All I Want For Christmas......!

Last updated : 22 December 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Sadly it seems that the accelerator still eludes me, as according to my teacher I was a 12 year old "speedboat idling around the harbour". I am not blowing my own trumpet but as we approach half-time in this season's proceedings (sadly without the break!) and at a traditional time for a mid-term appraisal, it seems an entirely appropriate description of the Arsenal.

It would be a little churlish of me to complain. In the past many of my Highbury highs were due to dour defensive displays, where a rare goal was a genuine treat. Nowadays we Gooners stand in absolute awe almost every week, as Arsène Wenger's side produces the most entertaining football it has ever been my privilege to watch. However those matches involving the odd incisive break at breathtaking speed, where the ball invariably ends up in the back of the net, are something of a tantalizing tease. When you've witnessed the Arsenal blow away one of Serie A's best, tonking five past Inter as if they were a pale imitation of our poor North London neighbours, it makes me wonder why we are so Scrooge like with such beautiful stuff.

Chelsea might possess a similar abundance of talent. Doubtless if they don't, their Russian sugar-daddy will attempt to rectify any deficiencies during the transfer window. But if Ranieri can play Damien Duff anywhere but on the wing where we all know he can do the most damage, I very much doubt their Italian manager's ability to effectively harness his huge hotchpotch of International talent. What's more I refuse to countenance the belief that Abramovich can come over here and simply purchase himself a Premiership title. I continue to cling to the notion that his 'off the shelf' outfit won't be capable of coping with the relentless nature of a run-in which requires levels of concentration and consistency that's imprinted on the memories of the two made to measure teams who have been there and bought the t-shirt.

I remain convinced that at our best, this Arsenal side is quite capable of leaving both our immediate competitors trailing in our domestic wake. However events of the past weekend were a poignant reminder of why we failed so miserably previously and how me managed to fritter away our twelve point grip on the title. We might have enjoyed a Merry Christmas last time around, but as we all know it is not until May when the Championship presents are handed out.

It's been a while since I've studied Man Utd from an impassive point of view. I have to admit to being envious of the voracious way in which they went about the traditional stuffing of the turkey that is Tottenham. Much like ourselves, I believe that Utd's form has been fairly unimpressive up to this point. Undoubtedly Paul Scholes recent absence has been an obvious factor. With his return to fitness and Fergie certain to slosh the fuel of 'revenge for Rio' (whose enforced absence is likely to prove more of a financial embarrassment than a footballing one!) to fire up his squad's feelings of injustice, thereby fortifying the spirit of fortress Old Trafford, it feels slightly ominous that we've been leapfrogged at no. 1 as the New Year dawns.

I've got a feeling that the Christmas spirit might not extend to Utd gifting it straight back to us! Despite remaining undefeated, the Arsenal have dropped six of the last twelve points with draws against Fulham, Leicester and Bolton. It would be great to find Glen Johnson, Eto'o, Reyes and Mexes in our Christmas stocking but I hope we've been good enough Gooners this past year for Santa to grant us the one un-Rio related wish? I'd gladly settle for just some of the consistent levels of desire guaranteed from most of Fergie's original fledglings.

Who knows whether it is Utd's homegrown core, British/Irish grit, or perhaps the Arsenal's air of insouciance surfacing in our foreign (French?) contingent? Yet when was the last time you saw the Red Devils baton down the hatches after going a goal up against domestic opponents (apart from at the death of the odd close encounter)? Like the predatory sharks that they are, instead of hanging on to a slender lead, invariably the scent of blood only encourages them to go for the throat.

With hindsight it is all too easy to easy to criticize Wenger's pragmatism. Theoretically replacing a forward with some midfield mettle was probably a sensible move on Saturday, but it sent the wrong signals to a Bolton side who needed no further encouragement and left us encamped in our own half of the pitch for the last 20 minutes, without the proverbial 'Plan B'. The Gunners may currently have the most entertaining player on the planet but he's hardly a striker happy to win the ball in the air and relieve the pressure by retaining possession with his back to the goal. Sadly even at Highbury it is such a common occurrence for the Arsenal not to capitalize on a one goal advantage that as the restart occurs, I invariably feel like a stuck record as I once again announce in vain "I hope we don't sit back"!

Perhaps it's understandable considering our success in the past at punishing teams with our breathtaking pace, as the opposition has been forced to chase the game. Nevertheless since the demise of our dinosaur fab back five and our ability to count on a clean sheet, the Arsenal's achievements are largely dependent on outscoring the opposition. Ergo attack is without doubt our best form of defence.

Titi Henry often grafts like a trojan, harrying players all over the pitch, when personally I'd prefer him to save his energy for his penalty area exploits. However what struck me watching Utd on Sunday was how, even at 2-0 up, they all defended from the front. I didn't notice a Wiltord, drifting out of the remainder of the game, or a Robbie Pires whose self-preservation sees him bottling out of the slightest bodily contact.

Hopefully Wiltord, the Arsenal's most expensive ever signing, will be wending his way back to Paris come the transfer window and I'll forgive Le Bob anything as lentement, lentement he rediscovers the 'va-va-voom' which vanished after his injury. However on Saturday, battling against an icy winter wind wreaking havoc around the Reebok, the driving rain, 25,000 odd uproarious Wanderers¹ fans and their side, high on having stuck it to the Kings Road swanks, these are the sort of games which can't be won with too many on the missing list.

Patrick Vieira in his pomp is worth three of most opponents but until he's completely match fit we might continue to struggle against such committed opposition unless more are prepared to roll their sleeves up and sweat blood for the cause (although we could end up reaping some reward from a robust Paddy come the run-in?).

'Que sera, sera' we Gooners can't really grumble considering the sorry state of affairs at summer's end. Our squad stripped down to the bare bones, five utilitarian players replaced only by an unknown Swiss centre-back already with a long term injury and a journeyman Gerry Beowulf with a barmy reputation in place of the ponytailed one as our principal shot stopper: nearly £100 million in the hole we were using for want of a pot to piss in, due to a £400 million stadium development, undertaken at a time when the entire investment world was turning its back on a game which offered beautiful football but financial bankruptcy: and Arsène Wenger as the reluctant referee in a boardroom battle between those committed to their Ashburton Grave interment and those favouring the sensible financial option but the footballing suicide of a 'soon' to be built Wembley!

If back then you'd have offered me the opportunity to turn the page into 2004 breathing down Utd's neck, only a point behind the league leaders, as one of the seeded top 8 and some people's favourites amongst the last 16 in the Champions League (with perhaps a plum draw against Celta Vigo?), joining Boro, Bolton and Villa in a competition which leaves Gooners convinced "we're gonna win the sh*t cup!" and with us all able to breathe a huge sigh of overdue relief about the Arsenal's ultimate future, after having secured the inordinate amount of spondulicks required to build our new stadium (according to a far too vague announcement about a bevy of backers, who've yet to actually sign on the dotted line!), I would have bitten your hand off before you could say Ruud Van Sh*t Himself

Arsène Wenger earned my immediate respect when he announced on his arrival that he recognized the importance of maintaining a balance in order to retain that special Arsenal spirit. Much of his instantaneous success back in '98 was based on a special chemistry which developed between a backbone of homegrown grit whose unquenchable committment was the catalyst for the continentals to give more of themselves than might have otherwise been natural.

If I've been afraid up until recently that these virtues have been eroded as our homegrown core has disappeared, then mercifully it would now appear that we've more cause for optimism than we've had for many a moon with a multicultural crop of youngsters to rival anything coming off the Carrington production line. Combining the homegrown fervour of Bradley, Bentley, Smith and Thomas with the flair of Aliadière, Fabregas, Quincy and Clichy (to name but a few!) the future is looking red, white and fairly rosy. Here's to a cool Yule and a peace filled New Year.