the freedom that marks their game at its best, they should end the trophy drought on Sunday. If they fail to play to their abilities and crumble against a mediocre side, some serious, soul-searching questions will need to be asked. NO PRESSURE THEN!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Something is Rotten in the state of European Football

There has been talk of the current Barcelona team ranking with the all-time greats of European football. But before we all get too excited, we should really look at the strength in depth of European football, or lack thereof.

Italian football is in a wretched state. The two Milan teams and Roma have all lost their opening knock-out round games, all at home. None of these defeats were to particularly formidable opposition.

Inter's victory in the competition last season seems an aberration, the result of Mourinho's abilities rather than any sign of revival in the Italian game.

You would be very, very surprised if the eventual winners this year are not one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea or Manchester United. Arsenal can of course count themselves as contenders if they pull off the admirable feat of knocking Barcelona out.

Of those teams, Chelsea have been pretty dreadful, by their own lofty standards, for most of the season. Manchester United went to Marseilles, a very ordinary side, lastnight, and barely showed any attacking intent. With their home record as impressive as it is, a 0-0 draw is fine, but anyone interested in footballing aesthetics must sometimes question Alex Ferguson's commitment to attacking football, something that the great man constantly trumpets. Didier Deschamps realised that United would sit back and try and score on the break, relying on the front three of Rooney, Berbatov and Nani to create something. Marseilles thus played conservative themselves, denying United any real openings for a counter attack, and the result was one of the most rotten stalemates you'll ever have the misfortune to sit through.

United's midfield was made up of Gibson, Fletcher and Carrick: disturbingly bad. United fans now complain that they cannot splash the cash to replace Scholes and Giggs but replacing Scholes and Giggs has been on the agenda for quite a while and the quest has so far been one of Ferguson's few failures. A fearful amount was spent on Anderson, the highly rated Brazilian, who has been either mismanaged, played out of position, or just wasn't worth the money in the first place. A further 30million or so was shelled out on Berbatov, a player United arguably never needed. He's been more impressive this season but looks unlikely to ever live up to that price tag.

While Arsenal have Fabregas, Wilshere, Nasri, and Ramsey, and Spurs took advantage of bargain prices to bring in Modric and Van der Vaart, with the exception of the aging Scholes United still lack an inventive presence in the middle of the park. Assuming they can knock Arsenal out Barcelona will be faced with the threat of three teams who will only really look to stifle them- Mourinho's Madrid will hardly adopt any other tactic, with the memory of that 5-0 battering at the Nou Camp still fresh in their minds.

Only Arsenal, Barcelona, and Spurs are really flying the flag for attacking football with any distinction. There is a lot of dullness elsewhere, although Bayern Munich were well worth their 1-0 win at the San Siro against Inter and Arjen Robben continues to make them halfway watchable.

It has been suggested by many that a change to an all knock-out format would revive the stale Champions League, but this is a lazy assumption. It would not solve the jarring inequality in the game. Big teams might have the chance to face off earlier but the net result would probably be even less competitive games at the end of the tournament. A more multicultural FA Cup, perhaps.

The good thing about the current format is that it allows the cream to rise to the top. The problem is that there is so little cream. A change in format won't change that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Arsenal 1 Stoke 0 Injuries 2

If I had been told before this game that it would be won by a goal from a set piece, I'd have been worried.

As it turns out, I have to apologise for my typically rash assessment of Squillaci, who did not cost Arsenal any goals on this occasion, and scored the winner.

Eight minutes in, a corner reached the back post, where Bendtner chested down and knocked the ball into the goalmouth, and the French defender headed in his first league goal. Big credit goes to Bendtner who showed good composure and actually picked a player out where many would just smash the ball and hope for the best.

Before that, Walcott had threatened on three occasions. Very early on, Fabregas released him on the right of the area with a trademark slide rule pass, and the youngster beat Begovic with his cross shot but saw it rebound off the inside of the post and into the keeper's arms. He then volleyed well wide from Bendtner's knockdown, and then almost went through but snatched at his shot under pressure from both Huth and Pugh.

Arsenal had started very well but were then greeted with the now all-too-familiar sight of Cesc Fabregas trudging off to be substituted. It remains to be seen whether he has a chance of playing in Sunday's Carling Cup final. His removal here saw Arshavin come on to play in his usual position on the left of the front three, and Nasri drop back as chief playmaker. Arsenal lost momentum but Stoke offered little, other than a Carew effort from range which Sczcesny parried well, until the second half.

After the break there was more menace about Stoke. Delap wound up for a long through, instead sent it down the line to Pennant, and his cross found Shawcross, but the header deflected just wide for a corner. What an unpopular goal that would have been. Then another throw, this time from the left. Delap did go long. Sczcesny came out, but he and his defenders were beaten all ends up by Huth. His leap effectively gave him an open goal, but he couldn't direct the header downwards, and Arsenal escaped.

The best bit of play from Arsenal came when Nasri released Arshavin down the left. Shawcross came hurtling across in typically reckless fashion, and was left for dead by the Russian, who dinked it over the challenge, then squared across the area for Walcott, who fluffed his lines.

The Englishman's night got even worse when he twisted his ankle badly under a clumsy but innocent challenge by Whitehead. Walcott will miss the Carling Cup final and, even worse, probably the Barcelona game, where you feel Arsenal would have needed the benefit of his pace and directness.

As I predicted, injuries are biting as the games pile up. But here Arsenal were solid enough to see the game out. Pennant's free kick late on was as close as Stoke came, but the winger could only find the side netting with a shot that Sczcesny looked to have covered.

Overall, Arsenal were relatively poor, but it can only be a good sign that they can win in such circumstances. The early goal was, clearly, vital, more so than it seemed at the time, because after Fabregas's departure, the home side struggled to open Stoke up. Had the game remained 0-0 Stoke would have kept even more bodies back and Arsenal's search for a goal may have grown desperate. Instead, they could keep possession in the late stages, less nervous than they've been in the past with the new assurance Djourou's presence seems to have bred in the back line. One point now the gap to United, who have a game in hand, but now face three away games: Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool... Maybe this season will see a title race after all.

off-topic rant

Remember when The Simpsons was good?

You'd need a long memory. But it was once. It was very, very, good. Maybe the best thing on TV when I was growing up.

For more than ten years, it's been in terminal decline. It has limped on for so long that it's now been rubbish for longer than it was ever great.

This is a sad state of affairs. Nobody cared enough about the show's legacy to say "enough is enough". This is worse than the wrinkly Rolling Stones or The Who or any of those once-cool bands going on tour just to make money off nostalgia. At least The Who and The Rolling Stones don't inflict new material on us very often.

I can't ignore it. It would be easier if people in general even had the taste to admit that The Simpsons is now a steaming pile of shit, but instead they continue to lavish it with undeserved praise. Even supposed critics lack the critical capacity to judge this. I can't go on the Guardian's website without reading about how Russell Brand is making a guest appearance. You know a programme has fallen to shit when it is relying on a constant flow of smug guest stars in a vain attempt at keeping things fresh.

Ricky Gervais, whose genius has been obliterated by success and celebrity, made one cringe-inducing cameo that I once sat through. You'd think the man behind The Office would recognise the sad decline of The Simpsons but anyone who has seen Gervais's utterly average stand-up routines should know that his greatness has long since faded.

A long parade of big names clamours to be given the opportunity to voice whatever shit character the shit writers have concocted this week. Smug bastards.

The fact that The Simpsons has been allowed to continue in this vegetative state for so long illustrates one thing: people in general are fucking stupid. Two and a Half Men is the most popular comedy in America. George W Bush was twice elected president of America. The CSI's are the most popular TV shows overall in America. The Wire barely found an audience. People are stupid.

As The Squad Creaks, Will Cracks Start To Show?

Arsenal v Stoke

RVP: out

Djourou now acts as Squillaci's babysitter. Bendtner or Chamakh upfront. Tony Pulis looking to throw a spanner in the works as Arsenal enter a critical phase of the season. Is the squad good enough to fight on four fronts?

By Arsenal standards, the list of unavailable players at the moment is unremarkable. But we know how quickly the injury list can reach epic proportions. And now would be an inopportune time to say the least. Arsenal have a habit of seeing whole seasons fall apart in the space of a week or two...

Whatever happens in tonight's game, I still think United are heavy favourites for the league. Arsenal have to deal with being favourites on Sunday in the Carling Cup final. That game will be crucial in shaping the rest of the season. If Arsenal finally lift a trophy for the first time since 2005, they can relax somewhat. They will still want to win every trophy they can, but the pressure will lift and that will give them a better chance.

Defeat is almost unthinkable. If they cannot beat Birmingham, how can they expect to get past Barcelona? To beat Man Utd in the quarter finals of the FA Cup (assuming they eventually get there)? How can they expect to challenge for the title?

If they cannot win this season's League Cup, having been presented with winnable game after winnable game, will they ever win anything?

That is a question everyone will ask if Arsenal lose.

Birmingham have been beaten twice by Arsenal in the league this season. But they have a recent history of denying the Gunners in dramatic circumstances. Kevin Phillips's last gasp fluke last season saw the loss of two points and the dwindling of Arsenal's title hopes. Worse still was the game in 2008 at St. Andrew's: Eduardo's leg break; Gael Clichy falling asleep; the referee pointing to the spot; last minute woe; Gallas's amazing breakdown. The day the title was lost.

Let's hope that this time the woe is Birmingham's.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goal of the Week

I was on the site 101 great goals lastnight, had a look at their usual list of contenders for goal of the week.

Bicycle kick? Check. Long range thunderbolt? Check. Free kick? Check. Solo strike? Check.
Team goal?...

A slow week for team goals, you might suggest. But what of Arsenal's winner against Barcelona? Surely one of the better passing moves of the season, and at a big moment in a big game.

There is a general tendency in football to praise the spectacular over the subtle. Spectacular goals deserve attention, and they get it, but there is sometimes an element of fluke. It takes good technique to find the top corner from thirty yards, but sometimes you get the feeling that if the player in question tried the same shot for the rest of his playing days, he wouldn't pull it off again.

And the footballs in use nowadays can seem so random in their flight that you are tempted to question whether technique really matters as much as it used to. Should it really be possible for a ball to be so light that it can be hit with the instep, swerve in one direction, then the other? Reminds me of those cheap footballs we sometimes played with as kids. Glorified balloons.

In this day and age, the team goal should be King. Whereas the long range strike can seem random in its effect, the team goal can be measured, as was Arsenal's against Barcelona. There was little margin for error throughout that move. Bendtner's pass inside to Wilshere had to be guided well enough to evade the pressing Barca midfielders. Wilshere's first-time pass to Fabregas was made to look easy, but required confidence and technique. Fabregas's vision, even on an off night by his standards, was evident in the way he took the pass, turned, and played Nasri through almost in one movement. The ball he sent to the Frenchman was perfectly weighted for a run at goal. As the defenders flooded back, Nasri showed intelligence in recognising the tight angle for a shot, turning inside, and picking the right pass (far from the most obvious one) for Arshavin to finish.

Few would argue with the brilliance of the goal. And goals like this are relatively rare, which should add to their recognition. Instead, 101 great goals chose to praise a number of similar-looking long range belters.

Historically, a couple of team goals have reached legendary status. Brazil's to cap the 1970 World Cup win is a little overrated, by today's standards. Its status may be symbolic as much as anything else, signifying the collective brilliance of what was, by all accounts, the best international side of all time.

To someone who started watching football in 1994, one of the more notable lessons from watching Carlos Alberto's goal is how much football has sped up since then. This is not to take away from the brilliance of that team and that goal, but while Barcelona, Arsenal and the Spanish national team attempt to produce football of a similar calibre to that great Brazil team, they are forced to do so at a higher speed and under greater physical duress.

It might not necessarily make them better, but it does mean that to put a flowing move together and finish it with a goal deserves more recognition than it often gets these days.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fixture Congestion

Leyton Orient 1-1 Arsenal

Back down to earth: away from the glamour of the midweek match at the Emirates, Arsenal again struggled when presented with the more prosaic side of the game.

Never should have drawn though. Orient fail to make it much of a contest. They sit deep and deny Arsenal any chance of an early goal glut, but lack the ability to mount a meaningful attack for much of the game. Centre back debutant Miquel does well for Arsenal but is hardly tested. Looks confident on the ball.

After a million games without a goal, Tomas Rosicky scores with a well-placed header from Bendtner's centre early in the second half. That should be that. But Arsenal don't build on it. Arshavin works himself into so many dangerous positions, but is so inefficient. His most impressive moment sees him hit the outside of a post late on, and moments later Orient secure a replay.

Jonathan Tehoue, on as a substitute, finds himself with the ball on the edge of the area, faced with Miquel and Gibbs. He pulls out a neat trick to work his way past their feeble challenge and fires a well-struck shot between the legs of Almunia. Arsenal have little time to react. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Wenger should have thrown Fabregas and Nasri on to finish the tie off at 1-0, knowing that his team are never safe when trying to defend a one goal lead (or two, or three, or four). But there seemed little danger for much of the game and the desire to rest the main men at the start of another big week is understandable.

Now Arsenal are faced with yet another game. And the questionable reward for a win in the replay will be a trip to the graveyard of dreams that is Old Trafford.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Woo! Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona

No one has ever questioned the ability of this Arsenal team. But I've often questioned its character. Against Barcelona, however, they showed a lot of fight. And, despite the common complaints about a lack of experience, Arsenal's three best players were Sczcesny, Wilshere and Koscielny, none of whom had seen much top-level football before this season.

To get a win, Arsenal rode their luck, but that was expected against what is a superior side. Messi had one of his mortal nights; despite laying on Villa's opener, he missed a couple of gilt-edged chances, one in each half. At times he miscontrolled the ball (!) and at times he was too selfish when he could have played in a team mate. Bottom line, Arsenal did not shackle him, and will need to improve in this regard in order to stand a chance of progressing.

It was a fantastic game. In its almost constant stream of action, it echoed Real Madrid's visit to Highbury in 2006. As on that occasion, the scoreline does not really reflect the amount of goalmouth action. Barca will certainly feel they were worth more than one goal. As well as his two surprising misses, Messi had a goal wrongly disallowed at 1-0. Arsenal went to pieces for a spell after Villa's strike, and during this time Sczcesny had to pull off a point blank save from Pedro's flick. The Barca winger was through on goal in the second half but hesitated and allowed Koscielny to get back. Overall, Arsenal's offside trap malfunctioned too often and Djourou and Koscielny failed to strike the right balance between stepping up and tracking back. But Arsenal were never going to learn to defend brilliantly in such a short time and the players deserve a lot of credit for great work rate and, by their standards, great organisation. They are not used to playing for such long stretches without the ball; on this occasion, in contrast to the corresponding fixture last year, they looked ready for the challenge.

It is no secret that Arsenal aspire to emulating Barca's style of play. At the moment, they are no match for them in the possession stakes, but at the Emirates they showed that they can play in more than one way. Again, the contrast with last season was pronounced. Back then, Arsenal looked like they didn't know what to do on the rare occasions when they got the ball back. This time, not only did they press better, they also counter attacked in dangerous fashion. Despite the general acclaim of Barca's performance, Arsenal executed the plan pretty well throughout the game, not just late on. I've read from a few different sources that Barca were in control throughout; in possession terms, they usually were, and looked dangerous most of the time, but their control of the game was tenuous because Arsenal were often ripping them apart on the break. Total control it was not.

Arsenal had their chances too. Early on, Barca looked jittery and the home side seized on their uncertainty pretty well, without always showing the surest touch themselves in the final third. Fabregas was guilty of a few poor passes early on but he created the game's first chance. After Walcott jinked into the box, he squared to the captain, and Fabregas chipped a beautiful pass over Alves and Puyol. Van Persie blasted the bouncing ball goalwards from a tight angle but Valdes stood up well. This came after Walcott had broke and tried to set Van Persie through, slightly overhitting his pass. Just before Barca's opener, another break, instigated by the excellent Wilshere, saw Walcott play in Fabregas to the right of the area. The ball was again slightly overhit, and forced Fabregas wide. As Valdes advanced, the captain flipped the ball across towards the head of RVP, only for Abidal to make a goal-saving intervention. Soon after Villa's goal, Wilshere was at the heart of another counter attack, running beyond Barca's midfield, then playing in Van Persie. The Dutchman dithered a little, getting the ball stuck under his feet, and finally shanked his shot horribly wide.

Make no mistake, there has been some revisionism about the balance of the game. Second half, Arsenal were the better side early doors. They struggled to make a clear cut opportunity but Barca looked less authorative and were under pressure at times. Van Persie almost diverted in Nasri's low cross from the left. Pique was booked for a panicky tackle and will miss the second leg.

Then (between 65 and 70 minutes or so) there was a spell which seems to have defined most peoples' opinions of the game overall. Arsenal lost their way, looked a bit disheartened. Messi ran to the edge of the box, shot selfishly, blocked. Eboue gave the loose ball straight to Iniesta, who played a lovely slide rule pass to the Argentine. Sczcesny made himself big, and Messi could only find the side of the net. Replays suggested he could have squared for one of two team mates. Immediately, with Barca looking as dominant as they had at any point in the second half, Guardiola sent Keita on for Villa. Negative. Simultaneously, Wenger sent Arshavin on for Song. Positive.

There was no immediate effect. The game degenerated into its first real quiet spell. But, as I saw written elsewhere, you have to wonder if Iniesta would have benefitted from the removal of Alex Song, Arsenal's holding player, had the Barca prompter not been moved into the front three to accommodate Keita.

Walcott had a run at Maxwell, tried to cross, the ball rebounded out for a goal kick. This seemed to sum up the winger's night, and he was soon replaced by Bendtner. At one point Gael Clichy knocked a free kick aimlessly through to Valdes from the Arsenal half, and one wondered if the Gunners had anything left.

Then, it happened. The full back who can't buy a final ball conjured his second decent right-footed chip of the season (after his cross for Song's winner against West Ham). Van Persie had a chance out of nowhere, but was fast approaching the byeline. Bendtner made himself available for the expected cross, and Valdes shifted position slightly, moving away from his near post. Van Persie blasted the ball, cutting across it so that it zipped into the space between the post and the flummoxed goalkeeper. It was an audacious effort from a player who was having a poor night to that point. A goalkeeping mistake, too, but how many players would be good enough to take advantage of it? A ridiculous shot- never has selfishness been rewarded so handsomely.

The goal changed the atmosphere completely. Barca were not so cocky, Arsenal's tails were up, and the noise was deafening again. Arsenal had a strong few minutes, but then Djourou gave the ball away needlessly, and Barca outnumbered Arsenal in the home side's final third. Twice more, Messi messed up. First he miscontrolled, then gave the ball away. Koscielny found Bendtner, who passed inside to Wilshere. The Englishman, having the match of his young career, spotted Fabregas in space and found him with a first time pass. Fabregas took it on the turn and then, with the outside of his right foot, sent Nasri steaming down the right and into the Barca area.

First, you were sad it wasn't Walcott. Then, you were glad it wasn't Walcott. Nasri was not quite quick enough to go it alone, and Keita got back. Nasri worked his way in onto his left, and then, displaying the kind of vision poor Theo couldn't dream of, rolled a perceptive ball back and across the area for Arshavin, rushing in from the left. This was exactly the kind of chance the Russian had been spooning into row Z lately, but the Emirates pitch does not present many bobbles, and a lightning move of great passes ended with another, Arshavin cooly dispatching past Valdes and the two covering defenders. The Emirates erupted.

Predictably, with seven minutes remaining, there were moments of panic. A couple of minutes from the 90, Arsenal were opened up with horrific ease, and yet again Messi was haring at the backline. This time he played in Alves, in acres to his right, but the shot was fired straight at Sczcesny. Then in stoppage time, Arshavin bungled a header back to his keeper from Busquets' diagonal. Alves kept the ball in, squared to Messi, but the little man was crowded out, the ball was booted away, and moments later the final whistle sounded.

It was a memorable comeback but the performance was far from perfect. Maybe it's about as close as Arsenal can be to perfect at this moment in time. They hassled the opposition, they were fairly incisive and pacey, and, in the end, they took a couple of chances. You'd expect Messi to be more clinical but, to a lesser extent, Van Persie suffered from the same problem. Both sides had a lot of chances; Barca's were the clearer ones because Arsenal's high line invited passes through it. Sczcesny was confronted by Messi twice, Pedro twice, Villa and Alves; only once was the Pole beaten.

Arsenal will need to defend better, because there is no chance that Barcelona will be as wasteful again. Despite the often flowing football, a lot of the chances stemmed from Arsenal sloppiness. For the goal, Djourou and Koscielny stepped up while Clichy played Villa on. Throughout the first half, Alves was given the run of the right flank, as if Nasri was not even aware of the danger. Arsenal gave the ball away in dangerous areas aswell.

But everyone knows about Arsenal's flaws. The great significance of this game to European football overall may be to remind everyone of Barcelona's weaknesses. They have been rightly lauded ever since the tonking of Mourinho's Real Madrid, but their defence is far from impregnable and their style of play leaves them open to quick, direct counter attacks. Other sides will have taken much encouragement from the way Arsenal opened Barca up on a few occasions. Those teams may not muster the same panache that marked Arsenal's magnificent winning goal, but they may not need to- remember the way Chelsea's fast, physical forward line almost battered Barca into submission two seasons ago at Stamford Bridge. If there is anything that will scare Barca more than the pace and skill of Arsenal, it's pace and power. And how many teams in the Champions League can play better on the back foot than Arsenal? Quite a few.

As it stands, Arsenal can still hope to progress. I don't expect them to do so because of their discomfort with the defensive side of the game, which is likely to be tested even more severely at the Nou Camp. But whatever happens, Wednesday was a night to remember, a great game of football, and it was nice to take the pompous bastards down a peg or two, for now.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Milan: How The Mighty Have Fallen

It was a big deal when Arsenal turned AC Milan over at the San Siro in 2008.

Since then, Milan's last two European Cup campaigns have now both seen home defeats to English sides. On neither occasion could they complain.

In the mid-noughties, when they were a fixture in the latter rounds of the competition, their midfield was both authorative and entertaining. The strength, brains and shooting power of Seedorf. The composed, casual string-pulling of Pirlo. The crazed tenacity of Gatusso. And, of course, the rare skills of Kaka, for a time the world's best player.

In last season's meek surrender to United, and in this season's impotent first leg performance against Spurs, the most glaring problem has been in midfield.

Against United, in the home leg, Leonardo fielded the accident-waiting-to-happen midfield trio of Beckham, Ambrosini and Pirlo, to back up a very attcking front three (Ronaldinho-Pato-Huntelaar). You didn't need to be a supposedly top-level manager to see that such a team was going to be overrun.

Strangely enough, Milan actually dominated the first half, a wretched United perhaps overly mindful of recent, fruitless trips to the San Siro. But once Ferguson's side got their act together in the second half, things suddenly looked very easy, and Rooney plundered two goals to add to Scholes' fortunate first half equaliser.

This time around, the problem has been reversed. Against United, the problem was a lack of legs. Against Spurs, Milan had Flamini, Gattuso and Thiago, three destroyers, but none of the guile that a Pirlo or even a Beckham can provide. With Seedorf withdrawn at half time, and Pato introduced, again they were left with an isolated front three, reluctant to track back and unable to establish a rapport with either of the blue-arsed flies who tried ineffectively to join them from midfield.

Robinho and Zlatan tried and failed to provide a moment of magic. Tellingly, Milan's two best chances came from set plays. Gomes twice repelled Yepes headers. But in open play, there was zero creativity. Spurs defended narrowly and in depth, and their opponents could not conjure a dangerous cross or even get into position to attempt one.

The game degenerated into an ill-tempered slugfest. Mad dog Flamini launched into a heroically stupid two-footed lunge that claimed the ball but sent Corluka flying. The Croatian had to be replaced- Gallas shifting to right back to accommodate the returning Woodgate- but still Spurs remained unruffled. Gattuso clashed with Joe Jordan on the touchline, and Crouch on the pitch, trying desperately to inspire his teammates. The visitors had abandoned the adventure of the first half in favour of sitting back and soaking up Milan's predictable attacks, and the game looked destined for ultimate deadlock, until Lennon sped away on the break, roasted the flailing Yepes at the edge of the box, and cooly slipped a pass across Nesta to Crouch, who could barely miss. His scuff was well-placed and Spurs had the away goal.

It was an assured, mature performance from Spurs, with Sandro and Palacios diligently patrolling the midfield area in which the team had previously looked too open. But it is sad to see a giant like Milan performing so poorly in Europe's premier competition, illustrating the weakness of European football in general. Spurs may see evidence that they continue to close the gap on the big guns in England- it seems likely that they will be the only North London team in the next round- but they have not had to negotiate the learning curve that this competition presented for both Man Utd and Arsenal in the past. Most of the spending power and squad strength is centred on a very small pool of European teams, which Spurs can now count themselves among. Harry Redknapp projects an underdog image but Spurs have been spending big and buying in bulk for a long time. Some might say they are overachieving now; I would argue that they were underachieving before.

It Would Be Impressive.

A victory in this tie would rank as Arsenal's best ever European result.

Recent years have seen some eye-catching ones, but it's easy to pick holes with the benefit of hindsight.

MILAN at the San Siro. 2-0. 2008
This was a fantastic performance against an experienced team that had been consistently impressive in Europe for years. The season before, they had taught Manchester United a chastening lesson in the semi finals. Having been unlucky to lose an Old Trafford thriller 3-2, they passed around a passive United for fun in the second leg, an exhibition of patient possession football. Kaka, Seedorf and Gilardino blasted United out of the competition.
Nearly a year on, Arsenal basically did to Milan what Milan had done to United. After a goalless first leg dominated by the Gunners, late goals from Fabregas and Adebayor sent Arsenal into the quarter finals. In midfield, Arsenal's men outshone their Milan counterparts. Fabregas dictated brilliantly. Flamini was instrumental in defusing Kaka, while Hleb was more dangerous in his dribbles than the lauded Brazilian. It seemed a young side had come of age. In hindsight, what is more clear is that an old side had finally passed its sell-by-date. Arsenal looked like they would soon dominate England and Europe, but injuries took hold, and they bottled the title race with a run of disappointing draws. Liverpool enjoyed a mountain of luck in the quarter finals and Arsenal were out of Europe. Hleb and Flamini left in the summer, Adebayor's head was turned by interest from other clubs, and Arsenal took several steps back.

MADRID at the Bernebeau. 1-0. 2006

Arsenal played Real off the park to become the first English team to win there. Henry's solo goal a memorable moment, but Arsenal should already have had the tie decided after a litany of first half chances went begging. The second leg was an epic end to end battle, surely one of the best goalless draws ever.
Real still had Ronaldo, Zidane and Raul on the books, but they were shambolic defensively and lacking real midfield presence. The result had undoubted symbolic significance- providing the impetus for Arsenal's run to the final- but this Real team was far from a great one. As the old aura faded further, they would be knocked out by some fairly average teams in the years after 2006. They still haven't seen a quarter final since 2004.

JUVENTUS at Highbury. 2-0. 2006
Juve were dominating Serie A. We subsequently found there were some rather murky dealings involved. That took some of the shine off Arsenal's exciting first leg win, the game where Fabregas cemented his status as one of the world's very best young players.
The build-up had been all about Patrick Vieira's return, but the Frenchman, less than a year after his departure, no longer had the legs to deal with Premiership tempo football. His head must have been swimming trying to deal with the running of Reyes, Hleb and Fabregas. The Catalan opened the scoring with a near post shot, after Robert Pires, in a memorably surreal moment, produced a Vieiraesque tackle to dispossess Vieira himself. The win was sealed by Henry after a fast and flowing team move, ending with Fabregas's unselfish pass providing his self-obsessed captain with an open net. Henry proceeded to celebrate alone as if he had scored a solo goal. At the other end, Senderos was enjoying a run of form he never came close to repeating. Having excelled against Madrid in the previous round, he and Kolo Toure comfortably shackled the dual threat of Trezeguet and Ibrahimovic, both in this and in a rather dull, goalless second leg.

To Press or Not To Press

It's easy to speculate on ways that Barcelona may be stopped. The execution of the plan is a different thing altogether.

They have ran into trouble in the Champions League against teams that defended deep. Inter last year. Chelsea, despite ultimate defeat, in 2009. Manchester United in 2008. It is highly questionable, however, whether Arsenal could play effectively in such a manner. They are not accustomed to soaking up pressure and playing on the break. Most of the time, in the Premiership, they are the team with the majority of possession.

Fact is, any "plan" may well go out the window. Last season, there was no plan to sit back. Barca's brilliance pinned Arsenal back. This time, Arsenal need to be a little more ready, if possible, for such a scenario.

It's a long time since Arsenal could have been termed a counter-attacking team, though Walcott's pace and Arshavin's directness do offer the opportunity to spring quickly. They are more likely to try to break up Barca's passing high up the pitch. The Chelsea game ought to be the blueprint. But Barcelona, needless to say, pass the ball a lot better than Chelsea, or anyone else. And just as they are used to teams sitting deep, they are also used to passing under intense pressure, and playing through it.

When Real went to the Nou Camp this season, Mourinho changed up, perhaps believing that the players at his disposal could not defend the Inter had the season before. Real played a high line and tried to press, and got absolutely roasted. David Villa revelled in the green grass behind Carvalho and co, and Messi, Xavi and Iniesta all found time and space to pick defence-splitting passes. In other words, it's well and good to simply suggest that Arsenal should push up and put Barca's midfield under intense pressure, but without energy, organisation and controlled aggression, it could backfire spectacularly.

When it comes to the defensive side of the game, Jose Mourinho is clearly a better organiser than Arsene Wenger. Yet his team were hammered. The only hope for Arsenal fans is that their attack will prove more potent than Madrid's did, and make the most of the opportunities they will get against Barca's vulnerable backline.

At least Messi won't be running at Sylvestre, as in the second leg of last season's tie, but at an Arsenal defence that has looked more assured of late (with the disturbing exception of the St. James' Park debacle, when, in fairness, Squillaci's introduction and the absence of Song in front of the defence clearly bred panic).

There would be no shame in losing to this Barcelona team. And in football, as they always say, anything can happen. It's often forgotten that, despite their depleted line-up, Arsenal actually briefly led last year's tie beyond its halfway point.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't Get Your Hopes Up

Barca preview? I have little option but to echo much of what I said last season.

Barcelona are better in every aspect. Better with the ball, better without. More skilful, more organised, more dynamic, more tactically adept. They have a more experienced goalkeeper and a better defence. They are better at creating and taking chances.

They have the best player in the world. Backed up by the best passer.

This is the best Barcelona team of all time. Some suggest, without even waiting for the benefit of hindsight, that they are the greatest club side ever. Arsenal? This Arsenal side isn't even close to Wenger's best. And Wenger's best would have struggled against this Barca team.

Ok, they have weaknesses. But are Arsenal equipped to exploit them?

Everyone knows they are the team to beat. But Arsenal see them as the team to be. That is why I see little hope. The 'Barcelona lite' accusation may seem a little trite but there is a definite ring of truth to it. Arsenal at their best are Oasis to Barca's Beatles.

Wenger likes to talk up the team's growing maturity but such talk rings hollow when they are finding new, sick ways to enter the record books. A team that throws away a four goal lead against a distinctly average opponent like Newcastle does not deserve to be seen a serious challenge to Barca.

Arsenal have only one way to play. They will not suddenly devise some tactical masterplan. They will try to play the way they always try to play. You could say, quite simply, that Barca play the same way, much better, and that's why they'll win. But it's not quite that simple. Barca don't just have more talented players, but they will work harder to stop Arsenal playing than vice versa. Their high-energy pressing is surely a big reason why their ostensibly vulnerable defence is never quite shown up as you'd expect it might be. A great irony is that, as I recall, Graeme Souness followed up Liverpool's tonking of Real Madrid a few season's back with the assertion that continental teams cannot match Premiership tempo. At the Emirates last year, Arsenal were so defused by Barca's ferocious early pressing that they literally couldn't get out of their own half, and could have been four or five down inside twenty minutes.

Are Arsenal in better shape than they were for last season's quarter final? Probably. Last season, Van Persie was not banging goals in as he is now, not even fit in fact. In the course of last year's tie, Arsenal were decimated by injury and suspension. Gallas limped out of the first leg early, leaving Song to partner Vermaelen, and that uncertain marriage helped yield two goals for Ibrahimovic. The defence now has a new look to it. Djourou and Koscielny look solid together, though, needless to say, they haven't faced anything like this test.

Not to downgrade Messi's second leg magic, but that game saw Arsenal shorn of Song, Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas and Van Persie. Such depletion seems unlikely this time, and so the Gunners ought to give a better account of themselves. Nasri should be back in time to play a part in the second leg, too.

Sagna suspended. The notoriously headless Eboue waits in the wings. Sagna's consistency is at odds with the unpredictability of the team in general, and his understudy in particular. Nasri's flashes of brilliance have stolen the plaudits, but Sagna may be Arsenal's player of the season so far.

Walcott's progress is a cause for cautious optimism. Despite the rough edges of his game, he turned out to be Arsenal's most potent weapon against Barca last season. He has developed enough for fans to expect a more substantial contribution this time. Barca like to push high up the pitch and there ought to be space for Walcott to speed into. If someone can release him.

Fabregas has had a relatively disappointing season. He remains by a distance Arsenal's best player. Last season's first leg saw the captain playing too close to Bendtner, unable to exert any influence in a midfield that Barcelona absolutely dominated. It was clear that he was not fully fit. When Arsenal get the ball, which may not be as often as they are used to, it might pay to be a little more direct, to try and release Walcott early.

Of course, it might turn out that the visitors are better prepared for Walcott's pace this time. And he may be hindered somewhat by the absence of the rock-solid Sagna on the same flank.

Overall, neutrals may be tempted to wheel out the term "mouthwatering" for a match that will pit Fabregas and Wilshere against Xavi and Iniesta, Van Persie against Messi, and so on. The truth is, Barca would have more reason to be worried if Arsenal were able to steal Mascherano for the night. Arsenal don't have the bite or the bloodymindedness of the teams that have troubled Barca in recent times. Barca know that Arsenal will try to play and they will be anticipating an enjoyable night.

Arsenal 2-0 Wolves, 4 points remains the gap

A routine win, after the debacle at Newcastle, and before the daunting fixture against Barcelona.

Van Persie has added a lot since his return. In trademark fashion, he has embarked on a goal glut. In just nine league starts, he now has ten goals. His two in this game were impressive in differing ways.

The first came from Fabregas's dink into the box. Van Persie executed an impressive right foot volley into the bottom corner. The Dutchman now scores plenty of goals with his "weaker" foot.

The goal that killed the game was a fine breakaway effort, a move full of first time passes, starting at the edge of Arsenal's penalty area and ending in the back of the Wolves net. Fabregas swivelled to release Walcott, his cross was instant and the frontman's finish emphatic.

Overall, the game was a satisfactorily quiet build-up to Barca. Djourou's quick return will have settled a lot of nerves. Wolves barely threatened- would that have been the case with Squillaci on the pitch?

With Barca labouring to a 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon, maybe some of the Fear Factor around the impending Champions League tie will evaporate. Arsenal can ill afford to hold their visitors in awe, even if that may be what they deserve.

The only pity for Arsenal on this weekend was that Wayne Rooney's astonishing overhead kick in the Manchester derby had a very decisive feel to it. Not only did it win a big, difficult game for United, it maintained breathing space between them and the chasing pack led by Arsenal. I've never felt that Arsenal had much of a chance; Rooney's piece of long-awaited magic cemented that feeling.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Crumbliest, Flakiest Team in the World

Newcastle - Arsenal
half time: 0-4
full time: 4-4

Where to begin.

A few things contributed to this unprecedented collapse.

With Song and Denilson out, Diaby was the only option as the more defensively-minded midfielder. When Djourou broke down early in the second half, the disastrous Squillaci was the only possible replacement.

Barton's challenge was a work of evil genius. He was less likely to face censure having taken a route through the ball to hit Diaby. He got the ball, kept going, hit Diaby hard. The Frenchman has been no stranger to damaging challenges, and Barton knew he could ruffle his feathers. Diaby lost the rag and a different game started. Newcastle had an extra man. They could not fail to outmuscle Arsenal's powder puff midfield. And they could launch attacks at the notoriously rickety pairing of Koscielny and Squillaci. Beside Djourou, Koscielny has looked impressive. Beside the toxic Squillaci, he has been dragged down to an appalling level of ineptitude.

Koscielny served notice of the impending meltdown with a jaw-droppingly stupid foul to give away the first penalty. There was no need to tackle so aggressively when the Newcastle player's back was to goal. Just stupid. Though there were only 23 minutes of normal time to go, Newcastle were heartened by the goal. They know, as everyone does, that Arsenal always give you a chance. Still, 4-1, 23 minutes, surely not... Gael Clichy is outmuscled by Best who slots for 4-2 with fifteen minutes or so left. Game on.

To be fair, at 4-1, Best was denied a legitimate goal by an offside flag. He was yards onside. But the decision for Newcastle's second penalty was mind-boggling. Twice in a week, Arsenal were victims of one of the worst decisions you will ever see. After Saha's goal, they were able to recover. This time, they were in front, but crumbling.

Tiote will never score another goal like that. Sometimes there is that weird atmosphere to a game, and anything can happen. The crowd sucked that goal in.

Arsene Wenger should have signed a centre back. Just like he should have signed a centre forward last January. He cares more about balancing the books than he does about winning the Premiership. Or else he is hopelessly deluded.

I am embarrassed to be an Arsenal fan.

Arsenal have a nice run of league games coming up, but if you can't close out a game you lead 4-0, clearly the concept of 'easy' has ceased to apply.

Manchester United will be Champions this season. FACT. Their loss against Wolves is relevant only in denying them the chance to finish a campaign unbeaten (praise Allah).