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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Coming Down To The Bierkeller? But We Haven't Started Our Symphony

Too much to hope for that the Allianz Arena is actually an
orange spaceship designed to transport Trump
to Mars (one way!)?
            It's hardly a mood of optimism that abounds, with the Gunners about to head off to Munich for Wednesday night's Champions League encounter in the spectacular Allianz Arena. I've no idea about Bayern's recent form, other than their league table suggesting the appearance of them making their habitual stroll to the Bundesliga title. Nevertheless, no matter what the outcome of Wednesday's game, when it comes to the most glamorous of footballing stages, at the very least, one would expect the Gunners to do themselves some justice with their performance.

            Although I must admit that it often feels most galling, whenever the Arsenal manage to raise their game, amidst all the grandeur and in the spotlight of these massive Champions League occasions because it leaves me so much more furious about our failure to show up consistently on the less glitzy stage.

            I shouldn't really be whinging after a 2-0 win, with us having just pegged Spurs back this past weekend and the Lilywhites having seemingly run up the white flag, in their abysmal failure to mind their three point gap at Anfield. Who knew that a more abject display than our own humiliation at Stamford Bridge could be quite so hilarious. Moreover, at least so long as the Gunners are winning games, hopefully it will provide a timely, albeit temporary interlude to the incessant, acrimonious white-noise of the Wenger debate.

            One could make an argument that it is far easier to motivate oneself to play a top-six competitor than one of the league's current bottom feeders. Yet if there was one thing that struck me after watching Saturday's games, it was that while Jurgen Klopp might not prove to be the Scouse Messiah, he does at least appear to possess the wherewithal to provoke a reaction from his troops, following Liverpool's terrible run of poor results. By contrast, to my mind, there was very little about the way the Gunners went about the task of subduing the in form Tigers, in Saturday's early KO, in the decidedly subdued environs of a shivering, far less than full Emirates that suggested an emphatic response from our players, to the dent they should've suffered to their pride, following successive, embarrassingly flaccid displays against Watford and Chelsea.

            There's invariably a reason why clichés become clichés because their frequency of use suggests there's some substance to the words. I found myself pondering that old adage about the need to change either the team, or the manager every five years. Pretty much everything we've seen from the Gunners since that all too brief spark of form back in the autumn, seems to shriek of a glaringly obvious sense of a squad going through the motions. If the Arsenal's form over the course of the winter was portrayed on an ECG monitor, it would be the worryingly consistent waveform of a comatose patient. A representation of a team that trots out every few days, to climb upon a ninety-minute treadmill, totally oblivious of a leadership soundtrack which has been playing in their ears for as long as they've been present in London N5.

            Even Alexis' relentless bursts of energy appear to be on the wane, as his unbridled enthusiasm seems to be ground down over the course of each season, with the tediously repetitive and seemingly inevitable nature of the Gunners' perennial fall from grace. I had always hoped that Alexis' intensity would prove infectious, inspiring his team mates to try and match our Duracell Bunny's work rate, but sadly the exact opposite seems to be true. Despite adding to his tally with Saturday's brace, with each passing game Alexis appears to suffer from creeping insouciance, as we see his shoulders sag ever lower, with his permanent smile seemingly sapped from his phizog, while one by one, our silverware dreams are steamrollered by far hungrier "team" units.

            As sad as I'd be to see Sanchez go, if I'm entirely honest, I could hardly blame the Chilean for wanting to make his exit. The man is an obvious winner and his frustration at the apparent inability to inspire the same voracious, run until you drop, shit or bust appetite in his teammates is patently apparent. Considering how briefly a footballer's flame flickers, in his shoes I simply wouldn't want to sacrifice any more of my peak playing days to the Arsenal's contented cause of also-ran mediocrity, if there was an opportunity to play for a club, which matched my ambitions for trophy-laden glory.

            Then again the pain of losing such a rare, joy to watch footballer might be somewhat tempered, if by some miracle we had a hope of snaffling Aguero from Man City. How much fun would that be, if Aguero was to stick two fingers up at the magus Guardiola, by scoring thirty plus goals in red and white, on route to the Arsenal's league triumph??!! 

            Having stamped his authoritarian mark on Man City, in his efforts to make it his team, surely even Guardiola has got to come in for some stick, if after dropping Aguero for Jesus (and Hart for Bravo!), City end the season empty-handed?

            Then again, there was another marked contrast between the comfort zone of stability that exists at the Arsenal and the constant air of insecurity used by other managers to keep their charges on their toes, which struck me while watching City pip the Cherries on Monday night. When Jesus had his foot stamped on, only a few minutes into proceedings, Aguero couldn't get stripped off quick enough and was standing, waiting on the touchline to come on, even before Jesus had limped off the pitch. To my eyes, it appeared as if Jesus had to be told that he was coming off. It looked as if the Brazilian lad was positively desperate to try and soldier on, to see if he could 'run off' his knock.

            With Guardiola surprising the entire footballing world by starting the relatively untried teenager, ahead of a player of Aguero's proven calibre, it was evident quite how reluctant Jesus was to give up his golden opportunity to prove himself capable of walking on water, knowing Aguero might force himself back into the box seat, only for Jesus to end up having to bide his time, until he's presented with another opportunity to depose City's main man.


You seriously expect me to lose the toasty blanket and run
around in my shorts, when I'm earning the exact same
obscene sum for snuggling up on this bench?

            I can rarely recall any Arsenal players in recent times showing their frustration at being unable to continue in a game and I've often moaned about their reluctant looking replacements, with the likes of Theo hardly appearing desperate to get involved, judging by how long he dawdles on the bench, readying himself (in fact I'm surprised some of our prima donnas don't nip back into the dressing room for a makeup check!). 

            The Gunners might have plenty of competition for places when everyone is fit, but our perpetual 'top four' machine has been jogging along so seamlessly for all these years that there exists a far too composed absence of insecurity for my liking. Even in the event of a dramatic dip in form that endures too long even for Arsène to ignore, our stars never seem phased by an enforced period on the bench, in the certain and comforting knowledge that their turn will come around again, soon enough. It pains me to think of what some of our players might be capable of, if they were desperate to prove themselves?

            Yet as evidenced by the gossip in Sunday's red-tops, we Gooners do indeed need to be careful about what we wish for. If the Arsenal's immutability and our manager's inability to make himself heard are eventually recognised as a significant handicap by the suits, or more likely, the clamour from the increasingly vacant terraces becomes too loud to be ignored, then chances our that our prayers for a more animated leader will also fall upon deaf ears and our esteemed, inscrutable, unemotive manager will end up being replaced by another French, far less respected wet fish, in the form of Rafa!

            If such an eventuality should come to pass and le Prof ends up passing the baton onto Benitez, I might for once ignore my rule about not betting on the Arsenal, to see what odds I'll be offered on him getting the boot sooner than Moyes did at Man Utd. Surely those increasingly vociferous cries are for change, not for "chump change"?

            Meanwhile, with the away fans allocation at Gander Green Lane amounting to a meagre 750 tickets, I'm trying to avoid getting too wound up at having been one of the many Gooners on the Away Ticket Scheme who were unsuccessful in the ballot for next Monday night's match (at least it's being shown live on the box!). Coming from Bayern's state of the art arena, to Sutton Utd's artificial 3g playing surface, you really couldn't ask for a longer journey, between the two ends of the beautiful game's marvellous spectrum and it pains me to know that I'll be missing out on a rare opportunity to see the Gunners play at a venue I've not yet ticked off.

            It was always going to be an impossible task to satisfy all the most deserving fans, but what pisses me off above all else, is that doubtless only about half of these tickets ended up being allocated in the ballot to those who commit to a ticket to every away match and as always, the balance will have gone to the club's VIPs. 

            So the most loyal Gooners will have lost out to more affluent Arsenal punters, those guaranteed tickets whether they travel to away games or not, because for example, they can afford to spend £100k for their privileged Diamond Club pitches at the Emirates. As a result, my place at Monday night's encounter and those of so many others who travel to most every match, is likely to be taken by a small horde of Gooner part-timers; but then why should we be surprised that matters at the Arsenal are no more fair than every other aspect of a global society where, in the words of comedian Billy Bennett "it's the rich what gets the pleasure, it's the poor what gets the blame".

Give them a shout for me on Monday!

COYG
Bernard




--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, 6 February 2017

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

Who'd have imagined, AW safer sat amongst Blues' fans
            My mate was absent from Stamford Bridge on Saturday, after falling and breaking his leg on Friday night. As I sat suffering yet another infuriatingly humiliating encounter, in our succession of abysmal batterings at the Bridge, I was left thinking that perhaps it might be worth me enduring the same physical pain next season, in order to be excused from more of this agonising mental torture!
Groundhog Day yet again!

 
             For the most part, I've tried to steer well clear of the Wenger debate, both because our mulish manager is only about to make his exit when he's good and ready and because I'm reluctant to add fuel to the ever-present, acrid air of disunity on the terraces, by disrespecting a man to whom we owe so much. Nevertheless, another pitiful performance at the Bridge felt like the final nail in the coffin of this particular argument. As the tweets of Bill Murray began doing the social media rounds, we'd just witnessed proof positive of the pig-headed insanity of doing the same thing, over and over and over again and expecting a different outcome. 
             

 
             Obviously, one has to take into account that this was a Chelsea team high on confidence, but it was the insufferable sight of the home side winning every 50/50 challenge and being first to every second ball that was the most marked contrast between the two teams. It appears as if Conte has managed to inspire an evident hunger in his troops, where the stasis at the Arsenal ensures that our players continue to merely go through the same prosaic motions of this and every other season in recent times, rooted in their comfort zone of fourth place complacency.

 
             Whether it causes the Gunners to crash and burn, or hopefully to shoot for the stars, it seems to me that change is now utterly essential at the club, if only to ensure the sort of wholesale upheaval that can guarantee an altered trajectory, to escape this eternal orbit of indifference, in a zero atmosphere vacuum, with no genuine hope of ever actually achieving our destination!

 
             Returning to Stamford Bridge only to be mullahed has fast become an annual masochistic ritual these past few years. Yet loyal lemmings that we are, we continue to traverse London on each occasion, primarily out of some misplaced belief that our fortunes must eventually change. After having grown so accustomed to suffering so much misery on Chelsea's home turf, there's an increasing sense that one dare not attend, for fear of missing out on the opportunity to inflict some long overdue payback.

 
             I must admit that as crossed Hyde Park, past the Albert Memorial, towards Kensington and Chelsea and the dreary rain gave way to some misleadingly spring-like sunshine and then managed to park the motor in sight of Stamford Bridge (closer than I've ever managed previously), it felt as if the fates might finally be smiling upon us. Little did I realize that my prize parking pitch was to be absolutely the only result of the day!

 
             Nevertheless, although Chelsea appeared capable of exposing our over-stretched defence almost every time the Blues threatened on the counter, the skirmishes in the opening minutes of this encounter suggested that the Gunners high-press strategy might just unnerve a Chelsea backline, which has grown accustomed to being shown far more respect by less ambitious guests.

 
             It was the sort of optimistic approach that I'd been hoping for, however I should have known it was doomed to failure, as these sort of high risk tactics are entirely dependent on an industrious, totally committed performance by all ten outfield players. And sadly, as we've experienced all too often in the recent past, we simply cannot rely on everyone in this Arsenal squad to be willing to roll their sleeves up, run until they drop and risk putting their bodies on the line for the Gunners' cause.
Trousers suitably brown

 
             As a lover of the beautiful game, I instinctively found myself standing up to applaud in admiration of Eden Hazard's magical, second-half moment of glory. It was akin to the Giggs' goal, in the way Hazard singlehandedly made such blundering monkeys of what is normally a half-decent defence and left the Gunners and the couple of thousand Gooners in our corner of Stamford Bridge, watching on in dumbfounded bemusement. Unlike the more hirsute Ryan Giggs, mercifully at least we didn't have to endure the sight of Hazard cavorting around, titillating opposition fans with his hairy chest!

 
             However, aside from this brief cameo of footballing genius, perhaps most irritating about Saturday's disaster was that Chelsea managed to embarrass us with such a dominant display, despite a performance that was some way from Conte's side playing at their very best. Ultimately, from my humble point of view, yet another drubbing on Blues' turf was due to the simple fact that in spite of the likes of Costa failing to impact upon proceedings in his customary fashion against the Gunners, all of Chelsea's outfield players were fully engaged in their efforts to set the record straight, after their own humiliating experience in the reverse fixture at our place, earlier this season.

 
             Whether it was Kanté covering every blade of grass, in his incessantly energetic fashion (once again leaving me debating the logic of paying £35m for Xhaka, if we could've bought Kanté for £5m less?), Matic bullying our players off the ball in every significant midfield battle, or Moses making the most of his more limited talents on the flank, this was a team performance, in which I don't think there was a single player in blue who was guilty of failing to pull his weight.

 
             Although I'm somewhat reluctant to single out individuals for blame, especially when the vast majority were culpable, one can pretty much go through the entire Arsenal team on Saturday and list all the faults that were responsible for them coming off as second best, by an embarrassing long chalk, to their opposite numbers.

 
             Personally I've been trying to avoid having to endure further humiliation, watching the highlights (lowlights!) repeated on the box, but knowing how much time goalkeepers devote in training, focusing on improving the speed with which they are able to bounce back up, from the horizontal to the vertical, my gut reaction to Chelsea's opening goal was to be disappointed with Petr Cech's failure to regain his feet, in time to at least attempt to thwart Alonso. As for the catastrophic ineptitude, which gifted Fabregas with Chelsea's third, I can't even begin to discuss this calamitous disaster, without my blood pressure rising dangerously close to boiling point!

 
             In truth, it felt as if the game was up and all Gooner optimism evaporated from our corner of the ground, with the double-whammy of Chelsea's opener. Aside from the significance of scoring first, we all knew that our prospects of turning this game around had deteriorated dramatically, with the loss of Hector Bellerin.

 
             I'm certain many Gooners might think I am being far too harsh and I fully appreciate the stringent, modern day Health and Safety regulations, which dictate a compulsory response to any head injuries. Nevertheless, with the aid of my binoculars, it was obvious that the hefty clump from Alonso had left Hector dazed and confused, but he definitely didn't appear to lose consciousness at any point. In light of the overall importance of the outcome of this match and it's impact on our campaign, I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to being disappointed that Hector didn't demonstrate himself to be made of stronger stuff.

 
             Perhaps if we had the likes of Debuchy on the bench, I might not have been quite so devastated by the sight of Bellerin disappearing straight down the tunnel, but knowing how much hay Chelsea were likely to make down our right flank with the limited mobility of our makeshift centre-half, call me unsympathetic if you will, but I wanted Hector to at least wait on the sideline for a few moments, to see if his head cleared sufficiently for him to be able to return to the fray.
What head injury?

 
             I know we've come a long way from the days of Terry Butcher and the traumatic images of his bandaged head pouring with blood and his shirt covered in claret, but I can't help but wonder about the psychological impact upon both teams of seeing Bellerin "retired hurt", rather than a display of guts and determination of a player who refused to be bowed?

 
             I could rave on endlessly, venting my frustrations over Iwobi's first-half anonymity and the apparent distaste of the likes of Özil and Walcott for "putting themselves about" and daring to put their foot in, when it comes to this sort of full-blooded encounter. Yet where we required all of our players to be sufficiently inspired by an opportunity to put a timely spoke in the Conte bandwagon, by taking points off the league leaders and thereby offering some hope of their being a title contest, sadly the depressing truth of the matter is that during all the crucial moments in this contest, the Gunners were guilty of carrying too many passengers.

 

You get £130k per week
we pay to endure this crap!
          Even on his rare "off days" Alexis Sanchez can usually be relied upon to at least run around a lot, putting in his habitual relentless shift. Not only could he not put a foot right on Saturday, but Alexis appears so averse to sacrificing his "main man" role for the sake of the team that when Giroud eventually appeared after 65 mins, he pretty much gave up the ghost and shut shop. Seemingly the switch on our Duracell Bunny only has two settings, either on, or off and towards the end of Saturday's game Alexis' demoralised body language screamed of his disapproval, to such an extent that I really wouldn't be at all surprised if our Chilean superstar ends up making his exit from the Arsenal (now if there was any chance of trading him in for Aguero, it wouldn't be quite such a disaster!).


 
             With every high cross into the box proving meat and drink to the home side's centre-halves, I was hoping Giroud might at least improve our aerial prospects. But sadly Giroud promptly set his ineffective tone, when being outmuscled the first few times he received the ball with his back to the opposition, by those who simply wanted it more than our French striker. Nothing summed up the disappointing absence of the Arsenal's appetite more than Monreal whipping a low ball into the box, directly in front of us during the second half. This was a perfect ball into that "corridor of uncertainty" that was simply begging for someone to come sliding in and divert it into the net. Instead of which, we had to suffer the sight of it passing harmlessly through the danger area because no one in red and white was willing to gamble on making the required run into the six-yard box.

  
             Similarly, Coquelin came in for a lot of stick, for his inability to halt Hazard's impressive progress, on route to scoring Chelsea's second goal. Yet watching a robust individual like Franny bounce off a schnip of a player like Hazard was pretty much symptomatic of the contrasting levels of desire of the two sides. Notwithstanding Giggs' goal back in 1999, where everyone else was dead on their feet, usually in days of yore the embarrassment of allowing an opponent to progress from inside their own half, all the way to the six-yard box, in such a crucial contest, was such that even if it resulted in "taking one for the team" and an early bath, someone in red and white could be relied upon to intercede, by fair means or foul. It was this notable difference in Chelsea's determination that was most exasperating.


Good question!
            Just about the only Arsenal player to come away from Saturday's game with any credit was Danny Welbeck because he alone was sufficiently energised in his twenty minute cameo, to refuse to show Chelsea any respect and to at least attempt to take them on at every possible opportunity. I've always believed in taking maximum advantage whenever a player hits a hot streak. Personally I would've liked to see Welbeck start against Watford last Tuesday, to prove his feats against Southampton weren't "a flash in the pan" and to demonstrate to Wenger the folly of leaving him on the bench against Chelsea.


 
             If we're to have the slightest chance of achieving a result in Munich on Wednesday week that might offer us some hope of defeating Bayern over two legs and progressing in the Champions League, we're going to need to bounce back first, by beating an in form Hull on Saturday. The return of Elneny and Xhaka will at least bolster our depleted midfield options, but it remains to be seen if either of these two has the mental fortitude, or the ability even, to lend the squad the sort of "jump start" that will be required after quite such a depressing defeat.

 
             Moreover, with both Liverpool and Man Utd nipping at our heels, after dropping three more points and with the inevitable text message teasing of my Spurs mates to remind me to "mind the gap", as we now lag three points behind our neighbours, either the Gunners find a means of establishing some long awaited momentum, or our entire season will be in serious danger of imploding, with at least five clubs contending for the three remaining Champions League places.

 
             Then again, as has been mooted in seasons past, could it be that the only thing to stir Kroenke and co. from their profit-laden stupor and to cause sufficient financial alarm to shake up the Arsenal's eternal status-quo, is the possibility of being finally denied our permanent reservation at the Champions League table? After so many successive seasons of our appearance on football's grandest stage, we've grown so blasé about it that it might take being deprived of qualification for us to learn to appreciate the privilege of being involved in the competition once again.

 
             Mind you the consequences as far as recruitment is concerned, could prove so damming and knowing quite how much all my Spurs pals will relish retaining their highly cherished top four prize, I simply couldn't countenance the prospect of Spurs qualifying at our expense. It bothers me that Gooners increasing contempt for our manager is accompanied by mounting disrespect for his miraculous feat of consistency, when it comes to keeping the club's nose in the Champions League trough.

 
             However, while form may be temporary and class permanent, if we are to glean something from the succession of bombshells of Leicester's title win, Brexit and Trump, they suggest that the world might've shifted on its axis. In terms of our trivial ball game pursuit, such is the demand for immediate success and the resulting increased competition that Arsène is no longer guaranteed the reassuring comfort of retaining our customary consolation prize, unless his charges show willing to roll their sleeves up and at the very minimum, match the appetite of far hungrier contenders.

 

             The Gunners have grown far too familiar with reaching the league finishing straight and finding themselves only a single fortuitous turn of events away from Champions League qualification falling in our laps. With the league leaders disappearing off into the distance, we appear destined to witness the remainder of our league campaign culminate in a climactic "winner take all" battle at White Hart Lane at the end of April, in the shadow of Spurs impressive new arena. With this fixture potentially being our neighbours penultimate match at their dilapidated old ground, I really don't fancy the thought of driving to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, still with a points deficit that leaves us trailing behind the old enemy, in the certain knowledge that nothing less than a win will suffice.

 
             Unless our season is to implode completely, on Sutton's artificial playing surface, progress in the FA Cup would prove a consolation. Yet unless we somehow manage to overcome Bayern and achieve a miraculous challenge for the Champions League, our best hope for salvaging some pride from this campaign would be for the trip to White Hart Lane to be a celebration of Spurs enduring existence in our shadow. Yet where previous results might've given the misleading appearance that we've been playing ourselves into form, two disastrous defeats this past week stand as testament to the extent to which we've flattered to deceive, ever since the autumn.

  
             Is there anything left in Arsène's tank to coax the real Arsenal out of hibernation, to motivate them to rediscover the rhythm of some genuine form. Just like the four seasons, for us masochistic suckers for punishment, hope springs eternal.

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Underdog Day Afternoon

            From the large swathes of empty seats at Selhurst Park for Palace's glamorous date with Guardiola's City on Saturday, evident in the TV pictures seen later that night, one might concur with those who contend that the allure of the FA Cup is on the wane. 

            In fact, after a couple of utterly miserable recent outings to St. Mary's, I myself was intending to blow out Saturday's trip to Southampton. With me feeling somewhat under the weather, it seemed far more sensible to stop indoors, in the warm, than to schlep to the South coast and risk pneumonia in the brass monkey weather. 

            Yet less than five minutes into watching Derby v Leicester on the telly on Friday night, I'd already caught the fourth round bug and decided that barring not being able to drag myself out of my pit on Saturday morning, there was absolutely no way I was going to risk the possibility of missing out on being present to witness live, not only our own slice of cup drama, but with the increased allocation of visiting fans, what invariably proves to be one of the most atmospheric awayday outings.



            Far from disrespecting world football's oldest knockout tournament, personally I believe that the fact that managers of the clubs from the upper echelons feel obliged to avail themselves of squad players, in order to avoid the risk of burn out for some of their established stars, this has only revitalised the competition, by restoring a genuine threat of dramatic giant-killings.


            With Liverpool's recent run of dreadful results, the Scousers humbling by Wolves in Saturday's midday KO wasn't such a shock, but it kind of set the tone for an underdog deluge that afternoon. I don't think any of us expected the Chairboys to have the slightest hope of pulling the rug out from under Spurs at White Hart Lane. Parking up at St. Mary's just as the three o'clock matches were approaching half-time, no one in the car took me seriously when I told them that Wycombe were two goals to the good.

            So we walked to the nearest boozer to savour all the second half drama on the multiple screens, amidst the jovial atmosphere of a pub packed with nearly as many Gooners as there were Saints' fans. Despite Wycombe's valiant efforts, in a display that, at the very least, was thoroughly deserving of the fiscal windfall of a replay, it was a visceral gutter when our ten-man neighbours conjured up a "get outta jail' card, eleven seconds after the allotted six minutes of injury time.

            With Lincoln putting on a suitable giant-killing show for the Beeb's cameras, at the Seagulls' expense and Oxford embarrassing the Toon, we weren't short of a cup upset or two. Yet after revelling in Tottenham's tribulations, only for them to squeak into the last sixteen, I spent the short walk back to St. Mary's fretting about this worrying omen. 


            I can barely recall seeing Martina play again, ever since he scored that screamer against us last season and while Saints' fans tried to reassure us that this would be a guaranteed walkover, against their severely weakened starting XI, with memories of our miserable South coast defeats still relatively raw, I certainly wasn't anticipating quite such a comfortable afternoon's entertainment.



            
            I expected Southampton to be stoked after their impressive midweek triumph at Anfield and the home fans to be suitably pumped, upon achieving their first final in fourteen years (since losing to us in Cardiff in 2003). Perhaps the surprisingly subdued atmosphere amongst the locals was due to the fact that the travelling Gooners occupied the majority of the North stand behind the goal, but as a result we spent much of the first-half taunting them with the enquiry "is this the Emirates?"

            Despite having always been such a fervent advocate for selecting one's best starting XI and getting the game won first and foremost, before resting players, the recent trend for rotating the squad in cup competitions, with Wenger usually opting for a mix of youth and experience, ensures that these encounters offer a rare opportunity to appraise the progress of the likes of Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles and Holding, in a proper competitive environment.


            However, despite the fact that the Saints have accomplished such a successful production line of talent in recent times, their latest crop of youngsters appeared to show the Gunners far too much respect, in what proved to be a surprisingly one-sided affair. Nevertheless, as they say, you can only beat the team in front of you and with Arsène watching on from the stands, beginning the first of his four-match touchline ban, le Boss must've been chuffed with the impressive display of his teenage midfield pairing.

            I always adore watching Reine-Adelaide play. Much like Thierry Henry, the French youngster bestrides the pitch with a panther-like grace. Yet as with all his young team mates, Jeff has bulked up and the formerly gangly lad now looks far more built, with the physique to be able to hold his own in the middle of the park.

            Maitland-Niles is nothing but muscle and appeared to relish the increased responsibility, looking far more at home in the middle of the park, than the rare occasion when he's featured out on the right. Doubtless Granit Xhaka was preoccupied, rubbing Factor 10 into Mesut Özil's back on some beach in the Caribbean, but Granit could do worse than to study Ainsley's dominant midfield display as a lesson in how his job should be done!


            Theo might've come away with the match ball, after his hat-trick, but aside from stabbing home the three goals, which were pretty much served up on a plate for him, I can barely recall Walcott having any other involvement in the game. It was "Dat guy Welbz" who deservedly earned most of the glory, with his slick, intuitive interchanges with Lucas Peres.

            Watching from the other end of the pitch, I thought Danny had fluffed the shot for his first goal and didn't think the second had enough legs to get over the line, without it being scrabbled away by the Saints defender. Fortunately I was back home just in time to watch Match of the Day, where I discovered that both of Welbeck's goals were wonderfully composed finishes and cause for much optimism, as this is just the sort of clinical end product that's eluded Welbeck in the past, as the one missing ingredient that might well make Danny the complete striker.

            When given a rare opportunity, Shane Long was his customarily persistent, irritant self, but from our hosts, Sims was about the only player to offer any real threat and on the odd occasion when he was asked to defend, captain for the day, Kieran Gibbs made a disappointing hash of things.


            With Steve Bould usually shackled to the bench, it was interesting to see Bouldie, barking instructions from the touchline, unfettered by Arsène's enforced absence. And as the travelling faithful went from the classic refrain of "he's got no hair, but we don't care", to a relentless rendition of "Stevie Bould's yellow army", I found my binoculars drawn to our manager, easy to spot in the director's box, alongside "old faithful", Boro Primorac in their grey outfits. Not that I was expecting them to be joining in the celebrations, but I couldn't help but wonder what Wenger was making of the adulation of his lieutenant and how quick we were to show Bouldie the sort of love that our leader rarely hears nowadays.


            Meanwhile, it's great to be in the hat for Monday's fifth round draw in such convincing style, able to sit back and enjoy, as hopefully others endure the jitters in some of Sunday's remaining matches. What's more, with their entire season on the fritz, hopefully Klopp's suitably chastened Scousers will be doubly determined to salvage some pride, by getting something out of Tuesday's encounter with Chelsea. Who knows, with a bit of luck and another emphatic win against Watford, we might end up travelling across London to Stamford Bridge next weekend, brim full of confidence, with the wind in our sails and everything to play for?

COYG
Bernard



--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Is That A Matchday Programme In Your Pocket....?

At this rate, even if Alexis is off, never mind a 2-footed replacement,
we might be left with two 4-footed golden boys galloping down the flanks
            It's normal to wet one's knickers with the ecstatic euphoria of awayday goal celebrations, but when the customarily inhibited high-fives with one's neighbour, amidst the irritatingly sedentary environs of London N5, give way to exultant, dry-humping man-hug convulsions that save for the smoking ban, would otherwise leave one instinctively reaching for a post-coital fag, then you know you've enjoyed a satisfying Sunday afternoon!

            Of late, the Gunners have been making a heart-stopping habit of snatching games at the very death. With ref Jon Moss awarding TWO injury-time penalties, I was left flummoxed by the baffling logic of those bozos who spend such big money to watch the Arsenal, only to sacrifice the unique drama of yet another astonishing denouement, merely for the utterly mundane sake of trying to beat the queues for the tube, in their eagerness to get back home?

            After Mustafi eased the tension, by breaking the deadlock with his glancing header around the hour mark, without the cushion of scoring a second, it was likely to be a long, anxious half an hour until the final whistle. Then, after scything down Mesut Özil, we all assumed Marney was merely feigning injury in his efforts to avoid punishment. So while I guiltily applauded as the Burnley player was stretchered off, I was actually fretting about the inordinate length of his treatment and the thought of the endless agony that we'd be likely to endure, with so much injury time to be tagged on to the ninety.

            Still actually seeing the board flash up SEVEN whole minutes was like a swift dig in the solar plexus. Yet even after the appearance of the archetypal panto villain, Joey Barton, a ten-man Arsenal looked perfectly capable of clinging on to all three points. Perhaps not the convincing, confidence-boosting triumph I was hoping for, but in light of all our rivals squandering points on Saturday, it looked like being the perfect riposte of a gritty, old-fashioned "1-0 to the Arsenal", until Coquelin dangled an injudicious limb in the area, for Burnley's Barnes to take full advantage by falling over such a fortuitous gift.

            Not having a great view from the other side of the ground, there was a momentary interlude, before the realisation dawned that Moss had just burst our 2nd place bubble. Since by awarding the visitors a spot-kick this was tantamount to presenting them with an equaliser. It's the first time I can recall Cech laying a glove on a penalty and I can't remember him ever actually saving a spot-kick in an Arsenal shirt (sadly with far too much practice for all our liking recently!)?

            The prospect of only coming away with a demoralising draw was so depressingly deflating, but credit where due, as with four minutes still left on the clock, the ten-man Gunners eschewed any such notion and girded their lactic-acid filled loins, to throw the kitchen sink at regaining the lead. It was the sort of valiant, totally committed last stand that couldn't help but leave one wondering why they couldn't have produced this sort of visibly determined effort, only an hour and a half earlier, thereby saving us all from such an angst ridden afternoon. But then "it's the Arsenal don't ya know" and without the car crash prior, our dramatic salvation, courtesy of such exhilarating late goal airbags, wouldn't be half as thrilling.

 
Gabby goes nuclear
          It was hilarious seeing Arsène lose the plot on the touchline and then scolding himself post-match for throwing his own toys out of the pram. Ignoring Mustafi's far more blatant claim for a penalty, the TV pundits were of the opinion that Moss got most of the big decisions right. Yet with us Gooners increasingly baying for the ref's blood, after he sent Xhaka for an early bath, awarded Burnley with a penalty and left Wenger skulking in the tunnel like a naughty teenager with ADHD, if it wasn't for some subconscious urge to seize upon any excuse to balance the scales, would Moss have blown up, when brave Koscielny conveniently put his mush in the way of a Burnley boot?


            Or perhaps this was merely a result of my own sense that a 98th minute penalty was surely far too good to be true? After having seen Alexis confidently claim the ball for the spot-kick, I turned away, almost unable to watch, in the certain knowledge that we'd tempted fate by celebrating too soon and that this intense high had to be followed by the agonising trough of Heaton pulling off a save, with the last action of the afternoon. Yet with Sanchez having had his last two penalties saved, I certainly hadn't counted on our Chilean hero displaying his balls of steel, by dinking it straight down the middle.

            Poor old Burnley! Sean Dyche must be wondering precisely which gods his Lancashire troops have offended, for them to be undone in such a cruel, last gasp fashion, in both our encounters this season. Still it must be noted that, once again, the Gunners got away with it on Saturday, without hitting top gear. 

            So with the exclusion of Chelsea, while our immediate competitors have hit brief purple patches that has seen them earning plaudits from the pundits in turn, as the teams best equipped to maintain a challenge, I take great comfort from the fact that the Gunners have clambered into second place in the league and remain in the last 16 of the Champions League (not forgetting the FA Cup but I'm loathe to tempt fate!), without barely having managed to get out of second gear. Just imagine what we might accomplish if this team truly finds its mojo?

            With this in mind, I felt there were some encouraging moments against Burnley. Considering how frequently I've found myself ranting in the past, wondering how the team occupies their time on the training ground, when we never ever produce any set-piece routines, well they might not have amounted to anything, but it was most pleasing to see us at least attempt a couple of inventive corners on Saturday. 


More signs of a burgeoning spirit?
            What's most encouraging about such routines is that they attest to a team that isn't merely content to throw every corner into the mixer of the six-yard box, hoping that someone will eventually get their head on one and direct it into the goal, but that they've managed to put their heads together, to try and concoct a plan that might catch the opposition on their heels. Should this actually be the case, then I adore the possibility that this alludes to a burgeoning team ethic amongst this group of players.

            Yet despite coming away with the psychological boost of bagging all three points at the death against Burnley, sadly this doesn't disguise the inadequacies that were all too evident once again. I've seen some Gooners contend that a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka is the key to the Arsenal's success in the future, but sadly I've yet to see ANY evidence to support such conjecture.

            There were a couple of moments on Saturday, where Aaron produced the sort of skills that offer some slight hint that he might be back on the road to recovering the sort of scintillating form of a couple of seasons back. But for the most part, from my point of view, it appeared as if there was a disconnect between Giroud, Sanchez, Iwobi and Özil up front and the rest of the team, with Burnley occupying the space between our midfield and attack. I'm of the distinct opinion that we suffer from the fact that there is no clear distinction of roles in this midfield pairing and as a result, they're destined to remain jack of all trades, but unfortunately, master of none.

            I'm sure I can't be alone in watching matches involving other teams in the past few weeks and constantly comparing their midfield options with our own. For example, witnessing Romeu's dominant display for Southampton against Liverpool last night, I couldn't help but wonder if we'd have been better off, doubtless paying a lot less for the tree-trunk thighed Spaniard than we did for Granit. Similarly, watching the efforts of Kante, Wanyama and any number of other midfielders elsewhere, the same question has crossed my mind.

            If Xhaka is destined to spend nearly a quarter of the league campaign suspended, his utterly brainless indiscretions could only be forgiven if his severely restricted eligibility offered us a player who spent the remainder of his time bullying opponents and commanding the middle of the park, much like a boxer who dominates the centre of the ring. 

            After Granit was left sprawled on the deck in the centre circle, when he bounced off a Burnley player, in a shoulder-to-shoulder confrontation with just about his first involvement in Sunday's contest, I was left screaming "you've got to be stronger than that". To date, Xhaka simply hasn't demonstrated the sort of imposing physical presence that might excuse his occasional tendency to attempt to inflict ABH. Far be it from me to condone doing physical harm to an opponent, but if one is intent on incurring the ref's red card wrath, then surely such rash behaviour wouldn't seem quite so futile, if his victims were left feeling somewhat intimidated about the prospect of encountering him on the pitch in the future.

            Although Coquelin's subsequent introduction only resulted in him conceding a penalty, Franny is at least a dedicated holding midfielder. While he might be prone to the occasional nose-bleed appearance in the opposition's penalty area, Coquelin appears content in the knowledge that his principal responsibility is to thwart the opposition from being able to threaten our defence.

            Xhaka's suspension as a result of his red card might be untimely, with Elneny still stuck in Gabon, as Egypt progress to the quarterfinals of the ACN, but mercifully, with Coquelin returning to fitness, it might just prove to be the case that Jon Moss has done us a massive favour, by guaranteeing Granit's enforced absence and taking the decision of our best option in the holding role out of Wenger's hands, since the stubborn old git is not about to admit that he's made a £35m ricket?

            Has anyone actually been tuning in to events out in Africa? I've watched the odd match on Eurosport, when there's been nothing better on the box and perhaps the competition will improve as it reaches the latter stages. Yet compared to some of the enthralling matches witnessed in African Cup of Nations of yesteryear and considering the increasingly liberal smattering of stars from established clubs across the planet, frankly I've been flabbergasted by the paucity of entertainment on view. 

            On any given weekend, one can find any number of far more engaging games of football, on a stroll across Hackney Marshes than much of the dross seen in Gabon this past week. It seems farcical that a competition of such poor overall quality can wreak quite so much havoc and can have positively priceless repercussions, for so many European clubs in their domestic affairs. I guess we should be grateful only to have lost Elneny and in light of the impact of losing players to the ACN for a couple of crucial months in seasons past, one wonders if this conundrum has any influence upon AW's transfer decisions.

 
Bugger off!
          Meanwhile, with the media seemingly intent on turning Arsène's hissy-fit into a hanging offence and Xhaka apparently being hauled over the coals by the coppers at Heathrow, if I'm honest, I relish this sort of "mountain out of a molehill" type scandal. How many times over the years have we seen the club respond to a raft of negative publicity, by bringing down the portcullis and turning the situation to our advantage, inspiring an "Arsenal against the world" atmosphere, which only serves to stiffen our resolve. In truth, when you consider Wenger's rare incidents of unprofessional conduct, compared to some of his peers, it stands as testament to his many years of self-control, since the majority of us would be losing our rag, during every other match.


            Nevertheless, I quite like to see Arsène struggling to control his temper because it proves that despite the complacent comforts of his £8 million quid per annum salary, it's the football and more importantly the Arsenal's results that continue to matter the most.

            I was quite impressed with Southampton's deserved triumph at Anfield. It might've served us if the Saints had been forced into extra-time and ended up that much more fatigued, after playing 120 minutes in midweek. However I'm hoping that they won't be nearly so motivated to continue their progress in the FA Cup on Saturday, than they might've been if they'd failed to make it to Wembley for the League Cup Final, as then Saturday's encounter would've been their last chance to keep their season afloat.

            Still it was evident from their performance against the Scousers that Southampton will certainly not prove any pushover at St. Mary's. I want Arsène to be sufficiently wound up by the media circus surrounding his disciplinary proceedings and so desperate to right any resulting injustice, by means of the Gunners doing all his talking with their boots on the pitch that there's no prospect of our manager being influenced by next week's Premiership outings against Watford and Chelsea, thereby risking the potentially detrimental impact of him selecting a weakened starting XI.

            Whatever Wenger's faults, we can at least take comfort in the fact that, unlike Jose Mourinho, our manager has never been a despotic media whore, willing to cruelly deny kids the thrill of being ball boys (and girls), using some feeble excuse to replace them with the club's youth players. In fact it's bizarre how the cult of the football manager has come to be such an obsession that the TV cameras are now focused as much on their touchline antics, as they are on the football.

            Jurgen Klopp's attempts to rouse the Kop and raise the temperature at Anfield eventually proved futile last night. Yet I couldn't help but be impressed by Guardiola's tactics against Spurs at the Etihad in Saturday's late KO. After the TV pundits had all taken Pep to task, prior to the game, predicting the impending downfall of City's attacking line-up, it was amusing to hear them eat humble pie after the home side's dominant display. I wonder if Guardiola's strategy against Spurs might offer some clue as to the best means of subduing a rampant Chelsea?

            Not that I'm expecting our obdurate leader to make any tactical concessions to Conte's team, as this would be tantamount to an admission of weakness and surely Arsène is too arrogant to admit that the Arsenal need adapt to counter the Blues formation. Yet it seems to me that there is no rocket science involved in the logic of selecting a sufficiently attacking lineup that enables you to maintain control of the ball in the opposition's half of the pitch and thereby starving their more potent players of possession and limiting their opportunities to do damage. 

            The likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane barely got a look-in at the Etihad and it left me pondering upon whether we might do likewise against Chelsea, by denying the likes of Hazard and Costa time on the ball, with a sufficiently ambitious approach that puts faith in our front five's ability to control the game beyond the halfway line.

            Although Chelsea have achieved an impressive level of consistency ever since, after Conte responded to their 3-0 drubbing at our place by adopting a three man defence, I've always believed the Blues back line appears vulnerable, if only Luiz and co. could be exposed to sufficient scrutiny. Yet they've accrued a level of confidence which ensures that most opponents limit their ambitions to a far too respectful containment effort, when it seems obvious to me that a more assertive approach is a far better option. It might not prove successful, but surely failing after giving it a proper go has got to be better than merely attempting to avoid defeat?

            Yet with Southampton and Watford to come before we travel to Stamford Bridge, a helluva lot can happen in the interim. Above all, I hope the Gunners can take the feeling of euphoria at Sunday's final whistle, into Saturday's encounter on the South coast.


Shiny balls of steel. Alexis impassive as ever
            I've yet to fathom the phenomenon that seems to limit Alexis effectiveness, whenever he starts alongside Giroud. Although he's not limited to his starting role out on the left and is certainly not starved of the ball as a result, for some reason playing Olly as a front-man, focal point restricts Alexis' ability to impact upon proceedings. Hopefully Hector Bellerin's return will prove significant, for while Gabriel certainly hasn't let the side down while standing in at right back, he's not blessed with the threat of Bellerin's pace and perhaps more problematic is the fact that his presence invites pressure on that side of the park, with opposing players aware that they need not fear the peril of Gabby capitalising on space left behind them.

            Perhaps our Cup outing will offer le Prof an opportunity to experiment with Alexis alongside Welbeck and/or Peres. Or if the media is to be believed, our utterly relentless Duracell bunny might be forced to cool his heels and in which case we might witness Giroud and Peres. Whatever the case, I pray that Arsène selects his optimum starting XI, offering us the best chance of beating the Saints. To my mind there is absolutely no point in rotating the team to conserve players' energy, if we end up with nothing to play for. Therefore the focus must be on progressing into the 5th round and finally garnering some much needed momentum to this season's campaign.

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Friday, 20 January 2017

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

"There'll be a welcome in the hillsides"
            Poor Paul Clement endured a baptism of fire with our somewhat flattering 0-4 thrashing of the Swans and Abel Hernandez's Hull chomping on the Cherries, as his Welsh wastrels ended Saturday afternoon rock bottom, propping up the Premiership table. Yet with the trip to the Liberty Stadium having fast become a firm favourite on the awayday calendar, I certainly hope Clement can somehow rediscover the heart, which seems to have been ripped out of this model club in recent times, with Swansea positively flat-lining ever since they flogged Ashley Williams.

            Hopefully the taunts from the travelling Gooner faithful of "we'll never play here again" won't come to pass. Swansea City fans might not have a reputation for being the most hospitable bunch, but certainly from my experience, whether it's been queuing with the locals at the chipper opposite the ground, or sharing some jovial banter before, or after the game, we've always seemed to enjoy "a warm welcome in the hillsides". With the Swans efforts to remain true to their footballing principles, our day trip to South Wales invariably promises the sort of entertaining fare that isn't always available in encounters against so many of the league's lesser lights, with their timid tendencies to amass bodies behind the ball.

            Then again, after it took a frustratingly lethargic half an hour for Alexis to register our first effort on target, the Gunners infuriatingly tepid first-half performance left us feeling as if Saturday's game might be the tediously bland exception, to prove this invariably highly entertaining rule. Perhaps the rainbow that appeared after we crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales, should've offered us a clue to the pot of three-point gold that awaited us at the Liberty Stadium end.

            It's been a long time since the Gunners failed to register a league win in four away games on the spin and we badly needed to get our away form back on track. Once again, it appeared as if the Arsenal players were the only ones unaware of our urgent need. Just what is it with this recent trend for starting games in quite such a lethargic fashion?

            I'm sure I was far from alone in being utterly stupefied to hear the post-match remarks of Giroud and Ramsey, after yet another late, late smash and grab at Preston, where the two buffoons both admitted to being surprised by the intensity with which Preston had started the game! 

            Aside from the fact that they'd experienced exactly the same approach from the opposition, only four days prior, with Bournemouth banging in three goals before the Gunners finally woke up to the fact that they had a contest on their hands, just what were they expecting from a Cup encounter, against lower league opposition?

            I'm fast coming to the conclusion that our apparent inability to pull our finger out, right from the opening whistle and the likely absence of sufficient adrenaline coursing through the Gunners' veins, for them to be able to commence games in a far less casual fashion, this all appears to be symptomatic of a culture that seems to prevail at the Arsenal, where we are devoid of suitably vocal leadership figures.

            Surely someone should've been tasked with the responsibility of reminding the troops at Preston that their opponents weren't about to roll over and play dead, in the face of their more illustrious guests, but that they were bound to do their best to ruffle our feathers, by getting in our faces and making up for what they might lack in natural ability, with effort and determination.

            Mercifully yet another late show from Olly ensured that we avoided the ignominy of having to squeeze a cup replay, into an already crowded fixture list. Yet as we came out of the traps at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, with all the energy and intensity of a snoozing kitten, although the Gunners might just about have got away with it in the past couple of contests, it would appear as if the players are absolutely impervious to these lessons, in not being so passive as to gift-wrap the opposition an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

            Swansea will have felt hard done by to be going in at half-time 0-1 down, after stifling us for the majority of the first-half with their energetic, high pressure approach. What's more, most of us Gooners behind the goal assumed that ref Mike Jones had blown up to award a penalty, when Koscielny presented Ki Sung Yeung with an opportunity to fall over his outstretched leg, right in front of us, only moments before the break. With me being unable to recall the last time Petr Cech even came close to laying a glove on a spot kick, this would've been an almost guaranteed equaliser, which would've offered the home crowd and their team the sort of encouragement that might well have altered the entire course of this match.

            Instead of which, we all breathed a massive sigh of relief, as it suddenly dawned on us that ref Jones was actually booking the Swansea player for going down too easily, Upon reflection, I think the ref got it right, but playing away from home and with a partisan Swansea crowd all baying for blood, I don't think any of us would've been too surprised if this decision had gone against us.

            I imagined the ref watching a replay of this incident during the break and then spending the entire second-half looking for any opportunity to balance things out, by gifting the home side some recompense. However, whether it was down to yet another half-time rollocking, or the fact that Swansea had expended so much energy during the opening period, but the Gunners came out after the break and began knocking the ball about, with the sort of purpose and intensity that I'd been hoping to witness from them right from the opening whistle.

            Iwobi, Alexis and Özil produced a scintillating twenty minute spell, which knocked any remaining stuffing out of the Swans. Yet as we revelled in a second half goalfest, which sent as all home smiling, temporarily sitting above the Scousers on goal difference, in the knowledge that the cut and thrust at the top of the table could prove so close that a couple of extra goals might end up being worth an additional point and on a four-hour drive back along the M4 to the Smoke, where the journey never feels nearly so tiresome after such a comprehensive triumph.

            Nevertheless, yet another lacklustre first-half display was no less infuriating because while Swansea might be too poor to have made us pay for it, someone will one of these days. Perhaps the club's team of highly paid psychologists are far too pre-occupied with Alexis' obsession with Atom and Humber, his two labradors, to be able to concentrate on the far more significant task at hand, in developing a means of getting our players suitably fired up for matches?

            I've got to be careful, as I don't want to be accused of going over to the Darkside, but the uninspired manner in which we started Saturday's game was all the more galling because I'd spent the latter part of our journey to South Wales listening to the commentary of Saturday's early kick-off at White Hart Lane, where I had to endure the pundit's remarks about it being "one of the most impressive first-half performances" he'd witnessed so far this season.

            I might be way off the mark, but perhaps one could make an argument that the marked contrast in the way Arsenal and Spurs went about their business from the opening whistle in Saturday's respective encounters is most easily explained in terms of humility and arrogance? Knowing that they'd suffered a bad run of recent results against Tony Pullis' industrous Baggies, Pochettino's more humble Spurs side steamed into their opponents, with the intensity of a young team that's hungry to try and prove themselves.

            So while I certainly don't claim to have any particular insight into the cause of the decidedly uninspired way in which the Gunners have began our recent encounters, on the face of it, it pains me to admit that there is this disturbing appearance of arrogance, as if our players have swallowed the hype about their ability and turn up onto the pitch expecting to be presented with a win, without ever having to work up a sweat in the process.

            At Bournemouth, Preston and again on Saturday at Swansea, the Gunners far too casual and slipshod start to these matches suggests they've pretty much all been infected by a certain hubris. As we patiently prod the ball sideways and backwards, with me sarcastically bellowing "Cech's on" whenever I lose patience at our apparent unwillingness to take responsibility and to try and make something happen, instead of going out there intent on imposing themselves on the opposition, it seems as if our players are waiting for their superior natural ability to tell, as if they expect the opposition to defer to their betters, by eventually presenting us with an opportunity to walk the ball into the back of the net.

            With Shlong's last gasp intervention against Norwich on Wednesday presenting us with a troublesome trip to St Mary's in the Cup, I certainly hope Arsène selects a full-strength side against the Saints because it's going to take convincing wins in this and the two home games against Burnley and Watford, on either side of our 4th round FA Cup outing, if we are to travel to Stamford Bridge at the beginning of February and then on to Munich a couple of weeks after that, with the sort of momentum that will enable the Gunners to achieve the confidence levels necessary to overcome these far tougher challenges ahead.

            However, with there being potentially at least six clubs vying for a highly-prized top four finish and as the pressure mounts with each passing week, one of Wenger's biggest quandaries compared with most of our competitors, is that our best starting XI is still a long way from being obvious. With Giroud in such good goal-scoring form, personally I agreed with his inclusion in Saturday's line-up. But although this shouldn't impinge on Alexis' performance, with our Chilean dynamo only starting in a nominal wide role on the left and not being restricted to playing out on the flank, for some strange reason Alexis seems to be so much more ineffective when the two of them start alongside one another.

            In a perfect world, when a team with the relatively modest capabilities of Swansea adopt a high-press, it should force the sort of increased tempo to the Arsenal's passing game that will only increase our opportunities to carve open the opposition with incisive tikki-takka football. Logic dictates that if players are applying pressure on the ball high up the pitch, there will be less bodies and more space for us to be able to threaten their goal at the other end.

            However this presupposes that we have players in midfield with the composure and the quality to turn the opposition's tactics to our advantage. Thankfully Swansea fast ran out of steam on Saturday but on the evidence of our pitiful first-half display, based on current form, a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka simply doesn't cut it. Aaron had an opportunity in the second-half which he would've scored blindfolded, if playing in a Wales shirt, or when he couldn't put a foot wrong a couple of seasons back. 

            Yet while Ramsey might've attained the sort of elevated status in his career that leaves him feeling that he deserves a role as the Gunners' midfield fulcrum, I get the distinct impression that he wants all the glory, without having to get his hands (or feet!) dirty and that he doesn't relish rolling his sleeves up and doing all the donkey work, where both in and out of possession, relieving the pressure on our defence is an integral responsibility of the midfield pairing playing immediately in front of them.

            As for Granit, my initial impression when he first arrived was that his refreshing tendency to look for a forward pass would prove a great asset, but to date, Xhaka's apparent struggle to cope with the frenetic pace of so many of our encounters has eroded any such ambitious tendencies, with Granit seemingly infected by the same passive, sideways and backwards habits of some of his team mates. Granit's erratic efforts in the face of Swansea's pressure was more grist to the mill of those who are fast coming to the conclusion that he lacks both the mental acuity and the technical adeptness to flourish in the Premiership.

            I know I really shouldn't be whinging after such a comprehensive victory but if a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka struggled to impress against Swansea, I can't help but fret that these two might be overrun by the likes of Chelsea, or Bayern! We couldn't see them from behind the goal at the Liberty, but according to the radio, there where two rainbows, one at either end of the ground. Yet while good fortune favoured the Gunners, as we cashed in with our twenty-minute second-half cameo, with my dodgy recall faculties, it's hard to remember the last time we manages to extend this sort of all too brief "Blitzkrieg" into an impressive ninety minute performance.

            Hector Bellerin's continued absence doesn't help, as although Gabriel has yet to let us down, filling in at right-back, our Brazilian centre-half isn't exactly blessed with the attributes, which are essential in a modern day full-back. It's not just that Gabby lacks the pace to pose a threat going forward (or to be able to recover quick enough to avoid leaving a hole at the back), but it's also our opponents' awareness that they need not fear the threat of a rampaging full-back, which invites pressure from their opposite number.

            With it being so rare nowadays for one club players to make it from the terraces to the first XI, I'm sure I won't be alone in being sad to see Gooner Jenkinson being sold to Palace, but with both Carl and the out of favour Debuchy having been on the books as experienced full-backs, it's hard to comprehend how we've ended up with the gangly centre-half as our only stopgap solution?

            While pegging back Chelsea appears a daunting task, Wenger badly needs to find a solution that will enable us to play ourselves into some genuine form because when you compare our performances with any of the teams around us at the top of the table, it's certainly not the Arsenal who are producing the sort of imposing form necessary at present, to truly exert some pressure on the competition. Now if only we could string together three dominant displays against Burnley, Southampton and Watford, the force might be with us by the time we go to Stamford Bridge in February.