William The Conqueror
The tail end of the Christmas programme is usually punctuated with drab, uninspiring encounters as lactic acid begins to grip the muscles of the most erstwhile pro. This game was no exception. Not 48 hours after disconsolately walking away from the biting cold of Villa Park, we were propelled back into the more familiar surroundings of home against a freefalling Portsmouth side. The Arsenal Tavern made for threadbare companionship as most sensible people multiplied early kick off by Christmas alcohol intake divided by seasonal financial massacre recurring and eschewed the option of pub. But for me, maths and moderation were never my strong points. It seemed even the familiarly sonorous public address speaker at the Grove had pulled the sheets back over his head when his alarm went off and we were left with someone who was either excruciatingly dyslexic, or had never watched a football match before. The multinational array of players left him perplexed and tongue tied and after a while, he even gave up announcing the players respective squad numbers, emblazoned though they were in twenty foot high letters on the two big screens. At one point, in injury time when Papa Bouba Diop went off injured and was replaced by Noe Pamarot, he simply grunted inaudibly, unable to enunciate Pamarot`s last name.
The grumpy home crowd did at least have a returning hero to welcome with Pompey`s mass cost cutting exercise seeing Tony Adams appointed as their supremo. That cost cutting exercise also appears to have done for Jermain Defoe`s tenure on the South Coast as he was left on the bench, with the comically undecorated David Nugent preferred to line up on the right hand side, the fact that Defoe was only unleashed in the 89th minute points to a January exit. Meanwhile, Arsenal confirmed Kolo Toure`s current status of fourth choice centre half by reinstating Mikel Silvestre at centre half and after a mammoth effort as a lone striker on Boxing Day, van Persie was rested to the bench. The player himself spoke of managing what he can expect of his body better this season. Pompey had conceded nine goals in their previous three games, seven of those at home, they were always going to set up to frustrate and they did not disappoint in that respect. The first twenty five minutes of the game drifted by pretty aimlessly, with the home crowd lacking the patience and knowledge to allow the team to probe with their passing, instead demanding that they hoof it or shoot at every opportunity. This had a notable effect on the players, disrupted by their own fans from trying to break down a ten man, blue Maginot line on the edge of their penalty area. Back in September, Arsenal scored a goal at Ewood Park off the back of 27 passes. That would have drawn at least three spells of booing from Arsenal fans had it occurred at home. That said, the build up play was laboured and the passing not crisp enough to pull Pompey out of position. Bendtner and Adebayor were largely isolated upfront and with Fabregas, Rosicky and van Persie missing; the onus was on Nasri to be the creative pivot, which he found difficult confined to the left.
The first chance of note arrived midway through the half, and it was created by the visitors. Marc Wilson hit an angled cross from the right hand side, Peter Crouch`s spindly frame beat Gallas to the ball and headed the ball against Almunia`s post. Wenger responded with a tactical change, Nasri drifted into the middle behind Adebayor and Bendtner moved out to the left, where I think he had a very good game. More able to receive the ball into his feet and try to make things happen, a task he stuck to admirably throughout the game. The Gunners patience nearly bore fruit just after the half an hour mark, Diaby played a lovely first time through ball to Adebayor with Distin drawn away from the centre of defence briefly, Adebayor raced through, rounded James outside the area, Campbell`s last ditch tackle put him sufficiently off his stride in front of an open goal, enabling Distin to recover and slide the ball away from Adebayor`s reach. Arsenal could not build on the opportunity as Portsmouth stayed compact, save for a chance on the stroke of half time when Nasri, in his more central role, cleverly shifted the ball onto his left foot and his low shot was deflected precariously, wrong footing James, but drifting narrowly wide. Nasri scored with identical deflected efforts against Twente and Manchester United, shifting the ball onto his left foot with a deft swivel. But half time was met with groans of indifference around the stadium, it had been truly uninspiring. At half time a heard a guy at the urinals tell his friend, "Adebayor should have gone down he would have got a penalty and a red card." Sometimes I cannot help but interject; I asked him if he had booed Eboue at the Wigan game. He replied that he didn`t, but that he "fucking hates Eboue." When I gently asked him why his predictable reply was that Eboue is "a diver." I left the irony to him on this occasion but it does reveal what a façade that reason actually is for the criticism Eboue receives from Arsenal fans for his histrionics. Like I`ve said a dozen times before, we football fans only hate cheating when it suits us. For my part, I can`t say I was too fussed in Paris when Campbell and Arsenal scored from a piece of his cheating. Then again, it is perhaps our birth right as football fans to be fickle?
Arsenal began the first half with marginally more purpose and energy than they had muddled their way through the first. A set piece was looking our most likely avenue when early in the half, James flapped at a Nasri corner, the ball fell to Silvestre who looped his header goalwards and Adebayor could not scramble the rebound in. Another cross would see our next opportunity; James again made a meal of a Denilson cross, the ball landed at the feet of Adebayor, but with the angle closing and a wall of Pompey players manning the goal line, he panicked and screwed his shot into the side netting. Wenger bought on Vela on the left and shifted Bendtner out to the right; Vela gave us a bit more purpose and an injection of pace on the wing, with Bendtner offering some work rate and guile on the right. Vela`s dribbling visibly panicked the inexperienced Marc Wilson, particularly as he smuggled the ball past Wilson and strode to the by line, unfortunately his cross was a little too high for the onrushing Nasri. Over on the right, Bendtner responded in kind with a beautiful angled ball to Nasri inside the area, but James was quick off his line to smother the Frenchman`s attempt.
The game looked to be drifting away from Arsenal inside the final ten minutes until another Vela saunter down the left saw him fouled by Marc Wilson. Denilson delivered the free kick into the area and William Gallas rose above James to head the ball into the net. The obvious hubris of James from set pieces had been identified and ruthlessly exploited by our number 10 for his fifth goal of the season. This was probably his most crucial to date. The Gunners showed a rare slice of maturity thereafter, with Bendtner and Nasri indulging in some keep ball next to the corner flag in the dying minutes, a trait we have sadly lacked in games gone by. Maybe we`re learning something. Nasri nearly scored from such possession when he brilliantly deceived Distin and drifted into the area, but his shot only found the side netting.
The final whistle was acclaimed with an inward sigh of relief as Tony Adams took a bow on the pitch in thanks to his adoring public. In the end it`s the sort of game you take the result from and not a lot else. Pompey were ruthlessly organised and were always going to be difficult to break down. On Boxing Day, Manchester United faced a similar prospect against Stoke, with the likes of Tevez, Ronaldo, Berbatov and Rooney all on the pitch and also had to be patient and wait for an 83rd minute winner with their only clear cut chance. Sometimes needs must at this level and I salute the application of the team in probing for that goal. Our football was far from its flowing best, but shorn of Fabregas, van Persie, Rosicky and Eduardo (not to mention Hleb) the creative side of our game was always going to be inhibited. Take all the United players I mention above out of their side and you`d probably find that they would not have coped much differently than us. The manager showed a propensity towards tactical change that many accuse him of lacking and I felt deputy chief whipping boy Nicklas Bendtner had a fine game on the flanks, whilst Vela showed us what an effective impact player he can be. Silvestre coped very well with Crouch`s aerial threat, justifying his selection. I was disappointed with Diaby who drifted in and out of the game too much for my liking. The problems remain but the team applied themselves in spite of fatigue and injuries to key players and clearly exploited the chink in Pompey`s defensive armour. Not too long ago we were chastised for our ineptitude in attacking set pieces and that is a positive sign that the Boss is capable of identifying our weaknesses and strengthening them. Let`s hope he is as keen in January.LD.