Arsenal blasted back against Bolton at the Grove last night to turn a two-goal deficit after 28 minutes into a 4-2 victory by the final whistle. It was a result that sent them back to the top of the table for the first time since August and is a huge psychological boost for both the players and supporters. Two months ago, they looked like title no-hopers but their current position at the summit ought to give everyone belief that they are still contenders - at least in terms of the results they are producing.
The qualification at the end of the last paragraph is necessary because whilst the result last night was what everyone was hoping for, there were aspects to the performance that were less than pleasing and ought to be a concern for the manager. Firstly, for the second home game running, the team took an age to get into their running. Against Everton, only when they had gone a goal behind did the players find some appetite for the match. Last night it was worse as they supinely let Bolton go into a two-goal lead - and it was hard to argue that the visitors did not deserve it. Secondly, some of the defending last night was atrocious. Even in the second half when Arsenal were leading, Bolton mounted a serious threat with virtually every attack as the Gunners failed to cut off lines of service in midfield and struggled to mop up the consequences of that in the penalty area. On another day, against a team who were capable of smarter finishing, the result could have been very different.
On a more positive note, once the home team did wake up after the Bolton’s second, they really looked like they meant business and put the visitors on the back-foot for the remainder of the first half. Tomas Rosicky’s goal was crucial. Had it remained 0-2 at the break, it is questionable as to whether Wenger’s team could have found the resources to come back. The Czech’s goal was more than a lifeline - it turned the tide of the match - and it was the sort of moment that Arsenal supporters want Rosicky to produce far more often than he does.
Seven minutes into the second half Cesc Fabregas levelled the scores with a tremendous finish from a tight angle. There was some controversy in the build-up as William Gallas went in hard on a 50/50 challenge with Mark Davies. Bolton waited for a freekick that didn’t come and then couldn’t understand why Arsenal didn’t stop playing. Why should they have done? In real time, it didn’t look anything more than a full-blooded challenge by both players and there wasn’t head injury involved so there was no reason to stop play. Later in the match, Bolton seemed happy to play on when one of their own went down injured, so why should they expect Arsenal to stop for them?
In his post-match interview, Owen Coyle expressed his disgust at Gallas’s challenge and Arsenal’s perceived lack of Corinthian spirit in not halting play. How hilariously hypocritical. Bolton are a team who have ensured their Premier League survival for many years now by kicking opponents out of matches, deploying tactics of intimidation and stretching the letter of the game’s laws to the absolute maximum. Nobody from Bolton Wanderers has the moral authority or credibility to hand out lectures on foul play and bad sportsmanship to other teams.
Whilst no one would wish a bad injury on a player, it is a measure of Bolton’s reputation as spoilers, cloggers and cheats that Mark Davies was jeered by some sections of the Arsenal crowd as he was carried off as many believed that even this was a wolf-crying, time-wasting ploy. The Wanderers only have themselves to blame for that reaction and the total lack of sympathy towards them after the way they have played the game for many years now. (NB. It also should be pointed out that supporters around the tunnel area showed due respect and applauded Davies as he was carried away and it is good news that today it was confirmed that he was not seriously injured.)
Some newspapers have suggested that Gallas’s challenge marred an otherwise glorious night. It didn’t. And what’s more it is probably high time this Arsenal team showed its teeth and fought fire with fire a bit more regularly. During the early years of Arsene Wenger’s reign the club were often criticised for their petulance and the number of reds cards they accrued. Frankly, I would rather have those headlines back than have opposing teams believe that the Gunners are a flyweight team with a soft under-belly.
Having drawn level, it ought to have turned into one-way traffic for the rest of the match but the visitors continued to look dangerous as the game swung from one end to the other. In the final analysis, Arsenal made the most of their pressure and Bolton didn’t capitalise on theirs. Thomas Vermaelen smashed home Arsenal’s third and Andrey Arshavin made sure of the points and the required winning margin to take the Gunners back to the top of the table in the closing stages.
So, whilst it is fantastic that the team have hauled themselves to the top of the table on the back of such a good run, if they are to stay there, they need to tighten up considerably in defence. Still, whilst they keep churning out positive results it is hard to complain, particularly when they are top of the league. The table doesn’t lie. But the only table that matters is the one that is published at 5pm on Sunday 9th May.