Archive for January, 2012

Arsenal 1 – 2 Man U: Mutiny at the Emirates

478 comments January 23rd, 2012

Yesterday, Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United, which is no great disaster. It’s certainly an improvement on the 8-2. However, yesterday Arsene Wenger lost a lot more than a football match. In one moment, he seemed to lose the trust of the Arsenal faithful.

The discontent surrounded the substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Chamberlain had been Arsenal’s most promising attacking player, and had just created an equalising goal for Robin van Persie. However, Arsene decided to replace him with Andrey Arshavin, who is currently as far from being a fan favourite as he is from his hometown of St. Petersburg.

The decision was met with huge boos. Even Robin van Persie visibly declared his disbelief at his manager’s choice. As Oxlade-Chamberlain trotted off, there was some brief respite as the fans praised his contribution. But when Arshavin subsequently took to the field, the booing returned – louder and longer than it had been before. To be honest, it was unclear if the jeers were for Arshavin, for Arsene, or both.

Let me start with the decision to bring Chamberlain off.  Sources in the Arsenal camp indicated he was physically tiring, and that doesn’t surprise me in the least. An 18-year old on his first Premier League start was never likely to complete ninety minutes, however well he was doing. The explanation that he was suffering from fatigue seems to me to be entirely credible.

And even if the switch was purely tactical, it did not merit the howls of derision it received. I thought the behaviour of the fans in the stadium yesterday (and before anyone labels me an ‘armchair’ fan, I was there myself) was pretty pathetic. It was the sort of stuff I’m more accustomed to seeing from Blackburn fans. After a first-half in which the Emirates lived up to its ‘library’ reputation, swathes of the crowd managed to wake up to boo the team off at halftime. And then to follow that up by greeting a substitute with boos? Ridiculous.

Having this debate last night on twitter, many fans felt inclined to point out that the substitution “ruined our positive momentum”. Yeah, well thanks for levelling things up with all the booing. That sure helped restore the positive vibe.
Truth be told, folks can say what they like on twitter. Or here. Pretty much anywhere.  But when you’re in the stadium, you get behind your team. Let’s not forget, at this point in the game we were drawing 1-1 with the Champions, and the fans were chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at the manager.

This is the same manager who took the bold decision to start Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first place. The same manager who made an intelligent and effective change at half-time, introducing natural fullback Nico Yennaris for the struggling Johan Djourou.  This, lest we forget, was Arsene Wenger.

I suppose the vitriol on display is a symptom of a relationship under strain. The reaction yesterday was about more than one substitution – it’s about 6 trophless years, a baffling transfer policy, and most recently a run of three consecutive defeats. Patience with Arsene has been thinning and yesterday, for many, it gave way.

I do understand how those fans feel. I occasionally feel exactly the same. I merely don’t  agree with how they chose to express it. We are in a very sticky situation now. To be without a league point in January is not good. We’re in a poor run of form that, in the battle for fourth place, we can ill-afford.

Truth be told, I think our record is simply levelling out to something approaching an accurate reflection of our ability. Robin van Persie carried us to a long unbeaten run pre-Christmas, but I think in that spell we did disproportionately well.  Expectations may have been raised higher than was appropriate, and that seems to have led to complacency in the transfer market.

Despite the disparity in scoreline, the feeling among Arsenal fans is very much as it was after the Old Trafford hammering. We’re staring down the barrel of catastrophe with a few days to dust off the chequebook and sort it out. This time, however, I’ve no confidence that we’ll get any reinforcements, let alone half a dozen.

I opened the blog up by saying that losing to United is not, in itself, a disaster. I stand by that. However, finishing outside the top four, for both financial and footballistic reasons, would be. And at the moment, that feels increasingly probable. If there are any steps Arsene and the board can take over the next week to avoid that fate, they simply must. The natives are increasingly restless.

I’ve typed this rather hurriedly on an iPad, so don’t have the usual fancy links and stuff. Forgive me.

United Preview: Points required; Pride essential

122 comments January 22nd, 2012

Arsene is not really the sort of manager to deliver a rousing team-talk before a big game.  Fortunately, today, he doesn’t need to.

All he need do is print out the following, and tack it to the dressing room wall.

I’m sorry to have made you look at that again.  But it’s important we do.  It’s important the players do.  And it’s important Arsene does.  On that day, Arsenal let down themselves and their supporters.  That simply cannot happen today.

I don’t necessarily expect a victory.  Arsenal come in to this game in the familiar position of being out-of-form and embattled with injuries and African absentees.  What I do expect, however, is that Arsenal play with passion and a desire to avenge the humiliation suffered in August.

In the aftermath of the Old Trafford game, I said:

“What sickened me more than anything was to watch this team perform without pride, and without belief.”

The last few months have seen a steady process of recuperation, interrupted by a recent blip.  Arsenal need to fight, to battle, and to allow the fans to banish the memory of that shameful day from their minds.

Our team is dependent on two fitness tests: one for Thomas Vermaelen, and one for Thierry Henry.  If fit, both could start.  Vermaelen is reportedly the more likely to make it, and would come in at left-back for Ignasi Miquel.  That could be vital – United’s main threat comes from their wingers in Nani and Valencia, so our makeshift full-backs will have to be at the top of their game to cope.

If he’s ready to go, Henry could start ahead of the out of sorts Andrey Arshavin.  Suggestions two hours before kick-off, however, are that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be handed a first Premier League start.  Chamberlain actually made an inauspicious debut as a substitute in the 8-2, and after a relatively impressive cameo at Swansea could be thrown in to the fray today.

At least if he is, we know he’ll play with courage, and with fire.  His team-mates had better do the same.  They owe us that.


Swansea thoughts: Ramsey does too much and Theo doesn’t do enough

220 comments January 16th, 2012

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I am not a fan of blaming referees for poor results…
…especially in a match like this, when Arsenal had ample time to get back in control of the game.  Slow-motion replays may have shown that Nathan Dyer was guilty of simulation, but in real-time it looked very much like a clumsy tackle.  When you become the first side to score twice at the Liberty Stadium this season and still conspire to lose, the signs suggest our major flaw was a familiar one: a feeble defence.

Still, I’d rather have Sagna back than a substandard signing…
Inevitably, there will be calls to strengthen the squad.  I understand why: Miquel and Djourou struggled at full-back against the pace of Dyer and Sinclair.  But with the likes of Sagna and Gibbs now just a few weeks away from returning to action, I’m just not sure if players of the requisite quality are available in this window.

If I thought Arsene could buy or loan a better reserve full-back than Djourou or Miquel, I’d be all for it.  But none of the names I’ve seen so far – Wayne Bridge, for example – meet that criteria.

Aaron Ramsey was suffering from acute Gerrard-itis…
I don’t doubt Aaron Ramsey’s work-rate.  I have more faith than most in his technical ability.  Where I do think he has plenty of room for improvement is on the mental side of the game.  That’s understandable: he is only just 21.  Unfortunately, after the departure of Cesc and with Wilshere’s injury, he has been a handed a huge responsibility as the main creative midfielder in our team.

Ramsey’s problem is that he tries to do too much.  I’ve always said he reminds me of a young Steven Gerrard, in part because they occasionally seem to share a desire to win games on their own.  Yesterday, on Welsh soil and with the crowd on his back, Ramsey’s head wasn’t quite right.  A footballer can try too hard.  Sometimes he would benefit from keeping his cool, and keeping it simple.  He will learn.

Theo Walcott has regressed in the last few weeks…
In the early part of the season, Walcott was one of our few commendable performers.  Since the win at Chelsea, however, his form has dropped off considerably.  His goal yesterday was his first since that game in October, and a rare moment of quality in another average performance.  I have never bought in to the claims that he is a “good finisher” – for every good goal there is a horrendous miss.  In his brief cameo yesterday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed that he already has more awareness and technical ability.

Thierry Henry…
…impressed me on and off the pitch.  I thought he looked sharp and dynamic when he came on with half an hour to go.  Unfortunately, few of his team-mates seemed to be on the same wavelength.  Henry passed the ball with more speed and urgency than almost anyone else on the field – but often no-one had anticipated or made a run to match his vision.

As for him having words with an Arsenal fan who had booed his own team, I say that’s fair enough.  Robin might be the captain but Henry is probably the most obvious link between the fans and the players, and if he is prepared to take on that sort of responsibility then I’m all for it.

Invincible, Immortal, & In the fourth round

235 comments January 10th, 2012

Henry celebrates a magical return

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The diagonal through ball from Alex Song was perfect. It could have been played by Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, or even Dennis Bergkamp. The first touch was immaculate, the body shape breathtakingly familiar. The giant clock suspended from the Emirates canopy seemed to stop, dead. Time wound back to 2004 and, briefly, Thierry Henry was invincible again.

As he drew back his right-foot to strike the ball, the Emirates was momentarily hushed. Then followed the trademark sidefoot strike. Before the ball crossed the line, Henry glanced across at the linesman. He just had to check. Check that this was really happening, that it wasn’t a dream, that a cruel flag wasn’t about to deny him his moment.

He knew, of course, that the ball would settle in the bottom corner. When he’s wearing red and white, it invariably does.

The reception when Henry had come on as a 68th substitute had been deafening. When he scored his 78th minute goal, a storm of anticipation broke in an explosion of pure joy.

Thanks to EastLower for that amazing video.

Great athletes write their own storylines. Last night, Thierry Henry took a leaden game and carved himself a story, a headline and an accompanying photograph. Another moment, another memory, another myth. A 227th goal, and 60,000 very lucky Arsenal fans there to witness it.

Henry said after the game that it was the first goal he’d scored as an Arsenal fan. You could see that in his celebration. The nonchalance and the shrug of old were replaced with pure, unbridled ecstasy.

Everything else was eerily recognisable. He might not have the blistering pace of yesteryear – but he might not need it. Sprinting speed might be temporary, but it seems class is permanent. The control and finish were as good as anything Henry produced in his heyday. Put simply: given ten opportunities, Marouane Chamakh could not have scored that goal last night. Henry needed just one. Arsenal should only require occasional cameos from their ageing talisman. Yet on this evidence, they could well be match-winning cameos.

What’s certain is that Henry won’t tarnish his legacy. Indeed, last night his statue it seemed to swell and shimmer more than ever before.

Last night was, in many respects, the perfect night for an Arsenal fan. That Arsenal fan, I should add, is named Thierry Henry. He Has Returned. Long Live The King.

Return of the King: Welcome home Thierry

310 comments January 9th, 2012

What is va va voom?

It’s many things. It’s a style, an attitude. It’s a grace, an impudence, a gallic flair. It’s instant control, a side-footed finish, and a shrug of celebration. And what is more, it’s back. As of today, for a period of six to eight weeks, Arsenal will once more be able to call on the greatest player in their history. Thierry Henry has returned.

In his first spell at the club, Henry netted a record 226 goals in 370 games. This time, he could play a maximum of ten times, starting with tonight’s FA Cup tie at home to Leeds.

If you’re in the ground tonight, savour it. If you’ve not yet got a ticket, grab one. Take your kids; take your grandchildren. In ten, twenty, even fifty years time they will be able to say they saw Thierry Henry in an Arsenal shirt.

In his pomp, Henry was the most exciting athlete I’ve seen on the Premier League stage. He combined the electric pace of a sprinter with balletic poise, and an incredible imagination with deceptive physical power. After arriving as a peripheral and shot-shy winger, he evolved in to Europe’s most stylish goalscorer. But you already knew that. The story has become myth, and the man a living legend.

Some have bemoaned Henry’s return, disappointed that the club have elected for a short-term option, and fearing that the player could tarnish his legacy. I can’t find room for such cynicism. The signing is clearly a practical measure. The African Cup of Nations has left us with a scarcity of strikers, and most of our primary targets are unavailable in this window. As Arsene Wenger has repeatedly insisted, the opportunity to take someone with Henry’s class on loan is simply too good to turn down.

And class, let’s remember, is permanent. Henry himself admits he’s not the same player. He’s not expecting to skip through gears and defenders with the same ease or regularity he did in his first spell. But if a chance is to fall in the box, I’d still rather it was to Thierry than any other of our attacking options – with the obvious exception of Robin van Persie. And the idea that anything that happens in the next two months could damage his extraordinary achievements in the past are absurd. It will take more than a few underwhelming cameos to shift his bronze immortalization from the stadium concourse.

I don’t expect miracles. But I do expect more great memories, starting with the roar of the crowd when he takes to the field tonight.

On the pitch, Henry often seemed to be able to write his own scripts. He himself could not have penned a better fixture list for his two month renaissance. The opportunity to compete in Premier League, FA Cup and Europe, with ties at home to Manchester United and away at the San Siro. There is even an option for a glorious farewell in one of the most hotly-contested North London derbies for years.

An Arsenal career that spans three decades is entering its final phase. The long goodbye begins tonight. Turn the page, enter the final chapter, and savour every moment. This is The Return of The King.  Prepare to pay homage.

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