Bolton 0-0 Arsenal: All about the wider context

 Arsenal News, Matches  14 Responses »
Feb 022012

Bolton 0 Arsenal 0

Last night’s clash at the Reebok was a classic example of a football match not being an isolated occasion, and not judged as such, but rather an act in a bigger play, with interpretations not purely taken from the ninety minutes of action, but from the wider context of both clubs.

Taken in isolation, this was a creditable draw away to a Bolton side we have struggled with in the past, at a ground Liverpool got comfortably beaten at recently. We created plenty of chances, hit the frame of the goal twice, saw the opposing goalkeeper have an impressive match, and defensively kept our own clean sheet.

Viewed from that angle, nothing too bad – a match we would usually win, let down by poor finishing and poor luck. One of those days, if you will.

The trouble is, we have a lot of those days, and this wasn’t an isolated occasion. It came off the back of three consecutive defeats, and with Liverpool and Newcastle both winning we found ourselves sitting seventh, being cut further adrift from the Champions League places we so crave. Moreover, the slew of chances missed is a commonplace feature – we are yet to win a Premiership match this season where Van Persie hasn’t scored. He needs help, and when he fails to find the target, the others are not chipping in. Seeing gilt-edged chances go begging is every bit as regular as a defensive mishap. As for the clean sheet, that was partly down to luck too – Ngog missed a sitter and they probably should have had a penalty at the end. We could have lost.

It is extremely frustrating to watch. We have long bemoaned the lack of alternative striking options for Van Persie to rotate with and play off, but not only do we have a serious shortage, it is clear that Wenger himself retains no confidence in those we do have. With Chamakh still absent, Park sat on the bench, and despite our chase for a winning goal, stayed firmly put. Here is a striker in the peak of his career, but unable to get minutes in a team painfully short of numbers in his position. Imagine how painful this is for him.

The race for fourth is an open one – Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle are our rivals for the spot, and all of them are dropping points on a regular basis. If we could string any sort of run together, we’d snap the position out of their hands, and generally be a lot happier for it. But we can’t string any sort of run together, certainly not a winning one. Every step forward is followed by a stumble. Can we turn that around and get the five or six wins on the spin that would lift us back above them all? In theory, yes. In practice? It doesn’t look likely.

The weird thing is – I don’t blame the players. The team is pretty solid, all told, but the squad is thin. Our 25 man squad contains seven or eight players that, for one reason or another, Wenger doesn’t trust enough to rotate in and out. The result is that the first team players feature more often than they should, they get tired, and they get injured. Ramsey is the classic example – he is copping a lot of flak this season, but for me, his poorer performances have come when he has been visibly weary. If he were asked to play less often, I really think he would be shining more regularly.

So once again, we are looking forward, hoping that the next match will be the one in which we can gain ground on our rivals. And it should be – with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Spurs all playing each this weekend, points will be dropped. Meanwhile, we have Blackburn at home. A confident Arsenal side would brush them away, but this is not a confident Arsenal side. Would it really surprise anyone if we struggled?

All season I have been absolutely convinced that we would recover, and go on the run we needed to claim fourth, overtaking sides who, frankly, aren’t that good. But now, I am finally beginning to waver.

Roll on Saturday.

 Posted by Pete (The Beautiful Groan) at 5:12 pm

Arsenal 1-2 Man Utd: It wasn’t all about the substitution

 Arsenal News, Matches  225 Responses »
Jan 232012

Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 71) Man United 2 (Valencia 45, Welbeck 81)

The bare facts make for grim reading. Defeat to United leaves us fifteen points behind them, and eighteen off the pace set by their city rivals. Our own neighbours remain ten points above us despite their loss earlier in the day, and that critical fourth spot is still an elusive five points away. Perhaps more damaging than the numbers is the psychological aspect – a new low between fans and manager erupted in the wake of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s substitution moments after he had set up Van Persie’s equaliser, and the inevitability of their winner made many stop and reassess our own expectations. Anticipating a home defeat is not a happy place to be. Watching it unfold wasn’t much fun either.

I have no doubt that by the morning, or perhaps even by the time you read this, the story will be centred around a couple of flashpoints, and I will get to them in due course. But while Arshavin will be the inevitable fall guy for many, he wasn’t on the pitch in the first half, a forty-five minute period in which we were largely outplayed by a United side that saw our weakness at full back, and attacked it time and time again. The returning Vermaelen was a boost at left back, and as such less targeted by the opposition, but even so he isn’t as dominating there as when he marshals the centre of defence. The other flank was the main issue – poor Djourou was forced to deal with Nani and the overlapping Evra almost single handedly, a job even Sagna would have found difficult. For a reserve centre back, it was too much.

United were uncomplicated in the opening period – they spread the ball wide, overlapped, and swung in whipped crosses time and time again. Largely, Koscielny and Mertesacker dealt with them well, although there was a last ditch nature to some of the defending. But the more often Nani got into crossing positions uninhibited, the more you felt he would pick out a decent delivery in time. Szczesny pulled off a good near post save from the winger, and saw another cross flash past his far post. But on the stroke of half time, the inevitable occurred – Djourou stood off Giggs, allowing him all the time in the world to pick out Valencia at the back post, who stole in ahead of Vermaelen to put the visitors in front. It had been coming.

There were murmurs of dissent at half time, which at the time I didn’t consider to be particularly helpful – it was clear that the team was nervous early on, and booing was hardly conducive to giving them the boost they needed to come out in the second half and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Of course people are entitled to voice their opinions, and it was hardly a majority – the trouble was that the crowd were so oddly quiet at times that even a smattering of boos became the dominant noise.

At half time, Wenger made a brave switch, introducing young Yennaris at right back for the ailing Djourou, and by and large it was vindicated – he wasn’t overawed by his Premiership debut, and handled the occasion well. At the same time, Oxlade-Chamberlain switched wings with Walcott, allowing the more senior of the pair to help his young colleague. While Theo frustrates many with his inconsistent performances going forward, he did show a measure of responsibility in protecting Yennaris, which should not go unnoticed.

We should have been gifted an equaliser early in the second half, when Smalling slipped, allowing Rosicky to burst past him. Perhaps aware of his recent goalscoring record, Rosicky chose not to take the chance himself, squaring instead to Van Persie, who danced inside his man to slam into the barely guarded net. Except, remarkably, he fired wide. Minutes later, the Ox set up Ramsey for a rising drive that flew inches over the bar.

Despite being in the ascendancy, we still had cause for alarm. Welbeck could have gone down under pressure from Mertesacker, but instead ran through to clip past Szczesny, only for the big German to reach out his long legs and clear off the line. Koscielny then brilliantly dispossessed Welbeck before starting the move that would lead to the equaliser – eventually the Ox would cut inside, before finding Van Persie with a clever reverse pass. One swing of his left foot and the match was all square.

And then came the moment that many will remember the game for. With the crowd in full voice, the momentum in our favour, and a spring in our step, Wenger withdrew Oxlade-Chamberlain and put Arshavin on his place. Boos immediately rang out, followed by cheers for the Ox and renewed jeers for Arshavin on his entry. Hardly the sort of reaction that makes a player eager to perform.

Wenger has since said that the Ox had been ill, and was beginning to feel his calf, so was withdrawn as a precaution before he did himself an injury, which seems perfectly reasonable, and backs up something I said on Twitter at the time:

“You know when you’re playing Football Manager, and you take a player off because his energy has dropped, even if playing well? I’m pretty certain we can track these things.”

Having said that, and having accepted that the move had basis in logic, the timing was questionable at best. A young player, who has just set up a goal against United, can run on adrenaline alone for at least five more minutes, a period of time in which we could push home our advantage. Instead, it stopped the game mid-flow, and allowed the opposition to regroup. It also took away the elation in the stands, replacing it with something far more poisonous, an atmosphere that could only give United a lift. A decision based on scientific reasoning backfired because of pure emotion.

Our captain didn’t like it either, although despite the inevitability of his ‘No!!‘ reaction being a huge story in the papers tomorrow, that is something that will surely die down quickly enough within the club – Van Persie will have asked Wenger why he took the Ox off, and the manager will have told him. I suspect that, away from the heat of the moment, it will have been accepted. I highly doubt that will stop a new flurry of ‘Disillusioned Van Persie to leave‘ stories over the next week, however.

It certainly didn’t help that, aside from offering nothing going forward, Arshavin was badly at fault for the eventual winner, turning his back on Valencia as he jinked into the box, and then failing to put in any sort of challenge as he laid it back for Welbeck to bury. The game was up in that moment, and we knew it.

And so to the reaction. Wenger is getting a pasting in some quarters, and while I (and everyone else, to my knowledge) have no problem with a bit of healthy criticism, there are too many out there who are using this as another opportunity to divide the fanbase. You are either for the manager, or against him – there is no middle ground.

Which is frankly ridiculous. Of course there is middle ground. While that substitution can be questioned, along with our first half display, he should be credited with two brave decisions – starting the Ox in the first place, and making the half time switch to bring Yennaris on. For me, there was some good, some bad – as ever, all is not black and white.

What is killing us at the moment is our lack of full backs. Often an undervalued position, it is only now that we are completely devoid of options thanks to an extraordinary sequence of injuries that we realise how crucial they are. They nullify wingers, break forward and allow us to counter at pace and with options, and add to our midfield when in possession, giving us the ability to get through well drilled defences at speed. Without them, we aren’t stopping crosses, and the midfielders are having to drop further back to collect the ball, isolating Van Persie up front. It doesn’t work.

I don’t expect any signings in January – Wenger has already said that we’ll have a couple of players back in ten days, which coincides with our next league game, at the Reebok. But playing four centre backs isn’t the answer either, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yennaris follow up today’s debut with a few more appearances. If he doesn’t get crocked in the meantime, of course.

If there is a small crumb of comfort to take, it is that the other results spectacularly went our way. Chelsea drew, while Liverpool, Spurs and Newcastle all lost. In the race for fourth, nothing has really changed, which is something we should all be relieved about – it could have been so much worse. I suspect many would have taken the status quo at the start of the weekend.

We now have a week before our next game, a cup tie against Aston Villa, before February brings our next league fixtures. Three defeats on the spin have been damaging, and we need to put a run together to claim that Champions League spot we so crave. It is very much up for grabs – the teams we are up against look pretty woeful, and a run of four or five wins would surely lift us back up there.

The question is – can we? Come back Bacary.

 Posted by Pete (The Beautiful Groan) at 12:07 am

Swansea 3-2 Arsenal: It isn’t as simple as just buying different players

 Analysis, Arsenal News  238 Responses »
Jan 152012

Swansea 3 (Sinclair pen 16, Dyer 57, Graham 70) Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 5, Walcott 69)

Two weeks ago, the Arsenal fanbase was pretty content. A win over QPR had lifted us back amongst the top four at the turn of the year, a remarkable turnaround given the position we were in after seven games. At the time, the mental strength was being praised (by all and sundry, not just Wenger), and our chances of retaining a Champions League spot, the primary target after that nightmare August, seemed promising.

Just two games later, the vitriol is back. In the topsy turvy world of football support, particularly on the internet, a team has to be brilliant or terrible, a player either a world beater (or one in the making) or worthy of a public flogging. The manager is either a genius or ripe for the axe. There is no grey, no middle ground, nothing other than the dramatic. Because, after all, the dramatic sells newspapers, gets hits, and provides a satisfying point to a rant in the moments after a disappointing result.

So before getting to the rational, allow me to indulge in the black and white. We were pretty crap today, more so in the second half than the first. In the opening forty-five, I thought us adequate but unspectacular, with Swansea’s excellence being the reason for our difficulties, rather than any lack of application or quality of our own. At half time, I hoped our opponents would fail to maintain their terrific play, but they continued for the full ninety, while our level dropped. The more we pushed forward, the better they defended, and the more they opened us up at the back. Swansea fully deserved their three points today, and it was refreshing to see an opponent approach the game in a free flowing way – no cards were shown throughout, although you could argue that losing that sort of game is a bad sign for us.

Moving on.

Since the full time whistle, the analysis has been strong and vicious. Particular players have had their every trait dissected and criticised, leading to the inevitable conclusion of ‘crap, lazy, overpaid, sell him‘, usually interspersed with at least three words we should always reserve for the opposition. And the end result is always the same – we need to buy X, Y and Z, we need to strengthen in this position, that position. And for me, that is overly simplistic.

We have been educated, largely by the paid press, that transfers are the silver bullet to all problems. Don’t like a player? Sign a replacement. Got a gap in a position? Don’t even think about promoting from within, or altering your formation, buy buy buy. That the media have promoted this is hardly surprising – ‘Arsenal seek to sign £20m replacement for misfiring Arshavin‘ sells far more copies than any attempts to better accommodate players, tactical changes to enhance their effectiveness, or even the player themselves simply improving. And so it is transfers we always read about, from the fanciful to the daft, and the myth that the chequebook is always the way to go is perpetuated.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to buy. Our transfer activity on the final day of August showed that – we obtained the big centre back we needed, to give experience to the back four and keep Squillaci one further step away from appearing, and Arteta’s influence in central midfield cannot be overstated. As for Andre Santos, we’ve missed him greatly despite his short time at the club. Signings can be a great fillip. But they are not the only way.

Take a look at our squad, and count the players that fall into the following criteria : Talented, underachieving. My bet is you’ve named at least three, perhaps more. Given that we have that talent at our disposal, it is not more prudent to focus on getting full value from them, above and beyond bringing in new blood? To all those who keep saying we need to spend thirty, forty, fifty million, I’d counter that if we already have superb players at our club who aren’t performing, is it not a possibility that our problems run a little deeper, and simply adding more of those players may not help?

To give some examples, I’ll pick some names out, starting with the obvious – Andrei Arshavin. He was sixth in the World Player of the Year awards the year before we signed him, and he is often credited with getting us into fourth that season. He has given us unforgettable memories and is clearly a sparkling jewel of a talent. I would go as far as to say that buying a player with a greater level of raw talent would be exceptionally difficult, so if there were any way of getting him back to his best, I’d certainly favour that over buying another. For the record, I think he will leave in the summer, and unlike many, I will be sorry to see him go.

Then there is Chamakh. I recently watched a few of his games from early last season, and was staggered by the contrast with his more recent performances. He was bustling around, powering past defenders and making intelligent runs, and looked a completely different player. Again, this is not a ‘crap’ player as many opine – go watch those games if you want the empirical evidence. But the Chamakh we see now is a shadow of that. If we could get him back to his best, we would again have a player on our hands.

I could go on – we’ve seen Djourou, Diaby and many others show their talent, and at their best they are a force to be reckoned with. But for one reason or another (injury, form, confidence) they are not regular top level contributors. Perhaps they never will be, but before pressing for replacements I would want to know that those potential quality signings would not fall into the same category. We all saw Chamakh for Bordeaux and in his first few months for us – surely the last thing we need is to sign another player of high quality who drops his level enormously a few months later?

Consistency is the key, and consistency is not purely down to the sheer quality of an individual. It is a mental attribute, cultivated over a career. Some players have a headstart on others, so on one hand you could say transfers can help (compare Szczesny to Fabianski for an obvious comparison of mental fortitude), but I have to admit a concern that this Arsenal squad consumes players who previously showed a strong mentality, and weakens them. It is, perhaps, our biggest problem, and one I think needs addressing more urgently than any other.

Put it this way – if we jettison players ruthlessly, replacing them at the drop of a hat, then we are doomed to fail, frankly. Aside from the fact that transfers are expensive – with the agents involved I’d compare it to moving house regularly, where all your money is lost in taxes and fees – we would be competing with clubs far richer than us, on their terms. Chopping and changing is what Chelsea have done since Abramovich arrived – remember Tiago, Crespo, Veron, Shevchenko, Duff, Robben, Del Horno? Lots of quality, all ludicrously expensive, but for one reason or another their Chelsea careers stalled and they were moved on. Chelsea could afford that approach, and the resultant losses, we cannot.

So we cultivate, and that means showing more faith in players than many would. Sometimes, as with Alex Song, it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t (hello, Aliadiere). But as fans, it means we have a responsibility to show patience too. Take Theo Walcott – a 22 year old still learning his game. Yes, he is fairly experienced now, but he is still 22 years old. How many players of that age have scored 35 goals for their club without playing up front? Or even gained as many assists?

Theo is the classic example of a player built up too soon, raising expectations to a level he could not possibly reach. And then, when he inevitably fails to hit those dizzy heights, he is vilified, destroyed by the press and by fans, and written off. I’ll tell you what I see – an immensely talented young footballer who has improved each year (his stats back this up) and has the mentality to perform on the big occasion. He scored his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea, in a cup final. He scored again in a win against them last season, and again in the 5-3 triumph at Stamford Bridge. He thrives in the Champions League, inspiring our comeback against Barcelona two years ago – in fact, in the build up to last year’s tie, he was the talk of the Catalan press, not Cesc. It was Theo that was worrying them. And a hattrick for England in Croatia wasn’t half bad either.

Just to be clear – this is a player that a lot of fans want replaced and/or shipped out. Yes, he has facets of his game to improve, and at his age he should. But he seems down to earth, his game is improving, and he is already way beyond most at his age. Why on earth do people want him gone?

I can see the beginnings of the same pattern with Oxlade-Chamberlain. He should be nothing more than a peripheral player for the next two or three years – anything more and he is doing exceptionally well. But I am willing to bet that he will be criticised before the end of this season for a lack of end product, despite his tender age. And we are the ones creating these ridiculous expectations by building a player up to mythical proportions, and calling on his inclusion into the first team far too soon. Can you see where this is going?

So how does this all relate to today’s game? It means we need to lay off Walcott, Ramsey, Miquel and others – players who are young, working hard and showing immense promise. Enough vilification, enough vitriol, enough hate. It helps no-one. There are areas of the squad we need to improve, positions we do need reinforcements, but we have to set more realistic expectations of the ones we have, and stop destroying them when they fail to meet them. As long as they put everything into it, I will have no complaints, and nor should you.

Save your anger for the lazy ones.

Today was a bad day. We were poor, and Swansea fully exploited that with a superb performance. But much as we weren’t going to win the league two weeks ago, we don’t need a complete overhaul now.

Find the unspectacular middle ground. It is where the truth lies.

 Posted by Pete (The Beautiful Groan) at 11:23 pm

One man team talk seems to have slowed down

 Arsenal News  184 Responses »
Jan 122012

What an incredibly frustrating week not to be able to blog. Henry’s return in the cup against Leeds, a dour affair until he emerged from the bench, was settled by three sublime touches – a delicious through ball from Song, an immaculate piece of control, and a trademark cool finish to take the man to 227 goals for Arsenal and send thousands of Gooners into a mad bouncing frenzy. It was meant to be.

Moreover, it denied Leeds a replay that their play probably deserved, but one that would have caused us an enormous headache. Already struggling with injuries, particularly in defence, the game would have been sandwiched between a tricky trip to Swansea and our clash with Man Utd at the Grove. One we could certainly do without.

It was a remarkable night, topped off by a display of raw emotion that told us everything we needed to know about Henry’s return – this is no ego trip, no pointless and distracting swansong. This is simply a man looking to help. And help, he already has, quite spectacularly.

It also takes the heat off Van Persie, to an extent. While we know that Henry will be limited to cameo appearances, probably exclusively from the bench, it does mean that we carry a striking threat when the Dutchman has one of his rare misfiring days. Not only that, but his threat is wildly different. Where Van Persie is explosive, Henry is more subtle now. Where Van Persie comes back to collect the ball and surge forward, Henry looks to sneak in behind. But both, crucially, know when to make the runs and how to finish, two attributes that Chamakh in particular appears to have lost.

I recently watched some of the Moroccan’s early games from the start of last season, and the contrast was extraordinary. He was on his toes, hustling around, making intelligent runs and scaring the life out of defences. Where has that Chamakh gone? Those games give you all the evidence you need that he is not the crap player many label him as, but someone who has spectacularly lost his way. Perhaps a month away with invigorate him again, perhaps not, but the extra option, particularly a legendary Frenchman whose mere presence worries opponents, cannot hurt.

It must be refreshing for Van Persie to be out of the limelight for a week. By the time the Swansea game rolls around, he will have had thirteen days to recharge his batteries for a month of awkward fixtures, and we haven’t suffered in his absence. Swansea and Man Utd are followed by Villa in the cup, Bolton and Blackburn in the league, and then a rejuvenated Sunderland. Following that are four games that could define the season – Milan, Spurs, Liverpool and Milan again. The latter two come after Henry returns to the States – we need Robin rested, fit and firing.

Of course Henry has received all the plaudits this week, but it is certainly worth mentioning that Song, Ramsey and Miquel were excellent the other night, and the Ox continued to show his raw potential, even if those calling for him to be playing regular first team football are perhaps a little premature. Piece by piece, our team is knitting together, with the returns of Sagna, Wilshere and Vermaelen now crucial. The future looks bright.

Amazing what a legend, a goal, and a smile can do for a mood.

 Posted by Pete (The Beautiful Groan) at 3:50 pm

Fulham 2 Arsenal 1 – a draw would have been frustrating

 Arsenal News, Matches  3 Responses »
Jan 032012

Fulham 2 (Sidwell 85, Zamora 90) Arsenal 1 (Koscielny 21)

It is always difficult to write a match report after a game like this. I was tempted to pen my thoughts in the immediate aftermath, but decided to let the game settle a little and write in the morning. In truth, my thoughts haven’t really changed. Given that both sides played superbly for one half, and pretty abysmally for the other, and given that both sides missed some golden chances in their good half, a draw would probably have been a fair result, even though it would have been a source of frustration for us, as the equaliser came so late. A loss, on the other hand, is hard to take.

It had started so well. We were carving Fulham up from the first minute, and had Gervinho or Walcott had their finishing boots on (or their ‘final ball’ boots, at least), we could have been out of sight after half an hour. As it was, we led through Koscielny’s header, after he was left alone to turn home Ramsey’s deflected cross from eight yards. Moments later, Stockdale pulled off a pair of remarkable saves to keep the lead at one, and despite slicing through the opposition at will, we couldn’t add to our tally. It is a familiar script, and given the nerves that it creates amongst the fans, the players must feel it too.

Fulham had their moments, particularly through the dangerous Ruiz, but were a changed team in the second half, showing a greater sense of urgency and more discipline at the back. As they improved, we regressed, energy seeming to drain away from the majority of the players, and Fulham began to peg us back. Senderos and Dempsey both missed glorious chances to level the match, and at the other end our previously incisive passing was going further and further astray.

With ten minutes to go, we went down a man. Djourou, already booked (and unlike Wenger, I thought his first yellow was warranted), put his hand on Zamora’s shoulder, who went down in all his Heskey glory. The dive was bought, and Lee Probert, who had previously kept his whistle down and his cards in his pocket, often to ridiculous extremes, produced another card. After that, an equaliser was almost inevitable, and when Szczesny flapped, Senderos headed the ball across goal to Sidwell, who buried the chance. That two former Arsenal men combined for the goal just added a bit of salt to the wound.

At that point, I was frustrated, but aware enough to accept that Fulham had done enough to warrant a point. Not three, though, but that’s what they got in the dying seconds when Squillaci’s defensive header fell to the unmarked Zamora, who finished emphatically. I’ve seen many blaming Squillaci for the goal, but he did his job in the build up more than many – I’d question why Zamora had so much space, ten yards out, when the ball dropped.

It was a cruel blow, and doubly frustrating given that we should have been out of sight in the first half. We wasted so many glorious positions that we really only have ourselves to blame. Having said that, we were once again the victim of some atrocious refereeing at times, and I don’t even mean the penalty shouts, of which there were two – Gervinho tripped early on and Van Persie unceremoniously shoved over in the second half. On first viewing, I thought neither were spot kicks, and required replays to indicate that my initial assessment had been wrong, so I don’t level too much at the referee for those, as they don’t get that benefit. Nevertheless, we have now been denied five penalties in three games, which is bringing back concerning memories of the six months following Eduardo and Celtic.

But more than that, Probert’s display was just home-friendly in the extreme. After a reasonable first half (aside from the Gervinho penalty), he allowed Fulham to get away with a wrestling display in the second. I rewatched the second half again after the match had finished, to see just how many times Van Persie was dumped to the floor having gained possession, and I counted seven. Seven occasions our captain was hauled down, and not once did he get a free kick. It was bizarre to watch, and you could see him getting more and more frustrated. Elsewhere, Riise sent Walcott flying into the advertising boards with a clear two handed shove, and then calmly carried on as if nothing had happened. Probert wasn’t quite Atwell of last week, but it is getting annoying to be talking about referees every single game. Wenger was visibly angered after the game, and understandably so – to see Djourou get a second yellow for an offence far lighter than what he had allowed Fulham to get away with throughout was mind boggling.

That said, we can only control our performance, and we had enough opportunities to put the game to bed long before that. I actually feel a little for Gervinho, who I think comes in for a lot of unfair stick – his final ball and finishing was pretty woeful yesterday, but that was only exacerbated by the number of times he got into great positions. It always frustrates me that players who have exemplary off the ball running skills (as he does) are lambasted more than players who never make those runs in the first place. You always hear ‘give X those opportunities and he would score‘, which is disingenuous as X doesn’t make his excellent runs. Of course I am frustrated by his end product, but I’d rather he got into those positions and fluffed them than was anonymous. It means he is halfway there.

Elsewhere, there were other positives. At the back, Koscielny put in another masterclass, but I’d like to give a hand to Coquelin, who filled in at left back and was targeted by Fulham as our weak link (understandably). Despite being up against the bright Ruiz, he did very well, his only blemish being his positional error for Zamora’s winner. A costly blemish, sure, but one you cannot blame a right footed midfielder for.

Despite the late goals, I was more concerned about the attack yesterday, but not the individuals themselves. Van Persie and Arteta in particular look exhausted, so the issue is not so much their quality as the paucity of their replacements. Were our injuries to clear up, Coquelin and Wilshere could bolster our central midfield options, but despite the imminent loan re-signing of Henry, Van Persie needs support.

But more than that, some of those players need a rest. With seven days before a Leeds tie that will see further rotation, they will get it.

Not the best start to 2012. But we move on.

 Posted by Pete (The Beautiful Groan) at 11:21 am
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