Monday, October 29, 2007

A point won, but it should have been more.

Going to Anfield is never easy. In some of our other league winning campaigns under Wenger we've won there, but I also seem to remember Liverpool turning us over twice in 1998. And much of the team that played yesterday would have had the 4-1 hammering from last season lodged firmly in the back of their minds.

So, I'll take a point, especially after the way we played. But it could, and really should, have been three.

The last thing you ever want to do in a big match is go behind early, and so it was with a degree of trepidation that I saw Gerrard set up the free kick on the edge of our box during the opening exchanges. Questions should be asked as to how and why the ball got through the wall. That's two games now, at Anfield and White Hart Lane, where we've conceded soft goals from free-kicks that have put us on the back foot early on. Walls are there to block shots and protect the goal, not to dissolve as soon as a ball is hit towards them.

We seemed extremely nervous early on. We tried to keep at our normal passing game, but we also seemed intent on playing it at around 100mph, which played into Liverpool's hands. Much of this was due to Liverpool's pressing and harrying of our midfield, and Cesc in particular was not allowed to settle on the ball in the opening exchanges.

But we kept plugging away, and it soon became abunduntly clear that we had the capacity to score. After a wonderful pass from Cesc, Ade really should have done better in a one on one with Reina. This was followed by a woeful volley across goal from Eboue, who, when confronted with a free striking opportunity inside the box, yet again failed to deliver.

Indeed, Eboue was the weak link in the side, again. His passing was poor, his dribbling not always up to standard, and his gamesmanship was yet again over the top. Carragher, who has plummeted even further in my estimation after his constant fouling (including a clear penalty), certainly did make some form of contact with an arm midway through the first half, but not nearly enough to warrant the embarrasing, drawn-out reaction from Eboue. Maybe the African nations cup can't come soon enough.

Wenger's team selection did seem to play into Liverpool's hands. Adebayor, not as sharp as he has been at times this season, led the line admirably, as he always does, but didn't really look like scoring. Having Theo tucked in behind him from an earlier stage might have been a better option. I certainly would have sacrificed Eboue for Walcott from the off.

As it was, we first took control of the game, and then completely dominated it. Time and time again we patiently built our attacks, either to see them saved, or, more often than not, Liverpool hoofing the ball back down the field. The standard of Liverpool's passing was so atrocious, and so unambitious, that as time went on I grew more and more angry that we were the team behind, yet also slightly worried that it could be one of those days were the better team goes home empty handed. How Benitez can justify a long-ball policy with players of the calibre of Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherano is beyond me.

But cometh the hour, cometh the Cesc. Despite having missed an open goal earlier in the game, he kept plugging away, and the goal was a thing of beauty, mainly due to a sensational, Bergkamp-esque pass from Hleb. The finish was that most schoolboy of things, the toe-poke, but it was what we deserved.

A few minutes later we should have won the match when Cesc slammed the ball against the post and Bendtner screwed the ball over the bar. By my count, that was two efforts against the post, and two open goals missed; it should have been more than one goal.

A few players deserve individual praise.

Manuel Almunia has won me over. Questions might be asked about the goal, but it would be extremely harsh to do so. What was more evident was a series of superb saves, and a general steadiness at the back. Jens isn't going to play for Arsenal again if Manu keeps up this form, and I'm delighted to have been proved wrong.

I would praise Kolo, but he was simply awesome as ever. What was more heartening, was seeing William Gallas finally pull out a captain's performance for the team. His block near the end on Gerrard was particularly sensational.

Cesc was superb, as ever, yet it was Alex Hleb who was probably our man of the match. Liverpool simply could not take the ball from his feet, and the Cesc-Hleb combination is really pushing us forward in games at the moment, such is their understanding of each others games, and the breadth of their combined creativity.

Overall then, two points dropped, as much as one point won. But prior to the game, a point at Anfield would have been acceptable. Moreover, it's the first major test we've had this season, and we've come through it with flying colours. We've shown that against the big boys, we can still play our game, not give up, and not be muscled out. But we still need to see what happens next weekend before we get too carried away.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Football from another planet.

He wasn't on the field last night, but Robin's words are the only ones that come close to our standard of play last night. We were utterly superb, and destroyed poor old Slavia who must have cried themselves to sleep. All credit to their fans though - many stayed til the bitter end, scarves aloft, still cheering. When you see that type of dedication, you can't help but be moved.

Two individuals who deserve an extra bit of praise are Alex Hleb and Theo Walcott. Both have had their fair share of critics during their time at Arsenal, and their performances were particularly gratifying for those of us who've stayed loyal to them through good times and bad.

Alex proved again that he has some of the most devastating close-control in European football, but, more than that, he showed how vital he is to our midfield. He's a player who can, and has on many occasions, make things happen for the team. He might not be the most prolific goalscorer in the world, but as his one, if not two, goals showed last night, he knows where the goal is, and can score given the opportunity. He is a player who will help us win trophies this season.

As for Theo, well; I wonder if the idiot who used to sit behind me in the stadium still wishes he'd 'go back to Southampton'? No? Didn't think so. He's a young lad still finding his feet, yet last night Theo showed us what he's capable of: blinding pace, superb finishes, wonderful dribbling. He scares defences. Whether he's ready for a start on Sunday remains to be seen; personally, I think he could be a sensational impact sub against the likes of Carragher and Hypia.

My only reservation with Theo is the fact he's English. This will inevitably lead to a media campaign that will hype him to hideous levels, and could have a real negative impact on his performances. Let's hope Arsene can shield him, and that he has the maturity to deal with it. One only needs to look in cashley's direction to see the perils of believing your own hype.

We've hammered Derby by 5 goals already this season, but putting 7 goals past any team in the Champions League is a real statement of intent. We mean business this season.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Beauty against the beast and another three points.

Firstly, apologies for my absence. I suppose that's what happens when you move, change job and, er, socialise too much. For the record, I now have a 6 hour journey, each way, to see the mighty Arse, so cut me some slack.

Anyway, onto the match.

There's a reason why Bolton's enclosure was half-empty yesterday, and it's not just because they're bottom of the league. They play a strange mutation of football, one which seeks to glorify its worst elements to near ridiculous heights. Fouling and long-balls: that's all Bolton have. And that's not football. People pay to watch football. They travel hundreds of miles to watch teams pass the ball, to score, to create and entertain. They do not want to see a bunch of thugs kick and batter each other. There are plenty of other sports for people if they seek this form of entertainment. Boxing perhaps; dare I say it, rugby as well.

So it was good to get one over Bolton yesterday, and not just because I want Arsenal to win every game they play; it resembled some form of triumph for the beauty of sport over its darker side.

But we made hard work of it, and perhaps should have been down to 10 men early in the first half. Cesc, who can be rattled, was wound up by a particularly disagreeable challenge from McCann, and after receiving a yellow card, proceeded to hack down Campo. Another referee might have sent him off, and it was one of the few sensible decisions Riley took all afternoon to recognise what had happened did not warrant ruining the game.

The profligacy of Ade almost cost us as well. He's a bizarre player to watch at times. He can pull a first touch out that can make you weep with joy, and follow it with a finish that comes straight from the Steven Gerrard in Moscow training manual. He has the talent, but will his need for so many chances cost us in bigger games? I hope not.

The real stars of the show yesterday were Alex Hleb and Theo. Hleb had a wonderfully creative performance, that merited at least an assist. Indeed, it was his ball to Theo that led to our second goal.

Theo himself was a joy to behold, running with pace and verve at a baffled Bolton defence. It summed up Ade's afternoon that he possibly, accidentally, blocked a shot from Theo that might have crept in. Theo's lack of goals doesn't bother me at the moment; they will come in time. The same can be said about Eduardo, who had a far better performance than has been suggested in some of the papers this morning.

It was also good to have Rosicky back. With both him and Hleb in the team, we look far more threatening. I just hope he can stop getting these little niggles which seem to plague him. He will be crucial in our upcoming games against United and Liverpool.

One player who was pretty dire yesterday was Eboue. His passing was poor, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing on the wing, he dives and he blasted a chance over. It might just be rustiness after a prolonged absence, but the diving is nothing new and he's got to cut it out. Remember what shirt you're wearing.

All in all, so far so good. We're currently pretty unstoppable, and whilst we've benefited from an absence of top-four opposition, and a plethora of home games, we've done the business and you can only beat the team in front of you.

A season defining week awakes. How we perform against Liverpool and United will say a lot about how we're going to do this year.

ps - a note to Gunnersaurus.

Overall, I think you're a lovely mascot. In fact, I'd go as far to say that you rule. However I've been asked to request that you either get a new t-shirt firing gun, or that you take better aim. I've seen one t-shirt reach the upper tier this season. That type of finishing just isn't good enough.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Arsenal show new depth and grit in a bruising encounter.

It's never easy to go to Upton Park; we found that out last season, where a last minute winner ended a match we should have won. Indeed, it had been seven years since our last win at the Boleyn.

A combination of factors ensured that Saturday's match ended in a more positive manner.

Firstly, a degree of luck. You get the feeling that the offside decision that denied Freddie a goal may not have been given last year, while Dean Ashton rarely heads straight at the goalkeeper when virtually unmarked. The feeling on West Ham boards is that they were owed a penalty as well, from a Senderos shove on Ashton.

Secondly, grit. It would be harsh to characterise West Ham as no more than a team of bruisers, but they clearly have a few players who do like to stick the boot in. Ironically, it was one of their less thuggish players who put an appalling tackle in on Alex Hleb before half-time. How Noble remained on the pitch is a mystery: accident or not, that was a leg-breaker of a tackle and we should be thankful that Alex - who Curbishley praised highly after the game - escaped with only heavy bruising.

Last year, in the face of such tackles, we may have folded. Thierry would have probably put his arm round Noble in an effort to broker the peace. This season, we have Matthieu 'don't fuck with my team' Flamini, who promptly clobbered Parker shortly afterwards. Even Cesc notably went after Noble.

I'm never one for condemning violent play, but there's a time and place to show that you'll stand up for your team-mates, and won't let yourself be bullied. With Flamini and Sagna, we finally seem to have some 'enforcers' in the side, who prevent the more physical teams from pushing us around.

Thirdly, we're scoring a variety of goals. RvP scored a great header to win the game, and were it not for the inspired Rob Green - who always seems to have a blinder against us - he would have had more. Green made fine saves from long-distance efforts from Flamini and Clichy, and also made a smart save to deny Adebayor.

Adebayor is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the team at the moment, but he needs to score with his first or second chances more often. Due to the type of team we are, he normally gets enough chances to score, but in top-level games, we might be punished for a lack of clincal finishing.

Overall, it was a real scrap. The value of these victories cannot be underestimated: we're starting to win ugly in physical matches, the real mark of a team with championship winning credentials.

The importance of the win was hammered home as United also ground out another 1-0 win. One of the most frustrating things of late has been watching United come away with points after very average performances. They've kept themselves within touching distance and are undoubtedly waiting for us to drop a few points ourselves.

The season seems to be boiling down to the following key questions already. Will Benitez tinker himself out of a title? Do United have the firepower to challenge? Can we maintain our heady start to proceedings? And, hilariously, will Chelsea finish in the top four?