Not the best way to end the year both in terms of result and performance. A 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United was a return to the familiar old story of us being out-muscled and playing badly away from home.
It could have been better though as we started very brightly. Both van Persie and Julio Baptista could have put us ahead but their first touch let them down (for Baptista his first touch all night let him down) admittedly on a difficult pitch, Rosicky had a good effort saved by Paddy Kenny and Gilberto should have done better with a back post header. After that though it descended into one of the worst Premiership games I think I’ve ever seen.
Neither side did a whole lot, the ball spent more time in the air than than a Ryanair pilot, quality football was at a minimum. Then they took the lead after an Arsenal move broke down near the edge of their box. There didn’t seem to be much danger when the ball was played forward but Kolo Toure allowed himself to get turned, the United player went past him and clipped it past Jens Lehmann who, to me at least, seemed to be way too far out of his goal. Had he actually gotten a hand to it he’d have been sent off because he was outside the area. If he’d stayed back Kolo might have been able to get back at the Sheffield player. As it was he made the finish easy. Poor goalkeeping in my opinion. So 1-0 at half time and it was hard to see where we might get a goal from.
In the second half we brought on Cesc for Justin Hoyte but even the Spaniard couldn’t spark us into life. We kept trying to play our precision passing football on a pitch that looked like a ploughed field. It’s no wonder it didn’t work and we obviously needed to be more direct. The fact that we didn’t try to adapt to the conditions is the most frustrating part for me. A bad performance can happen but not doing anything to try and change the bad performance is not good. Perhaps we need to add a dirty, bobbly, disgusting pitch to the beautifully tended lawns at London Colney and use it for training in the week before games like this.
And the worst part is that for the last half an hour Sheffield United had Phil Jagielka, a midfielder, in goal because fat Paddy Kenny injured himself taking a kick out. With an outfield player in goal you’d think we might pepper him with shots but it wasn’t until the last five minutes that he made a save from Robin van Persie after another poor first touch from Baptista saw the ball scramble through to the Dutchman. Jagielka never looked in any danger though and really the lack of efforts on goal are a pretty poor reflection of the team’s performance. It’s hard to suggest that we deserved anything from the game. United worked hard, made the game really difficult for us – and yes they might have been a bit cynical at times, but that’s no excuse – and at the end of the day they earned themselves three valuable points.
We obviously missed our injured players yesterday. We certainly missed the energy and hard work of Adebayor and the last time Jeremie Aliadiere played I hoped it would be the last time. This time I’m fucking lighting candles. If Arsene can give him away for nothing then that’s what he should do because he’s just not good enough. When he’s not completely anonymous he’s making wrong decisions, giving the ball away, spurning half-chances and contributing nothing.
It was nice to see Lauren back on the bench because Justin Hoyte struggled badly as well and to me he’s another one who won’t make it. Kolo looks like he really needs a rest, Rosicky was very sloppy and has yet to convince, Gilberto did ok, Gael Clichy blew hot and cold, Robin van Persie was kicked and pinched out of the game leaving him on a yellow card and basically a broken man, Flamini was ok, Senderos did well at the back and Julio Baptista would have done nothing to convince Arsene Wenger that he’s worth hanging onto. To be fair to him though he was playing on the left hand side of midfield due to the injuries and playing in conditions I’m sure he’s rarely experienced in his career. That said he was poor, his control was bad, he looked like a man who hasn’t played a lot of football but he did work hard and I think we need to see him in his best position before we make any decisions about him. What his best position is remains the $64,000 question but it’s certainly not left midfield.
More bad news came when Cesc picked up a booking which rules him out of the FA Cup 3rd round game against Liverpool. Overall it was very disappointing, especially when the team has shown a measure of resolve and an ability to cope with more difficult fixtures in recent games. Perhaps the effort of the last month has left them with nothing in reserve and when the squad was down to its bare bones today with very little on the bench to try and change the game then it was a game too far.
Considering we have Henry, Gallas, Lauren, Diaby, Hleb, Ljungberg, Walcott, Eboue and Adebayor all missing and not far away from coming back then it will certainly bring back some energy and fresh legs to a side which badly needs them at the moment. While not trying to go overboard with the praise for the lads for the good results it’s important not to go over the top in terms of the criticism the team will receive for this result. Reading around you see words like shocking, disgraceful and pathetic plastered across blogs and while we all get frustrated and can all see that the team has flaws you expect a bit better from some of them. Or maybe not.
Obviously though we do have a bit of a weakness away from home, we do have a problem with teams that really like to mix it physically (although I thought the referee was far too quick with his cards for Arsenal players while allowing some United players, Morgan in particular, to get away with stuff that more than merited a booking) and we do have to face the fact that some of the young players aren’t quite up to scratch. Certainly Aliadiere has nothing to give this team, Hoyte is reasonable back-up at best while Gael Clichy is far too inconsistent and has too many flaws in his game to be first material at present.
I think the whole team looked jaded though and I think that’s down to the efforts of this month. We’ve seen them battle physical teams like Wigan, Blackburn and Watford, scrap like crazy against Chelsea, show great character to come back against Portsmouth, grind out a result in Portugal and demolish Sp*rs so I don’t think it’s a deliberate ploy to play badly or to ‘believe their own press’. I think they were just knackered. That’s not make to excuses for anything but it needs to be taken into account.
However, it’s not unreasonable to ask questions about the manner of the defeat. Was there a lack of instruction when Paddy Kenny went off? Should there have been more guidance from the sideline? As well as that, given the hectic schedule of the Christmas period why did the squad take a long coach journey to Sheffield when they normally fly to away games? Would it have made a big difference? I don’t know but it’s a question worth asking all the same.
Afterwards Arsene Wenger said ‘They took advantage of our first mistake at the back’ which might as well be our theme song this season. If it happened once or twice you could write it off as bad luck but the monontonous regularity with which it’s happened to us this season means it’s something we have to work on, particularly when we don’t seem to be as able to take advantage of opponents mistakes. All in all though, disappointing as it was, I really don’t think it has merited some of the hysterical reaction I’ve been reading.
It certainly wasn’t the most auspicious way to end the year but we get a clean slate for 2007, Charlton come to the Grove and there’s a bit of revenge on the cards with the return of Alan Pardew. Who knows who might be back from injury too.
Looking around the Sunday papers here’s a quick round-up of what’s going on. Falkirk are waiting for a phone call from Arsenal to see if Anthony Stokes can stay on loan for the rest of the season. He scored another hat-trick yesterday to bring his season total to 16. Personally I hope he stays up there for reasons outlined earlier in the week and unlike Nicklas Bentdner who takes every opportunity to tell the press how good he is and how he’ll leave Arsenal if he’s not treated accordingly the young Irishman is letting his football do all the talking. Meanwhile Arsene Wenger is reportedly upset that Arturo Lupoli is only on the fringes of the Derby team during his loan spell.
Marco van Basten thinks that Robin van Persie has the potential to become the best player in the world, no small praise from a player as good as he was while Southampton’s Gareth Bale, linked with a move to us, could be on his way to Old Trafford as United look to sell Heinze. He might be only 17 but he’s a very, very good player and certainly would add something to our squad in the left back position.
And that’s about it. I suppose I’ll talk to you next year then. Have a good one tonight, whatever you’re doing.
Update: I just want to thank everyone who has visited Arseblog in 2006 and helped make the site so successful. This year has seen the introduction of the arsecasts (podcasts) which are getting close to 4,000 downloads each Friday, the site has done nearly 20,000,000 page views this calendar year alone and the Arseblog community has grown both on and offline.
It has been, as always, a pleasure. Thanks again and the very best to you and yours for 2007.