Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday November 2 2008
It was into unchartered territory and my first visit to Stoke City's Britannia Stadium. Winter's frosty claws clung to the air at East Croydon station at 7.45am, I was aware that the corners were open at the arena so multiple layers were the order of the day. The weather had hardly altered by the time our coach wound its way through Gordon Banks Avenue and Stanley Matthews Way. Once again, I managed to catch up with an old uni friend Ben and his Stevenage Borough supporting mum in the concourses for the most despicable pint of Tetleys ever tasted. The teamline ups raised many an eyebrow, with Denilson and Diaby selected on the flanks, with Stoke boasting the narrowest pitch in the Premiership, Wenger obviously felt he could squeeze Stoke out of the match. As Almunia lined up to keep goal in front of us, he put his hand to his chest to intimate a gesture of apology for Wednesday evening. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I feel Nasri at least should have been selected, the midfield we selected did not have the ability or imagination to support the front two. The selection wasmnaifested in a display that looked sapped of confidenceand lacking nascency.
Arsenal began relatively well, dominating possession early on, but Stoke were ruhtlessly well organised, getting numbers behind the ball and looking to hit Fuller with diagonal balls at every opportunity. However, Arsenal's early probing was ephemeral. Clichy had to clear into touch, Diaby might just have prevented the ball from exiting play. Lamentably, he didn't bother trying. Delap launched a juggernaut into the Arsenal area which flew into the net, via the head of Ricardo Fuller. I have yet to see any highlights of the match, but standing behind that South goal, I'm not sure I saw a touch. In any case, the goalkeeper was not dominant enough. Toure and Silvestre offered zero in the form of organisation or authority. (In fact, it was Clichy who motioned Bendtner and Adebayor backwards from the halfway line as Delap shaped up for the throw). The lack of authority displayed in that first throw in manifested itself in our display throughout the game. Twice I watched Pat Rice on the edge of the technical area furiously motioning to Toure to gee his troops up. Those who chastise our current first choice skipper so relentlessly might like to think about that for a second.
Stoke were buoyed by their goal as Arsenal shrunk into their shell, but the reality is, they were not good enough to ever threaten us from open play. The throw ins were their only way through. However, that meant they had one more tool for getting to us than we had for getting to them. I cannot remember an Arsenal performance so lacking in attacking threat. Bendtner's touch was woeful all afternoon, Adebayor was once again inhibited. The Gunners lost the confidence to play their own game and instead played Stoke's, aiming long balls at a crowded out Bendtner or Adebayor. With no Nasri or Walcott, we had littleor no inegenuity from midfield to support our ailing strike force. Wednesday night's gross overconfidence transmogrified into a totallack of belief on our style of play. A weak Almunia punch caused hearts to flutter in the away end as his contact reached Delap, his looping header was cleared off the line by Gael Clichy for a carbon copy of the clearance he produced against Everton two weeks ago. I can honestly tell you that Clichy was the only player who showed a clear desire to right the wrongs of Wednesday.
Bendtner might have done better to control Fabregas' swerving through ball, but other than that, Arsenal could not threaten Stoke and were furiously booed off at half time. The tunnel is positioned down in the South West corner next to the away fans, many made a beeline for the corner of our enclosure particularly to shout abuse at our departing players. I'm not sure how that is supposed to help at half time of a game we only trail by one goal. Arsenal were not losing any battles, as I have heard infuriatingly reported by the media today, a fallcy regurgitated to support their 'Arsenal don't like it up em' edict. I suppose actually watching a game and analysing it for what it is is too much for pundits being paid large sums of money. Arsenal were getting through their tackles and were not being bullied, Stoke didn't have the tools to threaten us in open play. Our big problems were the throw ins, which we didn't seem to have a contingency plan for and our lack of belief in our game going forward.
Arsene might just have damaged some crockery at half time, because the Gunners emerged rejuvenated, trusting their passing game again. Moving the ball with pace and conviction, Stoke were panicking and were forced to punt the ball into touch whenever they could get near it. But Arsenal's flowwas disrupted. Andy Griffin plunged through the back of Adebayor's achilles with the ball already well in touch and he went down in agony. Seconds later, Sagna twisted his ankle in a much fairer challenge. Adebayor was booed by the Arsenal fans for being injured. Unfortunately, I am not joking. Walcott came on for Sagna as Adebayor tried to soldier on, barely able to walk. Arsenal forced another corner as Stoke were struggling to cope with the pressure, Fabregas' inswinger was met with a volley by Kolo Toure which flew inches over the bar. But Stoke were allowed to exercise their monolithic threat as another Delap throw in was unconvincingly cleared to the edge of the box, Salif Diao's low shot was excellently tipped away from his bottom corner. Adebayor could go on nolonger, his ankles were strapped and he was stretchered off. As he passed us down the tunnel,he was booed relentlessly and somebody even tried to aim a bottle at him. This being Arsenal 'supporters' adminstering this treatment. If the team reached a nadir yesterday, the supporters have surely plumbed their lowest ebb. (Incidentally,the moron that threw the bottle was swiftly slung out. Hopefully he'll never be be given the chance to repeat such behaviour at an Arsenal game). Adebayor had a horrible game, but that reaction was childish beyond belief. I think the belief was thatAdebayor was feigning. I don't believe that the doctors pitchside were as in on the act of sabotage as to strap his legs up and take him down the tunnel.
Worse was lurking ominously around the corner. Another Delap throw in just was not dealt with by the centre halves, both Silvestre and Toure had not the authority, and Olofinjana bundled home a scrappy goal. We have a centre half who is aerially dominant and able to stand up to this kind of bombardment. Unfortunately, he is now playing for A.C. Milan, while we appear to have bought a carthorse from United. No wonder Ferguson had no compunction in selling him to us. Wenger spoke of Silvestre as a leader, from where I was sat, he would struggle to lead a fish to water. Lamentably, it was the youngest member of our back four who showed the most testicular fortitude. Clichy may have problems engaging his brain when Arsenal are coasting, but when we're losing there is no more determined warrior. And when we're losing there is no temperament less circumspect as Robin van Persie. As Sorensen dithered to collect the ball, van Persie stupidly charged the goalkeeper and was duly awarded his marching orders. I thought a red card was massively harsh, though I am yet to see it again. I did not see an elbow or a kick, a simple shove. No arms were raised. Andy Griffin kicked Walcott and Adebayor out of the game and was punished with a yellow card in injury time. Something is rotten in the state of English football. That said, I can hardly defend van Persie, he was always inviting trouble and it was a petulant act. Sorensen's appalling acting seems to have drawn little opprobrium however, had Lehmann been guilty (and let's face it, in that situation he would have been) I am sure Match of the Day and their ilk would have produced vainglorious perorations on how despicable he is.
The Stoke fans taunted us with 'are you Tottenham in disguise?' At this point, Tottenham were the ideal inspiration, needing as we did two goals in injury time. A brief flicker arrived, as the free kick that saw Walcott kicked out of the game, quite intentionally I might add, Fabregas squared to Clichy, whose low drive deflected into the net. What a shame that his first goal for the club would prove to be so inauspicious, I think we all imagined his debut net rippler to be one of great significance. The final whistle sounded and the players were once again relentlessly booed off as they passed us, desperate to avoid the scrutinising gaze, daring not tolift their heads towards the foam mouted travelling contingent. We were not outmuscled, but we lacked imagination and purpose upfront. We lost the confidence to play our game and ended up playing Stoke's. We are asking very young men to do mens jobs.
I can't be arsed frankly to repeat points I have ruminated over ad nauseam since September 2nd, but this now goes beyond a defensive midfielder or a centre half, there is a collective mental weakness present in this side. Arsene looks to have misplaced his faith in players who, in truth, just aren't good enough to challenge for big prizes. There was a complete lack of idea or conviction in our play, no leadership and a lack of a sturdy spine. Stoke hurt us little in open play, only looking vaguely impressive on the long throw. But that still meant they had one more way of hurting us than we had of hurting them. We looked at our best passing the ball and moving it with pace, regrettably we did not do it enough. When poor defending curtailed quite good spells for us in the match, nobody had the cahouns to calm us and keep our players focussed, instead we shrunk into our shelland abandoned a style of play that always brings us results in the final third of the pitch. We now face United shorn of any recognisable frontline, but you never ever know, it may turn out to be a good thing. If Bendtner and Vela can perform next Saturday, then perhaps a few players with ideas above their station will buck their ideas up. I won't hold my breath against opposition of that quality, but the good ship Arsenal is currently rudderless, and there's nobody to blame but the manager. We now have to focus on preserving 4th and hope for a cup, it's a sad state of affairs, but we now have to hang on in there until January when we can reassess our squad. Should Wenger fail to blow the dust off the chequebook, serious questions will be asked. Because I sat with 3,000 Arsenal fans yesterday and I can tell the manager that none of them have any faith in the personnel that we have.LD.
Date:Sunday November 2 2008
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