Monday, January 14, 2013

ARSENAL: ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH


2011 - May 14th. Manchester City win the FA Cup at Wembley against Stoke. It is the first trophy since 1976, a period of 35 years
2012 - May 13th. Manchester City lift the Premier League trophy for the first time ever and are champions of the top flight of English football for the first time since 1968, a period of 44 years.
2013 - January 13th. Manchester City win a league game at Arsenal for the first time since the autumn of 1975, a period of 38 years.
2013 - January 13th - Manchester City players are encouraged to visit the away end and applaud long-suffering fans who have "paid 62 quid over there" by the linesman.

Truly, we live in strange times and I leave it very much to you to decide which of the above is the weirdest, but my money is on the removal of the banner that you see below by the Emirates Thought Police before Sunday's match. Surely, Arsenal cannot be so ashamed of their ticketing policy that they demand the police remove any public mention of it? And obviously, in a democracy, the police would never dream of removing a banner containing neither abuse, nor defamation, unless they felt it disturbing for the public to read the contents? But they were right, whoever they were, to take it away. It does make disturbing reading. Meantime, the authors have found far greater publicity for their message because of the club's actions. Another ball in the back of the Arsenal net then. 

This banner was removed by the police at The Emirates Stadium.

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Some would say an entrance fee of £100, instead of the much talked about £62 that the away fans were charged on this occasion, might still have been a bargain in the circumstances. If we knew what was coming, it would make things so much easier, wouldn't it?

With the pre-match furore over Arsenal's choice of ticket prices, you just knew this would be the occasion - with damn near everyone missing for one reason or another - that City would finally put their biggest bogey fixture to bed. Tucked up, lights out and away you go. May Arsenal away never present such a problem again.

After all, we have long since bounced around the Anfield Road and at White Hart Lane and even Old Trafford a couple of times, so it really was more than time to bury the Great Arsenal Jinx. And bury it we did. In truth, with a little more composure in front of goal from Tevez and Dzeko, with a little more luck, this game would have been well beyond Arsenal by the time Kompany received his marching orders with a quarter of an hour to go.

What a treat was served up for us all. As the records keep tumbling, some of us have to keep pinching ourselves. A trophy drought so long it would have made the Gobi Desert look like a mangrove swamp has been followed by something of a flood. We seem to have unwittingly entered the Land of Milk and Honey in a canoe. A win at Arsenal, which has eluded City sides for so long most there yesterday will not remember it, confirms almost as much as the three shiny pots City have gathered in the last three years: this club has arrived on the big stage. How long City stay there is open to conjecture, with the unusual and complex brotherhood of the hard done to gathering their support behind the scenes ready to put up the barricades and syphon off the proceeds for the good of the game.

For the record, Asa Hartford, Joe Royle and Rodney Marsh were the scorers on Saturday 4th October 1975 at Highbury. Only 24,928 watched as Arsenal pulled back to 3-2 through Alan Ball and Alex Cropley. One wonders how many of those present made it to the match on Sunday. City fans have seen so many goals go in at the "wrong" end since then that it is a wonder there are still 2,000 of us prepared to put themselves through the mangle each season. Hope springs eternal, however. We forgive and forget. The pastings, the humiliations, the screamers from Henry and Bergkamp, the tricks and flicks of Wiltord and Pires, the punishment of watching Paul Dickov bounce continually off Steve Bould and Tony Adams, it all sinks gently into the dark recesses of the mind to gather dust. All accept Alan Kernaghan. I just cannot seem to get rid of that.

Steve Bould was the much heralded addition to the Arsenal coaching staff in the summer and, initially, everyone was ever so pleased with the effect of his defensive teachings. "This will make the  difference" everyone chirruped. "This is what Arsenal have been missing," they shouted, before falling quiet again, as The Gunners resumed their relationship with the unnecessary concession of avoidable goals, a habit continued in this game. For the first, the defence went to sleep as a quick free kick was taken; for the second Zabaleta made yet another less-than-50:50-ball his and the regained possession led to goal number two.

Indeed, even before the breakthrough, Arsenal were playing with fire at the back: Laurent Koscielny's affectionate tackle on Edin Dzeko after 10 minutes of the contest had a little of the "they shall not pass" of the Arsenal of old. Koscielny is a native of Tulle in Limousin (pronounced "Tool"), a region of France famous for its love of rugby and for its funny-shaped cows, which speaks volumes for his slightly agricultural style. Tulle's local fly half could not have done a better job on this occasion. The town also started an ambitious policy for sport in the region, we are told, allowing it to be voted Most Sporting Region in France in 2008. Whether Koscielny's unsporting attempts at putting an early dent in City's attacking at the Emirates will spoil their chances of success in the 2013 contest is not recorded and, to be perfectly honest, who cares?

The red card, awarded correctly by Mike Dean, who also managed to deliver one less clearly deserved to Vincent Kompany for a clean but robust tackle on Jack Wilshire, certainly tipped the balance towards City very early in the game. Mercifully, Kompany's card came late and had little effect, other than to make City shut up shop at two-nil. What transpired in between these two cards was a festival of swashbuckling tackles, clever possession and intelligent use of the ball by City. Gradually Arsenal's reserves of energy were frittered away by the constant switching of play from one side of the pitch to another. For this, Milner, Barry, Zabaleta, Clichy and Garcia must be congratulated. The ball pinged from player to player, with red shirts covering extra yards to try to recover it.

The fulcrum for all of this possession was once again the 'Little Magician' David Silva, who had an absolute field day in the acres of space left by Arsenal's ten men. Add to that the slightly puzzling presence of the lumbering Diaby, who never got near to providing a block on City's forward movement, and you had a stage set for the little Prince of Passes.

One lost count of the times a move of 15 or 20 passes looked like coming to an end, only for the ball to be funnelled through to the diminutive Spaniard and for another outlet to be located almost immediately. Where others see a forest of trees, the little man sees wide open pastures. He can thread it, ping it, slide it or dink it. He can punt it, caress it, slip it or drag it. He can reverse it, tuck it, flick it or strike it. In fact the only thing David Silva cannot do with a ball - and we must try not to hold this against him - is make it disappear altogether, although Wilshire and Ramsey might want to argue even that point.

Indeed arguing was what Arsenal seemed to do best on this occasion. There can be little doubt that the early decisions got their goat, but seldom can a Wenger side have badgered the referee so thoroughly and so frequently as today. Kompany's "red card tackle", a clean attack on the ball, arriving well before Wilshire, and playing the ball not the man, might not have been punished with a sending off had the Arsenal players not reacted as if their team mate had been rugby tackled, for instance. Giroud, Wilshire and Vermaelen in particular spent most of the afternoon wearing expressions which suggested painful constipation. Perhaps the players out there on the pitch were aware that they would go down in history as the first Arsenal team to concede on home territory to Manchester City for 38 years. Funny as it may have seemed 10, 15 or 25 years ago, that in itself is no longer anything to be greatly embarrassed about.

 A shorter version of this article featured on ESPN's City pages

 Other ESPN links:
- Mangan: Gunners lose it in the first half
- Brewin: Arsenal masters of their own downfall
- Man City to appeal Kompany red card


Michael Cox breaks down the tactics in The Guardian 

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