Sunday, 20 December 2009

18: Arsenal 3 - 0 Hull City - 19/12/2009

Phil Brown bottled this. he didn't park the bus in front of goal, and he didn't go for an all-out assault. He went for a rather limp combination of the two that achieved the intentions of neither, and Arsenal steamrollered Hull City aside.

The Tigers learned to the shock of the globe last season that the way to take on Arsenal within their own backyard was to hassle and harass and really go at them. Brown this year decided he didn't want to do this. After the lifelessness of last week's goalless draw against Blackburn Rovers he made just one alteration to the team, thereby suggesting that a team that couldn't beat - or score against - Blackburn at home could now get something at the Emirates.

The change involved Nick Barmby replacing Dean Marney. Otherwise, hardworking lesser beings like Craig Fagan and Richard Garcia were still in the team, ahead of big signings and proven players like Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Kamel Ghilas, Daniel Cousin - poor Jozy Altidore didn't even make the bench.

It's perplexing. What was Brown hoping to gain from picking such a line-up against such a prodigiously talented team? A defensive solidarity was only going to last so long. If City weren't giving something to the game in the Arsenal danger zone then the concession of the first goal and the points was just a question of time.

Solidity in defence did serve City well for much of the first half, but clearly Arsenal were ascendant from the off, even allowing for their lack of bigger names through injury. Samir Nasri, a pivotal figure of the half, had the best effort with a low drive which tested a frozen Boaz Myhill, but the Tigers custodian saw it safely into his clutches.

City were largely preipheral but kept possession with reasonable aplomb and forced the home side into some slightly urgent defending, but didn't create anything of note. Yet this dogged performance and quiet resistance was ruined when referee Steve Bennett refused to send off Nasri for a cynical off-the-ball incident, and the incensed City players never regained their composure in time.

Geovanni tackled Andrey Arshavin around the edge of the box and Bennett deemed it an unfair challenge, awarding a free kick. With the ref occupied with pointing to wall positions, Nasri trod on Garcia's foot and while the Australian's reaction seemed overdone as he lay on the floor in pain, the reaction of his team-mates was one of real anger and a mini-brawl broke out. Upon the situation's becalming, Nasri saw yellow and so did Stephen Hunt for leading the shoving and brawling in response. Therefore Hunt's actions in expressing shock at a vile bit of gamesmanship was deemed equal to the sly cynicism from Nasri himself. A disgrace.

The free kick, when it was finally taken, came to nothing. But City were rattled and soon George Boateng was bringing down Abou Diaby in a similar position. Boateng was unhappy with the decision and Arsenal exploited it devastatingly, with Denilson curling in a totally beautiful shot from 25 yards and giving the home side an iffy half time lead.

Barmby didn't emerge for the second half as rumours spread that there had been an altercation in the tunnel during the players' retreat to the dressing rooms. The rumour initially reckoned Hunt had received a second yellow and was off, but this was not the case. However, the incensed (not to mention ineffective) Barmby was removed for his own good and Seyi Olofinjana, possibly for the last time until the end of January, took to the field.

Hunt hit a low cross shot which evaded everyone after good work down the left from Fagan and Andy Dawson as City tried to re-acquaint themselves with a successful second half at the Emirates. There was little pazazz in their efforts though, even though Arsenal's side was weaker than the one beaten last September, and Eduardo should have made it simple and safe when put through on goal but clanged an embarrassing right foot shot well wide. Diaby then had a shot blocked by the heroic Kamil Zayatte as the Tigers held on for dear life.

Then, the rather soft incident which should have restored parity. Hunt crossed from the left and Fagan, seeing the ball go behind him, turned his back on marker Mikael Silvestre and then fell to the ground. Bennett unexpectedly awarded a penalty and made it very clear through his own gesture (tugging away at his black uniform) that Fagan had been pulled to the ground by Silvestre. It was possible, but rather soft. Still, these opportunities at the biggest venues emerge rarely and so it was a golden opportunity for the Tigers to level up.

How Geovanni can slap in a 35-yard shot in open play without hesitation at the Emirates but make a total cock-up of a free 12-yard go in the same ground, at the same end and against the same goalkeeper is anyone's guess. The Brazilian, normally a consummate penalty taker, stuttered his run-up and never looked confident. Manuel Almunia still had to guess right but upon doing so, the lack of power and reasonable height in the shot made the save easy. Hunt got in Geovanni's way for the follow-up and headed it a long way wide.

And that was that. City chose not to get involved again.

Instantly, Arsenal cut a dash through the City defence thanks to a wonderful combination of Diaby and Alex Song. Diaby in the end rolled a gimme into the path of Eduardo for 2-0.

Brown sent on Cousin - a proper centre forward at last - for Garcia but there was no hope for anyone, not least the Gabonese striker himself who proceeded to win every single high ball aimed his way but was on a hiding to nothing at the very ground where he wrote his name into City's history books last season. Soon afterwards, Bernard Mendy replaced the appalling Geovanni.

It was now about the goal difference, really. City had to dig deep and keep the score down. Arsenal could have got as many as they could be bothered aiming for, and the chances came one after the other. Denilson was exquisitely put through by Eduardo but shot wide, before Diaby, a player maligned by the Arsenal support but in masterly form here, got on the end of a sublime passing move which featured Arshavin as creator-in-chief and thumped a third past the exposed, blameless and undoubtedly livid Myhill.

And so that was that. While it would be foolish to say a chance had been lost - this was Arsenal away and even the blinkered City fan accepts last season's achievement was a freakish affair - certainly there was a chance to at least put the frighteners on a good but worried team and Brown's selection of players who should be bit-parters at best did nobody any good. It was a waste of an occasion, a waste of matchwinners for days like this, the type that Fagan, Garcia and Barmby will never be. Altidore and Ghilas are, all being well, going to the World Cup next summer and yet cannot get into a rather poor club side right now. Yet on enthusiasm, as well as footballing ability, they should be on the list. Cousin too, a player destined for the January bargain bonanza but still clearly the best centre forward we have in our ranks, yet Brown chose - again - not to play any authentic centre forward at all.

We thought we'd seen the last of Brown the cautious manager. The upturn in form and the return of Adam Pearson seemed to blow away the cobwebs and set a new agenda for a battle-hardened and distracted manager of still evident coaching talent. Of course much of that was also down to Jimmy Bullard's brief return, but even without him again it cannot make the most positive team into the most negative one while hoping to achieve the same results.

For all the excuses about Arsenal away being a doozy, there still has to be reason and purpose in the manager's tactics and selection, and right now Brown is showing no ambition, no courage and no reason in his choices.

And it's Manchester United next.

Arsenal: Almunia, Eboue, Vermaelen, Gallas, Silvestre, Song, Denilson, Nasri (Ramsey 68), Diaby, Eduardo (Walcott 75), Arshavin (Vela 83). Subs not used: Fabianski, Sagna, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Gardner, Zayatte, Boateng, Garcia (Cousin 61), Barmby (Olofinjana 46), Hunt, Geovanni (Mendy 69), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Ghilas, Vennegoor of Hesselink.