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.

Fran, Stan, and Harry

Arsene v Tottenham

With our Champions League match against AZ Alkmaar looming, I am just going to use today to briefly talk about a few issues facing the club this week, including the Fran Merida situation, the impending, or not, takeover bid, and a look back at the delusion that is Spurs’, and Harry Redknapp’s, view of their side.

We all know the deal with Merida by now. He is out of contract and so, come January, he is free to discuss terms with any club he wants. Of course, there is one club that is already making noise and that is Atletico Madrid, the player’s boyhood club. The other party making noise is, not surprisingly, Merida’s agent, Joseba Diaz:

We only have an offer from Arsenal but Fran Merida has an illness, for want of a better word, and that is Atletico Madrid and you can’t do anything about that. It started in 1996 when Atletico won the league and the Copa del Rey. He slept on red and white sheets, he followed Atletico whenever he had the chance. Even when he was with his family he wore a gold ring with the Atletico badge stuck on it.

Fran MeridaMerida’s illness is, I think, for want of a better word, Joseba Diaz. Many of us have watched him develop over the last two years while out on loan and also with the Reserves. It would be disappointing for him to leave the club now, just as he begins to look like he could make a claim for a spot in the first-team. However, the most disappointing part of the whole thing is that he will leave for nothing. When the courts found him guilty of violating his pre-contract with Barcelona by signing for Arsenal, the club paid the €3.2m judgment levied against him. When you consider the money invested in training him, for the two most crucial years in a young footballer’s development, along with the judgment, Arsenal will, for once, come out on the losing end as far as a young player is concerned.

Stan Kroenke has increased his holding to 29.6% after purchasing a further 427 shares for £3.6m. A Cultured Left Foot talked today about the ambiguity surrounding the intentions of Mr. Kroenke. I wrote many, many months ago that I also believed that Kroenke was acting, or being used by the board, as a buffer to prevent the possible takeover by Usmanov. However, I am not quite so sure of that statement anymore.

Of course, just because Kroenke reaches the magic number of 29.9%, doesn’t mean that the Board have to sell; only that he must make them an offer. It seems inevitable that Kroenke will takeover the club, at some point, but, even though he is close to the threshold, it still doesn’t seem imminent. Amy Lawrence made some perceptive comments on Kroenke’s aloofness on the Arsecast a few weeks ago, and I would have to agree with her. I think most supporters would like for Kroenke to make some kind of statement to the supporters. It doesn’t have to be a definitive statement of intentions but showing up at the AGM and basically refusing to speak can easily be disconcerting for those concerned over the club’s future.

Even if Kroenke took over the club, I don’t believe we would see any major changes. Above all, he’s a smart businessman and he can see that what Arsenal are doing, as a club, is working. Gazidis has come in and done a wonderful job and the club is now making strides in many aspects from reaching out to the supporters more, securing the financial side of the club, as well as providing Wenger with the assistance he needs to do his job.

Finally, on to Harry and Spurs… Harry’s sour grapes were on display when he complained that of our 3 goals, “There wasn’t a good goal among them.” He then went on to give the BBC interviewer a hard time after the match. But most entertaining was Harry’s delusional nature put on display. Like Keane’s delusional ramblings from the build-up, after the match, Harry said the club hadn’t “hit a blip. We have 19 points.” That’s all well and good, Harry, but the club had only 7 points, 2 wins and a draw, in their last 6 matches going into the match. That puts them at 15th in the league over those six matches. Not hitting a blip? I’d like to see what Harry would consider “a blip.”Cesc Fabregas celebrates v Tottenham

Even before the match, Harry was saying how it should be a really good game because both teams were playing well and were playing really good football. I had to laugh because Harry’s obviously still living in September while the rest of us have moved on to November. Spurs haven’t looked a good side, or at least haven’t been able to secure results, in almost two months. So when Harry comes into the match talking about playing good football having secured only seven of a possible 18 points in their last six matches, one can’t help but laugh.

This is the difference between Arsene and Redknapp. Look at the picture above… Arsene is getting that upset despite the side holding a 3-nil lead over Spurs. At the same time, Harry is struggling to convince himself that the team is in good form having gotten 7 from their last 18 points. For Arsene, nothing is ever good enough, while Harry tries to portray a team with 2 wins in their last 6 matches as “in good form.”

As for us, we sit atop of the form table and trail Chelsea by five points. Three of those points could very well come from the game-in-hand against Bolton, now rescheduled from the 2nd of December because of conflict with the Carling Cup quarterfinal tie with Money City, and the other two points were the two dropped at Upton Park. So, essentially, what separates us from the Chelsea side that everyone feels will stroll to the title, is the points that were given away at West Ham.

Listening to the podcasts this week, Arsenal are now, all of sudden, considered right contenders for the title again. The reactionary nature of the English football pundits never ceases to amaze me. I just find it highly amusing the way teams are completely written off in the first two months of a 10-month season because they blew a lead or lost two very tough road matches.

In America, sports writers would never write off the Yankees for a chance at winning the pennant even if they got swept in a four-game series early in the season. The pundits just make themselves look like idiots. Are Arsenal all of a sudden contenders again because they beat Spurs 3-nil? No. We were always contenders. That doesn’t change because of one or two matches. No team’s prospects can be rightly determined by one or two matches.

Liverpool Down, Spurs To Go

Personal commitments have gotten to Arsenal Station this week but as a busy week grinds to a close, we look back at the week that was and ahead to the match we’ve all been waiting for.

In Arsene’s 750th match in charge of the club, Arsenal advanced to the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup with another solid Carling Cup performance. And, while it wasn’t quite the all-youth lineup we’ve come to look forward to in recent years, the two players who really shined were youngsters, Aaron Ramsey and Fran Merida.

Fran MeridaMerida let loose  a rocket from just outside thSe box with that precious left foot to give Arsenal the lead early and, following an quality equalizer from Insua and some nifty footwork in a tight spot in the box, Bendtner gave Arsenal the lead for good just after the break.

Rumours abound about Merida now returning to Spain in the summer. He can leave on a free in the summer should he not be able to complete the current negotiations with the club to further his stay.The Sun valuates the youngster at £10m, which hardly matters should he leave on a free.

According to my friend, Jamie, and his always-reliable Young Guns, Merida’s agent has confirmed that they have so far turned down a 5-year deal from the club and that he is currently being monitored by both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

Wenger has claimed that he is close to breaking his way into the first team, and that is why he resisted loaning him out again this year despite an offer from Spanish club, Levante. Merida, himself, said he would rather stay with the club than go out on loan again.There is no doubt that the club needs to do whatever they have to to tie Merida down for the foreseeable future.

Both Bendtner and Eduardo had very good matches as supporters were treated to the kind of Carling Cup passing and movement we have come toNicklas Bendtner expect. Kerrea Gilbert showed alot of potential as did Craig Eastmond. Samir Nasri had a very encouraging return to the first team as well.

Of course, it’s not all good news. Fabianski is out again for three weeks with a thigh pull. Meanwhile, Wilshere, Walcott, Rosicky, and Denilson remain unavailable for the North London Derby on Saturday.

Spurs come into the match having won only two of their last six matches in the Premier League having beaten Burnley and Pompey but they also drew away to Bolton, and suffered successive defeats to Chelsea and United.

The clubs are level on 19 points but Arsenal hold third place with a game in hand on goal differential as Tottenham’s flying start seems to have been grounded for the moment. Arsenal will look to rebound from their disappointing 2-2 draw at West Ham last weekend, while both clubs are coming off victories midweek in the Carling Cup.