Song, Denilson and Diaby aren’t good enough to start

Middlesbrough 1 – 1 Arsenal (Adebayor 17, Aliadiere 29)
here; Arsene’s reaction here

In isolation, this isn’t a ‘bad’ result.  In fact, it’s an improvement on the Halcyon days of last season, where we actually contrived to lose at The Riverside.  And when one considers that Liverpool and Manchester United also dropped points yesterday, this 1-1 draw begins to look even more positive.

And yet, the aftermath of yesterday’s match saw fans on internet forums and blogs alike almost as depressed as they were after the 3-0 loss to Man City.  And I don’t really blame them.

Why?  Because taking satisfaction from this result is an admission of mediocrity.  In his post-match interview, Arsene said:

“I believe we are on the way up, comparing how we were at the beginning of the season; then we would have lost a game like this.”

First of all, that statement seemingly confirms that Arsene went into the season with a side he expected to lose at places like Middlesbrough, which is remarkably neglectful if true.  But more than that, it seems to be imploring fans to be pleased with results like this on the back of previously poorer efforts.

So because we had to sit through the dire defeats at places like Fulham, we should be chuffed at arriving at this point of mediocrity, expressed perfectly in this drab draw?  I’m sorry, Arsene: I don’t buy it.

We were painfully average.  Not until the last five minutes of the game were Boro under any notable pressure.  We had a decent spell either side of our goal – a header from a corner by Emmanuel Adebayor – but the midfield (the same who played and lost at Stoke) simply did not have enough about them to dominate the game.

In the second half, Cesc really tried to make things tick, and I felt desperately sorry for him.  Song, Denilson, and Diaby are nowhere near ready to be starting games regularly for a top four side – perhaps they never will be.  Song’s passing was truly atrocious yesterday, and the way he let Tuncay drift goal-side of him for the Aliadiere’s equaliser, even turning his back on the play, was disgracefully lazy.  Would he get into another Premier League side?  I have my doubts.  Denilson is a trier, but no wide-man; it is often said of slow players that they are ‘one-paced’ – Denilson is ‘none-paced’.  Diaby, meanwhile, is perhaps the most infuriating of the trio.  Blessed with all the desirable physical and technical attributes to make a career as a footballer, he seems to suffer chronically from on-field apathy.  His mistakes are more careless than craftless, and that makes him so much harder to forgive.  Come January, these players need to be bumped significantly down the pecking order.

No strike partnership has scored more goals than Adebayor and Van Persie.  Only Man City and Chelsea have scored more goals overall.  But we’ve conceded 20 goals already in the league: double the tally of United and Liverpool; more than three times as many as Chelsea; as many as Spurs.  As many as Spurs.  It’s not good enough.  We can speculate about David Villa till the cows come home, but we’re wasting breath.  This team needs a centre-back and a defensive midfielder.  Those two players would transform our fragile side.

We’ve less than a month to wait.  If they don’t arrive, fingers will be pointed, rightly, at the manager.

“We think, more than ever, that we can come back in the Premier League”

So says Arsene, justifying his decision to field a weakened team at Porto by arguing we still have a chance of mounting a Premier League title challenge.  I’m not sure I share Arsene’s faith, but I would suggest that avoiding defeat today is vital.  Another defeat to a mid-table side could potentially shatter the restored belief that Fabregas’ captaincy and two consecutive league wins have brought.

Five of the players who missed the defeat in Portgual ought to return at the Riverside, but Kolo Toure and Samir Nasri join long-term absentees Tomas Rosicky and Eduardo on the sidelines.  There is, however, good news on the Croatian, who could be back to his best in just six weeks.

The return of Eduardo will make it increasingly vital for Nicklas Bendtner to take the opportunities that come his way with more gusto than he has in the past couple of months.  Arsene says that Bendtner works incredibly hard in training, which seems at odds with his lazy-looking first-team appearances.  The absence of Eduardo and Arsene’s failure to reinforce the squad have afforded the likes of Bendtner, Denilson and Song a unique opportunity.  It’s almost like they’ve been out on loan somewhere – given first-team opportunities that under normal circumstances they simply wouldn’t be afforded.  In my opinion, they haven’t really grasped that chance, and whatever Arsene says I’m sure he’ll be looking to bring in new blood in January.

Whenever Manuel Almunia speaks to the press he always comes across very well.  Dignified throughout various tirades by Jens Lehmann, astutely critical in the wake of the Porto game, and now little short of inspiring ahead of the resumption of all thinks Premier League:

“We have a big, big responsibility.  This is Arsenal.

The Club has thousands of fans and we have to realise that to wear an Arsenal shirt is a big value and you have to be worthy of [it]. We have to remember that we are lucky people.

We are so upset [at the moment]. We are not happy with this season. We’ve had some brilliant moments, against Chelsea and Manchester United, but it’s not enough. We are far from the top of the League. Last season we lost three games and we’ve already had too many defeats.

But I have confidence in us and the way we play [also I feel] we are mature enough to take the responsibility.”

I hope he’s right, and I hope the team take the neccessary responsibility today to see of Middlesbrough.  They’re almost as inconsistent as us, which makes any predictions utterly pointless.  That said, ending the day pointless would make resting players in Porto pointless, and make my existence feel a bit pointless to boot.

Come on Arsenal.

Roma, Panathanaikos, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus

Porto 2 – 0 Arsenal (Bruno Alves 39, Lopez 54)
here; Arsene’s reaction here

After last night’s defeat saw us finish the group stage in second place, the list of possible teams we could face in the next round is as above, and to be honest it’s pretty daunting.

That said, when you look at the list of teams we might’ve faced had we finished top (Inter, Sporting Lisbon, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Lyon), it’s clear there isn’t much of a gap in quality.  In so far as reaching the next round goes, Gilberto Silva’s Panathanaikos would be a good draw, but a two-legged affair with Thierry Henry’s in-form Barcelona would be a fantastic showpiece occasion.  The draw takes place on Friday 19th December at lunchtime, and should be fairly fascinating.

The game itself bore some resemblance to the 2-0 defeat at Burnely.  A weakened side went behind and were then vulnerable on the counter-attack.  The differences are potentially causes for concern: first of all that this side included many more experienced players, none of whom distinguished themselves; and secondly that in spite of the availability of those players, we created no chances at all.

The goals we conceded came not from overall inferiority, but individual sloppiness.  First of all Abou Diaby lost his man at a corner (you could almost see him thinking to himself, “Now where was the last place I saw him…”), and then Mikael Silvestre seemingly forgot he was playing left-back to allow Lisandro Lopez to hammer in a second.

There was the odd bright-spark – Aaron Ramsey again looked very tidy in midfield, whilst Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere both showed glimpses of their talent after coming off the bench.

Perhaps because the likes of Wilshere, Merida and Hoyte were all away with the senior side, it seems to have gone unnoticed that the U-18s won a tricky looking FA Youth Cup tie at Villa Park 3-2, with skipper Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (who has often impressed me) scoring the winner.  Perhaps our Carling Cup exploits have detracted from the significance of the Youth Cup, but it’s still a valuable competition and one I’m pleased to see us win in.

So I’ve somehow managed to end on a positive.   Not bad, eh?

Porto Preview: Who will wear the armband?

Ahead of a tricky looking Saturday lunchtime game at Middlesbrough, Arsene has left seven of the side who started against Wigan back home:

“Bacary Sagna has ‘flu and Gael Clichy has a hamstring, he has a little chance of playing on Saturday. Kolo Toure has a recurrence of his calf injury, he should not be long but it was not enough to play [at Porto].

Cesc is a doubt for Saturday, he got a kick on his knee on Saturday. Samir Nasri is definitely out for Saturday, he will be out for two or three weeks. Robin van Persie has been left behind. He will be OK for Saturday, he has a little stiffness in his thigh. Emmanuel Adebayor is rested.”

It’s a blow to see Nasri injured again – despite making an impressive start to his Arsenal career, he has been hampered by a variety of niggles.  It seems we bought him to replace Tomas Rosicky in every sense.

The absence of Cesc raises the question of just who will wear the armband.  Gallas is in the squad, but I suspect he’s not simply been demoted to vice but removed from the captaincy hierarchy entirely.  If my suspicion is correct, Manuel Almunia will skipper the side.

One man almost certain to start is Emmanuel Eboue, who after falling off the horse so spectacularly on Saturday will be very keen to get back on straight away and gallop apace back into the fans’ favour.  I hope the travelling Gooners give him the support he will require to commence his rehabilitation.

A draw would secure first place in the group, though the advantage of such a position is dubious: we could still face sides like Inter Milan, Athletico Madrid, and even Lyon or Juventus in the next round.  Nevertheless, after three consecutive wins under our belt, Arsene will be keen to keep the side on a winning track.

Come on you Reds.

We’re supposed to be ‘supporters’

Arsenal 1 – 0 Wigan (Adebayor 16)
here, Arsene on Eboue here

There’s been a lot of debate already about the ‘Eboooing’ incident.  It is a debate I have not been part of, and I have to say, feel loathe to wade into.  I find the whole thing utterly distasteful.

For me, there is no debate.  The reaction of the fans when Eboue’s number was held up was, in my view, appalling.  I was not sat in my usual seat, and was instead ensconsed with the players’ families and friends.  I was as shocked as them by the reaction, and as the ironic cheers turned to hateful boos I found myself stood there, open-mouthed, looking round at what suddenly felt like 60,000 strangers. 

We don’t need to go over Eboue’s faults.  I’ve done that myself enough times.  The guy is not well-liked by Arsenal fans, and his theatrics and apparent laziness have made him somewhat of a joke figure among the crowd.  The recent “We’ve only come to see Eboue” chant is a light-hearted attempt at alleviating frustration with a player who has thus far failed to fulfill his undoubted potential.

But there are mitigating circumstances.  It’s not the first time Eboue has ever played on the left, but it can’t be more than the third.  Some have said, “Well, that doesn’t affect much”, but I don’t neccessarily agree.  If you are predominantly right-footed, playing from the left shifts your entire body position in relation the ball.  Some players are happier this way: Henry, Pires etc.  But if you’re not used to it, it can offset your balance and spatial awareness.  For anyone who doubts this, compare performances by William Gallas when playing as the left-sided centre-back and the right.

Granted, a very good footballer would be able to shift position without thinking.  But Eboue is not a very good footballer.  And that is not his fault.  It is not his fault that Arsene chose to bring an unfit, out-of-form, and ultimately not-very-good player on in an alien position.

I know many will disagree and feel booing such a poor performance is justified.  I don’t.  In the stadium I am incredibly positive, even about the players who I freely criticise on this blog.  That’s because I cannot see how booing a player helps anybody.

If this was a team full of hardened veterans, I would consider it more acceptable.  But this team so plainly lacks character that a boo is far more likely to frighten them than inspire them.  The fans are victimising certain players – in some ways Eboue I can understand, but the fact that a player as inexperienced as Nicklas Bendtner was booed when his name was read out before the game is shocking.

We are supposed to be ‘supporters’.  What kind of support is that?

When do the players play well?  When the crowd are raucous and behind them- think of this season’s Man Utd game.  When a kid like Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey hears the treatment meted out to Eboue, can you imagine the mental pressure that applies, and the degree to which they must fear the consequences of any mistake?

Arsene actually bringing off Eboue potentially sets a worrying precedent.  The fans demanded Gallas out, and Arsene concurred.  The fans demanded Eboue off, and Arsene concurred.  I have no doubt that the manager is his own man, but there is nothing more dangerous than a club where the fans have the illusion of power – see Newcastle United.  I dread to think what happens to the next player who has a bad game – he’ll be booed until withdrawal.

It’s impossible to really guage the effects of the incident until a way into the future.  If Eboue’s and the team’s performances suddenly pick up, then those who booed will, I’m sure, feel justified.

The only positive aspect of the whole pullava is that Arsene stepped up and pulled Eboue off.  As with stripping Gallas of the captaincy, it displayed the ruthlessness that has marked Arsene’s most successful moments as Arsenal manager.  It’s certainly a good sign ahead of January, when he will have to be equally ruthless in the restructuring of his squad.

But the boos followed that decision.  Arsene knew Eboue had to come off.  He didn’t need to be told having already decided to withdraw him.

Eboue is expected to play in Portugal on Wednesday night.  I know the travelling fans will back him as they would any other player. 

Anyway, it’s easy to forget, but we actually won the game.  I’m angry that all this has taken the focus away from a third win in three games with Cesc as captain.  It wasn’t our prettiest performance but a neat Adebayor finish was enough to see off a very solid Wigan outfit.  Johan Djourou continued his good form in defence, whilst Alex Song had one of his better games in midfield – something I didn’t neccessarily realise about Song is that he’s quite good in the air, and he even beat the towering Emile Heskey to a few long-balls.

This piece has been a right old ramble.  I haven’t enjoyed writing it, because I’m not particularly proud to be associated with many of the goings-on it discusses.

What happened on Saturday didn’t feel very Arsenal.  I can only hope it’s part of the cathartic healing process that might just turn our season around.

Whether the same will ever happen for Tomas Rosicky, seems unlikely.