Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke: Podolski breaks Stoke hearts, and I laugh

Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This wasn’t a great game…
It’s hardly surprising when you consider the opposition.  Stoke are a horrible side, in every respect.  I find their style of play and their character equally repulsive.

Their performance at the Emirates was one of the most negative I’ve ever seen by a Premier League team.  It was a strange tactical decision when you consider our vulnerability at the back.  If Stoke had gone for us, we might just have buckled.

As it was, we simply had to be patient, and the late introduction of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski helped bring about the tipping point.  When Stoke did occasionally venture forward, Mertesacker and Koscielny had more than enough to deal with anything The Potters threw at them.

I’m delighted the goal was scored in ‘controversial’ circumstances…
The brief reprieve provided by the linesman only made the crushing blow of Podolski’s goal all the more profound for Stoke’s players and manager.  It hurt them, and I’m glad it did.

Nacho Gonzalez…
…had a solid if unspectacular debut.  I suspect we’ll accustomed to describing him in that manner: he seems to be a no-nonsense, safety-first kind of player.  That’s fine by me: not enough of our supposed defenders are willing to be defenders first and foremost.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain…
…is having a difficult season.  If only there was a cliche to describe the struggles of a player who made a significant impact in their first season, only to then struggle to replicate that form second time round.  Alas.

Chamberlain has two basic problems.  The first is that the outstanding form of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski has limited his opportunities.  The second issue is that when he is afforded a chance to start, he invariably tries too hard to impress.  On one occasion on Saturday he beat his man to get to the byline, only to turn back and try to beat him a further two times.  By the time he eventually got his cross away, all the men in the middle were marked.

The Ox could learn something from Podolski: efficiency is key.

One of the most interesting battles took place away from the pitch…
Bizarrely, the Arsenal stewards decided that the second half of this heated game would be the opportune moment to try and convince the singing section of the crowd to break the habit of a lifetime (well, six-and-a-half years) and sit down.  Needless to say, they failed, and gave up after about ten minutes amid chants of, “Stand up if you love Arsenal!”.

On the subject of the Arsenal fans…
I can’t help but chuckle at our continued failure to master the scansion of one of our own chants.  Arsenal fans are fond of singing a certain ditty that implies that the mother of the manager of our local rivals may be seeking employment as a lady of the night.

Whenever the manager changes, so must the chant.  While there is usually a period of adaptation, we are now six months in to Andre Villas Boas’ reign, and still that chant dwindles embarrassing out whenever it reaches that crucial point.

The problem, it would seem, is the sheer number of syllables in Villas Boas’ name.  Might I suggest using the popular acronym ‘AVB’, and that way we can get on with questioning the honour of his mother in the time-honoured tradition.

Ramsey, Chamberlain & Fan Perception

Aaron Ramsey was criticised by fans last night

Aaron Ramsey is out-of-form and, as it happens, out of the team.  By that I mean he was only given a chance in his favoured central midfield role at Wolves in order to afford Tomas Rosicky a rest.  At Everton and QPR, he was shunted in to an unfamiliar left-wing role in order to fulfil a defensive function – an unhappy square peg in an ill-fitting round hole.  The only reason Ramsey came on last night was because of the unfortunate injury to Mikel Arteta.  And in a fully fit squad, he would not have been first off the bench: both Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, entirely absent this season, would be ahead of him in the pecking order.

He knows he’s not playing well.  You can see it in his desperation in front of goal; his desire to make a tangible contribution to the team.  The manager knows it too –  he doesn’t make excuses for players who don’t need them.  But there are mitigating circumstances with Ramsey.  His horrific injury means that this is his first full season in the Premier League.  He made his first start for Arsenal post leg-break on the 19th March 2011 – barely a year ago.  This season he has been involved in no less than 40 games, starting 32.  The weight of responsibility has been significant: Arsene Wenger expected to retain Samir Nasri, and have Jack Wilshere available for selection.  Instead, Arsenal have leaned heavily on a 21-year old, who has only recently been able to share the burden with a rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky.

In that period he himself would admit that he’s not scored enough goals, or provided enough assists.  Throughout the season I’ve been quick to criticise him for being a little impetuous in his decision making, or for attempting a difficult pass when the simpler ball is a better option.  However, one thing I can never question is his commitment.  Despite his poor form, he’s never hid.  He’s never let his head go down, or stopped trying things.  He’s a player of enormous mental fortitude – he probably wouldn’t even have been able to make a top level comeback if that weren’t the case.

Last night, however, sections of the crowd and huge swathes of the global fanbase couldn’t wait to get on his back as soon as he got on the pitch.  His touch was admittedly uncertain, but immediately a man sat yards from me leapt to his feet and demanded he be subbed off.  In the aftermath of the game, the criticism of him ranged from the illogical (“Ramsey cost us the game”) to the obscene (death threats and encouragement to take his own life sent directly to his Twitter account).

Let’s deal with the facts first: Ramsey was not to blame for our defeat.  By that point we were already two nil down, and whilst he was poor during his time on the pitch, he was no worse than many of his team-mates.  Secondly, what do these so-called ‘supporters’ hope to gain from this behaviour?  It’s hardly going to spur Ramsey on to improve.  As I’ve stated many times, there’s no question over his commitment – he’s simply been asked to do too much this season, and has finally hit a rut of poor form.  He will come again.  There is not a team in the country who wouldn’t want the 21-year old captain of Wales in their squad.

Of course, part of the fans’ collective frustration is that by this point they were already baying for ‘The Ox’.  After a run of starts in January and February, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has recently been used almost exclusively from the bench.  The fans question the wisdom of Arsene’s selection policy, but the fine form of Theo Walcott and our impressive winning run suggests its not entirely foolish.  However, as soon as Arsenal found themselves two goals down yesterday, there was a collective sense that only Oxlade-Chamberlain could save us.

Indeed, when he eventually did come on, after chants of ‘Ox Ox Ox’ from an impatient crowd, his arrival was met with the loudest roar of the night.  I have to say, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.  Encouragement is good – pressure to be the Messiah is not.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shows off his talent in Europe

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an outstanding young player, and that has been recognised by his fellow professionals nominating him for the Young Footballer of the Year award.  However, that nomination is more a recognition of his talent than his contribution this season.  Look at the names alongside him – Aguero, Bale, Sturridge.  They have been regular starters for their team, scoring in to the double-figures and featuring regularly at international level.  Chamberlain has just five Premier League starts to his name.  For all his promise, he has much to learn, and his contribution when he came on was indicative of that.  He showed plenty of passion, charging at defenders and turning this way and that, but on two occasions he lost the ball and left us facing a dangerous counter-attack when a simple pass was on.  He will learn, because he is good enough, and intelligent enough.  But the level of expectation around this boy is becoming absurd.

He is not Messi.  He is not Ronaldo.  I daren’t say he won’t ever reach that level – I would never set limitations on anybody’s talent – I’ve seen improvements in players that defy belief.  But he’s a long way from that yet, and Arsenal fans need to show patience with his development, and measure their expectations accordingly.

I would certainly have him ahead of Gervinho in the pecking order, but once Arsene had made the call to introduce the Ivorian, surely the most sensible way to use the remaining substitute was to deploy a second striker in Marouane Chamakh?  I was as baffled by Arsene’s decision as I was by the fans’ jubilant reaction.

It’s good to back youngsters.  But here’s my worry: when Aaron Ramsey was 18 years old, I’d say his potential was roughly equivalent to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s now.  People were talking about him as a future Arsenal captain, a ‘Steven Gerrard figure’ and part of an exciting new generation of British talent.  Ramsey is a lesson that the hype and expectation around a young starlet can quickly turn to frustration – just ask Theo Walcott, who was pilloried last night for a performance that was nullified more by Wigan’s outstanding tactics than any failings on Theo’s part.

It is my firm belief that Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will become massive players for Arsenal Football Club.  What they both need from the fans is time, patience, support, and a bit of perspective.  Let’s give them that.

International break ramblings

Hello all.  I’m not dead.  It may appear so from the lack of activity on the site, but instead I’ve entered a kind of stasis,  cryogenically freezing the Arsenal-obsessed part of my brain to protect it from the onslaught of boredom provided by the international break.  Now I’ve temporarily awakened it, and the ennui is already flooding through the window.

In the past few days I’ve taken time to reflect on the events of the weekend.  I certainly feel more positive about it now than I did on Monday morning – even though I am mercifully spared the gloom of trudging in to an office job to be faced with gloating colleagues.  Losing to your local rivals is always painful, but the Spurs and Arsenal squads are about on a level pegging at the moment.  Losing to a team who are about as good as you, at their stadium, is no great shame.  Objectively, it doesn’t appear a disaster on par with Old Trafford, Ewood Park, or the home defeat to Liverpool.

Of course, it will matter more, because it’s Spurs.  I had a fascinating and at times terse conversation with a good friend of mine last night, who is not a football fan.  That is to say: he doesn’t mind playing, he’ll even watch as a neutral, but he doesn’t support a team.  He described a scenario where he walked through Kensal Rise, and saw a crowd of Fulham fans singing about their hatred for Chelsea.  He simply doesn’t understand the tribalism, and asked me to explain or justify it.  Why, he asked, do I say “we” won when I had almost nothing to do with it?  And why ‘hate’ other teams?

I have to say I didn’t find his questions easy to answer.  Explaining it away as a geographical loyalty to your local area becomes impossible with the number of fans who have no history or heritage in the city where their team is based.  Let’s not forget a fan in Africa recently committed suicide on the back of an Arsenal defeat.

I think it’s certainly tied to some sort of tribal instinct – an inherent “us against them” mentality.  We live in a world with a decreasing number of foot-soldiers.  Football provides an outlet for that aggressive instinct, and occasionally I’m glad that the vitriol I witness inside a football ground is contained within that relatively controlled environment, rather than being unleashed out on the streets somewhere.  When it spills over, however, as with the unacceptable chanting from both fans on Sunday, it’s a very ugly sight and sound indeed.

I suspect one of the main reason people invest in the fortunes of their team is as a form of vicarious living.  As lovers of sport, we are imbued with a competitive spirit, though not necessarily the ability to actually compete on the great stages of the world game.  Pinning our colours to a club’s mast allows us to share in the glory of victory and the catharsis of defeat.

Above all else, I suspect that in an increasingly blurred, globalised world, people are more willing than ever to ‘belong’ or cling to whatever they can use to construct an identity.  In this relatively secular country, football is the obvious way to do so.

This is a real ramble, straight from my brain to the page via a pounded and punished keyboard – a stream of consciousness splashing all over your unsuspecting face.  If you have more considered opinions, I’d love to hear them.  We need to fill the time somehow.

Right.  Back in to the stasis tank.