How the mighty have fallen.
No, I’m not talking about an Arsenal team grateful to hold off the pressure of an injury-hit team to win three points which will help them to finish fourth in the Premier League. Nor am I talking about Arsene Wenger, glibly talking about “tired legs” as a reason why a team that he hoped would emulate his 2004 ‘invincibles’ crawled to a victory against lower mid-table opposition.
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I’m not talking about Newcastle United either, once The Entertainers, now happy to score an unexpected goal and put a decent shift in against a team who had played well for only 45 minutes, yet enough to secure the win.
I’m talking about me, sitting in the Gallowgate at the end of the match as the crowd walked out around me, listening to The Bitterest Pill by The Jam on the SJP sound system with an emotional tumble-drier of satisfaction, disappointment and positivity swirling around my body. It must have been the tune.
The first 45 minutes on Saturday could have been worse, Arsenal could have been a few goals further ahead by half time. That they weren’t didn’t have a lot to do with NUFC, more a combination of Arsenal not being completely at it and a couple of good chances missed. Despite John Carver’s words post-match, Arsenal had “control” of the ball for the first 23 minutes so they had “control” of the game, their two goals in four minutes both completely expected and preventable.
The North London outfit scored from two set-pieces, their Premier League winning manager and coach organising their team better than our never-been-theres. Both set-pieces were created by our defensive naivety, then first Cabella and secondly Ryan Taylor in no man’s land as the crosses went over their heads for Gouffran and Williamson twice to be easily beaten as the goals went in.
The rest of the half played out by players in red who had been to the World Cup last summer, toying with those in black and white who had got no further than FIFA14. Half-time whistle. A few boos.
I find it generally very difficult to criticise players who are mostly giving everything in the shirt against opponents who are simply much, much better. I can’t shout abuse at players who cost very little and are worth not much more because they can’t deliver what I want when they are blatantly not up to that task.
I can criticise Vurnon Anita for not clearing Arsenal’s second goal off the line which he was there to do, but generally I can’t criticise his effort or his desire. It wasn’t his fault we bought him when we shouldn’t have, he didn’t pay the ridiculous £6million fee and I can’t blame him for his inability to stamp any authority on games when he is playing against proper players; the likes of Ramsay, Sanchez and Cazorla.
It doesn’t come down to size either, it just comes down to ability. Likewise Williamson. Could Williamson have done better for their second goal, easily held aside by a striker who made the space to nod a corner into the goal against only a token challenge? Well, yes he probably could have, but it isn’t Williamson’s fault that asking him to mark Olivier Giroud is as big a Premier League mismatch as is possible to find this season. One is a top class international goalscorer, one is a decent head and kick Championship centre-half.
Likewise Gouffran. I thought the Frenchman had a much improved game in a more defensive central midfield role on Saturday, his ability to run, chase, hassle and destroy are strengths more suited to midfield defence than his lack of threat, inability to create or score are suited to attack. Asking Gouffran to outplay a £16million defender is similar to asking Williamson to mark Giroud, the only difference when Gouffran plays in a forward role, it means someone who might score a goal isn’t playing there, because someone who won’t score a goal is.
John Carver can take the positive that we scored straight after half-time, something which the opposition did regularly under his predecessor. NUFC came out for the second-half motivated and full of conviction, which isn’t “all that we ask” but it is some of “what we ask”. The remainder of an even and entertaining game played out as both teams got tired and frantic. We nearly scored as Perez cut inside his man a few times to miss the target, sometimes by inches, sometimes by furlongs.
Sissoko flicked on a corner straight at the static Ospina, Gouffran toe-poked straight at the keeper as the referee ignored a fairly decent shout for handball and finally a deflected shot almost snuck in to bring the house down. It wasn’t all one way traffic though, Krul made a couple of fine saves to keep us in it at the Leazes End.
In general our good players; Sissoko, Cabella, Perez and Krul, were on top form when we were in the game in the second-half, all underperforming when the opposition were on top in the first. That something came from Cabella’s trickery in this game was a step forward from his often ineffective showboating, Krul alternatively playing his part in conceding a goal with a bad kick from another idiotic backpass.
The Dutch keeper looks like he needs to be reminded that he can be a top, top goalkeeper playing for a Champions League team but if he wants to play for us in mid-table for the next decade then he can continue to make the mistakes that are preventing us from league progress and him from international recognition. One mistake from Krul is worse than ten from Williamson and his like, because Krul should be able to compete with Arsenal.
John Carver said before the game that Krul:
“He’s been one of the big characters. He is certainly one who drives the team. He’s got an opinion too, which is great and he speaks up for himself.”
If he keeps giving goals away, he’s going to need to speak up for himself. To lose his place to Rob Elliot would be the ultimate insult.
Our players who are full of heart took the lead from our good players playing well and put a solid shift in, the likes of Raylor and Jonas helping to get the crowd going and carry the water to those who can turn it into wine. Janmaat was quality throughout; calm, strong, motivated and effective. Sammy the opposite of all that.
One player not yet mentioned is Jack Colback. He was playing left-back today. I always thought that in football you played as many players in their best position but I was aware before the game that we had an injury “crisis” and some players may be played out of position in order to get a competitive team on the pitch. I couldn’t think of anyone else who could play centre-half other than Janmaat, fair enough, some round pegs had to be put in square holes.
I could however think of a number of players who could play left-back, Raylor has played there before, Anita at right-back, Jonas left-back in a World Cup, even a kid at full-back was an option, players like Satka may not be ‘ready’ but presumably they can defend.
I thought that our first choice central midfielder would play in that position, a position he was selected to play in for England earlier this season, especially given that our second and third choice central midfielders were both injured. The Dutch say that midfield is where football matches are won. Ask Pep Guardiola where football matches are won and lost and he won’t say left-back.
Perhaps someone could ask John Carver why our most consistent box to box midfielder was moved back to defence for this game. Ask him when we needed a goal, why wasn’t our joint-third highest league goalscorer playing further up the pitch, instead of watching the likes of Jonas and Adam Armstrong try and get an equaliser, two players who haven’t scored this season. Colback did his best on Saturday. He’s no left-back. He’d have done a whole lot better in midfield.
The biggest positive was that the team seemed full of intent in the second-half, the biggest negative our lack of fizz for the first 45. Team tactics are one thing, but that sort of “see what we can get” attitude doesn’t make for easy watching. Tactically it may be that the teams who beat Arsenal usually do it on the counter attack, sitting deep and hitting fast and hard, like Monaco in the first leg of the CL. However, if you have no desire to hit fast and hard, all you do is defend deep, as Monaco did in the second leg of the CL, which they lost 0-2.
JC should know that containment alone will not beat teams as good as Arsenal and in the medium term will never satisfy those of us who pay money to watch football in a stadium. Those who pay to watch on TV do so for many different reasons, those in the stadium pay for the occasion, the atmosphere, to be part of something for the best part of two hours and once it is over then we want to revel or despair in it for the rest of the day. Containment is not part of that, entertainment is.
If JC wants the crowd and stadium “alive” then him and his players need to show they have the same desire as the supporters, to be part of something uplifting whatever the restrictions placed upon us.
It would have been great to get a result against Arsenal but I didn’t expect it and it wasn’t to be.
Even so, SJP can be like the second half against Arsenal all of the time, exciting, noisy, passionate and gripping. And that’s why I pay to go.