Stone Cold Friday: The Ghosts Of Seasons Past
He put the Rama into Lama, the Ding into Dong, the shoo into bop and a whole host of other things that may yet see his rap sheet grow. Here’s Darius…
It will be just over 25 months to the day since Arsenal’s last trip to St. Andrews ended with a horror show. So many things went wrong on that day, not least the assault on Eduardo.
Wenger surmises that the events of that fateful visit to Birmingham weren’t exclusively responsible for the capitulation of the title challenge in 2008. I don’t entirely agree with the manager’s assertion about why things went pear shaped, as the performances following that game spoke for themselves.
Two years on and what can we learn from what this team has been through?
My sense is that firstly, we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact of the team going to St. Andrews. Tomorrow is perhaps a more difficult game than it needs to be because Arsenal still need to exorcise the demons from that day.
The Signs so far this season have been good, and the case in point is the response at the Britannia stadium on Feb 27th this year. Despite another assault on an Arsenal player, the team rallied themselves and showed great strength of character to complete the job that they went to do.
Eduardo did come on as a substitute after Ramsey’s injury in that game against Stoke, but it was obvious that the events 2 years ago were still on his mind. The Crozilian opted to play safe and not commit fully to a shot on goal because of an impending tackle, and no one can blame him for that.
Birmingham City is a different proposition this time round. McLeish has had the time to build a squad that has exceeded expectations this season. What hasn’t changed is the crass mentality of the Birmingham collective, if the reverse fixture is anything to go by.
For this reason, Arsenal is facing at least 3 hurdles.
Firstly, a resilient Birmingham team that has fought hard to have a formidable home record this season. Only Bolton has come away from St. Andrews with 3 points and that was back in September last year.
Secondly, you have a team that relishes the opportunity to unleash an uncouth and insalubrious brand of football to counter Wengerball that they can’t cope with. They’ll of course call it good old fashioned grit and steel that illustrates their grafting capability.
Lastly, the timing of this match is critical as it comes during the business end of a season which Arsenal has as good a chance as any to come out top. In what I call the cup final series, this game has taken more significance than it would normally have.
What’s becoming obvious is that Wenger’s signing of former Arsenal vice-captain and defensive stalwart Sol Campbell is a stroke of genius. Eyebrows were raised at the thought of Wenger even contemplating such a move, but it’s turning out to be a master stroke.
In my view, the key to tomorrow’s game and the rest of the cup final series is the veteran defender. He was built for games like Birmingham, and to cope with the attitudes they bring on the pitch.
Campbell’s legs may have gone, but he starts his first mile upstairs and his intelligent reading of the game is first class. Moreover, he has shown how adept he is at organizing the defence and getting other players around him to do the running for him.
This will be the key to holding Birmingham at bay, and being patient in our play. The team has shown time and time again that they have become efficient at wearing down teams that park the bus before licking them to submission in the last 15 minutes of games.
This defensive stability, patience and calmness with the ball will be critical during such difficult games. We have previously given away poor goals this season, and we have little or no room for errors at this point in time.
Our collective defensive challenges have been used as a stick to beat the team with time and time again, despite the clear evidence that the team is doing much better and is currently the in-form team in the league.
A few weeks ago, I made an attempt to compare the defensive philosophies of this current team and of the Arsenal double winning teams of yester-year that had the likes of Dixon, Keown, Adams and Winterburn.
Flint, one of my ardent readers, quickly sought to put the record straight by blowing to pieces the myth that Wenger’s latter day defences haven’t performed as well as previous Arsenal defences that were seen as fortresses. It was a classic example of misguided truths and inconvenient lies that unchecked, easily become facts and urban myths.
Flint pointed out that under Graham; Arsenal conceded 0.898 goals per game with a goal difference average of 24 goals per season. Under Wenger, Arsenal has conceded an average of 0.885 goals per game with a goal difference average of 37.3 per season.
Wenger has evolved the team to one with an attacking mindset, but at this point in the season, discipline has more currency than beauty. The team has worked too hard and been through too much adversity for them to throw in the towel.
Tomorrow’s game at St. Andrews presents another opportunity to cement the belief and resolve that has developed over time. Man for man, we have a squad that is technically more superior to Birmingham, and tomorrow’s battle is all in the mind.
Birmingham are reeling from their indifferent form in the last few games, and following their defeat to Blackburn a few days ago, McLeish has publicly vowed to stop Arsenal leaving Birmingham with the points.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider McLeish’s comments as code for ”you know what to do about Arsenal boys”, and in my view, that makes them a very dangerous proposition.
We just have to scare the living daylights out of them to make sure they’re not in doubt about Arsenal’s resolve to win the title this season.