Arsenal assured of at least fourth place finish
It wasn’t an important game, but it secured an important achievement. Arsenal will at least be in the Champions League qualifying round next year now that they have secured at least a fourth place league finish. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed that Aston Villa might make this eventuality highly unlikely. They were leading against Stoke, had the easier finishing schedule and what appeared to be an intimidating lead in the table. As it turned out, their collapse against Stoke was just foreshadowing of things to come from. Villa’s collapse was spectacular and Arsenal’s run during that time has been exemplary. The result is a comfortable fourth place finish that was achieved with far less anxiety than we might have expected.
Today’s match was reminiscent of last weekend’s result against ‘Boro in that we were able to win comfortably without really breaking a sweat. The team sheet was predictably unrecognizable from Wednesday’s match at Old Trafford but I for one was stunned to see Theo Walcott starting. He joined Bendtner, Vela, Arshavin, Ramsey, Denilson, Eboue, Song, Djourou, Sagna, and Fabianski. It was a young side and far from our strongest but they played in the 4-4-2, played on the front foot, played with joy, and won the game comfortably. It’s basically the formula that Arsenal should employ for every match no matter how big or small. Arshavin got to wear the captain’s armband today and I thought it was a nice reward for his recent play and acclimation to the Premier League. Wenger said essentially the same thing in his post match remarks.
I won’t recap the match because I’m sure you already know what happened. There were some blown chances for Portsmouth and Arsenal alike but the score reflected our dominance. The most bizarre moment of the match came when Arsenal were awarded a penalty for a tackly on Arshavin in the box. It didn’t look like a clear penalty on replay, but the unusual aspect of the penalty award is that Arshavin appeared to signal that he didn’t think it was a penalty. During his time at Arsenal he has proven to be a consumate professional and a true sportsman, but you have to wonder if the players should get in the habit of being this honest. It seemed an honorable gesture at the moment, but could really make the referee look terrible if you stop to think about it. Nonetheless, a penalty was deserved from an earlier shirt pull on Vela in the box so justice was done.
The really enjoyable part of today’s match was watching Arsenal play like Arsenal. We passed the ball well, combined neatly and put in a team effort that saw everyone on the pitch pull their weight. It’s really a testiment to how worn out Denilson must be, that on a team filled with part-time players and youngsters, he still stood out as something of a weak link. For me, there are kudos due to Aaron Ramsey for putting in his first solid performance since his nightmare at Cardiff, and to Eboue for showing real effort and skill today.
Emmanuel Eboue is such an enigma but lately he’s shown why the boss believes in him. He has skill and pace. That has always been obvious. But now he’s playing with better courage, composure and determination. Good for him that he’s getting the mental part of his game together.
Carlos Vela and Nicklas Bendtner also deserve credit. Vela had a solid performance with flashes of his uncanny skill and finishing. More importantly, he didn’t drift out of the game the way he has in some of his other appearances. Bendtner showed why he can be easier to like than Adebayor. He doesn’t have the pace or close control that Ade has, but he has heart and plays with the proper work rate. He’s a striker that finds ways to get himself involved in the match and Adebayor is capable of doing the same when he bothers to try. It’s nice that Nik was able to grab two goals today because he might be starting as a second striker on Tuesday assuming that we play in the 4-4-2. (Fingers crossed.)
With Chelsea beating Fulham today, it’s unlikely that we will catch them for third place. Even with a game against Chelsea at the Emirates, we would need them to drop another three points from two remaining matches in order to catch them for third. It’s highly unlikely but we can at least aspire to third until it is no longer mathematically possible. Now all of our attention is once again turned to Manchester United.
Let’s be clear: it is highly unlikely that we will turn our Champions League tie around. I will hope and pray and use voodoo to try and make it happen, but I realize it’s very unlikely. Even if we manage to grab a 2-0 lead on Tuesday, a solitary sloppy goal would eliminate us from the competition. Having said that, I’d take a two goal lead in the second minute and play the remaining 88 with my finger nails bleeding if you offered. But I saw something today that made me think about the way Arsenal play football. Arsene Wenger is a genius, but maybe that works against him sometimes. Maybe he needs to take a page from young Pep Guardiola’s coaching book.
Watching Barcelona systematically dismantle Real Madrid today made me think of one thing: we should play that way. Think about it. Barca’s defense wasn’t great. They did allow two goals and there were some other clear chances for Madrid. But Guardiola doesn’t seem to mind that at all. He sets up his team to attack and then attack and then attack some more. Their defending starts high up the field. They pressure the ball in the opposing half and try to keep their opposition pinned deep into their own end. They don’t do it with bruising physical players. They do it with skill players like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Henri. Certainly Yaya Toure is a powerful player, but he too can play with finesse.
Sometimes the opposition gets behind the Barca midfield and then they look terribly vulnerable. The fact is, they don’t have a great defense or goal keeper. But they play to their strength. They know that they can out pass almost any competition and keep the ball for long stretches of time. That wears out the opposition’s attacking players who are forced to track back and defend, leaving them less potent when they get the ball in attack. It’s a strategy that’s fun to watch, but more importantly it’s a strategy that suits the personnel.
Guardiola doesn’t bother with cagey tactics, because that doesn’t suit the players that he has. He plays his best players in their best roles. I’ve watched a lot of Barcelona this season and they’ve lined up with Eto’o, Henry, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Toure, Abidal, Puyol, Pique, Alves and Valdez in almost every game this season. (With the exception of some defensive injuries along the way.) That team isn’t going to defend particularly well. Even their right back is essentially an attacker. But they are going to score a lot and keep the ball a lot and you can obviously win a lot of games that way as they have proved this season.
Arsenal can be like Barcelona. We have the personnel to play the same way and we have the same weaknesses. Why can’t Ade, RVP, Nasri, Song, Cesc, and Theo do what Eto’o, Henry, Mess, Xavi, Toure and Iniesta do? Admittedly, the Catalan side has the more seasoned players but the type of talent is similar. We are going to allow teams to score anyway because we don’t have a particularly solid defense. But instead of sacrificing our best players by playing them out of position or benching them in favor of mediocre holding players, why not let them play the Barcelona way. Put all the most talented players on the pitch, push them up the field and let them try to control the game and tighten the screws. If we ship a goal or two, let’s just go get three or four.
It’s not the textbook way that football is played in England, but it’s the football that suits our team. Considering that we probably need three goals on Wednesday, and that we don’t have the defense to stop United, let’s try it another way. Let’s put the pressure on them in their half of the pitch and see if we can make life uncomfortable for them that way. It can’t be a worse idea than playing Diaby on the left, Nasri as the holding midfielder with Song, and Ade as the lone striker with Cesc right behind him. Clearly that is never going to work.
The one thing we won’t have at our disposal on Tuesday is Andrei Arsahvin. It’s a shame because he is the catalyst for so much that this team is doing right at the moment. We knew he wasn’t going to be eligible for the Champions League when we signed him. What we didn’t know was that he was going to be this spectacular almost from the moment he arrived.
One final note for today. Arsene Wenger was asked after the match for his thoughts on Almunia becoming the England national ‘keeper. I have written before that there is a big difference between patriotism and nationalism. Unforunately, Europe is rife with the latter and it’s ugliness infects European football. There has been media backlash against the idea of a Spaniard playing in goal for England. But why? If England were to grant him citizenship, then isn’t he English? This is a hard topic for any American because we are a nation of immigrants. My ancestors may not be from America, but I can assure you that I am an American. Even the suggestion that someone should have to defend the validity of their nationality is really revolting. There’s real ugliness behind this sort of thinking and it’s the very same kind of thinking that Michel Platini is trying to codify into the rules of European football.
So I will finish today with a classy quote from our wonderful manager regarding Manuel Almunia’s bid to become an England international. Be disappointed with him all you want for his occasionally bizarre tactical decisions or transfer policy, but as you read this quotation, remember how lucky we are to have a good, enlightened human being as the leader of Arsenal’s young men.
“I consider him a Spanish player, I believe that [getting an English passport] is the right legally, whether you accept him or not, that is your problem not mine. But life is always a question of time. How far do you go back to accept the rights of people? What is the right of the soil or right of the blood? I don’t know. For me it is the right of the soil – if you spend enough time somewhere you have the potential to become English. But I’m not a nationalist. I’m more of a human rights person than a flag bearer.”