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Arsenal vs Middlesbrough, Emirates Stadium, 26 April

PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 11:05 am
by Charlie
For the third year in a row, my publisher Ernest Hecht kindly invited me to sit next to him at an Arsenal home game.

Objectively, the game meant a lot more to Middlesbrough than to Arsenal. The latter are stuck in fourth place, no matter what happens above or below them. But for Middlesbrough, this should have been a do-or-die situation, a perfect chance to catch their hosts off guard. It is not so long ago that Arsenal got stuck in a run of four scoreless home draws. One of those would have suited Middlesbough just fine.

But it was hard to tell that the Middlesbrough players cared very much. Tuncay, their Turkish mid-fielder, towered over the rest of his team in terms of energy, skill and commitment, but the rest of the players were dismayingly desultory. Stuart Downing looked like he cared some of the time, but is he a mid-fielder? That is where he played, but to me he should be like the vintage Ryan Giggs, fundamentally on the left, but coming inside every now and then to confuse his marker. As it was, he just seemed frustrated and even petulant at times.

Gary O'Neill played like a good old-fashioned English left half, and goal keeper Brad Jones continued his run of good form (it's curious that Middlesbrough replaced the departed Australian goalie Mark Schwarzer with another Aussie, but why was the exceptional Schwarzer allowed to leave in the first place? I missed reading about that move to Fulham on a free transfer. Were his wages too high?).

As for Arsenal, they didn't really look like they were in a metaphorically different league to Middlesbrough. Far from it. Surprisingly often, the much-heralded tyro, Theo Walcott, failed to spot a team-mate to his left, favouring a doomed route on the outside. Even Cesc Fabregas, famed for his flawless passing and twenty-twenty vision, did not dominate proceedings to the extent I had expected.

The only man who looked like he had abilities others could not even dream about, was Andrei Arshavin, deployed on the left wing. He really does live up to the description of a footballer who 'has it all' - a deft touch, a dazzling burst of speed, and a tough skin to deal with close markers trying to shake him off the ball. He would not be shaken, and always found a team mate with his final pass.

Last week, manager Arsene Wenger made much of the poor state of the grass surface at Wembley where Arsenal lost a FA Cup semi final to Chelsea. But his complaint masked a poor decision to leave Arshavin on the bench during the game. The suspicion remains that for some reason Wenger was unconcerned about winning that match. How else to explain why he left this player on the bench for that game, which Arsenal could have hoped to win, yet played him in this one, which they were very unlikely to lose? Mysterious are the ways of football managers.

Watch out for Arsenal next year - with Arshavin available for a whole season, they finally have a player with the kind of energy and skill that distinguished Lundbjerg and Pires in Arsenal's glory years. All they are missing now is a proper replacement for Vierra, somebody who could provide support and protection for Fabregas. Funnily enough, Tuncay wouldn't be a bad idea, after Middlesbrough make their long-predicted drop down to the second tier.