My brother-out-of-law was over from Dublin on Thursday, for the Spurs v Shamrock Rovers, Europa Cup encounter. I was hoping to be able to accompany him to the game, but after juggling work to ensure I wasn't late getting back for our game against Olympiakos on Wednesday, I wasn't particularly confident of being able to make it home from the ballet's stores in Marden, Kent, in time to make it to White Hart Lane the following evening. Fortunately for once, things worked in my favour, but if I'm entirely honest, after sweating my cods off in the balmy heat all day and then dashing home, I wasn't feeling nearly so enthusiastic about rushing off to Spurs and I was half regretting my decision to commit to asking Con to get me a ticket earlier that afternoon.
However having made the short hop from Highbury on my motorbike and arriving in plenty of time for KO (only because I mistakenly assumed it was a 19.45 start :-), I was absolutely delighted that I'd made the effort to join Con, as the craic was positively up to 90 amongst the thousands of Hoops fans who travelled over for what turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining evening. One of my Spurs mates admitted after the match that if it wasn't for the atmosphere created by the incredibly vociferous Irish support, White Hart Lane would've been completely dead.
Amongst his assorted TV & radio obligations, Con is the front man for RTE's Monday Night Soccer show, which is the League of Ireland equivalent of MOTD. Despite his unbiased and supremely professional endeavours, as a wonderfully congenial host (which always leaves me questioning why he's not raking it in, giving all the Muppets on the box over here a run for their money!), he gets plenty of stick for his partisan allegiance to the Hoops.
It seems that moving the League of Ireland from winter to summer has proved a big success and Con tells me that it's great to see so many kids, who would've previously been running around Ireland in the colours of their favourite Premiership outfit, now proudly sporting replica shirts from their local team. Apart from the prestige of seeing their side compete against high-profile foreign opposition in the Europa Cup, this competition is an extremely big deal because relatively speaking, the €70,000 on offer for every point earned in the tournament could prove a massive shot in the arm for sides like Rovers, who have to survive on a shoestring budget, compared to the obscene sums washing around the game on these shores.
Myself I was delighted to have an opportunity to don my green Ireland shirt (a present from Con after he drew me in the Murphy clan's Kris Kringle last Xmas) and obviously I was a Rovers fan for the night (even before I heard them winding up the home crowd, with their chants of "Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal"). For a while there, when the Hoops went 1-0 up, it looked as if a shock result might be on the cards, as everything seemed to be running their way, including a couple of timely interventions from the crossbar.
Perhaps if they'd taken the lead a half an hour later, things might turned out just a little more interesting, as a subsequent five minute spell in which Spurs scored three times, ruined our hopes of a fantasy result . Nevertheless Rovers were no pushover for a Spurs side that included the likes of Defoe. Lennon, Corluka etc and as has been the case in various other European contests this past week, the Hoops ably demonstrated that no matter how vast the gulf in comparative resources, a well-organised and seriously committed outfit can make life extremely hard for opposition of any calibre. In light of our own recent dramatic reining-in of expectations, this is a lesson that the Gunners might do well to heed!
There was cause for optimism in the performances of the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and perhaps Per Mertesacher and Andre Santos in midweek - although while Santos may have scored on his Champions League debut, the jury is a long way from making any decision as far as his defending is concerned!
It wasn't so much that Alex achieved the title of the club's youngest ever Champions League goal scorer that pleased me most about our latest Road Runner from the South Coast production line, but it was in the chance that Chamberlain missed that I sensed most promise, where one on one with the keeper on such a massive stage, Alex had the composure to try and chip the onrushing goal minder, which is something I'm not sure we would have witnessed with the rush of blood to Walcott's head, in similar circumstances.
As for our German behemoth, he made some impressive interventions and perhaps, given time, Per will grow into a more pivotal role. But, although there's something of the Tony Adams in some of his physical traits, I have to admit to being a tad disappointed that we've yet to see anything from his personality on the pitch, to demonstrate that Mertesacher has the potential to develop into the sort of vocal defensive general that we've been craving for a decade or more.
In truth, I felt it was most fortunate that we scored so early on in this match and that we were two from two, with a two-goal cushion after only 20 minutes. Otherwise these precious three points could've proved a far greater struggle, in what was quite frankly, an encounter against a Greek side, which would've previously been perceived as a bread and butter, six points, in previous perfunctory group stages.
However the abiding sense I have from Wednesday night's victory and the draw with a Dortmund side that was so easily disposed of in Marseille and who probably would've beaten us in Germany, if they weren't quite so profligate with all the possession we gifted them in the final third, is that without a substantial improvement in our current form, I fear the Gunners might struggle, when we come up against any seriously decent opposition.
Never mind Le Prof, the evidence of recent weeks suggests that Arsène finds himself as our very own Pol Pot, presiding over the dawn of day one in an entirely new Gooner calendar, because to date, this team is so far removed from the Arsenal side that we've grown accustomed to in recent times. Perhaps I'm being harsh and we might start to gel, as the new boys begin to find their feet and Arsène eventually settles on his preferred choice of a starting lineup. Yet at present, with a defence that changes from game to game and a fluidity in most other positions, as we discover who provides the best fit with one another, the Gunners have taken on the appearance of an entirely different creature.
On Tuesday night Bayern Munich produced a damn near perfect representation of that old adage about not being able to lose a game, so long as your team retains possession of the ball. Once they were 2-0 up, Bayern saw off Man City with a masterful display in how to close out a European encounter, moving the ball around and barely giving Mancini's mob a sniff, as City spent the remainder of the evening chasing shadows.
In the past the Arsenal have been able to compensate for our frustrating failure to be able to pass the ball into the net and for our defensive frailties, with our ability to dominate possession for large periods of the game. The insecurities of Almunia and co. weren't too frequently exposed, so long as we retained control of the ball (hands up all those who sympathized with the Hammers when they heard news of our timid keeper's loan move to East London?).
On Wednesday night we had a Frenchman, a German, a Cameroonian and a Brazilian, playing in a defensive formation that has never played with one another before. I wasn't so concerned about Alex Song, as many seem to have forgotten that the midfielder started life as a centre-back, but it did occur to me to wonder exactly what language this International melange used to communicate with one another?
Arteta is undoubtedly a cultured player, but as yet I've seen little evidence of the sort of third-eye perception of his predecessor, of the sort that previously allowed Fabregas to know, without having to look up, exactly where all his team-mates are on the pitch and to appreciate the spaces they were about to occupy (or that the opposition were about to vacate), even before Cesc received the ball and which enabled him to retain possession, with a pass to a red shirt, no matter how many opponents were bearing down on him.
Who knows, perhaps Aaron Ramsey is destined to come to the fore, but as yet and in the long-term absence of Jack Wilshere, we don't appear to have anyone capable of picking up this baton and being able to orchestrate the tippy-tappy, mazy passing patterns that have in the past so frustrated the opposition, to the point where they eventually tire of running their socks off in vain and begin to wish that they had their own ball to play with.
To the contrary, recent opponents have forced us into conceding possession of the ball so frequently and far too cheaply for my liking, that their success has encouraged them to play a pressing game, closing us down in pairs. And it stands to reason that the more frequently we make such a casual gift of the ball, the more often our defence will come under scrutiny. Unless this can be rectified pronto, it seems to me that we might have to dispense with our soubriquet of "the entertainers", so we can rapidly develop the required traits of resilience that might enable us to make up for what we now lack in pure artistic flair, with honest graft, commitment and team-spirit?
Writing this on the eve of our trip to White Hart Lane, I'm sure that like most other Gooners, I am as apprehensive as I can recall being in many a moon, prior to a North London Derby. I know that all my Spurs mates are looking forward to this match with great relish, their mouths positively drooling at the prospect of finally usurping our position as North London's big cheese, in the case of many long-suffering Lillywhite fans, probably for the first time since they had the misfortune to make their entrance on this mortal coil.
And when I compare the proposed teams on paper and our respective recent form, it's hard not to admit that the home side are likely favourites for a win. However, mercifully football retains its perpetual propensity for reminding us that (in the words of the White Hart Lane hero) "it's a funny old game" and as we all know, form should go out the window, when it comes to a Derby game. So for all my trepidation about tomorrow's short trip to Tottenham, in light of Spurs faithful's certain conviction that their time has finally come, I can't help but anticipate just how delicious it would be, if we were able to put a massive dampener on this dream, with anything more than a draw (to be honest, I'd bite off the hand that offered me a boring 0-0 right now!).
David Moyes' Toffees might have lost their last two fixtures, but for an hour or more of the contests I've watched with Man City and Liverpool, I saw plenty to admire in Everton's efforts to stem the tide of what Arsène has labelled "financial doping", with honorable sweat and toil. If the Gunners can demonstrate similar focus and work-rate, in denying the likes of Adebayor, Bale and Lennon (hopefully Shamrock Rovers will have done us a favour by at least seeing off Lennon with a groin injury) the time and the space to do any real damage and thereby proving their willingness to fight for one another, I for one will be satisfied, no matter what the result.
What will really depress me is if AW sends out a team of individuals, who in their eagerness to point the finger of blame at one another, are only portraying their readiness to roll over, in a match which will have been lost mentally, even before they take to the pitch. So long as the Gunners demonstrate the sort of fortitude and resilience that indicates their understanding of what this game means to us and hopefully thereby avoiding the sort of embarrassment we've had to endure of late, I guess it will have to be deemed a result and who knows, if I talk our chances down with sufficient conviction, perhaps fate will intervene and leave me with egg on my face, after a resounding victory?
Come on you rip, roaring Reds
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Sunday, October 02, 2011