Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday August 23 2009
A season doesn`t feel as though it has well and truly started until the first home match. As is our custom for the first home match, it was a table for eleven at the Olive Tree opposite the Arsenal Tavern for a pre match lunch. Once the eleven of us had quite finished stuffing ourselves with Greek delicatessen, it was on to the important business of the eleven men on the pitch, feasting lasciviously on the carcass of a Pompey side in disarray. My expectation of an unchanged side and a newly Arsenalised stadium were both wide of the mark. None of the adorning pictures I have seen circulated have yet been placed in or on the arena, though the cannon had been painted onto the seats in the East Stand lower tier. (I still cannot quite fathom the quadrant nonsense and, according to Gazidis, this baffling terminology will soon be a thing of the past in favour of the much more discernable compass face terminology). The Gunners also made changes with Eboue, Gibbs, Diaby and Eduardo slotting into the 4-3-3 at the expense of Sagna, Clichy, Song and Bendtner respectively. Eduardo began on the wide left of the front triumvirate, with Arshavin on the right and van Persie at the arrowhead- though the three would rotate constantly throughout the first half.
Arsenal would display their intent in the opening five minutes with Fabregas at the hub of some fine interplay. Arshavin caressed the ball to Denilson, he fed Fabregas and the Gunners captain sprayed a beautifully weighted ball to Abou Diaby- given license to roam, on the right hand side. He made a beeline into Pompey`s eighteen yard area, but saw his cut back blocked with van Persie and Eduardo slow to join him in the area. On 18 minutes, Arsenal would recreate a similar move, this time on the left hand side. Fabregas again clipped a pass to Eduardo on the left, Eddie cheekily nudged the ball past Marc Wilson and looked up to cut the ball back into the path of the onrushing Diaby, who steered the ball into the top corner via the fingernails of David James. With three players upfront to think about, once again an opposing defence did not account for an Arsenal midfielder in the danger zone. Along with the pleasing habit of free scoring midfielders, the Gunners would reignite another old tradition four minutes later with a goal on the counter attack not dissimilar to the one Fabregas scored at Goodison Park. Portsmouth won a corner after some good covering from Eboue; Diaby cleared the corner with his head and then contrived to run the full length of the pitch at lightening pace. Arshavin nudged the ball to Fabregas who again carved open Pompey`s defence with a precise pass to the right flank where Eboue looked rather offside, but the Ivorian was allowed to plough forwards and find the onrushing Diaby alone in the area to plant the ball cleverly past James with a deceptive turn of the body- sending the England keeper the wrong way. It was now a question of how healthy our goal difference would be come five o` clock as the figure 6 was safely logged in the points tally.
van Persie looked to get in on the act, Fabregas, at the heart of everything Arsenal were creating, fed the ball into the Dutch striker with his back to goal, van Persie turned away from Kaboul and fired in a venomous low shot which was pawed away by James. Robin was given another opportunity from range after Cesc`s mazy run between three Pompey midfielders culminated in Kranjcar tripping him. van Persie`s rising free kick was again beaten out by James. However, as is their wont when two goals ahead, Arsenal became decidedly sloppy and unfocussed, allowing Portsmouth back into the game in a manner we have become accustomed to over the last few years. Kranjcar`s right wing corner swung all the way over to Belhadj on Portsmouth`s left. No Arsenal player went to block, allowing him time and space to swing in a precise cross to meet Kaboul`s enormous leap as he beat Almunia to the cross to make it 2-1. Diaby and Gibbs looked on dumbstruck, statuesque embodiments of Arsenal`s lost concentration. I would really like to see our defence begin to take more pride in keeping clean sheets, they should regard it as much a target as a striker does a goal. I would like to see our players take a goal conceded as a personal affront, a stain on their performance, we`ll need that resolution in the very near future and keeping clean sheets is a good habit to get into. Therefore at half time, 2-1 was mildly disappointing given how devastating we had been in the opening half an hour, with Portsmouth allowing us time on the ball to create mischief. The Gunners did nearly register on the stroke of half time when Eduardo danced in from the left, he tucked a ball into van Persie, who turned Kaboul, wriggled past Wilson, but saw James save his close range effort.
The focus did not appear to sharpen in the opening minutes of the half either. Wilson pumped a long ball down field, the Gunners laid bare on of the big weaknesses of seasons past as the high ball caused panic with only Gallas back (I have literally no idea where Vermaelen, Gibbs or Eboue were, but they weren`t where they were supposed to be), Utaka had the beating of Gallas for pace but bafflingly decided to trip himself rather than run through on goal. That has to be a measure of how poor Pompey`s confidence at the moment and full credit to Steve Bennett for spotting the gamesmanship, I certainly thought it was a foul in real time and my view of the incident was better than Bennett`s. The malaise would come to the fore once more when Wilson`s cross field pass found Gibbs far too nonchalant in his clearance, allowing the impressive Piquionne to dispossess him but fortunately place his shot well wide from a tight angle with Arsenal`s defence again AWOL. With Fabregas replaced at half time, Arsenal could not establish the same rhythm, but did score somewhat against the run of play to secure the points. Arshavin`s free kick was flicked on by van Persie, Vermaelen slid to place the ball back into the six yard box and Gallas kicked the ball onto his face and into the net- his third goal in as many games. In the last twelve months Gallas has scored variously with his crotch, his arse and now his mouth- how ironic that his form has improved since he stopped using his mouth quite so much. I`m backing him to tongue the ball in on Wednesday night, or possibly for a Denilson shot to ricochet past the Celtic keeper via Gallas` sense of self satisfaction.
Pompey`s brief flicker of life had turned into a dull flame and Arsenal managed to stretch their advantage on 69 minutes. van Persie was given an ocean of time to pick out a pass to the onrushing Ramsey, Marc Wilson playing him onside and Ramsey`s calm finish laid the scoring to rest. Pompey did have one last chance as Piquionne motored down the left, with Eboue allowing him in behind unchecked, Piquionne raced to the by-line and cut back for Utaka who somehow contrived to plant the ball well wide. No wonder he`d rather trip himself up than run clear on goal. The final whistle bought the curtain down on a pleasing score line and a very good offensive display. The front three constantly rotated to good effect and made space for the midfield to score yet again, Arshavin`s lack of form thus far does not worry me so long as he turns it on when we really need it- next Saturday would be nice. You get the impression he`s a drifter who will not be overly involved in a game, but once he is you tend to think his effect will be very tangible. However, his tracking back really must improve; I Iost count of the amount of times Pompey bombed forwards with Arshavin stranded upfield with hands on hips. Without the correct work ethic, he is in danger of becoming a luxury player. Pires and Cole was such an effective axis for us because they both defended and attacked in harmony (I cannot get my head around people that claim Pires did not track back- an ungainly myth if ever I heard one), Arshavin will have to work harder in this league than he has perhaps been accustomed in Russia. The lack of goals for strikers bothers me not one iota- even if Myles Palmer thinks it will bring about the apocalypse. The strikers are making space for midfielders to score, if opposing defences then exude focus on the midfield, then the strikers are left to run amok, either way we create problems for the opponents. People such as the increasingly deranged Myles Palmer need to realise football is a team game and catering for individual egos will lead ultimately to hubris. Remember this time last year when we gave Adebayor a fat wedge of cash? If Myles wants to continue his hand parties over Arshavin and his ego, I`ll leave that to him, but whilst Arsenal are averaging four goals a game I won`t worry too much about precious individual egos. What Arsenal will need to do is to demonstrate greater resolution in defence, porous holes appeared yesterday which a better team will have punished more rigorously and the long ball still appears to have our back line panicking. Without Fabregas in the second half, Arsenal`s football wasn`t as fluid, not that it needed to be. But if Arsenal are to take forward their excellent form, they must not allow their focus to drop.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 15.DENILSON, 4.FABREGAS(c) (16.Ramsey H/T), 23.ARSHAVIN (46.Merida `71), 9.EDUARDO (52.Bendtner `71), 11.v.PERSIE. unused: 3.Sagna, 17.Song, 22.Clichy, 24.Mannone.
Date:Sunday August 23 2009
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