The Tim Stillman column : West Brom, keepers, absences and Interlull

Tim Stillman column - Arseblog

So we move reluctantly into the deepest recesses of the interlull; our hands tied, blindfolded we are frog marched into its lair with Platini’s pointy rifle prodding at the napes of our necks. Hacks and headline writers are awash with panic and confusion, Arsenal.com forlornly fetches the scraper, rolls its sleeves up and dives into the barrel in search of some filler material for the official website. The more imaginative/pretentious (delete as appropriate) amongst us simply fill the column inches with a series of shit metaphors.

In the wake of the draw at the Hawthorns, I’m still confused as to how I view the result. There seemed to be positives and negatives to glean in equal measure. On the one hand, you have to be happy with a draw when you’re two goals down away from home with twenty minutes left. Particularly when you’re in the sort of funk we are in. It is pleasing that the team had the character to conduct the fight back. Since Fabregas and Walcott have been injured, only one goal had been registered by an Arsenal player (Robin van Persie in the Carling Cup Final). That accounted for 355 minutes prior to Arshavin’s strike.

Perhaps it’s true that desperate times call for desperate measures, but what was also pleasing was that the manager saw early on that our passing game just wasn’t hurting West Brom. They were forcing us wide, leaving us with little recourse but to toss crosses in. The early introductions of Chamakh and Bendtner made those crosses a good deal more threatening and came up with pay dirt for the equaliser when Bendtner’s presence on the back post forced the scrappiest of goals.

Arshavin scores against West Brom
Arshavin scores against West Brom

A criticism often leveled at us is a lack of a Plan B, but Arsene well and truly broke the seal on that envelope on Saturday. Our slick passing game relies heavily on the players having the zest and confidence to pull it off. When the batteries are low, we need to be able to find other ways to hurt our opponents. We did that. It was also nice to see Arshavin grit his teeth at 0-2 and make the difference – it was by no means just his goal that forges that impression. If anyone was going to drag us back into the game, it was him at that point. More of the same please Andrey.

However, big questions do remain. West Brom had 25% possession and two shots on target, yet came out with a point and two goals. Teams don’t tend to have to work very hard to score against us. I think that fallibility was beginning to erode in the New Year with Djourou and Koscielny an established partnership and Szczesny between the posts. Obviously that axis will not be available to us for a while yet and we’re going to have to get on with it. Understandably, Almunia has attracted most of the opprobrium for what was a cataclysmic error for the second goal. Whilst I am still of the opinion that the opinions of Almunia from Arsenal fans are generally hysterical and rather unpleasant (say he’s a shit keeper if you must, but I see a lot of unnecessary insults and personal abuse meted out), he really is in a lonely place on this occasion.

Chants of “Lehmann, Lehmann” rose up from the Smethwick End in the immediate aftermath of the goal. Indeed, the stadium screens instantly cut to Lehmann as he sat on the bench as the Baggies players celebrated. At first I chalked that up to palpable frustration, but I have since seen suggestion that Lehmann should start the Blackburn game. I rather think sentiment has clouded people’s better judgement. Lehmann was moved on because he was no longer up to it in 2008; I hardly think the passage of time will have amended that situation.

Even in his prime, Lehmann was hardly immune from going walkies in the manner Almunia unfathomably did on Saturday. Anyone remember Kyiv away in his first season? I’m sure Manuel would have preferred to have left with a little more dignity in January, but he’s all we’ve got for now. Let’s try not to make life any harder for him whilst he is.

I’m fully with Blogs on this occasion; in that, despite the misery, naval gazing and unremitting boredom it will bring, the interlull is no bad thing for the team at this time. Provided our players on duty don’t get caught in any diplomatic incidents on their travels; such as getting shot to bits in one of the overseas oil wars; a change of scenery away from the dank, clammy mist hanging over London Colney could do them the world of good.

I touched earlier on the absences of Cesc and Walcott. Cesc is a player that no amount of squad depth imaginable could account for. But without both of them we have missed some cut and thrust, that piece of penetration that forces teams to cower in the foetal position, a strategic pillow hoisted over their faces, anticipating the savage blow of snooker ball in sock. The goals of Nasri and van Persie have dried up too, as the threat is more focussed without opposition minds being occupied by the thought that a Cesc dink matched by a Theo run could unpick them in the blink of an eye.

Time up for Arsenal's untidy Brazilian?

The absence of Alex Song has too revealed what I would consider to be the most significant hole in our squad. Not least because I consider Song to be an able deputy when a defensive crisis abounds. Given a run of games, I believe Diaby could be an able deputy for the role, which requires a greater physical presence than Denilson can provide in the more exposed environs of a 3 man midfield. But the point is, he cannot string three games together and hasn’t been able to for some time, rendering him no longer fit for purpose.

The announcement of Denilson’s substitution on Saturday drew a humungous cheer from the away support at the Hawthorns. It’s a spectacularly unhelpful thing to do to a player operating at the nadir of his confidence, but there is no doubting the boy is looking rather lost. I was a huge fan and protector of the Denilson of two seasons ago, but I do rather wonder if the multiple factors of the switch to a three man midfield, a debilitating back injury and the emergence of Messrs Ramsey and Wilshere limiting his game time have drawn the curtain down on his Arsenal career.

I’ll finish on the announcement that Alisher Usmanov has purchased more shares in Arsenal, bringing his stake holding to 27%. Am I totally imagining this, or does he only ever seem to slap his notes on the table when Arsenal are on a bad run? That suggests to me that he’s relying on fear, desperation and panic to garner support amongst the fans. From the outside, it looks rather clear that the current board don’t want him, so any moves he makes for power are likely to be based on a divide and conquer manifesto, which can’t be seen as a healthy thing for the club. As with everything else, I guess we’re left with no choice but to wait and see what develops there.

Until I speak to you next week, chins up Gooners, we’ve nine games left and it’s still in our own hands. I think we’d all have taken that back in August, so let’s bring the noise to the next nine matches. Up the Arse. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

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