Date: 22nd February 2009 at 2:18pm
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With the good vibrations of Monday night, albeit slightly tempered by Eduardo’s hamstring injury, still coarsing through the collective Gooner vein, yesterday really felt like a new start. With Arshavin on board, Eduardo scoring again and the free flowing football seemingly returned against Cardiff, it really was a case of the season starts here. With Villa and Chelsea playing one another in the lunchtime kick off, there really was no bad result for us, though with a long term view a Villa defeat was probably the best result we could have asked for. On our walk from the Tavern to the ground, Jon found an untarnished betting slip on the floor, which ended up winning him £35. With the extreme wintery weather of just a fortnight ago banished into the annals of memory by brilliant unseasonal sunshine, spring was in the air and hope really did spring eternal. Well, at least until 5pm anyway.

The big news from the starting line up was that new signing Andrey Arshavin began the game with Carlos Vela dropping to the benchin favour of the unfit Russian. We believe in our young players at Arsenal you see. However, Arshavin very nearly genuflected the ghost of Samir Nasri by scoring four minutes into his debut. The ball broke to him in a central position, given space to forrage forwards, he moved to the edge of the area and sent a low shot achingly wide. Given Arshavin’s exploits in last season’s UEFA Cup, his experience will prove valuable in the same tournament next season. One of Arsenal’s central midfielders then clearly let the occasion get to their heads when one of them actually created something for their centre forwards, Denilson’s clever ball was raced onto by van Persie who clipped his shot just wide with Fulop narrowing the angle by diving at the Dutchman’s feet. When van Persie is not involved, Arsenal do not score, this miss would be a sign of things to come. With two defensive midfielders in the centre, the Gunners were never likely to create much from that area of the pitch. If Ramsey isn’t trusted in this situation, at home against a defensive side, then surely the manager has to see the massive, massive flaw in having a squad that is so impoverished in terms of experience. Ramsey is young and raw, no doubt, but that is how the manager has chosen to contruct his squad. If he doesn’t trust what he has himself put together, it’s little wonder the side plays with such self doubt.

With the poverty of creativity from the centre, it was down to Nasri and Arshavin to swap flanks approximately every three minutes in a desperate attempt to unsettle Sunderland’s defence. With Arshavin now popping up on the right, the idea seemed to work as the new Russian signing cut in on his left foot and unleashed a fiersome shot which was parried away by Fulop. The Black Cats briefly broke out of their defensive manacles and raced away on a counter attack with Clichy lightly jogging back as Malbranque sauntered down his flank, the ball fell to Ferdinand, who fortunatelywas incredibly selfish and shot from a tight angle, leaving Almunia with a simple save with Jones and Reid unmarked in the area. Once again, the only Arsenal player looking vaguely threatening was Arshavin, he dinked in a flighted cross from the right which Bendtner headed goalwards only for Fulop to scramble wide. In first half injury time, Toure would twice be denied from corners. Firstly, when van Persie’s inswinging delivery found the Ivorian’s head, only for the sizeable figure of Andy Reid to clear off the line. Second time around it was Nasri who delivered the corner and the ball scrambled its way to Toure, whoselow shot was smothered by Fulop. First half goals for Arsenal at home are rarer then nuns in brothels nowadays, the Gunners having registered in the opening 45 minutes only twelve times in the last fourteen months. The club announced on Saturday that all admission prices would be frozen for next season (as if they ahd a choice), maybe they should tell the legions of early leavers not to leave before the end but simply not to bother turning up until half time. The ‘opt out’ service the club are giving to season ticket holders for the Burnley cup tie might ust as well be valid for the first half of all Premiership matches.

Arshavin, Arsenal’s solitary bright spark in the first half, understandably faded in the second half and the Gunners conjured up little else of note in the second half, the Russian being replaced by Carlos Vela on 65 minutes. It really is that desperate kids, we are relying on van Persie being a one man team or alternatively a half fit new signing who will require the customary adaption period in this league. Once again, the metaphor of a team that has slammed a brick on the accelerator, closed its eyes and hoped for the best comes back to me. It got to the stage where our full backs, possibly one of the few world class departments of our team, to try and forge a chance. Nasri played a one two with Clichy, which the wing heeled Frenchman just managed to clip back into the area before the ball exited play and Sagna connected with the cross, only for the ball to deflect wide. Bacary Sagna was once again left to be a creative force when he bombed down the right flank, floated in a cross which evaded the head of Collins and found Carlos Vela on the backpost, but the young Mexican, usually show assuredin front of goal, panicked and dragged his shot wide.

With the Gunners fresh out of ideas, Wenger was about to unleash the kind of attacking ploy which strikes fear into the league’s lesser lights. With his side floundering in the creative elements once more, Arsene unleashed a back up right back and told him to win the game from central midfield. Scary darey. I remember the days when we used to put the likes of Kanu and Wiltord on in this situation. Sigh. Meanwhile, Fran Merida, an actual attacking midfielder, kicked his heels on the bench. I realise he is very raw, but really, with Sunderland pariking the bus, would it have been such a risk to put Nasri in the centre and see if Merida could open a packed defence from the flanks? One has to think he’d be more likely to do so than Eboue, I’m not having a pop at Eboue here as such, in fact, it’s pretty unfair of the manager to put him on in that situation. Particularly as he was again audibly booed on entrance to the pitch, which hardly helps. But the manager cannot on one hand champion his youuth policy and then refuse to trust it. Putting Eboue on revealed that the manager feels his side is too inexperienced, putting on a 26 year old right back as opposed to an 18 year old winger when we desperately need a goal at home shows the manager doesn’t even believe in his own project anymore.

Arsenal created a couplet of chances in the dying stages, Vela played the ball into Bendtner, who flicked the ball brilliantly to the edge of the area, the home crowd groaned at him even though the ball convincingly found its target, but Gallas dragged his shot wide. Then in the last minute, Almunia pumped the ball forward, Eboue, now playing as a target man, won the flick on and the ball fell invitingly to van Persie on his left foot, but his fulminating drive was easily held by Fulop. The final whistle sounded to a cascade of sustained booing. That was very harsh, the team honestly tried their hardest- as they had in the two previous goalless matches- the truth is that this is the sum total of what we are capable of. We are an average side living off of reputation and as such we are played against as though we are a top side, facing packed defences. The sides slightly better than us, such as Villa, and at or around our level, like Everton, don’t often have to face quite the same problem. The UEFA Cup looks just about achievable, so long as Everton do not prolong their run of good results. We have had a run of very generous fixtures since Christmas and we find ourselves even further adrift of Villa than we were in the New Year. All the talk of a Villa collapse misses the point wildly, because we are not capable of capitalising on any negative results they achieve. We will drop many more points yet, the side as it is will not be changing any time soon. Maybe Walcott can add something in a fortnight’s time, but 4th place will likely be only possible mathematically at that juncture. Relying on a very inconsistent and unpredictable 19 year old to reignite our season is a sad state of affairs, but in a squad of inconsistent and unpredictable young players dotted amongst a few journeymen, that really is the quandary we find ourselves in. The substitutions and the manager’s team selections show that, despite all of his bluster, he knows that too. The question before us was could we use the arrivals of Eduardo and Arshavin and the good vibes of Monday to launch our season. The answer was a resounding no as mediocrity enevloped us once more. I wrote on Monday that if that game didn’t shake them from their entropy, nothing would. Oh well.LD.