1 February ~ “Arsenal play a lot of good football and get to the edge of your box regularly, but if you can win the ball there and counterattack quickly you'll have chances against them.” Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments yesterday, at the end his side’s second counterattacking masterclass at the Emirates in eight months, were just the kind of observations pundits and coaches once made about Spain. So adept, like Arsène Wenger’s side, at putting away lesser opposition, the glass-jawed Spanish could be relied upon to hit the canvas whenever more taxing challenges arose.
As he contemplates the task of lifting morale for next Sunday’s visit to Chelsea, Wenger might wish to consider Spain’s capitulation at the hands of his countrymen at Germany 2006 and the pivotal part it would play in their subsequent successes. Riled by Spanish media taunts that Zinedine Zidane would be playing his last game for his country, echoing United’s anger at Wenger’s “anti-football” slur, the French absorbed their opponents’ aesthetically pleasing but ineffectual pressure and coolly exposed their defensive disorganisation on the break.
The humbling 3-1 defeat in Hannover played a part in convincing Luis Aragonés of the need for Spain to evolve. Gradually breaking with tradition, he would give national icon Raúl just three more caps, much to the disgust of his numerous supporters in the press, while the international careers of left-back Mariano Pernía and centre-half Pablo Ibáñez, two of the main culprits for the debacle against France, would not run for much longer.
Aragonés was fortunate in that he had an exceptional generation of players to work with in the build-up to Euro 2008. Yet, as their quarter-final defeat of Italy showed, he also managed to imbue them with a mental toughness few Spain teams had demonstrated before. Dropping the likes of Gaël Clichy and Denilson might bring about a short-term improvement in Arsenal’s fortunes. But, as yesterday’s post-match criticism of his side suggested, Wenger seems to have accepted the need for a more visceral approach. Failure to adopt one could result in more unpleasant viewing for Gunners fans next weekend. James Calder