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Monday, 22 April 2019

Unai Emery, linguistically challenged masterful tactician, or the Basque Barry Fry?

One of Manuel's weaker menus
          I’ve done my utmost to avoid reaching any definitive conclusions on Unai Emery’s management before now, preferring to allow him as much time as possible to put his imprint on our squad and to ensure that I’m not party to the premature rush to judgement of those irritating, customarily fickle, usual Gooner suspects.

          It’s going to be an interesting summer, since it seems to me that we at least need to wait until the beginning of next season, both to see how Unai addresses the blatantly obvious deficiencies within our existing line-up and before we can start apportioning blame, because not until then will this truly begin to be Emery’s Arsenal, as he starts to have his opportunity to mould a squad in his image.

          Nevertheless, hard as I try to remain patient, Unai’s seemingly naïve inability to appreciate the significance of fielding our strongest XI against Palace on Sunday afternoon, only raises further concerns about his overall competence. It’s been suggested that he’s too obsessed with repeating his Europa Cup success and maintaining his impressive record on the European stage (albeit the far less glamorous B-stage!). Could it really be the case that Sunday’s weakened team selection was dictated by our management team’s focus on achieving optimum fitness levels come the 2nd May semi-final encounter with Valencia?

          For all the high-tech statistical models designed to predict footballers’ red lines (and how to avoid crossing them!), in my humble opinion, there is nothing more important than maintaining a winning run and building the sort of psychological momentum that will invariably trump any such data-based evidence. No matter the line-ups Emery selects between now and the semi-final, surely there’d be no question of fatigue and energy levels would be a whole lot higher, on the back of a succession of confidence building victories.

          If the Gunners end up appearing at all “leggy” against Wolves at Molyneux on Wednesday, it won’t be because of insufficient squad rotation, it will bloomin’ well be because we lost against Palace. Surely Unai and his management team (since our new gaffer always speaks in the third person “we”, instead of “I”, I am assuming there must be collective responsibility in his management by committee model?) should have learned by now that while one might well get away with it when playing against the lesser lights on the Continent, selecting a weakened side in the Premiership is an open invitation to have one’s pants pulled down for an ignominious spanking!

          Frankly, we got away with it last Monday night and were extremely fortunate to come away from Vicarage Road with all three points. Yet while one’s luck might hold over the course of ninety minutes, the marathon league campaign is designed to sift the chancer whey, from the genuinely talented chaff. 

          My Spurs mates have spent much of the time since their euphoric Champions League triumph, fretting about the likelihood of there being insufficient fuel left in the good fortune tank, for a nail-biting, neck and neck race down the Premiership home straight. Their considerable anxiety was highly amusing (and perhaps not unsurprising for supporters of a club whose most memorable performance in their modern history happened to be a 4-3 defeat :-) and I was able to enjoy of few token crumbs of comfort, knowing that we at least had Spurs worried.

Mavro giving it all he's got
          For all the constant banter, in more honest moments I found myself reassuring my closest Spurs pal that in the Gunners current guise (the depressing workaday form seen at Watford) we didn’t have a hope of producing the level of focus and intensity necessary to churn out consistent wins in the last few games. But I meant that I didn’t think this team looks capable of banking nine points from the remaining three away trips to Wolves, Leicester and Burnley. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be so promptly proved right, by Sunday’s soporific home display against Palace.

          By Unai fielding anything other than our strongest XI against the Eagles, such disrespect not only presented Roy Hodgson with a motivational gift, but this also sent out entirely the wrong signal to our own squad ie. that we didn’t really need to be at 100% to beat Palace. Heaven only knows how we’ve managed to achieve such miraculously consistent form at home, but I was hoping Man Utd’s drubbing at Goodison in the lunchtime KO might serve as a timely warning of the humiliating consequences, when any team fails to turn up, fully attuned to the commitment demanded in every Premiership encounter

          Sadly, I guess we ended up getting precisely what we deserved, since complacency was on the cards both on the pitch and in the stands. Apparently, it was hotter in Highbury than it was in Spain this past weekend and when I received a call five minutes before KO with the kind offer of a Club Level spare, Sunday afternoon was all going swimmingly. I was looking forward to spending ninety minutes in the glorious sunshine, soaking up some rays and enjoying both a tan and the satisfaction of ending the afternoon lording it over our North London neighbours.

          I adore my inconspicuous lower tier pitch at the Emirates, compared to the dirty looks when bellowing my head off in the sedentary environs of Club Level. Yet nowadays it’s far less exhausting being able to remain seated for ninety minutes, rather than suffering the physical toll of the constant up & down of a lower tier workout. However, seated on the halfway line, in the front row of Club, savouring the 24-degree heat in my shorts and t-shirt, I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to spend an Easter Sunday and much like our team and fifty odd thousand other Gooners, I sat back to savour a perfunctory three points.

Only one winner in a contest of "statues"
          Perhaps much like our defence, I was guilty of dozing in the sunshine and considering it had been more than a year since Benteke last found the back of the net, it simply didn’t compute when the Palace striker headed home. It felt as if the response to our guests taking the lead was largely indignation, both on the pitch and in the stands. Unfortunately, Palace had inconsiderately neglected to stick to Sunday afternoon’s script!

          As a committed Gooner, I adore Carl Jenkinson, but that doesn’t mean I’d allow someone who gives the impression of a fan who happened to turn up with his boots, anywhere near our first XI. The Corporal might’ve been to blame for playing Benteke onside, but apparently Mustafi, El Neny, Guendouzi (to name but three!) all need reminding of football’s most basic principle of playing to the whistle. Force of personality alone and all the hissy fits in the world are never going to change the course of things, when the ref fails to toot his tin whistle (are they still tin?) and little pisses me off more than the sight of an Arsenal player standing there whinging like a truculent teenager, whilst the game goes on about them.

          Mavropanos might well have lacked composure, terrified of a tricky Zaha making a monkey of him, but while the majority of his team mates were prodding the ball sideways and backwards in a far too leisurely fashion, our Greek centre-half was at least one of the few players in red & white who actually looked “up for it”. In view of Mustafi’s culpability in all three of Palace’s goals, with hindsight, we’d probably have been better off if Emery had left Mavropanos out there and instead hooked his German sidekick for the second-half.

          It invariably appears difficult to change gear, whenever the Gunners start a game in such a sluggish fashion, even with the half-time injection of youthful vigour from Iwobi and AMN. I’ve got nothing against El Neny. The Egyptian midfielder always puts in a shift whenever he gets a rare run out. But in a horrifying vision of our future, in Ramsey’s absence, the Gunners are devoid of dynamism and any forward impetus in the middle of the park.

          It made for seriously frustrating viewing, watching us attempt to thread the eye of a needle, through the massed ranks of the Palace defence across the width of the penalty box. Despite catching Foster asleep at Watford last Monday and his mazy second-half run for a superb goal on Sunday, this was pretty much the sum total of Auba’s contribution to 180 minutes of football. Who knows if PEA has already downed tools for the summer, but he’s definitely gone off the boil in recent weeks and we really can’t afford our Gabonese goal-poacher losing focus at this crucial stage in proceedings, if we’re to retain some hope of sneaking under the wire into 4th spot.

          I lost track of the number of times we were camped in the final third first-half, with Auba the sole target amongst all the yellow shirts in Palace’s box. My most frequent whinge about Özil is that with so much pace in our front pair, Mesut so often appears guilty of slowing the game down and gifting the opposition defence time to organise themselves. Yet when Mesut popped up in the penalty area, only two minutes into the second-half, I think that like most of our crowd, we were only slightly less surprised than the Palace keeper when Özil dinked him at his near post because we were all expecting the cut back. 

          Here’s hoping Sunday’s goal stimulates Mesut’s appetite because it feels as if our “assist king” all too often has an aversion to taking responsibility for putting the ball in the back of the net, which is bonkers when you see him do so with sort of “Coolhand Luke” composure that the likes of Iwobi would kill for!

Pained expression of incompetence writ large
          Sadly, the game was only back on script all too briefly, only so long as it took for Mustafi to make yet another brace of costly rickets. After he’d been mugged off by Zaha, forlornly and idiotically hoping for Leno to come out and rescue him, I sat there pondering quite how frequently during this one encounter we either suffered, or failed to capitalize for the want of some proper leadership.

          I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually missed Palace’s second goal, as I was distracted, focusing on something through my binoculars. I originally started bringing binoculars to away games because it’s impossible to work out what’s occurring at the other end of the pitch, when located behind one goal. But superstitious anorak that I am, I now have to bring them to every match and truth be told, as my eyesight deteriorates with my all-round increasing decrepitude, nowadays I often need them to decipher what’s going on over the opposite side of the pitch.

          However, I frequently find myself concentrating on something other than the ball and after having endured a decade or more, devoid of any real leadership out on the park, I spend most of my time peering through my binoculars, searching in vain for some evidence of communication between our players. As an experienced old lag, I thought Sokratis showed some sign of paternal promise as captaincy material, but then admittedly I was suggesting something similar about Mustafi, when he first rocked up!

Who's the Daddy? Sadly not Sead
          Most baffling to me is the apparent complete lack of communication when we’re defending set pieces. What I wouldn’t give for a goalie like Ederson, who dominates his penalty area with such assuredness. The crowd at the Etihad might not be the noisiest, but there aren’t many keepers who’s cry when they come for a ball is so authoritative that it can be heard on the effects mics on TV.

          They were enthusing n MOTD2 about the Liverpool players working out that Wijnaldum was being left unmarked at corners. Invariably the only time we see Arsenal players talking to one another during a game, it’s when one of them has made a blatant cock-up and is looking to blame one of his colleagues. The apparent lack of communication between the Gunners can’t be blamed on us having a team full of timid, introverted personalities. Therefore, I can’t help but question whether this failure to coax, or cajole one another is a reflection of their limited desire?

          Even standing on tiptoes, Lucas Torreira is probably only level with Scott Dann’s bellybutton, so where was the vocal defensive authority to ensure that the diminutive Argie wasn’t left marking the lanky Palace centre-half at the corner that resulted in us conceding a third? Moreover, as captain of the Arsenal I’d be screaming at a couple of our paciest players to go and stand on the halfway line in such instances. Not only would this have forced a couple of the Palace players to drop back, but when visiting opponents park the bus after taking the lead, a swift counter attack seems the most obvious source of scoring.

          If we had a demonstrative captain geeing the team up, we might not have started Sunday’s game in quite such a languid fashion, but after going a goal behind, I wanted to see a reaction, some evidence of vocal leadership from someone willing to take names and kick arses, thereby demonstrating a determination not to blow such a prime opportunity to put one over on our own increasingly noisy neighbours.

          I find myself being increasingly wound up by Unai’s post-match gibberish, wondering what it says about our new gaffer’s own commitment that he hasn’t made more of an effort to get to grips with the lingo. Doubtless I’m being hyper-critical and Emery could be talking in Vulcan so long as he’s talking about victories. Perhaps we should be grateful he’s no Steve McClaren, trying Spanish phrases with a cockney accent, but the problem with his continued use of limited cliché-speak in English is that it doesn’t exactly promote a perception of him as an astute managerial genius and for all we know, Unai might merely be the Basque Barry Fry?

          At the very minimum, I hoped that Emery’s enthusiasm would rub off on his charges, but while he’s been able to motivate the team for the odd encounter and there were a couple of players who put a shift in against Palace on Sunday, there was little evidence of the sort of intensity and urgency of a team that’s utterly desperate to secure Champions League qualification. If Emery is indeed fixated on achieving qualification via Europa Cup success, it is perhaps inevitable that his team put their Premiership efforts on the back burner, as a secondary objective?

          To my mind this would be a massive mistake. Aside from the fact that they rolled over Villareal (with Coquelin and Gabriel on the bench), I know nothing of Valencia, but my feeling is that the odds of us beating the Spanish side and then overcoming Chelsea (or Eintracht Frankfurt!) in a final in Baku are fairly similar to our chances of achieving a top four finish. But you simply can’t turn form on and off like a tap and to my mind, it’s a fool’s game to do anything other than to go all out to win every single game.

          With the cheapest flights to Baku a hefty 600 quid, it will be utterly outrageous for both sets of fans to have to schlep all the way to Azerbaijan, if it ends up being an Arsenal v Chelsea final. Emery’s stock will rise tenfold amongst the Gooner faithful, if his first full season in charge results in an immediate return to Europe’s top table. However should the Gunners fail to win the Europa League Final, Emery will find himself starting next season in some way into the red, should we find ourselves narrowly missing out on a top four finish solely for the want of putting out a full strength team against Palace and the three points Unai’s seemingly pissed up against the wall on Sunday!

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Monday, 18 March 2019

Ramsey Inspired Renaissance?

North London Is Red

If ever we needed a reminder of quite what a fickle mistress football can be and the gossamer thin divide between unbridled ecstasy and abject despair, we Gooners have enjoyed a stark demonstration, in both encounters this past week, of the confidence boosting benefits afforded to the club that’s graced with Lady Luck’s capricious favours.

Considering quite how often we’ve fallen victim to the inspirational goalkeeping efforts of David De Gea in recent seasons, it felt as if we were long overdue a slice of good fortune against Man U. Still there’s no escaping the fact that if it wasn’t for Man Utd’s profligacy in front of goal last Sunday, we might’ve witnessed an entirely different turn of events. Aside from being deprived of the immense satisfaction of an all too rare clean sheet (which was almost as gratifying as the victory itself!), we might’ve been denied this incredibly euphoric cherry, on top of a costly point-dropping cake of a weekend for the competition.

I happened to be sitting in Club Level on Thursday night. Reverse snob that I am, in the past I invariably used to decline any offers to sit in the prawn circle, where one gets dirty looks for disturbing the peace & quiet, preferring to sit in my own lower tier pitch, able to give full vent to my vocal exhortations without feeling too conspicuous. However nowadays I’m extremely grateful for the occasional Club Level invite because it’s so much less exhausting for me to be able to remain seated for the entire 90-minutes, rather than being up and down like a Jack-Rabbit all game long. 

Worse still, in my own Block 18 seat (a block away from the visiting fans), I’m forced to spend the entire game trying to anticipate when those in front of me are about to stand up, whenever the ball comes down our end of the pitch. Otherwise, it’s become such a struggle for my creaking bones that by the time I struggle up out of my seat, I’m all too often in danger of missing whatever it is that everyone else is standing up to see!

Many of those who were sitting with me in Club Level on Thursday night might not fully appreciate quite how close the Gunners came to making an embarrassing Europa Cup exit because so many of them were still availing themselves of the free halftime refreshments and had not returned to their seats in time to see Niang’s effort hit the woodwork in the opening moments of the second-half. 

Presumably the Gunners would’ve produced a somewhat more focused second-half performance, if Rennes had bagged a precious away goal at that stage of the contest. But if Mustafi & co. had gifted the opposition this encouragement, it might well have made for a far more uncomfortable evening against the French side and their vociferous fans. We certainly would’ve been far less forgiving and wouldn’t have been able to laugh off Aubameyamg’s glaring misses quite so flippantly.

After the stick PEA took following his feeble penalty against Spurs, his willingness to step up again, against De Gea, spoke volumes about our Gabonese striker’s character. The cream of the crop in most competitive sporting endeavours tend to be shameless egomaniacs because it invariably takes a supremely self-centred, obsessive belief in one’s own ability to rise above mediocrity. 

Wakanda Forever!
With Auba having revealed prior to the match that he’d be unveiling a new alter-ego in the event of him scoring against Rennes, I was peering through my binoculars prior to kick-off, to see if I could spot a bulge in his socks or his shorts, which might indicate the presence of a mask. When nothing materialised during the celebrations, after Auba scored in the opening minutes of the Gunners early barrage, I wondered if he’d decided against it. Or could it have been the case that he hadn’t accounted for the possibility of us losing the coin toss and being forced to swap ends at the start?

Perhaps Pierre thought it best to leave any such tomfoolery until after the Gunners had done the business and got their noses in front in this two-legged tie. But it tells you everything about our shy, retiring striker that he was sufficiently confident of notching another goal to go to the trouble of placing a bag behind the advertising hoardings at the Clock End containing his new mask.

Truth be told, if Rennes had put the tie on a knife edge and threatened our progress into the quarterfinals by nicking an away goal, after Auba had subsequently missed a couple of sitters, we’d have wanted his head on a plate for pratting around, instead of fully focusing on the task at hand and PEA could’ve headed off to “Wakanda Forever” for all we cared. But surprisingly we managed to maintain a second successive clean sheet and our very own Black Panther was only left to rue the yellow card, brandished by a by the book, spoilsport Latvian ref who obviously didn’t appreciate Auba’s antics.

Doubtless there will be plenty of killjoys who’ll criticise Aubameyang, but with this mask stunt being something that he started at Dortmund, I quite like the idea that the timing of his new superhero disguise attests to Auba’a burgeoning self-belief at the Arsenal and only helps to foster a mood amongst the rest of our squad of a team that is currently enjoying their time on the pitch.

Yet we mustn’t get carried away, after all if it wasn’t for the fortuitously timed reduction in Lacazette’s suspension from three matches to two, Unai would’ve been deprived of the option of playing the pair of them and the Gunners might not have been able to produce the scintillating intensity of that opening spell, which cancelled out the opposition’s advantage within a mere 15 minutes of the kick-off.

Pleasure principle
Additionally, there’s more than a little irony involved in the fact that we’ve spent most of this campaign to date focusing on the contribution of Torreira and Guendouzi as the primary evidence that the new regime have begun to ring the changes and the soaring mood of positivity resulting from the two victories this past week has been achieved in the absence of our two principal arrivistes.

Instead of which, I’m sure some might agree that it’s been the dynamism of Aaron Ramsey, providing forward momentum in the middle of the park, which has proved to be the most obvious difference in both games. Emery seems to be developing the knack of motivating his troops to produce the sort of intensity necessary to steam into opponents and put them under the cosh right from the off. Yet it remains to be seen if he can continue to inspire this sort of urgency on a more regular basis, so we might achieve the sort of consistency necessary to secure a top four finish.

I’ll wait to see if we can reproduce this same fervour against Newcastle and Everton, but even as one of Granit Xhaka’s greatest critics, I have to admit that he’s barely put a foot wrong in both matches and his form appears to benefit from playing alongside Ramsey.

Hopefully we can count on Torreira benefiting from his time on the sidelines, so that he might return to the starting XI at some stage, reinvigorated and transformed back into the whirlwind of a Tasmanian Devil that we witnessed earlier in the season. And while Aaron might be a sufficiently experienced old-hand not to be guilty of overplaying on the edge of his own box and risking being caught in possession, in the manner that we’ve seen on the odd occasion from an immature Matteo, I’ve no doubt that Guendouzi will get his opportunity in the home straight to reprise his influential role to date.

Nevertheless, if the Gunners were to achieve the mammoth feat of a winning streak between now and the end of the season, this would make Ramsey’s departure even more difficult to swallow if he continues to play such a significant role.

Meanwhile with Ainsley Maitland-Niles creating our first goal, scoring the second and demonstrating a “shall not pass” resolve in defending our right flank on Thursday night, he definitely deserved “man of the match” consideration. I was wondering if Ainsley felt he had a point to prove, after being left out of the England U21 squad, but as was the case against Man Utd, he suddenly seems to have grown into his Arsenal shirt.

Aaron passing the baton to AMN
In his rare run outs at full-back in the past, I’ve found myself criticising AMN for too often thinking he can use his searing pace to get him out of trouble, whereas in both appearances last week he seems to have acquired he discipline to ensure he’s goalside of the ball, facing up his opponent, instead of chasing back alongside him to try and effect a last-ditch tackle.

If Ainsley continues to progress at such an impressive rate, Hector will have some job on his hands displacing him when he returns to fitness and hopefully some serious competition for his right-back berth will only benefit Bellerin (as opposed to Hector knowing he can walk straight back into the first XI the minute he returns from his ACL injury).

Although these two triumphs and the two clean sheets definitely did not demonstrate that Unai’s leaky ship has suddenly become watertight and that he’s discovered a solution to the defensive deficiencies which have plagued us all season. But while we still might be prone to being exposed at the back, there appears to be increasingly satisfying evidence of a renewed determination to prevent any such inadequacies costing us quite so dear.

There’s little that pisses me off more than the sight of anyone in red & white turning their back, in a cowardly fashion, to avoid being hurt by a powerfully struck shot. By contrast, there’s little that pleases me more than the sight of one of our players courageously throwing themselves at the ball, with absolutely no thought to their own personal safety, in an effort to block an attempt on goal with some part of their body. 

As a defender myself in my dim and distant youth, such brave incidents of self-sacrifice for the Arsenal’s cause are almost as pleasurable as the paroxysm of joy when the ball hits the back of the net at the opposite end of the pitch. In an age when one can’t help but cynically question the commitment of our modern-day mercenaries, where loyalty is measured in terms of the obscene number of digits in their pay-packets, it’s inevitable that we question whether their desire can possibly live up to to the unstinting devotion of those of us on the terraces. 

Thus it’s positively heart-warming to see the Gunners make like bona fide troopers, willing to risk life and limb for the multi-millionaires beside them. Unlike a 30-yard screamer into the top corner, this sort of defensive valour attests to the burgeoning of a genuine team spirit, amongst a group of players who might just be beginning to buy into “project Unai”, as they discover quite how much more they’re capable of achieving, when they respond to the unrelenting, wild-eyed haranguing from their somewhat batty Basque gaffer.

Yet one, or even two swallows do not make a summer and when one considers that it was only a couple of weeks back that we were ten points behind Spurs, with the majority of Gooners already having begun to question Emery’s capacity to take this team forward, I certainly don’t want to tempt fate by going overboard. We need remember that this is the same Unai Emery who’s left Mesut Özil spending much of the season earning his eye-watering £350k per week by shining the bench with his backside.

So long as Unai persists with putting our most talented players out on the park and energised by their warm weather break in the Emirates (in Dubai, as it’s unlikely to be eighty degrees in N5!), we go on to produce an equally vigorous performance against the Toon, while the game at Anfield the day before goes to form - speak it quietly since a lot can happen during the fortnight of this International break – our noisy neighbours might well end up being the April Fools, with the natural order of things restored just in time for the grand opening of their new white elephant. Albeit there’s still some serious snagging to be accomplished at Spurs new stadium, if the video clips of the water pouring down inside the building were genuine (don't forget to pack an anorak)!

It’s going to be a helluva long couple of weeks with no domestic footie, at such a crucial stage of the competition, when we Gooners have been left positively salivating for more ever since last Thursday. Still at least we’ve plenty of time to see if there exists such a thing as anti-stab boxer shorts for our impending trip to the welcoming environs of Naples.

Lastly (phew!) watching all the other matches this weekend, it seems as if almost every club now has a green kit and I have to wonder as to the IQs of these marketing geniuses responsible for putting teams out in a green kit, on a green pitch. Did it not occur to any of them that footballers are far less likely to perceive their teammates around them, when they're blending into the background! If I never see the Gunners play in green again, it will be too soon!

Nuff waffle
Come on you Gunners

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Monday, 11 March 2019

Tottenham Hotspur We're Coming For You!

"Miss this one mate & you ain't getting out of here alive"
          While most Gooners would’ve bitten your hand off for a draw in advance of last Saturday’s North London Derby, there was no escaping the sense of disappointment, coming away from Wembley having failed to capitalise on such a prime opportunity to silence our increasingly noisy neighbours.

          Yet far more foreboding was the fear of the possible recriminations of Torreira’s needless last-minute red card and the potential significant impact of the absence of our Uruguayan pocket-rocket to patrol the middle of the park on Sunday & snuff out Man Utd’s rampant goal threat.

          Although in recent weeks Torreira’s struggled to exert the sort of influence that we witnessed early in the season and instead of Emery focusing on trying to compensate for our porous defence and thwarting Man Utd, there was an almost tangible elevation of the mood of positivity around the Emirates with the announcement of the team news an hour before KO, with this rare instance of Unai having the cojones to select his best available XI.

          There was always the hope that Man Utd might arrive at our place suffering from a hangover, following the emotional toll of their triumph against PSG and it was a relief that Herrera remained unfit, considering how the midfield triumvirate of Herrera, Matic & Pogba have swept all before them since Solskjaer rocked up.

          However, with Chelsea joining Spurs in wasting precious points in advance of Sunday’s KO, in some respect this seemed to take some of the pressure off. Aided by Unai’s offensive team selection, it felt as if this damage limitation insurance provided us with the liberating confidence to take the handbrake off and go toe-to-toe with our guests, in a concerted effort to put a spoke in the Solskjaer bandwagon.

          You can’t have watched the Gunners over the past few decades, live or on the box, without having heard Maria’s cacophonous “come on you Gunners”. It was fitting that the club made a presentation to one of our most devoted fans, in celebration of her 80th birthday and it would’ve been downright embarrassing if the Gunners had gone on to poop Maria’s party, by failing to replicate the same undaunting vigour at the start of this encounter, evidenced in the octogenarian’s pre-match pep talk.

          Sure, we gifted Man Utd with a few glaring opportunities, during a fairly even first-half, as has been our most problematic failing, all season long. Yet there was a most pleasing determination to our last-ditch defending and it’s this evidence of a concerted team spirit, an unrelenting will to win that we’ve been waiting to see made manifest (on a more consistent basis!) under our new management.

          Deprived of any real threat down our right flank, with the lumbering Mustafi in this role in recent weeks, it was a massive relief to see Emery give Maitland-Niles a rare run out. Where in the past Ainsley hasn’t exactly performed as if he truly relished being asked to do a job at full-back, against Man Utd it appeared as if the penny had dropped. In producing what was arguably a man of the match performance, perhaps for the first time it felt as if the youngster had grasped the nettle to make the most of his opportunity to nail down a first-team berth.

          Doubtless Man Utd fans will moan about the contentious penalty decision, but no one was more surprised than us to get anything out of ref Jon Moss. Following the fortuitous turn of events in Paris in midweek, surely they have to accept the rough with the smooth? Credit to Aubameyang for having the courage to step up against a keeper of De Gea’s calibre, after his miserable failure last week.

          In the past we’ve grown so accustomed to drawing a blank against De Gea that we all stood gawping at the replays of Granit Xhaka’s first-half strike on the big screens to try and comprehend how De Gea had been undone.

          Although our attacking triumvirate of Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette failed to truly click on Sunday, I pray that Emery persists with starting all three of them in the remaining matches as they’ll only improve with more game time and it should make for a highly entertaining climax to such an unpredictable contest.

          Hard to believe it was only 16 days ago that we were 10 points behind Spurs, without a hope. “Tottenham Hotspur we’re coming for you”!
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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.

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?

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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

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!
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