A splendid Valencia victory last week closed the gap between the Valencians and the Catalans to a mere 6-point deficit. With Chelsea doing the impossible by shooting themselves in the foot with a trip to ‘Boro and ended on the wrong side of a 3-0 scoreline, that should set up the atmosphere perfectly for a cracking Champions League encounter between the two losing sides. I still root for a Catalan victory nonetheless for the future of club football rather than allow the oligarchs and economic goliaths to manipulate behind the scenes. Case in point, Portsmouth restructured their club playing staff mid-season and nearly revamped their entire squad, having bought along the way, players like the black shoe Polish Olisadebe and the aging keeper Kiely who should have been seeing the rest of his career at Sheffield Wednesday etc.
My mind however, lies with how low Arsenal has come to be in this season which Gooners fans would ought to naturally like to forget.
The first signs have been obvious and I’m not pointing at Vieira’s sudden departure as the main reason. Should memory serves, a game at Highbury last season (2004/2005) against Middlesbrough serves to illustrate this point. A quick-fire 3-1 lead by Middlesbrough caught the Gunners buck naked mid-point in that game and only a strike by Dennis Bergkamp led the return of the Gunners indescribable form the season before. Alex Ferguson’s side finally split aside the false mask of pretension and exposed an Arsenal side in decline but which did nothing to recify it, only choosing to paper over the cracks, but this is a telling prelude of the inner decay happening at the club right now. Here are the myths and the facts the way I see it.
Myth– First, I can’t comprehend how many observers can say that Arsenal missed Vieira’s presence much in the midfield. Let me make this clear, he was a shadow of his former imposing self in his final season at the club and I cannot recall how many times he lost possession in his position when he was supposed to get in the mix and grind out some more passes to other key players on the field. Can’t say he didn’t try but he was clearly not in the right frame of mind. Excellent in one game and inconsequential in the next. I might say that Real Madrid’s frequent courting of Vieira had a dramatic impact on his insipid performance.
PV might have been having moments of soliloquy while admiring himself in house mirrors and thinks ‘I’m beautiful when so many clubs out there want me.’ Then he goes out on the pitch and still thinks that he looks like Christian Karembeu’s gorgeous wife and gets his thongs turned inside out on his fickle head when Arsenal gets whupped and rightly so. When someone thinks s/he is desirable in whatever situation here applied, they get vain and when they have funny ideas in their heads, they will become stupid and stupidity is incurable and in many situations, irreversible. Looking at Thierry Henry these days suggest a similar attitude. Watching the Liverpool match suggests that with or without Titi on Arsenal’s side, the outcome would have been the same. Paddy has been deliberating Real Madrid’s overtures for a long time yet, with summers becoming embroiled in the ‘Will he, won’t he’ saga. When Arsenal picked up the Mickey Mouse Cup in the form of the FA Cup last season, I felt sure that such a paltry loot may have him reconsidering his options with redoubled fervor. That his recent revelation in January about him going to Juventus to increase his chances of winning the elusive Champions League title did more than clarify his fickle mind-set come the end of the season. One thing’s for sure, when doing something, do it right or don’t bother doing it at all. However, I admit that Arsenal do miss Patrick Vieira when his mind was STILL at the club and not in his final season. To cut it short, players who cannot give their all should not be forced to do it.
But try not to equate Tel’s hesitation in penning a new deal at the club as a foregone conclusion that he may be doing a Vieira. At least he has come clean with his love for the club and that is what really matters.
Fact—When the chips are down and things don’t look as good as the unbeaten season, I can see many Gunners’ heads drooping down in defeat. Henry shakes his head far too often to be a decent captain. The match against Chelsea at Highbury drew a startling contrast between John Terry and Henry as captains. Terry’s self-motivation needed no description but Henry was clowning with Chelsea’s mascot and acting like a nice guy all around. Wenger may have granted the captain’s armband in a desperate attempt at lavishing pride on the now soulless captain who looked ill at ease with it. Sol Campbell’s version of standing up and fight back is to cower in the dressing room shower and curse his misfortune and then desert his comrades who are trying to get something from the match against West Ham. Already Arsenal-Mania forum entry contributors are screaming for Ash or Mad Jens to take the captain’s helm. The absence of a leader on the pitch may not have affected a team that badly but more than half of the players in the first 11 simply gave up without a good fight. Robin van Persie has the passion but he looked like he wants to use his fists to do the talking most of the time while Toure and Ljungberg’s clash in the Newcastle encounter sums up the team spirit at Arsenal FC. Many supporters have predicted Fabregas as the future leader but I reckon not as his allegiance is also in doubt, with him claiming proudly that he would like to feature for Barcelona someday. Who knows, he may not even be at Arsenal when Ashburton Grove beckons, but that is besides the point.
Fact — Arsenal hardly ever plays with more than one tactic nowadays. Their game-plan against Liverpool in the deserved 1-0 defeat is so transparent. Punt upfield and try to release Henry or Adebayor and if that one fails….then they will just soak up the counter-attack and pray that Lehmann or the defense can mop up the mess.
Rafa Benitez may have been barking instructions at the touch-line but in his genius footballing brain, he may have been laughing sardonically at Wenger for playing such naive football and after the match, he may even break in evil bursts of chuckle at how easy Arsenal rolled over at Anfield. Even if a neutral is watching the match without siding either team, it doesn’t take long to acknowledge that Liverpool always looked likely to score while Arsenal always looked likely to entertain the masses with the Royal London circus act with front-row seats. Take a look at Phillipe Senderos header back into his own goal to see what I mean. Lehmann, though, was an undeserving loser but such is the team’s mediocrity that defeat never seemed far away.
I can see that Arsenal DID try to play their football and faintly tried to get in the rhythm and hopefully thread a perfect pass for Henry to finish. But both wingers in either position has been stifled! How on earth did Wenger not notice that? Ljungberg was denied by Riise for most of the match while Pires hardly got further than the center of the park. It did not help that Henry was more than content to camp in the CF position and wait for the pass that never came. Arsenal’s threat came from Ljungberg in the first-half but his finishing was tasteless and woeful. Henry’s shot at Dudek may have had the travelling Gooners something to feel optimistic about but at the end, some abysmal man-marking meant that Liverpool got all three points while it did no favors for Arsenal’s confidence.
Myth — That some fans can somehow contrive to say that Arsenal cannot play with a 4-5-1 tactic after watching them play in this formation for the most part of the season so far. In fact, it goes without saying that some tactics suit one occasion and not in good use for another. Other EPL teams are also managed by managers with excellent credentials and the onus is on the players who receive their wage packets from the paymasters to prove their value and mettle. The manager picks the right personnel for the job and the poorer-performing talented players should not get the nod ahead of consistent performers but technically-lacking individuals. It’s a simple rule of the thumb but Wenger’s the boss. But for me, 4-5-1 CAN work but for Henry to be effective, the two centre midfielders have to support him in attack. Wenger’s over-reliance on wingers to drive the attack has been blunted on occasion when other teams quickly anticipated such an attack and moved to quell the tempo before they get into trouble themselves. Witness how Bolton usually plays to get the basic idea. But the best form of attack is one where switching tactics in-game to throw opponents’ off-balance should have taken precedence.
Myth — Arsene Wenger came under fire from Arsenal fans for failing to find a natural successor to Patrick Vieira. (read: sign new players in the form of Patrick Vieira) In logical terms, this is impossible as Vieira plays in his own style and to crown a new no. 4 is simply not possible in just a summer vacation. What I’m clarifying here is that it takes time and a bit of luck and much persistence. I’m not supporting his youth policy much at all and I still believe in finished products than raw uncut diamonds who have too much burden and responsibility to shoulder in a predictably difficult season. I mean, he bought Hleb (although it is out of place to fit the new kid in PV’s boots in his debut season) as a squad player but Wenger’s falling grace this season is to put his unshakeable belief and trust in senior players who let him down time and again. Gilberto did try harder in the Liverpool match but he still failed to prove as to the reason why he was a Brazil World Cup winner in a performance fit for the Liga Segunda in Spain. Bob Pires’ best years are already fading in a distant horizon and his lack of drive shows. True, he may have been disturbed about his chances of making the cut into the France WC squad but shouldn’t a winner take the challenge and try his best to impress than to lay down and play forgettable football of which even Strasbourg or Metz are even thinking of signing him again. The funny fact is, Arsenal’s game against Liverpool was mightily unfair to the inspired hosts as the Gunners stroked the ball too much in their own half, with both wingers’ clear path having been blocked by opposite numbers. Pires back-tracked far too often for their own good but like I said before, can’t say he didn’t try to make it good.
Diaby should not try to model his game after Patrick Vieira’s though. He betrayed signs that he is attempting to do so but I think that a player at such a young age should be allowed to play his game and allow the manager to open up infinite possibilities from further observations.
Myth — Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Middlesbrough on January 14th 2006 is a sign that the good days of old are back. The morning after the impressive thrashing of poor Boro, I read many Arsenal forums getting too unrealistic again as to the team’s chances of UCL football next season. The win has raised unwarranted expectations on Arsenal’s unbeaten season making a comeback after a long hibernation and has probably got too much into the players’ heads as well. The following match against Everton certainly proved it as the players tried to look clever at times but credit to James Beattie for a great goal after two Royal London circus clowns collided with each other. Honestly, I believe that many senior Arsenal players have gotten too much of tinge of nostalgia of the great old days that they simply cannot try to put the past and correct the errors of the present and work to the future. Incomprehensible.
Fact — Arsenal’s season can be summed up nicely by legend Bergkamp when he mentioned that Arsenal entered the transitional phase when the club need not necessarily do so. He was chiding the board and/or Wenger and taking a snipe at key players while he was about it (but arguably he was no better himself when he had the chance to shine though his age really shows).
He probably meant that while Arsenal cannot possibly replace key players (Vieira included and Edu as well) who have been lost over the two seasons of despair, Arsenal’s name can possibly attract players of sufficient talent and calibre to sign for the club. The solution was definitely to sign players who can cover for injuries of first team personnel while also doubling as a super-sub in dire times. But Wenger can be too proud to admit this.
(Side note:) Perhaps he should not have ceded to the wishes of the supporters calling him to sign on for another year and retire as a true Gunners’ legend than allow the rotten season to undermine his bejeweled and once-pristine impression. Then again, he hadn’t anything to lose when he extended his contract as he has retired as a Dutch legend and for that, I’d always be grateful.
I’d read many crazy ideas to sack Wenger and that the team is heading to imminent doom or that Henry would leave at the end of the season in Arsenal forums and wonder how many false pretenders are there at the club claiming to be Gooners when the team played football made in heaven and curse the team or abandoned a sinking ship when they underperformed. It’s probably best now to watch the team play as it is and continue to support it just as the good old days. All that talk of Arsenal playing UEFA Cup football is pure speculation. Why hello?! It’s only mid-February for crying out loud. Titles can only be decided in the early merry month of May and I expect that Arsenal’s fate should only be discussed at the end of that month when all games have concluded and the World Cup is heralded in June. Sure, it is a season of depression for the club but something is bad or good only when one thinks of it. My prediction:- Arsenal will bounce back! RvP, Reyes, Adebayor, Diaby, Cesc Fabregas, Lauren and Lehmann will form the core of the new Arsenal when they emerge from the tunnel at Emirates Stadium and those who wanted out can stay out.