Arsenal moved to joint top of the league with Liverpool after a well-deserved win over Pompey. However it wasn’t as straightforward as the scoreline suggests, the Gooners being forced to play almost the entire second-half with 10-men following a straight red card to Philippe Senderos.
Alex Hleb recovered from illness to take his place on the right-wing ahead of Theo, while as expected Ade got the nod to partner Robin up-front. A slight surprise was the Flamster starting ahead of Justin at right-back, does anyone know if Justin has an injury??? It’s quite funny when you think about it because on paper Flamini may be considered our FIFTH choice at right-back, behind Sagna, Eboue, Justin and now Diarra. And that’s without shifting Kolo or Willy out of the centre. Talk about strength in depth…
Like the midweek game against Sparta Prague, we got off to scorching start. Just 6 minutes in, Robin and David James went for a 50-50 ball inside their box. The Dutchman got there first and poked the ball beyond the keeper, who clattered into him. Ref Mark Halsey had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. That’s now three pens in three home games this season, alongside the one in the Emirates Cup and another in our final home games of last season against Chelsea. Not surprisingly really seeing the amount we attack and the style of our attacks (dribblers breaking into the box), it’s inevitable the defenders are going to mis-time their tackles at least once per match. Following his miss from 12 yards against Man City last weekend, Robin passed the responsibility to Ade. The Togolese striker stroked it into the bottom corner, sending James the wrong way. A word about the penalty: Ade’s languid Kanu-esque style at taking penalties makes me very nervous, I remember Kanu taking two very similar penalties in 1999 against Man Utd and Fiorentina, of which only one went in because the keeper went the wrong way. When it comes off it he appears to be the coolest man on the pitch, but if the keeper guesses right then it looks like a tame spot-kick. Still, at least this one went in, so no complaints! After wondering whether Robin had ‘bottled it’, it was revealed at half-time that he had ‘done a Thierry’, i.e. because he won the pen, he thought it best not to take it himself. The Frenchman’s legacy at Arsenal remains…
After all the wishing and hoping that this young Arsenal team could recapture the vigour that the Invincibles used to display coming out of the blocks, it has now come to fruition twice in the space of four days. However, whereas the early goal against Sparta led to the game becoming nothing more than a glorified training session, in this case the players’ intensity did not drop and we dominated the first-half. Ade had a chance to double his tally on the quarter-hour, just failing to meet a low Hleb cross after the Belarusian had been slipped in on the right by Cesc. Things were starting to click. Only two minutes later the Spaniard himself had a low effort saved from 25 yards. These two attacks outline the change in the Arsenal mentality from this season to last: a willingness to cross the ball and a willingness to shoot from distance, two things which the majority of fans have called for. Down the left side Gael was on fire. His ability to beat his man on the outside through speed has never been in doubt, but it is his increasingly-successful tendency to cut inside and dribble that has caught my attention. It led to goals against Ajax and Prague, and he nearly created another today when his cross was almost diverted goalwards by former Spurs player Noe Pamarot.
We were rewarded for our attacking endeavour 10 minutes from the end of the half. Rosicky whipped in a corner from the left and Gilberto attacked it. It was heading for goal before Matt Taylor got in the way just ahead of James and ricocheted to Cesc, who swivelled and scored from very close range. A true poacher’s goal. If Eduardo had scored that goal, we’d all be rejoicing about finally discovering the elusive fox in t’box. Cesc took up a very dangerous position in front of the keeper, one which I have seen Michael Owen and Robbie Keane take up numerous times. So we’d got an early goal and the scored from a corner, couldn’t ask for any more from a highly satisfactory first-half. Have we ever gone into half-time 2-0 up at the Emirates? I can’t remember previously doing so, and this situation was a very welcome change from the norm of 0-0 or being a goal behind.
Two goals up and bossing the game, you would have been forgiven for presuming that the second 45 would simply be a formality of soaking up Pompey pressure and trying to catch them on the break. But we are Arsenal and very rarely do we do things the easy way (otherwise known as the ‘Chelsea way’). 5 minutes into the half a ball was fed through to old favourite Kanu who looked suspiciously offside, but replays proved that the lino was correct to let play continue. He’d gotten the wrong side of Big Phil, and in order to retrieve the situation the Swiss’ legs tangled with Kanu’s and he put his arms on him. Kanu went down and although Kolo was coming round to cover, he was deemed too far away and the ref adjudged that Kanu has been denied a goalscoring opportunity. There was only one outcome: red card to Senderos, who was very disappointed but in truth it was hardly a surprising decision. The ensuing free-kick was potentially very important to the eventual outcome of the match. With a two-goal lead Arsenal were comfortable, but being reduced to 10-men it was vital that they did not concede straightaway. Thankfully we didn’t, Manuel Almunia palming away Utaka’s free-kick right into the path of Sean Davis (yet another former Spur) who blazed the rebound over. Dodgy positioning from Almunia in all honesty, he was way too far to one side of his goal and had the ball been a yard wider, Pompey would’ve been right back in it.
The tactical re-jig saw Gilberto drop back into defence, leaving Robin to come deeper and help out the seemingly lightweight midfield trio of Cesc, Tommy and Alex. The visitors started to crank up the pressure, forcing Kolo to clear from the feet of Kanu. The next goal in this game was to be crucial and all signs pointed to Pompey getting it. As it was, we got it. After being awarded a free-kick near the left byline, Cesc’s ever-active brain saw fit to roll it to the nearby Rosicky, who need no invitation to hammer the ball through the defender’s legs and into the opposite corner, leaving James stranded. Cue pandemonium. That’s the Czech captain’s second goal in as many games, and his overall performance was very busy and fluid as he linked up well with playmaker-in-chief Cesc Fabregas and allowed Gael to overlap dangerously. As long as he stays injury-free he can be central to our fortunes this season.
No sooner had the celebrations died down that Pompey pulled a goal back seconds later. Gael, by my reckoning, made his only mistake of the day as he rushed in to challenge Utaka, who spun in behind him. His whipped ball was mis-controlled by Kanu, but such is Kanu’s eccentricity that even when he lapses there is still a chance of a goal, the ball rebounding of his shin to his calf and going beyond the reach of Manuel. The Spaniard stood no chance, his clean sheet spoilt by a lucky goal. All our goals against this season have been from either goalkeeping gaffes or lucky finishes, I dunno whether that’s a good or bad thing!
Both managers rang the changes, predictably Wenger going defensive by bringing on Denilson for Hleb and Harry Redknapp pushing for a goal as he sent on David Nugent. Not that Arsenal sat back. With a notoriously shaky defence it was definitely a case of attack being the best form of defence. Pompey were a constant threat, the speedy Utaka causing us problems down our left and the wily Kanu looking to wreak havoc in the box. Almunia was forced into a few smart saves from range and captain Kolo did well to divert over a goalbound effort from Nugent, but the closest anyone came to adding to the goals was substitute Abou Diaby. He had two efforts, the second a fizzing shot from 20 yards that skimmed over the bar following an excellent period of keep ball. The first was a sitter as he sent a bullet-header wide of the post from almost point blank range. Having ghosted in at the back-post to meet Gael’s floated cross, somehow the net did not ripple (my Dad had actually yelped out in celebration as Diaby met the ball and I duly had a go at him for jinxing it).
Thankfully we were not made to regret the miss as we saw out the closing minutes with some nice ‘Ole’ football to go joint top with the impressive Scousers (albeit very far behind on goal difference following their demolition of Derby the day before). All in all, a good victory against a team who caused us plenty of problems in this fixture last year. Particularly impressive was the fast start we made, something we have been lacking at our new home. I feel sorry for South End of the stadium as they’ve had to endure some pretty barren Arsenal spells in front of their goal, hopefully the balance is being redressed. In terms of individual performances, Manuel was in no way at fault for the goal and his shot-stopping was impressive too, having to field some dangerous bouncing shots. His positioning for the free-kick which came from the sending-off was suspect, but in the end we didn’t concede from it so you can’t fault the man I guess. In defence we looked very solid up until the sending off, after which we were forced to change things around and unsurprisingly looked more dodgy. Nonetheless, Kolo was a rock as he repelled everything thrown at us. A word on the red-card and its consequence: does a straight red for a professional foul constitute a one, two or three match ban? However many it is, we are looking short in central defence for the next game, unless Willy recovers in time (he is expected to do, but you never know…) At a time like this the loan of Djourou looks folly, especially with Tottenham away coming up. I’d much rather see Gilberto shielding the defence as opposed to having to deal directly with the likes of Berbatov, Keane, Defoe and Bent.
The midfield – before the red card – looked fully functional if not completely balanced. I’ve said it before, playing Rosicky and Hleb on the flanks is risky if either of the two is having an off-day with their dribbling and eye-of-the-needle passing. Thankfully today both were on form, especially Tommy who took his goal fantastically well. The way he combined with Cesc in particular was great to watch, all passing and movement. Speaking of the Spaniard, he is currently our top-scorer with 4 goals, already matching his record of last season. He’s got all types of goals so far: cool finishes against Prague twice, a mighty thwack against City, and a poach-job here. Very much like Paul Scholes (just as I’m about to end this piece I check the official website and lo and behold, Le Boss echoes my sentiments…great minds think alike eh?) If he keeps adding goalscoring to his already resplendent armoury then he WILL become the best midfielder in the world, no question. Up-front Ade looked better than last week, causing problems with his running and generally providing a good foil to Robin, who was quiet by his standards. The thing with Robin though is that he is liable to produce a moment of absolute magic that turns a game on its head, like how Dennis used to be in his younger days, and we can’t afford to have a talent like that sitting on the bench. While that moment of magic was missing today, his team play and movement/dropping deep is improving with every game.
10 points from four games, a darn sight better than last season when we’d only just managed to record our first win of the league campaign. We’re building up a good head of steam and it’s a shame that the sodding international break is upon us. Traditionally we aren’t the best team at regrouping after an international break, but we’ve got no choice but to do so this time ‘cos up next is Tottenham away! Keep your fingers and toes crossed that the boys come through their internationals unscathed.