Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Stalemate has silver lining for Gunners
Richard Jolly, Reebok Stadium
The 1994-95 season ranks among the most eventful and least distinguished in Arsenal's history. The manager, George Graham, was sacked for taking bungs. The team slid to their lowest position since 1976. And, under the temporary guidance of Stewart Houston, they lost four consecutive league games.
The current campaign has included one historic low - the concession of eight goals at Old Trafford - but another was avoided. Had David Ngog converted a glorious chance or Mark Davies been awarded a late penalty, Arsene Wenger's troops would have emulated 'Coneman' and his charges. Yet had Arsenal taken any one of a multitude of openings, they would have departed the Reebok Stadium just three points off fourth place.
An absorbing stalemate served as microcosm of the debate about the modern-day Arsenal: in terminal decline or close to realising their ambitions for the season? Those whose glass is half empty tend to garner more attention nowadays. The view that this Arsenal team pale in comparison with their predecessors is often heard; indeed it is unarguable if the contrast is drawn with the Invincibles and their illustrious brethren. But not when forebears such as the sterile side of 1995 are considered.
That was the grimness of the pre-Wenger era, when boring, boring Arsenal's midfield options included Ian Selley, Steve Morrow, Eddie McGoldrick, John Jensen, David Hillier and Jimmy Carter. The current collective have passers aplenty behind Robin van Persie, a magnificent talent in majestic form. And, Wenger argued, successful sides have endured worse spells than his awkward January. "We had more difficult periods even when we won championships," he said. "Times when we had not won for six games, but it is part of football."
It is a game where sweeping conclusions can depend upon narrow margins. Van Persie was agonisingly close to a hat-trick; a header was cleared off the line by David Wheater, a volley from Bacary Sagna's cross clipped the post; and, most cruelly, a gorgeous chip struck the bar. A couple of inches lower and it would have taken him past another Dutch master, Dennis Bergkamp, in Arsenal's all-time goalscoring charts in the most fitting fashion imaginable. It was reminiscent, too, of another of North London's finest, Glenn Hoddle, who scored a sumptuous goal against Watford from an almost identical position.
Instead, Van Persie drew a rare blank. So did Arsenal, which supports the theory that they are a one-man team. Except that evidence is emerging that it is not the case. Van Persie was the common denominator as they enjoyed five chances in the first 20 minutes, when a rout seemed feasible. Yet he has a youthful accomplice and Bolton had a second tormentor. On only his second Premier League start, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed again.
Once more, he overshadowed Theo Walcott. He also supplied his fellow winger, the older man accelerating on to a delightfully perceptive pass but, as often happens, spurning the opportunity. It was Arsenal in minutiae: slick, quick, wonderful and wasteful. "We feel we have dropped two points because we had the chances to win the game," added Wenger. "We were a bit unlucky because we hit the bar, the post. We took all the risks and in the end we took the gamble to play with four strikers."
He began with two wingers. While Walcott is sometimes deemed one-dimensional and too dependent on his pace, Oxlade-Chamberlain is a multi-faceted player, darting infield from the flank and arriving at speed in the penalty area as well as setting up others. He was substituted, as he tends to be, but Wenger only dares replace Oxlade-Chamberlain with the revered Thierry Henry these days. Andrei Arshavin is now at the back of the queue for places on the left wing. In his absence, Arsenal provided qualities the Russian sometimes lacks.
"I cannot fault the effort and commitment and desire to win the game," Wenger added. "The positive side is we haven't lost." Nor did they concede. The clean sheet entailed some fortune. Ngog had two shots within four first-half minutes; the second, following Martin Petrov's inventive, brilliant backheel, should have brought a lead, rather than sliding the wrong side of the post. The Frenchman suits Bolton's system but his tally stands at two goals in 23 games.
Coyle has borrowed from Wenger in the shape of the Japanese winger Ryo Miyaichi, who was ineligible, but the closest thing to an Arsenal player in the Bolton ranks is Mark Davies. Just after Per Mertesacker tried to tug him back, he was brought down by Wojciech Szczesny. Referee Chris Foy gave neither decision, to Bolton's frustration.
Their manager can appear an incorrigible optimist. He emerged positive about both sides' prospects. "Who's to say that Arsenal can't win the FA Cup or the Champions League?" Coyle asked. "I certainly wouldn't. It only takes one big performance, one big result to kick-start that momentum." Arsenal must hope he is right. And even in the dark days of 1995, they did reach a European final. Clouds can have a silver lining.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie. Even without scoring, it was an evening that illustrated the creative gifts and attacking threat of the Arsenal captain. He was inches from claiming one of the goals of the season.
BOLTON VERDICT: They remain in a perilous position but are a much improved team. The last six weeks have involved ten games and only brought two defeats. The 4-4-1-1 formation suits them and is bringing the best out of the excellent Mark Davies. Importantly, too, the defence is coping after Gary Cahill's departure; only one goal has been conceded in home games against Liverpool and Arsenal. They have brought four points, too, showing that Bolton are faring better than they did in their daunting run of fixtures at the start of the season.
ARSENAL VERDICT: For the first time since Andre Santos faced Olympiakos eight weeks earlier, Wenger could field a senior, specialist full-back from the start. Sagna's return was a welcome development; if only Arsenal had a left-back available to allow Vermaelen to move back into the middle of defence. They sit in seventh place now, leaving Wenger to say: "Every game is a cup final now."