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Feb 11, 2006

Wrecking the beautiful game

Arsenal 1-1 Bolton Wanderers

In a week that has seen Sam Allrdyce's campaign to force his way into the frame to become the next England manager become more than a little desperate, it was fitting that he came face to face with the side who have gone some way to help build his reputation.

Initially installed as the bookies favourite to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson, it seems those in power at the Football Association are not so keen to give the manager whose first name is apparently 'Big' his chance to take on the top job in the land.

Talk of shortlists featuring Martin O'Neill, Alan Curbishley and Stuart Pearce must have sent a shiver down the spine of the coach who opted to apply for the England job in a national newspaper last Sunday. Sorry to be so negative, but the nation needs to hold its collective breath and prey that this architect of destructive football is left to look after a team that suits him down to the ground.

Allardyce deserves all the credit in the world for transforming Bolton into a genuine Premiership force, yet he has done it all at the expense of English football's long term health. By hiring aging foreigners, throwing money at them and encouraging them to play a style of football that can best be describes as ugly, Bolton have become one of this league's most dogged opponents.

Their game plan is very simple; if your opponents has more skill than you, do all you can to kick him out of his stride. Then, at every opportunity, get the ball into either corner of your opponents half and try to win a set play by fair of foul means. Dive and time waste a bit along the way if you can and try and get your opponent booked if possible. Quality players like Kevin Nolan and Stelios give their bluff and bluster a cutting edge and Allaryde doesn't even try to pretend there is anything more to his planning than that.

Let's paint a picture that should tip anyone who believes Big Sam is the man for England into my 'No' camp. Imagine the 2010 World Cup quarter-final pits England against Brazil in Johannesburg. Then place Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Owen in a dressing room listening for some advice and it may go something like this.

'Right lads, this lot are better than us to day, so I was to you to kick them all over the place,' their manager may begin. 'Wind them up as much as you can and try and get a couple sent off. Do all you can to win corners and throw in's in the attacking third. Hit Crouchy all you can as well. They don't like it up em.'

The sight of a world class player like Rooney running the ball into the corner and trying to win a set play would be a crime against the beautiful game and the only winners from Big Sam's England era would be Peter Crouch and anyone who can throw the ball a long way from the touchline.

Allardyce's appointment as England boss would confirm that the days of fantasy football are gone for good. It would confirm that teams who try to play the game the right way, to entertain people of all things, should be battered down, with the win at all costs mentality overriding.

The curious thing is this functional football has been hugely successful in the last couple of years and against an Arsenal side who seem to get goose bumps at the sight of a Bolton shirt, it has been nothing short of unbeatable. Even in the days when Arsenal were sweeping all before them, just a year ago you have to remember, they have plenty of problems against Bolton and it didn't take long for their old hoodoo to surface again in this latest meeting.

You often hear reporters suggesting a side has a makeshift defence, but on this occasion, the phase has never been more apt. Seb Larsson and Johan Djourou are raw talents that should be learning their trade in the reserve team, yet Allardyce is not the type to show sympathy and his tactics were causing Arsenal trouble from the off.

Getting in behind the Arsenal backline, Kevin Nolan forced a great save out of Jens Lehmann and from the former than followed, Bruno N'Gotty headed against the bar with a looping effort. The tone had been set and ten minutes later, Nolan gave a glimpse of his class as his cool finish from the edge of the box gave Bolton the lead.

It's not often that Soccernet's Insider has come to Highbury over the years in need of his team sheet to identify who is playing for the home side, but this is an Arsenal side there for the taking and Bolton were setting out their work in typically clinical fashion.

With their noses in front, Bolton could unleash the full range of their repertoire. Gilberto's aggressive tackle on Ricardo Gardner was the signal for the visitors to revert to violent mode, with Abdoulaye Faye launching into a two footed attack that ended with Jose Antonio Reyes being carried off on a stretcher. Eliminating a threat is a justifiable approach would no doubt be the Bolton response.

'We are awaiting the results of the x-ray, but fear he has broken his leg,' said Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger of the incident. 'It was a dangerous tackle. His foot was over the ball. If it was not a red card, then it should have been an orange one at best.'

Having dragged Arsenal down to their level, Mathieu Flamini launched into a two footed tackle of his own that could have resulted in a red card and with Highbury in uproar, Bolton had the Gunners just where they wanted them.

The second half provided a shining example of another classic Big Sam tactic. With Bolton players rolling around at every opportunity and substitutions taking an extraordinarily long time to complete, the Allardyce mantra was in full flow and the sight of Wenger arguing with the opposition coaching staff on the touchline confirmed the Arsenal boss was again being riled by his nemesis.

Kevin Davies did his bit to stir things further with an unnecessary hack at Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann in the closing seconds. It was enough to inspire an angry reaction from Wenger, yet Allardyce simply stood on the spot, laughing as his rival shed his familiar gaze of composure.

At least the officials added on five minutes to compensate Arsenal for the fact that they had been denied the chance to play football once again and it was then that salvation arrived. After Jussi Jaaskelainen did his worst to deny Wenger's men an equaliser in a frantic final 20 minutes, Gilberto found a way through with a last minute goal to salvage a point. So in the end football would not be beaten a modern tactics that may just mean this sport can no longer be described as an entertainment if it catches on.

As you may have guessed, much of this report was written before Arsene Wenger strode into the press room at 5.35pm, but it was almost as if he was singing from The Insider's hymn sheet.

'If you pay to watch a football match, you don't want to spend the whole afternoon looking at a team trying to waste time,' fumed Wenger. 'This is creeping into the English game more and more now and something has to be done. The team we played in this game are the worst for this, but you can predict that it will happen every week now and referees need to stand up and protect the integrity of the game.

'Bolton used all the tricks that have become common place in the Premiership now. Players diving, taking so long to make substitutions and time wasting at every opportunity, it was sad to see and is dangerous for football. Then you don't normally get the time added on, which is even more infuriating.

'We look at the amount of time that is wasted in games and you would be amazed to see how little time is actually played in games these days. You want to watch football, but you didn't see it today.'

Allardyce, as you would expect, responded in typically robust fashion. 'Wenger should worry about his own problems instead of whinging about my team,' retorted the Big one. 'Everyone tries to run the clock down when they are winning away from home, so I don't see what his problem is.

'He might argue about the tackle that resulted in Reyes being carried off, but it was no worse than Flamini's in the first half. I don't see how anyone can say my players were dirty when you look at some of the challenges Arsenal put in this afternoon. '

A difference of opinion there then, yet Allardyce may not have been so smug had Henry taken a chance to win the game in injury time, but a draw was a result both managers could be content with.

After it looked for so long as if Arsenal would 'Boltoned' once again, fans of this sport can rest assured that playing the game as it was meant to be is not a dying art.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Nolan
Amid the flying tackles and negative tactics, the Bolton midfielder shone. Composed and controlled throughout, he may be an England international if he played for a more popular team.

FOOD WATCH: A nice chicken and mushroom pie was complimented by soup on what was a surprisingly chilly afternoon.

BOLTON VERDICT: It was more of the same from a coach who seems intent on taking a wrecking ball to the beautiful game at every opportunity. Mr Wenger, I agree with every word you spouted on their pathetic tactics.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The likes of Pires, Ljungberg and Bergkamp simply have to play every game at a time when Arsenal are down to the bare bones and while saving them for the game at Anfield on Tuesday was a brave tactic, it backfired on Wenger. It wasn't until those three were on that the Gunners emerged as a real threat.


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