Having travelled to Newcastle in midweek, I couldn’t find any away-day meshuganas mad enough to accompany me on an early morning return to the North east on Sunday. I didn’t fancy the risk of driving the 500-odd miles on my tod, in my increasingly decrepit little Fiesta, nor was I going to gamble a further £92 on the single-only Sunday train connection getting me to Teesside in time for kick-off.
After spending only a couple of hours in the sack, tossing and turning in frustration at our abject failure to take advantage of our game in hand against the Toon, before having to get up for work on Thursday morning and then joining what seemed like half the population of this country, hanging on in there until 5am Sunday morning to cheer on Ricky Hatton, I had just about given up on making it up to Middlesbrough.
So I made the far-too sensible decision to take advantage of my recent Setanta subscription, set my alarm for 10 minutes before kick-off and stuffed my face, before curling up under the covers with the dog as a hot-water bottle.
As angry as I was with the Arsenal’s abject performance, come the final whistle there was at least some consolation in knowing that I didn’t have to get out of bed to endure it.
I’m not a sore loser, unlike an awfully immature Manny Eboué, whose tendency to throw his toys out of the pram is certain to end up costing us eventually and who urgently needs to learn to channel his temper towards the task at hand. I was gutted that we gifted Fat Sam a reprieve in midweek, but considering the way in which Boro ran their socks off, it was hard to begrudge Southgate’s side some reward for all that graft.
The truth of the matter is that our two trips to the North east have proved a nasty reality check. Unfortunately both might serve to demonstrate to Chelsea and our other upcoming opponents, that beyond all the hyperbole, this Arsenal side is largely made up of mere mortals. In the absence of the precocious midfield promptings that have inspired the rest of the team to raise their game, we begin to look strangely mediocre. My biggest fear now is that unless we bounce back immediately, all the confidence and the head of steam we have built up over the past few months could evaporate almost overnight.
As the once-calm air of authority who had the nous to mask much of our defensive fragility, poor old Gilberto suddenly looks a shadow of his former self, and while Diarra pulled his weight against the Toon, I didn’t like the fact that he seemed to go missing in action on Sunday. Although he was far from the only Arsenal player to go AWOL, as there were times when I forgot Eduardo was on the pitch and the impact of Bendtner, his replacement, was minimal.
Adebayor is an honest grafter and it’s hard to argue with his goalscoring record, but the odd stunning strike aside, for the most part he continues to struggle to find his touch. As he did against the Toon, Arsène left me utterly baffled when he brought on Bendtner, another big lad, to play alongside Ade, encouraging long balls, but with no one in the vicinity to win any knockdowns? Rosicky might have at least given the hardy travelling Gooner faithful something to celebrate but Tommy has been largely anonymous all season and he must bring more influence to bear than all-too rare strikes on target.
Believe me, the Toon and Boro aren’t the first teams to play a pressing game against us. But where in the past this tactic has presented us with the space to cut opponents to pieces on the counter, without an outlet on the flanks and in the crucial absence of Fabregas and Hleb, we began to look like frightened rabbits, caught in the glare of the opposition’s headlights.
It’s hard to imagine the returning Matty Flamini can lead an Arsenal revival all on his own. Most Gooners would’ve ridiculed such a preposterous suggestion prior to his surprisingly influential contribution this season. We can but hope they’re working overtime in the treatment room.