Monday, December 11, 2006

Courageous Arsenal Worthy of Point

In the end, the Thin Red Line held out. Nine brave young privates - as well as Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva - against the four star generals of Chelsea. The Few scuppered the Many.

Arsenal supporters may baulk initially at the characterisation of their team in such lowly terms, being as we are the only two short calendar years since their team was dubbed "the Invincibles". Paul Merson, in the Sky studio, was certainly displeased at the caution of his team's first half approach, for example.

But the respective forces that ranged up against each other yesterday were so unevenly matched that the pride which Arsene Wenger will have felt in his young team's performance was fully justified.

More justified, though, than any sense of injustice which, knowing the one-eyed Frenchman's usual attitude to objectivity, he will probably be harbouring over Chelsea's equaliser. It certainly did appear that Ashley Cole, the disowned former son, fouled Aleksandr Hleb in the lead-up to Michael Essien's astonishing strike. But Chelsea rattled the woodwork so often that the Stamford Bridge groundsman will probably be touching up the paintwork on the goalposts this morning.

Having said that, for the second time in a couple of weeks, Chelsea pulled themselves around by dispensing with what is becoming a mystifying initial tactical set-up. Although Arsenal only went ahead in the 78th minute, eleven or so minutes after Chelsea brought on Arjen Robben and Shaun Wright-Phillips, that opener was much less in keeping with the run of play than had it been scored before Chelsea went to 4-3-3.

Even with only twelve minutes remaining, the likelihood of Chelsea's scoring at least one in response seemed quite high, and as it turned out, they could have had several.

The strange thing about the fact that Chelsea have had to change to the 4-3-3 formation to save matches is that it was exactly the system that had brought Jose Mourinho's side success in the first two seasons of his management. Clearly, the signing of Michael Ballack and Andrij Shevchenko - and the need for their deployment - has forced Mourinho into an unnatural reshuffle of his tactics.

Also, the good form of Didier Drogba this season has meant that the man whom many felt would make way for Shevchenko has been himself, as Mourinho called it, "untouchable".
But the introduction of the wingers Robben and Wright-Phillips brought a dynamism to Chelsea's attack that is generally non-existent as they seek to bludgeon teams with the heavyweight midfield four of Ballack, Lampard, Essien and Makalele.

Prior to the changes, Arsenal's heroic young defenders, with tremendous assistance from the heroic Gilberto Silva - a man who appears to be becoming more naturally suited to the captain's armband than Therry Henry is - were able to hold out the powerful champions. At times it was quite desperate stuff: Fabregas' clearance off the line from Essien, Gilberto Silva's lunging distraction as the Ghanaian shot on another occasion.

But the guerilla tactics kept Arsenal hanging in there, breaking with purpose and threat. The goal was typical of this approach, the Gunners moving up the pitch, committing numbers enough to stretch Chelsea and leave the space for Flamini.

On another day Chelsea would have overran them, but the character and courage the young Arsenal team showed made them worthy of a point.

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