Malice is NOT the Issue

Yesterday was an important moment in the development of this Arsenal side. Before the game, but after the Chelsea result, I was chatting with J. Sanderson of Young Guns, and we both believed that, after Chelsea’s loss, this was the most important league fixture we’d played in a few years. Only a few minutes later, Arsenal were down 1-nil to a Delap throw-in. It looked like deja vu all over again. But a magnificent header by Bendtner got us back into it and from the 30th minute on, Arsenal turned in a paradigm-shifting performance.

On BBC Match of the Day, Alan Shearer said that Arsenal had “answered a few questions.” Even Alan Hansen was so impressed that he actually uttered the phrase, “I’m becoming an Arsenal fan.” It was THAT kind of performance. The stage was set for a disaster. We’d lost our lost four league trips to Stoke-on-Trent and hadn’t had a lead there in 28 years. The Chelsea loss only increased the pressure sevenfold.

But even after conceding to an early Delap throw-in, Arsenal refused to lay down and die. Yesterday, we saw a glimpse of the future of this side. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Arsenal… A team that can be as physical as they need to be without sacrificing their footballing style. We got stuck in, we challenged hard for every ball, shut Stoke down in the midfield, and were quick to turn dispossessions into attacks. And, after having a blatant penalty shout on Ramsey denied, finally broke the deadlock in the 91st minute. Another, even more blatant shout was denied on Bendtner, before Cesc and Vermaelen sealed the deal.

Stoke had two points to their gameplan yesterday: 1) Get as physical as the referee will seem to allow  2) Try to get as many throw-ins as possible. And that was it.The fact is that Arsenal matched Stoke’s physicality throughout the entire match and didn’t crumble after the tackle. They also limited Stoke’s throw-ins for the final sixty minutes. That took away Tony Pulis’ entire tactical plan. A cynical off-the-ball challenge on Fabregas after the second goal and on Bendtner in the box showed that Stoke had run out of ideas.

Anti-Arsenal Tactics

I don’t necessarily believe it’s a case of managers telling their players to go out and hurt Arsenal. But the league itself creates the problem. With so much money at stake for bottom-half clubs fighting relegation, negative tactics have become the norm in the Premier League. The gulf between 3rd place and 15th place in the Premier League may as well be a league apart.

Teams of that caliber simply cannot match top 5 teams on footballing terms and, because they are fighting for the very life of their club, they easily fall back on playing negative football. Add in to that Arsenal’s style and the false characterization of Arsenal not liking it “up ’em” and you have the current situation.

As for the “punditry,” the denial goes on. Before the last meeting at the Brittania Stadium, Ricardo Fuller, a striker no less, came out in the papers talking about how Stoke planned to rough Arsenal up. Yet pundits continue to deny that teams take a decidedly more physical approach with Arsenal than other sides. I imagine that nothing can really be done about teams attempting to disrupt Arsenal with an overly physical style from the league’s perspective. But, just once, I would like to hear the league and the pundits admit that that is what is going on here.

The Tackle

Whether Shawcross felt bad after the fact has no bearing on the situation. The fact is he came in recklessly high. What did he think was going to be the result of a challenge like that? After the Eduardo incident, no one can feign surprise at the outcome of a tackle of that sort. And to hear a delusional Stoke supporter on 606 right after the match claiming that Shawcross didn’t deserve the red card because “there was no malice in the tackle” and thought the challenge warranted “a booking, perhaps” was just ridiculous.

“Malice” is not the issue. It doesn’t matter whether Shawcross’s challenge was malicious or not. It was reckless. THAT is what needs to be rooted out of the game, not malice. Players need to know that if they aren’t thinking about the challenge they are going to make that they can pay a heavy price.

Some have called for Shawcross to be banned for as long as Ramsey is out. I did the same after the Eduardo tackle. If players knew they would suffer the same repercussions as the victim of their reckless tackle, they would think twice about the kind of challenges they make. Plain and simple. I’m sorry but a 3-match ban for a tackle that puts a player out for a year is just not right. The longer the league continues to ignore it, the more they are to blame when incidents like this happen.

With that said, I don’t feel quite the same ill will towards Shawcross as I did towards Taylor two years ago. First of all, Shawcross wasn’t smiling after the challenge. Second, it was a 50/50 ball, unlike Taylor’s despicable “tackle” on Eduardo.

At the same time, anyone who claims the player has “no history” of foul play obviously doesn’t remember him breaking Francis Jeffers’ ankle or taking Adebayor out for almost a month last season in a match which saw Adebayor, Gallas, and Walcott all injured for multiple weeks from Stoke tackles. That’s a lot of incidents for such a young player, especially one that alledgedly has “no history.”

The other important question is: why does this happen to Arsenal? Richard Keys’ assertions that it is because of Arsenal’s quick style is tantamount to saying that it is OUR OWN FAULT. That is disgraceful. As was the Stoke supporters singing, “He’s only got one leg.”

The Response

After bossing the first 18 minutes of the second half, and really looking like getting the go-ahead goal, the tackle sucked the wind out of what was otherwise a very entertaining and hard-fought match. We looked like suffering the same fate as Birmingham two years ago. Clichy realized the danger there and tried rallying Vermaelen, who looked devastated by Ramsey’s injury. The entire side looked absolutely distraught. No one could have truly faulted them had they failed to get the 3 points.

But this side dug in and delivered when we needed it most and when circumstances had made it the hardest it could be. We saw a togetherness and a spirit in the side that had been questioned after each of the defeats to Chelsea and United. The celebrations and huddle at center-pitch following the match reminded me of the spirit the team we had in 2007-08 before the Eduardo injury when we led the league by 5 points.

Just as intoxicating was the unbridled enthusiasm of Sol Campbell. Here is a man who has been given an unexpected second chance to play at the very top level and he KNOWS it. And his spirit and enthusiasm is infectious. We saw it running through the entire team yesterday.

After the match, Cesc’s anger was evident, as you can see in the interview below. And who can blame him? How many times do we have to see something like this happen to our players before, at the very least, the game’s caretakers admit that it is an issue?

Now, following Chelsea’s two demoralizing defeats in the past 5 days occasioned by their defensive woes and United’s continued over-reliance on Rooney and own goals for their scoring, the door to the title, cracked at noon, was swung wide open by 7:30pm.

CESC FABREGAS POST-MATCH INTERVIEW

Boredom and Dealing with Delap

For the life of me, I can’t remember such a boring February, news-wise. With so many weeks in between the legs of the Champions League knockout round and us being out of the FA Cup, there just doesn’t seem to be much going on, besides the matches. So much so, that I haven’t even bothered to write on anything but matches in the last two weeks.

In the news, there are the Dutch doctors proclaiming van Persie will be fit by the beginning of April, which seems utterly ridiculous considering these are the same doctors who thought he would be out for a maximum of six weeks following the injury. They seem to be far worse at calculating recovery time than our doctors.

We also have Bakary Sagna claiming it is our “destiny” to win the league this year. I wonder if Sagna owns a dictionary because, considering everything that’s happened up until now, I can’t recall a season in which it seemed less our destiny to win the league. I remember thinking we were destined to win the league back in February 2008. Of course, then one thing led to another and…

Waiting all week for a match with Stoke City has become a somewhat torturous experience. Waking up in the middle of the night in a puddle of sweat from nightmares in which, instead of arms, Rory Delap has a cannon coming out of his chest and launches his throw-ins with it. A few years ago I used to get unbelievably anxious when we would concede a corner because we had such trouble defending them. We still do but not nearly as much as back in the “Toure-Gallas era.”

However, anticipating the Delap throw-in is even worse. Perhaps a part of it is not only the threat of conceding a goal but the added threat of, once again, appearing utterly foolish when defending it. If you’re like me, you’re sick of hearing criticisms of Arsenal’s defending, especially in the air. I mean, it’s all fair criticism… I’m just sick of hearing it. And should we concede again from one of the Freak’s launches, it will mean another week of pundits and journalists spewing the tired “Arsenal can’t defend” drivel.

I fail to understand what it is about the throw-in that makes it even harder to defend than a corner. I mean, the ball isn’t in-swinging. I concede that the placement is better but surely those high throws give enough time for any keeper (except ours) to get out and up on it. For me, the keeper coming out is the best defense against that type of throw-in. But when your keepers are Almunia and Flubianski, that probably doesn’t apply.

Anyway, this is all conjecture, of course. We could very well never put the ball out of play in a position for Delap to light the fuse on his cannon, though that is unlikely. Should we concede a throw-in within 70 yards of our goal, the players will have to suck it up and the supporters, well… we’ll just have to pray.

The Clean Sheet Doesn’t Paper over the Cracks

I should start out with a brief apology to my regular readers and a great thanks to those who kept commenting on older stories when there were no new posts. Your enthusiasm for the blog keeps me trying to get it done in the midst of an unbelievable work load in real life. So, thank you guys. Now on to the business…

Following a week off from Arsenal Station, I gladly returned to the football world on Saturday morning. The day could not have started better as Everton, my favorite non-Arsenal club to watch this season, denied United points. I don’t think anyone expected Wolves to get anything from Chelsea but the after the Everton victory the stage was set.

It was a classic “Arsenal v. Bottom-Half Side” kind of match. We dominated possession for much of the match, spurned a few golden chances, could’ve conceded at least twice from over the top counterattacks, and held a 1-goal lead until the dying minutes. Sound familiar? It should. The only thing missing was a glaring goalkeeping error.

In a match which we dominated the run of play, we could have easily lost 3-2 had Sunderland had even the slightest inclination to finish their best chances. That said, we did seem to get back to creating scoring chances in a way we haven’t over the four weeks due to improved movement and passing.

Stranegly, I thought Theo had struggled for much of the match and was left hugely frustrated with his performance. But, after watching the MotD highlights, you can see that he did put in a few half-decent balls. But surely not enough for the amount of chances he had.

To be in the box on the right with no one near him and to put his cross into the front row behind the goal, numerous times, is an exercise in frustration for the supporters watching. Still, with the little amount of football he’s played in the last six months, it was inevitably going to be a long road back. At least he was able to use his pace to consistently get into threatening positions.

On the plus side, I thought Nasri and Eboue looked great, especially on the ball. No one in the side makes threatening runs at defenders more consistently than Eboue. Yet, he frustratingly lacks the final ball like Walcott. I also thought Ramsey looked good… much better with Cesc and Song than Denilson. The youngster had a few giveaways in midfield from holding the ball but overall he had a few scoring chances and distributed the ball well.

A clean sheet and all three points still cannot paper over the defensive cracks. Silvestre is still as much of a disaster in central defense as he was in the FA Cup loss to Chelsea last year. Even though Sol is mobilely-challenged as well, he at least thinks like  CB and is able to compensate somewhat. The struggles for our full-backs continue and you have to begin wondering whether Clichy or Sagna will ever get back to the form they had in 2007-08 when both were the best in their league at their respective positions.

And finally… the keeper. While Almunia was relatively error-free on Saturday, I think everyone knows we need a true, quality keeper. Almunia isn’t going to get any better as his confidence seems to have been permanently unsettled and Fabianski is still a few years away, AT LEAST, from being a real #1 option for a title-contending side.

With the money we still have and better players available, I believe Arsene will be making some key moves this summer. But, until then, we just have to pray that the attack can get back to their scoring ways thereby neutralizing the opposition’s best scoring threat, our own keeper.

Steve Bruce questioned the penalty insinuating that Arsenal were getting a penalty that Sunderland would not have. He doesn’t seem to realize that this season it is the other way around. Cesc’s penalty was only the second penalty kick we’d been awarded ALL SEASON!!! 27 MATCHES!!! If anything, the bias has been against us all season-long and we have been the victims of “missed” or ignored penalty calls all season. Anyway, now we need to get some momentum before the return leg of the Porto Champion’s League tie and this was a decent start.

ARSENE WENGER POST-MATCH INTERVIEW