Something of a mixed bag today, so I would like to start with a story that maybe shows where I am going – so you can keep the thread if I can’t. one afternoon in the prime of my life, that long since passed period where I knew little enough to think that it was a lot and my ambitions were so limited that life seemed easy, I forced my mate Ben to watch a DVD of Thierry Henry goals. Ben is a Boro fan, but despite this he still has taste, so we got stoned as two small marsupials and fired up the player.
After a typically Henry wonder goal early in his Arsenal days the commentator sounded surprised, to listen to him you would have thought it was a fluke or once in a lifetime event. Ben turned to me and giggled, “they haven’t realised he’s special yet have they.” Judging from the commentary on his goals it took about two years for the reality to sink in. For the five years he was the best player on the planet the transcendent was greeted as ordinary. My point though is this: perception is not reality. Henry was amazing very early, if not quite from day one at Arsenal, but it took people several showings to realise.
Perhaps it is natural to be sceptical, certainly a few years listening to the hype carousel that is the press would make it seem prudent. In spite of this though I think that much of the criticism for our lacklustre start to the season is misplaced. Watching the game on Saturday a few things struck me. First and I think most importantly is this: if someone doesn’t get Clichy and Sagna practicing crossing for an hour a day AND cant improve on the gash they produced someone should lose his job. Coach, manager, ballboy, I don’t care but those looped, slow balls that look like catching practice at the Oval are useless. This has been bugging me for a while now, given our struggles going forward we are hitting more crosses, so why on earth can’t we start showing some improvement – starting from such a low base it shouldn’t be difficult.
Then, just maybe, it would make sense to get our 6”5’ Togonator with springs in his heels in the box for these. Last year it was frustrating watching Ade drift out wide frequently and get behind play; with one up front you need someone muscleing the defenders or working the channels. This year though he is even worse, now Van Persie is there he rarely enters the box. Aebeyor looks his best, I think, when he uses his physical presence to occupy defenders, chalenges in the air, and works within the width of the penalty box. I defended the guy all summer, I still think it was essential that he stayed at the club, but he really is starting to look like a dilletante. Beyond impressions of his work rate and lacsadasical attitude – check the shot he blocked against Bolton – 7 league goals in 21 PL games is not good enough. He will point to more assists and team play as a result of sharing the burden with two up top (he did in his arse tv interview); but goals win games and he should be winning us more frankly.
This brings me back to a point I have made before, but still seems to be largely ignored in the mania of spiteful scapegoating: it is the failure of our experienced players that is the difference between our current position and being top of the league. Whilst it may be in vogue to criticise certain individuals – you all know the names – they are not the root of our problem. The kids have been kids, at times they have made errors that a U21 player will, but that is par for the course with them. What has let us down is that around this we have got less than stellar displays from our established stars.
Last season Adebeyor carried us for two months over christmas and was awesome against Milan, but he hasn’t come close to that level of determination this year. Gallas and Toure – our captain and vice captain entering the season for god sake – have been diabolical. Both have made schoolboy errors and at times looked disinterested. They have not been able to put in half decent individual performances on a regular basis, so forget about guiding our inexperienced midfield. Leadership? Gallas has been stripped of the captaincy, Toure asked to leave the club, and aparently they squabble amongst themselves; hardly a shinning example. Cesc has been relatively poor by his own standards, completely understandably, and one might ask if the fact that we are undefeated in the league since he took over says more about him or Gallas? Clichy hasn’t exactly shone this year either. It tells you something about the defence, our most experienced unit, that Djourou at 22 in his first full season has been the stand out. Even RVP, who thankfully is finally fit, has more in his locker than we have seen; I view him as our match winner and there have been some games that needed winning that weren’t.
This isn’t to say that I think any of these guys are bad players, far from they are bloody brilliant. It would seem that the Billy Gallas era probably wont last past the summer, but otherwise this lot still have many years ahead of them and I hope it is at Arsenal. Rather, there is much more to come from this side and not because of the usual argument in favour of the youth performing better. Any sort of fight against Fulham or Stoke, or some semblance of fortitude or intelligence against Hull and we could easily be two points off the league leaders, we win two out of those three and that is where we would be. That we didn’t is less down to youthful errors or inexperience, but rather a lack of leadership, defensive ineptitude, and anemic producton from the strikers.
If anything the best games we have played this season were manure, a brilliant, technical offensive display through midfield and away at the chavs, where we dug in and mixed it with a powerful and experienced side. Early season the theory was that we were buggered by not signing new midfielders: this was the perception. When we started winning it was said that those were easy games, we would be found out against the big boys when the kids would get rolled over. The opposite has happened, we have struggled against smaller sides, particularly due to leaking goals, as a result of our established players not performing: that is the reality. It wasn’t a lack of signings that undid us, it was a deterioration in the standards of the players already in the team – we carried over last seasons slump into this, rather than the side being weaker.
I started with the little story about Henry and how long I took people to realise that he was special. If you remember he used to joke that at first he couldn’t even hit the clock above the end named after it. He also said that the fans sticking by him through all that was the basis of his love for the club, we might do well to remember that, or otherwise show no bitterness when players walk out on us; loyalty runs both ways. Like everyone else I had no idea Henry would be as good as he was, I doubt even he or Wenger expected that, but that story has made me look for signs of talent ever since. I am a natural optimist so searching for talent rather than faults suits me, but perhaps one gets a better indication of how much potential is in a young player this way than by comparing them to curent/past greats or looking for faults this instance. (To outline how idiotic it is to compare this current side, with so many players starting out and beginning to play together, to the Invincibles best season out of 6/7 I hope isn’t necessary)
In my opinion, while it may seem perfectly normal that for many the names Song, Diaby, Denilson, Bendtner are a joke – have we not been here with Song once before? – this is in fact a chimera of perception. In reality they all have extreme talent. Walcott, Nasri, Cesc, Djourou get more respect, but even here perhaps people should be more abuzz with the potential at the club. For me Merida, Gibbs, and obviouslyRam sey, and Wilshere all look special to. W e should nurture these players. There are few things as funky as watching the youth come through, you can keep your overpayed, over thirty mercenary sigings any day; I wouldn’t swap Bendtner for Berbatov or Ramsey for Deco. The only reason these players aren’t already challenging for the title is that our talisman was jaded and is now injured, our defensive leaders are having menopausal flushes, and our eighty g’s a week striker wants to be Cruyff. This is changing, things are on the up right now, and very soon we will be back where we belong on top of the league. All that with the most talented young squad in Europe and the potential to win back-to-back European cups.