Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday October 22 2008
Last night was an incredibly surreal experience for me. Watching Arsenal on television is not something I am particularly accustomed to and it`s not something I particularly enjoy. It feels too removed and distant and I feel a good deal more nervous. Particularly last night, does our defending always look that amateur on television? Anyways, fiduciary constraints/ work commitments meant I could only do two of the three group away games and when the draw came out it was an easy choice which one to ditch if I`m honest. Those in my number that did go reported no problems thus far which is a plus. So I settled down with a bottle of Fursty Ferret to listen to ITV4s commentators twitter on for ninety minutes. Pleat, aside from his infuriating name pronunciations is a decent pundit, unlike Lawrenson he actually bothers to do some research before games. Plus, when we were in Prague prior to the Sparta Prague match in 2005, me and my mates saw him wander into a sex museum. (That anecdote has no relevance to anything, but I promise it`s true).
So anyway, Wenger started with the makeshift centre back pairing of Silvestre and Song. Makeshift here being a synonym for cluelessly inept. Silvestre looked like he`d prepared for the game by spending two days in a shop doorway nursing a bottle of Famous Grouse, merrily pissing himself and dropping off to sleep, before the manager nudged him angrily and said, "Mikael, kick off`s in five minutes! You`re playing centre half!" Meanwhile, Gael Clichy decided to use the night to experiment with being a lazy and disinterested, it didn`t suit him. Thankfully, Arsenal`s attacking charges were a little more bumptious, Abou Diaby in particular catching the eye in an advanced role. It is ironic that much of the talk surrounding Arsenal`s midfield has been of an anchorman freeing up Cesc, yet it was Diaby`s advanced role that took much of the focus off of Fabregas. Denilson tucked in behind and looked much more assured with two midfielders ahead of him, in fact, Denilson was asked to cover for Clichy at left back so often it wasn`t funny, whilst Walcott`s express refusal to do any sort of tracking back gave him plenty of work to do. The fact that Fenerbahce`s usually ubiquitous danger man Alex was so anonymous spoke volumes of how effective Denilson was. As early as the second minute Clichy`s idleness on the back post allowed Senturk to ghost in unmarked, only for skipper for the night Almunia to make a domineering block that set the tone for an exceptional performance from Arsenal`s custodian. Diaby`s marauding early on led to the first goal on nine minutes, with the Frenchman occupying a couple of Fenerbahce defenders, leaving Cesc to slot a precise through ball to Adebayor, Walcott desperately scrambled to get out of his way with the linesman`s flag arm getting twitchy, Ade kept his composure to slot past Demirel. The ideal start. Things got a lot more idyllic seconds later too; once again Fabregas was left in space to deliver a slide rule pass to the onrushing Walcott, he skipped around Demirel with joie de vivre before turning the ball in from a tight angle. Walcott embodied Arsenal`s performance on the night, irresistible going forward, but I don`t remember one occasion where he even tried to defend, which inhibited Eboue. The one time Eboue could get forward with any confidence was after he set up Ramsey`s goal as Walcott watched on from the bench.
But more shoddy defending ensured that the night would not be easy. Wenger spoke pre match about how he expected Silvestre to be a leader, well in reality he looked the most scared and frightened player on the pitch. What I did not expect was for the only member of our back four who is a first choice to be quite so insipid. After a needless foul by Song, Alex swung in a free kick from the left; Clichy bizarrely took up a position on the centre spot, which was strange because I don`t really see him challenging for any headers in the centre of the box in any serious way. The upshot was that he left his station at the back post unmanned, allowing Guiza time to rifle a low shot across the box which Silvestre deflected into his own net. As the leader of the defence you`d have expected Silvestre to tell Clichy he was in an insanely bad position, as a first choice member of our back four, you`d have expected Clichy not to have to be told. But in keeping with the kamikaze nature of the game, Arsenal quickly corrected their two goal advantage. Diaby latched onto a high ball, jinked his way past Edu and fired a low shot past Demirel and into the corner. It was turning into an extraordinary game, as the Turks came back again. Guiza latched onto Senturk`s through ball, with Clichy, well, I don`t know where he was but it certainly wasn`t left back, absent Guiza snick into the right channel and fired a low shot just wide of the post. Almunia would spare his defence`s blushes once again after half an hour, the tenacious Sehin this time put through easily by an unpressured Alex, but Almunia bravely rushed out at his feet to prevent the Bosporus from getting back into the game. Half time and it was breathless stuff, I cannot decide if Fenerbahce defended slightly worse than we did (which is a very damning thought indeed) or whether we attacked better than they did. Statistics suggest the latter as Fenerbahce finished the game having had almost twice as many shots as Arsenal did.
The next goal would be crucial, you could sense that much. Predictably it didn`t take long to arrive in the second half either. A cynical foul by Maldonado on Nasri gave Arsenal a free kick on the left, in an identical position to the free kick which bought Fenerabahce`s goal. The Turks decided to copy our devil may care defending too. Fabregas swung in the corner, the home side`s defence tried to play the campest game of head tennis ever seen in their own area and Alex Song was on hand to lash home a low volley from close range. Still I couldn`t relax and assure myself the game was over. Not with Silvestre dribbling and mumbling to himself at the back, Clichy off for a burtons and Song looking like he`d woken up in the middle of a shitstorm. My pre emptive nerves were proved semi correct. Once again Guiza squeezed through our impediment defence; once again the onrushing skipper Almunia foiled him in the first instance. The ball ricocheted back to Guiza, whose shot was blocked on the line by Eboue, the Ivorian then rushed out to brilliantly throw himself in front of the lurking Senturk. The kamikaze defending could not continue to go unpunished and Almunia could really have done with his team mates pitching in and helping him out a bit. Yet another through ball, this time from Boral, was allowed to ease between Silvestre and Song and Guiza lifted the ball over Almunia. There were really only so many times he could keep bailing his defence out.
Fener did not appear to have the energy to use it as a catalyst for a stirring comeback, something the Turkish national side made a habit of in the summer. Ramsey and Djourou entered the fray and Ramsey immediately looked to involve himself, Djourou looked accomplished in the defensive midfield role as he has done before. But the finishing touches were applied in injury time, Eboue, with Walcott now off, was liberated to burst forwards. After some nice skill on the edge of the box, he tucked the ball back to Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the box, whose low, guided shot went in off the post for his first goal for the club. I didn`t see the Wales U-21 game but have heard lots about his performance; he is obviously carrying that confidence and, as Wenger said after the match, what was so pleasing was his exuberance and his willingness to meet the ball. The final score was 5-2 and though the margin of victory did not flatter us, given our exceptional offensive display, the fact that we only shipped two goals was massively flattering and largely due to a heroic display from the keeper. I`ve had my reservations about Almunia and his ability to produce when it really matters, but he did so last night. I am also no fan of Diaby but he was exceptional and has given us yet another option by playing that advanced role in a five man midfield. He has great feet and a real drive going forwards, his distribution still lets him down at times, perhaps that`s why playing high up the pitch suited him. A 5-2 victory against a team who had not lost at home for fifteen matches is not easily dismissible and confirms my suspicion that Arsenal is the best side going forwards in the world. However, we simply will not win anything with such awful defending. I swear at one point I almost laughed at Silvestre, Clichy looked so uncharacteristically idle I wondered if it was a pod person masquerading in the number 22 shirt. Denilson and Almunia were put under an awful lot of pressure to mask the shortcomings of the back four. Walcott, whilst scintillating in the final third, offered Eboue zero protection which stretched our midfield when the hosts had the ball. Add in a centre back pairing that looked about as comfortable as fish in a tree. Next month we play Villa, Man City, Man United and Chelsea, if our defending is anything approaching this woeful when we play any of those teams, we will be beaten in excess of four goals no questions asked. Much to enjoy and much to ponder, like nearly every other game this season.LD.
Date:Wednesday October 22 2008
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