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

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