Arsenal 1 Bolton Wanderers 1: Nolan's passion exposes bloodless Arsenal

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The Independent Football

Had this match finished after an hour it would have been remembered as not just Arsenal's fourth defeat in six games, but probably the low-water mark of Arsène Wenger's reign at Highbury. Lucky to be just a goal down after 20 minutes, the Frenchman's side laboured lackadaisically in response, a pale shadow of the team that had played with some style when beaten by West Ham in their last home game, let alone the ones of recent vintage that have thrilled the Premiership.

A rousing finale provided a modicum of respite for an increasingly mystified audience, when Bolton's pragmatic and professional approach was rewarded with the outcome it deserved. The home side fashioned a succession of chances and deep into injury time Gilberto Silva clipped in a neat equaliser.

Afterwards Wenger was among the first to notice the ironic timing of his team's goal as he railed gloomily about Bolton's time-wasting tactics - something he sees as an increasing and worrying trend in English football - but if he had a point, his analysis of his own side left a lot to be desired.

Not for the first time this season, he talked up the inadequacies with the practised eloquence of a government spokesman. He did admit that in the first half his team played "like a unit that did not know how to respond", but overall, he said, "I am very proud of the spirit we have shown and the quality of our game. With so many young players in the side I feel it is fantastic."

Fantastic was not the first word that came to mind as Arsenal struggled desperately for long periods, and while a callow, makeshift defence did not help, the real culprits were the elder statesman.

Thierry Henry was either anonymous or wasteful in possession, and Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp were little better.

However, no one was more to blame than Gilberto, whose goal did nothing to overshadow another performance of baffling mediocrity. A midfield player who can neither tackle convincingly nor pass consistently would seem to be a luxury in any outfit but, now in his fourth season, Wenger persists with the Brazilian World Cup winner. He will have to play a great deal better if Arsenal are not to be overwhelmed at Anfield tomorrow night.

Gilberto was no match at all for Kevin Nolan, whose vibrancy, power and no little skill surely deserve an England call-up. Nolan it was who gave the visitors an early lead with a beautifully deliberate flick with the outside of the right boot after Philippe Senderos had failed to clear.

"He's a young captain who wears the armband with pride, and plays the way we want everybody to play," the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, said afterwards. "A lot of quality, a lot of passion." Sometimes too much passion. It was impossible to admire Bolton's play without sometimes wincing at their uncompromising approach. The worst example was a disgraceful two-footed lunge by Abdoulaye Faye, which looked to have broken Jose Antonio Reyes' leg. Wenger invented a new card for it - "deep orange" - but really it was worth a straight red rather than the yellow Howard Webb awarded.

Not that Arsenal could feel too indignant. As Allardyce was quick to point out, Mathieu Flamini's tackle on Ricardo Gardener a few minutes later was even worse and did not even get a booking. Nor did Jens Lehmann who might have been dismissed in other circumstances for pushing and kicking Matt Jansen.

Goals: Nolan (12) 0-1; Gilberto (90) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Flamini, Senderos, Djourou, Larsson (Bergkamp, 73); Fabregas, Diaby (Ljungberg, h-t), Gilberto, Reyes (Pires, 32); Adebayor, Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Song.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; O'Brien, Ben Haim, N'Gotty, Gardner; Faye (Hunt, 75); Davies, Nolan, Nakata, Stelios (Okocha, 90); Jansen (Vaz Te, 82). Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Borgetti.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Arsenal Fabregas, Gilberto. Bolton Faye, Davies.

Man of the match: Nolan.

Attendance: 38,193.