Arsenal 1, Manchester City 0: Arsenal damned to drive friend and foe to giddy distraction

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Red shirt passes left. Red shirt passes forward. Red shirt passes right. Shapes to shoot. Red shirt passes back. Red shirt passes square. Shapes to shoot. Red Shirt passes square. Turns. Shapes to shoot. Red shirt passes left. Red shirt passes forward. Blue shirt tackles. Blue shirt clears.

It begins again. Red shirt passes forward.

Sometimes playing Arsenal, or for their own supporters, watching them, must resemble reading a novel by David Peace, author of The Damned Utd, about Brian Clough's time at Elland Road, and the current Tokyo Year Zero. There is the same relentless, stylish building of pressure, layer upon layer. The climax seems endlessly delayed until the defences, of reader, opponent, or viewer, are exhausted. Then it arrives with a great wave of relief, leaving everyone drained.

So it was against Fulham on the opening weekend of the season, in Prague against Sparta in the Champions League earlier this month, and again on Saturday. Arsenal mounted attack after classy attack, but had supporters on their feet begging the likes of Alexander Hleb or Cesc Fabregas to "Shoot, dammit, shoot," long before the late winner.

In fairness, magnificent defence, in particular by Richard Dunne, Dietmar Hamann, Micah Richards and Kasper Schmeichel, kept Arsenal scoreless as much as their own quest for the perfect goal. The quartet, like promising youngsters Michael Johnson and Stephen Ireland, precede the arrival of Sven Goran Eriksson as City manager.

Team-building is such a delicate art that Arsène Wenger proclaimed Eriksson's achievement in moulding one so quickly to be "a miracle". The truth is, like Wenger at Arsenal a decade ago, the Swede has drafted foreign flair on to a largely Anglicised base (Schmeichel may be Danish, but he grew up in England; Hamann has been here so long he loves cricket; Dunne and Ireland crossed the Irish Sea as schoolboys).

"It is good to have a core of British [and Irish] players, such players are very expensive to buy," said Eriksson.

"If you can get 11 players who really want to achieve something, it doesn't matter where they come from but it is easier to recreate a common culture when people come from the same country," added Wenger.

To get a team to play with the fluency of Arsenal takes long hours on the training ground and their dominance of possession was no surprise. But City looked well-balanced and full of potential. They created the best chances of the first hour and, with a better striker, would have led, Emile Mpenza missing a wonderful chance set up by Ireland.

When Schmeichel saved Robin van Persie's penalty, awarded after Richards, his athleticism for once failing to compensate for his positioning, brought down Hleb, it seemed Arsenal might be denied. Schmeichel had ridden his luck, especially on crosses, and may well make way in goal when Andreas Isaksson is fit, but deserved his glory. The 20-year-old Dane has seized his chance. Eriksson said he is still looking for players, but no longer for another goalkeeper.

Wenger does not intend to be involved in the final week of the summer transfer market. Keith Edelman, the club's managing director, said yesterday significant funds were available, as the club's revenue, following the move to the Emirates last year, is "more than double, almost treble" the debt repayments required on the stadium.

Edelman added: "We're in very, very good financial health and we're financially very strong as a club."

However, Wenger is happy with a squad Edelman described as "fantastic", basing his belief that Wenger would sign a new contract soon on the Arsenal manager's desire to develop the group "to its full potential".

"Potential" is a much overused word at the Emirates but there is no doubting its validity. How soon it is translated into silverware may depend on the old problem, finding a cutting edge to the glorious build-up play.

On Saturday it came 80 minutes into the contest. It was a simple move, but Wenger could argue it was only possible because Arsenal's constant probing had mentally and physically exhausted Hamann, who at last gave Fabregas a yard, and Richards, who failed to close him down. Thus Hleb could slip a pass to the Spaniard, who lashed his shot past Schmeichel. Red shirt passes forward. Red shirt shoots. Goal. Red shirts celebrate.

Comments