I’m sure you have all heard of the “Canary Test”.
In 19th century coal mining there were no automated ventilation systems, leaving the pit workers at risk of perishing from toxic gases.
So they used to bring a caged canary down to the coalface with them. Canaries are especially sensitive to carbon monoxide and methane and would keel over dead soon after inhaling them.
If the little yellow bird kept singing, the miners knew that all was well.
I thought of this before Saturday’s game against Norwich: given the haphazard nature of our results this season and, in particular, the untimely run of form we have struck of late, it felt like we were getting our own Canary Test.
Newly promoted Norwich are a decent side who have played some nice football this year and have managed to stay out of relegation danger. But that’s about it.
They certainly should not be too great an obstacle to a side with Champions League aspirations like Arsenal, right?
And yet, and yet.
Losses to QPR and Wigan in recent games had exposed Arsenal’s fragile underbelly (apparently our overbelly is just fine, although currently holidaying in St Petersburg) and raised old questions about our mental strength and tendency to choke when it mattered most.
So the visit of Norwich was a Canary Test, but with the outcome reversed: if the Canaries died, all would be well in Arsenal Land. If they lived… not so good.
We all know what happened. The Arsenal performance can be summed up in four simple stages: dream start; abysmal capitulation; spirited fight back; stupid capitulation.
The first half, after our early goal, was particularly worrying. Our midfield vanished like a coin in a magician’s fingers and Norwich made full use of the empty acres in front of them.
But it was the Canaries’ third goal that really ticked me off and which (I’ll get there eventually) prompted the headline to today’s Post.
We were 3-2 up with five minutes remaining in a game where a win was vital.
Any top team – and I mean ANY top team, including Barcelona – would, at that point, have attempted to close down the game to see out the remaining minutes and secure the points.
And they would look to their senior players to lead by example.
But, right now, Arsenal are not a top team so we did not behave like one. Inexplicably, we behaved as if we were chasing the game and needed another goal to win it.
In the run-up to the Canaries’ third, Song gave the ball away stupidly while trying an over ambitious pass and both Gibbs and Vermaelen were too far up field and out of position when possession was lost.
Think about that for a minute. A goal up with minutes to go, and our defensive midfielder is trying fancy-dan passes while two of our back four think they’re in the US Cavalry. As it turned out, they were in the US Cavalry – unfortunately they were with General Custer. Hadn’t we learned our lessons from Norwich’s second, when TV5 was stranded up field as the away team broke and scored?
Inevitably Norwich again exploited the empty spaces and scored.
Could you imagine Chelsea behaving like that? Or Manchester United? Or Manchester City?
Of course not.
The only highly placed Premier League team I can imagine doing that are the ones who live down the road and pong a bit. So that’s what it has come to: we, the mighty Arsenal, are behaving like your common or garden Spud.
I’m angry with the manager and the entire team for the first half performance and I am angry with Song and Gibbs for the third goal. But most of my anger is reserved for Thomas Vermaelen – a man pretty much universally adored by the fans.
Not for the first time this season, his lack of discipline as a defender has cost us points.
I am all in favour of him going up for set pieces (the break in play involved in set pieces means we can make sure to keep other players back to cover) and I am delighted when he drives forward towards the end of games where we are chasing a goal. His late winner against Newcastle was testament to what he can achieve in those situations.
But to behave that way when we are narrowly winning a vital game is immature and unbefitting of an Arsenal Vice Captain.
I hope all you Gooners who think that Vermaelen and Koscielny comprise our best centre back pairing are learning your lesson.
The great Tommy V, the Muscles from Brussels*, our Lion of Flanders has, to my mind, been getting carried away with his own publicity. For all his strengths, his indiscipline makes him a liability at times.
Before everyone slaughters me, I will mention his strengths: he is powerful, brave, fierce, a battler, great in the air, strong in the tackle, indefatigable, charismatic, intimidating to the opposition.
His combative qualities put him in the top echelons of Premier League defenders. But if he does not start showing more discipline and maturity, he will struggle to be remembered as a true great.
Let’s not forget, he is 26 years old. Unlike Gibbs, we cannot blame youth for his mistakes. In those final minutes when we were beating Norwich he should have been using all his experience and authority to scream his head off at his colleagues about holding their shape and holding the ball.
That job is even more important when you take into account how wasteful Alex Song can be. He is nominally our Defensive Midfielder, but his obsession with trying Hollywood passes when a bit of Ealing Studios is called for, and marauding up field at the very times when he should be shielding the defence, is slowly killing us.
When the experienced Arteta is playing, Song’s rampages are usually covered. But Aaron Ramsey does not appear to have the understanding to do likewise, making it even more vital that the Centre Backs stick to their duties.
On Saturday Vermaelen did not.
For me, the first CB name on the team sheet (assuming all are fit) should be Per Mertesacker, with either of Koscielny or Vermaelen alongside him. Beside the BFG, I feel that either of Kozzer or Verm are excellent options, but both of them need the organizational nous and composure of the German Giraffe to bring the best out of them.
In fairness to Tommy V, our approach to defending as a team and a squad is a bit all over the place (there is an excellent and balanced deconstruction of the issue on Desi Gunner’s blog: http://desigunner.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/a-detailed-look-at-arsenals-defensive-issues-tactics-shape-mistakes/ ).
Whoever takes over Pat Rice’s job next season needs to help Arsène Wenger make us more difficult to score against. It’s about far more than just the personnel, but it is also essential that the senior players focus on their own responsibilities.
I love what Thomas Vermaelen brings to Arsenal, but if he can apply a bit more maturity to his game I will love him unconditionally.
*Actually Tommy comes from Kapellen, which is nowhere near Brussels. It’s on the outskirts of Antwerp, which might make him a Twerper. ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ sounded better.