12 February 2006

Arsenal 1-1 Bolton

Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!' And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.
J. R. R. Tolkein, The Return Of The King
I think everyone knew this would be a difficult fixture for Arsenal. Bolton have done a number on the Gunners of late, and our duct-taped back line wasn't one to inspire confidence. So I think all Arsenal fans greeted the first 10 minutes with a combined feeling of panic and gloom, as Bolton quickly put the Arsenal goal under all sorts of pressure. That pressure finally told at 12' as Kevin Nolan hit a high-quality chip that found the back of the net. The panic and gloom increased, and the match had 0-2 to Bolton written all over it. The players looked panicked too, scrambling frantically to get the ball forward but with little organization or effect.

Then came the Reyes injury. Abdoulaye Faye's two-footed, studs-out challenge was well over the ball; how he gets away with a yellow in that situation I can't understand. Early in the season, we saw plenty of red for challenges with much less 'intent'; this was clearly a very dangerous tackle and easily called for a sending-off. In any case, you know there's a problem when they're splinting the player's leg, and at 32' Robert Pires was brought in for the injured Spaniard.

At that point, the red mist descended over my vision; I wanted to see the Gunners kocking Bolton around. It was time to stand up and fight back. And I think they players reacted the same way. Jens Lehmann got tangled up -- I think with Nolan, can't remember -- which ended in a shoving match. Tackles came flying in from all the Arsenal players, and while they were no more threatening, at the least they looked fired up.

The second half saw the attack return for the Arsenal. Much of that may be due to the replacement of Vassiliky Diaby with Freddie Ljungberg. Diaby was energetic and involved, but his lack of experience (both with Arsenal and overall) meant that he tended to look somewhat random. Whatever the cause, Arsenal spent most of the second half laying seige to the North Bank goal. Only a determined defense, led by the on-form Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal, kept Arsenal at bay.

For all Arsenal's attack, the end of regular time approached without any reward. Bolton tried every trick in the book to run out the clock; it was to the referee's credit that he tracked the tactic and added on extra time to account for it. And that time paid, as Gilberto fired home the much-deserved equalizer at 92'. Thierry Henry nearly got a last-chance matchwinner, beating Jaaskelainen only to have the shot headed off the line by Ricardo Gardner.

And so: Arsenal 1-1 Bolton. Bolton may feel a bit unlucky to miss the three points, but the truth is that Bolton were hanging on by their fingernails for much of the second half. Arsenal could have taken the win as well, but the last-minute draw (especially following a determined fight-back) is an encouraging sign. As I've said before, Arsenal will be handed nothing easily this season, and will have to fight for every point. Taking a point at home isn't the first choice, but a scrappy, rough-edged effort like this exactly what the Gunners will need to produce time and again between now and May. Tuesday sees Arsenal travel to Anfield, and certainly the Liverpool match will be a challenge. But if they can produce the same kind of fight, they can get a result.

One side note: Did Sky Sports have some university class handling the broadcast? I was appalled at the poor quality of the broadcast. The camera work was poor, but the directing was even worse. They kept cutting to cameras pointed at empty parts of the pitch, or to long thoughtful takes on the managers, while the ball was in play. Look, I can appreciate that it's difficult sometimes to get to the right camera at the right moment. But at least try to find the ball, OK? I like Arsène Wenger, but I have no desire to watch him during the game. As for Sam Allardyce... ugh.

Haven't done this in a while, but:
Player Ratings
Lehmann: 8 Arsène made an interesting tactical adjustment; clearly Lehmann was directed to perform as sweeper and come well out of his box to clean up any long balls that Bolton shot through. That asks a lot of the keeper but it plays to Lehmann's strengths and he handled it well. I suppose I should fault him for his temper -- he was probably at risk for at least a yellow at a couple points -- but after the Faye tackle I was just as angry as Jens.

Flamini: 7 Playing pretty well at LB. I think he does fullback better than wide midfield, though he does exhibit a risky tendency to dribble the ball into the center of the attack, leaving the flank exposed. Switched to RB when Larsson was taken off. I've not been a huge Flamini fan, but this kind of flexibility points to him as a useful player, particularly as a
Djourou: 7 Still looks a bit raw but had a fine game nonetheless. Might be faulted a bit for the Nolan goal, but he wasn't far and to be fair Nolan made a fine shot. Had an excellent last-ditch tackle on Nolan a few minutes later. I've only seen him twice now but I would currently choose him over Cygan for sure at CB.
Senderos: 7 Had some fine tackles at key moments. Made a fine tackle on Matt Jansen that took an unfortunate bounce to Nolan for the Bolton goal. Got far forward at a couple points late in the game; his attacks were (unsurprisingly) unpolished, but I like the leadership and effort that's behind it.
Larsson: 6 Didn't do badly for his second game at RB. Has a bit of pace and plays with some fire. Acts a bit like Freddie's younger brother. Will be interesting to see what his role is with the senior team next year.

Reyes: 6 Was looking dangerous before the injury. I wish he could keep his feet more, but I think he does get a high share of hard tackles his way. Rightly or wrongly, he has a reputation, and so that encourages rougher treatment. No news yet on the extent of the injury, though a broken leg is feared. Faye's studs caught him right on the shin, and Reyes told the physio that he felt a crack. Not good.
Gilberto: 7 I'm still horribly frustrated with his passing; he had a few more howlers yesterday. But at least he was much more aggressive, particularly in the second half. And of course he had the key goal; that's worth a point right there.
Diaby: 6 The words "raw talent" come to mind. He's always involved in the play, and often makes that slight extra bit of effort that we've missed this year. He's still raw though, and it's clear that he's not yet sure how to work with his teammates. That will come, though. It's terribly unfair to comapre an 18-year-old with something like 15 top-flight games in all leagues to Patrick Viera. But I think there's a chance that, ten years from now, it's Viera who will be flattered by the comparison.
Fabregas: 8 Playing wide is clearly not his comfort zone, and (much like Flamini) he has a tendency to pull himself too far to the middle. Still, he's almost always contributing something useful. I liked seeing him take corners, and he did a fine job of it. Was much more effective in the second half after Diaby came off and he moved to the middle. Had the key cross that Gilberto fired home for the equalizer. A difficult call, but for that I'll name him Man of the Match.

Henry: 6 A difficult game to rate for Henry. He was clearly frustrated by the lack of service. But with the aggressive midfield defense that Bolton provides, he's unlikely to get a perfectly weighted pass to his feet every time. Still, there's something to be said for holding his teammates to a higher standard. Nearly got the winner at 94'.
Adebayor: 6 As with Diaby, he's still working to find his role in the team. At times there was a bit of confusion in the attack as he found himself running into his own team. Made a nice run to break free on goal, but had a poor second touch that spoiled the chance. He brings another dimension to the Arsenal attack, and I think that unpredictability will be incredibly useful. Will provide Wenger with some interesting choices once Van Persie is healthy again.

Pires: 8 (32' for Reyes) Showed that he can still have an excellent match. Was thwarted a few times by Jaaskelainen. Fought hard, was active and involved. Nice to see; these may be the last days we see Robert in an Arsenal uniform so let's enjoy the good performances while we have them.
Ljungberg: 7 (45' for Diaby) Interesting tactical swtich at the half, but moving Cesc to the center-mid really aided our attack. Freddie wasn't horribly effective, but his fight and desire is sorely needed and much appreciated. Switched to LB when Larsson was taken off, and did pretty well there too. Some stars would pitch a fit at playing out of position like that, but this is ithe second time Ljungberg has done so and it's been a huge help to the team at a desperate hour.
Bergkamp: 6 (73' for Larsson) Showed flashes of brilliance. Had a good chance that just swerved the wrong way. It's a shame to see his stellar career coming to an end in such a disappointing season, but it would do his legacy a disservice for him to stick around.

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