As ever so much to say but so little room to say it in (I've only just discovered that the 1000 words I've been sending the Irish Examiner is actually supposed to be 700!)
Consequently I've tended to gloss over some points in my post below (see: Not Quite So Far From Home Sweet Home), like our continued defensive woes, where if given a free hand, I'd doubtless rattle off a thousand or more words on this one topic alone (is that a huge sigh of relief I hear? :-)
Then again it gives me an excuse for this lengthy preamble (not that I've ever needed an excuse to waffle on inna War & Peace stylee!). BTW if anyone is actually reading this then please offer up your own thoughts below, as it baffles me why I get 1500 hits but not one comment, when most other Arsenal blogs seem to have hundreds of opinions tagged on at the bottom. Never mind the insecurities of the Arsenal back four, please have some sympathy for my own, ever diminishing self-esteem :-)
As someone once famously said "talk good about me, talk bad about me, so long as you talk about me". Whereas I'm getting so wound up that my efforts aren't worth an opinion or two, that I will eventually end resorting to asking Myles Palmer for some advice!
My problem is that I've always tended to avoid boring punditry, both because there's little point repeating the same sort of ravings that you can read in a million other missives (from folks who are far more qualified to sound off about footie than me) and because my piece appears in the paper on a Wednesday, long after weekend matches have already been dissected to death.
And so I've always tried to focus on the more anecdotal stuff but at present there are so many talking points that seem so incredibly obvious to all of us that it's hard to understand what's preventing Arsène from addressing them.
I assumed we were playing on Sunday because we were live on Sky but I subsequently discovered it was because the Victoria line was out of action on Saturday. Yet this doesn't explain the early KO. To my mind a noon kick off on a Sunday is positively cruel (not just for those whose lie-ins are ruined but particularly if you have a keeper who doesn't wake up until five past!!). However the one benefit was that I was back home in time to watch the second half from Stamford Bridge, followed by the anti-climax of a start at Old Trafford - without a single goal to entertain those 75,000 poor misguided muppets, bless :-)
I also enjoy watching Andy Gray's "The Last Word" programme on Sky after the Sunday games. Although with three big games to dissect, their 30 minute slot is hardly long enough for him to get all his technological gadgets out. Gray has always been a self-confessed admirer of all things Arsène, but to be honest I was surprised to hear quite how much he was singing our praises on Sunday. Not that there weren't plenty of positive to crow about. Gray mentioned that he'd met Wenger during the summer, when le Prof revealed why he felt so positive, as apparently according to wealth of stats Wenger set so much store in, last season's side had improved percentages for everything like pass completion rates, speed of passing etc. than the team that went 49 games undefeated.
But then those of us who followed our amazing unbeaten run shouldn't be too surprised, as we can all confirm that our football in many of those matches wasn't anywhere near as pleasing to the eye as plenty of the entertainment we've enjoyed since.
Perhaps the time constraints were responsible but what amazed me was that Gray's appraisal was fairly rose-tinted, as he focused entirely on the Arsenal's positives, I believe without mentioning any of our many faults?
At the end of the day, all that mattered was the end result and that we recorded that all-important win, rather than setting off already on the back foot, as we did last season. Yet the downside to our performance was perhaps encapsulated in the fact that Flamini was our Man of the Match, in the opinions of a couple of well-respected journalist Gooners. I've always liked Flamini, as he can usually be guaranteed to give nothing less than 100 per cent and I thought there were occasions when we missed his spirited contribution last season. However while his ability on the ball has improved, let's face it, he's never going to possess the natural ability to be a world beater and so whenever the ball falls to his feet in front of goal, I can't help wishing there was a better finisher there in his stead.
However so long as he's giving of his all, Flamini doesn't deserve the stick he gets from some quarters, as I've some Gooner pals who can't stand the sight of him, believing he's not the sort of calibre of player who's nearly good enough to be playing for the Arsenal. Experience shows us that most of the best teams have room for a "water carrier" type player who's capable of grafting his socks off on behalf of his more talented compadres.
Moreover on current form, I would take Flamini any day over the likes of Rosicky, who really hasn't looked at the races in pre-season and apart from a single shot, as I recall, he was utterly anonymous yesterday. In fact I was amazed when Arsène brought Eboué off for Theo Walcott, as I thought Thomas was the absolutely obvious choice for substitution, while Eboué still looked full of running and to my mind, was far more likely to offer a threat up front and a contribute in defence than his Czech team mate.
Similarly Fabregas seemed to exert extremely little influence on proceedings by his incredibly high standards. In David Pleat's "Chalkboard" column in the Guardian he suggests our midfield was too congested while we played 4-4-1-1 and it was only after we reverted to 4-4-2 with the substitutions, that Fabregas found room to spray the ball around a bit. Never mind his kerb crawling reputation, for my money Pleat often has some revealing insider insights into the professional game. And yet I remain unconvinced in this particular instance, as it seemed to me that Cesc had plenty of opportunities to try and find the sort of perfectly timed, killer pass that he eventually produced in the build up to Hleb's goal. So although I agree in principle that we looked a lot more threatening when playing 4-4-2 for the last twenty minutes, I believe this was largely due to Bendtner adding a different dimension and that there were two strikers on the pitch to play the ball to and to trouble the Fulham defence.
It seems to me that if a player of Fab's quality plays 50 through balls in a game, the law of averages will eventually ensure he hits a defence splitting pass and it seems far more plausible to me that Cesc was just having a crap day at the office on Sunday. Moreover if we can win with such potentially influential players as Fabregas and Rosicky below par, then just imagine the sort of entertainment we are in for when they both hit their stride?
I thought Hleb did reasonably well. It's not his fault that he's not an out and out striker and I think he's revelling in the free role he has in front of the midfield and whether its his new position, or the fact that he's responded to Wenger's encouragement, but he definitely seems to be trying harder to demonstrate his ability, by exerting more influence on matches. However if this formation is acceptable away from home, against strong opposition, it is just not on at home as far as I'm concerned, when the onus is on us to take the game to the opposition. Based on what he brought to the party in the last 20 minutes, I would have much rather we started with a less experienced Bendtner partnering Van Persie, than a lone striker. Nevertheless, hopefully Hleb's experience will serve to boost his confidence, to the point where he's capable of producing the goods, no matter where he plays.
There were certainly no complaints about either of our full-backs, as Bakari looks bang up for it and doesn't appear at all phased by the frenetic pace of the Premiership and as usual young Gael grafted his socks off. I've written about our centre-back quandary below and watching them closely through my binoculars at Fulham's rare set pieces, I'm fairly sure they were marking individuals rather than zones. Even so, compared to how unexcited I was gettng every time we earned a corner, I was positively crapping my pants at each of the few we had to face. Yet it seems to me that this abiding air of insecurity that exists at the back, to the extent that they always seem to panic, rather than appearing calm and collected, could possibly be eradicated, if there was absolutely no uncertainty about what our keeper was going to do in any given situation.
In my most humble opinion there is no real logic about loopy Lehmann's decision making. Jens comes for some crosses, like a crazy man, occasionally flapping, when he hasn't a hope of reaching the ball and then sticks to his line on other occasions, when the ball is floated right into the six yard box, usually because he has an opponent in his face harassing him. When in truth a man of his huge stature should be able to bowl past (through!) anyone. Instead of which, if Gallas and Kolo both knew, without a glance backwards, that within a certain range, their keeper was going to come for every ball, our defending would look a whole lot more convincing and our opponents wouldn't attack every set piece with nearly such enthusiasm, as their managers will desist from targeting corners and crosses as our potential Achilles heel.
Additionally for a keeper who seem so keen to mouth off at every possible opportunity, I am fed up with this constant lack of communication between Lehmann and his back four, which invariably results in at least one heart attack moment in every game, when our centre backs are facing their own goal. Moreover it’s making me an increasingly likely candidate for male pattern baldness!
I've not seen enough of Sunderland's new Scottish keeper to pass judgement, but I bet Roy Keane picked up this nugget from Fergie, that it is worth breaking the bank for the best available player between the sticks, whilst we continue to try and get by, picking up keepers on the cheap (paying peanuts and getting monkeys!). It stands to reason that keeping the ball out of the back of the net is half the battle won and no matter how much Craig Gordon cost, it will be a paltry amount compared to the reward, if he plays a crucial role in keeping the Black Cats in the Premiership.
On his day Lehmann is capable of competing with the best when it comes to shot stopping, but I can't escape this sense that behind all that bluff and bluster Jens does his best to obscure a bit of a yellow streak, which is responsible for an unacceptable level of inconsistency, where even he doesn't know quite what he's going to do in any given situation. He certainly doesn't appear blessed with the sort of tunnel vision, totally focused concentration of the type of mammoth personalities who've minded goal for most title winners?
Meanwhile it feels a bit churlish of me to be having such a long-winded moan after savouring such a marvellously euphoric Sunday afternoon, where fortune favoured a brave Arsenal side overall. I just pray we can carry that winning feeling with us to Prague on Wednesday, so that we can continue to gather momentum for an awkward trip to Ewood Park next week. I also pray that I can find somewhere to suitable to watch (curse that opportunistic Setanta mob!).
Come on you Reds
PS. I've purposely avoided the topic of Lawrie Sanchez's whinging, as the tabloid press has already blown this up out of all proportion (as usual). Along with many others, my feeling has always been that most ref's are at fault, as surely if they don't award a penalty, then they should be booking the player concerned for diving. Thankfully the TV pictures proved that there was some contact, but this won't prevent the red top rags part in perpetuating the "same old Arsenal...." songs. Hopefully we will be able to drown out the "always cheating" bit, with our own refrain of "taking the piss". In truth the only thing Hleb was guilty of was perhaps gilding the lily, in the exaggerated way he went down and I often feel that this habit is far more likely to convince the ref that there was no contact, than to encourage him to award a spot-kick, especially if we've already acquired a bit of a reputation (albeit no more deserved than any other side)
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Monday, August 13, 2007