There is more than one way to skin a cat. Arsenal would carve out intricate patterns and create a work of art; Bolton Wanderers would pick up the knife and get on with it, no messing. Their methods are not pretty, but can be mightily effective and by employing them to the full they sent Arsène Wenger's side back to the capital having fallen short of the home side's physical commitment and failed to win here for the fourth successive season.
Thierry Henry twice hit a post, though only after his team had gone two goals behind. Unhappy throughout against the aerial barrage, they found a proud run of six successive victories counted for nothing and came to an abrupt end. They dropped even further behind Chelsea at the top of the table and found Bolton's hot breath on their neck.
It was a fascinating contest, periods of Arsenal possession being countered by Bolton's direct breaks, with El Hadji Diouf and Stelios Giannakopoulos sticking to the touchlines, from where they delivered threatening crosses. "They've never been comfortable here," said Sam Allardyce. "It's lovely to watch flair players but sometimes you've got to be able to win the ball back as well." A dispirited Wenger admitted: "Bolton's commitment in the challenges was superior to ours. It was a tentative and frail performance."
The fixture has often been a barometer of Arsenal's season, which does not augur well, especially with a Carling Cup tie at Doncaster Rovers to come. Last January, a 1-0 defeat deflated hopes of catching Chelsea in the Premiership chase; three years ago, a heavily physical 2-2 draw after Arsenal had led by two goals put the skids under another championship challenge, enabling Manchester United to pull away.
In particular, their goalkeeper Jens Lehmann must hate this game more than any other. Forced to deal with the usual diet of crosses, corners and long throws amid a cluster of white shirts, he spent much of the afternoon complaining to the referee, Howard Webb, about being impeded and jostled. Worse, with little more than half an hour played, he had twice fished the ball out of his net.
For all Bolton's vigour and Arsenal's finesse, a header by Cesc Fabregas was the only effort on target until the 20th minute. Then the home side won a corner on the left, which the right-back Joey O'Brien did well to knock back across the penalty area. Lauren's half-clearance allowed Giannakopoulos to pick out Senegal's Abdoulaye Faye, the man Allardyce calls "Vieira Two", who headed his first goal in this country. The second goal stemmed from a ghastly mistake by Gilberto Silva, caught in possession down by the corner flag by Kevin Davies, who crossed for Giannakopoulos to tap into an empty net with Lehmann stranded.
Henry was unfortunate to strike a post with a left-footed drive after flicking the ball up for himself and felt hard done by to be penalised for a foul before Robin van Persie hit the side netting. But by half-time Lehmann was required to pull off two good saves, from Kevin Nolan's fierce volley and Faye.
The German reflected Arsenal's grim mood as he left the pitch still moaning at the referee and that mood was hardly improved by another unlucky effort by Henry soon after the interval. Using his right foot this time, he shot from some 25 yards and again found only a post, Jussi Jaaskelainen almost knocking the rebound into his own net before recovering brilliantly to palm away from Robert Pires.
Lehmann was soon raging again, this time with good cause. From one of Giannakopoulos's free-kicks, Gary Speed had a shot blocked and when Sol Campbell headed into the air, Diouf fouled the goalkeeper as Faye punched the ball over him into the net. "Vieira Two" should have been booked, which would have been a second yellow and a dismissal.
Arsenal sent on Dennis Bergkamp and Jose Antonio Reyes for Van Persie, who had scored eight times in the previous eight games, and Fabregas. But apart from Kolo Touré's miscued drive right at the end there was no further hint of a recovery. Wenger's sophistocats, with only one away win all season, had been well and truly skinned again.Reuse content