In the midst of an international break, what better time for a football fan to stop awhile and take an unhappy look at the season already gone? For me, back at an Arsenal team too often missing its best players and looking for all the world like its destined not to finish first…
Here, via the weekly wonders of the Fox Soccer Channel, my picks for the main reasons why, in descending order of culpability:
# 5 : Laurent Koscielny
In Arsenal’s only game against Barcelona this season (can’t wait for the return leg), Koscielny played what can safely be described as a reassuring role. He kept a cool head, intercepted passes otherwise bound for Messi, and generally managed to do what he’s paid for, being in the right portion of the pitch at the right time. He wasn’t exactly commanding like a Tony Adams, or brutal in the tackle like a Martin Keown, but he kept a better team at a bay with a minimum of fuss (something Manchester United fans can admire most weeks in the play of Nemanja Vidic).
It’s just that, well, Koscielny doesn’t do any of this enough. Instead, on any given day, you sense he tends to be about as good as the guy standing next to him – which is fine when it’s Djourou; much less so, Squillaci. And just when you want to cut Koscielny some slack, you remember how Wenger uncharacteristically spent a big chunk of change on him and that, mostly because of dubious defending, it’s a pretty long time since we last won anything worth winning.
# 4 : Nicklas Bendtner
Let’s just be very clear about this: watching a preening tit mince about a football pitch is pretty bloody annoying even when the player in question is as overtly accomplished as Cristiano Ronaldo; when it’s Nicklas Bendtner it’s scarcely a lick of paint away from unendurable. Which, as it happens, is never the amount a snatched Bendtner shot on goal misses by (unless you’re referring to the unfortunate corner flag, of course).
Bendtner may well end up being a decent enough player one day – yet nor can you shake the feeling that even now Thierry Henry is probably a better player than Arsenal’s self-infatuated Dane will ever be. In any case, the way Bendtner roams all over the pitch whenever Arsenal have the ball surely doesn’t fool anyone: we know his first job is to score, and we know that’s something he doesn’t do much. (Even worse, when he occasionally does, he crows about it, never mind that – for the sake of a recent example – the opposition is a resolute Leyton Orient and his wayward shot was wickedly deflected).
# 3 : Sebastien Squillaci
The first preeminent aspect of Sebastien Squillaci, the footballer, marks him all too clearly as the quintessential 2011 Arsenal center back: he belongs to the ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ school of defending.
Unfortunately, however, the second preeminent aspect of Sebastien Squillaci, the footballer, marks him all too clearly as an aberration, every inch a 2011 Arsenal anomaly: he ISN’T young.
Squillaci is 30. You can’t project for him a brighter future. He’s not the right side of a learning curve, and he’s not going to be a player about whom anything is built. He’s just not very good. When you want him, desperately, to hoof the ball away into the mythical sanctuary of Row Z – Arsenal one-nil up and with stoppage time approaching – his uncertain boot is every bit as likely to miss it completely.
# 2 : Denilson
Observation in questionable taste notwithstanding, Denilson has been playing his football recently as though an old soldier slopping about in trenches. On recent evidence, flying the Arsenal colours is not an enterprise he enjoys. Sure, he patrols the middle third of the pitch with the kind of industry you’d minimally expect from one so young, but, these days, there’s never the slightest trace of dash or daring in his play. His confidence is shot to pieces, and strafed by his own inability to turn things around he’s gradually become that rarest of things, a Brazilian footballer incapable of strutting. He needs a change of scenery and, my goodness, someone ought to tell him he’s only 23.
Whenever the ball comes Denilson’s way – as, in any Arsenal midfield, it regularly does – he gives every impression of not really wanting it, something that would be problematic in any team, but which is even more jarring under Arsene Wenger’s puritanical charge. He scuttles it sideways or incrementally forward – and the attack in progress wheezes sadly to a halt as if an old-age-pensioner finally reaching the bus stop. Even worse, Denilson, more often than any other player, taps the ball backwards. In the always-disastrous direction of the dread Arsenal defence…
Which gets us to our weakest of weak links, rushing forward to greet us, but setting off ruinously late:
# 1 : Manuel Almunia
You want to, you really want to. And heaps of empirical evidence suggest frankly that you should. But whenever that final whistle blows, you can’t keep mustering any ill will toward Manuel Almunia. Somehow, like our referee’s final exhalation, it floats away instead on the breeze of tomorrow. No, the sad, simple truth about Almunia is that he’s a pretty poor goalkeeper, always was, and always will be. To realize this and to hold the thing against him wouldn’t just be pointless, but cruel.
His trademark lapses – furious forays off the line yet nowhere near the ball – are, more-or-less, what we would do too, were we ever to ever find ourselves in the same unfortunate predicament: trapped within a goal we’ve no substantial talent to defend, and gazed at by millions of disbelieving eyes. Aargh! I’m roughly here, the balls roughly there – if I just charge at the fucking thing, can I hurry it to my hands?… Well, mostly, no. It’s best to let it hit you – and, fair play to Manuel, that’s something he’s actually not too bad at.
Either way, the Arsenal team is demonstrably weaker with Almunia in it. He seems like a nice enough chap, but as Sir Alex Ferguson knows and Arsene Wenger really ought to, when it comes to winning trophies it’s better to be good. Much better.
…And The One Reason Why They Just Might Anyway
The most exciting thing to happen to English football since Wayne Rooney eight years ago – and destined to be many times more likeable, more influential, and just plain better. (And yet more proof, at last, it’s better to be optimistic after all.)