Yesterday's undoubted highlight
I was at Highbury nearly five hours before kick-off yesterday. I hadn't misjudged the journey, and I haven't suddenly become even more mad. I was up there early to attend the book launch of "Geordie Armstrong On The Wing" at The Tollington pub on Hornsey Road.
I'm not old enough to have seen George Armstrong play, never mind remember him. My Dad has only ever had good stuff to say about the man known as "Geordie" though, and it's the same with any of the players I've met from the Double winning side. Being there early yesterday meant I was able to have a long chat with John Radford as we walked to the pub together, and then a quick catch-up with Eddie Kelly. Frank McLintock was the other Arsenal legend in attendance, and it's always amazing to see how the other players react to their leader - the likes of Eddie and Bob Wilson absolutely idolise Frank. I was also to take great pleasure in meeting Dave Seager, the author of the new book, and especially Jill Armstrong (Geordie's daughter) who has assisted Dave greatly with what seems a glorious tribute to the Great Man. Jill took time out to greet everybody yesterday and tell us about her Dad and how the book had been a wonderful opportunity to share her memories, and those of her family. She also told me how great it will be for her children to know how special their Grandad was, and how important "The Arsenal" (her words) was in her Dad's life. Meeting Arsenal historian Andy Kelly was also a joy on the day.
Having had such a good start the only thing that could possibly spoil yesterday would be the game itself. I was confident for a change. I know you can never truly predict football, but I was certain Arsenal would go out and win yesterday despite the injury problems at the back. For me we would always have too much going forward against Hull City. For the best part of the opening twenty minutes it was one way traffic. Arsenal were so good in the early stages, playing some of their best football of the season as far as I'm concerned. Alexis and Danny Welbeck were making great runs in behind the defence and Jack Wilshere was displaying his full range of passing. Steve Harper was being tested with shots from various angles and distances and it was so nice to not have to sit through the constant square passing as Arsenal played at pace for once. When we got the goal it was a lovely individual effort as Alexis squared up Curtis Davies before waltzing past him and hitting it low in to the corner, the old man Harper unable to get down quickly enough to stop it. Then it all went wrong.
Quite how the referee and the linesman managed to miss Diame's foul on Flamini is something that should be seriously questioned. The reaction of the Arsenal players (they never chase referees these days) was enough to show anyone that something was seriously wrong. However, given the way we'd been playing to that point it shouldn't really have been a problem. For some reason we then stopped playing the way we had been. The quick passing and incisive runs were suddenly missing. Everyone now wanted an extra touch, and the back and forth across a packed defence was back in evidence. Put together with Hull's tactical fouling in midfield, and interminable time wasting (more of which below) Arsenal suddenly looked devoid of any idea of how to break through. Aside from a Cazorla daisy cutter (which somehow saw Harper do damage to his arm) Arsenal had no more shots on target (and no more shots at all, really) until an 86th minute header from the tireless Alexis.
What happened at the start of the second-half was scandalous from Arsenal. Wenger says the players were lacking in focus. Thirty seconds after half-time? Whose fault is that, Arsene? I've seen some people blaming the makeshift defence. That's utter rubbish. The players at fault were the only two who would be there in any case. For some reason Kieran Gibbs was out of position in the Hull half straight from the kick-off, thus dragging Nacho Monreal towards the left (Monreal was Arsenal's best player to my eyes yesterday, and has been outstanding in every game he has played this season). When the cross came in the only person in the stadium not aware of the run from Hernandez was Per Mertesacker. Regulars will know I am a Mertesacker fan, but that yesterday was a disgrace. He has been poor all season in truth, and the lack of competition for places has to be a factor. Yesterday we had Semi Ajayi on the bench as the back-up centre-half. It goes without saying that barring an injury (or maybe two) I had as much chance of getting on the pitch yesterday as Ajayi had. Mertesacker meanwhile is hoisted by his own petard. On Friday he was quoted on Arsenal's website talking about the need to attack the ball. Yet again an Arsenal player has empty words not backed up by what we see from them on the pitch. I'm sick of the talking and want more of the actual playing. Don't talk about the need to attack the ball if you're then going to stand still and watch an opponent run in front of you to plant a free header in to the corner. And, who knows, maybe Arsene Wenger might learn from this new brand of football we saw from Hull for the goal - the idea of getting the ball wide, playing in a good cross, and having a centre-forward in there attacking a header might just catch on, don't you think?
For the rest of the second-half we created nothing until Joel Campbell came on. I thought the Costa Rican was excellent and showed he is worth quite a bit more time on the pitch than we've yet seen of him. What I still don't understand, though, is why we never went to two men up front. Even at 2-1 down in injury-time (and then at 2-2 with our opponents rocking and rolling) we still had only Danny Welbeck up top. We could have gone on and won it through Kieran Gibbs in the final throes of the game, but it would have been thoroughly undeserved, though entirely welcome. As an aside I also don't know how Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spent 90 minutes on the field yesterday while Tomas Rosicky wasn't even invited to loosen up. The Ox never stops trying, but he was truly awful yesterday and he knew it himself. What goes through Wenger's mind? Maybe it's the same fog that descends over Jack Wilshere who was lucky not to get himself sent-off in the act of injuring himself. Yes, the ref should have given him a free-kick, but Jack is experienced enough now to not react the way he did.
The referee has had a real bashing after the game, and rightly so. The man was a joke from start to finish. It doesn't excuse Arsenal's display, and is not the reason for Arsenal not winning, but it has to be said that the ref allowed Hull to get away with murder. I read someone on the internet earlier saying that he "added the time on" that Hull had wasted and that is true. But it doesn't account for the way the rhythm of the game was upset by that time wasting that went unchecked. In the same way, Hull's persistent fouling and play-acting every time they were tackled, meant the game was bitty and Arsenal were prevented from flowing properly (if they were capable of doing so in the first place). You regularly hear pundits say "the red card spoiled the game" but the same people would laud Hull's tactics yesterday against a big club. You can't have it all ways. Their style yesterday spoiled the game as much as any red card might. The referee quite simply didn't do his job in stamping it out. In fact he positively encouraged it at times - allowing Dawson to take the longest route to the touchline when he was treated only six-feet away from it being one example, while booking Santi Cazorla for a non-existent foul he hadn't even seen (Mr East was looking in the opposite direction when the Hull player dived and writhed on the floor) another.
Two wins from eight games is unacceptable. We are behind this awful Manchester United side, who have played a game less. The challenge for the Premier League Title has simply never got started, while the battle for "fourth" (yawn) looks like it too might be a long way off. Right now we look like a mid-table side at best, and that is simply unacceptable. The pressure is also getting to Wenger, which is no bad thing, as anyone who has watched his interview with Jacqui Oatley can testify. Of course, the only person to blame is Arsene Wenger - after all, the Chairman of Arsenal told the AGM on Thursday that he "calls the shots".