EPL 2007-2008: Middlesborough 2 – Arsenal 1

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
December 10th, 2007 • 9:57 am

The least that can be said is that it was not a good week-end for elegant, fluid football. The Gunners slumped to their first defeat of the season, Cristiano Ronaldo got rewarded for what he does best (but of course he will continue to deny that he ever does anything of the sort), and New Bolton (a.k.a. Newcastle) hacked their way to a totally undeserved victory with the “tactics” that have made Fat Sam notorious, but are also an embarrassing illustration of everything that is wrong with English football today (and, with England out of Euro 2008, it’s fair to say that there is a good deal that is very wrong indeed).

The penalty awarded to Middlesborough early in the game for a foul by Touré on—of all people—former (and failed) Gunner Aliadière was rather soft, but it was the only “soft” thing about this game. The rest was the predictable triumph of negative tactics that has now become associated with “teams from the North.”

This is not to say, of course, that the Gunners did not deserve to lose. They had an appallingly poor game, and lots of questions will be raised about the actual strength of the squad in adversity. They were still missing several key players, but that is no excuse. A team with championship ambitions is expected to be able to cope with the absence of some key players, especially when playing against a team that is near the bottom of the table and has only enjoyed two wins in the season so far.

There were no key players missing in the back, however, so the key question about this poor defensive display was whether it was down to the midfield or whether the back four really do have significant problems of their own. Let us hope that it was the former and that the return of Fábregas and Flamini will do a lot to improve the overall solidity of the team in defense.

Gilberto had another bad day at the office, and Diarra did not do much to convince anyone that he’s a viable alternative in central midfield. Rosicky looked pretty lightweight, and Éboué displayed some truly shocking behaviours once again, which make you wonder whether he has his place in this Arsenal team at all, regardless of his offensive qualities. (While he has contributed to the early success of the team this season, let us not forget that he still does not have a single goal to his name, whereas he probably should have already earned a couple of red cards, which he has somehow miraculously avoided.) It is one thing to respond to physical strength with physical strength. It is quite another to respond to it with the battling “skills” of a juvenile delinquent.

Eduardo was once again completely off-topic and we can only hope that what Arsène Wenger sees in him will eventually shine through in the same way that it has with Alexander Hleb, who also needed a lot of time to “adapt” to the English game. Right now, however, the occasional goal in the Carling Cup or the Champions’ League qualifying rounds is just not good enough.

And that’s about all that I can say about this game. We knew that a first defeat in the league would happen sooner rather than later—it was simply totally unreasonable to expect a repeat of the 2003–2004 season. The key questions is whether the Gunners can quickly bounce back and find renewed strength for the crucial holiday season and the beginning of the new year. With the next game being at home against Chelsea, while Manchester United travel to Liverpool, I guess we’ll soon find out.

Elsewhere in the league, there was a stupid twit somewhere up north who, when his team was already leading 3-0 and he and his boss had strongly denied, just a week earlier, that he would ever in any way engage in any kind of theatrics on the pitch, thought that it would be a good idea to take another spectacular dive in the penalty area just to improve his reputation as one of the “greatest players” in the world. Ahem.

And let’s not even describe the antics of Joey Barton & Co. in further detail. At least by hiring Sam Allardyce Newcastle knew what they were getting into. No excuses there. But if anyone really thinks that this is what is going to bring any silverware to Saint James’ Park, they are seriously deluded.

The only other good news of the week-end, from an Arsenal point of view, was that Liverpool also chose to slump to their first defeat of the season at the same time. They were marginally more unfortunate than the Gunners were (yet another highly questionable refereeing decision, although as far as I am concerned Jamie Carragher deserves a penalty call against him as soon as he sets foot on a pitch anyway), but on the other hand they were not really missing any of their key players, until Benitez took Gerrard off the pitch, that is.

But it’s their problem. Our problem is that, while we are still top of the table, it is now with the slenderest of leads, and with shattered confidence after a string of fairly poor results and really poor performances. The Gunners need to snap out of this really quickly if they want to have any hope of staying in the running for the 2008 trophies.

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