The disappointing lack of depth in the Emirates’ songbook has been lamented by the Big Man, but one song that does get sung out from time to time (although it is hardly a Gooners’ original’) is ‘Who’s that team they call the Arsenal?’ It’s a pretty good question, especially in recent weeks where Arsenal have beaten the best team in the World (ever?), drawn with League One Leyton Orient, lost a Cup Final to Birmingham City, won 5-0 and then (most recently) drawn 0-0 at home to Sunderland.
In fact, the last few years of Arsenal’s history could be summed up pretty nicely by a restyled refrain of the Rangers classic ‘There’s only two Andy Gorams!’
No other team has the same capacity to delight and frustrate – sometimes, as at St James’ Park last month, in the same game. Arsenal are one of only a few teams to have two typical performances, two identities if you will.
Saturday’s performance, though, didn’t really fit either.
Certainly, it wasn’t a glorious display of physical attacking vibrancy and goals, goals, goals!
But, without wanting to come across all ‘Ole Gunner’ (check out the comments at the bottom of Graham’s post last week) who is pretty much the Arsenal supporting equivalent of (notorious holocaust denying ‘historian’) David Irving, I don’t actually think Arsenal played too badly against Sunderland on Saturday. Nor do I think that a 0-0 draw is a particularly title-push-jeopardizing result (especially now Dirk Kuyt has leant a hand).
Often, when Arsenal draw 0-0 it is the result of a ludicrously insipid performance (usually caused by Tomas Rosicky’s lack of thrust from the thrusting role behind the strikers). Witness, to that effect, the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final or the original 5th round FA Cup tie away at Leyton Orient, or, indeed, the last 20 or so minutes of last weekend’s Carling Cup Final. On Saturday, Arshavin should have been awarded a penalty; he should have been awarded a goal. On top of that, Simon Mignolet made at least two excellent saves, from Bendtner in the first half and Nasri in the second, and Chamakh crashed a header off the bar. All in all, Arsenal should have won, and were pretty comfortably the best team throughout the game.
That is not to say that all is rosy red like Arshavin’s cheeky chops in the run up to ‘Barsenal’ on Tuesday night (although if any team is equipped to perform without their best striker, it is Arsenal).
Arsenal didn’t out-Barcelona Barcelona at The Emirates last month, and the stats bear that out. They beat them by playing, in the second half, like the absolutely best version of themselves. That was how, also, they beat Chelsea at The Emirates in December. Both of those games were won with snappy counter-attacks culminating in quality finishing.
It is a bit of a myth that Arsenal are Barcelona-lite, they don’t particularly try to be. Barcelona are defined by metronomic keep ball and the slow suffocation, by exhaustion, of their opponents. Arsenal don’t want the ball that much. Arsenal invite pressure in a way that Barcelona don’t; Wenger talks more about forcing mistakes than winning possession. The difference between their idealogues, Xavi and Fabregas, brings this out. Fabregas is a much more forward-looking player, a thruster who scores goals. Xavi is a much more reliable passer, who rarely plays a risky ball – thus rarely shoots.
While ‘I’d like to see him do it on a cold night in Stoke’ is a completely bollocks way of casting aspersions on the brilliance of Leo Messi, it is not founded on absolute nonsense either. It shows the difference between English and Spanish football, which means that Arsenal can be confused as Barcelona-esque (even when they aren’t). Arsenal are relatively possession craving, but they don’t have the insatiable appetite for the ball that defines the Catalans.
I wonder if Barcelona think of Arsenal as a sort of Stoke-lite? English football, and Arsenal are no exception to this, is more physical than Spanish. Arsenal’s players look fitter than Barcelona’s as a result. In each game at The Emirates over the last two seasons, Arsenal scored twice without reply in the last twenty minutes. I think Barcelona will win comfortably, but if there’s still only the odd goal in the tie when it ticks into 70+minutes, Arsenal will go through – heard it here first.