From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 17, 2009
On sale in the snow outside the Emirates Stadium, the front page of the latest edition of the Gooner fanzine warned of "meltdown." But it is more like a deep freeze at Arsenal, where a slow cooling of ambition, attitude and ability has taken its toll. None of the 60,000 crowd expected anything other than the turgid and disjointed performance they got, with some light relief at the end of it all.
Bolton offered nowhere near the robust confrontation they once guaranteed Arsenal, despite occasional prods from Kevin Davies and jabs from Gavin McCann. Yet, they were smothering enough to leave Arsenal facing a dreary draw until substitute Nicklas Bendtner finished crisply from an acute angle, with six minutes remaining, to keep alive the team's interest in fourth place.
It was a satisfying moment for the Dane, who is still only 20 - for a few more days at least - and learning how to be a footballer, yet has been targeted by Arsenal supporters as part of the problem this season. He is certainly not alone in struggling to rise to the standards set last term - fellow striker Emmanuel Adebayor looks strangely stripped of power, for example - but a period where everything he tried went awry meant there was a danger of a reprise of the Emmanuel Eboue syndrome developing with Bendtner.
His second premier league goal of the season inevitably went down well with the crowd, who, a moment before, had launched sarcastic cheers at him for finding a red shirt. His previous goal, incidentally, came when Arsenal beat Bolton convincingly in the reverse fixture in September. Then, they were top of the league. Scoring goals freely. Fancying their chances. But they promptly took a fall against Hull City and have not dusted themselves down properly yet.
Arsenal are in a funny place. The formbook says they are now seven league games unbeaten, which is their longest sequence for almost a year. But their performances are jittery and hardly make for confidence or inspiration. "We swim enough against the stream that we couldn't afford to draw against Bolton at home," assessed Arsene Wenger. "It took a good old-fashioned 4-2-4 to finally get the chance to win the game."
Bolton were so under the weather they could not come close to filling the substitutes' bench and used only four of the seven spaces available. Some wondered whether the slimline substitutes' list was a none-toosubtle message from Gary Megson to his chairman, Phil Gartside. Certainly, they need reinforcements. Was it also a way of getting the excuses in early as to why Bolton were so unwilling to venture into the attacking half? Manuel Almunia must have been perishing during the first 45 minutes. He might even have been grateful for the action in the second-half, when Matthew Taylor's header required a leaping catch. At least Bolton could depend on their ever-reliable capacity to irk Arsenal. The Gunners' favourite opponent, Davies, got up their noses early by brushing Gael Clichy with his hand in an aerial challenge. It was nothing more than a bit of a liberty, but a reminder that Bolton wrote the blueprint exposed this season by sides such as Hull, Sunderland and Stoke. Davies shrugged nonchalantly as he walked away.
As it turned out,fBolton took the worst of the tackling and Johan Elmander limped off towards the end of the first-half with a hamstring strain. With their main scorer joining the wounded, Megson must have winced when Ricardo Gardner was felled immediately afterwards having taken a thumping pass from Abou Diaby full in the face. The French midfielder, incidentally, recently pleaded with people not to compare him to Patrick Vieira. It is, in fairness, a painful comparison. Mere mention of the old midfield dominator is a raw reminder of how much Arsenal miss such a talented enforcer.
Wenger appears to be more interested in strengthening his team's creative, rather than defensive, side. They are missing their long-term absentees deeply.
To cesc Fabregas' vital invention, add the pace of Theo Walcott, the killer instinct of Eduardo and the craft of the long-forgotten unfortunate Tomas Rosicky. Any further comment on Andriy Arshavin - or anybody? "We look for something," said Wenger coyly. "As soon as we find it, we'll tell you."
Bolton, too, are looking and it was a sign of how few options Megson has that he was impelled to withdraw a player he had already brought on as a substitute. Mustapha Riga was understandably hurt. "I don't like doing that," said Megson. "The young lad is very quick, but inexperienced. I didn't want to take off Kevin Davies or Matty Taylor."
Bolton's best spell of the game, just after half-time, did not unduly trouble Arsenal, but it did provoke them into a more forceful response. Adebayor squandered a couple of opportunities and Robin van Persie, who had been the brightest of the bunch, wriggled into the box to hit a post before Bendtner earned the ovation. His catharsis aside, this was not a memorable game. Even the referee was uncontroversial enough to have avoided any unwanted man marking. "At half-time, the referee was perfectly free, I promise you," chirped Wenger. "He had a good tea and nobody was around him."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
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