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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

It's Unai, Or Never

The Gunners' defence, or just a divot?
After venting my frustration bashing out a column for the Irish Examiner  (unedited version of my missive copied below), I've not been able to bring myself to watch Saturday's depressing calamity again. With a full-strength team, I would've quite fancied that an in-form Arsenal side might've given Liverpool far more of a run for their money. But the realists amongst us knew that it was always going to be a right turn up for the books, for the XI that trotted out onto the pitch (in those ridiculous green shirts!) at Anfield to achieve any sort of result.

Upon reflection, as tough as it was to witness the Gunners being so emphatically turned over (yet again!) by a top four team, this defeat wouldn't have felt nearly quite so costly, if it wasn't for the unacceptably blasé attitude that resulted in us fluffing our lines and dropping points at the Amex v Brighton.  With Chelsea and Man U both taking maximum advantage of the five points that we've pissed up the wall in our last two outings, suddenly we've exited, stage left, from the top four picture, with Solskjaer's seemingly reinvigorated side hot on our heels.

It is indeed essential that we all keep reminding one another to continue to cut Unai sufficient slack and that we don't begin to lose patience at this delicate stage; especially in the aftermath of Saturday's reality check, where the extent of the essential surgery necessary with this squad was squarely shoved down out throats. I can't recall the precise details of Torreira's culpability in the goals we conceded, aside from Firmino's second, where Lucas ended up on his backside, along with everyone else. Yet I suspect it was no coincidence that the Gunners started shipping goals wholesale, the first time his performance level dipped and our defensive fragility was no longer masked by Torreira's relentless, terrier-like commitment.

As the saying goes, it's not how you fall down, but how you get up that counts and as far as this campaign is concerned, if Unai doesn't get the Gunners back up on our feet pronto, our season could be over before the end of this month. 

No matter how much I might love to see our obvious defensive issues addressed during the winter transfer window, personally I'd rather we write this season off, than panic buy any more ageing warhorses, speculative teenagers, or whoever might be left on the shelves during the January sales, only to find we've eaten into our limited budget and no longer have the wherewithal to procure more serious targets come the summer.

However, if you'd asked me at the start of this campaign about the extent of my ambitions, during this period of transition, I think that like most Arsenal fans, I would've said that I'd be absolutely delighted if Emery managed to restore the North London status quo and finish above Spurs in his first season.

It will be no mean feat to bridge the seven point gap, but just past the halfway mark, there's still plenty of time, with fifty-four points to play for. If Emery is to keep us all on side and to avoid coming under too much pressure, he can't afford for us to fall away completely, to the point where we've no longer any hope of even taking advantage of a customarily Spursy collapse.

When one considers quite how many instances we've endured of the shoe being on the other foot over the years, the only solace to be found in getting stuffed by Liverpool on Saturday was the thought of all those Spurs fans, who would've been secretly praying that we might help to perpetuate their foolish fantasy of a title challenge, by preventing the Scousers from taking full advantage of the three points that they'd just dropped against Wolves. Now they know precisely what we've endured during all those seasons in the past, whenever we found ourselves forlornly hoping Spurs might do us a similar favour against the likes of Man U and Chelsea.

Meanwhile it's crunch time for Unai, as we're about to see just what our new manager is made of. Can he reenergise his flagging troops, make light of all the lactic acid in those aching limbs and restore the feelgood factor, by overwhelming Ranieri's Cottagers with the same verve and intensity of our five goal crucifixion back in October?

A very happy and healthy New Year to one and all.
COYG
Bernard
____________________________


Green With Envy


        I’d love to be able to blame our humiliating 5-goal annihilation on the numbskull responsible for dressing us in a green kit, upon a grass pitch, but frankly that’s a feeble excuse. Saturday’s demolition served as a timely reminder of the enormity of the task facing Emery. No less disconcerting was the number of our players who were content to see out the second-half, passively blending into the verdant background.

        If Unai has truly managed to revitalize the spirit in our squad, then 4-1 down at the break, with the result already a foregone conclusion, I would’ve at least expected the Gunners to display a modicum of pride. The 2-points blown at Brighton in midweek made this capitulation all the more galling, but it was our abject reluctance to stand up and be counted for the remainder of this no contest, which left our demoralized travelling faithful disconsolately trudging out onto Anfield Rd.

        Between the astounding ecstasy of Maitland-Niles’ first goal, there was a whole 3 minutes for us Gooners to fantasize that it was “game on”, until Firmino promptly quashed any such delusion. Although no Arsenal fan makes the long schlep to Merseyside expecting to get mullahed and no matter how misguided, one always retains that faint hope of pulling off a shock result, it’s been a long time since we trod this particular path with quite such modest expectations.

        The gulf that currently exists between these two teams is evident in the fact that Klopp’s side virtually picks itself. By contrast, Arsenal fans anxiously fretted over our team news. As Unai strives to resolve this recurring tendency to present all of our adversaries with Xmas pressies, it’s impossible to predict how he’ll shuffle our decimated pack. Compounded by the loss of Holding, injuries to Monreal and Bellerin have exposed the glaringly obvious defensive shortcomings of our existing squad.

        Albeit I’m unsure precisely what more Emery might’ve done to mitigate our porous bulwark, in the face of the Scousers’ potent firepower. Koscielny’s so blatantly short of match pace that it was no surprise to see Salah almost immediately breeze past our most unlikely second-half saviour. With their table-topping clash with City looming, I was relieved the league leaders took their foot off the gas after the break, limiting the risk of permanent damage to our club captain’s confidence rebuild.

        At nearly 35, Lichsteiner is no longer a viable option at wing/full-back. As a wizened doyen, he increasingly relies on old-school chicanery to conserve his waning reserves of energy. While Kolosinac might be built like a tank and can prove effective in attack, as part of a back five, sadly he’s a complete liability in a four-man rearguard, with insufficient defensive nous to fill the back of a proverbial postage stamp.

        As for Sokratis, over the course of our deceptive undefeated run had I seriously begun to kid myself that this donkey could be our Zeus, a genuine vocal leader? Appearing on the same stage as the serenely composed, £75m Rolls-Royce Van Dijk, there’s no disguising the Arcadian inelegance of our tawdry £17m tractor. This tragic roll call of ineptitude wouldn’t be complete without doffing my hat to Mustafi. It’s some achievement to be just about the only centre-half who seems to spend more time on the deck than his feet!

        Should any affirmation of a nerve-wracking encounter be necessary, it came with our first corner of the night and the sigh of relief that greeted the blast of an offside whistle resulting from the Gunners’ ball into the box; if only for some momentary respite from the ignominious ease with which we’re prone to being sliced and diced on the counter. Deprived of the tools and the capacity to shut shop, Emery’s logic in trying to take the game to our hosts was understandable. Aubameyang might’ve been less anonymous playing in tandem with Lacazette, but this would’ve likely involved Iwobi’s omission, just about the only Arsenal player to come away with any credit.

        Even Torreira was made to look torpid, in his least impressive performance to date, whereas Liverpool’s ‘in yer face’ intensity was always destined to expose Xhaka’s limitations and the lamentably slow response time of our midfielder’s bovine brain. Whether it’s fatigue, or a demurring attitude from Özil and Ramsey that’s dampening the mood, the dynamism of Emery’s side has ebbed of late, to the point where performances are disturbingly indistinguishable from the Arsenal of old.

        Inevitably the customary recourse from the terraces is the clamour to “spend some f***in’ money” but where does Unai begin, when the odd addition won’t provide us with a panacea? Hopefully with our defence, since it’s futile to try and build anything on such flimsy foundations. But with only two genuinely creative talents remaining in our squad and with neither particularly inspired by the honour of the captain’s armband, is it possible to address the issues with Özil and Ramsey in a beneficial fashion?

        Peter Hill-Wood was the very last link to the Arsenal’s tradition of old-Etonian, aristo chairmen. The passing of this benign old duffer truly symbolizes the end of an era. Ideally an urgent overhaul of our squad might mark the start of a new one?

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore..... Or Do They?

Still basking in the warm afterglow of an ecstatically triumphant derby and the deafening silence emanating from our noisy neighbours, ever since Sunday's supremely dominant display restored the North London status quo and quelled all that irritating crowing coming from the cockerels, it suddenly occurred to me that I'd better post Sunday's Terrace Talk missive for the Irish Examiner, before it's overtaken by events at Old Trafford.

There've been a few instances this season where we've regaled Unai's side with a rendition of "We've got our Arsenal back". Although I didn't hear it being sung on Sunday, least not in our end of the East Lower, if I'm entirely honest, this was the first time during Emery's brief tenure that I truly felt this sentiment.

Better not be the last of my hair gel I can feel?
Sure, we've enjoyed brief cameos of beautiful artistry, such as Aaron Ramsey's wondergoal at Fulham, but it feels as if it's been over a decade since I've been sat watching the Arsenal and savoured the sort of desire and commitment that we witnessed on Sunday, of the kind that has me totally convinced that the outcome matters just as much to the players, as it does to those of us on the terraces.

As much as I've enjoyed mercilessly lambasting all my many Spurs pals, with the same sort of 21-gun, piss-taking salute that one can be sure would've been aimed in my direction if fate hadn't favoured us with this victory, I've been forced to temper my comments, for fear of going too far overboard.

The Totts have been trying (in vain!) to console themselves that this was a Spurs side that arrived at the Emirates possibly still burdened by the lactic acid remaining in their legs, following the effort they'd expended against Chelsea and Inter. Perhaps more crucially, in my humble opinion, any potential element of fatigue was combined with the inescapable psychological impact of a Spurs side who knew they didn't need to win this game. With their three-point cushion and after having beaten Inter and demolished Chelsea, a draw would've done them very nicely.

With the exception of their impressive performance against Chelsea, I think most Spurs fans would concur that they've been struggling for form this season (which much like Chelsea and Liverpool has made the absence of dropped points amongst them all the more galling). I'm still not sure to what extent Sunday's result was down to a brilliant display from us, or an extremely mediocre showing from the visitors from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road. Doubtless, as always, it was down to a bit of both.

On the radio they pondered about the impact on their preparation, as apparently the Spurs charabang rocked up at the Emirates only an hour prior to kick-off (instead of the customary 90 mins). But while an in form Spurs might well have presented us with a much stiffer test, I'm still fairly certain that they would've failed to match the wholehearted appetite of an Arsenal side that started this game like a team possessed, inspired by the "shit or bust" attitude that only a win would suffice.

The big question now is whether Unai can recreate this same level of intensity on a regular basis. It's a big ask for him to inspire the troops to produce a repeat performance, only three days after such a draining effort. Should the Gunners fail to cap Sunday's triumph, with an equally dominant display at Old Trafford against such an apathetic Man Utd side (especially if Spurs produce a routine win against Soton at Wembley!), it will definitely take the gloss off our derby victory, leaving us with little more than North London bragging rights. At least until the rematch, in our Mickey Mouse Cup quarterfinal match in a couple of weeks time.

However if Emery can motivate his squad sufficiently for us to find ourselves returning back down the M6 from Manchester with the all-important three points in our back pockets, suddenly Sunday's victory might be perceived as a seminal moment in our new manager's reign, in both senses of the dictionary definition of seminal - relating to or denoting semen (with 57,000 Gooners on the verge of coming in our pants when Laca's effort found the back of Lloris' net :-), or strongly influencing later developments.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see who Unai selects to take the place of the suspended Xhaka at Old Trafford. With us playing away from home, I suspect Emery might opt for Elneny to partner Torreira, in the belief Mo might offer more defensive responsibility? Personally I would love to see Unai use this opportunity to try out the effectiveness of a partnership of Torreira and Guendouzi. Although I'm aware that this would be viewed as risky because of Matteo's immaturity, which to date has seen him robbed of the ball a little too often for my liking, I can't help but feel that the refreshingly fearless energy produced by these two, in the midfield engine room, would prove just the sort of catalyst that's been witnessed in the past, when the commitment of the likes of Vieira and Petit encouraged that crucial additional 5/10 per cent effort from all those around them?

When Emery arrived at the club, I originally said that for me, the litmus test for our new manager was how long he took to recognise that Xhaka really wasn't up to the pivotal role, as the Gunners midfield fulcrum. Instead of which, Unai's presented Granit with the captain's armband! Xhaka is the subject of constant debate with my neighbour at the Emirates and while I have to concede that even as his greatest critic, I've been forced to express begrudging credit for much of Granit's recent efforts, ultimately he's unlikely ever to win me over entirely because he appears to lack both the mental and physical acuity that's essential in his role. 

To my mind Xhaka will never be that sort of midfield general who has a picture of where all his team mates are, or where they will be, before he receives the ball. Moreover, he ambles around the pitch, permanently on his heels, when I want someone on their toes, able to compensate for the superior pace of an opponent by anticipating their every move. 

Lucas Torreira is just that sort of animal, as evidenced by his ability to steal possession from unwitting oppos. What's struck me as Lucas' most impressive attribute to date is his (typically South American?) ability to anticipate a challenge, in such a way as to pretty much guarantee that the ref awards a free-kick. It's a fabulously valuable asset for Torreira to be able to relieve the pressure on our defence, with his intuitive ability to invite and anticipate a tackle, in a manner that invariably ends up with the ref blowing his whistle.

For all Lucas' relentless efforts to limit the frequency with which the opposition can get at our backline, sadly he's never going to be a panacea for all our innate defensive inadequacies. With his flapping arms, in Sokratis' wide-eyed duel with Harry Kane on Sunday, our Greek centre-half reminded me of one of Attenborough's young chimps and his histrionic efforts to prove to himself and those all around that he's capable of ousting the alpha male.

Who's the Daddy?
Hopefully Sokratis will accrue confidence and gain more composure in direct proportion to our positive results. Albeit presumably Unai's penchant for playing three centre-halves is dictated by Monreal's injury and his reluctance to rely on Kolosinac's lack of defensive nous, without additional cover. It will be interesting to see if we revert to playing four at the back when Nacho regains his fitness and with our club captain getting more minutes under his belt, playing with the U21s, as sadly they exited the Checkatrade Trophy at Pompey, it can't be too long before Koscielny is back in first team contention.

As much as I'd love to see Laurent back in harness, it'll be a great shame if this is at Rob Holding's expense, just as he's beginning to live up to the burden of his "better than Cannavaro" ditty. What's more Mustafi's fondness for eating grass continues to get my goat. Surely Shkodran is long enough in the tooth to have learned to remain on his feet?

I like the idea of having a squad with the flexibility to switch between four and five at the back, as the uncertainty about our formation keeps opposition managers on their toes and they can end up shooting themselves in the foot, trying to match our lineup (as I felt happened on Sunday, when Poch tinkered with his defence in the second half) . But ultimately one would hope to be able to establish some consistency with a defensive unit and it's evident that up until now, Unai's selection decisions are dictated by his efforts to discover the least permeable solution.

It would be brilliant if he could begin to solve this problem at Old Trafford, as we can't continue to count on our forwards to keep outscoring the opposition. Unai has certainly proved his astuteness with his in-game substitutions, but with the increasingly hectic festive football schedule, we're likely to discover his acumen for man management in his ability to rotate the squad, preferably with minimal negative impact.

Along with Xhaka, I won't be surprised to see other changes in the starting XI against Man Utd. because there are bound to be those still suffering from the shift they put in on Sunday. Sadly the limitations of our existing squad are all too apparent in the most physically demanding position. Playing on the flank, either as a wing-back, or a full-back and the ability to patrol the full length of the park for the entire 90 has become increasingly crucial in recent times. Despite Sead's defensive limitations, with there currently being no obvious replacement and with Lichtsteiner's ageing legs hardly making him a like for like stand-in for Hector, Unai simply can't rest either Bellerin or Kolosinac, not without there being an obvious detrimental effect, especially when it comes to the width necessary to stretch opposition defences.

Momentum is so crucial at this stage that Emery might well be tempted to risk sticking to his guns. Personally I've always been of the opinion that you pick your best starting XI and then ideally rest two or three after having secured a lead, rather than playing a weaker side and being forced to throw on your star turns to try and effect a rescue. Yet he'd be left with egg on his face, should a decision to start with the same lineup that finished Sunday's game end up being at the cost of losing any of them for two, three months, due to a fatigue related injury.

I guess we're about to discover the mettle of the Gunners' new management team over the coming weeks, but for the minute, I'll be more than satisfied to see them prove their worth, by serving up some more humiliation for Jose in Salford.

Nuff waffle
COYG
Bernard



North London Is Red - Sead gets literal with his claim

They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore..... Or Do They?

            Flicking through the matchday programme, 1-2 down at half-time on Sunday, it felt as if the editor had played a part in putting the kibosh on our Derby Day prospects, seemingly with a succession of references to Mesut Özil, his 10th appearance in a North London Derby and how “these are the games that you get really excited for”!

            With Mesut conspicuous by his absence, the poor love supposedly suffering from another back spasm (doubtless from picking up his hefty wage packet!), Lacazette only on the bench and the terrifying prospect of Son tearing Sead Kolosinac a new one on our left flank, there was plenty of trepidation in the air around the Emirates in advance of Sunday’s KO.

            Yet with the Gunners struggling all season to grind into gear during the first-half of most games, mercifully for once Unai Emery managed to motivate his troops to hit a suitably intense note, right from the opening whistle. In fact, during an utterly scintillating twenty-minute spell at the start of Sunday’s encounter, we produced the sort of fervor, which felt like a throwback to the blood and thunder derby days of yesteryear.

            A page in the programme was dedicated to Lee Dixon’s quote about his first NLD - Tony Adams literally had me up against the wall by the throat and said “you don’t understand. We can’t lose this game” With us unsettling our guests, by pressing Spurs so high up the pitch, winning every 50/50 challenge and every second ball. Adams himself would’ve been proud of the hunger and desire evident in the 100% committed way Unai’s side went about their business on Sunday.

            It felt like Christmas had come early, when Vertonghen gifted us with the penalty, which resulted in Auba’s opening goal. Perhaps the handball was related to the fact that such a forceful start had created a sense of panic, amidst Spurs’ customarily composed defence. Nevertheless, in the knowledge that it wasn’t feasible to maintain this same level of intensity, I couldn’t help but feel that we needed to make more of our early dominance, if the Arsenal were to finally break our duck of not having achieved a first-half lead all season long.

            Despite Lucas Torreira’s extremely impressive efforts, in preventing our porous backline from being exposed quite so frequently, our defence remains a work in progress. Dean might’ve gifted Spurs with a soft penalty, but our centre-backs have a bad habit of going to ground and Bernd Leno really should’ve prevented Dier from scoring the equalizer only moments prior.

            Albeit, even if Spurs two goals in five minutes had the effect of bursting the balloon of Gooner euphoria, putting a serious dampener on the halftime break, it was brilliant to witness the sense of outrage from our bench, as Aaron Ramsey squared up to Dele Alli. All too often in the Arsenal’s recent past, I’ve come away from matches with the demoralising feeling that the result hasn’t mattered sufficiently to our players. However thankfully the Arsenal’s second half display on Sunday demonstrated that there was only one side, which point-blank refused to settle for anything less than all three points.


"And roll away to a half sashay"
          Both Iwobi and Mkhitaryan might’ve felt hard done by at being hooked at the break, as Unai made the sort of bold tactical halftime changes that were always a complete anathema to Arsène. With Ramsey seemingly with one foot already out the door at the Arsenal, questions about his motivation are inevitable. But suitably fired up by his handbags with Alli, Aaron was bang at it, feeding a two-pronged attack of Auba and Laca. This was the formation most of us had been expecting from the start, but with Özil playing in the no.10 role.
            
          Auba’s equalizer reignited the atmosphere and blew the roof off the Emirates, with the sort of eruption that hasn’t been seen at our place for many a moon. Then when Dier kindly diverted Laca’s shot in for our third, it was the sight of Bellerin kneeling down on the halfway line and kissing the turf, which summed up the strength of feeling that Emery has inspired within this squad.

            It was fitting that Torreira capped his man of the match performance with our fourth. A debut goal on derby day confirmed Lucas’ status as our firm terrace favourite. But no matter how splendiferous, a single swallow does not make a summer and the real test for Emery is whether he can manage to get the adrenaline pumping again, for us to consolidate Sunday’s triumph with an equally dominant display at Old Trafford on Wednesday night? 

            In the meantime, I’ll savour the fabulous feeling of waking up this morning certain that North London is most definitely red!
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Unai's Long Journey Begins, Not With Baby Steps, But With A Halftime Break?


            Exiting the Emirates on Saturday night, frustrated at having fallen a further two points behind a Spurs side that continues to notch up wins, despite struggling for any real form, I was flabbergasted to hear it revealed on the radio that the Arsenal are in the company of Cardiff City, as the only two Premiership sides yet to have led a single game at halftime so far this season.

            At least Neil Warnock's Bluebirds have the excuse that they're really not expected to do much better, but as for the Gunners, this statistic seemed like a fairly damming indictment. Yet with us all getting a bit carried away with our expectations about the Unai Emery revolution, perhaps this evidence, along with our failure to tame Wolves on Saturday, will prove to be a timely reality check? 

            After all, it was always likely to be no mean feat for Unai to overhaul the decades long indolence that's endured in the comfort zone of Arsène's dressing room and to be able to totally transform the attitudes of those players who've grown all too accustomed to getting away with merely going through the motions on a matchday.

            Mind you, after the haunting tones of the Last Post had echoed around the ground before kick-off, leaving everyone reflecting on the real meaning of giving of one's all, one might've thought we could've at least expected the Gunners to be sufficiently fired up to pull their collective fingers out! With the exception of perhaps a couple of positives, in the study in perpetual motion that is Lucas Torreira and the unshrinking bravura of Bernd Leno, Saturday's uninspiring display felt like a disappointing throwback to the slipshod arrogance of Wenger's Arsenal. 

            Having watched quite a bit of Nuno Santo's Portuguese influenced entertainers, I was eagerly anticipating Saturday's contest, expecting an open, expansive game, full of flair footie. Albeit with Wolves having already taken points off Man City, applying the brakes to Guardiola's steam train by giving them a tough workout, it was obvious that they weren't about to be intimidated on our hallowed turf.

            Sadly there was very little evidence of the confidence that the Gunners have been grafting so hard to build up in recent weeks and instead of taking the game to our guests, much as Wenger's team was in the infuriating habit of doing, the Gunners began tamely prodding the ball around sideways and backwards, as if expecting the visitors impressively staunch defence to simply lay down their arms on Armistice Day and succumb to our supposed superior ability.

            Instead of which, it was somewhat ironic that it was the milky Arsenal rearguard who demonstrated themselves to be as about effective as the Maginot Line, as a somnolent Granit Xhaka not only gift-wrapped Cavaleiro's goal, but almost made a claim for being the perfect host, by very nearly putting the ball into the back of the net for him!

            As well as Xhaka performed against the Scousers, in one of his most impressive displays to date in an Arsenal shirt, sadly Granit reverted to dunderhead type on Saturday and was perhaps fortunate to have his failings overshadowed by Kolosinac's lamentable efforts out on our left flank. But then if Sead was supposed to be defending across the width of the eighteen-yard box, it appears as if someone neglected to remind Aubameyang that it might be helpful to the Arsenal's cause, if just on the odd rare occasion he might make some effort to deny our opponents all the time and space they wanted out on this wing, entirely unchallenged.

            OK so perhaps it's written into PEA's contract that he doesn't do tracking back into defence, but where was the expected intervention, to address Kolosinac's glaringly obvious struggle to singlehandedly subdue the opposition on his side of the park. It's not as if the Gunners are exactly short of a few instructions being issued from the sidelines. 

            Perhaps Juan Carcedo's English is more intelligible than Unai's, but I found myself studying our manager and his assistant through my binoculars on Saturday and while Unai is pretty animated on the touchline, he does have moments of reflection, whereas Carcedo literally does not stop screaming, appearing to issue a relentless stream of instructions to the players, only stopping now and again to confer with one of the other backroom staff, who looked to be disseminating info from the laptop/iPad before him. All of which seemed to reinforce the sort of management by committee approach, which appears to be the Arsenal model nowadays?

            Yet if they were making decisions by consensus on the bench, sadly there was little, or no evidence of any leadership out on the pitch on Saturday, as the listless body language of our captain suggested Mesut might have preferred to have been at home, with his feet up, watching the game on the box. 

            Don't get me wrong because Özil is the sort of supremely gifted footballer who will always be a joy to watch and anyone who believes otherwise is a Philistine IMHO. Yet where for example, the likes of Hazard, or David Silva might impose their ability at crucial moments, to influence the outcome of a game, Mesut can all too often be guilty of merely decorating a match, flitting in and out, with single (albeit often sublime) touches to a team mate, when we're crying out for him, as the one most capable player, to assume responsibility for picking the lock of a crowded defence and actually making something happen.

            Having awarded Özil the captain's armband, in an effort to encourage our superstar playmaker to embrace this responsibility, it will indeed be interesting to see what transpires if Unai's efforts to increase Mesut's influence on proceedings are to no avail. If I'm correct in my understanding that Emery was perceived to struggle at PSG with his relationship with the mega-egos of the likes of Neymar, then he'll surely not want to be saddled with this label by a similar failure with Özil?

            And yet Unai doesn't strike me as someone who suffers fools gladly and I really can't envisage our new manager putting up with any prima-donna antics long-term. Certainly not when he's attempting to set a tone of total commitment and intensity from the rest of his squad. Albeit, any such attitude adjustment has definitely not been reflected in the succession of slow starts that have resulted in so many below par first-half displays. Perhaps a proper headbanger of a captain could provide a solution, if we had someone capable of intimidating their teammates into giving their all from the opening whistle, for fear of incurring the wrath of the armband wearer?

            Meanwhile, although many seem to feel Bellerin has improved under Emery, while Hector might be offering more threat going forward, I remain unconvinced by his defensive efforts. With full/wing backs playing an increasingly pivotal role in the modern game, if we've learned one thing in Monreal's absence in recent weeks, it's become patently evident that we're lacking sufficient depth in this area of our existing squad. Whatever targets might've been in mind for the January transfer window, sadly I suspect our objectives will have altered dramatically, following Danny Welbeck's tragic injury.

            We always knew we would need to be patient and I fancy it will at least take until a transfer window for Unai to begin to exert some real influence on producing an Arsenal team in his image. As a result, personally I will be only too happy if we can maintain contact with the top four into the New Year, to give ourselves an opportunity to mount a credible assault, as Unai's squad develops some genuinely consistent chemistry.

            In order to get us to this point, I still fancy that the fearless energy of a Torreira and Guendouzi partnership in the midfield engine room could inspire more intensity from the rest of our team. I'm not sure I want Matteo playing at the base of our midfield, so long as his naivety continues to be exposed. While I can accept Guendouzi occasionally having the ball stolen off his feet further up the field, I don't want to be having a heart-attack, watching such glaring gaffes occur on the edge of our own penalty area. Yet unlike Xhaka who ambles around on his heels, these two are capable of the sort of zest that can benefit us at both ends of the park, by making us more incisive in attack and by being sufficiently on their toes, to limit the frequency with which our backline is exposed.

            I was pleased to see Iwobi in the starting XI on Saturday and while sadly Alex failed to impose himself in the first-half, I'm really not sure we can afford to start with both Özil and Mkhitaryan on the park because it leaves us looking somewhat lightweight. Henrik might shine in an Arsenal side that was performing totally on song, but despite Saturday's equalizing goal, for my money he's "Mesut light" and lacks sufficient pace and presence to impose himself consistently.

            Yet with Unai continuing to tinker with his starting lineup, it's apparent that he's still some way from settling upon his best eleven players. If Aaron Ramsey is soon to be making his exit, I'm not sure I see the point in continuing to throw him into the mix. Aaron might've been responsible for the goal of the season so far, but aside from this, he's hardly been busting a gut to put himself in the shop window. Perhaps Ramsey's far too nonchalant body language is merely down to him being deprived of sufficient sleep by his new born twins, but if he's out the door in January, Aaron is hardly about to risk injury by putting his body on the line in the meantime.

            After witnessing a totally committed Danny Welbeck suffering a potentially career threatening ankle break, I'm really not sure of the benefit of an ambivalent Aaron Ramsey hanging around like a bad smell?


Enuf waffle
COYG
Bernard

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email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

A Welcome Glimpse Of Gooner Cojones



            With football’s powers that be seemingly so intent on garroting their golden goose, with increasingly relentless, wall-to-wall live TV coverage, its somewhat of a relief that unlike our disappointingly underwhelming midweek cup win, an Arsenal v Liverpool Premiership outing, under the floodlights, remains a sufficiently portentous encounter to set Gooner pulses racing and pack out the Emirates.

            Our thirteen match undefeated run since those two, not unexpected, opening defeats has certainly ensured that Unai’s stock has risen. Yet the modest calibre opposition left everyone eagerly anticipating Saturday’s duel with Klopp’s front-runners, as the first realistic litmus test of our current aspirations.

            Albeit in the absence of a recognized left-back at Selhurst Park last weekend and with Bellerin having retired hurt at half-time, there was little optimism about our prospects of stemming the tide of the Scousers attacking triumvirate, prior to the team news announcement an hour before KO. Confronting Salah & co. was likely to be just a slight step up from his single only other appearance against Qarabag, but with Kolosinac back from injury and Hector able to soldier on, it was a huge relief to discover that we wouldn’t be relying on another makeshift backline.

            It wasn’t merely the terrifying prospect of the likes of Lichtsteiner and Xhaka being left for dead by Liverpool’s searing pace on the break, but the fact that our injury woes at full-back had deprived the Gunners of much of our own attacking thrust down the flanks in recent weeks. Not that the inclusion of Hector and Sead in the starting XI left me feeling that the visitors were no longer favourites to win on Saturday. But this was just the sort of confidence inspiring news that was needed as we took our seats for this mouth-watering contest. In contrast to recent defeats against top-four opposition, the Gunners weren’t about to roll over.

            Emery’s bizarre (Manuel from Fawlty Towers?) interpretation of the English language might be no more intelligible, but there’s certainly no mistaking the fervour of a man who’s touchline antics leave Klopp looking more Trip Hop than Heavy Metal. After two decades of Arsène’s “Zen and the art of football maintenance” it’s such a refreshing change from his managerial sang-froid, to see Unai prancing around his technical area for the entire ninety, kicking every ball, along with every other Gooner.

            More importantly, on Saturday Emery’s passion was made manifest out on the park. In the majority of games the Gunners have been found wanting for intensity in the first-half and it’s taken until after the break, or to go a goal behind, for us to begin to find our groove, but it was perhaps indicative of the significance of this match that we had our foot to the floor, right from the opening whistle.

            Under our new, management by committee model, in complete contrast to the Wenger dynasty, our new coach would appear to have both the time and the (somewhat less arrogant?) inclination to adapt his tactics, on a match by match basis, according to the opposition’s specific strengths and weaknesses. This was immediately apparent in Aubameyang’s instructions to take on Alexander-Arnold at every opportunity.

            It was more than a little unnerving that Liverpool were able to open us up, far too frequently, with a simple ball over the top and perhaps we were a little fortunate with the offside flag, which denied the Scousers a halftime lead. Nevertheless, we’re so accustomed to defensive lapses that it felt like a foothold for it to be honours even at the break.

            We might’ve blinked first with Milner’s goal on the hour mark, but where in the past this might’ve caused us to throw the kitchen sink at securing an equalizer, only to be carved open on the counter, Emery’s Arsenal appear so much more resilient.

            According to the stats, even Xhaka achieved one of his most impressive all-round performances to date. Perhaps Granit is thriving on the serious competition for his midfield berth? Or could it be the unstinting tenaciousness of our Uruguayan pocket-rocket that’s proving infectious? It’s said that the best things come in small packages and Torreira is fast proving himself to be a revelation, blessed with just the sort of wholehearted attitude that we’ve been crying out for, for far too long. With our defence far less likely to be exposed so frequently behind this more effective screen, they might even begin to acquire some composure?

            The importance of being able to state our claim as genuine top four challengers was evident in the explosion of unbridled elation that greeted Lacazette’s equalizer when it eventually came, the like of which I’ve not experienced at our place for a long time. I was swallowed up by bearhugs from the blokes who’ve sat behind me since the stadium opened a dozen years ago, without previously ever passing the time of day!

            It’s only the beginning of the Emery adventure, but after suffering the constant accusations about the Arsenal’s lack of character for so many years, I’ll gladly settle for this welcome glimpse of our cojones.

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Thursday, 16 August 2018

Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You


In response to unprecedented demand (in truth, one kind soul on Twitter who was doubtless curious to know if I was still breathing :-) it was about time I pulled my finger out and posted a diary missive.

Albeit, I must admit that after waffling on for the past decade or more, desperately seeking original means to whinge on about the same old woes, whilst trying to avoid sounding like a broken record, if the appointment of Unai Emery has achieved one thing, it is the far more gratifying possibility of me actually having something more stimulating to write about.

What's more, I'm grateful for Emery's appointment, if only from the mercenary point of view that it provides the Irish Examiner with a good reason to have requested a Terrace Talk column from me, after Sunday's main Premiership feature. Yet in bashing out 700 words for a deadline only a couple of hours after the final whistle on Sunday, I invariably end up not having the time, or the space to get my points across, in my customarily loquacious fashion. 

So with the benefit of a few days to reflect upon events this past weekend, I beg your indulgence while I elucidate with all those thoughts that might've brought on a bout of angina for the sports ed at the Examiner, if I'd prattled on at such length in the missive below.

Going into Sunday's game riding on the crest of the tidal wave of enthusiasm that resulted from the first managerial change in many Gooners' entire lifetimes, there was always the faint possibility of the Gunners beating the bookies and leaving virtually every pundit on the planet looking foolish, by pulling off a shock opening day defeat of the side that many seem to expect to turn the retention of their Premiership title into a Sunday afternoon stroll (even if some of us have a sneaking suspicion that Klopp's mega-spending Scousers might give City a run for their money?).

Sure, there was some slim hope of catching City cold, with Guardiola's squad still some way short of attaining maximum force. Nevertheless, in the cold light of day, when you put the respective squads under the microscope and consider that we've barely any players who'd be guaranteed starters in City's first XI and with the added potential handicap of there being a likely psychological hangover from last season's humiliation, no matter the extent of Unai's evolution over the summer months, it was always almost inevitable that Sunday's encounter would prove to be a disappointing anti-climax.

Even before Granit Xhaka's blatantly inadequate attempt to block Sterling's goalbound strike on 14 minutes, Gooner desire to witness quite such a stark contrast to the decade's worth of unimpressive mediocrity that had gone before, was so desperate that virtually from the kick-off on Sunday, the hiss of all that Emery-inspired optimism evaporating out of the Emirates was almost audible.

It wasn't long before I heard the first moans from those seated in my vicinity that our undynamic, sideways and backwards football was "no different" to what we've grown accustomed to enduring in the past. Truth be told, barring sending his side out to play standing on their hands, on Sunday Emery faced a nigh on impossible task to effect a sufficiently dramatic change to fully appease the Gooner faithful, upon a club that's been so steeped in the culture of his predecessor for the past twenty-two years.

As a result, in contrast to some of our more fickle "fans" who seem far too willing to write the Arsenal off, I much prefer to focus on those glimpses of small shoots of positivity, poking their head up through the semi-artificial turf on Sunday.

Like so many others, I'd have much preferred to have seen Leno and Torreira included in the starting lineup, instead of Cech and Xhaka. Yet it occurs to me that Unai might've been somewhat trepidatious about getting all of his new toys out of their boxes, for fear that if we'd suffered the same sort of embarrassing trouncing that City inflicted upon us last season, he'd be left with nowhere to go.

Moreover, I'm far from convinced that we can afford to play both Özil and Mkhitaryan against the stronger Premiership opponents. Aside from this leaving us looking too lightweight in the middle of the park, from what we've seen from Henrik to date, it could be argued that he's little more than a poor man's Mesut, with Mikki being not quite fast enough, not quite everything enough to merit his inclusion?

If Unai felt the need to temper his team selection on Sunday, in order to maintain some thread of continuity, hopefully at least the defeat to City will liberate him to continue the revolution over the coming weeks, so that we won't have to wait too long to see a team that is unrecogniseable from Arsène Wenger's Arsenal.

He might've waited until the 70th minute but at least Emery eventually subbed Xhaka, which is more than I can remember Wenger doing. As far as I'm concerned the first big test for our new manager is just how long it will take to dawn upon Emery that Granit Xhaka is too slow-witted and simply lacks the tools to occupy such a pivotal midfield role.

Ultimately, as the saying goes, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and this might be precisely why the suits opted for Unai, in the hope he'd prove capable of repeating his accomplishments at his former clubs, where he's managed to coax competitive performances from comparatively limited resources, against far more moneyed opposition?

Let's face it, not many teams will turn City over this season and although it can be argued that our guests took their foot off the gas after going 0-1 up and might well have put the pedal to the metal if they'd been in danger of dropping points, in actuality, up until Silva scored their second just past the hour mark, we can console ourselves that the Gunners looked perfectly capable of nicking an equaliser.

Moreover, considering we'd lost Maitland-Niles and were left playing with such a makeshift back-line, the so called best team in the land didn't exactly carve us apart, in the sort of humiliating fashion that we endured last season. 

Based on their respective transfer fees, Virgil Van Dijk should be four times the player that Papastathopolous is and based on his cameo appearances in pre-season, our new Greek centre-half struck me as being a bit of a carthorse. Frankly I was terrified when I saw our starting XI, as with AMN's lethargic tendency to try and use his pace to get him out of trouble, playing alongside Sokratis on the left, I was fully expecting City to rip us a new one.

In truth, as our only option for replacing the injured AMN, Lichtsteiner coped like the consummate professional he appears to be, even though he's all right-foot and I can't recall a single instance where Sokratis was exposed for a lack of pace. Perhaps this was down to the fact that City failed to really test him, but I guess we'll find out in the weeks ahead whether our new centre half is going to prove himself to be a real bargain, or just another example of the sort of monkeys one invariably gets, when paying peanuts?


Whatever pairing Unai eventually settle upon as his first choice centre-backs, I fancy that the reputations of both will end up benefiting, with an indefatigable Torreira providing the screen to limit our defence's exposure. Albeit it's only upon seeing Torreira standing alongside his colleagues on the pitch that it dawned on me quite how tiny the Uruguayan is. Hopefully he makes up for what he lacks in stature, with his terrier like tenacity?

In the absence of the likes of Kompany and Otamendi on Sunday, it was only when we were eventually awarded our first corner and they mentioned on the radio that City had already taken six such set pieces that it occurred to me that our guests had yet to expose any failings in Emery's preference for man to man marking. 

After having spent the past two decades moaning about zonal marking and what I have always perceived as the blatantly obvious ("space never scored a goal") disadvantages of Wenger's penchant for zonal marking, I'm most keen to see us concede less set-piece goals. I suspect Chelsea might put Emery's efforts to impose the new system under more scrutiny on Saturday, but here again, we're going to have to be patient because when one has been used to doing the same thing, every day, for the past twenty years, it's inconceivable to expect Emery to be able to drum this new discipline into them overnight.

Less "Sideshow Bob" more "Main Stage Matteo"
Above all else, the most obvious positive on Sunday was the competitive debut of Guendouzi. Again, the French youngster is a work in progress and I only hope Unai can afford to have him learn "on the job". I don't watch much French football but, for example. I suspect strikers in Ligue Une aren't renowned for tracking back and winning possession and so Matteo is fast going to have to appreciate the increased awareness necessary in the Premiership, if he's not to have the ball stolen from him quite so regularly.

Watching Liverpool v West Ham, before I left for our game on Sunday, like every other Gooner, I was wondering if we'd end up regretting letting Jack Wilshere leave. Yet watching the game pass Jack by, as he stood flat-footed in the middle of the park, doing that infuriating pointing thing, for the ball to go elsewhere, instead of demanding it himself, my instincts are that football is a job of work for JW and he's just going through the motions.

Pellegrini strikes me as a competent manager, but I fancy Wilshere needs a more animated gaffer who might be able to inspire him to fall back in love with the game? Contrast this with Guendouzi, who never once hid during 90 minutes against possibly the strongest opposition he's ever faced. For all the potential faults resulting from his inexperience, these are more than compensated by Matteo's wholehearted attitude and intensity.

Who knows, perhaps the French youngster's commitment will prove catching and he can inspire Aaron Ramsey alongside him. Surely Emery has to start Ramsey, if Aaron is to be encouraged to sign a new contract, as I honestly can't envisage the likes of Kroenke allowing quite such a valuable asset walk away on a free at the end of this season.

Personally my preference would be to see a midfield diamond of Torreira, Ramsey and Guendouzi, with Mesut playing as our no. 10, feeding Lacca and Auba, to see if these two can truly strike up a proper, instinctive partnership. We might have to be prepared to suffer a few more knocks along the way, as Unai finds his feet and searches for the right selection chemistry and should he fail at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, I'm certain defeat wont be greeted with quite so much Gooner understanding.

We must keep the faith as we set out on this intriguing journey, whilst not forgetting that mercifully no matter what, we've seemingly got a full season's worth of mickey taking as the world laughs at Tottenham's expense.

Don't get me started on buy out! Who could've possibly imagined that the Bank of England club would become the bank of Kroenke. Old man Hill-Wood must be turning in his grave! I'm certain that in the years to come, folks will look back and marvel at the rank incompetency that resulted in this country selling off its footballing crown jewels to a horde of unscrupulous billionaire robber-barons!

COYG
Bernard



Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You

            Sitting at the Arsenal on Sunday, enduring the almost inevitable sight of Guardiola’s swaggering Man City squad rain on Unai’s opening day parade, I was reminded of that ancient joke about the priest impatiently waiting at the graveside of a funeral, for one of the mourners to share some pleasantries about the deceased, until eventually a voice at the back pipes up “his brother was worse”!

            Frankly our encounter with the title favourites proved to be something of a free-pass for our new manager, with the limit of most Gooners expectations being our fervent desire to experience a stark contrast between the football of Emery’s Arsenal, compared to the decade long comfort zone of Arsène’s perennial under-achievers.

            I must admit to being disappointed by the sight of Petr Cech leading the Gunners out. Since to my mind Cech remains as a talisman of the old regime and a squad that had become psychologically bereft of that blinkered ‘winning spirit’. Sure we didn’t exactly break the bank to buy Bernd Leno, but why would the Gunners bother blowing the best part of £20m for Leno, if the German net-minder is no better than the cotchel of adequate keepers already at the club?

            I’d hoped Leno might be immediately installed as our unequivocal No. 1 and that we could avoid the sort of keeper rotation, which might continue to hinder the new broom’s prospects of building a stable defensive unit. Perhaps with Guendouzi and Sokratis both making their debuts and with us being deprived of a recognised left-back, Emery felt it was safer to opt for experience, instead of sweeping away all that had gone before him?

            Yet Sunday’s most blatant stumbling block in Emery’s efforts to mould an Arsenal team in his image was Cech’s apparent discomfort with the ball at his feet. In attempting to teach this old dog a new trick, it appeared as if Petr had been threatened with a severe fine for each and every long ball, such was our keeper’s insistence on risking repeated calamities, rather than simply playing himself out of trouble by hoofing it down field.

            However Rome wasn’t built in a day and aside from reinforcing the relative gulf in class and comparative squad depths, this 0-2 defeat to the champions only served to demonstrate the size of the task at hand for Emery, in transforming the culture that’s existed at the Arsenal for nearly a quarter of a century. The big question is whether our fickle home fans and the many millions of social media numpties are willing to cut Emery some slack and afford him the time necessary to effect such a significant transformation?

            I feared the worst when Maitland-Niles limped off and the 34-year Lichtsteiner was left having to contain the pace of Mahrez and Walker for the remaining hour, with our aged Swiss debutante seemingly having a stick of Toblerone for a left leg. Despite my suspicion that City were able to coast after taking the lead and with the likes of De Bruyne and Sané on the bench, even if we’d managed to score, this would’ve only encouraged our opponents to put their foot down, there was at least some solace that this somewhat more competitive encounter was so far removed from last season’s humiliation.

            With both City and Liverpool looking so strong on paper, it’s hard to envisage us competing with the bookies favourites and it will be our results against the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd by which project Emery will be measured. So next Saturday’s outing at Stamford Bridge is likely to prove far more of a litmus test of whether we have genuine top four credentials.

            Considering we might’ve suffered seeing all our pre-season optimism extinguished by a far more embarrassing scoreline on Sunday, I much prefer to focus on the positives and quite how refreshing it was to witness an Arsenal manager actually coaching from the touchline and who, in complete contrast to his predecessor, is seemingly able to have some impact upon his team at halftime. Not to mention how unaccustomed we’ve been to seeing a team selection that’s designed to counter the opposition’s strengths (and take advantage of any weaknesses?).

            Both Guendouzi and Torreira appear capable of contributing to a braver, more determined looking Arsenal side and so long as Unai’s touchline exhortations can continue to encourage more consistent and more competitive performances, I for one will be satisfied with Unai achieving such baby steps.
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email to: londonN5@gmail.com