Yesterday’s game was interesting for a variety of reasons. The games after an International break usually herald the banana skin fixtures, with either injuries or jet lagged stars contributing to upsets, and Only Man United and Arsenal managed to evade the slip up, with Liverpool and incredibl
y Chelsea losing the initiative. We have regained fourth place with a game in hand and are now on par with Chelsea with a superior goal difference. At times against a mediocre Birmingham outfit who had clearly raised their game before the gaze of their new owner Mr Carson Yeung, Arsenal were put to the sword having to suffer some thuggish tackles, the aggression is part of the game but the pathetic lack of protection from the referee saw Theo Walcott become a casualty, and the Birmingham offender Ridgewell received not even an admonishment for scything through the back of Theo, the resulting knee injury will be assessed but he seems quite doubtful for next week’s Champions League game.
Arsenal started much the better team with lots of possession and Fabregas trying to orchestrate the link between midfield and attack. One of Arsene Wenger’s two experiments prospered whilst the other was holed below the water line. The first was the mighty Song, who has grown into his role of defensive holding midfielder. A few misplaced passes apart, it was his assist that enabled Arsenal to open the scoring through an amazing piece of footwork by Robin van Persie. The manner in which he managed to collect the excellent reverse pass from Song, and steer the ball past his defender, and still take a touch before rifling the ball with a fierce shot into the base of Joe Hart’s far post has to be seen to be believed. Wonderful skills from our Dutchman whose confidence is riding high. The second goal came very quickly afterwards with Diaby netting Rocky’s simple ball across the box which had managed to evade two other Arsenal attackers. Birmingham looked all at sea, but were to receive a response to their distress call from an unlikely source.
I refer of course to the Vito Mannone error. I have repeatedly stated that our third string Keeper scares me, well this is the other Wenger experiment that I referred to earlier. The keeper had a clear opportunity to punch a high ball to safety.Birmingham’s Larsson who challenged for the ball was hardly aggressive in his jump but Mannone flapped at the ball and mananged to present a lifeline to Lee Bowyer who accepted the gesture with lethal precision.No degree of protesting from Mannone that he had been fouled could disguise the fact that this was goal keeping howler, not as embarrassing as it could have been, but nonetheless, now it should signal the end of Wenger’s experiment, and thank goodness before we face the Scum next week. Mannone is young and our third string keeper, but I am confident in predicting that he will never be our number one. Those who think that I am being unfair on the Italian shot stopper must realise that a goalkeeper is not just there to make saves. he is also there to read defensive errors and marshall the back four. He did neither with any kind of authority. There were times yesterday when Gallas clearly wanted the Keeper to be more positive as the ball came back towards the Arsenal danger area, on each occasion Mannone ducked the offer and left the defenders to deal with it themselves.
The second half saw a resurgent Birmingham City and the change of formation combined with our nervousness at the back saw them miss a couple of chances. It was baffling to see how the well oiled Arsenal machine had started to misfire, but there were notable performances which gave the team confidence, Keiran Gibbs was solid at the back and Vermaelen won almost all of the aerial challenges that he faced. Diaby was low key, and Fabregas lost his way a little, so it was left to Robin van Persie to demonstrate how his hold up skills had progressed. The Dutchman was an ever present threat to the man in Blue, from his set pieces and his uncanny ability to turn defenders with ease. I put down our uncertainty to a little fatigue from the International break but Arshavin’s presence since exit of Walcott was a constant reminder of how the game could turn. Happily it was Mannone who set up the final goal, He had regained his composure, made at least one good save on the ground and collected a high cross, when he threw the ball out to Fabregas, who put on the afterburners in a trademark Arsenal counter attack.
Birmingham were left four against three with the flank players running the channels intelligently and spreading the two centre backs as wide as possible. Whilst everyone was expecting a one two between Fabregas and Arshavin as the Arsenal marauders reached the Birmingham box, the wonderful talent and vision of the Russian enabled him to turn inside and curl a low ball just inside the far post of Joe Hart, whose performance during the game in fairness had done his possible call up to the England Squad, no harm at all. The chance was taken sublimely by Arshavin, difficult as the technical skill is to sidefoot a ball and give it the right amount of sidespin to curl itself into the goal, but this what you get from a world class player, moments of brilliance, and it reminded me much of Thierry Henry at his best. The three-one scoreline did not flatter Arsenal, as Diaby could have added a fourth shortly afterwards after receiving a wonderfully flighted ball from Eboue on the right, but a point blank reflex save from Hart denied our Frenchman the honours..
I enjoyed the game despite the moments of anxiety when Arsenal seemed to lose their rhythm, but the unexpected get up and go came from two unlikely players. Song, my man of the match and Kieran Gibbs, whose counter attacking even from the depths of his territory after regaining possession from fifty fifty situations with his amazing desire. We wanted a player to do the dirty work and remind the rest of the team, that we can turn back the opponents tide of possession, well Song provided that example, he linked well with Fabregas and Diaby, made one assist and provided crunching tackles to break up the Birmingham organisation as they tried to counter attack. I didn’t enjoy Eboue’s pathetic swan dives, and I just wish that he would stop this behaviour. But I am full of confidence for next weeks early kick off against the scum. Harry Rednapp’s men will be weaker by the absence of Defoe, the one player who I feared would have possibly made a difference. He received a red card in their match against Portsmouth and so his ban should allow the return of Almunia to be less stressful.
The Scum have yet to face a real challenge, even beating a lack lustre Liverpool team who now lie in eighth place with any hopes of winning the Premiership title likely to be extinguished by the end of November, does not merit them to be labelled serious top four contenders with the likes of Manchester City waiting in the wings, but what they have been able to do is score goals. The loss of Defoe is timely and whilst I did not fear the scum, the passion of the occasion and the possible presence of Mannone did give me a few butterflies. Harry Rednapp works miracles at the clubs that he is based, but I predict that he will be fresh out of them by the time next week comes around. Only Crouch has the confidence to unsettle our defence and I expect a rampant Gibbs to control any threat posed by Lennon. Arsenal need to worry less about these London derbys and just continue to do what they have been doing so far this season, having now gone seven games unbeaten. Keep scoring goals, because as long as we score more than the opposition, we will win the game. Aaah… football is such a simple game when put like that!