You Just Cannot Count This Team Out

So, let me begin by saying that I was probably thinking what alot of you were after reading guest contributor, Greg Schwartz’s article yesterday regarding starting Eboue and Walcott on the left. In fact, I told him to expect to be flamed, but, to his great credit, he stuck to his guns. Now Walcott and Eboue may not have played on the left, but they both came on as subs and had a major impact on the match.

With a day to reflect back on the match, let me share some of my thoughts. I believe I can say with NO exaggeration that yesterday was the worst 60 minutes of football I have ever seen from the Arsenal. In my over ten years as an Arsenal supporter, I have never seen us so completely dominated for so long a period of time.

Yet, having said that, I believe we once again showed immense character, of the kind that has kept us in the title race this season. In fact, I am more proud of the side after that display than I was after the 6-1 win over Everton on the opening weekend. This team just does not know when to quit, when to lay down and die.

Regarding possession, I felt we enabled them to dominate  possession by giving the ball away so cheaply and so often. It was like we had a team of 2007 Diabys out there. But, in the end, what did Barca do with their possession? Nothing, really. Their two goals both came from disappointing, fundamental errors on the part of Almunia and the defense letting Ibrahimovic get in between Song and Clichy when Vermaelen had pushed up too high. Their goals were our own fault. For all that great football, none of it got them a goal.

I don’t know what I can say really about Cesc’s yellow card except that, to me, it wasn’t a foul and an English referee would never have given it. That he will now miss the return leg has to be crushing for him. On the night, I thought Nasri was our most consistent player in attack and I don’t rate our chances much less knowing that he will be in Cesc’s central role.

The substitutions of Theo and Eboue made the difference for us last night as Barca, especially Maxwell, could not deal with Theo’s pace nor Eboue’s directness. If we are to get the result we need at the Nou Camp, I believe those two will have to be on the pitch. Let’s also not forget Bendtner who set up both goals.

Consider that, to injuries, we lost our captain, our former captain, and our most explosive player in Arshavin (for three weeks now with a calf strain) and a 2-2 result even at home to the best team in the world doesn’t seem too shabby at all. I have watched Barca a fair amount this season and that first sixty minutes was some of the best football I’ve seen them play all season. It has not been par for the course this season, like it was last season. They will need to replicate that performance and more if they want to go through.

The pressure is on them, the holders playing the second leg at home, not us.  And we seem to play better when that is the case. In that case, the away goals mean less than usual because we must go to the Nou Camp to win anyway. Arsene wouldn’t have it any other way.

This match, despite being dominated for such long stretches of the match, will only breed more confidence in the side that no matter what happens, we always have a chance. I believe we can go to Barcelona and get the result we need to go through, especially considering Barca will now be missing Pique and Puyol for the return. As I said last week regarding the title race, the same applies here… it’s not over yet!

GUEST ARTICLE: Theo and Eboue Must Start

Guest contributor, Greg Schwartz, proposes a radical lineup change as a way to help stop the explosiveness of the Barcelona attack. Whether you agree or disagree, and I have a feeling many of you will disagree, it shows just how ridiculously these two matches are to Arsenal supporters.

So, I write this blog post knowing full well that many of you will disagree with me, and to be honest, I’m not sure I will even agree with myself by the end of it.   That said, here are my thoughts on the Barcelona match.  To win this game, Arsene Wenger must take a risk, and that risk is to start Theo and Eboue down the left side.  I have given this match a lot of thought, probably too much thought, as I have an Organic Chemistry exam directly after the match, but here is what I have come to:

Dani Alves is frightening coming forward.  He runs at defenders in a similar manner to Eboue, and provides a constant threat in the attacking positions with pace and great crossing ability from the right back slot.  That said, he often leaves himself, and the Barcelona backline, exposed with his rampant runs.  He either forgets, or ignores his responsibility to track back.  This leaves an exploitable space down the Arsenal left flank.  In addition to this, Alves provides the bulk of the supply to Messi, and provides him with overlapping runs in order to maintain possession.

In order to limit this attacking threat, my solution would be to start Walcott down the left.  While starting a player like Arshavin gives Arsenal skills and tremendous experience out wide, Walcott brings sheer pace.  He gives a different option and makes himself a relief valve against the pressure of a possession-based attack; which Barcelona seem intent to play against Arsenal.

Starting Walcott up against Alves limits the latter’s ability to go forward by constantly having the threat of Theo peeling away.  Even if Theo’s final ball lacks product, the option of handicapping Alves, makes the decision worth the cost.

Additionally, I was reading a piece in the Daily Mail today by Martin Keown, about what Arsenal can do to beat Barcelona.  In it, he suggests starting a right footed player against the naturally left-footed Messi.  He calls the plan, “sacrificing Clichy;” I see it more as enabling Eboue.  Eboue has played left back before, with moderate success, and I see him as capable of performing his duties intelligently and diligently.  His work rate and defensive prowess would provide more security for Walcott to play higher up the wing, further handicapping Alves.

Further, if Arsene were to start Diaby down the left as well, it creates an intriguing blend of pace, power, as well as the ability to cover the entire field quickly.  I see that as the most effective way to neutralize the threat of Messi and Alves.  Messi and Alves provide much of the attacking threat for Barcelona, with Messi banging in the goals, and Alves providing ten assists this season from the right back slot.

I admit my plan has drawbacks.  Theo is unproven at the top level, and could take away from the efficacy of the front line.  Also, Eboue has been an integral part of the Arsenal front line thus far, and moving him out of position risks minimizing what he offers best.  Continuing in that vein, Clichy’s form right now is remarkable and he deserves the chance to continue playing so well.  I worry with him though, that he will forget his defensive duties as he sometimes does.  In this game in particular, we cannot afford that.

All that said, I think whatever team Wenger goes with, this presents an opportunity for Arsenal to prove their credentials as a truly top team.  After all, Barcelona has shown chinks in their armor, which Arsenal are capable of exploiting.

The Importance of the Supporters’ Belief in the Side

It seems to me that the last month or so has seen a sea change in the Arsenal support. Following the double defeats to Chelsea and United, the anti-Wenger boo-boys were out in full force calling for the Boss’s head on a platter and a swift end to his “personal project.” Five weeks, qualification for the Champions League Quarterfinals, and five League wins later, Arsenal are in the midst of their best chance at a title since 2004-05.

For most of last season and much of this season, a very vocal minority of Arsenal supporters have given up faith in Arsene and do everything they can to let everyone know it. Those of you who frequent forums or nameless Arsenal blogs of that persuasion know what I am talking about.

However, with the prospects of a title as good as they’ve been in years, the deluge of anti-Wenger protests have diminished from the ubiquitous Arsenal newsfeeds. Now, I am not naive enough to believe that just the prospect of winning the title will change these supporters’ minds and I am quite sure that if we even lose the title by 1 point they will be back in full force throughout the summer. Yet, for now, they seem to have gotten behind the manager, the players, and the club.

Of course, there are still a few rogues. 606 played host to one of the most idiotic rants from an Arsenal fan I have ever heard this past Saturday. If you heard it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Others continue to deride Nicklas Bendtner as if the Burnley match was indicative of his season so far obviously failing to realize that he has now scored 6 goals in his last five games including a hat-trick in a second-leg of a European tie and a last-minute winner away to Hull which kept our league season alive. What more can the kid do? Attitudes like that do not help the club.

However, the majority of supporters have gotten behind the club and the players. Perhaps, the incident most indicative of this change involved Bendtner. After one of the most inept and unlucky displays of finishing we have seen in a long time, the supporters at the Emirates stayed behind him, even clapping him off. This was in stark contrast to the treatment Emmanuel Eboue received back in December 2008 against Wigan.

Supporters received a lot of stick in the media following their booing off of Eboue. To his greatest credit, Eboue didn’t put his head down or take the easy way out and ask for a transfer, though he was obviously hurt. Now, 15 months on, he is an indispensable part of the club as the best back-up right-back in the league and a genuine wide-attacking option. His versatility and his spirit have proven invaluable this season.

The contrast between the treatment of Eboue and Bendtner is the single best indicator that the supporters, who over the last two years have almost split into pro- and anti-Wenger factions, have dropped their petty differences to get behind the club for these 13 possible remaining fixtures.

Arsene has always spoken about the importance of belief for the players, but, last year at a Q & A with the fans in May, he spoke of how important the supporters’ belief was to the club. Not only is the side growing in confidence and belief but so are the supporters… and the players know it. They know that for the first time in a long while the supporters believe in them, and that could make all the difference over the last two months of the season.