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Dec 28, 2008

Below-par Gunners paper over cracks

Arsenal 1-0 Portsmouth

Soccernet's Insider may just be merely unfortunate to attend games on days when Arsenal are a little below top form.

My last two visits to the Emirates Stadium saw the Arsene Wenger's men produce ''disappointing'' performances against Aston Villa and Wigan, yet Gunners fans hit the nuclear button and directed their venom at my ESPN mailbox as the events of those games were relayed with honesty.

Hatred flowed after someone in the media had dared to suggest that Wenger could not walk on water after all, so the intention on this occasion was to try and sprinkle some perspective onto an Arsenal match report. Surely they would turn on the style against a Portsmouth side thumped out of sight on home soil by the might of West Ham and Newcastle in recent weeks, surely they would pour more misery on returning hero and under-pressure Pompey manager Tony Adams?

To any observer with even an ounce of football knowledge, the answer to that question was an emphatic no as Wenger's team looked lifeless and uninspired; and, were it not for a late winner from William Gallas, this would have been a decisive nail in their title coffin. Even though they look less like champions by the week, let's take a calm breath and reflect on this latest performance from the world's most entertaining team.

Arsenal had clearly decided to play the waiting game in the first half as they sat back and tried to tease a mistake out of a dangerous Pompey outfit and had Emmanuel Adebayor made the most of his chance when clean through on goal after 31 minutes, they would have earned a half-time lead. However, they were lucky to escape when Peter Crouch headed against the woodwork as he leapt above William Gallas.

The Emirates Stadium crowd seemed curiously restless as their team struggled to create chances, yet the football they were being served up was from a planet only Monsieur Wenger has visited in the last 12 years. In many ways, it was a relief when referee Alan Wiley brought the frantic action to a halt as those two chances in the opening 45 minutes needed to be appreciated at the break.

You may detect a touch of irony in those words. Sadly lacking the midfield invention of the injured Cesc Fabregas and with Nicklas Bendtner again struggling to live up to the billing Wenger gives him, Arsenal fans were cheering Robin van Persie's name early in the second half. Clearly no-one would dare to question Wenger's tactics in leaving the Dutchman on the bench, but it's nice to voice approval for a favourite player from time to time.

And so the tedium continued. Arsenal's absent urgency was alarming even by their modest recent standards and Gallas' late winner merely papered over the cracks that are becoming more apparent by the week. An error from Pompey keeper David James got them out of jail in this game as he flapped at the late cross and allowed Gallas to score, yet Wenger launched a stout defence of his boys as he faced the media.

"None of my teams in all my time here have received such bad publicity as this one," he barked, clearly agitated by reports like this one. "We played well at Villa on Friday, but you would think we were a disaster if you read the papers the next day. I will defend this team till the end. They are the youngest team I've ever had and we are working so hard to mature as quickly as possible. I'm convinced they will prove everyone wrong and we will close the gap in the title race."

I won't mention the word delusion after Wenger's comments as this accusation caused plenty of angst in cyber world when it was attached to the Frenchman in my report last month.

Maybe Wenger is using the old trick that served Mohammed Ali so well in his fight with George Foreman all the years ago? Rocking back on the ropes and looking out for the count, he may feel that a stunning second half of the season is on the cards and this reporter remains sceptical about such a prospect.

In many ways, the failure of Wenger's Arsenal project would be a major blow to the game. Here is a brilliant manager who has produced miracles on a modest budget and the style of football his team plays can be captivating to watch, yet he has taken his eye of the ball in the last couple of years and his lack of vision is costing him now.

His failure to replace Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini was a mistake and the Arsenal engine room often looked lightweight even compared to that of Portsmouth. Wenger stated in his programme notes for this game that his midfield need ''more power'', so he is the first to accept it is an area he needs to improve.

Then there is the problem of Bendtner, who is clearly not good enough to be an Arsenal regular and while Adebayor has scored plenty of goals this season, his body language must be a concern. Throw in the problems Gallas and keeper Manuel Almunia have been experiencing and it adds up to a sorry tale of woe.

Wenger has the cash to solve some of his problems in the January transfer window, but he is unlikely to make the necessary alterations as he doesn't like spending big money on the sort of experienced and proven performers his side are crying out for. A spot outside the top four seems increasingly likely right now, but time will tell whether such an assessment proves to be true.

The other sideshow in this game was the return of Arsenal legend Tony Adams to the club he served so well for so long.

It seems you either need to be old or foreign to manage in the top flight and as recently installed Portsmouth boss Adams is neither of those, he needs to be duly worried as he looks forward to 2009. Great players generally develop an aura of superiority that they somehow need to shed when they don the tracksuit and take up their seat in the dugout. However, the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane clearly struggled with that concept and stepped aside as a result.

Many have suggested he needs to develop a sense of humour to succeed as a coach, yet he should have taken two points off Arsenal in this game and was oozing with enthusiasm as he met the press. "It was a case of 1-0 to the lucky Arsenal," he stated, laughing more than most managers after a defeat. "We had wins like that so often in my time here as a player and I felt we deserved something from it.

"Results are not going for us at the moment, but I can still take so much from the effort my players are putting in. We have been going for it with a little too much gusto and needed to get back to basics today. I'm delighted with the performance, but not the result."

This reporter will have plenty of egg on his face if 2009 proves to be the year when Arsene Wenger's dream team click into top gear and sweep all before them. Right now, those who defend this side look more likely to be soaked in yolk come May.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sean Davis
The Pompey man bossed the midfield and had the strength and composure Arsenal were sadly lacking. Maybe Wenger needs to sign a hard working player of his ilk in the January transfer window.

EBOUE APPLAUSE: The Insider was present as Emmanuel Eboue was jeered off against Wigan earlier this month. He was afford a more welcoming departure this time as he received a warm ovation as he was replaced towards the end of the game.

ADAMS LOVE: The Arsenal fans clearly love the Portsmouth manager a little more than his own fans and the chant of 'One Tony Adams' took a little over a minute to ring around the Emirates Stadium.

RETURN OF FOOD WATCH: Some readers of The Insider's reports have complained that this section of these reports has been lacking this season, so here we go. The Arsenal press team offered a delightful chicken in sweet and sour sauce. But the ice cream fridge was not raided on a cold North London afternoon.

POMPEY VERDICT: Adams clearly got a great response from his players after their Boxing Day thumping against West Ham. They deserved a point from this game.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The best thing you can say about the Gunners is they have learned from their mistakes as they took the ball into the corner and played out the final mistakes of the game with some comfort. I'll leave the Arsenal fans who enjoy Insider reports so much to give their judgement on this display.

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