We’re very much in the home straight now. The yellow tape is well in sight on the horizon and we know exactly what we have to do. Pretty much the opposite of what we did at Loftus Road on Saturday to be precise. I sensed we wouldn’t win, largely owing to the law of averages. We’d juiced lady luck’s teat ever so slightly during the winning run and life being what it is, all sparks burn out in the end. But to lose in the manner we did was incredibly disappointing.
If used in the right way, the defeat should electrically charge us for the run in. But it still raises long term questions about some of our squad if I’m honest. Top players are separated not necessarily by talent, but by that desire and thirst to win every tackle, every duel, make every pass and win every game of head tennis on the training ground. It’s not defeat that motivates them, but the absence of defeat. We have a collection of players in that mould. Van Persie, Sagna, Koscielny, Szczesny, Vermaelen. But these guys must look at some of their teammates sometimes and want to thump them.
There have been some slightly foreboding signs over the last seven days that hadn’t been so evident in the proceeding six or seven weeks. Alex Song is a very good player who has had a good season. There need not be any identity crisis about the amount of assists he’s provided this year. We’ve no need to rebrand him, move him up the pitch or get the express written consent of EA Sports and the makers of Championship Manager to allow him to continue as a defensive midfielder. He’s not violating a concrete job description.
He can be a defensive midfielder that plays the occasional through ball. It’s o.k. Indeed, his through balls have been so effective this season because he plays from deep and gets more time on the ball than his midfield partners. But on Saturday, Song appeared to buy into the identity crisis that has plagued so many analysts. He attempted seven through balls. One found a red shirt. I like Song, but he does strike me as a character susceptible to a case of the “I am’s.”
I believe it was a game against Wolves in December when Song twice ceded possession in a matter of minutes with the most ridiculous back heel attempts I have ever seen. He has the materials to be a top drawer player, but players at that level don’t think their accomplishments are set in stone. They strive for the next one. In fairness, his propensity for the Hollywood pass was also down to a lack of available options at times, but six completely unsuccessful attempts suggests you’re not taking the best option for the team.
Likewise, the interviews of Theo Walcott make me wish somebody from the club would sew his lips together. Maybe I’m overly relying on bland, media friendly sound bites to plunge into his psyche. But with every victory, there seems to be an accompanying rally cry from Theo about what a threat we are and how everyone else should, you know, watch out man! Cos we be some crazy, untouchable motherfuckers. Then a team of journeyman proves we really aren’t and a moist eyed Theo apologetically mumbles that “maybe we underestimated them.”
Then there’s Marouane Chamakh’s assertion this week that he wants to stay at Arsenal. The last twelve months of his career have been a sporting humiliation. He’s appeared more for the Reserves than the first team in 2012. His manager spoke openly in the New Year about not being able to farm him out on loan due to the African Nations Cup. All but one of Chamakh’s substitute appearances in this campaign have arrived with the team trailing. He’s roughly just behind Pat Rice and the actual kitchen sink in terms of last options. Surely he gets the hint that the manager has lost faith in him? With the acquisition of Podolski seemingly certain, that’s a situation that’s not going to improve for him any time soon.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see players openly agitating for moves or conducting public strops. But compare with Benayoun, a player very underused in my book. A month or so ago he spoke soberly about continuing to do his job for Arsenal, but accepted that, realistically, he would need to move to a mid-table club to get the regular first team football he desires. I guess I’m just struggling to believe that Chamakh’s resolution to stay is about the hunger to prove himself as a player, rather than the nice lifestyle he’s carved out.
Sometimes this lackadaisical attitude harms our game in more subtle ways. Arsene spoke last week about Arsenal only being awarded two penalties at home this season. I might be having an identity crisis all of my own on this issue, because I don’t know what to think. But have you ever noticed how little Arsenal players appeal to referees? I mean, it seems even when a decision is due them, a ball takes a faint nick off of an opposition player on its way out of play, or even when some clodhopper wades into one of our players in the box, the appeals are so scant. At the most, you might get an apologetic arm raised followed by weary acceptance when the referee responds to the more forceful claims of the other team, often erring in their favour.
On one hand, there’s some pride to be had in this. I certainly don’t want my team to be taking any cues from the likes of John Terry and his pack of horrible, poisonous little fuckers. That lot stop just short of assaulting officials for so much as a sideways glance. But when a referee is in two minds as a ball rolls towards the line or when one of our players crashes to the turf, sometimes an assertive appeal can reconcile the thinking of an undecided official.
I hadn’t really intended for the column to be as philippic as this. But I guess it beats storing it up and getting a tumour. The defeat might prove to be an exorcism for the team too. For instance, I hope the experiment of having Ramsey on the left of a kind of rotating diamond in midfield is at an end. Initially, at Goodison, I thought it was a tailored tactic that appreciated Everton’s weak right hand side. It appears I gave the manager too much credit for that one! It didn’t make sense at Loftus Road and it didn’t work for the team, or for Ramsey.
I can’t help but be minded of Redknapp (and I wanted to be reminded of his wrinkly, ballbag like features as little as possible). Tottenham’s recent wobble coincided with ‘Arry needlessly tinkering with a winning team, trying to turn shoehorn Gareth Bale into unfamiliar roles. Their return to form correlates with the decision to revert to the shape which gave them success earlier in the campaign. I think that’s instructive and hope Arsene learns that lesson more swiftly than Redknapp did.
In any case, there will be some forks in the road yet during the run in. I say strap yourself in, clench your buttocks and try to enjoy. It’s this tension and excitement that makes football so gloriously addictive. Till next week Arse chums. LD.
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