Before we even discuss Sunday afternoon’s events, may I take the opportunity to wish all readers a Happy Easter.
The weather in Lancashire looked beautiful, and it has been a warm, pretty day here in the Metro DC area.
The task was evident as we lined up at the Reebok – scene of some previous gruesome moments in recent Arsenal history – today. With Man United and Chelsea winning yesterday, we found ourselves nine and three points, respectively, adrift; with only fifteen possible points to make up.
As with recent matches, we found ourselves to be mostly full strength: Nik Bendtner was apparently ruled out through injury this morning, but other than long-term absentees Vermaelen and Fabianski, we had plenty of options to choose from.
Arsene went with Szczesny, Clichy, JD, Kos, Sagna, Song, Cesc, Jack, Theo, Robin, and Samir.
Jens, Gibbs, Squil, Eboue, Ramsey, Arsh and Chamakh made up the bench.
Fit players such as Al, Denilson and Rosicky could not even make the bench.
As down in the dumps as our team have been, Bolton did not exactly come into the match on the back of a positive result. The late, great Nat Lofthouse scored twice in the 1958 FA Cup final, as Bolton beat Manchester United. Lofthouse passed away in January, and this Bolton side hoped to honor his memory by lifting that particular cup once again.
Last Sunday, a few hours before we drew with Liverpool, Bolton were destroyed 5-0 by Stoke City in the FA Cup Semi-Final; not only was the dream killed, it was shattered in the most comprehensive, ruthless fashion. Surely, on the back of that result, we would be able to heap more misery on them and help our faltering title bid out?
If only…As with Wednesday at the Lane, we started quickly through Theo. Just a couple of minutes in, he forced Jaaskelainen to parry a shot, with Cahill blocking again as Samir tried to tuck the rebound home. Bolton, however, gave warning that they were not simply going to capitulate, with Lee floating a cross in which had our defence scrambling.
We made most of the early running, but other than a low Cesc shot which Jaaskelainen had to tip around the post, we failed to really pressure the Bolton defence.
Indeed, Bolton should have taken the lead 25 minutes; Sturridge split our defence, sending Lee through; when the shot was on, however, he tried to feed K. Davies, and Song was able to clear.
We have seen Arsenal players do this plenty – go through and try and set a team-mate up instead of taking the shot themselves – in recent weeks, so it was a bit of a relief to see another team do it. Nevertheless, the move appeared to unsettle our team, with JD looking particularly nervous and sloppy, and we conceded a series of free-kicks.
Bolton duly opened the scoring with just over five minutes remaining in the half. Sturridge once again set Lee up, only for Szczesny to make a fine block from the South Korean’s close range shot, Kos putting the ball out of play for a corner before Bolton could put the rebound away.
Not for the first – or last – time this season, we were undone by a set-piece. Lee took the corner and picked out Cahill, who sent a firm header in. Samir blocked on – or perhaps over – the line, but Sturridge was on hand to head the rebound into the empty net. It was a good delivery from Lee – far; far better than anything we were able to send in from our nine corners; but Cahill should never have been allowed such a good header from it.
As it was, Bolton earned only three corners the entire match. They scored on two of them…
We tried to respond, and with just a minute of regulation left, Cesc hit the post with a low drive, and saw his follow-up blocked – again. Where we continually failed to get enough bodies into position to mop rebounds up, Bolton always had someone on hand to get in front a cross/pass/shot. This has been a hallmark of our recent unbeaten run, and one of many reasons why we haven’t scored that many goals and dropped so.
So we found ourselves 1-0 down at the half, despite dominating possession and large portions of play. Arsene made no changes at the half, and within a minute of the restart, Bolton had the opportunity to double their lead from the spot. Sturridge got the better of JD all too easily and went down under the latter’s challenge in the box. The penalty looked soft, but it was poor, poor defending from JD to get himself into trouble and give Sturridge the opportunity to get a whistle. Fortunately, K. Davies let us off the hook, taking a weak, frankly terrible penalty which Szczesny easily saved.
Could we capitalize on that new lease on the life? It took only a minute, but we finally did. Robin and Cesc played a great one-two on the edge of the area, with Robin firing low into the left hand corner. The sense of relief was evident, and players looked instantly more encouraged as they looked to move in front for the first time. Yet we were unable to fashion any really great chances in the next ten minutes, and Bolton tried to hit us on the break. Song and Jack both received yellows for fouls on Lee, who continued to cause us problems, and JD gave Bolton half-chances with a couple of more clumsy fouls.
I thought Song had a poor game – his form since injury has not been very good – and he was the first to make way, with Arsene bringing Chamakh on in the 65th minute. Robin shot wide from our next move, but Elmander then set Lee up, but the latter couldn’t capitalize. Chamakh then had a glorious chance, but instead of shooting, he chose to pass to Samir, and the chance was lost. Then with 20 minutes remaining, Robin sent Samir clear through, but the latter shot too close to Jaaskelainen, allowing the latter to block – the rebound came out to Samir, but then Cahill blocked the follow-up.
And so it went, Arsenal pressure; Bolton defend. We made chances, but we were either an instant from applying the finish, or a pass too many from creating a real, quality chance. Arsh replaced Theo with 18 remaining and Ramsey replaced Jack with six to go. In between these two subs, we kept the pressure on with a couple of corners and a couple of shots which were – surprise – blocked.
As this pattern continued, Bolton remained dangerous on the break, and we were finally undone in the last-minute of regulation. JD’s errant header put Elmander through and the latter drove in a shot which Szczesny had to tip around the post. Taylor put the corner in and Cohen – literally just on as a sub for Sturridge – got ahead of JD way too easily and headed Bolton back into the lead. This was a poignant moment for Cohen, who revealed a t-shirt paying tribute to his recently departed (former Liverpool player) father, Avi.
For Arsenal, it was much, much worse, heads immediately dropped and the players looked like they knew the game was up. Referee Jones signaled five minutes stoppage time, but we did not create a single quality chance, and slumped tamely to defeat – our first league reverse after a run of sixteen unbeaten league matches – the defeat the almost certainly puts paid to our already-remote title hopes. Our side has not been the same since the Carling Cup Final, and this performance and loss encapsulated the worst of it all in a single match…
Arsene admitted the title is almost certainly off for this season. Visibly deflated in the post-match, he conceded our title chances are “minimal.” While praising the players “outstanding attitude”, he also conceded that “we have not been stable enough defensively” and that “We still lack something called maturity, experience, or calmness in important situations.” These are Arsene’s words, not those of a supporter or media hack…
Encouragingly, he did not harp on the officials, when there were at least a couple of debatable things, such as an early penalty shout for Theo, and referee Jones’ unwillingness to book K. Davies until a minute from time, despite several dirty and late challenges earlier. Nevertheless, the time for pointing the finger at officials is long past – we squandered the chances and we conceded the set-piece goals, not the officials…
When asked directly about the players’ “mental strength”, Arsene chose to give an answer in the context of their “outstanding attitude”. For me, this is telling, because I do not think they are one and the same. I see mental strength as the determination to keep going and turn things around regardless of what obstacles exist. I see “outstanding attitude” as the ability to keep trying hard and persisting – while not necessarily believing in the ability to actually turn things around.
Perhaps the players do have mental strength in abundance, as Arsene has maintained for so long; the problem is that they rarely show it when the chips are down. There seems to be a tacit admission that, seven weeks on, the players are still not over the Carling Cup Final. The recent performances certainly seem to support this, and such an inability to rebound is not something many of us would associate with “mental strength”.
Arsene also said “It there is someone to blame, it is me.” I am not interested in playing the blame game, never have been. The manager and players will be judged on results at the end of the season; that is how it usually works in this business. Once the season is completed, wherever we finish up, all I ask is that Arsene takes a hard, critical, and objective look at things and take action where he sees it is necessary.
As recently as the third week in February, the season promised everything; now we are more or less fighting to hold our current position. There are clearly some major problems, problems that are still holding us back from taking the next step…
While we are on the subject of Arsene, I am more than a bit concerned about him. Previous comments have indicated that he feels the players have been “victimized” throughout the season, and his sideline demeanor this afternoon suggested he still feels that way.
As we huffed and puffed in the second half, there he was, kicking water bottles in frustration, grimacing and stamping his feet when a decision went against us, bending the officials ears…Many of our supporters have blamed a toxic atmosphere – particularly at home matches – amongst a clearly polarized body of supporters for much of our problems. I would suggest that Arsene’s histrionics don’t help our players very much either. They are nervous and scared of losing a lead?
Could Arsene looking like a man who has lost control on the sidelines have something to do with it? Robin had a good overall match – scoring yet again – but his play had an undercurrent of petulance and strop, as he lobbied for bookings, and remonstrated with Bolton players on more than one occasion.
Does he see Arsene do it and feel he needs to do the same on the pitch? I don’t know. What I do know is that I have seen lots and lots of negative energy from Arsene in recent weeks, and I cannot see any way the players can draw positive encouragement from it…
Oh well…If I knew the answers to all these, perhaps I would have a job with Arsenal FC right now.
I don’t and I don’t, so I will continue to support as best as I can. Arsene conceded the title is almost gone; should Man United win at the Ems on Sunday, both slim and none will have left town – we will then be mathematically eliminated.Red Nose has been bragging about doing just that on May Day.
Surely our players have to pick themselves up and not allow that to happen. We have been waiting for a signature win coming into this season – we got two of them, beating both Chelsea and Barcelona at home. Let’s make it a hat trick and make United wait a bit longer for that 19th title. They are ordinary on the road, so beating them is not “mission impossible” in any way, shape or form.
For several weeks, I have been waiting for our players to get pissed off at all the criticism, to do something about how Arsene is hung out to dry again and again after keeping their back, and just decide to make someone else suffer for how our season has gone. I’m still waiting…
Third is still in our hands – it is painful saying that, but it’s the situation that we find ourselves in. Let’s at least not slip any further down the table. It will almost certainly be too little, too late – but if we can win our last four matches in style, then at least we can finish the season on a winning note.
That has to count for something…
Written by Oliver