The Arsenal Keeps-A-Rollin’

More momentum. More belief. More confidence. These were the positive results of yesterday’s 2-nil victory over West Ham. While, on paper, it may have looked like a home match against a genuine relegation candidate, we all know that derbies with West Ham have been anything but easy in the last few years.

The  match started out strangely with Arsenal scoring right out of the gates. I can think of only three goals we’ve scored in the first 10-15 minutes all season. But it was a well-worked one-two between Denilson and Bendtner to create just enough space for Denilson to perfectly place a shot low and in the corner with his laces.

The sending-off of Vermaelen was undeniably harsh from an Arsenal perspective. I wonder what role all the media noise about whether or not Campbell should’ve been sent off according to the rule of law for his challenge on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink the other week instead of just being cautioned played in Atkinson’s decision.

In the heat of the moment, all I could think of was Vermaelen being suspended for three of our seven remaining fixtures. However, it does appear that since he was not sent-off for violent conduct that his suspension will be only one game and he will miss the Birmingham match. The obvious option is to sacrifice Song in midfield for the one match by partnering him with Sol and letting Diaby and Denilson take the midfield behind Cesc.

This is so disagreeable to many of us because yesterday was a perfect example of the growing stature of Song. His performance yesterday was efficient, energetic, and technical. What more could you ask for from a defensive midfielder. He won balls, he held the ball, he distributed it well, and he ran for most of the match. The real supporters’ test of Song’s importance to the side is to ask yourself if there is any other defensive midfielder in the Premier League that you would rather have instead of Song… Me neither.

I also wanted to comment on Diaby’s performance. I used to criticize Diaby for being all style and no substance. Yes, he had technical ability but he didn’t know how to use it in a team context. However, this season has also witnessed the emergence of Diaby into a far more mature player than I thought he could ever be. He never used to look like part of the team when he was on the pitch, but no more. He has toned down his theatrics and now uses them far more effectively because of it. His ability to control possession in midfield is outstanding and a bit reminiscent of Hleb’s ability to do the same. He has become extremely hard to dispossess in midfield and in so doing has finally become an integral part of the side.

I have to admit that I almost felt bad for Matthew Upson but even he didn’t bother to argue the penalty. Cesc stepped up, took it confidently, and added to his career-high goal tally of 15 in the league and 18 overall. There is just not enough you can say about Cesc’s form and importance this season. But his emergence as one of the most complete players in the league, if not Europe, is emblematic of the team’s overall development.

Arsene hit on it in his post-match press conference. This is simply not the same side, mentally, as last season. We are now able to grind out wins, win the matches we should win, and not just stand up to physical, bullying opponents, but match them as well. All the traits are there. Even if we don’t win the league this season, we’d have to be a fair favorite for next season’s title because this team will only get better.

It’s something I’ve been saying for two years. Some pundits thought Arsenal would drop out of the top 4 and some fans felt that we should give up on this side and even on Wenger. But even though it has been a very long wait for them to come good, I have never doubted that if we kept this team together, they would eventually bring alot of silverware to the Emirates. A team of 23 year olds can’t help but get better. And over the course of the season, and especially the last two months, we are seeing this Arsenal side burst into maturity before our very own eyes. And it is a joy to watch.

The Date with United and O’Neill’s Problem

So, it’s finally here… the run we’ve all been waiting for since the fixture list came out. I still hold the draw at Villa Park was a decent result for us and now it’s United at home. Anything less than a win at home will have the pundits’ knives out again to cut Arsenal’s title chances to pieces.

Circumstances bode well ahead of the match. Arsenal have never lost to United in the league at the Emirates. United, despite their place in the table, are a shell of their former selves. Rooney’s emergence as one of the top 3 players in the Premier League has not offset the loss of Ronaldo. Also, one wonders how long Rooney can carry the entire club on his shoulders.

The fact is that United just do not inspire the same “fear factor” in the opposition as they have previously. We have another fantastic chance to make a statement about this title race, and we MUST take it. You can’t build confidence any better than capping a 10-match unbeaten run in the league with a win over United. And we will need that confidence when we come out onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge next weekend. With the upcoming matches being six-pointers, the two matches in the next 9 days can have the influence of 12 points in the League title race.

Song and Eboue return and are fit to play on Sunday. There is a “good chance” that Vermaelen won’t play and Diaby is definitely out. If Vermaelen is out, I would hope that Arsene would resist the temptation to play Song at CB and go with the same midfield as at Villa. If Song plays a bit deeper, with Sol back there, I think we can compensate. Song will be needed in the middle of the park and, should he get the call, Sol will have a golden opportunity to show that he can still be a Premier League center-half.

But you guys know all this already… I did just want to briefly talk about the hoopla surrounding Arsene’s comments about Villa and O’Neill’s reaction. Here is what Arsene said:

They stopped us from playing when we had the ball and when they had the ball. They played a very long ball game, closed us down and it was very difficult for us.

And here was O’Neill’s response:

If that is what he (Wenger) saw tonight, that is as ridiculous a statement as I’ve heard. He has made a few ridiculous statements in his time here and that is probably as good as any. That is only an annoyance at the end of it all. Anyone who saw the game wouldn’t take that viewpoint. But it is an appalling insult.

An “appalling insult!?!?” Are you serious. Perhaps O’Neill forgot to fill his valium prescription this month. Can anyone really deny that at least half of Villa’s gameplan was to pump long balls up to Heskey to try to take advantage of Arsenal’s weakness in aerial defending. The other half was crosses from wide areas. So I don’t really see how O’Neill can argue with Wenger’s assessment.

In fact, I would think O’Neill a lesser manager had he not gone with that gameplan and tried to expose his opposition’s most glaring weakness. The absurd reaction by the Villa manager is quite revealing of the insecurity attached to a team that is trying to achieve a Champions League place.

Though possibly a bit veiled, I believe Arsene’s comments were a form of praise. Everyone knows that to stifle Arsenal you have to close them down in the midfield and that we are weakest when defending in the air. Those are proper tactics to try to get a result from a match with us. Villa executed both of those tactics well, though Arsenal did end up with better chances and deserved a victory more than Villa.

Villa are a quick young side with some power, but if O’Neill thinks he has an English version of Barcelona on his hands and that Villa are a pure footballing side, then he is the “ridiculous” one. Get over yourself, Martin.

Some Thoughts on our Draw with Bolton… I mean, Villa

Since we find ourselves engaged in a 3-way title race at the end of February, from here on out, every draw will have us considering one of football’s most philosophical questions: Was it two points lost, or a point gained?

I know. I did it after the Everton match. While many disagreed with me, though not most according to our poll, I believed we had gained a point on that day. The same goes for yesterday. Chelsea lost at Villa Park while City and Spurs drew there. A draw at Villa Park is not going to lose anyone the title. In the club-by-club table, we actually picked up a point on Chelsea.

But, yesterday’s point may have come at the cost of points down the road as the entire Arsenal global community waits with bated breath for news on Thomas Vermaelen’s injury. We have also lost Eduardo for Sunday’s crucial fixture home to United. Sad to say, but that might not be a bad thing. Bendtner’s return could not have come sooner. He gave us an extra dimension that we have looked towards the front of our attack for some time. He was able to win headers and hold the ball up, something we have been sorely lacking.

There’s usually not much to say about a nil-nil draw, but it was a hard-fought point. Let’s be honest. We were shit for much of the first half and at 35 minutes I was thinking, “Let’s just get into the break even.” We looked better in the second half and hit two posts on the night. On another night, we might have won 2-nil.

As for Martin O’Neill’s reaction to Arsene’s comments, I don’t see how he can argue. with the Boss’s assessment and his being insulted is hysterical. How sensitive is O’Neill? Villa were, without a doubt, hoofing the ball up throughout the match. If I didn’t have a life and some admiration for what O’Neill’s done in the Midlands,  I would go back and watch the match again counting how many times they hoofed the ball up trying to take advantage of Sol and Gallas. Yes, they played some football too-mostly Young and Milner.

Most importantly, they closed us down in the midfield and created space by getting the ball wide in attack, when they weren’t lumping it forward. The return of Alex Song is greatly awaited as Denilson left a little to be desired. Rosicky continues to take steps towards getting back to his best form and his return has been really impressive considering the length of time he was out and that many of us thought that even if he did come back, he wouldn’t be the same player.

We learned that Clichy is nowhere near his best yet. He really struggled to contain Young for much of the match though he did win a few important battles. One can only imagine how bad Traore would have been embarrassed by Young last night had he been in the left-back spot.

Sol Campbell also deserves a mention. When the trainer went out to check on Vermaelen, you could see little gash in his shin. I didn’t think he’d be coming off. And I have to admit that considering how shaky we had looked defensively in the first half-hour, I was more than concerned when Sol came on. It looked a perfect opportunity for Agbonlahor to use his speed against the slower veteran. But Sol looked as solid as you could hope from what is essentially our #4 center-back overall (if you consider Djourou ahead of him when fit). He won headers, and though he was beaten for pace once or twice, he used his experience and his ability to read the game to compensate, like a veteran should.

I think I also learned, or came to accept, that Eduardo doesn’t look likely to ever again even approach his pre-injury level. He used to make up for a little lack of pace with his top-class finishing, but when that is there, he looks a very ordinary player. It pains me to say that because for over a month I’ve been saying it he just needed a run of games, but it’s starting to look as though that’s not the case and I think Arsenal would benefit more by giving some of those minutes to Vela, who has tons of potential and needs to play.

Anyway, I originally thought that we needed 7 points from these 4 matches to remain in fairly close contention, especially now considering Chelsea beat Birmingham quite easily. I think we must beat United and at least get a draw at the Bridge to remain in a firm position. How often are you involved in a three-team race for the League and play the other two teams consecutively. This is a rare opportunity for us. We can make a statement even bigger than the 10-match unbeaten run that put us on top last week. On to Sunday…

ARSENE WENGER POST-MATCH INTERVIEW