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Saturday, 23 April 2011

Arsene Around

Let’s start with an analogy. It’s May. The sun periodically breaks rank from the accompanying cloud, illuminating a quaint Yorkshire village in a radiant glow. It is the spring fete: the children are enjoying the rides and games and the adults are gorging on food and ale. Each year, there is one tradition that has been the centrepiece of the fete for generations. A game of skill, not to mention a little chance, which can turn humble men into folk heroes. It is called the Apple Lob. Simply, competitors must stand some 20 yards away from a target, armed with succulent apples they have spent the past year lovingly preparing for this moment. And then they must hit the centre of the target, scoring points in the process. Three points are gained for hitting the smallest target in the very centre of the board. One point is awarded for hitting the larger target circling that.

Somewhat curiously, there is a Frenchman who enters the competition each year. But instead of using apples, his spherical tool of choice is the onion. Now, everyone agrees that the Frenchman’s onions are impressive; they are sharp but never too pungent and they make for a wonderful soup. They are among the finest onions – he would never settle for less. But every year, it is an apple that has won the Apple Lob. The clue is in the name for Pete’s sake. The apple is heavier and more durable. It might not make the cutest throwing arc every time it is dispatched but more often than not the onion, when thrown, and though looking elegant, will dip at the last moment and score one and not three points when thudding into the target. The locals were always quick to jump to the Frenchman’s defence. “His throwing technique is superior to all the other competitors,” they’d shout. “Maybe one day he WILL win the Apple Lob with an onion,” they’d argue. Such arguments have dulled over the years, however. And at the time of writing, the Frenchman had not won the Apple Lob with an onion.

Pub chat #318: “Arsenal need a big centre midfielder and a big commanding centre back. They basically need clones of Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams and they will win the league. They don’t have any leaders…”

In response to Pub chat #318: In the grand scheme of things, and the fact that Arsenal look more than likely to miss out on the Premier League in a season where they could scarcely have thrown it away more spectacularly and on a more regular basis if they tried, this may appear a given. But it isn’t. And here’s why. Consider this statement as fact (because it is): Arsenal are unbeaten in their last 16 league games. And that defeat was at Old Trafford back in December. That hardly represents the form of a side desperate for a big lump at the back (a la Robert Huth or Chris Morgan) or in the middle. In fact, eight of those 16 matches ended in Arsenal keeping a clean sheet. What has been Arsene Wenger’s downfall this season has been the inability to see out a game, witnessed twice in the past four days, and most stunningly at St James’s Park back in February. Which now leads me nicely to the last sentence of Pub chat #318. They don’t have any leaders…

Is Cesc Fabregas a leader? I do not wish to link leadership with the wearing of armbands as seen most starkly with EBJT (read more here but with the captaincy does come a certain responsibility, perhaps uniquely on English shores. Fabregas this week lamented the lack of ‘reference points’ in the Arsenal XI. But should it take a leader to tell Emmanuel Eboue to stay on his feet in the 112th minute of the game against Liverpool or should a 27-year-old seasoned international understand that you don’t go careering around like a tramp whose spotted a Special Brew stash in the penalty area? Arsenal don’t need leaders. They need to stop being so stupid.

It wasn’t Lucas’s ‘intelligence’ that won Liverpool’s penalty and rescued a point as Wenger was at pains to point out at the final whistle. Move away from Eboue’s incompetence for a minute and consider this: Dirk Kuyt struck a shot from the half way line after Van Persie scored the 97th minute to put Arsenal ahead. Szczesny caught the ball. There was little more than a minute to see out after this. It is incomprehensible to imagine a United side conceding in the manner Arsenal did. Lack of leaders is it? Or lack of basic footballing intelligence? But what did Arsenal do? That’s right boys and girls, they panicked, they floundered and they dicked about with it at the edge of their box when they had about three clear chances to clear. Title hopes hinge and are extinguished on such moments.

Wenger flashing the cheque book appears an obvious answer. But it masks a fundamental truth. Arsenal ARE good enough to win the title. But they won’t. Because they are Arsenal. You’d have never heard that being said circa 2004.

What seems to fuel the moments of idiocy that pepper Arsenal’s play is the complete lack of culpability. Wenger’s refusal to blame Eboue for the conceding of the latest ever Premier League goal serves no discernible function other than providing the player with a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. But one wonders how many such cards Arsenal need to win the Premier League. If there is any introspection, you’d be hard pushed to see any evidence of it when Wenger faces a TV camera. His side being too young is an excuse that no longer washes. So he moves his ire to the officials, evidenced in his ‘the whole world is against us’ spiel in the wake of the Liverpool draw. In doing so, the players who are making the stupid decisions are excused. And so they fill up each season’s bloopers DVD with new and improved ways to outlandishly throw away leads, safe in the knowledge their mistakes will be masked by complaints of foul play from external forces.

Wenger said last April his side were “not mature enough”. A year later and what? Wenger’s siege mentality has gotten so draining that he cuts an increasingly antsy figure on the touchline these days. The persecution complex is something his counterpart at Man United can foster to the club’s advantage, but Wenger never quite got the hang of it. He cuts off his nose to spite his face often and a new nose always grows back. And now the shears are out again.

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