I agree as I’m sure all Arsenal fans do…
Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith was asked one question by Richard Keys after our game yesterday and that was, ‘ What was what would you change in this Arsenal side if you could?’
Smudger said that we lack that ‘Over my dead body are you going to score attitude’ and that was the only thing he would add to our side. He was talking about how we concede goals far too easily and make things hard for ourselves.
He is so very right and we wouldn’t have conceded two goals yesterday had we had that mentality.
Anyway on to Oliver’s match review:-
On the back of two performances that can best be described as “putrid” – and results that were even worse – the team went up to Birmingham for the early kickoff. I was quite curious to see how our players started – there definitely should not have been any problem with urgency or purpose. I certainly could not complain about the start – we were all over Villa from kickoff, creating several good chances, which were (sigh) ultimately squandered. Arshavin and Nasri were unable to convert some particularly good opportunities. Villa settled a bit around the 20 minute mark, but we still bossed the game.
On 39 minutes, Arshavin brought the ball down the left, passed Dunne, and shot past Friedel – who appeared to get a slight touch as the ball went past him – to put us 1-0 up. Great goal from Arshavin and a great overall game from him as well. He was direct, energetic, and created several chances for his team-mates. Within 30 seconds, Nasri went past the Villa back line, rounded Friedel, but shot into the side netting from a difficult angle. But just before halftime, Nasri made amends from an Arshavin corner, which he blasted past Friedel from outside a crowd of players in the box. 2-0 up at the interval, playing well and looking comfortable…Where have we seen that before?
After the events of a week ago, I wondered – with considerable trepidation – whether we could continue to energy, work rate and improved finishing from the first half. The legend that is Bob Pires had a quiet 45 minutes and Houllier brought Birmingham lad Delfouneso on in his place. Villa quickly looked more threatening, and, perhaps inevitably, they pulled one back. I have an issue with that goal: Squillaci (as on Tuesday in Portugal) could not complete a clearance, and Clark latched on to shoot past Fabianski. While this was taking place, however, the lumbering donkey Carew was standing in a half-bent-over position in the area – waaay offside and directly in front of the Arsenal goalkeeper. So in front, in fact, that Fabianski had to literally crane his neck to see around the claret and blue statue parked in front of him. Carew may not have gotten a touch on the ball, but how could anyone possibly argue that he was not interfering with play by standing directly in front of Fabianski? Perhaps some would argue that if Fabianski couldn’t see, he should have been the one to move – I disagree. He positioned himself at a certain point to anticipate and react to a shot – he was unsighted because Carew was blocking him from an offside position. Carew was offside and interfering with play – the goal should have been disallowed. My guess is that Clattenburg and his crew was not paying full attention, as they should have been. No malice or anti-Arsenal bias that particular ref is often accused of. They were just asleep at the wheel during this particular moment.
Regardless, that moment sparked Arsenal into action and it took them just four minutes to restore the two goal advantage, Rosicky springing Chamakh down the left. Our forward did the rest, stabbing the ball under a sliding Friedel for his tenth goal in Arsenal colours. For a roughly ten minute spell after that goal, we threatened to rack ‘em up. Villa were clearly rattled and we cut through them again and again. Unfortunately, a familiar failing came to the fore – over-elaboration in and around the penalty area. We passed crisply and worked the ball to the Villa area well, only to opt for the extra pass when a shot might have been a better option. This is probably one of the most frustrating things about this Arsenal side.
As usual, the good play dissipated after about ten minutes and we started giving the ball away. Villa pressed, spurned a chance to pull a goal back, but then did just that on 72 minutes, with Clark heading over Fabianski and in from point-blank range. From there it was Arsenal’s turn for nerves. Villa put us under pressure, but did not create too many clear chances – most balls into the box were cleared, and we started to assert ourselves again. Arsene made a double switch on 85, bringing Gibbs and Denilson on for Nasri and Arshavin, respectively, and five minutes later introduced Djourou for Captain-for-the-day Rosicky.
By that point, we were back in control. In the 93rd minute, we broke into the Villa penalty area, and the excellent Chamakh dinked a ball over the face of the goal for Jack to head in at the far post – his first league goal in an Arsenal shirt. The final whistle went less than a minute later, and it was job done.
What to make of the performance and result? Depending upon how you feel about Arsene and the squad, yesterday’s events may corroborate your views. If you feel Arsene and the squad just are not good enough, you can point to nearly chucking a two goal lead again on two occasions. If you think Arsene and the squad have what it takes to go the distance this time, you can point to another away win, and the character to dig deep and answer every time this Villa side – previously unbeaten at home in the league this season – threatened to pull level. My views are somewhat in between the two.
I see our Arsenal squad as not nearly the finished article, but I think we showed we can defend competently, and we can see games out. The key is now to do this consistently. I thought there were some encouraging signs, particularly a defensively responsible performance. Villa gave us plenty of shaky moments, and had us clinging to a single-goal lead on more than one occasion. But we came through it and got a deep-into-stoppage time clincher.
I thought Arsene was very pragmatic yesterday – his substitutions were all defensive in nature, designed to hold on to what we had. And I thought the defenders did just that – defend. It wasn’t always pretty, but more often than not, we had players in the right positions to make interceptions. Our players are still suckers for well-delivered crosses and corners, but Villa didn’t make the most of that particular weakness. There is definitely a trend here, where we can defend leads on the road, but not at home. Perhaps we just have the wrong mix of gung-ho and casualness in the home matches. Whatever it is, we need to sort it out quickly.
We saw what this team can do if it plays with discipline. I am not holding my breath, but I would be very happy if Arsene completely scrapped the high defensive line, and nine-men-in-the-opposition-half tactics. He seems to value ball possession above all else – to the point that our players seem to consciously forego shots on goal in order to retain possession – but possession alone will not win games, as we saw in Portugal against a very, very poor Braga side. But I do not expect he will change anything: Arsene is what he is, and this is his vision of how football should be played. But hopefully he can at least temper some of the “get-all-the-way forward” mentality the centre halves and defensive midfielder (yes, you, Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong) seem enamored with. If they can spend more time at home, breaking up attacks rather than trying to start them, we should have a much more solid platform to defend leads. I think our players are, for the most part, good enough. There are certainly some positions we can strengthen, and specific qualities that we lack in certain positions; but overall, as long as the players we have can stick to their main roles, I think they are good enough to win a cup and possibly the league. .
Regarding Villa, they gave us a very tough game, and I was impressed by their young players. They are also dealing with an injury crisis to several of their established first-team players, so some of the youngsters we saw today may not have gotten action if Houllier had a full squad to pick from. I think they have several good prospects in the squad and while they may struggle to qualify for Europe this season, I think they will be good for a number of more years. I also think they currently have a better balance of youth and experience than our Arsenal side does. We’ll see each other again at the Ems later this season; other than that and if we draw each other in a domestic Cup, I wish them well for the rest of the season.
So yesterday we were able to taste the Premiership summit for two or so hours. Later in the afternoon, Man United overtook us again, hitting seven past a compliant Blackburn, and Chelsea can also nudge back in front by winning at Newcastle today. Regardless, we needed a win in the worst way, and got one. We really need to try and build on this, so here is hoping for a professional and morale boosting Carling Cup win over Wigan on Tuesday, and the start of a good run in the league.
The players have shown they are capable of getting big wins and grinding out results – we just need to do it consistently. Otherwise, we will continually return to the proverbial “square one”, and never build any real momentum or make real progress towards silverware.