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

One Point Gained or Two Points Dropped?

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With Chelsea’s eminently winnable match with Hull City canceled, along with six other Premier League matches on Saturday, our match against Everton, in the driving snow, effectively, became our infamous and long-awaited “game-in-hand.” Yesterday’s match was another reminder why teams with games-in-hand should never just count them as three points.

Of course, there are two points-of-view available to the distraught Arsenal supporter following yesterday’s type of match, and which one you choose probably defines your overall world-view of being an Arsenal supporter. For one, you can go up to the roof of your home or apartment building and stand on the ledge, poised to jump, screaming, “We dropped two points at home to the 12th-placed side!”

Or you can consider that on a day when Arsenal weren’t even at their half-best, were missing key players through injuries, and, despite all the pundits’ talk of Arsenal’s inability to play in bad weather, were playing a match in a damn blizzard that sent all but two of the rest of the league’s clubs running like little bitches. I, as regular readers might guess, have chosen the latter. (You can choose in the poll on the right sidebar.)

Arsenal were so committed in the final 20 minutes to going for the win, that somehow Steven Piennar slipped in behind the defense and chipped Almunia in a one-on-one with the keeper. But, while Everton were celebrating in the 81st minute as if they had won the game, Arsenal were steeling themselves for a final 10-minute blitzkrieg on Everton’s 11-man defense, finally breaking through after a deft pass from Diaby allowed Rosicky to use the outside of his boot to put a shot on goal that deflected in.

For me, it’s hard to judge a match played in the kind of adverse weather we had at the Emirates yesterday. But, I felt like Diaby had regressed and we were seeing a bit more of the “old Diaby,” holding onto the ball too long and losing it and making bad passing decisions in the middle of the pitch and in the final third. His performance was only redeemed by his assist on the leveler. Still, with no Fabregas or Song in the midfield, we can hardly afford for Diaby to revert back to his former, frustrating self.

Denilson also struggled with keeping the ball at times. Though it was a tough situation to be playing in that type of conditions without your two midfield leaders, and, credit to Everton, they near-perfectly executed what has become the standard gameplan against Arsenal, which is to try to smother them when they’re on the ball. Still, it was Denilson’s fight for a 50-50 and his propensity for shooting from outside of the box that drew Arsenal level after Osman’s opener.

Whether or not Piennar was onside when he took the pass for the second goal is still a doubt in my mind. But, Arsenal didn’t hang their heads and concede defeat. They fought back and created enough chances in the final 10+ minutes to earn a victory. Rosicky’s play, following an awkward few minutes needed to settle into the match and weather, was highly encouraging, especially after signing a new contract.

Denilson’s being carried off on a stretcher after a rib injury sent him down in a manner reminiscent of Wayne Rooney-in-the-box is a bit worrying, but we will likely have to wait until Monday or Tuesday before the Boss has more information on him.

All in all, it is disappointing to only get one point from the game-in-hand, but, to win titles, you have to be able to get some kind of result on days when you are struggling for form and, also, playing in less-than-ideal weather conditions. On Saturday, Arsenal did both and it brought them to within three points of the leaders and two points within United in second place but still holding their game-in-hand on the Manchester side, that just barely escaped with a somewhat undeserved point against the Premier League’s most-improved side, Birmingham City.

And, despite the disappointment, a three-point deficit in the second week of January means the league is very winnable yet for the Arsenal. With Bendtner, Fabregas, and Clichy due to return within the next two weeks, Arsenal will be getting back somewhat closer to their true starting XI.

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.