Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday June 5 2009
Curiouser and curiouser. If a guy who has played fifteen games can inch his way into 4th place, the list surely cannot accommodate further anomalies. How can it get more bizarre than that? Well, the man in third place spent the first two months of the season looking like he`d rather be anywhere else in the world, admitted in his autobiography to not liking Samir Nasri very much and admitted to Chelsea`s charge that he threatened to score own goals lest they let him leave, he accused the team of lacking the stomach for a fight and was stripped of the captaincy in disgrace by November. He was even dropped for a league fixture at Manchester City and looked to all intents and purposes to be out of the door the second the clock struck midnight on January 1st. Of course, Robinho tore Arsenal`s defence a new rectum that day at Eastlands and we decided that we probably needed him more than we would like to admit. William Gallas is our mate? Possibly not. But he`s a bloody good defender. The best we`ve got by some distance.
Last summer speculation was rife that Gallas was to be displaced as captain following a hissy fit that was soon to be made the focus of Arsenal`s title collapse at St. Andrews. Wenger told the press he was prepared to give Gallas one last chance as skipper, William himself oozed contrition and regret and began the season with the armband fastened to his shirt. The press scrutiny was intense, and Gallas was caught between a rock and a hard place. When seen geeing his team up with a rousing address pre match, he was derided for being false and performative. When barking instructions at other players, he was told to look closer at himself before berating others. (Usually by the same people who had no problems watching Adams dish out ear bending rhetoric to team mates. You know? The Arsenal captain that spent a few months at her majesty`s pleasure because he got rat arsed and drove his car through an old lady`s wall?) When keeping his counsel and staying quiet around his team mates, he was accused of not rallying the troops and being self centred. The rights and wrongs of Gallas` admonishment have been debated at length, but what was clear was that he was in an impossible situation, his legitimacy as a leader had been sent crashing through an advertising hoarding in the West Midlands. Personally, I think the players have allowed that to become an excuse for them in the aftermath. However, in the opening throes of the campaign, Gallas was hardly helping himself with some listless displays and his mental state was clearly fracturing by the game.
He actually opened the scoring for Arsenal`s season in Arnhem with a goal in the Champions League qualifier with Twente. But on the opening league fixture, a Djourou error allowed Morrison through on goal, Djourou made amends by clearing the ball off the line. Gallas` subsequent rant at Djourou was ill measured and entirely over the top. In the next match, the aberration at Craven Cottage, Gallas limply allowed Brede Hangeland to jog past him in the area to score the only goal of the game. In Kyiv, his comedic miss kick allowed the Ukrainians though to score the opening goal of the game. He atoned for the error with a late equaliser, yet after allowing both Kevin Davies and Daniel Cousin to easily out jump him for corners leading to soft goals in September, questions were abound as to whether Billy should even be first choice any longer. He rather drifted through October unconvincingly, then in November, the brewing storm became a full on tycoon. They say still waters run deep, where Gallas is concerned, there is always something bubbling under the surface. In his frustration at the intense scrutiny his stewardship was under, Gallas took the ill advised decision to take to the Dictaphone. Whilst I am sure shouldering the blame for all of the inadequacies of the squad was somewhat frustrating, Gallas gave the press ammunition for weeks. The Gunners had already lost four of their first thirteen games and rumours of civil war were rife. Gallas showed them an itch and they scratched until it bled. Why Gallas felt the need to go to the media, who routinely misquote him anyway, I`m not sure I will ever fully understand.
Gallas accused a 25 year old Arsenal player of displaying unacceptable insolence towards him in the 4-4 draw with Tottenham. He also rather tactlessly accused a 20 year old France player, who he names as 'S` as also displaying a level of disrespect which Gallas says he could not relate to. The rumour mill in France has suggested Gallas and Nasri were never best of friends. In retrospect, the extremely protracted nature of Nasri`s transfer last summer was never fully explained to us, I wonder if Willy nearly scuppered the deal. In trying to attest that he was not solely to blame for Arsenal`s 2008 implosion, Gallas had well and truly jumped in the dingy and cut himself adrift from his team mates. Then there was the autobiography release, in which he admitted to threatening Chelsea to secure a move. Arsenal fans were left wondering how on earth they`d managed to swap one whingeing, malcontented scribe of appalling autobiographies for another. Gallas was instantly removed from his station as captain and dropped from the squad for our next league fixture, despite injuries to Toure and Sagna. City tore into us and won 3-0 in what would prove to be the nadir of the season and undoubtedly the lowest ebb of Wenger`s thirteen year reign. The game showed us the quandary we were in, we couldn`t live with Gallas, but we also couldn`t live without him.
He sheepishly came back into the team for the game with Dynamo Kyiv, this time emanating from the tunnel behind new skipper Cesc Fabregas. In the week that Barack Obama was ushered into office in the States amidst euphoria and optimism, Gallas must have felt somewhat like George Bush as he took his place at centre half behind his younger, sexier and more popular successor. But you have to give it to Gallas, the five month spell he produced in the team from that point until his untimely injury in April was absolutely peerless. With the captaincy removing the glare and the pressure from his every move, Gallas was allowed to do what he does best again. His experience allowed him to be a cajoler and organiser in the defence again without cries of "phoney" being heard up and down the gutter press. What is also interesting is that during this five month spell, indisputably the best of his Arsenal career, Gallas` goal scoring feats decreased. He did manager crucial late winners against Portsmouth and Hull City from set pieces, but his early season form in front of goal was more audacious, perversely, I think that proves that Gallas relaxed slightly and stopped taking all of the team`s foibles so personally. He was no longer trying to take responsibility for the whole team, just his defence.
Arsenal`s post Christmas defensive form points to his influence. Arsenal conceded only eight goals in the sixteen league games he played after the shoeing at City. After his injury in Eastern Spain, we leaked ten in the last seven league games for which he was missing and succumbed to cup defeats to Chelsea and United in his absence. Our season literally fell apart when his medial ligament collapsed against Villarreal. I suspect we would not have beaten United in the Champions League had Gallas been fit, but I`m certain we would not have shipped four in defeat. Billy also showed a rare trait in 2009, Kolo Toure asked for a transfer in the wake of a bust up with Gallas after letting a two goal lead slip at Villa Park. It had long been speculated that the pair could not play together, now it was apparent they could not even stand the sight of one another, forcing Wenger to be uncharacteristically candid when he assured us, "Players don`t have to be friends to play well together." He was right too; the Gallas and Toure axis began to bear fruit as the pair wracked up the clean sheets in tandem with one another, Gallas, for once, was willing to let bygones be bygones, he has kept his counsel over the Toure row and instead the pair have concentrated on making their symphonic partnership work.
Having stayed away from the Dictaphones and had the spotlight removed from him with the removal of the armband, Gallas has been liberated and has thrived in an environment where he is allowed to use his immense experience and quality to marshal his defence. His organisational skills are very under rated, but it was that quality that Wenger identified when making him captain. Gallas is quick over the ground and has always been amongst the top readers of a game I have ever seen. Even at Chelsea, it was obvious every time he covered John Terry`s arse. But now at the age of 31, he has the requisite experience to take these skills to a new level. His lunge on Agbonlahor in the area at Villa Park aside, William is a defender rarely inclined to going to ground and making rash challenges, always choosing to shepherd the striker into less dangerous positions instead. For such a hot headed character, he has an eerie calm about him when choosing to make his challenges, like a boxer throwing a few tame jabs before delivering a precise upper cut and taking the ball off his opponent. In fact, his calm football kind juxtaposed with his igneous personality puts me in mind of a defensive Ian Wright. He has also clearly worked on his aerial prowess, winning headers had proved so difficult for him previously, Gallas now leaps like a gazelle and is not easily bullied. Kolo Toure is a very good defender, but he needs a cajoler or an organiser alongside him and Gallas has proved to be that foil in the way Sol Campbell once was. We have always known that Gallas was a good defender, but what has surprised nearly all of us has been his reaction to being stripped of the captaincy. I think we all expected a hissy fit and a transfer request, but William deserves great credit for his psychological response to that indignity. From Arsenal fans clamouring for him to leave in November, we now hope openly that he stays. Take note Emmanuel Adebayor, supporters will forgive you most things if they can see that you put in the time and effort where it matters. The football pitch. As it happens, Gallas was forgiven months ago. It seems crazy putting a man guilty of so many crimes against his team mates in third place for Player of the Season, but since that fateful day at Eastlands, that`s just how good Billy has been.LD.
Date:Friday June 5 2009
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