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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Adieu Arsène


            Sunday afternoon started with the travelling Burnley fans teasing us “you’re only here for the t-shirts”. Although a rare full house crowd and abnormally long queues for the souvenir programme all felt somewhat false, from the perspective of the past few seasons of a growing “time for a change” clamour, ultimately the curtain fell on Arsène Wenger’s 22 year long tenure on home turf amidst the perfect setting, with the blazing sunshine the ideal backdrop to one of the most fluid and entertaining examples of Wengerball that we’ve seen at our place for many a moon.

            I’m unsure whether it was an off the boil Burnley display that contributed to a flattering 5-0 goalfest (in contrast to the sort of stalwart performances seen from Sean Dyche’s side in previous encounters), or whether the Gunners were that bit more motivated by the mortifying fear of finishing below the Clarets, forcing them off the beach and back on the pitch for a Europa Cup qualifier as soon as 26th July.

            Nevertheless, considering the anticlimactic context, resulting from our miserable midweek failure to maintain hope of Champions League footie, following our semifinal exit in Madrid, thrashing Burnley was a befitting last act to a home campaign that bears comparison to the best in the land and it provided the sort of welcome solace that ensured Arsène got the historic send off he truly deserved.

            Seeing a blubbing Gooner on his pushbike outside the old stadium on Avenell Road prior to the game, it was evident that this was going to be an emotional afternoon. Our tears aren’t just marking the passing of the greatest manager that the Gunners have ever known, but the fact that le Gaffer is likely the last of his kind in football as a whole. The beautiful game has become such a transient business that it’s hard to imagine there ever being another decades long dynasty of a big club dictator.

            Four cup finals in the last five years is nothing to be sneezed at and for all the incessant whinging about our underachievement in recent seasons, I don’t think we will truly appreciate the magnitude of Arsène’s accomplishments, until the dust has settled and we look back in years to come at the feat of maintaining the Arsenal’s seat at Europe’s top table for twenty successive seasons, during possibly the most challenging period of transition in the club’s entire glorious history. Our upstart neighbours have been gloating about enjoying a single Champions League campaign. They and every other club would give their eye-teeth to have been mixing it with the big boys, each and every season.

            Some of us might have the two remaining dates at Leicester and Huddersfield on Wenger’s farewell tour. Yet for the vast majority of Gooners, Sunday was their last chance to bid the obdurate old codger adieu. As Arsène strolled around on the pitch soaking up the adulation, the tears were mixed with trepidation because for a generation of Arsenal fans, Wenger’s Arsenal is all they’ve ever known.

            Yet as the sun set on his last home outing, there was some sense of symmetry, having witnessed a glimmer of same sort of scintillating footie that signalled a revolution to the game in this country upon his arrival all those years ago. Who knows, perhaps the inclusion of Mavropanos might prove to be a parting gift, capable of the same significant influence upon the team, as was seen from the introduction of a bandy legged Patrick Vieira?

            “Be careful what you wish for” was the persistent riposte of all Arsène’s most loyal supporters and even if the vast majority of them were left crying out for a breathe of fresh air these past couple of stagnant seasons, there can be no denying that he’s likely to prove an impossible act to follow.

            Yet follow him someone must and if parting was, in the words of the Baird, was “such sweet sorrow”, there remains more than a little eager expectation in the fact that for the first time, for as long as we can remember we have absolutely no idea what tomorrow brings. The king is dead, long live the king!

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi


            So it would appear that swathes of empty seats and the prospect of the financial pain of a desolate prawn circle, after the installation of more Club Level seats this summer, has finally forced a response to the interminable outcry for change at the Arsenal, signalling the end of a glorious era.

            There will be plenty of ingrate Gooners celebrating Wenger’s announcement, but it feels as if the vast majority of loyal fans of my ilk are left not knowing whether to laugh, or to cry.

            Frankly I’m relieved, if only because I couldn’t abide the thought of yet another fractious season on the terraces, putting a massive dampener upon my own enthusiasm level. Moreover, Arsène simply had to call “time” at some stage and even if his departure should result in several seasons of upheaval, it’s surely better that we bite the bullet sooner, rather than later.

            With the apparent renaissance of the Ox since his move to Merseyside, reinforcing the semblance of uninspiring staleness around the Arsenal dressing room, perhaps the only ammo left to le Gaffer, to try and lift his troops in advance of our daunting Europa Cup semifinal v Atletico Madrid, was to drop this timely bombshell.

            If there was anything that might galvanize fickle Gooners, to ensure that everyone at the Arsenal is finally pulling in the same positive direction, towards the final in Lyon and hopefully to secure a precious seat at Europe’s top table next season by bringing home the Europa Cup bacon, it will be the opportunity to give the old codger a fitting send off.

            Despite the depressing downturn of the past decade, younger Arsenal fans simply cannot fully appreciate quite how good we’ve had it over the fulsome course of Wenger’s astonishingly enduring tenure. Davie Provan emitted a duly scornful snort, during his midweek commentary on Brighton v Spurs, when his Sky colleague revealed that our North London neighbours have enjoyed a whole 29 days sitting atop the pile, during the entire 26 years since the Premiership’s inception.

            Meanwhile, we Gooners were savouring the fabulously filling fruits of the sort of relentless silverware diet, the 3 titles and 7 FA Cups that proved to be the rod of success that would eventually be used to beat le Boss into submission.  After having grown so ungratefully blasé about finishing in the top four, it is only in retrospect, with our noses pressed firmly up against the Champions League window that we’re learning the full value of Arsène’s incredible feat of consistency, during the past two decades of competing upon football’s most illustrious stage (with one hand tied behind his back, financially speaking, while the Arsenal dug themselves out of the new stadium black hole!).

            While Guardiola’s City are deservedly receiving all the plaudits for playing the competition off the park all season long, the failure of such a dominant team to last the course unbeaten, serves as proper context to the achievement of the Arsenal’s Invincibles. Enduring the thirty-eight game marathon, without once falling down on the job, is a feat which is likely to stand the test of time because it might never be repeated. Few will recall the succession of draws necessary to get the Gunners over the line in 2004.

            Yet if the Invincibles were a reflection of our manager’s unstinting stubbornness, it was the supremely balanced squad of the class of ’98 that first converted Gooners to the church of Wenger. Bruce Rioch’s signing of Dennis Bergkamp was the precursor to this new era, gifting Arsène with a magnet to attract players of the calibre of Vieira and Overmars. Wenger was blessed with being able to build a scintillatingly artistic side around the impermeable backbone of George Graham’s defence.

            Following a childhood spent listening to my peers laud the feats of the Hammers’ Moore, Hurst and Peters, we revelled in Vieira and Petit doing likewise in the Stade de France in ’98. I still have the t-shirt buried in my cupboard that’s proudly emblazoned with the Mirror front-page headline “Arsenal win the World Cup”.

            A title winning campaign is such a momentous achievement that they are all extremely special, but in the summer of ’98 it truly felt as if the Gunners were on top of the world, as we struggled to come to terms with the fact that our “boring, boring Arsenal” had suddenly become the darlings of the beautiful game. Sitting in the Highbury sunshine, savouring Arsène’s first title with that 4-0 drubbing of Everton, sealed with Stevie Bould’s defence-splitting through ball, for the donkey, Tony Adams, to volley home, in that moment, it honestly felt as if football (life even!) couldn’t possibly get any better.

            Winning the title at Old Trafford in 2002 and then at White Hart Lane in 2004 (after having seen Ray Kennedy do likewise in 1971) both occasions proved no less memorable. We might have ground out our entirely unbeaten run in 2004, but with goals scored in every single encounter in 2002 and winning every game on the road, it could be argued that this flair-filled title charge was a more impressive achievement. Yet when you consider the vast multitudes of footie fans who’ve never seen their side challenge for a title, let alone making Wembley Cup Finals their second home, there can be no denying that Arsène spoiled us all rotten.

            It’s ironic that eight years later in 2006, the Stade de France became the scene of what must rank as Wenger’s (and every Gooners’) greatest disappointment, with our defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Little did we appreciate back then that this was as close as he’d get to crowning his career with the big-eared prize (it will rankle more than a little if the Ox pulls this off with the Scousers at the first attempt, or if Wenger ends up doing likewise with PSG!).

            This was an incredibly emotional ten-day rollercoaster, with Thierry Henry signing off at Highbury with a fitting celebratory hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Wigan. I was devastated to depart our Home of Football. Our antiseptic new arena doesn’t hold half the charm of that glorious Art Deco ground and watching the Arsenal will never be the same. If I’m being entirely honest, I can’t help but begrudge the probability that without Wenger’s vision, the staid Arsenal suits would likely still be dawdling over such a mammoth investment gamble.

            Yet, from an entirely selfish perspective, while I’d love to still be watching the Gunners from my privileged West Upper pitch at Highbury, I could appreciate Wenger wanting to put the Gunners on the map, as one of European football’s big players.

            With le Prof’s arrival in ’96 proving to be the catalyst for a complete revolution of the game in this country, for all his obdurate, blinkered faults, there remains an inestimable debt of gratitude, which has made the demise of this decent and honourable human-being, from innovator to an anachronistic dinosaur, utterly agonising viewing.  When my cancer was diagnosed five years ago, I demanded of the oncologist if I’d be around long enough to witness the Arsenal winning the Champions League. As with so many other poorly Gooners, I was incredibly touched to receive a personal letter from le Gaffer, wishing me a speedy recovery.


            The mélange of emotion is mixed with a great deal of comfort, knowing that Wenger won’t be hounded out, but will instead enjoy a fitting send off over the remaining few weeks of the season. If he’s not destined to leave us with a Champions League trophy, I’ll gladly settle for the consolation prize of its ugly sister. Now if only our squad can muster the necessary determination to gift the greatest manager our glorious club has ever known with a suitable golden watch?
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Apathy, Apathy, The Curse of the Gooner Bourgeoisie

(or in Wenger's best Kenneth Williams "infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me") 




I'm fully aware that all right-thinking, reasonably civilised footie fans should've been suitably appalled by events at Anfield prior to the Champions League encounter in midweek, when pissed up Scousers went above and beyond the pale, in their efforts to intimidate the opposition, by bombarding the Man City team coach. 

Yet when one contrasts the rabid fervour that was whipped up by Liverpool fans on Wednesday night, in what proved to be a successful effort to try and ensure that they maximised their home advantage, with the all-pervasive apathy that prevails at the Emirates nowadays, I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to feeling more than a little envious.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not putting the Scousers on any pedestal. I've stood in the Anfield Road Stand on enough occasions in recent seasons, where the deathly hush emanating from the Kop has inevitably resulted in the customary taunt of "where's your famous atmosphere?" One of the most depressing drawbacks of the advent of all-seater stadia and the corporatization of the beautiful game, to develop a profitable, family friendly product, has been the quiescence of all the famous football crowds of yesteryear. Just as one would with an over aggressive puppy, what began with Maggie and continued with the inception of the Premier League, was the complete castration of the rabid atmosphere of old.

We've not seen a Scouser quite so excited about one leg, since Paul Mccartney met Heather Mills. It might not have invoked the same outrage in the Daily Mail as the fiery welcome, but perhaps more influential upon the decisive defeat of their more illustrious opposition was the fact that a fairly blatant second-half penalty shout went almost completely under the wire. 

Although Anfield might often be as library-like as our own sedentary stadium, the Scousers still tend to turn up the volume when required. I can't help but wonder whether the blissful ignorance of the customarily ineffectual official behind the goal-line (the proverbial spare prick at the wedding!), only a couple of yards away from this foul, was influenced by his reluctance to incur the wrath of 30,000 baying Reds?

Sure, I can appreciate that the dynamism and attacking zeal of Klopp's side has provided the Scousers with considerably more than us to shout about so far this season. Our piss-poor first-half performance against Stoke last weekend made for such painful viewing that I pictured parents telling their unruly offspring that if they were naughty they'd be forced to remain in their seats, to endure the entire second-half.

Moreover, there's no getting away from the fact that the Mickey Mouse Europa Cup competition is always going to be the Champions League's ugly sister. Nevertheless, Thursday night's encounter with CSKA Moscow was a European Cup quarterfinal. With our FA Cup humiliation, our League Cup Final shellacking and any last vestiges of hope of a top four finish long since quashed by our relentless inconsistency, any remaining aspirations for this campaign rested on our clash with the Ruskies.

It just about sums up how shamelessly entitled and spoiled our fan base has become that season-ticket holders couldn't even be bothered to show up, or to even flog their seats to someone who might appreciate the occasion. Some might contend that Arsène is entirely to blame for all this apathy, with the obdurate old fart lingering like a bad smell. 

Albeit we must remember that if it wasn't for Wenger setting the bar so high, with all that success in his early years, much like the Cup Winners Cup in the early 90s, a European cup quarterfinal of any nature would guarantee a full-house of Gooners, positively creaming our pants at the prospect!

Surely the sight of the Ox being let off the reins at Anfield to score such a scorcher against City, only reinforces the argument about how stale our squad has become under Arsène's enduring tenure. We might've turned it on against CSKA's creaking defence, but as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Yet while I'm no less desperate than anyone else for a new broom, I remain an Arsenal supporter, through thick and thin. I've seen some proposing on social media that we should register our dissatisfaction by boycotting our remaining home games. I can only begin to imagine how the likes of Baggies' fans and any club with a genuine cause for throwing their toys out of the pram, must perceive persistent Gooner protestations!

In fact, the only slight solace to be had from our most disappointing league campaign in donkey's years, is that this has at least begun to sift out some of the glory-hunting chaff. The infuriatingly ubiquitous sort of Gooners who are keener to be seen to have been there, by proudly confirming their presence to all their pals on Facebook, than they are worried about actually witnessing events on the pitch. There are increasing swathes of empty seats in Club Level and the corporate boxes, as those whose attendance is primarily about networking, decrease in direct proportion with the kudos going to watch the Gunners.

Although it's not entirely out of the question for this Arsenal side to blow it completely, by failing to turn up for the return leg in Moscow next week (as I suspect will be the case with the vast majority of our travelling faithful!), if as expected, we should progress to the semis, I for one will be far less worried about the impact of Europa Cup success on Wenger's future, than the delicious thrill of pooping Spurs' party, by not only securing more silverware, but knowing quite what a wind up it would be for them if we are restored to Europe's top table, without even having to finish inside the top four. 

With Welbeck seemingly so utterly shorn of self-confidence (as one wag put it on Twitter, Welbz couldn't even finish a "J. Arthur"!), up until now I didn't think we had a hope, but with Laca back in the frame, I'm a little less pessimistic about our lack of firepower.

The vast majority of our crowd had departed before the final whistle on Thursday. Arsenal fans have grown so irritatingly blasé and such was the phlegmatic mood of the crowd coming away from the ground that one would never believe we'd just given CSKA such a drubbing, in one of the most entertaining games of the season, with Rambo's exquisite goal worth the price of admission alone!

Unless the likes of Lazio, Marseille or Leipzig can do us a favour, ultimately it's likely that Simeone's Atletico will stand between us and this precious prize. Should we make it to the semis, whoever we meet, sadly I can't exactly envisage us creating the sort of fervent cauldron-like atmosphere in the home leg, which might influence both opposition and officials alike (mind you, they've not needed any help in gifting us spot-kicks recently!). The headline on the front of Thursday's programme proclaimed "no quarter given" but then I guess we should have long since grown accustomed to our club ignoring the blatantly obvious lack of bums on seats.

Raise the roof for the semifinal? I'm not even sure we'll deign to show up!

COYG
Bernard




--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Arsenal way or the wayward Arsenal?

Who knew that after witnessing the Ox adding injury at Anfield, to this afternoon's (vitality lacking!) insult at Dean Court, this morning's post would end up looking quite so prescient?

Seemingly no responsibility shirking for the Scousers!
_________________________________________________


After the humiliating debacle against Forest, there wasn't much cause for optimism at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, especially after discovering the decidedly underwhelming starting XI that Wenger had selected to take to the field against a full strength Chelsea side.

As a result, I imagine that much like me, there were many of us who spent the majority of the 90 minutes on Wednesday, holding our breath. Obviously the odds of us reaching the League Cup final would've been considerably improved, if we could've been starting the second leg in a fortnight's time with an away goal under our belt. Nevertheless, under the circumstances and considering our strike-force was so utterly impotent on the night, to come away with a clean sheet was a creditable achievement. It was a great relief to be escaping back down the Fulham Road following a goalless draw, with the semifinal still in the balance and everything still to play for back at our place.


In truth, the Gunners really didn't need to do too much against Chelsea, in order to improve upon what was such a disappointingly limp departure, from a knockout competition, where we'd complacently begun to consider as if we'd earned some sort of divine right to remain involved in. With all the premature talk of the potential for a four FA Cups in five years record, our pratfall against Forest really shouldn't have come as a surprise! 


Frankly I was surprised that Chelsea subsequently let us off the hook because I was fully expecting Conte's team to try and make the most of their opportunity to take advantage of our demoralised state, by steaming into us, in a manner which might've better exposed the brittle nature of our comparatively inexperienced and unfamiliar backline.

Instead of which, a somewhat lacklustre and mercifully uninspired effort from the home side, enabled us to avoid further embarrassment and to make a significantly redemptive baby step, with the sort of stalwart display that ensured we were able to salvage some remaining hope of silverware this season.

Yet despite achieving a shut-out at our end, such was the complete and utter lack of threat on Courtois' goal that our failure to exert any pressure with our rare attacking opportunities was all the more infuriating. Watching Granit Xhaka frittering away a succession of set pieces, with painfully feeble strikes from corners, not for the first time, it struck me to question how on earth it is possible that there's such a dearth of dead-ball quality, at a club that's been so lauded for the calibre of our footballing artistry.

In Mesut Özil's absence and with Alexis on the bench, as perhaps our single only creative source on the night, one might've expected Jack Wilshere to have stepped up and assumed set-piece responsibility, instead of Granit Xhaka. Yet over the past few weeks, I've been moved to ponder whether there might be an inhibited culture at our club, where players are disturbingly reluctant to stick their heads above the parapets?


Watching Liverpool play on the box the other night, I couldn't help but notice that the Ox had assumed corner taking duties for Klopp's team and every time I've watched the Baggies since Kieran Gibbs rocked up at the Hawthorns, it's been evident to me that Gibbs has attempted to assume a position of responsibility for Pardew, not just by taking set pieces, but as a prominent figure of experienced authority for West Brom, compared to his peripheral, bit-part role at the Arsenal over so many (admittedly injury ravaged) seasons.


I fully appreciate that one can make a good argument about there always being more capable candidates for taking set-pieces at the Arsenal, whenever either of these two players were afforded sporadic runs in the first XI. Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that it is no coincidence that both the Ox and Gibbs have appeared to come out of their shell somewhat since departing the club. While I honestly can't claim to have any great insight, on the face of it, from what I've witnessed to date, it's almost as if leaving the Gunners has proved liberating for both players.


Obviously, it's not exactly surprising that any player should defer to the gifted likes of Mesut, or Alexis, when it comes to dead-ball situations and perhaps this theory is entirely a product of my limited imagination. But anorak that I am, I scrutinise such moments with the aid of my binoculars and it troubles me greatly that I never see anyone else in red and white, exactly ripping the ball out of their teammates hands, demonstrating their eagerness to make their mark on the game. 


Rather than risk being slaughtered by the crowd, the TV critics and the watching millions and enduring endless humiliating replays in a YouTube montage of gaffes of the season, for a free-kick that ends up hitting the corner flag, there appears to be a learned response at the Arsenal to leave it to someone else and to avoid responsibility at all costs?

Similarly, I've witnessed young Reiss Nelson rip opposition defences to shreds when I've watched him play for our U23s. I've been waiting on tenterhooks to see him do likewise, whenever he's been afforded a rare opportunity to shine in a first-team shirt. And yet for the most part, it feels as if Reiss is playing "with the handbrake on", inhibited by specific instructions to keep it simple. I'm sitting there waiting with baited breath, for Nelson to unleash his breathtaking pace and "carpe diem", by making the most of his chance to force himself into first team contention, while a seemingly reticent Nelson chooses instead to lay the ball off, rather than risk ending up a laughing stock, conceding possession (and the wrath of his manager?), while attempting anything audacious.

I've often mentioned my habit of studying our substitutes, when they get the wave from Bould, or Banfield to return to the bench, in order to ready themselves for their introduction to proceedings on the pitch. If we were in their privileged boots, we simply couldn't get our tracksuit off quick enough and we'd be out on the touchline in a flash, absolutely desperate for the ball to go dead, so we could get out there and have some impact on the game. When I recall the sight of the likes of Ian Wright, positively straining at the leash on the sidelines, in his anxiousness to get involved in the game, by contrast, watching the likes of Theo Walcott, during the time Walcott takes dawdling with his tracksuit, shinpads and anything else which might delay his introduction, one can't help but conclude that Theo is less than eager to get out on the park.

I mention all of the above as evidence of some sort of pernicious comfort zone that exists at the Arsenal, where in the absence of any vocal, demonstrative leadership figures, both on the bench, or out on the park, there's absolutely no encouragement for players to challenge themselves to take the sort of risks required to impose themselves on a game. Nor is there any threat of censure, for all those who are content to go through the motions, game in, game out, knowing that no matter their level of mediocrity, they'll continue to collect their obscene remuneration every week and at the very worst, they'll find themselves sidelined, until injuries, or suspensions eventually forces them back into the first XI frame.

This is the main reason why we are all so desperate to witness the renaissance of Jack Wilshere. After enduring so much sideways and backwards, possession obsessed football with no real purpose, at long last, here is a player who's first thought is to always look forwards, to see if he can make something happen. Moreover, Wilshere might be no less likely than Iwobi to be foolishly caught partying on camera, when in return for such incomprehensibly exorbitant rewards, players nowadays are unrealistically expected to endure a monk-like existence of complete and utter abstinence. However, we're more likely to forgive JW's occasional indiscretions, on the basis that (like Iwobi!). he's always been and will always be a Gooner. We can deludedly believe that it's not only about the money and that unlike some of the more mercenary players, Jack can't wash the agony of an Arsenal defeat off in the post-match shower because he feels our pain.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in being surprised to see Iwobi retain his place in Wednesday night's starting XI and it's sad that Alex has to date, largely failed to fulfil his early promise. In an age when the likes of Man City are seemingly able to spend their way to complete and total superiority, I adored the fact that Wenger was previously striving for an alternative model, based on a more affordable, homegrown core.

Since starting this piece, I've seen highlights of Burnley's defeat at Palace on MOTD and despite losing, what struck me most was the do or die willingness of Sean Dyche's defence, to put their bodies on the line to thwart Palace. Wilshere and Ramsey are the only two survivors at the Arsenal, from the five smiling faces shown signing their new contracts in the photo at the top of this piece and at this precise point in time, Jack's future remains in doubt. I can't help but wonder precisely how Wenger has failed to make more from the massive advantage possible, given the potential motivation of a homegrown core, when compared to the collection of "have boots will travel" mercenaries making up the majority of our competitors?

I can't envisage us offloading Theo Walcott, unless we're prepared to do a deal whereby we subsidise a substantial proportion of his wages, but like many, I think "unlucky Theo" needs to go. If taken out of his comfort zone at the Arsenal, to a club and a manager who can challenge Walcott to perform, his career might well be rejuvenated to the point where he's capable of scoring 20 goals a season.

On their own, Gibbs, the Ox and Walcott might not be the sort of global footballing luminaries that we crave at our club, but as a unit, their whole should be greater than the sum of the individual parts and it has to be viewed as a failure on Arsène's part that their careers have all plateaued at the Arsenal.

I'm desperately trying not to sound too despondent, but it was a decidedly unfamiliar feeling to find myself with my nose pressed firmly up against the FA Cup window, excluded from the thrill of the 4th round draw for the first time in over twenty years, envious of the enemy and their awayday outing to the wilds of South Wales (you never know, maybe their coach will get washed out to sea, crossing the Severn Bridge?).

We go into tomorrow's encounter with the Cherries, grateful to remain in top six contention, only thanks to the inconsistency of others. With another eight games between us and a potential Europa Cup final in Lyon in May, as our best chance of a sniff of any silverware this season, the League Cup takes on greater significance. All we need is to beat Chelsea in the return leg and (assuming Bristol City don't beat us to it) perhaps to bring City's unbeaten run to a poignant end in the final!

Every time Petr Cech faces a penalty, I'm moved to ask if he's ever laid a glove on a spot kick, let alone save one and I've yet to receive an answer. If our first choice keeper is way past his "sell by" date, it appears as if our first choice centre-half is fast approaching his own "good until" expiry point, with Koscielny having to be nursed from game to game, with his chronic achilles injury (I'm no longer considering Mertesacker as a viable alternative and I pray Wenger saves Per from further humiliation by doing likewise!).

Our most consistent centre-back so far this season is actually a left-back and as a result, we've got a kid playing at left back who might actually be a half decent midfielder (if ever AMN is given a chance to play in his preferred role, where surely he'd prove far more effective than Xhaka?). While our right back is so far up his own backside that I'm surprised he hasn't launched his own designer brand of toothpaste.

Much like poor Rosicky, our most creative midfielder is plagued by an injury from which Cazorla is unlikely ever to return to playing top level football and we're fast coming to terms with the fact that we're destined to lose our most reliable source of goals, with no guaranteed replacement for Alexis on the horizon. Meanwhile, the club's single only world class talent could choose to walk any day and could you really blame Özil if he did, when in so many inept displays nowadays, I want to apologise to Mesut for having to endure such rank incompetency around him.

Far from leaving us with a legacy, one could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène has contrived to ensure that he departs with the club in the sort of pitifully parlous state that will be guaranteed to sabotage the efforts of any eventual successor.

Still beat Bournemouth and we're only one win away from overtaking Spurs
'Nuff waffle!
Happy New Year
COYG

Bernard

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

The Arsenal Way?


After the humiliating debacle against Forest, there wasn't much cause for optimism at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, especially after discovering the decidedly underwhelming starting XI that Wenger had selected to take to the field against a full strength Chelsea side.

As a result, I imagine that much like me, there were many of us who spent the majority of the 90 minutes on Wednesday, holding our breath. Obviously the odds of us reaching the League Cup final would've been considerably improved, if we could've been starting the second leg in a fortnight's time with an away goal under our belt. Nevertheless, under the circumstances and considering our strike-force was so utterly impotent on the night, to come away with a clean sheet was a creditable achievement. It was a great relief to be escaping back down the Fulham Road following a goalless draw, with the semifinal still in the balance and everything still to play for back at our place.


In truth, the Gunners really didn't need to do too much against Chelsea, in order to improve upon what was such a disappointingly limp departure, from a knockout competition, where we'd complacently begun to consider as if we'd earned some sort of divine right to remain involved in. With all the premature talk of the potential for a four FA Cups in five years record, our pratfall against Forest really shouldn't have come as a surprise! 


Frankly I was surprised that Chelsea subsequently let us off the hook because I was fully expecting Conte's team to try and make the most of their opportunity to take advantage of our demoralised state, by steaming into us, in a manner which might've better exposed the brittle nature of our comparatively inexperienced and unfamiliar backline.

Instead of which, a somewhat lacklustre and mercifully uninspired effort from the home side, enabled us to avoid further embarrassment and to make a significantly redemptive baby step, with the sort of stalwart display that ensured we were able to salvage some remaining hope of silverware this season.

Yet despite achieving a shut-out at our end, such was the complete and utter lack of threat on Courtois' goal that our failure to exert any pressure with our rare attacking opportunities was all the more infuriating. Watching Granit Xhaka frittering away a succession of set pieces, with painfully feeble strikes from corners, not for the first time, it struck me to question how on earth it is possible that there's such a dearth of dead-ball quality, at a club that's been so lauded for the calibre of our footballing artistry.

In Mesut Özil's absence and with Alexis on the bench, as perhaps our single only creative source on the night, one might've expected Jack Wilshere to have stepped up and assumed set-piece responsibility, instead of Granit Xhaka. Yet over the past few weeks, I've been moved to ponder whether there might be an inhibited culture at our club, where players are disturbingly reluctant to stick their heads above the parapets?


Watching Liverpool play on the box the other night, I couldn't help but notice that the Ox had assumed corner taking duties for Klopp's team and every time I've watched the Baggies since Kieran Gibbs rocked up at the Hawthorns, it's been evident to me that Gibbs has attempted to assume a position of responsibility for Pardew, not just by taking set pieces, but as a prominent figure of experienced authority for West Brom, compared to his peripheral, bit-part role at the Arsenal over so many (admittedly injury ravaged) seasons.


I fully appreciate that one can make a good argument about there always being more capable candidates for taking set-pieces at the Arsenal, whenever either of these two players were afforded sporadic runs in the first XI. Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that it is no coincidence that both the Ox and Gibbs have appeared to come out of their shell somewhat since departing the club. While I honestly can't claim to have any great insight, on the face of it, from what I've witnessed to date, it's almost as if leaving the Gunners has proved liberating for both players.


Obviously, it's not exactly surprising that any player should defer to the gifted likes of Mesut, or Alexis, when it comes to dead-ball situations and perhaps this theory is entirely a product of my limited imagination. But anorak that I am, I scrutinise such moments with the aid of my binoculars and it troubles me greatly that I never see anyone else in red and white, exactly ripping the ball out of their teammates hands, demonstrating their eagerness to make their mark on the game. 


Rather than risk being slaughtered by the crowd, the TV critics and the watching millions and enduring endless humiliating replays in a YouTube montage of gaffes of the season, for a free-kick that ends up hitting the corner flag, there appears to be a learned response at the Arsenal to leave it to someone else and to avoid responsibility at all costs?

Similarly, I've witnessed young Reiss Nelson rip opposition defences to shreds when I've watched him play for our U23s. I've been waiting on tenterhooks to see him do likewise, whenever he's been afforded a rare opportunity to shine in a first-team shirt. And yet for the most part, it feels as if Reiss is playing "with the handbrake on", inhibited by specific instructions to keep it simple. I'm sitting there waiting with baited breath, for Nelson to unleash his breathtaking pace and "carpe diem", by making the most of his chance to force himself into first team contention, while a seemingly reticent Nelson chooses instead to lay the ball off, rather than risk ending up a laughing stock, conceding possession (and the wrath of his manager?), while attempting anything audacious.

I've often mentioned my habit of studying our substitutes, when they get the wave from Bould, or Banfield to return to the bench, in order to ready themselves for their introduction to proceedings on the pitch. If we were in their privileged boots, we simply couldn't get our tracksuit off quick enough and we'd be out on the touchline in a flash, absolutely desperate for the ball to go dead, so we could get out there and have some impact on the game. When I recall the sight of the likes of Ian Wright, positively straining at the leash on the sidelines, in his anxiousness to get involved in the game, by contrast, watching the likes of Theo Walcott, during the time Walcott takes dawdling with his tracksuit, shinpads and anything else which might delay his introduction, one can't help but conclude that Theo is less than eager to get out on the park.

I mention all of the above as evidence of some sort of pernicious comfort zone that exists at the Arsenal, where in the absence of any vocal, demonstrative leadership figures, both on the bench, or out on the park, there's absolutely no encouragement for players to challenge themselves to take the sort of risks required to impose themselves on a game. Nor is there any threat of censure, for all those who are content to go through the motions, game in, game out, knowing that no matter their level of mediocrity, they'll continue to collect their obscene remuneration every week and at the very worst, they'll find themselves sidelined, until injuries, or suspensions eventually forces them back into the first XI frame.


This is the main reason why we are all so desperate to witness the renaissance of Jack Wilshere. After enduring so much sideways and backwards, possession obsessed football with no real purpose, at long last, here is a player who's first thought is to always look forwards, to see if he can make something happen. Moreover, Wilshere might be no less likely than Iwobi to be foolishly caught partying on camera, when in return for such incomprehensibly exorbitant rewards, players nowadays are unrealistically expected to endure a monk-like existence of complete and utter abstinence. However, we're more likely to forgive JW's occasional indiscretions, on the basis that (like Iwobi!). he's always been and will always be a Gooner. We can deludedly believe that it's not only about the money and that unlike some of the more mercenary players, Jack can't wash the agony of an Arsenal defeat off in the post-match shower because he feels our pain.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in being surprised to see Iwobi retain his place in Wednesday night's starting XI and it's sad that Alex has to date, largely failed to fulfil his early promise. In an age when the likes of Man City are seemingly able to spend their way to complete and total superiority, I adored the fact that Wenger was previously striving for an alternative model, based on a more affordable, homegrown core.

Since starting this piece, I've seen highlights of Burnley's defeat at Palace on MOTD and despite losing, what struck me most was the do or die willingness of Sean Dyche's defence, to put their bodies on the line to thwart Palace. Wilshere and Ramsey are the only two survivors at the Arsenal, from the five smiling faces shown signing their new contracts in the photo at the top of this piece and at this precise point in time, Jack's future remains in doubt. I can't help but wonder precisely how Wenger has failed to make more from the massive advantage possible, given the potential motivation of a homegrown core, when compared to the collection of "have boots will travel" mercenaries making up the majority of our competitors?

I can't envisage us offloading Theo Walcott, unless we're prepared to do a deal whereby we subsidise a substantial proportion of his wages, but like many, I think "unlucky Theo" needs to go. If taken out of his comfort zone at the Arsenal, to a club and a manager who can challenge Walcott to perform, his career might well be rejuvenated to the point where he's capable of scoring 20 goals a season.

On their own, Gibbs, the Ox and Walcott might not be the sort of global footballing luminaries that we crave at our club, but as a unit, their whole should be greater than the sum of the individual parts and it has to be viewed as a failure on Arsène's part that their careers have all plateaued at the Arsenal.

I'm desperately trying not to sound too despondent, but it was a decidedly unfamiliar feeling to find myself with my nose pressed firmly up against the FA Cup window, excluded from the thrill of the 4th round draw for the first time in over twenty years, envious of the enemy and their awayday outing to the wilds of South Wales (you never know, maybe their coach will get washed out to sea, crossing the Severn Bridge?).

We go into tomorrow's encounter with the Cherries, grateful to remain in top six contention, only thanks to the inconsistency of others. With another eight games between us and a potential Europa Cup final in Lyon in May, as our best chance of a sniff of any silverware this season, the League Cup takes on greater significance. All we need is to beat Chelsea in the return leg and (assuming Bristol City don't beat us to it) perhaps to bring City's unbeaten run to a poignant end in the final!

Every time Petr Cech faces a penalty, I'm moved to ask if he's ever laid a glove on a spot kick, let alone save one and I've yet to receive an answer. If our first choice keeper is way past his "sell by" date, it appears as if our first choice centre-half is fast approaching his own "good until" expiry point, with Koscielny having to be nursed from game to game, with his chronic achilles injury (I'm no longer considering Mertesacker as a viable alternative and I pray Wenger saves Per from further humiliation by doing likewise!).

Our most consistent centre-back so far this season is actually a left-back and as a result, we've got a kid playing at left back who might actually be a half decent midfielder (if ever AMN is given a chance to play in his preferred role, where surely he'd prove far more effective than Xhaka?). While our right back is so far up his own backside that I'm surprised he hasn't launched his own designer brand of toothpaste.

Much like poor Rosicky, our most creative midfielder is plagued by an injury from which Cazorla is unlikely ever to return to playing top level football and we're fast coming to terms with the fact that we're destined to lose our most reliable source of goals, with no guaranteed replacement for Alexis on the horizon. Meanwhile, the club's single only world class talent could choose to walk any day and could you really blame Özil if he did, when in so many inept displays nowadays, I want to apologise to Mesut for having to endure such rank incompetency around him.

Far from leaving us with a legacy, one could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène has contrived to ensure that he departs with the club in the sort of pitifully parlous state that will be guaranteed to sabotage the efforts of any eventual successor.

Still beat Bournemouth and we're only one win away from overtaking Spurs
'Nuff waffle!
Happy New Year
COYG

Bernard

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email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Are You Watching Tottenham?

            There was I, convincing myself over the last couple of weeks that the switch of Koscielny and Mustafi for our magnificent Derby day triumph was going to prove to be a seminal moment in this season's campaign, akin to the significant impact of Conte dispensing with a back four, after Chelsea's humbling at our place last season and that as a result we were witnessing the renaissance of Shkodran, into our very own Field Marshal Rommel, the sort of resolute, vocal leader that the Gunners have been blatantly crying out for, in the past dozen years or so, of far too docile underachievement. 

            Sadly, following the all too rare sighting of successive clean sheets, this illusion of yet another defensive false dawn was promptly shattered, a mere eleven minutes into Saturday's mammoth encounter versus Man U, as a humiliated Mustafi made his exit, stage left, heading straight down the tunnel, looking less like a wounded warrior and more like a petrified kid who'd just shat his pants on his first day of school!

            If there is one thing that can unite our bipolar club in this fractious Wenger In/Out era, it is the collective Gooner contempt for Jose Mourinho. Sure, much like every other Arsenal fan, I was utterly inconsolable on Saturday evening, coming away from the most enthralling contest seen at our place in many a moon, with nothing to show for such a concerted effort. Yet the antipathy felt towards their smug Portuguese manager has become so vehement over the years that it was the thought of Mourinho mumbling his post-match disdain that was far more infuriating than the melodramatic manner in which we'd just carelessly dispensed with three more points, in yet another fairly typical example of the Gunners' glorious failures.

            I'd schlepped up to Turf Moor the previous weekend for a much-needed fix of awayday fever because home games nowadays are so often such a sterile, unrewarding experience. As my Spurs mates are fast discovering at Wembley, one is invariably aware of the increased proportion of glory-hunting tourists attracted to the glamorous Premiership clashes, due to the proliferation of smartphones being held aloft, by all those irritating spectators, who are less concerned with concentrating on events on the pitch, than they are on posting on Faceache, to prove their presence at the big event to all their envious social media pals (a crime of which I'm often no less culpable!).

            Thankfully for once, we managed to lift the roof off the library on Saturday, where the unfortunate course of events in the opening minutes and the subsequent efforts of our fickle support to try and inspire a riposte, ensured that the decibel level was perhaps even louder than it had been during our 2-0 demolition of Spurs. Not that our desire to beat Man U is greater than our determination to maintain North London bragging rights, but as evidenced by the ferocity of virtually a  57,000 strong chorus of "F#ck off Mourinho", there is nothing more distressing to most Gooners than the prospect of the Gobby One getting one over on us.

            Saturday's game was such a fabulous example of Premiership football at it's frenetic best that I'm sure I'd be far more gracious in defeat, if it involved anyone other than Jose. However considering we fell victim to two defensive catastrophes, a single sucker punch when throwing the kitchen sink at a comeback and possibly the best ever goalkeeping performance I've been privileged to witness, I found myself sitting in front of the TV later than night wondering if I'd seen an entirely different game to the myriad of media pundits who were all lauding the brilliance of our opposition.

            Masochistic sucker for punishment that I am, I forced myself to endure a full length replay of the entire match on the box, just to confirm that my perception of what had transpired hadn't been coloured by my partisan view from the lower east stand. You couldn't help but be impressed by Jesse Lingard's high-octane endeavours and considering I don't hold Man U's defence in particularly high regard, this was a decidedly resolute display.

            Perhaps it will sound like sour grapes, but as delighted as I would've  been to be departing from our place with all three points in the bag, if I was a Man Utd fan, after having spent £587million in pursuit of glory in the post-Fergie era, I'd be a tad disenchanted to be relying on a Man of the Match performance from our keeper to thwart the Arsenal (at least this seemed to be the MOTM consensus amongst all of the media luvvies, with the sole exception of that numbskull McManaman on BT Sport!).

            Excluding all the sarcastic cracks about the sale of 57,000 slightly soiled flags, in the rapid deflation of the buoyant mood at the Emirates on Saturday night, there were echoes of that devastating Champions Leagues semifinal in 2009, with the ten minute, two goal pricking of the Gunners' balloon.

            Arriving early to bag my close proximity parking pitch, I savoured the closing stages from Vicarage Road on the car radio, as ten man Spurs dropped another two points against Watford. Then little did I know that my afternoon had peaked an hour before kick-off, when Wenger pulled a flanker with the announcement of a supposedly injured Lacazette included in the starting lineup. 

            Having seen Laca limping around, holding his groin during the latter stages of the first-half against Huddersfield, it was no surprise when he failed to appear after the break. I feared the worst when I saw Giroud warming up during half-time and Laca's injury certainly wasn't ALL folly. Apparently you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but I can't recall the last time Arsène intentionally put one over on the opposition by springing this sort of a surprise. I can only begin to imagine the satisfaction Wenger must've derived from keeping the lid on this news, when he's so often been on the receiving end of his arch enemy's shenanigans.

            The loss of Lacazette for Saturday's game had taken a little gloss off our five goal drubbing of the Terriers on Wednesday night. I spent the subsequent two days trying to convince myself that Olly's inclusion might possibly serve to our advantage, in combatting Man Utd's obvious aerial advantage. But with LSO (Lacazette, Sanchez, Özil), our very own London Symphony Orchestra just beginning to make some sweet music, in truth I was devastated by the prospect of losing the central prong of our world-class attacking trident and it was a massive shot in the arm to see an unchanged lineup trot out for KO.

            I've felt all season that Man Utd's form has been deceptive and that Mourinho has struggled to find a formula to bring his billionaire collection of individuals to the boil. From the little I've seen of Man U (which hasn't been a lot) Pogba hasn't appeared to be able to impose himself on games, in the way he did for Juve and when you compare his performance with Mesut's on Saturday, if Pogba is worth €100million, what price our playmaker? Likewise, at £75million, the lumbering Lukaku makes Lacazette look a positive bargain!

            Similarly, most avid Gooners turned up on Saturday afternoon, knowing that our form on paper was flattering. Aside from an impressive outing at Goodison, against a Toffee's side in turmoil, the Gunners have been struggling to find some genuine rhythm. We barely touched the ball in the first-half against Burnley and although we improved after the break, the Clarets rarely looked in danger of conceding. And against Huddersfield on Wednesday night, if you exclude the opening minute and a scintillating spell when the Terriers totally imploded in the final twenty minutes, for the remaining 69 mins we failed miserably to break down David Wagner's obdurate and well organised troops.

            So it seemed to me that if we were to have any chance of vanquishing Man U, we needed to turn up with the same high-tempo and intensity, right from the opening whistle that we'd produced against Spurs. Whatever Mourinho might be, he's certainly no fool and if I'm correct in my belief that we must've lost the coin toss, it was a shrewd move designed to try and unsettle us, by turning the teams around. 

            To my mind, the calamitous events in those opening minutes serve to highlight the significance of leadership, either on the pitch, or the bench because it was evident in Man U's adrenaline fuelled start that the visitors were that bit more pumped up than we were. That's the reason they forced the errors and why both gaffes resulted in goals. Not for the first time this season, I'd commented on Huddersfield's kit on Wednesday, not just because it's almost identical to our own black and pink strip, but that I'm no fan of the proliferation of teams playing in black shirts.

            From my vantage point in the lower tier, it's evident that unlike players in brighter coloured shirts, those in black shirts do not stand out against the background of the crowd and I'm 100% convinced that this makes it far harder to perceive opponents and teammates alike in one's peripheral vision. Not playing a square ball when coming out of defence might be one of those schoolboy errors, written in stone, but I was almost directly in line with the intercepted pass from Koscielny, which resulted in Man Utd's first goal and I swear that Laurent was not alone in not seeing Valencia, until it was too late.

            In his defence, in the build up to the killer second goal, Mustafi was far from alone in being caught napping. None of his teammates were sufficiently energised, to be alive to the possibility to make themselves available. Where Man Utd were fired up from the opening whistle, it took until it was game over and we were 0-2 down for the Gunners to get suitably stoked.

            Bloomin' typical! I've been raving these past few weeks about Nacho's remarkable positioning, seemingly always in the right place, at the right time and he goes and lets this immaculate record slip on Saturday, with neither he, nor Petr Cech exactly covering themselves in glory with both two opening goals. It's been Bellerin who's been the principle target for my ire in recent weeks, with his persistent lack of conviction when it comes to stopping opponents supply of ammunition at source, by charging out to prevent crosses.

            Perhaps Hector could've done more to try and stop Man U scoring their third, but we were giving it such a determined go at that stage that we were always liable of conceding a gut-wrenching sucker punch. I think it was an Alexis step-over that gifted Man U the possession to be able to launch this counter attack and in spite of his invariably significant momentary contributions, for the most part Alexis has struggled to put a foot right in recent weeks. Doubtless they've somehow massaged his pass completion stats because I can barely recall Alexis finding a teammate with a single pass in recent games.

            Nevertheless, after having subjected Man U to the most intense pressure for the majority of this encounter that they're likely to experience all season, like most other Gooners, I came away on Saturday evening dejected about the defeat, yet still feeling a good deal of pride in what was otherwise an astonishingly committed performance. It's been an all too common occurrence in recent times for me to be left fulminating about the Arsenal's failure to roll their sleeves up, but most pleasingly, it felt as if we'd left everything out on the park against Man U and on another day, with a little more rub of the green, we'd have utterly buried them, even with a two goal deficit.

            As not exactly one of Granit Xhaka's greatest admirers, you know the Gunners have produced a creditable effort when I find myself struggling to criticise our Swiss Jack-of-no-trades. Similarly, for all my adoration of Mesut Özil, I invariably have cause to moan at his tendency to slow the game down, whereas on Saturday he almost singlehandedly carried the attack to the opposition. The cynic in me sincerely hopes that just about the most dominant display we've seen from Mesut in an Arsenal shirt, wasn't a "come get me" to Mourinho, as that would feel like the ultimate betrayal.

            Frankly I'm relieved we've got a dead rubber game against Bate Borisov on Thursday night, as an opportunity to get Saturday's defeat out of their system before the trip to St Mary's next weekend. After throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Man Utd, you wouldn't be surprised if there was some psychological hangover from coming away with nothing to show for all that effort.

            It wouldn't be realistic of us to expect quite such an epic effort every game, but the Gunners set the bar bloomin' high on Saturday and the challenge now is for them to be able to reproduce the same standard, by regularly peppering our opponents' goal. He perhaps could've been more clinical, but I'm extremely optimistic about Lacazette's potential to become our main man. The French striker is a study in perpetual motion and it might not be apparent to those watching on the box, but he's constantly looking to run in behind the opposition's defence and I can't wait for the time when his teammates become sufficiently in tune with Laca, to pick out more of these runs.

            Finally, what I wouldn't give for an $11k Bitcoin for every Arsenal player that would find his way into the combined Arsenal / Spurs XIs now of all those pundits Gunner-less selections from a couple of weeks back!

COYG
Bernard

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com