Saturday, December 30, 2006

An embarrassing, disgraceful defeat to end the year.

Unlike the Premiership, Goonerboy decided to have a bit of a Christmas break - hence the lack of posts of late. But after a performance like that, comments are mandatory.

What an abject performance. Spineless, bloated, over-elaborate rubbish. I'm not sure if our players realised it, but trying to play one-touch football on a first world war-esque quagmire doesn't work. Especially when you have players of the touch of Baptista and Aliadiere playing.

Yes we had injuries. But so did Sheffield. And moreover we had the entirety of the summer to create a squad which could compete when these injuries occurred, and Arsene/the Board didn't get enough quantity of quality in. When you're down to the last ten minutes of a game you're scrapping desperately to win in wet southern Yorkshire, you don't want an 19 year old debutant to come on; although at least Denilson actually bothered to put a shot in on goal and at least try to test the outfield player that Sheff had been forced to put between the sticks.

What were our players thinking when Kenny went off injured? It would seem not, 'lets not get some quick shots in on goal to try and catch out a player who isn't a goalkeeper'. They seemed more along the lines of, lets try and play one-touch along the penalty box-line, let the Sheff players get back in depth, and then lose the ball. I'm not one of those people who normally scream 'Shooooot' every time we over-elaborate our play, but the match was crying out for some incisiveness today that we seemed incapable of producing.

There were more than a few culprits for our malaise, and names should be named.

Tomas Rosicky was over-elaborater in chief. After a stunning early goal in the season, all my fears about him being played out of position, and needing time to acclimatise to the Premiership have come to pass. He's good enough, but he's not a left winger, and he needs to simplify things sometimes. Why can' Arsene buy players and play them were they want to be played? Is it so much to be asked?

Jeremie Aliadiere is not good enough to play for us, nor will he become so. His first touch was dire, and he didn't really look a threat. Van Persie can do everything Aliadiere does with considerably more skill and aplomb. To have Bendtner out on loan when we're crying out for a half decent striker is madness.

Julio Baptista seemed to think you get five minutes before a challenge in the Premiership. He grew considerably during the match today, but what was he doing stuck out on the left wing? Again, he's a central player, played out of position, acclimatising to the premiership. He should be running directly at people, down the middle. And speeding up his thought to action process considerably.

Justin Hoyte is not good enough. His positioning is poor, he doesn't get forward, he gives the ball away cheaply. I know Eboue and Lauren are injured, but Eboue isn't good enough either, and loaning out Kerry Gilbert seems almost capricious in the circumstances. We need a new right back.

Gael Clichy was better but we need another left back. Knowing Arsene, it'll be Gareth Bale, but we need someone now as well as for the future.

The rest didn't cover themselves in glory but wern't awful. Kolo is beginning to worry me at centre back; he sometimes really does look like a midfielder playing in defence, relying on his recovery speed too much. RvP's petulance was annoying but I'd be frustrated to play to in a team like the one Arsene put out today. Flamini was anonymous which was unacceptable given the opposition.

The cold, hard fact-of-the-matter is that we couldn't beat a stand in keeper playing for a bottom four side today. That is not good enough and something must change more profoundly than just waiting for injured players to come back. Our squad, once the bones are picked away, is too light-weight, too many youngsters of unproven ability. Sure we've scrapped wins against Watford and Wigan away recently, but we're in fifth, 17 points off the top and I foresee a desperate struggle for a Champions League place yet again materialising. I expected a little more than that this year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In defence of the flag ban.

There's been a lot of anger about the flag ban coming from several Arsenal related websites. The general consensus has been: 'it's political correctness gone mad', or something along those lines, and also an opportunity for rival fans to criticise us for not being an English club.

Now, I've made my views on Arsenal and foreign players know before, and, while I can understand the anger of many fans, I also feel there has been a great deal of unwarranted over-reaction to the club's policy.

The club didn't ban all flags because it hates fun, or because of some warped puritanical PC mindset. It did so because certain supporters had put up flags in the ground which could be very easily taken to be of a politically inflammatory nature, and which could have unnecessarily soured the match day atmosphere at the ground. I actually saw, I think, the flag that led to the ban: a Turkish Cypriot flag which was unveiled at a home match this season. The issue of the political ownership of Cyprus is one that has led to warfare between Turkey and Greece: I don't really think its fair, as some have argued, to say that those who complained should, essentially, just get over it because it's not that big a deal. It is, and we should respect the feelings of those involved.

So what does the club do, especially when it was undoubtedly mindful of the large Greek, Cypriot and Turkish communities that live in North London and support Arsenal? Does it ban the Turkish Cypriot flag and anger those of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot origin? Does it ban just Cypriot related flags and possibly anger all Greek, Cypriot and Turkish Arsenal fans? Does it ban Turkish flags or Greek flags? Where would the spiral end? Why not all flags of a 'politically sensitive' nature? I can't think of many flags that don't potentially fit that criteria. I wonder what the reaction would be if I brought a German flag to our games to support Jens, who has, of course, been labelled a Nazi by opposition fans on numerous occasions just because of his nationality.

Thus, the blanket ban on flags could be considered an over-reaction, but its the most politically sensible thing to do.

I would also ask those who bring flags to the games, does it really offend you so greatly not to be able to take a national symbol to a club which, I would hope, prides itself on its multi-national flavour? Arsene doesn't judge a player by his passport, and neither do I. If you take an England flag to a game, does that mean you, albeit only tacitly, support our English players a little bit more? And if not, then why nationalise your support? Wouldn't it be nicer if we could carry banners and items of support into the stadium, that just showed our support for the club, without, I would suggest, needless national connotations?

There is a time for signs of nationalism in football: it's called international football. If you want to wave your flag around do it then. I support the English football team, but, personally, I don't really enjoy the nationalistic baiting and stereotyping that goes along with the international game.

The bottom line is, we don't need flags in the stadium. They don't show our support for the club in any greater way than a non-nationalised Arsenal supporters' item. One of the most beautiful things about our club, for me, is that it transcends national boundaries. We are an English club, due to our location, heritage and ownership; but we have supporters around the world, many of whom support Arsenal with as much passion as those born in North London do.

Why, when we've all come together to support our team, must we find ways of re-dividing ourselves due to some supposedly overwhelming desire to wave a flag? I think a ban is a bit harsh - decidedly authoritarian - but I agree with the sentiment behind it. Arsenal football club is not a nation-state: it's more and better than that.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A disappointing weekend of sport shudders to a halt.

Firstly, the Portsmouth game, or, as it could be known, 'Jeremie Aliadiere's last game for Arsenal', at least in the Premiership. I didn't actually think he was that bad, especially as RvP showed no desire to work with him at all. But Arsene's decision to haul him off after 55 minutes is probably the end for old Jezzer.

In the first half, we were flat, insipid and uncreative. There was no movement or urgency; our defence was often shambolic. Portsmouth, inevitably, nicked a goal just before the end of the half and we probably deserved it. Two men almost came to blows in front of me as the teams walked off - one had booed and the other confronted him. It was that type of performance. To cap it all, I'd somehow conspired to pay £7.30 for a pint of lager and a rather average pie in the build up to the game. Not good.

Nothing really changed after break. Panic continued to ensue in defence, and with Portsmouth's chipped second goal, the writing seemed to be on the wall. It took Adebayor's arrival to inspire a comeback, and the big man scored a terrific goal and helped set up a second. Why, precisely, he was rested is a mystery to me. He's young and in form: don't play him in the Carling Cup if he needs a rest. It has to go down as a selection error by Arsene. Subsequently, Hleb, Walcott and RvP all had chances to win the game but spurned them. Watching Chelsea twice come from behind to win, away at Everton, painfully emphasised the gap between us and them.

A few positives can be gleaned from the game. Clichy seems to be improving; Gilberto continues to inspire; Adebayor is rapidly becoming a colossal, vital figure; we can fight-back. Maybe with Rosicky, Henry and Gallas we'll push onto win games like the one on Saturday; maybe not.

However causes for concern also continue to manifest themselves. Hleb is a constant source of invention, but noticeably slows play when he receives the ball. Walcott at times looked very much a young boy playing with men. Fabregas was effectively, and worryingly, marked out the game. Eboue is, I hate to say it, looking like he's not good enough defensively. Arsene didn't help matters by being consigned to the stands, a matter Goodplaya has thoughtfully analysed.

So, again another performance which inspires hope and anguish in almost equal measure. Is progress still being made?

The other disappointment this weekend occured at about 5am GMT on the other side of the world, as England's cricketers meekly handed back the Ashes. I could write a lengthy diatribe on this matter, but its bile would probably dissolve your screen. Let's hope to see an improvement, from both England and Arsenal, in a few day's time.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Are Arsenal becoming a second half team?

During the glory years of the Wenger reign Arsenal were rather simple. We sprinted out the blocks, landed a series of blows on our opposition, and tried to knock them out quickly; a bit like a boxer who tries to KO his opponent within three rounds.

Nowadays we're more likely to gain a victory on points after a twelve-round slog-fest. The result is the same, but it's not always easy to watch. And the master of this new strategy is, ostensibly, Emmanuel Adebayor, who is fast becoming the king of the 80 minute goal - partially because he usually needs about 2-3 warm up chances before he slots one home.

I didn't watch the entire game last night; by the sounds of things I should be grateful. I haven't read a good word about the first half performance, and it seems that it took the indignity of a Emile Heskey near-miss to wake us up from our malaise. I could only start watching at around the late 50 minute mark, and one of the first things I saw was Adebayor spurn a pretty gilt-edged opportunity, set up by Theo. The game afterward was pretty scrappy. Baptista almost scored with a cheeky, if wonderfully struck, free-kick; Jens spilled a chance, albeit one far harder than Robben's, and was saved by Kolo; Adebayor missed another opportunity. We looked a bit blunt. At one point, Freddie was put through on the left. Instead of smashing the ball first time - as you know he would have done 2-3 years ago - he took a touch, over-complicated things and the opportunity was wasted. It seemed to sum up our approach in attack.

But then little Cesc came on and changed the game, putting in a wonderful tackle to win the ball, before floating over a beautiful route-one ball that Adebayor managed to control and poke through Kirkland's legs.

It seemed that we might just have been worth the win; but only just. The negative tone of the usually upbeat Arseblog surprised me but it doesn't seem like his comments were wholly unjustifiable.

However he was wrong to state that we wouldn't have won a game like that a year ago just because we won 3-2 up there last year. Last night's performance was ugly, and full of points we could criticise. But the fact remains that, without three vital players, and players who needed to be rested, we held things together and got a result that keeps us up in third. By December last year, we were in near free-fall in the league and, to me, the fact we did get a result shows we are slowly improving.

We need to improve our first half performances, because - with a few notable exceptions this season - its been our lethargy out of the blocks which has led to difficult games. But, I'm still encouraged that we can battle for 90 minutes, and pull a result out on a December night in the Northwest. What's important now is that we build on this result, tell Eboue to concentrate more, and, though I hate to say it, think about our long-term goalkeeping plans.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Arsenal earn a point, and prove several, over at the Bridge.

A great result today on the back of a great performance. Indeed, had it not been for, surely, a contender for goal of the season, and a hideous foul before hand, we could be celebrating one of the best wins in the club's recent history.

I had been nervous before the game. I felt we were on to a hiding without the experience and ability of Kolo, Henry, Rosicky and Gallas. But a lot of young players stood up today and were counted, and that can only bode well for the future. It seems that our current youngsters are good enough to win the title, especially if we can keep them together and continue their progression together, but it may not be this year, or even next.

My main concern after the Porto game was that we would play too deep and invite Chelsea pressure onto us. That, and the fact that Chelsea would have too much power in their midfield for us to deal with. To get the result we did entailed a towering performance from Gilberto, who looked every inch Club Captain today - not just in his performance, but in his general conduct, notably trying to calm down several inflamed situations. He does a, at times, simple job, but he did it exceptionally today; his ability to break up and redistribute play was key to our midfield bearing a near onslaught at times.

Flamini took his goal well, but was largely anonymous otherwise. For me, this is a good thing - it showed he was sticking to a simpler task of assisting Gilberto, rather than attempting the more grandiose manoeuvres that he can struggle with. I'm still unsure as to whether he can step up and become a really integral player to the team, but if he keeps on scoring vital goals, and making vital deflections, he can surely only press his claim more compellingly.

The rest of the midfield was also excellent. Hleb caused Chelsea all sorts of problems, even if he did blaze over a glorious opportunity to win the game; Fabregas's continued gravitas and maturity is nothing short of stunning; van Persie has increasingly impressed me of late with his all round contribution to our performances, especially when being asked to play out of position on the left. Adebayor led the line very well, yet could have done with a little more assistance. I think he looks far more convincing as the 1 in a 4-5-1 than Henry, and he seems to be more of a threat to defences than he was even at the start of the season.

The defence also did well. Djourou continues to impress, and Clichy also had a very decent game. Eboue had a fairly decent game, but was caught out ball-watching on occasion, allowing the ball to float over his head to a player he hadn't noticed. It was encouraging to see Phil take on Drogba and not be overawed, but his lack of pace, and general edginess was a concern at times. Djourou has to start in front of him if there's a choice between the two.

And as for Jens... a superb save from Robben was counterbalanced by an awful flap at a corner, and a near fatal error in the 94th minute. The skin of Mathieu Flamini's studs saved him on the second occasion. Jens needs to eradicate these little niggling errors that he seems to be making at the moment. And as for the Drogba incident...I was glad to see the referee only book the two of them for their outrageous 'handbags at five paces' moment.

The game was a fascinating encounter, the first half going to Chelsea, the second a clear-cut score-draw. After we'd managed to stem the tide from the first half - and survived Lampard's numerous attempts to find the deflections that seemingly only he can find - I always fancied us to push on and take something from the game. And when we scored, I honestly thought we would win. I'm more than happy with the point as it is, as I think it proves a lot about the bottle and potential of our fledgling side.

As for Ashley, do we really need to talk about him? He pouted, fouled, and played reasonably, if, it must be said, without ever looking considerably better than Clichy. It was a bit like seeing an ex with a new boyfriend, when he strode out against us: it was a bit odd, it hurt a little, but the reasons for the separation were so compelling that ultimately it didn't bother me too much. His fevered ego seems to have found its El Dorado in West London and I'm happy to leave it at that. We miss him a player, maybe, but certainly not as a person, and if Clichy can continue his progression, we hopefully won't miss him as a player for too much longer.

Chel$ea's general conduct probably won them no new friends: Drogba's hideous diving, the swarms of Chel$ea players around the referee when he dared book Ashley for an awful foul on Hleb. Indeed, its games like today when you realise that money can buy you success, but not respect or class. And I'd like to think that a team with an average age of 23 won a lot more of that today than their opponents, and, in doing so, again emphasised the extremely bright future that our club is hopefully heading towards.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pragmatism and professionalism leads to progression

Not the most exciting of games yesterday, it has to be said. Not quite ‘backs to the wall’ stuff as even Porto eased off considerably towards the end. The last twenty minutes reminded me a little of that controversial match between Austria and Germany in the 1982 world cup. However, in our case, it was a proper match for the vast majority of the game, Porto coming painfully close to scoring before both teams eased off at the end.

As it transpired, Hamburg beat Moscow anyway, so all the moments of near panic during the game were unnecessary. I’d fancied Hamburg to get at least a draw due to the fact they’d taken no points from their previous 5 games, and I couldn’t see them losing all six matches.

Our performance reminded me more of our displays in the 2005 cup final, or the second leg at Villareal. As in those situations, our tactics were ruthlessly pragmatic, and just about did enough to get us a result. I would hope Arsene only uses these tactics sparingly, as it was like Russian roulette at times when Porto got forward, my fears mounting that they might nick a goal for which we would have little answer. We defended in almost calamitous depth, with a negligible attacking outlet. Adey tried to run the line, but he was hopelessly isolated; a situation that was predictable from the moment Msr Flamini and not RvP too the field. It also makes our distaste of teams pragmatically playing defensive football against us a little empty, but then again I’d rather we played like that every once in a while and got a result, than delicately knocked the ball about and got punished. A bit more doggedness in that mould might prevent any more away defeats this year.

Aside from his one mistake that almost cost us a goal – and being a defender that’s no trifling matter – I was again impressed by Djourou. He looked, generally, very composed on the ball, and had the ability to run the ball from defence. He looks far more comfortable than Senderos when he plays, and I would say he should be our third choice centre-back henceforth. Indeed, the major blow from the game last night was Djourou’s injury, which may preclude his involvement on Sunday. I foresee a centreback combination of Senderos and, knowing Arsene, Flamini…

Fab worked tirelessly, but was not at his dictatorial best, Hleb was a little ponderous and unable to really get things going, while Freddie’s ability to beat defenders continues to lie in Highgate cemetery. Clichy had a fairly good game; Eboue has the concentration of a five year old, but did just about enough to not get punished.

But, most importantly, we’re through. Out of the teams we could face, Lille, Eindhoven and Celtic would probably be the preferred options, although I would by no means discount us beating anyone given our performances last year. Perhaps we need to play the big European teams, who’ll play in an open style, to motivate the team sufficiently. Indeed, it is a fear of mine that there our a few players in the team who only really play to the top of their ability in the big matches.

So far my two predictions for the three games this week have materialised: a win vs Spuds, a draw in Porto. The eternal pessimist in me is expecting a defeat on Sunday, especially as we only have one centre-back who, er, has ‘struggled’ against Drogba in the past. But who knows. It might be different this time?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Thierry Henry 'situation', part 2.

I was, perhaps, a little hasty yesterday to write that there was 'no' Thierry situation. I hadn't watched the post-match interview with Wenger, and, I have to admit, he did seem rather frosty when talking about the incident with Thierry.

However, I feel vindicated that, generally, this incident has been blown out of proportion. It seems that Arsene has probably told Thierry two things today: one for definite, the other, I hope.

Firstly, he would have told Thierry that it is he who decides who plays in the games. Thierry might have desperately wanted to play on Saturday, and his wobbly shows his commitment to the club, but doing it so publicly makes him a) look like a bit of a prima-donna and b) questions Arsene's authority. Thierry clearly hasn't been at his best this season, but he hasn't been rubbish either, as some fans with extremely short memories are claiming. A fully fit Thierry can do things for us that no other player can: he was the extra 5% that won the game in Madrid, or got the draw against Spurs last year. It has been interesting to see us play some great football without him this year, but let's not go too far and say he's past it. He needs a rest - not just to recover from the injury, but in general, after playing nearly 60 games in a calender year. He had a rest due to niggling injuries about this time last season, and came back re-energised for the second half of the season. I hope that happens again.

Secondly, I hope Arsene told Thierry not to question him in public, i.e. not to flatly contradict Arsene's statements on our transfer policy in the forthcoming window. I know Thierry wants what's best for the club - not just himself - but he, more than anyone, should trust Arsene's judgement. Indeed, I do wish he'd get rid of that column altogether in the Sun.

There's been a lot of rubbish printed about the whole affair. I hope this is the end of it. I certainly think that Arsene is trying to make a point to Thierry that he is not more important the team/club by, hopefully, getting some good results this month, but to suggest this is the start of some lengthy Vieira-esque 'end of the affair' between Thierry and Arsene and Arsenal is wrong.

It's been good to see that the most judicious pieces on the situation have come from fellow Arsenal bloggers. I point you to the, always superb, Arseblog, Gunnerblog and Goodplaya.

This, on the other hand, angered me. To suggest that Thierry had no right to be on the pitch at the end is nonsense. He's the club's captain. Read what Emmanuel Adebayor had to say about Thierry's involvement on Saturday. Quite the opposite.

So, Arsene has probably laid down the law today to Thierry; perhaps, even told him some uncomfortable home truths about who exactly is boss. But, I don't think there's much more to it than that.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The importance of scoring first; the Thierry 'situation', or lack thereof.

A great, great win yesterday; one the club badly needed after a depressing succession of defeats.
The match hammered home the importance of getting the first goal to our style of play. Teams play cagily even at 0-0 when they're at the Emirates, but if we keep on gifting opponents a head-start it allows them to play even more defensively, making our task even harder. Indeed, Sp*rs should have gone one up yesterday. Malbranque's chance in the 11th minute was their 'welcome to Ashburton, have the first goal on us' opportunity and they should have scored. When they missed, I sensed things might go our way afterwards.

There was an element of luck in all three of our goals, but our victory was very much deserved. Frankly, we played Sp*rs off the park, and made them look average. It was great to see such a battling, yet skilful performance, one we need to see more often this season. The only real negatives to be drawn from the game were the injuries to Rosicky and RvP, Rosicky probably now out for the Porto game as a consequence. I thought he struggled a bit during the game, and faffed around on the ball a bit too much. I was disappointed with Eboue's theatrics, which are endearing him to no-one. Also, I thought Arsene could have used his subs a little earlier: if you're coasting at 3-0, why not give Theo 20 minutes instead of 5?

Aside from these relatively forced whinges, the rest of the team was outstanding. Jens spilled the ball when he perhaps should have caught it, but was solid otherwise. It was quite amusing to see Kolo berate him for his mistake as well. Kolo and Djourou were rock solid, and Kolo seemed to be everywhere, putting several important challenges in. For me, Djourou should now be third choice centre-back. He looks a lot more composed at the back than Senderos and more comfortable on the ball. Clichy put in a good performance as well, largely nullifying Sp*rs' main threat - Aaron lennon - which is no mean feat, and getting forward impressively.

In midfield, Freddie put in his best performance for a long time. He battled and tackled well - which is what we can still expect from him - but it was nice to see him actually beat his marker a few times. He looked a threat, but we can still improve on him. Gilberto and Fabregas were outstanding, in markedly different ways : Gilberto broke up any sp*rs possession superbly; Fabregas distributed it in a consistently threatening manner. It was great to see Gilbs dispatch the two penalties with such aplomb, and he really rose to his role as captain. Fab was so dominant in midfield that he basically dictated the game. Indeed, the only means by which the 'Zokora is the new Vieira' comparison was valid, was by the way Fab completely took him out the game - much like when Paddy came over with Juve.

RvP had a great game, playing intelligently and unselfishly. It's been great to see him steadily improve over the last few weeks: I always felt he had the talent to be a great player, but its nice to see him thinking a bit more about his team-play. I do hope he didn't handle on purpose, however, because that's not how I want to see Arsenal players behave.

But, my man of the match has to be the Togolese goal-machine that is Manu Adebayor. Silencing, yet again, his myriad critics, the big man put in a colossal display, not just finishing his chance superbly, but leading the line in a wonderfully authoritative manner. Some people have forgotten that Manu is only 21, and I think over the course of the next two years he could develop into a truly potent centre-forward. Now, if he could just replicate this form against some of the lesser teams...

The atmosphere inside the stadium was also wonderful. Really loud, constant singing, and a real sense of jubilation and pride. People have complained about the lack of atmosphere in the Emirates, but we showed what type of atmosphere can be produced in the ground - an atmosphere which I'm sure influenced the result. We need to try and re-create that atmosphere more often, just like the team needs to re-produce that type of performance on a more regular basis if we want to take anything from this season.

Finally, a word on the Thierry 'situation'. For a man supposedly suffering from a rift with the club, he did a wonderful job of 'hiding' it. He was in the tunnel before the game, pumping up the players; Adebayor, in a touching moment, ran to acknowledge him after his goal; he celebrated with the team on the field after the game. There may well have been an argument in training, but I hope there was - it shows Thierry's desire and passion for our club. He's frustrated because he knows just what the Arsenal-Spurs game means to Arsenal fans. I think he was also frustrated because he realises that trying to plough on and play with an injury has not been a great idea. I expect he'll miss the Chelsea game to try and rest up properly. The journalists who have hyped up the 'rift' are the same ones who confidently predicted TH's departure to Barca throughout all of last season. They're probably still smarting from that, or they've realised what great copy Thierry is - either way, they're peddling a misleading story.

I expect Baptista to come in for Tomas on Wednesday, a game that's really important to the immediate future of the club. It's not a '£40 million' game, but exiting at this stage would be a real blow after all our progress in the competition this year. I'm confident we can get a result out there.

Til later. Gb.