Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gunners shoulder the weight of history to record 1-0 win over Everton

I'm a bit too young to remember the Arsenal centenary, but I'm fairly sure it was a more low-key affair than the various celebrations and events that have marked the 125th year – the climax of which came with today's game. Back in '86, I suspect the club stretched to a 100 years video (yep, one on ebay if you want it) and a few ribbons, before getting on with the football – which was actually pretty good, as December 1986 saw wins over QPR, Luton and Southampton, and 1-1 draws with Norwich and Leicester. Appropriately, Everton won the league that season, while we finished fourth.

These days, things are very different in so many ways, which I suppose simply reflects the state of modern football. That's not to say that certain aspects of the celebrations haven't been both genuine and merited; but others, it has to be said, are little more than marketing fluff. I like the new player banners inside the ground, I don't mind a bit of decoration to the crest (hence the site background, although to be honest I would still prefer a return to the classic cannon design), and if we must have an anniversary kit then so be it, as we'd inevitably have a new home shirt anyway, but whether we really needed three giant statues or guff like the 'Nike 125 project', I'm not so sure.

Not that I don't support the idea of permanent memorials to legends like Adams, Henry and Chapman. I just wish they were a bit more tasteful. Like the marble bust of the latter that used to sit proudly on display in Highbury's marble halls, which was understated, with a quiet dignity. The bronze statues, on the other hand, are a bit of an eyesore. Also, they're not very well sculpted. Admittedly it is hard to get statues right, especially football statues (the first Ted Bates one at Southampton springs to mind ), and I wasn't expecting Michelangelo's David – besides, big Tony with nothing on but an Arsenal fig leaf doesn't bear thinking about – but a vague resemblance is surely not too much to ask for. As it is, Herbert Chapman seems to have a very small face and a tiny chin for such a big man, while Tony Adams doesn't just not look like Tony Adams, he doesn't really look like a human being at all, and Thierry Henry, while the best effort of the three, looks faintly demonic. Moreover, and again I'm all for celebrating the club's fine heritage, but how much did these things cost? I don't know what the market value of bronze is at the moment – I'll have to get my broker to check for me – but I wouldn't imagine that 600 kilos of the stuff came cheap. Still, I suppose I shouldn't moan too much. After all, it could have been worse – just look at the monstrosity that Fulham have got.

The best aspect of the day was the fact that plenty of Arsenal legends were in attendance. I noted Bob Wilson, the ever-present Charlie George (does Charlie live at Emirates these days?), Lee Dixon, Wrighty, Ray Parlour, Bobby Pires, Thierry of course, Frank McLintock, Anders Limpar, Paul Davis, Lauren and Jens Lehmann. The most conspicuous absentee was Mr Arsenal himself, Tony Adams, who apparently couldn't make it as he had a prior engagement in Bucharest. Seems very odd – like some sort of Cold War era spy drama – but then Tony's whole managerial career to date has been a bit strange anyway.

The match itself, inevitably, didn't quite live up to the fanfare that surrounded it, although it was by no means a bad game or a bad performance. Arsenal were handicapped by a frankly unbelievable full-back injury crisis, as the curse that had already accounted for Sagna, Gibbs and Jenkinson struck down Santos this week, and in the absence of any other options Wenger was thus forced to play a string of centre-backs; (from left to right) Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Djourou. Most Gooners can probably work out, on current form, which was the weak link in that foursome, and so it proved. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had evidently been given a brief by David Moyes to put our Djourou under pressure, which he did to great effect – playing the role of the archetypal tricky Russian with aplomb (looking every inch the sort of player, in fact, that a certain Andrey Arshavin used to be).

The rest of the Everton attack was somewhat disjointed, however, and as such it was a stubborn first-half performance from the Toffees, who are finding goals hard to come by at the moment. A defensive approach was perhaps to be expected, but the Gunners nevertheless worked hard to break down a disciplined back four – further consolidated in the second half by Sylvain Distin – and backed up the ever-dependable Tim Howard. Arsenal showed some skilful football, with plenty of deft touches and fancy footwork to penetrate the Everton penalty box, playing a now-trademark style that would have, by all accounts, been unknown to the original Arsenal (or 'Dial Square', as they were back then) of 125 years ago, grubbing about in old Nottingham Forest shirts on Plumstead Common. Ye Olde Gunners soon gained themselves a reputation as a pretty uncompromising side, it seems; indeed, many football histories tend to portray them as having been the Wimbledon of their day.

Today's Gunners play a very different brand of football, although many feel that a bit more hustle and directness now and again would be no bad thing even in this enlightened modern age. To be fair, both of those traits are more in evidence these days, mostly down to the influence of two new signings, Arteta and Gervinho. Both played well today, Gino should really have scored and Arteta – playing against his old club for the first time since his deadline day transfer – again demonstrated his worth, with plenty of snappy tackling and bite in midfield.

The Gunners didn't manage to unlock the Everton defence until the 70th minute, just when Arsene was preparing to throw on some late (too late?) changes, as is his wont. The wait was worth it though, as Alex Song played a ball over the top which was exquisitely finished with a first-time strike from Robin van Persie. Even the watching Thierry stood up to applaud, despite the fact that his 34-goals-in-a-year record now looks to be there for the taking.

A late scare from substitute Conor McAleny was Everton's best chance of the game and nearly spoiled the party but fortunately his effort fizzed past Szczesny's left-hand post.

So in the end the Arsenal were able to secure another three points through a 1-0 win that would have been more in keeping with an Arsenal of a different era. But that is now seven wins from our last eight Premier League matches, and 22 points from a possible 24, which is a tremendous turnaround that, however briefly, sees Arsenal climb to fourth in the table. Conversely, Newcastle are slipping down the table – unlucky against Chelsea but well beaten by a spirited Norwich today – and the Spuds have a tough away game at the Britannia tomorrow. Then the Chelsea-City showdown on Monday night guarantees that at least one of those two teams will drop points, so the top of the table may still look look fairly promising from a red-and-white perspective as we head towards Christmas. Onward and upward then. Or should that be 'forward'?

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