Into The Valley

Last updated : 28 October 2003 By Bernard Azulay

I am sure that the majority of football fans are looking forward to the eventual return of Match Of The Day, as a much missed old friend. Although even if God almighty was making a simultaneous appearance on Parkinson on the Beeb, doubtless I would still find myself drawn to the taciturn deliberations of Townsend, McCoist and co., leaving proof positive of a higher power to later viewing on the video.

The Arsenal's recent efforts to reduce their wage bill has ensured that we've become even more interested observers than usual. While our own game at the Valley was Sunday's pay-per-view offering, the Premiership programme the previous night provided us with an opportunity to appraise Moritz Volz marauding down Fulham's right flank against Man Utd. In the subsequent highlights of Leeds v Liverpool we were able to witness the wingcraft of Jermaine Pennant. I wonder whether Peter Reid will pick Pennant to play against us at Elland Road this Saturday. Talk about a conflict of interest. I am sure instinct will govern Pennant's actions but it would hardly be the best career move for the youngster to create or even score a goal against the club which currently holds his contract

When questioned at the AGM about the lack of first-team prospects for our most promising youngsters, Arsène Wenger opined that over the course of an entire season the inexperience of youth would inevitably cost a club a certain number of points. It would therefore seem sensible to let them hone their craft at the highest level, as our competitors pay the price both in terms of their income and the cost of the odd probable error. Yet as happy as I am that the Volz and Pennant might have several opportunities to help the Arsenal's cause in their performances for their current clubs against our immediate competitors, there is no disguising the fact that their absence deteriorates the depressing lack of strength in depth in the Arsenal squad.

Despite the fact that fortune played a considerable part in the continuation of a catastrophic Champions League campaign in Kiev, the Arsenal's recent woeful European record ensured a week of media bewilderment over this apparent chink in Wenger's tactical armour. I in no way wish to belittle our learned leader. In fact I bow to a knowledge so great it makes many in the game appear no more qualified as management material than the very important Ma who washes the Sunday team's kit. Nevertheless the more years I spend watching football, the more convinced I am that it is in essence a simple sport.

In my humble opinion the Arsenal's European malaise is not a matter of a lack of confidence, or naive tactical limitations. No to the contrary, I believe the World and European Cup Winners in the Arsenal camp approach matches against the likes of Kiev and Moscow far too certain that their class will out. As a consequence their efforts often lack the sort of intensity which is more common in Premiership football, where certain clubs constantly compensate for the limitations in their abilities with their work rate.

It seems as though some play on autopilot and are only stirred from their reverie and begin to roll up their sleeves once they've surrendered the lead. I sat here tearing my hear out last Tuesday as I watched them lay siege to Kiev's goal for the last twenty minutes, wondering why they couldn't produce such a concerted effort at the beginning of the game before they were two goals behind.

Moreover, as was evident in our increased effort only after going a goal down at the Valley on Sunday, this problem is also prevalent in the Premiership. Perhaps we are lacking a more vocal leader, someone capable of stoking the fire in their bellies. Many of us are pleasantly surprised that we continue to retain the top spot. Since we are some way from producing championship winning performances our success must be in no small part due to the spirit fostered in a stable squad.

However I definitely get the sense that we are suffering from the lack of competition for places, as some players appear far too comfortable with a first-team place which is virtually guaranteed. I certainly wouldn't advocate the chopping and changing of the Chelsea model where there are almost 3 players competing for every place in the team. But I believe there are those who might benefit if Arsène introduced a little insecurity into our squad's cozy lives.

I felt a little vulnerable myself about visiting the Valley on Sunday. It was nowt to do with the outcome of the match. Although few North Londoners fancy foraging for the passport necessary for schlep to the less than salubrious South London, I always look forward to playing at Charlton. In the shadow of the Millennium Dome, just on the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel, it's only just "sarf" of the river Thames and such a short trip that it's almost a home game.

There's no mistaking the friendly, family atmosphere at the Valley which is in complete contrast to the extremely hostile environment of their nearby neighbours at the New Den. My mate Mick, a recent émigré to Athlone was back in London and decided to take Ro's place at the last minute. He enlightened me about a pedestrian tunnel in the vicinity which runs from the Isle of Dogs. Anyone mad enough to walk through when Millwall are playing at home is apparently putting themselves in mortal danger. Whereas thankfully there isn't a psychopath in a surgical face mask to be seen amongst all the elderly women, kids and families supporting Charlton.

My trepidation was ticket related. The Arsenal's financial plight and the boardroom rift resulted in a working environment which my mate in the box office no longer enjoyed. I have always collected my away tickets in person but since his shock departure in the summer, tickets for two of the five away games have been gone astray in the post with a sticker on the envelope addressed to "Do Not Send"! I am not sure whether it's a result of stupidity or a concerted effort to get me pissed off that I relent and risk the post like everyone else, rather than continue bothering the "beautiful" box office staff (twelve years of schmoozing my mate to point where I assumed we'd eventually be in clover when he became box office manager and I have to begin brown-nosing from the bottom again!!)

Unlike Man City, at least I didn't have to fret for a couple of hundred miles without tickets in my sweaty mitts. Besides after an extra hour in bed to dally with my dream of last season's 0-3 slaughter embracing some of the most swashbuckling footie ever seen and in perfect footballing weather, with the sun sparkling in a bright blue sky of a typically brisk Autumnal day, even my standard pessimism was a struggle. Never fear, it took just a few storm clouds and the realization that the Arsenal continue to be totally reliant on Thierry Henry before my mood soon matched the rapidly mutable meteorology.

Thank heavens for Henry. I might be an unbeliever but it doesn't stop me going to bed every night, praying for Titi's well-being. There is another footballer who is quite so enthralling as Henry. It is not just what he can do with a ball which makes his efforts worth the price of admission alone. Even super skillful players like Pires and Ljungberg adopt a somewhat scuttling gait when running with a ball at their feet. Whereas Titi has this ease of movement, eating up the ground without appearing to expend any energy and with a certain grace that is football played as ballet.

There was entertainment enough that no-one would have dropped off like the dozing fan at White Hart Lane. Yet the rather fulsome match reports result from the fact that the Arsenal have flattered to deceive all season long. Until the likes of Pires, Wiltord and Ljungberg start earning their corn by weighing in with a worthwhile contribution, the Arsenal will continue to perform like a misfiring V12 engine, unable to unleash our wicked acceleration. However it is encouraging that we remain ahead of our domestic rivals despite the fact that we aren't firing on all cylinders (as yet!). I will wait to see how we get on against Kiev before deciding whether it is worth booking a hotel in Milan. Although if I'm hedging my bets, it's certainly not because I have given up the Gunners Champions League ghost.