Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday January 11 2009
It was a bitter, bitter day in North London with the temperature gauge troubling the minus numbers, breath clung visibly to the winter air. We were at the Tavern in time to watch Villa's serendipity lamentably continue with their fifth own goal in six matches- all of which have been won by a single goal. Surely their luck with ricochets and ailments respectively cannot continue? Arriving into the stadium, banks of empty seats were noticeable, the game was not advertised as a sell out until Thursday, I suspect it was a lie. With Club Level members asked to renew their season tickets in March, the board will do well to take notice.
Bolton's tactics were obvious before the game had even begun, with two banks of four sitting very deep. Prior to the match, Megson attempted some mind games (I rather doubt Megson is sufficiently armed for such a tactic) by alleging that Arsenal were overly incongruous towards Bolton's strong arm tactics. It took precisely three minutes for a man whose ebullience towards on pitch violence is surely matched only by Alan Shearer to make his mark. Kevin Davies callously and maliciously thrust an elbow into the mouth of Gael Clichy in an aerial challenge. It was a calculated and pre meditated act by a man who very nearly broke the same player's leg in September. Mr. Davies is a thug and an embarassment to his profession, but Mr. Foy is also culpable for not even cautioning Davies. Neither of the ensuing highlights packages I have seen have mentioned the incident. Had Robin van Persie made the same challenge on JLloyd Samuel I very much doubt we would have been spared Mr. Foy's red card or the guttural rantings of the press.
Nevertheless, Bolton built a Maginot Line on the edge of their area and invited Arsenal to penetrate. However, whilst Arsenal enjoyed plenty of possession, once again the build up play was too laboured, the passing not of sufficient pace or incision to trouble Bolton. With injuries to Fabregas, Rosicky, Walcott and Eduardo, the role of chief creative agitator fell to Nasri, who notably drifted inside to a more central role.It was his pass that set up the opening chance of a barren first half, he drilled the ball to van Persie, who killed the ball beautifully with a yielding touch and swivelled but volleyed over. Arsenal's attack definitely lacked spark, but van Persie and Nasri always looked likely to be the chief alchemists. A defensive mix up between Toure and Almunia after the dreaded long ball gave Arsenal fans the only real moment of concern. Almunia's hesitance from his goal line and his inability to use his vocal chords are becoming recurring features. There are more urgent areas of redress for now, but I hope come the summer we buy a better goalkeeper. Almunia does not cut it for me. Another van Persie volley from Shittu's headed clearance sailed well over and that was pretty much it from a first half that was hardly celestial stuff.
Arsenal upped the ante in the second half, as the crowd behind the goal leapt up and down in unison to keep warm. For a few minutes in fact, with Arsenal attacking an end imploring them to attack, it was almost like we had a good atmosphere at a home game. More nefarious sections of our support would ensure a swift end to that nonsense later on. Arsenal had a penalty claim when Clichy's cross was misjudged by JJloyd Samuel, who appeared to use an arm to guide the ball back to his keeper. But it would have been a difficult one to be absolutely sure about for the officials. With the home side committing more to attack, there was harvest to be gleaned for Bolton on the counter attack. Mustapha Riga's cross found Matthew Taylor on the back post but his header was saved by Almunia. The Gunners continued to pour forward, Adebayor collected a pass from Nasri in the area, squirmed himself into some space but fired tamely at Jaaskelainen. Carlos Vela was introduced into the fray on the left hand side, leaving Nasri completely unshackled to weave his magic in the centre. It almost paid instant dividends when Vela carried the ball inside from the left flank to Nasri, who opened up Bolton's defence with a fastidiously executed through ball finding Adebayor on his own in front of goal, but the Togonator was far too casual and allowed Andy O'Brien to intercept with an excellent block.
It was Adebayor's strike partner who would come even closer to scoring. Nasri fed Adebayor who flicked the ball beautifully into the path of van Persie, whose close control amongst of littany of Bolton defenders defied belief before he sent a low right footed shot bobbling across the floor and onto the foot of the post. His thirteenth flirtation with the woodwork this season. Had he been wearing a Villa shirt I'm certain the rebound would have hit a Bolton player and gone in! When the two sides met in this fixture last season, it was a long range exerset from Toure that opened the scoring. History almost repeated itself when Toure, presumably tired of continuously lumping long balls aimlessly forward, carried the ball forward and hit a low thirty yard piledriver which van Persie subtly redirected, but Jaaskelainen was equal to the ricochet. Wenger then introduced Bendnter on the right flank to offer more of an attacking threat from out wide, with Eboue hardly the most erstwhile predator in the box. When announced before kick off, Bendtner's name drew some audible boos. It was noticeable that Wenger was keen to get Bendtner on for Denilson's set piece, with nobody assigned to mark the big Dane, his impact was almost immediate. He connected with Denilson's inswinging delivery but could only direct the header straight at Jaaskelainen.
But a few minutes later, Bendtner drew howls of derision from the home crowd after a woefully misplaced pass. The next time he received the ball and completed a successful pass, he was greeted with large ironic cheers. We've long been campaigning for out home fans to act as a perennial twelfth man and it looks like we have achieved that because we have given our own players an extra barrier to surmount with our proclivity towards attacking certain players, who simply can do no right. I'm not quite sure what the act of destroying the confidence of your own players is supposed to achieve but it is by no means a new phenomenon. It is all too easy to point the finger of blame at 'nouveau riche' supporters or those we perceive as Johnny Come Latelys, but the barracking was spread very evenly around the ground, it was as much those in the RedSection as those who sit in the upper tier where I am positioned, so RedAction can spare me their sanctimony because this is a wider problem not dictated by generational or economic factors. Those crying that we lack a Ray Parlour like character in the current side are probably the same characters that sat beside me in the West Lower at Highbury that barracked him with equal alacrity and sometimes even booed him.
Some five minutes later, Bendtner beautifully elucidated the caprice of those that mocked him. van Persie found himself a corridor of space in the area, turned and delivered a sumptuous cross which invited Bendtner to stab home another vital late winner and his sixth of the season. Funnily enough I didn't notice many sitting down and refusing to celebrate Bendtner's goal, which means there were a few thousand hypocrites present. By audibly mocking your own player in the dying throwes of a tight game, you make a statement that you do not support the team and do not support any of the actions of that player. Bendtner might well have mimmicked Sammy Nelson's infamous celebration from 1979. Nelson scored an own goal and was met with polemic abuse from the North Bank. In the second half, he rectified his earlier error and scored the equaliser and celebrated by dropping his shorts and 'mooning' the North Bank. In Highbury's final years, I graduated to Block 19 of the Clock End and often greeted goals by cocking an ear to the away support, I never imagined I would be doing it to fellow Arsenal fans. But having defibrillated the critical factions, Bendtner showed class in not admonishing them and even applauded the supporters at the final whistle. Most reluctantly returned the gesture, middle class guilt can be a wonderful thing. Bendtner's ability can rightly be questioned and the jury is very much out on his suitability to our club, but deliberately damaging his confidence isn't particularly useful to anybody. It was a real shame because for a few minutes in the second half, the overall support was very positive.
What is worth saying is that Wenger's tactical tinkering paid off, by deploying Vela and Bendtner on the flanks, we carried a more potent threat in the box and gave Nasri license to roam. Vela and Bendtner proved to be very good impact players as they offered Bolton different problems to those posed by Diaby and Eboue and it is very difficult for defences to make contingency plans mid game for different sorts of players. The fact that Bendtner has a striker's instinct served him well from the right when van Persie teased in a delightful cross. Bolton nearly grabbed an instant equaliser, Steve Basham worked his way to the touchline and pulled back for Kevin Davies in space, but the useless thug could only plant the ball into Almunia's arms. Were his appetite for goalscoring as lubricious as his appetite for violence, the game would have finished a draw. But once again we have ground out a result and have now manouvered ourselves into a decent unbeaten run. Shorn of the forward players we are this is an incredibly positive sign, whilst not at our free flowing best, I doubt that if you took the likes of Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney and Berbatov away from United that the results would be much different. Nasri is excelling with nearly all of the creative focus of the team entirely on him, as well as van Persie who also looks willing and dangerous. Winning ugly is not a bad habit to get into and it'sa pleasing habit we seem to have got into of late. Here's to another scrappy 1-0 win at Hull next week.LD.
Date:Sunday January 11 2009
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