Arsenal 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
With the Wolves game postponed by 24 hours- a decision the club really should have made when the London Underground strike was first mooted in September- we were left to our cold turkey and our sofas as Boxing Day provided some results that had the potential to give Arsenal`s dash for 4th place a real shot in the arm. Liverpool and Chelsea unexpectedly dropped points at home. The Gunners simply had to make sure they didn`t do the same against a Wolves side in freefall.
Predictably and correctly, the manager made changes. Walcott and Ramsey had both looked leggy in recent away matches and came out, with Rosicky and Benayoun coming in having both changed a game that was slipping away at Villa Park. Though I had no issue with that selection pre match, in hindsight, with a lack of proper full backs and shorn of the pace of Walcott; perhaps it didn`t have the required dynamism for a home game. In announcing the team names, two things have become apparent inside the ground. The first is that, since the Everton home match, Robin van Persie has reignited an old Arsenal tradition dating back to the late 20s, with the team lining up in the centre circle pre match and saluting all four sides of the ground. The second is that the club have now quietly ditched the call and response team line up announcement over the tannoy.
The Gunners gave themselves the perfect start after just 8 minutes. Wolves mounted a threatening attack down their left; Jarvis` cross to the by line was smuggled away to the edge of the area; at which point Tomas Rosicky took over. Shielding the ball away to the left hand side, he then neatly pirouetted away from Henry and Forde before releasing a reverse pass to Benayoun in the centre circle. The Israeli moved forward before releasing a defence splitting pass to Gervinho. The Ivorian took it brilliantly whilst turning off balance before bearing down on Hennessey, dancing past him and slotting a left footed finish into the unguarded net.
You had the feeling an early goal would settle any nerves and that the home side would go onto secure a comfortable result. Unfortunately, I think that thought became far too pervasive with the players too. That said, Arsenal looked odds on to grab a second. Rosicky again drifted into space on the right and found Gervinho infield, the Ivorian`s slide rule pass found van Persie in the channel who rushed his sliding finish. It was an indication I feel that the goalscoring record was on his mind. It was Rosicky again who found space between Wolves` midfield and defence and teed up van Persie, he powered past the advances of Johnson and Henry before arrowing a low left footed shot towards the bottom corner, but Wayne Hennessey beat it out with a strong right arm.
From there, Arsenal totally lost their focus and professionalism, believing the job to be done. There were several warning signs not heeded. Firstly when Arteta played a simple pass back towards Vermaelen, yet neither he or Koscielny, also close to the ball, were looking in the right direction. But the most flagrant lack of humility came from Alex Song. Firstly when he received a good pass in the right hand channel in the area. Van Persie was in a good position on the back post, a lofted pass away from a free header. Song instead decided to let the ball roll across his body and try a backheel. It was a moronic and selfish manoeuvre, there was never any question such a pass could reach van Persie. But Song was more interested in his ego.
Not satisfied with that piece of errant nonsense, Song then conceded possession thirty yards from his own goal with an attempted back heel that didn`t come off. The problem is that when you display such arrogance at 1-0 (and it wasn`t just Song, though he was the worst offender), you leave yourself open to the arrows of fortune catching you right in the aris. Jarvis` cross was headed away by Djourou, but only as far as Stephen Hunt on the edge of the area. He and Rosicky tussled for the ball, the bounce fell to Hunt, whose strike was deflected off the leg of Vermaelen and fell straight to Steven Fletcher. Fletcher would have been offside but for a dawdling Alex Song playing him on at the back post, so Fletcher was able to redirect the deflection and head into the bottom corner.
One could not in all seriousness say that a Wolves goal was coming; but it was a harsh lesson we deserved to learn for our complacency. It`s difficult for a manager such as Wenger to punish players overly for such errors; we rely on our team being expressive and liberated and you don`t want to make them frightened to do that. But I would advocate a Graham-esque fine for Song given his first half antics. Or at least some kind of retribution. Do they still do the yellow "I`m having a mare" bibs in training nowadays? Overelaboration has become a part of his game and I think he needs to be slapped down a peg or two. Because he`s been having an excellent season otherwise.
Arsenal regrouped and tried to reassume their lead with seven minutes of the half still to play. Arteta found Rosicky on the edge of the area; he turned and fired a shot which was well saved by Hennessey. But to go in at half time at 1-1 was criminal. I muttered to my friends at half time, "Mark my words, this is finishing 1-1." It was obvious we had gifted Wolves a reason to put ten across the back and their bodies on the line. We`d made life difficult for ourselves. So it proved. Gervinho tore at the Wolves defence to find himself fouled by Roger Johnson. As van Persie tried to take the free kick, he was impeded by the clueless Atwell. All afternoon, Atwell looked like he was on work experience or something. Utterly inept official. When he finally did locate his grey matter and get his fat arse out of van Persie`s way, the Dutchman`s fizzing free kick was touched over by Hennessey.
Wenger called for Arshavin from the bench as Arsenal sought to pile on the pressure. His first contribution was to find Rosicky with a searching ball out wide. Rosicky bent an arcing cross into the Wolves area with the outside of his right boot, Mertesacker climbed and headed downwards, but Hennessey blocked with his foot. From the rebound, the ball squirmed to van Persie, who made half a yard of space in a throng of bodies, but Berra just deflected his shot over the bar. Arsenal looked to unlock the key again as Arshavin played a 1-2 with Ramsey, Ward originally cut out Arshavin`s return pass, but his unwillingness to use his right foot saw him check back in his own area. Ramsey dispossessed him and cut the ball back to Rosicky, who bent his shot wide from the edge of the area.
As Arsenal pressed for a winner the game became ever more frantic. Arsenal might have had a penalty when Berra appeared to handle Gervinho`s cross. One thing for certain is that the game was far, far too frantic for Atwell. When another goalmouth scramble saw the ball make its way to Arteta on the edge of the Wolves area, Milijas went for a sliding tackle which was barely even a foul. He was well in control, feet on the floor and might even have got the ball before he caught Arteta. How on earth Atwell contrived to produce a red card I`ll never know. It was up there with Phil Dowd`s awful decision at Old Trafford 24 hours earlier when he sent Connor Sammon off for little or nothing. The speed of the game is indeed troublesome for match officials, but neither of these incidents happened at any great velocity. Both were exceptionally poor calls by woefully incompetent officials.
The game had long since become attack against defence, but a one man buffer seldom proves to be any sort of advantage in this scenario. The Gunners continued to pile on the pressure. Van Persie wasn`t able to demonstrate his usual sangfroid in the area with the record clearly on his mind. Rosicky hit a wonderful lofted pass over the Wolves defence, leaving van Persie with just Hennessey to beat. He brought it down brilliantly but hesitated instead of shooting. Arshavin almost produced a piece of magic to pick the lock, playing a 1-2 with van Persie on the edge of the box, with no backlift on his left foot; the Russian hit a first time shot out of nowhere, which had Hennessey rooted to the spot, but the ball just flew wide of the post.
As the defending became more frantic, as did Arsenal`s attacking. Arsenal suffered all day from not having naturalised full backs to overlap for Benayoun and Gervinho. But Djourou did put one run together at the cusp of Wolves` area, drawing the foul from Stephen Hunt, van Persie`s resulting free kick was low and on target but, once again, dealt with by the Wolves keeper. It wasn`t just Hennessey`s palms that were stinging though. Ramsey fed an intelligent ball into van Persie in the left channel. The Dutchman let the ball cross his body before unleashing a low left footed volley from a tight angle. It was a move that beautifully foxed Victor Valdes in February, but Wayne Hennessey throw out his feet and the ball stayed lodged between his ankles. It was that sort of day.
Another example of Arsenal`s lack of relaxation at the crucial moment came when Arshavin`s cross seemed destined for Chamakh, who craned his neck back to meet with a firm header, but van Persie came steaming into the back of him and headed over. Both men desperate to score and drawing blood from one another, but not relaxing and taking the sensible option. Hennessey still had one more excellent save left in him. Arshavin fed the ball into Gervinho on the 18 yard line, his unwitting touch took the ball into the path of Vermaelen, who bore down on Hennessey, but the Welsh keeper spread himself to deny the Belgian a precious winner. 73% possession, 27 shots. Arsenal completed more passes from the 80th minute onwards than Wolves did in the entire game. Yet the result was 1-1.
Two enormously precious points tossed away. With Spurs winning at a canter later in the evening, we have left ourselves with an awful lot to do to catch them. I`m tempted to say we were unlucky but ultimately we paid a harsh price for losing our focus in the first half and not treating the game with respect at 1-0. Football and indeed life, has a habit of punishing you for that. Alas, we gave ourselves so much to do with our poor start to the season, that such a loss of focus in that 20 minute spell in which Wolves equalised is scarcely forgivable. Our great white hope now is that Spurs must still visit us, Eastlands, Anfield and Stamford Bridge and that Redknapp doesn`t rotate his starting line up. But we`ve given Spurs quite a cushion. All in all, a very frustrating result and a very severe lesson learned. We hope. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU (29.Chamakh `84), 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 17.SONG (16.Ramsey `71), 8.ARTETA, 7.ROSICKY, 30.BENAYOUN (23.Arshavin `64), 27.GERVINHO, 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 1.Almunia, 15.Chamberlain, 39.Coquelin, 49.Miquel.
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