Contrasting performances and shiny toys

Tim Stillman Column

Season’s greetings Arse addicts. It’s been an unusual kind of week with two away games yielding mixed results. Yet we’ve probably found more praise for our performance in defeat at Eastlands than we did for our somewhat serendipitous victory at Villa Park. Football is a funny old, blah, blah, blah etc.

Though I tend to find myself in concurrence with the consensus that we were as unfortunate in Manchester as we were fortunate in Birmingham, there were a couple of key differences. For a start, the manager made better substitutions at Villa. On Sunday, he threw Arshavin and Chamakh into the fray to rescue the game. Given the current form of both, that’s a bit like tossing a damp blanket on a blazing house fire. (In fairness, we had one change forced on us with the injury to Djourou).

At Villa Park, we were able to bring on Rosicky, who stabilised the game in the midfield and took hold of it in a way Frimpong hadn’t been able to. It was a subtler change but a better one. Arteta, who had been doing a fine job all evening, moved in front of the back four without fuss. Of course Benayoun entered the fray too and ended up scoring the winner. I was made up for Yossi, whose attitude has been utterly exemplary since joining.

He would have every right I think to be a bit peeved to see the misfiring Arshavin ahead of him in the pecking order. Indeed, privately I’m sure he is. However, Benayoun, much like Arteta, has brought a professionalism that has come to characterise this squad. In fact, the more I watch the pair of them, the more I become convinced we should have signed both of them 2 or 3 years ago.

The winning goal of course came by the most unconventional of methods for us; via a setpiece. The feeling is that we should be much more dangerous from corners. In van Persie and Arteta we have two very good avenues for delivery and there are more than enough players in excess of six feet tall to attack them. We forced an awful lot of corners before making that breakthrough.

The truth is, Villa have a woeful record for defending corners this season. Benayoun’s unmarked effort was their 9th concession from a dead ball this season. Work has obviously gone into defending setpieces on the training ground given our improvement there, I wonder now if as much focus shouldn’t be expended in attacking them now. It would constitute another string to a bow for a team that is increasingly symphonic in its harmony.

I suppose in that spirit of refinement, with the season at approximately its halfway point; it’s a good time to assess where we are and how happy we supporters are. On one hand, the stormy waters have cooled amongst fans following the tempests of the summer.

On the other, this time last year, Arsenal were firmly in the title race and marching towards a domestic cup final too. Now we find ourselves in a frantic sprint for 4th place. So conversely, we all appear to be happier despite having taken a retrograde step in real terms.

Of course, there are factors that account for that apparent discrepancy. Firstly, expectations have lowered. A poor end to last season and beginning to this, amidst the tumult of losing key players has seen to that. Last season, our 4th placed finish spurned a particularly pithy banner inside the ground that read, “3rd or 4th place. Wow!” Now, we would all take that as an unqualified success. Especially as City’s spending swelled yet further in the summer just past.

In retrospect, I also consider our start to the season to be something of a false start. Albeit, a false start borne of our own poor handling of the summer transfer window. A good chunk of our squad was not in situ until we had already dropped valuable points. Since the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker, Santos, Benayoun etc have settled, our form has picked up immeasurably. But I do think there’s another factor at play that explains a sudden thawing in supporter resentment.

My own resolution is that this side is perhaps less bombastic and even maybe not quite as possessed of individual talent as the last model. But its component parts work together better. It sounds strange, but I think there’s something eminently more “likeable” about this team. There’s a greater industry and professionalism that the fans have responded to.

Some friends and I were discussing this over a few jars of light ale after the Everton game. We all commented how pleasantly odd it felt to be holding a one goal lead in the final minutes of a home game and to be reasonably sure the team would see the game out. I also think my friend Andy touched on something too when he said, “This lot (the current team) would never, ever have lost to Birmingham City at Wembley.” I found myself agreeing with the hypothesis and that’s a testament to the attitude I think some of the newer players have brought to the team.

With January fast approaching and with injuries mounting, there’s a grim inevitability that fantasy transfer lists will be concocted all over the internet. Careers will be written off and multi million acquisitions sanctioned at the stroke of the return key. I think it’s clear to all of us that a striker is the most urgent item on our shopping list. (Please don’t ask me which striker in particular. It will dramatically reduce the prospect of me having to slaughter you horribly).

A short term full back option may well be on the cards too; depending on the wellbeing of our walking wounded. But just as people tend to get all giddy at the prospect of a few new shiny toys to play with; the same individuals are usually just as fervent in their desire to toss last year’s wares into the bottom of the toy chest. Personally, I think January is not a good time to dismantle your squad – no matter how poorly or how rarely certain players might be performing.

We should all have been around Arsenal long enough to know that the next injury crisis is just around the corner and therefore Almunia might be needed at fullback with Squillaci drafted in as emergency striker. We’ll need the numbers as the campaign chugs on. Unsettling a squad in the middle of the season doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me. We already saw in August how much a fluctuation of ins and outs can be disruptive in the midst of a throng of matches.

For one thing you want players to have their minds fully focussed on the task at hand. I’m not really keen on the idea that Jimmy McSparepart might drag his wantaway carcass listlessly through a January cup tie so as not to scupper his move to Midtable Athletic. I think sanctioning loan moves for our younger charges (maybe including Frimpong) would be as much action as I’d want to see for the London Colney exit door. After that, it’d only be one or two necessary additions.

That wraps up another week for me. If tis your custom to celebrate Christmas and all that jazz, may yours be prosperous and just bloody lovely. Till next week, cheers. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

Villa 1-2 Arsenal: Benayoun rescues the points


Match reportVideo and highlights

There was nothing more important than taking three points last night. A good performance is always welcome, but winning after playing some way below par is also welcome. Winning after playing some way below par and very late in the game against a team managed by Alex McLeish, is more welcome than Johnny Beer and Fred Rum around my house.

Arsene pulled a bit of a surprise in the starting line-up, choosing to play Francis Coquelin at right back with Thomas Vermaelen at left back. Emmanuel Frimpong was given the Alex Song role in midfield while the rest of the team was obvious. And to be honest the balance wasn’t right all night. I thought Coquelin struggled a little bit, which is understandable for a central midfielder being played out of position, but no more so than Vermaelen who looked uncomfortable at left back all night long. And let’s remember this is a position he’s pretty familiar with.

Villa were able to fizz in crosses from both sides, with decent variation it has to be said, and while one or two were a little more dangerous than we’d like, Szczesny dealt with them pretty well. Up the other end we were ok, Theo Walcott was pulled back in the box by Ciaran Clark and the drummer from Culture Club pointed to the spot. Robin van Persie’s last penalty in the Premier League was at Old Trafford, a weak effort which was saved by David de Gea. His finish was anything but weak this time, he whacked it past Guzman into the roof of the net.

There wasn’t much more to the first half really. Villa seemed to content to let us have it and most of the game was played in the middle third of the pitch. The second was a different story. Obviously Alex McLeish reminded his players that this wasn’t Liverpool they were playing and there was no excuse for being utterly shit, and they looked a lot more lively after the break, pressing us higher up the pitch and putting us under pressure.

Their goal came when a long ball came to Vermaelen, he tried to head it back to Mertesacker but left it well short of the German. Already on a yellow he couldn’t go thundering in, Albrighton got there before him and put it through Szczesny’s legs to equalise. I’m not going to say Villa deserved it but the goal wasn’t a surprise. And they reacted well subsequently, putting us under real pressure and keeping the ball in a way we couldn’t. We had no outlet, everything was going straight back to Villa and we had to change something.

Tomas Rosicky came on for Frimpong and almost immediately we looked more assured and better on the ball. We forced a lot of corners but never really bothered their keeper. Arshavin and Benayoun came on for Ramsey and Gervinho and eventually it was the Israeli who made the breakthrough. From what was probably our 126th corner he got his head on it from inside the 6 yard box to score the winner. How nice to see a sub come on and make an impact and it was great to hear the away fans singing his name to the Na$ri song – no point wasting a good tune, is there?

That was enough to seal it, Villa weren’t helped by the idiotic Alan Hutton getting himself sent off for two yellows within 60 seconds, but then he is thuggish moron so I don’t know that it’ll be any surprise that the Sp*rs reject acted that way. Three points were all that mattered for us and it means we can go into the Christmas with our tails slightly up again. Afterwards Arsene said:

In the end we got three very late points that are vital for us. We were a bit unlucky on Sunday and today maybe a bit lucky. Overall it was important to re-start with a win tonight.

Our spirit is exceptional and that’s why we came from a bad start to the season to such a strong run. You could see that some legs were a bit jaded from Sunday, and some minds in the speed of the decision making. But we still kept going and there is an exceptional attitude and spirit in the side.

We might keep referencing the start to the season and it’ll seem obvious to say this but this is a game we’d never have won back then. We’re now finding the ability to win games in which we don’t play particularly well and with only a couple of changes from the team which played such a high-intensity game at Man City it’s no wonder we weren’t quite at our sharpest.

Obviously the full back situation is still an issue but we’re just going to have to muddle through for the next few games until any possible recruitment can be made. To be fair to Coquelin, he had a couple of difficult moments but was pretty solid in general. And how nice to see when he was booked the first person over to him was Robin van Persie who knows well what not to do in that situation when you’re a young player. Coquelin’s performance subsequently was thoughtful and disciplined.

In midfield I thought Frimpong showed why a loan move wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for him. We have to remember this was only his 3rd Premier League start and while youthful enthusiasm will get you some way to start off with there’s an awful lot to learn as a player. Mikel Arteta was fantastic though and showed just how important he is to this team. Both Rosicky and Benayoun both gave reminders to Arsene Wenger that they can do a job and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them start ahead of the slightly leggy Aaron Ramsey in the next game.

However, you can’t do much more than praise the character of the team, be thankful for the three points, and hope we can now use the upcoming two home games to start building a bit more momentum. The two teams directly above us play tonight and someone, perhaps both, will drop points. It was so crucial we kept the pressure up.

Right, that’s that. Back tomorrow with an Arsecast of sorts. Till then.