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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.
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Adieu Arsène


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Apathy, Apathy, The Curse of the Gooner Bourgeoisie

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COYG
Bernard




--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Arsenal way or the wayward Arsenal?

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

Seemingly no responsibility shirking for the Scousers!
_________________________________________________


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

The Arsenal Way?


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com