Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday November 23 2008
Over night the news of William Gallas' punishment spread through the media with the speed of a late night locomotive, the captain had not travelled to Eastlands and was unlikely to play. We arrived at a blustery cold City of Manchester Stadium, winters claws well and truly entrenched on rosy cheeks. Both sets of supporters came into the stadium with their respective teams in something of a slump, City had one point from four games whilst a jet black cloud hung over Arsenal which threatened to jettison its season into mediocrity. Questions abound from the captain as to his teams hunger for the fight (please don't fall into the media beartrap of believing he accused his teammates, he accused himself as well), we wanted a response, somebody to stand up and prove their captain wrong. The lack of confidence resonating around both clubs was genuflected in the stands, where both sets of supporters were pensive and quiet. The congeniality usually apparent between the supporters in this fixture was not quite apparent, the bonhomie broken completely when the home fans tunefully enquired 'where's your captain gone?'
We were promised an open, attacking game of balletic beauty. What we had was an ugly stalemate, Arsenal passed the ball in their slow, ineffective, deliberate way with not enough urgency and conviciton to break City's light blue wall of resistance. City occasionally broke away on the counter attack, but usually delivered an amaeteurishly awful final ball. It took 30 minutes for any semblance of an opportunity to be created, Vassell attacked Clichy down Arsenal's left, delivered a low cross which Benjani could only slide narrowly wide. Five minutes later, Arsenal responded by working the goalkeeper for the first time. van Persie won a free kick thirty yards from goal, Nasri curled it towards the bottom corner, Joe Hart beat it out, Bendtner was alert and alive to reach the rebound, cleverly backheeling it to Alex Song, who screwed the ball wide from an obscure angle. Once again, City attacked Arsenal's left virtually unchallenged, Wright Phillips flighted in a cross unchallenged and Benjani headed wide with scarcely a challenge.
The game seemed to be drifting towards a moribund stalemate until Arsenal made their customary defensive error. It began and ended with weak clearances from Clichy, his first, half way inside his own half, reached Wright Phillips. Benjani and Ireland powered forwards as Denilson and Song ambled back half heartedly, Benjani nudged the ball to Ireland on the edge of the area, Djourou's challenge was far too polite and lacking in authority, but the ball broke to Clichy with Silvestre's momentum taking him towards his left back, once again Clichy was too timid causing him to screw the clearance into the path of Irleand who lifted the ball over Almunia. The goal was an absolute shambles, from Song and Denilson's awful attempts to trudge back, to Clichy's effemenate attempts to clear the ball. At the other end of the pitch, Richard Dunne was a towering presence, with a display of committed no nonsense defending. Had he been in Clichy's position he would have cleared his lines, clattered Silvestre and apologised later. It was a goal paradigmatic of our problems, no authority, no responsibility, a collection of individuals who do not trust one another, do not work for one another and by all accounts, don't even like one another very much. If Arsene is looking for a new captain, he might look at Robin van Persie, who epitomises everything about Arsenal at the moment. Ridiculously talented, naturally able, gifted with a football. But his work rate off the ball is appalling, his only interest in the game is when the ball is at his feet, other than that he has no interest in supporting his midfield or his strike partner. In short, van Persie, like Arsenal, has the feet of a world class footballer, but the brain and mentality of a small child.
It was a half made frustrating by our problems being laid bare for all to see, the players just did not work for one another. On the very few occasions Bendtner actually won anything upfront, Diaby or van Persie were rocking back on their heels, not anticipating the ball, not trusting their team mate to win it. There was an occasion at the beginning of the half, when Arsenal actually looked hungry, van Persie fended off three City players excellently with his back to goal, he laid the ball off to Diaby, who was not concentrating, not on his toes and not trusting van Persie to make the pass. The symbiosis in this side is non existent, it's an assorted rabble of egos. But the Gunners began the second half with a flurry of activity, they seemed to realise that the passing game does not work in front of packed defences in less you activate it at a rate of more than one pass every ten seconds. Diaby wormed himself free in the box from Bendtner's pay off, but blasted the ball over from a narrow angle. Nasri and Clichy combined with quick, effusive passes, Clichy delivered a sumptuous left wing cross which Bendtner narrowly missed amidst the suspicion that he was pulled back by Micah Richards down in front of us high in the North Stand Upper Tier. Nasri got at the City defence and won a free kick on the edge of the area. The free kick was positioned for a right footer, Nasri had delivered a decent effort in the first half with van Persie off being treated. But you can ask Wesley Sneijder the sort of childish reaction you can expect from van Persie if you dare take a set piece off him, with the angle against his left foot, van Persie curled the free kick into the side netting. All for one and one for all.
Two minutes later, van Persie was muscled off the ball by Wright Phillips, Denilson and Song were once again sadly absent in the midfield, leaving the young Gavin Hoyte unprotected, unsure whether to go to Wright Phillips who careered forwards with the ball, or stay with the runner Robinho. In the end he could do neither as Wright Phillips released Robinho, and the Brazilian impudently and beautifully lobbed the ball over Almunia. Once again the midfield were nowhere to be seen in protecting an unfamiliar defence. Having now seen the goal back on the highlights, I couldn't see Song or Denilson enter the frame of the screen once during that move. Gallas had said his team lack the hunger for the fight, that assertion did not appear to hurt or trouble the players as they spent the remainder of the game proving him right. Shoulders were firmly slumped and the cry of surrender was painted onto every player's shirt, with the exception of Clichy and substitute Ramsey, the rest may as well have been carrying little white flags. A theme not lost on the home fans who chanted, 'Gallas was right, you're soft as shite.' There are times in football grounds when you simply cannot muster a response to your taunters. It's usually because you agree with them.
Arsenal were in freefall, Wright Phillips hit the cross to the backpost, Vassell shot at goal, Almunia beat the ball out for Robinho to flick the rebound in. The linesman's flag rescued our blushes, it would prove to be a bagatelle gesture, but appreciated all the same. On further inspection, Clichy was playing Robinho onside. The officials were taking pity on us. Once again, Arsenal were all at sea at the back, playing an impossibly high line at the back as Kompany slipped Robinho through on goal. His natural showmanship got the better of him as he needlessly rounded Almunia, allowing Djourou to power back and clear off the line. At least somebody was trying. With five minutes left, van Persie attempted the now oft tried trick of robbing the keeper of the ball as he attempts to kick out. This is now against the rules, it was codified in the wake of Henry's attempts when there was no rule surrounding the keeper kicking the ball out of his hands. Henry was aware of a loophole in the rules and tried to exploit it, van Persie needed Alan Wiley to explain that this act now qualifies as ungentlemanly conduct. Still, it's an improvement on barging the keeper out of the way and getting yourself sent off. An incident in the 88th minute summed up our apathy. Ramsey, who was such a refreshing entry into the game, someone who was alert and alive, someone looking to fight for a place in the side (not many of our players currently have to do that). Ramsey won a free kick thirty yards out, showing alertness, he spotted Bendtner in space on the edge of the area and played the ball to him quickly, Bendtner was not concentrating, not interested and was not prepared to receive. He promptly lost it.
As the travelling support spent the last ten minutes outvoicing their hosts, who were assured victory, City wetn up the other end and Djourou was harshly ajudged to have felled Sturridge in the area. Peculiarly the screens in the stadium replayed the incident, Sturridge tucked the spot kick away to the tune of the Arsenal faithful still singing, trying to guilt their team into a token effort. There were no boos at the final whistle, people simply walked out. Emirates dwellers take note, a player turning to acknowledge support will have far more to think about by looking at 3,000 backs turning to the exit than a load of spoiled children booing like morons. That just vindicates the players in their own minds. After the game the same old whipping boys were assigned blame on the coach, the names Denilson and Bendtner rubbished ad nauseam. Both had horrible games, but after a good ten minutes of this frustrated chatter I had to ask those around me why I had not heard the name van Persie uttered even once. 'Oh, sure, he had a bad game too.' It exemplifies a problem with Arsenal fans that confuses and frustrates me no end. Supporters seem to arrive at games with pre conceived opinions, 'I don't like Bendtner/ Denilson/ Song/ Eboue, the second it all goes wrong I will vent my fury at them.' Meanwhile, the golden children, van Persie, Walcott, Toure, are never implicated. The lack of objectivity and proportion staggers me. Why can't people watch a game and make assumptions based on what happened rather than exorcising their likes and dislikes? van Persie was awful, Denilson was terrible, Song was laughable, Bendtner was amateur. Implicate all of them rather than just those you don't like. Meanwhile, Silvestre actually had an alright game, but was afforded no credit simply because people don't like him.
There is something liberating about this defeat in a way, the manager cannot conceal the cracks any longer, the myopia cannot continue. Gallas was 100% wrong to say what he did, but every one of his assertions was 100% correct, he just should not have verbalised them publicly. The pride of the players should have been hurt and pricked a response from them. It didn't. We are all but told publicly that van Persie has an attitude problem and he insults his team mates, so he responds by exacerbating it further. We are told the players lack the desire for the fight, so Song, Bendtner and Denilson amble around the pitch feeling sorry for themselves the instant we go 2-0 down. Gallas alleges we lack maturity, so the manager throws the raw Gavin Hoyte into an underperforming and unfamiliar backline against Robinho. The Premier League has changed now, Chelsea changed it by packing their team with players like Essien, Drogba and Ballack, powerful, forceful players who are precise and direct when they pass the ball. United responded to the sea change, Ferguson has no compunction about playing water carriers, workhorses like Fletcher and Park, to feed the physically impressive Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez, players who bulldoze the opposition when they pass the ball. Wenger has packed his side with lightweight artistes, on the few occasions we do actually win a tackle in midfield, we pass the ball slowly, deliberately. Without the directness of Rosicky and the ability to dribble through packed defences of Hleb, we are easy to play against. Get numbers back and our contemplative, slow passing is easy to enervate. The passing game only works when it is executed quickly and with conviction, our players do not trust one another enough to manifest this and they won't work for one another enough to win the ball back when we do lose it in the manner Fletcher or Park would. Bereft of Adebayor and Fabregas we completely and utterly lack this commodity going forward and we don't have it anywhere in the squad at all in midfield. The sad thing is, I wasn't particularly angry after the game or on the journey home, in truth, ever since September 2nd, this is exactly what I expected.LD.
Date:Sunday November 23 2008
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