Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Seville's as good a place as any to lose.

And so ends the longest unbeaten run - in all competitions - in the club's history. Not with a bang, but with a bit of a whimper out in Andalusia.

Being the calm rational lot I know you all to be, I hope you took this defeat in your stride because, well we have to, and also, more pertinently, it was quite a good game to lose.

Obviously, you never want your team to lose. But the logistics and reality of modern football prohibit interminable unbeaten runs. Anyway, if Arsenal never lost, it would hardly be exciting.

Yet, there are good times to lose and bad times to lose.

A bad time to lose? At the end of a 49-game unbeaten run, at the home of your bitter rivals, in a game dogged by poor refereeing decisions, simulation and cynical fouls. Losing a game can, and did on that occasion, knock the stuffing and belief out of a team.

Last night's defeat, whilst still having the poor refereeing, simulation and cynicism, will not knock the team out of its stride, and a few positives can even be taken the game.

Obviously, it would have been nice to win the match, top the group, and have a favourable draw in the second round. But look what happened last year: we topped the group, drew PSV - a 'weaker' team - and were promptly knocked out. The year before we drew Madrid, and recorded one of our most historic wins. In fact, aside from the final, the team we struggled most against in 2005/6 was Villareal. The Champions League is based on big games, and we've tended to well against big teams in the last few seasons. Bring them on, I say.

Moreover, several players will have gained vital experience. Armand Traore was given a rather torrid time, yet is an extremely talented young player and will learn from his travails. Nicklas Bendtner, who was one of our better players, will have gained more belief in his abilities from the game, and would also have been pleased in the faith shown in him by Arsene. Eduardo also notched a very decent goal, which he needed. I think he will surprise a lot of people in the second half of the season.

The major concern is Philippe Senderos who appears to be going backwards. Where was the rock who, according to recent reports, was very nearly made captain in 2005? He seems lost at the moment, and he needs to regain some confidence by the time Kolo heads back to Africa in January.

Certain players needed a rest before an exceptionally heavy December fixture list; we have three away matches coming up next week which are far more vital to our season than the game last night. As long as Cesc hasn't tweaked his hamstring too badly, last night was far from a disaster. In some ways, it might even have been a good moment to unsaddle ourselves of the burden of maintaining the unbeaten run. Sometimes, there are good times to lose.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Arsenal falter, but don't fail, without Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb.

Football matches are usually won and lost in midfield. The ball is, more often than not, won or lost in this area, and how play is distributed is, in any half-decent team, decided here. Teams that have confused, imbalanced midfields, or even try and bypass it with long-balls - step forward England! - are usually found out or frustrated pretty quickly.

So yesterday was always going to be a test given the list of suspensions and injuries. Losing one of Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas and Gilberto, despite the latter’s absence for most of this season, was always going to be a challenge; losing all four of them effectively ripped the heart out of the team.

Hleb, and more particularly, Fabregas need to be playing as often as possible: they are the creative hub of the side. Almost all our play is filtered through these two players. And Flamini’s running, tackling and speed of distribution has also proven vital to the midfield’s successful functioning this season.

So I was interested to see how we’d fare without them, especially when I saw the quartet of Rosicky-Diarra-Denilson-Eboue line up.

Overall, a mixed performance. Neither Diarra nor Denilson have the passing range or creativity of Fabregas or Hleb, and whilst we proved adept at winning and keeping possession, at times we looked slightly bereft of ideas. Solid performances from both of them, but nothing more. Rosicky had a half-decent game, capped by a fine goal, but seemed unable to vary his play from continually cutting in from the left-hand side. Eboue showed signs of a desire to run at players, yet suffered from a poor first-touch and a periodic lack of application.

They were not helped by Adebayor putting in another distinctly mediocre performance up front. His almost obsessive desire to attempt flicks, drag-backs and any other skill that complicated play meant our fluency was broken at critical moments. His shooting also left a lot to be desired.

Yet we prevailed. And we did so due to the sheer skill and desire of Billy Gallas and Sagna, a player who has emerged as, so far, one of the signings of the season. His cross, and Gallas’ header were both top-class, and came at a time when Wigan had perhaps begun to fancy nicking the game.

The second quickly followed, as did a deserved three points.

Two other players worthy of note were Theo and Bendtner. Theo looked like one of the few players capable of causing havoc among the Wigan defence. Bendtner already looks like he has more to him than Ade. What Ade has to bust a gut to achieve, Bendtner seems to achieve far more naturally. He has the look of a world-class centre forward to him already, and if he doesn’t achieve this status it’ll be due to mental reasons, not technical ability.

So, a good win, and one that puts some breathing space between us and United (thanks for the goal Nico!) We can win without our first-choice midfield; the evidence we have a title-winning squad continues to mount. Hopefully.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

There is something rotten at the core of English football, and it was finally exposed last night.

Yes, it does hurt.

I'd like to be one of those people who have wilfully, and with some justification, abandoned the national team in recent years. The England team is full of dispicable, greedy individuals, hyped to within an inch of their lives. Some really aren't that good at all. When was the last time, for instance, Steven Gerrard really put in a towering performance for England? It's a lot easier when he's surrounded by the foreign quality, which he apparently abhors, at Liverpool.

But despite the fact that I don't actually like many of the England players, it's still England. My support for the national team pre-dates that of my discovery of Arsenal by a good 3 months or so (I was 7 years old), and whilst Arsenal long overtook England in my affections, I still want England to do well.

But they don't, and they haven't done for a long time. Not just since Steve McClaren became manager, but from, almost, the minute we relinquished the World Cup in 1970. England have achieved nothing since then, aside from a world cup campaign in 1990, in which we beat the titans of Egypt, Belgium and Cameroon to reach the semi-finals.

It's too easy, and ultimately erroneous, to blame foreigners for this malaise. As Arsene himself has said, England didn't win anything between 1966 and 1996 when there were hardly any foreign players in the English top flight. The influx of foreign players hasn't made the England team worse; if anything, it's merely highlighted its long-standing mediocrity.

Why buy an English player for three times the price of a foreign player of comparable, if not greater, quality? And before guns are levelled at Arsenal, this club has actually produced or nurtured many decent English players in recent years - the likes of Bentley, Pennant or Upson, players deemed not good enough for Arsenal, but English players of quality nonetheless. I doubt there are many other top-flight English clubs who have produced as many high-grade English players as Arsenal in recent times, even if few have ultimately made the grade at the club. And Arsene doesn't look at passports: if they're good enough, they're good enough, whatever the likes of the Daily Mail and Jermaine 'tag-boy' Pennant may say.

No, the real malaise in English football culture can be seen in every English town across the nation: the dilapidated facilities; the coaches who insist on physicality over technique; the quagmires which serve as pitches; the kids forced to play on massive oversized pitches, instead of being taught basic pass and move tactics in smaller size arenas.

There is something rotten at the core of English football. English football is currently, and has been for the last decade or more, experiencing the greatest influx of money it has ever known. Yet where has this money gone? On Rio Ferdinand's Bentleys, on David Beckham's myriad houses; in short, into the pockets of top-level footballers and those that run top-level football.

The Premier League's inception could have been a chance to reinvigorate English football root-and-branch, to invest at the lowest and not just the highest levels of the game. Instead, we're left with the white elephant that is Wembley Stadium, crap coaches, and average players.

Because that's what's neglecting the next generation has done: produced an over-hyped and under-achieving generation of footballers who really aren't as good, when put together and shorn of the foreign team-mates, as they or the media would like to think.

Who knows when England will really recover from this nadir. For now, get a foreigner to take charge, not just of the team, but perhaps even of the FA. Maybe they could actually teach us a thing or two, if we're actually humble enough to listen.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Welcome back Manuel. I've been expecting you.

Oh dear.

Call it blind optimism, but I was almost beginning to believe; and then it happened, the inevitable: Manuel is back. The panic-attacks have resurfaced.

I admit I got carried away. In last week's blog I even admitted I might have got things wrong. Maybe Manuel was the solution to our goalkeeping problems. Who knows, maybe he still is.

Indeed his abilities as a shot-stopper have never really been in doubt; fire in a shot and Manual will probably, and athletically, save it. Moreover, and unlike Jens, pass the ball back to him and he's likely to clear it without giving us any heart-stopping moments of idiocy.

But put pressure on Manuel, pass the ball around the edge of the box, hit it long so it's almost close enough for him to get it - but actually still too far - and the problems begin to arise.

United should not have scored their second goal, and even if Almunia cannot be held completely to blame - where was Ronaldo's marker, after all - Manuel's propensity to panic, to rush off his line and unnecessarily expose his goal, is all too familiar. He did it more than once on Saturday, and he could have cost us more than one goal in an otherwise fine defensive performance.

If it all seems rather familiar, that's probably because it is. Cast your mind back to 2004/5. After a series of costly mistakes, culminating in a series of blunders in Greece during a Champions League match, Jens is dropped. Manuel comes in and, initially, plays well.

But then the big game; then the blunders; then the moments of panic that cost us. Any who recalls the 4-2 drubbing we received at the hands at United at Highbury during that season will remember how culpable Manuel was for most of those goals.

Once recalled Jens was superb, right up until his mistakes at the start of this season. He saved penalties to win us an FA Cup final; and, notwithstanding his red-card in that final, he was absolutely vital to our Champions League run in 2006. And he really wasn't that bad last season.
The question remains therefore: do we persist with a keeper who can't win us big games? And if not, what do we do? Do we recall Jens? Do we throw in young Fabianski? Do we have a goalkeeping crisis on our hands?

Who knows, maybe Manuel will battle back and prove me wrong again. But it seems the negative side of his game is back, and Arsene has to ensure this doesn't cost us. Because to lose out on trophies this year because of a dodgy trophy would be a tragedy.

How many chances does a person get to show they've changed? I suppose we'll soon find out.

Moments of hope from moments of disaster.

Oh readers: pity me. Pity my folly; pity my idiocy.

After a 500 mile journey, I reached the turnstiles of the Grove on Saturday. I reached into my pocket and found the wallet in which I had placed my season ticket.

The wallet was empty.

Panic. Sheer, unadulterated, complete, perfect panic. In retrospect, I probably could have gained entrance to the ground somehow, but as the panic gripped my mind, I was sapped of all clarity, of all rational thought. I thus did the only thing I thought reasonable: I ran to the pub.

Thus, if you saw a young man with a Cesc4 shirt on running the wrong way down the Holloway road at around 12.45, you probably caught a glimpse of Goonerboy during one of his weaker moments.

Anyway. My quick, if idiotic, thinking ensured that I only missed three minutes of the game, which, after a tense opening 45 minutes, finally spluttered into life.

On balance, either time could have deserved the win. United very nearly tactically outplayed us, with Hargreaves and Anderson doing well to break up our normally fluent play, while Rooney and Giggs marauded efficiently before them. Love them or, as you should do, loath them, Rooney and Anderson are very good players.

Yet the fact they didn't win, and the fact we prevented United from seeing out a seemingly certain 2-1 win, is a massive credit to The Arsenal. Few would have bet against United seeing out those last ten minutes, and yet they didn't, a testament to how far we've come this season.

And few players have come further than William Gallas. From a, in some quarters, hate-figure last year, he is finally showing the leadership and defensive skills that make him one of the best central defenders in the world. Melodramatic comments about 'dying' aside, he needs to continue to instil fire into the team if we're to challenge for honours this season.

Hleb put in another blinding performance, whilst Cesc was still excellent, despite the shackles imposed on him by a very congested midfield.

The only real negatives were the middling performances from Adebayor and Eboue, both of which can be partially explained away through the overly negative 4-1-1 formation we started with. Also, Almunia's keeping was brought into question, again. More on that later.

I had hoped for four points from the Liverpool and United games, but 2 will suffice. No defeats, and the manner in which we earned our draws, has surely confirmed our status as title contenders. A beautiful state of affairs, I'm sure you'll agree.

What's more, United are clearly rattled. You only have to see Fergie's ridiculous comments with regard to the referee or our fans, or Hargreaves attack on our 'so-called beautiful football' to see we've rattled their cage. That United have resorted to mind games already, merely emphasises the threat that they feel from us.

So, a draw can sometimes feel like a win, and sometimes a pub can almost feel like a stadium - of sorts. (Thanks to everyone in the Bailey for creating a great atmosphere.) And sometimes, after thinking you're staring catastrophe in the face, things don't turn out too badly after all.