When I was a kid I once got a football for my birthday. It must have been my ninth or tenth birthday: there was no present for me in the morning but my mum took me on a long bike ride, from one end of my home town to the other end, to buy me a football in a sports shop. At that time, I knew nothing about Arsenal, or even English football. My home town team were Roda JC in the Netherlands, and they play in yellow and black. The ball I chose was white and red: more white than red pentagons, and I loved it for a long time: in fact, I can still smell and picture it today, almost forty years on.
Red and white are great colours, and of course those of our beloved Arsenal. And yesterday, the North of London was red and white all right. From the moment I arrived at Cockfosters’ tube station, I was surrounded by it. The sky was blue, most people were wearing The Shirt, and the sun warmed whilst spreading a golden glow over us. It was a truly beautiful sight. And the closer I got to the Highbury and Islington tube station the more intense it became.
There was a strong sense of anticipation in the air yesterday: a positive buzz of good things lying ahead; and the reason for this is of course the high hopes felt by many Gooners after some astute signings by the club this summer. And the one that epitomises this positivity is of course Alexis, as everywhere I looked on the way to the home of football I could see his first or second name reflected on the backs of many, many fellow Gooners. Sanchez has become the embodiment of our hopes for further progress and the shiniest silverware, and with good reason.
The stadium looked extra glorious yesterday. The early evening, August sunlight lit up the East Bank warmly and there was a sea of red and white everywhere – more than I have ever seen before, somehow.
No diaby, not even on the bench, but both Ramsey and Arteta in the double DM pivot. Jack in the hole, as hoped and predicted, and Santi and Sanchez on the wings, with not OG but Sanogo as our ‘holding striker’: not a formation I would have chosen, but definitely one capable of taking three points from the well supported Crystal Palace team.
The start was good and it looked a matter of time before we would score a goal. Jack was conducting play and there was plenty of movement in the team to find good passes and create opportunities. But we lacked cutting edge as our combinations just did not produce clear cut chances: was it rustiness or nerves, or was the ghost of Pulis still hanging around our ground like a bad smell?
Pulis’ ex-team were definitely playing like one of his infamous Stoke teams: well set-up, physical, cynical serial fouling, time wasting; and they made it really hard for us, especially after we lost some of our initial zip and thrust in the second part of the first half. Gradually we lost control of the midfield: nobody was using Sanogo anymore to hold up play, and the only one moving IN their designated area, other than Yaya, was Sanchez. We still managed to set up some attacks from the right, with both Alexis and Debuchy, although still getting used to each other, combining well to penetrate the CP defence. Unfortunately, when they did so, Sanogo was often isolated as neither Jack, Ramsey nor Santi were supporting him in the box enough.
On the left we were very weak. Santi did not hold his position and Gibbs was, understandably, holding back a lot. This did not help us in stretching the CP defence and midfield, and it became really easy for our opponents to stem our attacking intent. Jack searched and probed for opportunities but there was very little for him to set up (I could see this really well from the Upper Tier in the North Bank). We also played quite deep, and both Ramsey and Arteta did not push up enough to populate the midfield in front of CP’s ‘D’. Add to that the continuous fouling and the referee’s unwillingness to punish this, and you can see why we were not able to dominate the game more in the latter part of the first half: lack of width, lack of pressure on their midfield, lack of movement, too low a tempo and not enough pressing.
The supporters became restless, and then on top of all that, they score – so typically – from a corner. It is fair to say we did not defend the corner well, but it was also a pretty good ball into the box. Without three of our four best set-piece ‘defenders’ from last season – BFG, Giroud and Sagna – we looked vulnerable during CP’s corners…. and we paid for it.
Luckily, the man who only scores important goals for us, it seems, came to the rescue once again – and from a set-piece of our own. Violently happy, Koz we love you! – Bjork’s tune – went through my head, and we could all breath again. 1-1, just before the break, was just what the doctor ordered. And the stadium regained its positive vibes again.
However, things did not improve much initially. Nacho brought more drive and aggression than the substituted and apparently injured, Gibbs. But Santi remained all-over the place, which is fine as long as he adds value to our attacking play, which he did not do enough imo. Jack lost a bit of his composure and precision in passing the longer the game went on, and Sanogo never really got into the game (for which he was little to blame IMO). Luckily, Wenger did not wait long to bring on the much more trusted Giroud for Sanogo, and, a bit later, Ox for Jack. Where Giroud added a lot from the moment he started; Ox’s input was less effective. However, Wenger moved Sanchez to the left which added a bit more thrust to our attacking play, and Arteta and Ramsey pushed the Palace midfield a lot harder in the second half.
I thought all our midfielders and attackers, except for the simply fantastic, albeit not fully perfect, Alexis, had under-par performances in this game, but the introduction of Giroud helped them all to improve their game gradually. It did not seem enough, however, to score the much needed winner. The team kept pushing but CP held strong, albeit with some unsporting behaviour, in terms of time-wasting and continuous fouling, which the frustrating, pie-gobbling referee Moss was far too lenient about. Puncheon’s dismissal was well deserved but seemed too little too late…
But luck was on our side, and it was the sweetest of ways to send Stoke-South-of-the-Thames home empty-handed: by scoring a Pulisesque late winner from a set piece by nobody other than Aaron Ramsey. It was ugly, but it was hard fought for, and we all did not care one iota. A giant, collective sense of relief swept through the stadium and we all sang the Ramsey song with real gusto.
We got away with this one; and with three points in the bag, we can afford the lessons learnt from this performance. If and when another park the bus team comes to the home of football, we need to push up more and conquer the midfield, we need to spread our opponents by using the wings on both sides wisely and run more intelligently, and, most importantly, we need to trust our CF to hold on to the ball and allow the rest of the team to feed of him.
On the way back I listened to Talk ‘Sport’ for a while (was desperately trying to find out the scores of the afternoon games). We know that most of the pundits there are opinionated simpletons, who like to stick to simple mantras in order to rile their mostly gullible audience. Stan Collybore just kept saying Arsenal needed to buy a SQ CF if we wanted to push on. He had actually been at the match and this was the main thing he kept repeating. A striker can only score if he gets the service, whether it is Sanogo, Giroud, Falcao or Cavani. Sanogo worked hard but did not get the ball anywhere often enough to set up attacks, produce assists or hit the net himself. Maybe one day, Collimore will realise that Arsenal have actually moved on and do not play with a classic CF anymore….. or maybe not.
We spread our goals throughout the team and with a goal by Giroud, two by Ramsey, one by Cazorla and one by Koscielny in the last two games, we are doing just fine. And we ain’t seen nothing yet: once this team starts clicking together properly, and we add a SQ DM/B2B (and a CB of course) to the team before the TW shuts, the Canon will roar and roar.
Sanchez was a joy to watch and I feel privileged to have seen his first game at the home of football.
My last word is for Chambers, whose reading of the game and interception skills were very impressive again yesterday. What a signing by Wenger – chapeau! :)
Written by: TotalArsenal.