Half-Term High-dee Highs And Low-dee-lows

Last updated : 03 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

I suppose it's slightly more colourful than the traditional "could do better" but in all probability it was a fatal gaffe because I've been "idling" ever since, believing I'd no need to prove the amount of horsepower under my bonnet.

My school report came to mind because the the same might be said of certain individuals and the Arsenal's efforts in general, over the course of the first half of the season. With 29 goals in our first 9 league games (compared to Chelsea's measely 8!) the stats tell a totally different story. Yet although we were 5 points clear of our London rivals prior to that lachrymose afternoon at Old Trafford in late October, there seemed to be a consensus of opinion that the undefeated record was becoming a millstone around our necks.

I suppose it was inevitable that we'd all become somewhat spoilt after watching the Gunners scale the scintillating peaks of the previous season. However despite a hatful of goals in those early games, it didn't feel like we were going out and blowing away some of our more mediocre opponents with anything like the panache we'd witnessed previously. Our self-perpetuating aura of invincibility saw cannon fodder coming to Highbury with extremely limited ambitions. Many teams appeared intent on playing with all eleven behind the ball, just desperate to avoid the confidence sapping embarrassment of a hefty scoreline.

Yet despite the fact that the majority of our opponents were terrified of our awesome attacking pace, instead of destroying them by dominating possession in their half of the pitch, as we all knew we were quite capable of doing, we seemed to invite disaster by sitting back on a singe goal advantage. One sensed that we'd become far too focused on maintaining our amazing record by merely avoiding defeat.

I never fail to be amazed by the gossamer like fragility of that all important veneer of confidence. Who could've imagined that the unfortunate debacle against a decidedly unimpressive Man Utd would have such devastating repercussions? After awarding his eighth penalty in eight successive matches in which he'd officiated at Old Trafford, there was much Gooner finger pointing in the immediate aftermath at ref Mike Riley (not to mention media reports of our disgruntled players directing a cascade of comestibles in Fergie's direction!). We were also incensed because Ferdinand's assault on Freddie, Horseface's hack at Ashley and the persistent targeting of Jose Reyes all went unpunished. Yet in truth Riley might have pointed to the spot when Ashley upended Ronaldo. More poignantly all the dodgy decisions only served to disguise the fact that we only managed one decent effort on goal that afternoon.

It would've been far easier to accept if the Arsenal's incredible feat had come to a conclusion in the sort of consummate contest witnessed recently against Chelsea. But it left a depressingly noxious taste in Gooner mouths to find ourselves finally undone by a patently inferior Utd team who only triumphed because of their ravenous hunger to be the harbingers of the Arsenal's doom.

As we struggled to recover some composure in the weeks that followed, I felt as if our first defeat was being abused as a cover all excuse for our subsequent failings. I very quickly grew tired of the armchair analysis that was trotted out after dreadfully unsatisfying score draws against Soton, Panathinaikos, Palace, WBA and PSV, stating that we were still suffering pyschologically.

Mercifully there was some respite in the Carling Cup as the kids turned over Man City and Everton's vastly more experienced sides. Along with a positively barmy nine goal North London derby at White Hart Lane, where the horrific defending must have had the likes of Hansen howling in disgust, the hugely enjoyable evening at Highbury when 27,000 of us witnessed the youngsters triumph over the third placed team in the land, with little of the tension of Premier league matches, these were two of my highlights of the season so far.

I'm just gutted that I chose the wrong trip to Manchester. Unable to face schlepping North twice in a week, I wasn't there in person to support our second string, as Van Persie and Karbassiyoon put City to the sword in the 3rd round. Arsène's anger after the match at Old Trafford proved costly as he was eventually fined 15 grand for publically outing Utd's Dutch striker as the blackguard that he is. Although Wenger was to get good value for his excessive fine as he made certain to reiterate his feelings about Horseface's shameful cheating. The furore over the bad blood between the two sides resulted in a peace keeping mission between David Dein and Utd's chief exec. prior to the cup match against City. Arsène admitted to being quite amused by the appearance of a sign on their dressing room door which stated ³No pizzas or soup past this point².

For many the City game was our first proper sight of Manuel Almunia between the sticks and with three 17 year old players on the pitch, there is much promise of a bright future. But without doubt the most significant event of that particular day and the most critical factor in the overall fate of the Arsenal football club was the announcement confirming Arsène's signature on a contract extension which should keep our esteemed and highly coveted manager at Highbury until 2008.

However it would seem that I underestimated the signficance of the upset at Old Trafford, as the ripples continued to cast a dark shadow which we've only recently begun to dispel. Our air of invincibility vanished almost overnight like one of those winter morning fogs which evaporates with the rising sun. Instead of turning up at Highbury merely intent on escaping with a modicum of pride intact, suddenly our opponents seemed to sense that it was the perfect time to play the Arsenal, as they all aimed to capitalise on the cracks that had appeared in foundations which were previously rock solid.

Our fall from grace was almost more spectacular than our record breaking accomplishments and subject to an even more serious snowball effect. It seemed as if our on field problems were in inverse proportion to the progress on the new stadium (I'm certainly not being paid to splay my sponsorial legs!) as the upper tier appeared almost between one match and the next and the outer shell took proper shape forming a new landmark on the local skyline.

The media bandwagon was barrelling along, as in an instant the Arsenal turned from an unbeatable team of titans, into a fragile squad full of bottlers which was crying out for the sort of quality, present in spades in several positions in the multi-million pound bouillabaisse which was on the boil at Stamford Bridge - a pale shade of Gooner green perhaps but in my unmitigated envy, I never fail to be amazed at the absolute lack of interest in the sinister origins of Abramovich's mafia made moolah! Our situation was compounded by events down the King's Road as the goal shy Blues found their shooting boots and rapidly eroded our 15 goal advantage during November, reversing a 5 point advantage by the end of the month.

Prior to our 5-1 demolition of a decidedly irresolute Rosenborg our qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League looked somewhat precarious. Still it was somewhat bizarre to be 2nd in league, in with a realistic shout for four trophies. Although according to many pundits the Gunners were floundering, struggling to stay afloat in a position where all but one manager in the country could be heard crying "I should have Wenger's woes"!

On the terraces much of the anger for our month long malaise was directed at poor Pascal Cygan. Personally I believe that within the limitations of a player who has the turning circle of an oil tanker, poor Pascal didn't perform that badly. I certainly don't hold Sol's deputy responsible for all the points dropped in November. Our Lurch lookalike was merely the easiest target.

What bothered me most was the apparent role reversal with South London's sunshine boys. In the absence of Sol and with Ray Parlour's departure during the summer, suddenly we looked like a team which wasn't capable of rolling up it's sleeves and grinding out a result when the going got tough. The transformation was incredible!

I distinctly recall a beach bar in Greece where we plotted up prior to the Panathinaikos match. On a warm Saturday afternoon in mid-October we watched what proved to be the last of the summer wine, as we beat Villa 3-1. Up until then we'd only seen brief bursts of the fabulous football we'd grown so accustomed to. But like a light bulb which burns brilliantly before it expires, for perhaps the only time this season we produced 90 minutes of our breathtaking best.

It was a wonderful performance which provoked the long in the tooth likes of Gordon Strachan to heap high praise on the most entertaining football he'd ever witnessed. Watching the Arse on the box was a rare experience and from the camera close ups I was left with an abiding impression of the Gunners' huge grins. These guys weren't merely earning their exorbitant wages, they were having untold fun out there on the park, toying with the opposition, a team at it's peak, where every backheel and every slide rule pass was absolutely instinctive.

When I returned to Highbury two weeks later I couldn't believe it was the same team. Scowls had replaced the smiles because nothing was going right and each of them was looking to apportion blame as balls went astray. The slick passing moves which had once come to them so easily were no longer possible. As the football grew increasingly dire during November, in the enforced absence of both Brazilians in midfield, the penny dropped for many of us. For the first time we began to appreciate what the rock-steady Gilberto brought to the Gunner's party.

The strain was apparent with every new frown line that appeared on the previously phlegmatic phizog of Le Prof. A miracle worker he might be but no-one is perfect and amongst Arsène's minor faults is his tendency to plant a seed in his players' minds when he appears on TV, telling the world his team is tired. It's something you don't hear from other gaffers and if they're exhausted in November, what hope have we when they are really knackered come May. Fatigue just isn't a factor for a winning side yet Wenger provides his players with the perfect excuse when things go awry. What's more one gets a sense that there might be just a little too much respect between our manager and some of his squad. So that a half-time bollocking is out of the question when their efforts are below par.

Above all perhaps the principal disadvantage suffered by Arsène in comparison to his Chelsea counterpart, is the genuine lack of competition for places in the vast majority of positions. As a consequence the situation in the Arsenal dressing room is far too cosy. No matter how badly they perform, most of our team are safe in the knowledge that their name will appear on next week's team sheet.

The most worrying thing about our month long morass was the sight of our sagacious manager holding his hands up, bereft of a solution. We were all left setting our sights on Sol's return, in the hope that our defensive rock could restore some clean sheet solidity. I guess when this coincided with Mellor's gut-wrenching, last gasp smash-and-grab at Anfield, it was the final straw.

I've never been our German keeper's greatest fan, far from it. Yet I couldn't help but have some sympathy for Lehmann . Perhaps Wenger was merely responding to the wishes of some of the more vocal members of the squad. But when the loss to Liverpool was succeded by the kids' moral sapping cup exit in Manchester (where astonishing efforts in the earlier rounds had seen our expectations raised to a point which sadly obscured the fact that they actually did us proud at Old Trafford), one sensed that Jens was merely the scapegoat for Arsène's Otry anything' experiment to alter the downward spiral of our season.

Personally I remain entirely unconvinced that the Spanish alternative is the answer to all our problems. He might be a half-decent shot stopper but I don't trust his decision making. More importantly it's the rest of our defence which requires that intuitive understanding of his actions in any given situation. As was evident when Freddie was seen trying to organise our wall prior to Charlton's equaliser at the Valley. It can't be easy when our keeper struggles to communicate with his team mates in English!

Nevertheless I am sure Arsène would suggest that you cannot argue with the 5 wins in 6 league matches since Almunia ousted Lehmann as our goal minder. However watching Petr Cech's accomplished efforts at Anfield on Saturday, it was hard not to admit that this was how a proper keeper performs compared to the haphazard antics of our two alternatives!

Ever since our somewhat flattering 3-0 defeat of Birmingham (with two in the last ten mins.) wishful thinking from the terraces is far too quick to suggest we've turned the corner. Despite the hype "Judgement Day" decided nothing. Apparently it was a sensational match for the neutral. Yet for us more partisan types, what started out as a reassuring reminder that we've nothing to fear from Mourinho's mere mortals, ended up as a somewhat unsatisfying failure to take advantage of a prime opportunity to stuff the pretenders to our throne.

Obviously young Cesc Fabregas has been the revelation of the season so far. In this age of money grabbing mercenaries it was a pleasure to see Cesc turning up on a chilly night at Underhill to offer his support to his former (and future?) colleagues in an FA Youth Cup triumph over Palace (especially when you consider that it's not as if they've all been Fab's best pals for years). The differences between Cesc's homespun charm and the slightly more pretentious Van Persie who's yet to convince he's capable of performing in Bergkamp's stead as a second striker - were highlighted at the Valley, when we found ourselves sitting in front of the youngster's mother and behind his aunt and his sister. No knowledge of Spanish was required to sense them all bursting with pride. Ma dug out the video camera at half-time and proceeded to organise and impromptu chorus of "He's only 17, he's better than Roy Keane", doubtless to demonstrate to her mates how the Arsenal fan's regale her child prodigy.

The performances of both Fab and Flamini and their ability to stifle the likes of Lampard and Tiago was the most positive aspect to the table topping clash. They both appeared somewhat more unfettered in the absence of Vieira. I found myself watching the match wondering whether Dein or Wenger might be contemplating what they could've done with the 30 million quid, if they'd cashed in on our captain during the summer.

Paddy seems to have been playing on auto-pilot for much of the season. I guess he can get away with it because he's head and shoulders above the vast majority of his midfield opponents. But it's patently obvious to anyone who has witnessed the way he's completely dominated the middle of the park in the past, compared to many of his performances of late. Vieira is going to need to rediscover his hunger in the home stretch, if he's going to quell the growing tide of Gooner opinion which is beginning to regret that we didn't let him chase his dreams with Madrid and discover for himself the rain on the Spanish plain.

Across the Premiership board, the current fashion is a five man midfield, while Wenger holds to his 4-4-2 principles both home and away. I guess we Gooners are guaranteed attacking entertainment as a result. Yet if our downturn in form demonstrated one thing, it suggested how much we had been getting away with it in defence up until then on natural ability alone. When things weren't so rosy as we stopped outscoring opponents and teams began to attempt to take us on, we appeared to lack leadership at the back. Our performances suggest an absence of the sort of religious defensive drills
which the club was once famous for. Nowhere is this more evident than in our failure to step up as one when attempting to play offside. Nine times out of ten we are able to recover because there is so much pace throughout the side. But for those of us who've grown up with the infallibility of the Arsenal back four, it is the fact that this might be a symptom of Wenger's focus on our forward play which is worrying.

I'm completely dumbfounded by some of the schooboy defensive errors committed in recent matches. Leaving Lampard absolutely on his own at the far post in one instance against Chelsea was the sort of lapse which I'd have expected to have been drummed out of far more modest teams by those robotic drills which can produce a reasonably adequate defence from much less gifted individuals. Hopefully Arsène has addressed this problem. When you consider the attacking prowess of all three potential challengers for the title, ultimately the victor might well be the team which has kept the
most clean sheets.

Despite Pires notching 11 goals and Henry an impressive 20, avid Arsenal watchers will all confirm that to date, both players have been some way from their best. Freddie Ljungberg appears to have hit a vein of form but I take great heart in the hope that there is a lot more to come when all his team mates are on song. Meanwhile I continue to sing from the same songsheet, whereby I remain convinced that under the almost inevitable circumstances of a couple of crucial injuries, or suspensions, Mourinho's Johnny come latelys must stumble when the going gets a little tougher.

I have to admit that my concern increases as they continue to pass prodigous tests such as their success against the odds in the Scousers' backyard. With the passing of such stiff contests one can't help but wonder when Chelsea are going to drop points. Still I continue to have faith that they will falter when least expected. In all honesty I would prefer to see the title go North rather than to our South London neighbours. I can't bear what the triumph of untold spondulicks, over team spirit says about the beautiful game. As I keep telling any Chelsea fan, talk to me at Easter. If they are still galloping along at the same pace come Good Friday, only then might I begin to have second thoughts!