And with that draw Arsenal’s title hopes slipped from their control and into the hands of Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
Straight off I have to say, all credit to Middlesbrough: they came to Emirates with a plan and executed it to perfection. Their plan was for all 11 men to defend and to counter attack when the opportunity presented itself. This should be called “away team plan one.” All managers know that plan, all managers have used that plan, all managers should have a way of overcoming that plan. Yesterday, Arsenal could not overcome that plan.
Sure, Boro got some help from the referees. As I was watching it yesterday at Doyle’s even neutral observers and people who dislike Arsenal we commenting that the officiating was poor. A shoulder tackle on one end of the pitch was a foul on the other. On one end offside was one thing and on the other end offside was something completely different.
And let’s just take a second to dissect two new interpretations of the offside rule. First, for the 10 years I have been watching football a player cannot receive the ball if they come from an offside position. I’ve seen countless goals get called back for this. A player in an onside position receives the ball and his teammate is in an offside position. If the player then plays the ball to the offside player (who has now regained his onside position) it has ALWAYS been called offside. It’s actually been a frustrating part of the rule and an interpretation that made no sense me.
Furthermore, I have seen a player in a completely offside position receive the ball from a defender (whether it’s a deflection or not) and the ball is then played onside. Almost every single time I have seen that happen it is called onside. Henry did it to Gerrard three years ago.
And how is this explained by the ref? It’s about intent. To quote Arsene Wenger on the topic “at least I learned something today.” I learned that when it comes to Taylor’s tackle no one is able to discern the intent (even though the foot was high and the studs were up) but when it comes to a Hleb pass, that’s so poor it needs a deflection by the Boro defender to get anywhere near Adebayor, the intent is obvious.
I learned something indeed: officials are psychic — but only sometimes.
I also learned why teams waste time. After 8 minutes or so of time wasting and a 2 minute injury to Clichy, the official adds 4 minutes of time. Unfair, but OK, whatever. Then at the stroke of the 4th minute, at 4 minutes and 1 second, while Arsenal are gathering the ball for a corner, the official calls time. And as much as I dislike Eboue I have to say “well done, son.” I would have probably gotten a red card if I was faced with a ref who so clearly was biased against the team that he calls time at 4:01 while in the midst of a corner. So, good for him to only get a yellow. Unfortunately Arsenal will have to face Halsey again and I’m sure he won’t forget Eboue’s reaction and so, don’t expect anything but grief next time you have to play against Halsey, Manu.
My man of the match: Mark Halsey
But championship teams can overcome the refs. And just like last week at Wigan, you can point to a factor that helped the opposing team hold Arsenal, but in reality, you have to look at the team itself. And the facts are, this team is simply incapable of finishing when they need it most. They had 17 shots, 57% of the possession, and Boro literally packed the ball into their end for 60 minutes — Arsenal could not score.
It’s pretty clear that Arsenal have made great strides in goal scoring over last year’s frustrating season of beautiful passing and pitiful finishing. But it is also pretty clear that all they have done is further perfected the passing game which has led to goals, rather than work on the finishing game in order to get goals.
Midway through last season I called for Arsenal to get a goal poacher and they did. Eduardo showed exactly the kinds of qualities that Arsenal needed by scoring 12 goals and getting 8 assists. Obviously the team misses him; 4 games out, 4 draws, 4 games without a real goal scoring threat. Maybe just having him out on the left and allowing Hleb to slot in behind Adebayor was enough, I have no idea. I know that Hleb on the left does not work. He cannot play there. I don’t know whether it’s due to the faster, more capable defenders who play fullback or if he just shuts down when he’s out there, but whatever it is, he can’t do it. He couldn’t do it last year and he cannot do it this year. This is not a criticism of the man, he is great in the middle, a revelation in fact, but he is NOT A WING PLAYER. STOP FUCKING PLAYING HIM OUT THERE.
Of course, I say that but the reality is that there’s no one else to play out on the left. Just like Eboue is really the only one who can start on the right. Because half the team is either injured or just returning from injury. By the way, calling Robin van Persie “rusty” is like saying F. Scott Fitzgerald liked a drink. It’s miserable watching him play. It reminds me of Henry last year and I’d put money that he’s not with the club next year, Wenger has a nose for these things and an uncanny ability to move the player at exactly the right time.
And that’s just it. This team just doesn’t seem to have all the right components to make the final push and win something. The same problem they had last year: they get deep into a tournament and crumble. If the League Cup is the measure of the young players then last season’s League Cup final is emblematic of this team. This isn’t a criticism of the players, they are a tremendously talented group of young men. Who are insanely fun to watch when they are on. But when they feel pressure, they can’t overcome it. They lose their heads. They have gotten a lot better about it than last season. When all a team had to do was ruffle their feathers and they would lose the plot. But this season we’re seeing a different type of pressure: the sustained pressure of a title run-in. And their reaction to that is telling. Their captain has become petulant and childish. I don’t just mean the display at Birmingham, but the way he let Aliadiere have all that space because he was too busy waving his arms around for the offside call was simply unprofessional. It is something someone does when they can’t deal with the pressure.
It’s not all Gallas’ fault but I think it’s his job as captain to lead the team in a positive direction and right now he’s not doing that. So, my fervent hope is for the team to have a “clear the air” meeting or whatever these big clubs do, to regroup, to get their heads back in the game and to stop acting like the 4th place team that everyone predicted they would be at the start of the season.
P.S. I was just watching the ManC vs. Spuds match and Juande Ramos took Robbie Keane off at the 70th minute. First, what a ballsy move. Keane is the captain and the goal scorer, but wasn’t playing well. Second, he threw an absolute wobbler as he came off, yelling, throwing things, basically being the little bitch that we all know he is. What did the match commentators say about it? “He’s just being passionate.” William Gallas is petulant when he throws a tantrum and Keane is “passionate?” How about both of them act like little children when they should be professional?
P.P.S. Speaking of Spurs. Last weekend was St. Totteringham’s day. Yay.