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Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Arsenal 1 - 0 Leeds Utd - "I was there"

The King salutes his subjects last night

Last night marked the fourth truly memorable moment since we moved to Ashburton Grove. Prior to this the only things that really stick with me are the last minute win over Manchester United in 2007 when Henry scored with a header, Fabregas' goal from the re-start against Tottenham to get us two goals in a minute, and Arshavin's winner against Barcelona last season. The very return of Henry had, no doubt, put a few thousand bums on seats that wouldn't have been there otherwise. That he should come on and lift us to a victory by scoring a trademark Thierry goal made it a real "I was there" occasion. The noise when he scored was possibly the loudest we've yet witnessed in the new stadium (in stark contrast to the less than vocal home support up to the point of his introduction). A refelction of the noise can be found in John Motson's Radio5Live commentary on the game - check out the BBC I-Player where you can listen to it at 1 hour 34 minutes of the show.
On Sunday I said how I was fearing last night would be an anti-climax. I feared the fact that Arsene Wenger might field too much of a weakened team, and that Henry's impact would not be what we were hoping for. It's great to be wrong, on occasion. We were talking about things in the car on the way home and I pointed out that, had we won 1-0 with a goal by Chamakh, we would probably have been moaning that we had struggled against a second division side. As it was the only goal was provided by Thierry Henry, and all was right with the World. I suspect it's only in football that the same result, with a different way of winning, could make you think in that way.
The game itself saw Arsenal dominate against a team that came to try and book a replay. Leeds were very organised, and very determined. I was impressed by the fact that they didn't come to Arsenal and try to kick us off the pitch. They did their share of time-wasting, of course, but it certainly wasn't excessive in any way - compared with the way Wolves carried on two weeks ago it was positively hurried. I spoke to my mate Doug, a big Leeds fan, after the game and he was pleased with his side and their performance. He's been trying to ignore me and my talk of King Henry this past couple of weeks, but he couldn't ignore it any longer last night! I think he also will now realise that Mel Sterland isn't the King, after all.
I thought we started well and Arshavin had a couple of early opportunities. The second chance, set up well by Chamakh, should have been taken comfortably. In fairness to our little Russian I thought he tried hard last night, but his quality of play was severely lacking when it mattered. Time and again Arshavin ran at his full-back last night, but at no point did he get past him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, meanwhile, was tearing up the other side of the pitch. On the one occasion he went down Arshavin's flank he roasted that same full-back and played a superb ball across the six-yard box, from which Chamakh and Arteta should have made something.
Chamberlain was the star of the show as far as I was concerned. I called his substitution before half-time as we all know what Arsene Wenger will do long before it happens. He was far and away the man of the match (even Henry said the award was a "joke"). The contrast between Chamberlain and Walcott, and their respective abilities, could not have been more stark. If, as reported, Theo is after £85,000 per week to sign a new deal, he better go and find it somewhere else because Arsenal should never agree to anything remotely close for someone so limited. Aaron Ramsey also seemed to enjoy playing alongside The Ox and got through a serious amount of work, even if his end product was not quite there (he had a number of shots last night, for a change, but none of them worked the goalkeeper).
Marouane Chamakh looks well and truly finished as an Arsenal footballer. I thought he started brightly last night but, as the game wore on, he looked more and more out of his depth again. His failure to properly attack the ball in the penalty area, and the obvious lack of confidence which seems to stop him from daring to shoot at goal, make him a busted flush. As with Walcott and Chamberlain the movement, touch and finishing of Thierry Henry could not have underlined the difference in any greater detail.
So what about the goal itself? First of all I want to note the contribution of Alex Song to another Arsenal goal. Last night was, I think, his sixth assist of the season. It is an indictment on certain other players in midfield that he is our most effective playmaker, as well as being the only man protecting the defence in any way (Mikel Arteta, last night, was notbaly absent at both ends of the pitch throughout the game - where was he? Why was he Captain?!) The pass from Song was inch-perfect and timed brilliantly to find Henry's run. I watched the end of the game on Sky+ when I got home last night and Martin Keown pointed out that Henry was looking to get in behind Leeds' defence, which had not happened all night with Chamakh. The first-touch from Henry was absolutely majestic, wasn't it? There are some things that you never lose, even when the speed of your running is not what it might have been. When he opened himself up I think everyone held their breath in the stadium. Watching that ball find the side of the net is something that will live with me forever, I think. It was the sort of moment that reminds you why it is you spend all that money and take all that time out to watch Arsenal. I think it was quite deliberate that Henry ran straight to Arsene Wenger and flung his arms around him. He was chased by the young players in the team (and Sebastien Squillaci, who couldn't quite keep up) who will all be able to say that they played with Thierry Henry, no matter what happens in the rest of their career. As I've said, the noise was incredible at that moment, and the celebration long.
Having watched the post-match interviews something struck me about Arsene Wenger. It has been said quite often that he has looked gaunt and ill in recent times. Over the past two years he has aged considerably. Last night I thought I was watching an interview with a different man completely. Obviously he was bathing in the glow of a win, albeit a narrow one against a team from a League below. But there seemed to be a certain sparkle. I believe that the return of his protege, the man who owes him more than any other player, has re-invigorated the Manager. There was something about him that I had not seen for such a long time, perhaps since before Henry left in 2007. Who knows, one or two other things might return along with the King, including some ambition and a winning mentality.
I have no doubt that there was also a certain sense of justification for Arsene last night. When he said Henry was coming back there was plenty of criticism from the idiots in the press. This was clearly a "desperate" move accoring to many of the "expert" newspaper journalists (each one famed for his long and distinguished career in football...or not). If Henry doesn't score another goal in his spell back with us, he will have done enough to justify his signature by getting us in to the fourth round of the FA Cup. I am grateful for the chance to see Thierry once more in an Arsenal shirt, and for the fact that my son will also get the chance to say that he saw Henry play. Whatever else occurs, thanks Arsene for bringing him back.
Aside from the goal there were a couple of other things I noticed with Thierry. When he came on he was running around and putting himself about. It wouldn't be entirely uncharitable to suggest that he expended more energy in his twenty-five minutes on the pitch last night than he did in the whole of his final season with Arsenal in 06-07. The other thing was the way in which he was talking to, directing and cajoling his colleagues. He looked every inch the leader. Again this was completely different to the Henry who had actually been Captain of Arsenal all those years ago.
Above all Henry showed that he is an Arsenal Man. The goal, his reaction, and the reaction of the supporters will have showed him, I suspect, what he has been missing about Arsenal more than anything. As much as he might claim to enjoy his time in the MLS there is nothing remotely so visceral and there can never be such an illogical human response in America, than there was when he scored last night. There is no way that Thierry himself has reacted to scoring a goal in such a way in America (and probably not in Spain before he went to the States). Henry achieved his final ambition at Barcelona by winning the European Cup - it gave him the full set of medals - but I reckon last night might have left him with a regret that he didn't come back sooner.
They say you should never go back - clearly this is utter nonsense. Sol Campbell, Jens Lehmann and, now, Thierry Henry have all returned. They have all added something positive, and have all contributed something tangible on the pitch. There is no substitute for class, no matter how old you might have become in football terms.

I'm not going to address the problems caused by the injury to Francis Coquelin (who has, happily, signed a new contract) today as this is not a time to talk about problems. I just want to enjoy the thought of Henry's winner last night for as long as possible. I'll post something on the full-back issue tomorrow.

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