May 252009

Arsenal 4 (Beattie og 10, Van Persie pen 16, 41, Diaby 18) Stoke 1 (Fuller pen 31)

One of the hallmarks of the Invincibles side was the ability to end games in the first half. In the great unbeaten season, I’d estimate 8-9 games that were over by the 25 minute mark, such was the explosive nature with which we began games. I even distinctly remember turning on Sky Sports News at 3.05pm to see us already two up on Charlton.

Times have changed – the Premiership is a cagier league than it was only five years ago, with half the division setting out to spoil rather than attack whenever they play the big teams. But also, we don’t start with the pace and urgency that we used to, preferring to tire the opposition out playing making them chase the ball, before hitting late sucker punches.

And in fairness, it is a tactic that often works – we’ve scored countless late goals in the last two seasons, but not only does it exhaust the opposition, it is harder work for us.

In 2009, we had played fifteen leagues games before Saturday, and scored the grand total of eight goals in the first half. Three of those were against West Brom. Contrast that with 23 second half goals scored in the same period.

It may seem like a statistical anomaly, but it isn’t – this has been going on for some time. The knock on effect is that the players have to be mentally tuned for longer, opposition fly into tackles for longer instead of giving up a lost cause when 3-0 down early, and our players have to fight until much later in the game. Is it any wonder we’re picking up so many more injuries?

Saturday was an example of what can happen when the opposition fail to defend as manfully as the lower half of the Premiership usually do. In a way, it was a throwback to how the league used to be, and having received a first half pasting, you can understand why sides like Stoke normally have such a cautious approach.

So, given that we know our opposition won’t even be trying to score in the first twenty minutes, why can’t we start games at a higher tempo? Occasionally, flying forward may mean we concede the first goal, but I’ll take that if we’re a couple of goals up at half time in six other matches.

Because when we do get the first goal early, the rest of the game can become a breeze. Sure, this was the last day of the season, so isn’t the best example, as Stoke had nothing to play for, but we’ve seen it before – score early and the opposition have to change their tactic of defending physically, and come and play football. When they are forced into that, we can really make them pay.

Stoke were hammered on Saturday, but it could have been a humilation. Beattie sliced home to give us an early advantage, which was doubled when Van Persie dusted himself off to convert a penalty he had himself won. The Dutchman then delivered a beautiful free kick that Diaby glanced home. Fuller reply from the spot was a blip, before Van Persie intercepted Delap’s dreadful back header to chest and volley home in style.

Aside from the goals, Van Persie smacked the bar with a free kick, Toure hit a post, while Diaby and Walcott missed great chances. Overall, it was a nice way to end a disappointing campaign.

After the game came the lap of honour, with Adebayor sporting what seemed to be an exaggerated limp – I’ve had groin injuries before, and after a couple of weeks it is generally tight and stops you from playing, but it doesn’t cause that much of a problem when walking. I’d hazard a guess that he was backing up the official reason for his dropping, and in reality I’d be surprised to see him at Arsenal come the autumn. A real shame, that.

Wenger himself was treated to an afternoon of fan support, fully deserved after the flak he has received recently. Don’t get me wrong, he has made mistakes this season and is not above criticism, but a little perspective is needed from some – I can’t name another manager who would have taken this group of players, at this age, to fourth. What he does now is, of course, paramount, but the noises that have come out recently suggest that he recognises the weaknesses and is prepared to sort them out.

So that is it for another season. We’ll be back in action for Champions League qualifiers in August, until then we’ve just got a lot of transfer speculation to get through. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a positive summer.

Enjoy the rest of your bank holiday.

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