Bruce’s charges niggle in vain

Following a mildly disappointing reverse at the Estadio do Dragoa on Wednesday we faced a Sunderland side that were shorn of key players and in a very average run of form, however crossing the North Bridge and walking along the circumference of the stadium near the railway line I heard a roar from the stadium – I couldn’t have missed an early goal surely? It was actually the reaction to the Toffees scoring their third goal against the indebted ones who inhabit Old Toilet, in Salford, Lancashire (my dislike for the club is such I can barely bring myself to use anything even close to their proper name) so the omens were good. We could make ground on at least one of the two teams above us.

Ashburton Grove on a Saturday afternoon has a different quality to a weekday evening especially in the family enclosure, which is were I was today, at the South end near the corner flag on the same side as the managers dug-outs. The screams and shouts were at a higher pitch than the anywhere else in the stadium – the mascot for the day even sat down two rows in front of me and further lowered the average age in my block.

To be fair to the opposition the Sunderland supporters (a.k.a the Mackems) pretty much filled their allocation and were vocal in spells although when the chant of “Stand up if you hate…. (insert name of local bitter rivals)” that every football crowd has started the “up” would sound like “oop” as one would expect from our northern opponents; we don’t call teams of their ilk “northern monkeys” for no reason!

As is customary we attacked the goal at my end in the first half and early on we had a taster of who would be the man of the match – Eboue, a surging run, followed by a teasing of the full back with dummying and weaving followed by a whipped in dangerous cross. It’s staggering that a player who was disliked by a significant minority of the fans last year has now turned out to be such a potent, attacking threat down the right, even when playing as a full back.

Repeatedly he skinned the Sunderland left back in a way we were hoping Theo would. It would be fair to say Theo is no longer the firm fans favourite he used to be, partly because of his indifferent form this season (however his fitness problems would account for some of this) but also due to him having been with us for four years but not improved to the extent we hoped he would.

We saw today he still had the pace to get past the full back; where Theo used his speed Eboue used trickery and changes of direction to cut through the defence.

From the beginning we exploited the wide positions on both sides, Nasri constantly turning his marker inside out with his wriggling, feigning and serving so that chances were being created aplenty, but of course with no genuine striker on the pitch it took till nearly half an hour was up before yet another scoring chance was finally converted. Watching Eboue run up to my corner I could see the full effect of his jinking run on the defence and as one defender moved to the goal and another away to close down Eboue a line of sight to goal opened up – “Go on, put your cross in thought that gap” I thought – and he did; Bendtner merely had to finish his run into the box for the tap in. The goal was all down to the Ivorian, as shown by how the rest of the forward players piled forward over to the corner flag in front of me to congratulate him. The red and white striped hordes opposite me were motionless, a few crossed arms were scattered across the away section, largely despondent by then.

Before the Bendtner goal the Mackems seemed content to contain our forward play but the undercurrent of niggly tackles surfaced a bit more as certain Arsenal players were singled out for special attention. Again Cesc took a battering and I saw Theo hauled down off the ball to prevent him running onto passes, Richardson and Cana both guilty of late tackles, the latter given only a yellow when his two footed lunge on our right back was worthy of a red. Clearly Sunderland’s lack of possession was frustrating them into snide, dirty tackling which the referee seemed quite happy to allow, perhaps the rotund and shell-suited Bruce’s who had become more animated as his side went behind used some hand signals to suggest “leave your foot in late, let them know your there” as their play descended into a scrappy, ugly style of play.

In the second half the previously blue sky and sunshine gave way to a gun metal grey cloud covering and the temperature dipped as the game continued as it had been for the first forty five minutes – all attacking threat from us with lack of finishing leading to missed opportunities to extend our lead.

After the hour Mark Bennet the referee decided to give Sunderland a number of undeserved free kicks. One was when Vermaelen and Jones both went for a high clearance from the Sunderland keeper into our box and as the ballooned away from both of them the Verminator tripped over and caught Kenwynne Jones ankle and brought him down – but well after the ball had gone. Before that Silvestre (affectionately called “Fish-head” by some) used his strength to hold off Bent and was penalised for a “shoulder-to-shoulder” coming together. Now I’ve never been a fan of Fish head but being completely objective about his performance today I have to say I only counted two misplaced passes – otherwise he contained the Bent/Jones forward line well.

With us being only one goal in front I feared one of the many incorrectly awarded free kicks that were being given against us would result in an equalizer for Sunderland and during the last ten minutes of the game the tension around the ground was palpable. Up till then Sunderland only managed two definite chances, a shot scuffed wide by Jones and a later chance where a cross only needed a prod from Bent to score when he actually just brushed the ball with the outside of his foot – how we laughed at him, and he knew it!

Ramsey had a good game too (one bit of ball retention while he’d been upended drew sustained applause and appreciation from us) yet he gave away the ball in two just as critical positions and while he got a little bit of negative feedback from the crowd for this, this was nothing compared to the flak Bendtner got for his attempt to win a penalty, Talking to someone who was in the north end of the stadium it was clear our Dane won few friends with his feeble dive.

As a few flakes of sleet fell on me, being only eight rows back and uncovered by the roof I began to curse the late spell of referee-assisted Sunderland pressure on our goal. Almunia also got some studs in his face from further dirty play by Sunderland.

Perhaps Bennet realised he was overly favouring Sunderland and that may be why we were finally awarded a penalty – a true collectors item post Eduardo-gate. From my end of the ground I couldn’t tell what had been awarded initially, no such doubt when Cesc netted the penalty and the tension lifted.

After celebrating the first goal

Eboue-Bendtner in the corner

Cesc and Nasri prepare for a corner

So we gain three points on the unmentionables, to cut the deficit to two, but the team led by the all-round despicable captain stay six clear of us. A satisfying return to winning ways but another stiff test awaits us next Saturday at Stoke.

Hey, how about practising defending long throws this week Arsene?

Arsenal v. Sunderland; they are all must-win from here on in

Arsene Wenger is being both maligned and hailed for his criticism of referee Martin Hansson’s insane decision to give Porto a quick free kick against Arsenal. Yes, hailed but mostly maligned.

Wenger claims that there were no less than 5 technical mistakes in the award of the free kick and reading Walter Broeckx’ piece over at Untold Arsenal describing the technical mistakes he saw as a referee himself does tend to shed some light on exactly what went wrong. Walter’s a referee and Wenger’s a footballing genius while their critics tend to be, well, to be fair, at best “pundits” and at worst “shit stirring press corpse click whores” so while I might have an opinion about the decision I’m going to defer to the experts.

Funnily enough, Graham Poll, the Daily Fail’s supposed expert in all things refereeing, tries to back up Hansson but doesn’t offer a shred of evidence to do so. In fact, the photos on the site back up Walter and Wenger’s claims that the referee failed to signal, took control of the ball, and obstructed Sol from getting into the play. I reproduce them here so that you don’t need to click on that rag:

Of course the press are portraying the Arsenal manager’s comments in his presser as an attack or as if he was over-the-top in tone or content, he wasn’t. Arsene was calm and collected, rational and thoughtful and simply stated that he suspects, given the evidence, that Hansson is an incompetent referee. As you read this statement in full read it in a calm voice, that’s how Wenger delivered his judgment:

The rule is quite clear. I don’t want to go too much into details but he made at least five technical mistakes.

You cannot give a quick free-kick when the referee is in the middle of the action. When people play quick free-kicks, the referee whistles but he is far from the ball, the guy puts the ball down and plays quickly. If he is there in the middle, where the free-kick is, he cannot give a free-kick anymore. He has to make sure the opponent is at nine meters distance and, in that case, the opponent had to be on the goal-line. And, apart from all that, where he gave free-kick in the wrong place.

For example, he missed 100% a penalty on Rosicky. That is a judgment in a second that I can accept but once it gets to a technicality and he has made a decision. For me the back pass of Sol Campbell was accidental but he has judged it. OK we have a difference there. OK that I can accept. But, technically, so many mistakes. Where he stands is completely wrong at the moment he gives a free-kick.

I believe he is incompetent or dishonest, so I prefer to believe he is not competent.

Usually, I trust the referee, I never have any bad intention but when I speak with referees, I just wanted to understand why he made so many technical mistakes.

Wenger goes on to say that he doesn’t like to look at who is going to referee before the game and I actually think this might be a bit of a failing on his part because I always look at who is going to referee the game and I’m usually right about what type of game they are going to have.

For example, Steve Bennett is in charge of the Sunderland game and I’ve already noticed a pattern from him: utter shite. More specifically, he refereed both this year’s Hull game and the 2008 Wigan game; both wins for Arsenal and both marred by unruly play set off by Bennett calling fouls differently for the less technical team than he did for the Arsenal.

This would normally benefit a team like Sunderland who in Steed Malbranque, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana, and Kenwynne Jones have a side that enjoys kicking teams off the pitch and putting themselves about physically. With Cattermole out due to suspension and Malbranque a question mark, some of the edge to their game will certainly be lost and thus some of Bennett’s ability to ruin Arsenal’s day will be diminished. I’m not saying that Cana and Jones won’t cause trouble, they certainly will be hard opponents, rather that some of the edge will be taken off.

Probably the person we most need to worry about is Darren Bent who has scored 4 times in 6 matches against top 4 opponents. He’s also getting serious and has decided to put down the Twitter and pick up a football for Sunderland’s run-in. It’s just symbolic, but sometimes that kind of thing can help give your team a little push.

Symbolically, Arsenal’s captain took a moment on the plane home after the Porto loss to apologize to the traveling fans and frankly, I put that much higher than simply giving up Twitter. There’s no question that Cesc loves Arsenal and that he wants desperately to win something for the fans. If you think losses like the one against Porto are hard for you to take, you can multiply that over and over again for the way that Arsene and Cesc feel after a loss.

If Arsenal can control the midfield and stay on the attack, Bent will cut a lonely figure up front for Sunderland. Moreover Bent is not nearly the threat on the counter that other teams like Man U and Chelsea have so this could play into the hands of Arsenal’s attacking style. Moreover, Arsenal will be hungry to get back on track and pay Sunderland back for the 1-0 loss that followed Nationalism break earlier this year.

The good news for the team is that Manuel Almunia is passed fit in today’s practice and is an option for keeper. How many of us thought we’d get so desperate at keeper that we’d be excited about the prospect of getting Manuel Almunia back?

Speaking of season surprises, how many of you at the start of the season would have been happy to hear this news — Alex Song is healthy for tomorrow? Certainly with Diaby on his bi-weekly injury Song is absolutely needed to help balance out the attacking edge of Arsenal and push Bent and Jones around, at least a little.

At the back, there’s no news on Sol Campbell other than Wenger’s statement that he was a bit tired after Porto. Gallas is out for at least two weeks now, and if Sol’s not able to go, Silvestre will be given the nod. Fingers crossed that Sol is ready, even at 63 years old he’s still got a ton of class and defensive ability. Plus he’s the best header in the side and Arsenal will need to be very careful on set plays against the Sunderland giants.

Sadly, the game is on Setanta here in the US and Doyle’s won’t be opening until 8am and is delaying the game until 10am. I’ll be there, if you’re in town stop by and watch the game with me. I won’t be making a blog tomorrow but 7amkickoff’s Man at the Match, Chary, has promised us a match report after. So, please feel free to use this as a comment thread, until that report comes out.

See you later and remember… it’s goo goo goo to be a GOONAH!

Guest Columnist Grimbo says, Stop oversimplifying the issues…

Reading around the blogs and newsfeeds you’d think Arsenal had just been relegated instead of merely going down 2-1 to an inferior side away from home with a return leg left to play. Chaps (& chapette’s where applicable) I know this season’s been a bit up & down, but some realism is needed…the reactions to a draw or a defeat are getting way out of proportion to what they really mean to the season.

People are judging this season based on those preceding it instead of taking it on what it is; the 09/10 season. The only similarities are that the team’s still called Arsenal and Wenger’s still the gaffer, everyone’s a year older and as Song and Diaby have shown, a year is a long time in the life of a young footballer. More then that, look at the landscape of the game – it bears no significant relationship to what was going on in 2004…think about it.

Football is a game of skill, psychology, tactics and a good dollop of plain old fashioned lady luck. Luck’s the factor that makes it so watchable, the fact that humans sometimes make a pigs ear of things makes it exciting. Be it managers picking a bad line up/bad tactics, players having off days or refs missing calls that are bloody obvious to those of us with a rewind button.

Sometimes it’s a combination of these factors, like the Porto game, but like any combative undertaking it can quite often be luck that makes the deciding call. In our case it was the fact that the Ref didn’t give us a deserved penalty and did give Porto a free goal… That’s just how it went; D-Day could have been lost if a storm had have blown up out of nowhere as often happens along the English channel – I could go on with hundreds of other examples.

Now, how about we go about clarifying a few points which may be obvious when written down but which seem easy to overlook when we have to sit through painful games like Wednesday.

  1. ManUre without Rooney would be in a worse situation then we are, but he’s not (yet) gotten injured, he’s been very lucky: remember the broken metatarsal from the last world cup? They’d be 3rd and would have lost to Milan the other night without him. Who do they have to back up Rooney? Owen? Berba? Are they better then Eduardo or Bendtner?
  2. Chel$ki without Drogba would be 6-9 points off where they are now, he too has been lucky with injuries: remember the Evan’s kung-fu kick? That could easily have broken a few ribs and seen him out for the rest of the season. Who backs up Drogba? Anelka, yes he’s quality but he’s been shut down far more easily then Drobga. Malouda?
  3. Liverpool almost had the title last season but have since lost Torres to reoccurring injury and are fighting for their CL survival, they’ve been unlucky – well and a bit stupid in underestimating how valuable Alonso was to the side. Who’s filling Torres’ shoes? Ngog? Babel?
  4. Arsenal with RVP were ruthless in front of goal in early season, but RVP got crocked while on international duty by a clugger of a challenge. Up until that point RVP was banging in goals from simply ridiculous angles and providing just as many assists. He was on form to possibly be the top scorer this season. Bendtner is our back up, but he was out for a long time too and Eduardo has not been the same as he cannot get a regular start. RVP looked like he’d put his injuries behind him until the Italy friendly…that’s just bad luck.

Luck plays a big part in this game, we’ve been unlucky with injuries this year. Could Wenger have bought a new striker in during Jan? Maybe, but maybe it just wasn’t possible. I’ve never bought a real life player contract but I’m willing to bet that neither have you and so neither of us have never had to deal with the multifarious issues/legalities and bullshit that goes along with them.

So we really have no idea whether AW tried and failed, or just didn’t try.  In the real world of transfers I’d guess that 95% of what goes on never sees the light of day – the other 5% is public maneuvering for a better deal. Despite what the papers says there are obvious requirements for a transfer to actually happen; a) player wants to leave current club, b) buying club thinks player will fit in team, c) buying club can afford costs involved, d) selling club are willing to sell player contact letting player go, e) buyer and seller can agree terms, f) buyer and player agent can agree terms, g) buyer and player actually like each other and get along. If ANY of the above boxes do not get checked, then no deal: which is what happens most of the time I’d be willing to bet.

Bottom line is that Papers, pundits, fans; we don’t know shit. The papers would have you believe that it’s as easy as picking up the phone and saying “I want him, here’s a suitcase of cash” but do you really believe that? No one pays all up front nowadays, it’s all about installments, timing and things like goals scored vs. games played etc. However, you rarely get anyone that’s ever been involved in the actual deals speaking up or becoming a pundit/journo which leaves pundits/journo’s to make it up as they go along.

Another thing I keep reading is that the money being asked for tickets is too much for a side that’s not winning. As for the prices… well you all may well have a case but remember, TV is expensive too, kits are expensive, EVERYTHING’S expensive nowadays! That is modern football, it’s no longer the working mans game it once was, it’s an entertainment business now. Have you seen concert ticket prices lately? Bought any Alcohol?

Added to this, AFC have a big loan to pay off. That’s just the way it is. If we were still at Highbury then we’d be worse off financially speaking as the old ground sat 38,000 but the new stadium seats 60,000 – just in simple numbers and not taking into account the increase in box seats and matchday hospitality.

Arsenal are working within their means using a business plan that has no comparison in the EPL. Does anyone believe the instant gratification of spending 30 million quid on someone would solve what is a team problem that only time & training will solve? OK how about Wenger buys a striker; perhaps a Villa, Chamakh or Dzeko. Who’s to say that any of these players could cut it and wouldn’t be an instant disaster like Shevchenko? For every 25 mill Torres there’s a 32 mill Robinho. What would you the same angry fans say then? “Wenger shouldn’t have bought him, it should’ve been XYZ, Wenger’s crazy, the experiment isn’t working etc.” So pretty much what’s being said now eh?

There is no guarantee that spending 15, 20 or even 30 million on a player makes them better then someone costing 5-10. This is something that Wenger knows (Jeffers vs. Henry anyone?) and Vermaelen is exhibit A in this regard. Now you know about Vermaelen’s talents would you swap him for Brede Hangeland and the extra 10 mill that Fulham wanted?

As far as that poor bastard Fabianski goes – he has talent but everyone seems to have forgotten about the fact he can do this:

Keepers mess up, even great keepers like Seaman. I suppose you’ve all forgotten about his disastrous 2002 World Cup?

The bottom line is that the Keeper, more then any other position on the pitch, is all about confidence and Fabianski’s is more then a bit dented. Does this mean I think it’s all well and good with the Keeper situation? No, but I just want to point out the obvious overreaction to two blunders that, yes, cost us the game but do not mean he’s crap. Has David James not made a litany of errors? Fabianski is 25…most keepers only start their prime at 30ish…

All I’m trying to express with all this is for people to THINK before they engage their gobs and/or keyboards. My opinion is no more or less valuable then yours, or anyone’s – and no, of course Wenger is not above criticism (before I get a hundred ‘Wenger-lover’ posts), but if you’re going to criticize then do it intelligently with a rational argument and don’t revert to the same “buy this bloke and all’s solved” line because you know it’s bullshit. It’s time for us all to grow up and realize that football’s no longer just a game, it’s now a high risk business as well, and sporting achievement has to be balanced with business acumen or else we face the consequences. Do you want Arsenal to be called the new Chel$ki or ManUre? Or do you prefer we blaze our own trail?

Winning on the pitch is important but you have to be in the game to win it first. Arsenal are playing in a league that’s been royally screwed up by all the disposable cash injected by billionaire egos and businessmen that place the burden of risk on the clubs they have bought. We cannot play the game with the same rulebook as Chel$ki/Man Citeh/Real Madrid… We have to write a rulebook of our own.

That’s my point: if during this time of madness we spend beyond our means in a vain hope to keep up and we end up over-extending ourselves then we have every chance of ending up like Leeds Utd, who only a decade ago were a top 5 side competing with us for trophies year in and year out, but I guess everyone’s forgotten that sad story already.

Fact: We have a shot at the title. Fact: we’re far from out of the CL… All the anger & pressure will not help those we are relying on to win i.e. the current squad. Like it or not, that’s what we’ve got for the run in…