Wenger gets reply to 'predictable' jibe
IF ARSENAL are as predictable as Michael Ballack says, why don't we all make a fortune betting on them?
The German had a point, though - and one he was richly entitled to make after Chelsea had become the latest team mildly disparaged by Arsene Wenger in the wake of an Arsenal defeat.
Wenger seldom admits that Arsenal have been beaten by a better side on the day. There was a refreshing exception the Sunday before last when Manchester United went to the Emirates Stadium, conducted the sort of masterclass in high-speed passing that Wenger's men are accustomed to giving and were accorded due credit.
By and large, though, the Arsenal's manager appears less generous-spirited than his footballing principles would suggest and the temptation to Ballack must have been irresistible once he heard that Chelsea, utterly convincing victors at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, were supposed to have beaten a superior team. The Chelsea midfield player might nevertheless have picked a more wounding word.
There is nothing wrong with being predictable (you always know exactly what Barcelona are going to try to do, for example, and, if Jose Mourinho's Chelsea did not play to a pattern, he would want to know the reason why); the trouble with Arsenal at times recently is that they have lacked imagination.
At first, the ploy of replacing the injured Robin van Persie with Andrey Arshavin was effective, but letting opposing defences mark the space where a centre forward should be was never going to work for long. Theo Walcott, even when fit, is hardly a box of tricks and his lack of confidence appears to be shared by Tomas Rosicky, a more experienced injury victim.
All this, and a vulnerability to the counter-attack that Wayne Rooney magnificently exploited (as, in conjunction with Park Ji Sung and Cristiano Ronaldo, he had done on the same ground in the Champions League semi-final last season), has conspired in Arsenal's difficulties in coping with what might prove their toughest 15 days of the campaign.
Oddly enough, it is only a few months since Arsenal were being praised by George Graham, under whom the club won the championship in 1989 and 1991 for being more difficult to play against than in previous campaigns.
Graham can be a hard man to please defensively, but he thought the presence of Nicklas Bendtner helped to prevent opponents to break, as well as lending height.
Bendtner, too, has been injured, but last night he made his first start in more than three months, albeit at centre forward; he began the season playing to the right and just behind Van Persie. Nearly an hour's stalemate ensued and even William Gallas's thrilling last-ditch tackle on David Ngog could not inspire a half-decent finish by Rosicky, whose miskick restored a mood of resignation.
Yet a turning point had been reached. Arsenal were pouring forward with more conviction now and Bendtner was harshly booked for diving before they moved in front. There was an orthodox cross and an even more traditional towering header. Who would have bet on that from Arsenal? Who could call them predictable now?
There were nervous moments in defence when Liverpool tried to salvage something and Manuel Almunia, in touching Babel's fierce drive on to the crossbar, did much to atone for his limp-wristed own goal against United. But Rafael Benitez's team deserved nothing.
For Wenger, four out of 12 could have been better. But at the interval last night it looked as if it might be only two. And results should pick up now. Even a trip to take on Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium towards the end of the month must seem like blessed relief. (© The Times, London)