The Christmas period is usually a hectic time for football with games coming thick and fast and the tone being set for teams as they face New Year and the crucial second half of the season. The way the fixture list has fallen this year, the Festive programme has not felt so congested but the three matches that Arsenal have played were all vitally important.
The Sunday before Christmas, Liverpool came to Ashburton Grove. Matches between the so-called "Big Four" have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title and sometimes there is the tendency to try to avoid defeat rather than actually go for the win. Certainly, Liverpool lined up in a formation designed to do just that and the game failed to ignite until Robin Van Persie scored with a spectacular effort midway through the first half. The visitors' long-ball game caught out the Gunners shortly afterwards though as the ever-unpopular Robbie Keane latched onto a howitzer of a pass from his defence that was completely misjudged by both William Gallas and Johan Djourou. The Irishman race clear and fired his shot into the roof of the net giving Manuel Almunia no chance.
The remainder of the match was notably only for two incidents. Firstly, the loss of Cesc Fabregas at the end of the first-half with an injury to his medial ligament sustained when block-tackling Xavi Alonso. He is scheduled to be absent for four months - though, based on the record the Arsenal medical team have on getting players back quickly, it would be a surprise to see him before next August. His absence cannot be understated and Arsene Wenger must surely take steps to find a creative midfielder during the January transfer window.
The second pivotal moment in the game was the second yellow card, and subsequent red, for Emmanuel Adebayor. It was debatable as to whether the Togo striker had committed a foul let alone one that was bad enough to warrant a booking. It was a quite ridiculous decision from Howard Webb, a referee who rarely lets common sense and consistency get in the way of his own vanity and ego. Following Adebayor's dismissal, the remaining ten Arsenal players were magnificent, showing the sort of spirit and courage that has been so elusive this season. If only the team could summon that level of concentration and commitment every week it would be unlikely that they would be scrabbling around trying to secure fourth place and would actually be mounting a credible challenge for the title.
In contrast, the first half at Aston Villa was one of the most embarrassing defensive performances by any Arsenal team in the last thirty years. Had Villa gone in at the break five up, there could have been no complaints. The fact that the Gunners actually went in one-nil up thanks to Denilson converting their one and only chance of the half only goes to show what a ridiculous game football sometimes is. Still, having ridden their luck, Arsenal doubled their lead early in the second half with a dazzling break and some great interplay between two rather unlikely candidates - Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue. Diaby started and finished the move and it was a goal worthy of winning any match. Except, this Arsenal team seems to find it impossible to defend any sort of lead and with depressing predictability Villa clawed a goal back from the penalty spot and then snatched an equaliser in the depths of injury time.
Arsenal's defensive problems are not just attributable to a lack of height - which is an obvious flaw in the back four. There also appears to be a lack of know-how. Week after week, defensive mistakes are made that would make a pub team blush. It is clear that Wenger has needed to buy a decent centre-back all season but, really, some of the issues plaguing the defence need to be resolved on the training ground and more attention given to coaching some organisation into the back four.
The Boxing Day result suited Aston Villa more than it suited Arsenal and, after back to back draws, Portsmouth's visit to Ashburton Grove on Sunday suddenly became a must-win game. Sadly, the spirit that drove the Gunners on in the final half hour of the Liverpool match was not evident in any measure during this match. Wenger's men huffed and puffed with a distinct lack of urgency and total lack of guile in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. Despite that, two gilt-edged chances fell to Emmauel Adebayor, one in each half, but the profligate Togonese wasted both of them. Another player that needs to be on Arsene Wenger New Year's shopping list is a striker who does not need to miss five chances before scoring one goal.
As the game wore on frustration set in amongst the crowd and it was hard to see where a goal was going to come from. Cue David James having one of his mad moments. The England keeper came for a corner, got nowhere near it and was beaten to the ball by William Gallas who headed into the empty net. Probably only James himself could explain how the Frenchman managed to overcome the Englishman's height advantage but it was a Christmas gift that Ashburton Grove accepted with delight. For once, the team managed to see out the remainder of the match without any defensive mishaps and though the performance was less than satisfactory, the three points were clinched. The finale of what was a pretty dire afternoon was a warm and rapturous reception for Tony Adams as he left the pitch. It was a lovely moment and it was great to see T.A. taking some well-earned applause from the Arsenal faithful again. One can only imagine what he must think of the current lack of leadership, passion and courage amongst his old team this season.
Arsenal get a break from the Premier League this weekend as it is time for the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. It is often said that this is many people's favourite weekend of the season. Those people are probably not supporters from the clubs at the top of the Premier League who are on a bit of a hiding to nothing in this round. The Gunners entertain Plymouth Argyle at Ashburton Grove and will be expected to win, even if the Arsene Wenger does field a weakened team. All the fans will hope for is that Arsenal can get through the game with the minimum of fuss and without an upset.
Hopefully, the team will have learned a few lessons so far this term about taking perceived lesser opponents lightly and will approach this game with the necessary professionalism and attitude to see them through.
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