February Player of the Month
It is perhaps no surprise that, in a month that has seen Arsenal not concede a single goal, that a defender should win Player of the Month. It`s even less of a surprise when one considers the profligacy of our strikers. Robin van Persie for instance was January`s embarrassingly outright victor given his proclivity for goals and assists, yet February has seen the margins desert him somewhat, though his involvement in our attacking play has still been incredibly prominent. Thus, February`s candidates are limited exclusively to those behind the halfway line. Denilson has again been the paradigm for consistency and attitude, putting in another string of impressive displays, most notably against Roma. Bacary Sagna too is rediscovering the form which made him such a fan favourite last season now that his early season injuries have cleared up. He has spoken about making his game slightly more conservative and the manager points to this as one of the reasons behind our new found solidity at the back. The only thing that put him out of contention for this month`s award compared with the victor, has been some very poor crossing. Teams such as Fulham have been happy to let us have the ball out wide because they know that the quality of the crossing is usually sub par and on the rare occasions that it isn`t, there is nobody there to attack the ball anyway. Sagna`s delivery needs to improve. Almunia has been a worthy custodian; Kolo Toure has begun to look something like his old self again, reigniting his partnership with Gallas to the point that Kolo cannot even bring himself to leave the dressing room without him. (Point of note, had Eboue picked up that senseless booking, what would the reaction have been?)
However, whilst Kolo has proved to be a decent deputy again, it is his sergeant that earns decoration this month, which is quite ironic considering the fact that Toure has worn the armband in every game this month whilst the winner, William Gallas, was stripped of the very same appendage for being overly garrulous last winter. Wenger spoke at the time about how he hoped relieving Gallas of the armband would make him a better player; he also asserted that he still rated Gallas, "as a player and as a man." Both his character and his form were questioned in the early months of the season, culminating in some "pockets of resistance" amongst the away following at Manchester City in November volubly proclaiming their distaste for him. The fact that I have not heard a single voice raised against him in anger since is testament to his form and to the assertions of the manager, which have looked spot on thus far. Whether or not Billy has a future at Arsenal beyond the summer months remains to be seen, if his volatility is really as damaging for team spirit as has been suggested, you have to think not. However, at this very moment, the guy is utterly indispensable.
Up until the acrimonious relinquishing of his captaincy in November, Gallas looked a player bereft of focus and motivation. Goals conceded to Fulham, Hull City and Bolton Wanderers showed him unwilling to make a convincing enough challenge to prevent goals from set pieces. Since November, William has borne the public humiliation with humility and dignity- two traits most doubted he could spell, let alone exhibit. Arsenal have not lost in the Premiership since that fateful day in Manchester when Gallas was left out as punishment for his assertions to the press. Slowly and beneath the radar of the hawk like attention he was party to when he was captain, he has become the organiser and cajoler of this defence again. What has always struck me, even from his days at Chelsea, was just how exceptionally Gallas reads the game. When you have a side that relies on attacking full backs as much as Arsenal, a centre half with such an inclination for "mopping up" is invaluable. Against Roma, I lost count of the amount of times he snuffed out an attack by using his nous to get to a through ball before it could arrive at an attacker`s feet. The guy has the nose of a bloodhound. Most of us are acutely aware as to how effectively he utilises this in other side`s penalty areas. In a team lacking experience and maturity, Gallas is a shining light.
The first game of February saw a visit to North London "rivals" Spurs, after Eboue`s mindless first half red card, the onus was suddenly on the home side to attack, which they did. Gallas shouldered the responsibility and was comfortably the best player on the pitch, repelling the likes of Pavluychenko, Bent and the mallet headed whinge merchant Robbie Keane. Once again, his flair for organisation and reading of the game meant Arsenal were rarely seriously troubled at the back. The outings against Cardiff and Sunderland were hardly his busiest assignments, but both still yielded clean sheets and that`s largely down to focus. In matches where you have little to do, you are more likely to lose concentration and Gallas did not allow that to happen in either match. But it was the Roma game in which Gallas really shone again, the visitors had a good deal of the ball in the second half as the Gunners dropped back, but their only chances of note were long range efforts. Gallas again it was who organised the chain imperiously, snuffing out every one of Totti`s runs or attempted through balls. He played through the pain barrier for most part too, when he accrued a very heavy knick on his shin in the penalty area with Arsenal attacking, Gallas, at the threshold of pain, shuffled himself to his feet and out of the way so as not to let the game stop at a crucial moment. Altruism in the extreme, victory through harmony you might say. But for all his faults, Gallas has always been quick to recognise that there is no 'I` in team. Against Fulham he was once again one of our better players, with Clichy woefully out of form at the moment, he was once again on hand to cover for his wandering compatriot more times than I care to remember. The only unfortunate thing about Gallas` form this month has been that he has been unable to replicate it in the opponents` penalty area! But the final irony is for me, that having been stripped of the armband, Gallas looks more like a captain now than at any time in the last twelve months. Taciturn yet authoritative, he now shouts instructions to his defenders without wrinkling his nose and bawling histrionically, the fist shaking and chest pumping has stopped. He looks more at ease with himself and his team. Long may it continue.LD.