The Word is “Character”

Despite the managerial change, it was the same old trip to the Reebok on Sunday afternoon. Bone-crunching tackles, frustration taken out physically, and slightly questionable sportsmanship, yet Arsenal persevered and showed great character in a match that was much harder-fought than your average 2-nil victory.

Bolton’s place in the table notwithstanding, no one could have expected this to be an easy fixture despite Arsenal’s recent record against the club. In fact, it is delusional, whether on the part of fans, commentators, or pundits, to think there is anything resembling an easy match in the Premier League, even for the Big 3.

However, with Fabregas just returned from injury, a debutant in a central midfield that was missing its lynchpin and enforcer, and a third-string left-back, Arsenal turned out a gritty performance and secured maximum points. It’s even more impressive because the club comes into this home-and-away with Bolton knowing that two wins with a goal differential of 4 will tie them for top of the league.

As expected, the match got a bit testy and a bit dirty at times, and Bolton surely created enough chances to come away with a point. Yet, Arsenal took their chances, including an inspiring one-two capped off by Cesc Fabregas’s 10th league goal of the season (in 16 matches) and even better-taken goal by our supposedly want-away youngster.

Despite a few bad turnovers in midfield, Diaby showed the increasing presence he has developed this season, as he uses his strength and build to his advantage making him one of the hardest players to dispossess. Eastmond made accepted debutant mistakes but, overall, looked calm and confident. Armand Traore, once again,  struggled in the defensive third as Bolton tried to exploit our biggest defensive weakness reminding us why he was switched to playing left-midfield in the reserves last season. On the other hand, Gael Clichy looked fairly sharp on his return, even playing a more advanced position to afford Traore a bit more help on the left than he had received for most of the match.

But the day belonged, once again, to the little Spanish maestro. Early on in the match, the commentator called Cesc “just below world-class.” I don’t know who he’s been watching but if Cesc’s form this season isn’t world-class, no one’s is. 10 goals and 12 assists in 16 Premier League starts? Give me a break! He is 8th in the league in goals-scored, but all 7 ahead of him are strikers. And none even come close to being able to dream about his assist total. I know many English fans have an ingrained aversion to statistics, or doubt their ability to quantify a game like football, but these numbers tell the story. But, perhaps, not the complete story…

Cesc’s contribution to this club cannot be measured in goals and assists alone. One must consider his brand of leadership as the side’s captain. He doesn’t say “Do this because I’m telling you!” Rather, he says, “Do this because I do it!” No one worked harder on the pitch yesterday than Cesc. With the one-nil lead and Cohen just about to rip a shot from just outside the box, Cesc slid in front, taking the hit, to block the shot as if it was a cup-final. THAT is how you lead by example.

Cesc’s outstanding form, and his performance in the Villa match, has led to some pundits questioning whether or not Arsenal are a one-man side. But even when Cesc was out, we still got results. When Liverpool are missing either Gerrard or Torres, they fold like house of cards. Arsenal, rather, continue to grind out results and got big performances from the now-injured Aaron Ramsey during the captain’s absence. Any world-class player is missed when he is not on the pitch, but to say that Arsenal are over-reliant on Cesc is wrong.

The ineffectiveness of the front-line continued but, as they have all season, the midfield picked them up. It’s almost the same dynamic as earlier in the season when the forwards weren’t scoring.You get the feeling that we can’t go on like this for too long, but the goals keep coming. Sooner than later, Bendtner and Walcott will be back and Vela’s role should grow as the season goes on. If this team actually does on to win the league, despite missing their best goalscorer for most of the season, and I truly believe we can, it would be an awesome achievement.

One wonders if the stories in the papers about Fran haven’t forced Wenger into giving him enough time on the pitch to make a final decision on him. He looked nervy when he first came on, with a few errant passes, but gradually grew into the match, and was into it enough by the last ten minutes to be in the right place at the right time and execute a collected finish.

Arsenal are now a win on Wednesday away from being level on points with Chelsea. We are a 3-nil victory away from being clear top of the league. The media and other supporters laughed at us after the Chelsea match, when Arsene and many optimistic supporters, claimed that we were still in the title race. The team has proven those of us right. I just could never see Arsene giving up on this side or the players giving up on themselves.

Both the players and the supporters have come too far and been through too much disappointment in the last few years to just walk away because of one defeat or even a double-digit deficit. That is not the Arsenal way.

NOW It’s A Merry Christmas!!!

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Arsenal made a statement on Sunday afternoon. This club just will not fade away or go crawl under a rock like many expected after the disappointing home defeat to Chelsea. They refused to believe that the 2009-10 Premier League season had become a two-horse race, if it already wasn’t before. Despite losing their best striker, and with their best midfielder just barely making the bench, Arsenal came into a crucial league fixture against a team with whom they were level on points but ahead of in third place on goal differential. This was the mindset going into Arsenal’s sort-of Boxing Day match.

Aston Villa was at pretty much full strength, hadn’t conceded a goal in five matches, hadn’t lost a match since the beginning of November, and had already beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and United, the latter two away. That run had drawn them level on points with an Arsenal side that had won 3 of 4 since the Chelsea match. Yet it had been almost 10 years since Arsenal last lost their Boxing Day/post-Christmas fixture, while Villa has historically struggled after the holiday. And did I mention that Arsenal have never beaten Aston Villa at the Emirates?

On paper, it looked like just the kind of match where Arsenal could be found wanting. Some accounts have characterized the first half as less-than-entertaining, but I thought the play was quick and open and both teams created chances. Eduardo continues to make nice touches inside and around the box, but his finishing is yet to catch up with him. If he wasn’t getting into scoring positions, I would be more worried. He is suffering from a severe lack of confidence that can only be reversed by scoring goals, which means playing time. Diaby, Denilson, and Song did a great job in midfield of shutting down Villa’s attack, which only threatened for a few minutes in the first half when they launched balls into the box.

Quotes from Wenger and some analyses suggest that Arsenal were in the ascendancy when Fabregas came on, but having re-watched the second half, the midfield was struggling in the first 10-15 minutes after the break. Attacks were breaking down in the middle third due to misplaced passes, a few coming from Denilson. He was finally taken off for Fabregas. That is the moment the match changed.

Arsenal immediately looked more threatening and were able to get the ball deep into the attacking third. Fabregas’s free-kick was a stunner; it takes something special to not even give Brad Friedel a chance. After that, Arsenal kept on pushing. As Villa were forced to chase the match, a horrible pass by Milner followed by a perfect, long diagonal ball from Traore, whom had quite probably his best match from a defensive perspective. His pass released Walcott, who found Fabregas for a great finish and the second goal.

Was it worth it? If Fabregas now misses two to three weeks, was bringing him on worth the three points. Arsene believes so, and so do I. You have to win the match you are playing, not matches two weeks from now. Also, the match with Villa was a six-pointer. This match HAD to be won. And it was, by Arsenal’s genuine match-winner, Cesc Fabregas. Goals 10 and 11 for the season sunk Villa and put Arsenal into second place, if only for a few hours. Superlatives describing Cesc are flooding the web as we speak, and I don’t need to add to them. Just consider that he is on pace to end the season with 20 goals and 22 assists, something which hasn’t been done since Henry in 2003-04.

This Arsenal team is not going to willingly go away and leave the title race to United and Chelsea. It’s also not going to prove 99% of football pundits right. Instead, it will fight on. It will need to. With Cesc facing a brief lay-off, Denilson aggravating his back injury, and Song about to leave for Africa after two more matches, we will conceivably be playing an entire second-string midfield for much of January. For me, that means Diaby, Ramsey and possibly moving Nasri back into midfield. However Arsene works it, the entire squad will be needed to get through the next couple of weeks.

But the foundation has been built this December. Looking at the big picture, one has to wonder whether Arsenal can really win the league title with van Persie out for the rest of the season. But football works on a game-by-game basis and, like Arsene, I believe the hunger is there. I also believe that the team spirit is there. These were the two intangibles which were missing last season. Chelsea will soon be facing the loss of Drogba and others for the ANC and United won’t be back at full-strength any time soon. If Arsenal win their game-in-hand on January 6th, home to Bolton, we will pull within one point of the leaders. That was inconceivable only 3 weeks ago.

Also, enjoy this cameraphone video of Cesc’s free-kick:

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRt00_Z5GMQ]

Arsenal Stoked After 2-nil Victory

Ted Harwood is a regular guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He lives in Chicago, IL, and has been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of a decade. Here, he takes a look at the new USA Arsenal site and I follow-up with my own thoughts on it below. Ted also writes about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts on his blog, Running Downhill. (For the record, Ted did not write the horrible pun in the ridiculous title.)

Arsène Wenger could look out of his office window and examine the barbarians at the gates of the Emirates.  Rampaging centre forwards, calculating pundits, and the apocalyptic figure of Pestilence scrawling names on his list were gathering their forces.  The Stoke team bus honked its horn and pushed them all aside, because, despite the nightmarish scenes outside of the stadium, there was still a football match to be played this weekend.

From the first five minutes of the game, one could tell that this was only going to be Arsenal’s day.  Even without the suspended Song holding down the midfield, Arsenal opened the game dominating possession and looking decidedly hungry.  Some might say that this is the way Arsenal always look before conceding one goal from one shot on some strange counterattack, but honestly, yesterday, Stoke just looked like they couldn’t be bothered apart from some speculative Delap Specials and the fruitless occasional run from Tuncay.  The midfield trio of Cesc, Nasri, and Denilson all looked solid in retaining possession and sending balls forward to Eboué, Rosicky, and newly-minted striker Arshavin.  The Russian’s first touch maybe just slightly let him down in the fifth minute after being slipped through on goal by another slick ball from Cesc, and Sorensen was able to slide in and block the chance.

After the opening few minutes, Stoke looked a little healthier, forcing a number of long throws and corners, but at the end of the day, not a single ball into the box from the Potters connected, Arsenal’s “weak” players marshaling every pass and throw out of the box.  Arsenal soon regained the initiative, and in the 21st minute, Arshavin’s craft rewarded him as he poked the ball past Delap who stuck out his leg and gave away the simplest of penalties.  Sorensen, who was quite good on the day, denied Cesc’s PK, having left his line a little earlier than allowed.  Little use in complaining about that these days, though, it seems, and Arsenal merely continued their possession game, little bothered by the miss.

Five minutes later, the Spaniard and the Russian connected again, Arshavin collecting Cesc’s return pass inside the box, holding off his defender, and shooting it low into the far corner across Sorensen.  1-0.  It was a deceptively simple goal, but it must be said that the way that Arshavin can generate power on a strike without his leg even moving can be quite stunning.  The ball looked as if Arshavin had fired it out of a gun, his lack of backlift perhaps catching Sorensen off-guard.  The rest of the half was all Arsenal, including a moment of tragicomical bad luck as Traore’s cross deflected off the far post and fell right in Cesc’s lap, only for his shot to rifle off of Eboué’s leg on the line as the Ivorian tried to leap out of the way.

The second half was more of the same, Stoke generating the occasional minor threat from crosses and throws but never troubling Almunia aside from one Ricardo Fuller effort late in the action.  The score remained 1-0, but despite the best efforts of the television announcers to make it seem otherwise, supporters were never too nervous, and ten minutes from time, Aaron Ramsey collected a pass from Arshavin at the top of the box, took a touch, and used the outside of his foot to place a shot past a perplexed Sorensen.  2-0 to the Arsenal, and shades of what is hopefully to come from the 18-year old midfielder for many years.

The game was effectively over, but there were post-match worries about knocks to Gallas, Traore, and Rosicky, the latter looking set to miss a stretch of time again.  If Traore is to miss time, it is probable that Silvestre will feature at left-back.  The good news is that Diaby and Walcott should be back for Wednesday’s game in Greece, and no doubt the boss will be resting some players ahead of the Liverpool match.  For now, though, 2-0 to the Arsenal, Chelsea lose in the North, and suddenly the hands of the pundits are reaching out to take back the trophy they’d handed over, showing the uselessness of making predictions about sports before the season is halfway over.  Up the Gunners.