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Friday, 20 January 2017

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal Still Has Hope to Earn Some Silverware

Last year finished with a pleasant surprise for Arsenal as they managed to pull the rug out from Tottenham Hotspur to sneak into second place on the final day of the season. Thanks to the Gunners' 4-0 victory over Aston Villa and Newcastle's 5-1 drubbing of Spurs, Arsenal managed to prevent the ignominy of having Tottenham finish ahead of them for the first time in two decades. This year, the Gunners find themselves once again in the conversation for the top spot, but if they hope to hoist the trophy they'll have to take down Antonio Conte's resurgent Chelsea side.

The three big London clubs are the ones circling the top spot with Liverpool nipping at their heels as it looks to finally earn its first Premier League trophy. Chelsea have looked downright unstoppable under the watchful eye of Conte, and it's hard to believe that this is the same side that Jose Mourinho practically drove into the ground last year. Meanwhile, Arsenal and Tottenham are close behind as they seek to prove just who's the best of the London teams.

The draw against Bournemouth a bit of tough luck for Gooners, but Olivier Giroud's late goal managed to snatch a much needed point from the jaws of defeat. Fast forward to the recent game against Swansea and Arsenal are still in the race for the title. Much of this will depend on whether or not Giroud can continue on his run of peerless late season form. Express' football section noted how Giroud's performance has helped to buoy the Gunners for the past several matches. They even went so far as to called the French striker Arsenal's man of the moment. Given the rate at which he's scoring goals, it's hard to argue against the sentiment. The question will be whether Wenger will continue to give him the playing time he deserves.

According to ESPN FC, one obstacle standing in the way of Giroud's continued success may be the return of Theo Walcott. Walcott could be returning from injury soon and that may have serious repercussions on how much we'll be seeing of Olly in the future. It's hard to imagine benching Giroud given his current run of form, but the team will need to give Walcott plenty of opportunity if they hope to challenge Chelsea.

Sadly, despite both Arsenal and Spurs finding much-needed wins Chelsea still remains very much the favourite to win the league. Betfair's Premier League staff has been documenting the season and has pointed out Chelsea's chances of being champions once again. The club handily defeated Leicester City, despite the absence of Diego Costa, and still managed to score three goals without their starting striker. The Blues have been scoring at a blistering pace and will only be more fearsome when Costa returns, which doesn't bode well for the rest of the Premier League.

While there's still a chance for Arsenal to find their way to the top of the tables, they might be better served focusing on other trophies. Another FA Cup trophy would once again make the Gunners the sole holders for the record of most titles with 13, and the club is still chasing that elusive Champions League title. The squad will face off against Bayern Munich in their round of 16 match on February 15th and will be looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Given the team's recent performances, they could do that—and more—and it may be a more realistic goal then a Premier League title.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Bring Me Sunshine......

Olly's passable Eric Morecambe impersonation
I don't know if I'm seeing things through rose-tinted specs, or if my decrepit recall faculties are increasingly unreliable, but as capricious as our home crowd can be (albeit often no worse than the fickle home fans elsewhere!), I continue to refer to the "travelling faithful" because the hard core Gooners, who go home and away, could, in the past, ALWAYS be relied upon to remain loyal to the Arsenal's cause, no matter how undeserving the team might be of such staunch support.

Win, lose or draw, there's always been an implicit understanding from those willing to endure endless hours, schlepping up and down congested motorways, relative to the comparatively brief ninety minutes of a match, that one endures these sort of hardships for the purposes of being present, as a constant reminder of the reason why the players need to show some pride in wearing the shirt.

In the past, if we'd been 3-0 down against modest opposition after only 60 mins, with the sort of pitiful display that made the humble likes of Bournemouth look like Brazil, the travelling Gooners might well have resigned ourselves to our fate. Yet instead of adding insult, to injury, with a chorus of "you're an embarrassment", you'd be more likely to hear a resolute, 15-minute rendition of "we love you Arsenal", thereby ensuring that even if the opposition had little respect for our team, our relentless support would at least be worthy of some admiration.

Perhaps the sound of us Gooners throwing our toys out of our pram, in absolute disgust at our performance at Dean Court was merely indicative of the constant undercurrent of disunity that exists at our club these day? Or maybe it's merely a symptom of the changing makeup of modern day Premiership fans in general, where in a world of instant gratification, folks no longer feel an abiding obligation to continue to voice one's support "through thick and thin"?

Two-nil down at the break and in the words of Bill Shankly, with us being lucky to have nil, I was no less infuriated than all the other Gooners around me. After seeing both Man City and Liverpool struggle to muster a sufficiently energetic performance, I fully expected the Gunners to suffer some negative impact of having so little recovery time between Palace and Bournemouth, but I certainly didn't anticipate the prospect of us capitulating against the Cherries, much in the same manner that Watford rolled over against Spurs.

As has been the case in the past, it felt as if Arsène had been remiss in his pre-match protestations about Eddie Howe's side benefitting from an additional day's rest. By making it known that the Gunners were likely to be more fatigued, it was as if he'd planted this seed in the player's minds, providing them with a ready made excuse for a below par display and they turned out onto the pitch intent on proving their manager correct. 

Moreover, by presenting the media with an opportunity to focus on Wenger's complaints prior to the match, Arsène appears to have (somewhat naively?) presented Howe with a gift-wrapped game-plan. The post-match quotes from the Cherries' players suggested that there was little rocket science involved in Bournemouth's tactical strategy, with Howe sending his charges out to try and capitalise on the Gunners' heavy legs, by going at us full pelt, right from the off.

You put your left leg in.....
Dean Court is a wonderfully intimate stadium, where one can literally almost reach out and touch the players, during their pre-match warm-up. With it's modest capacity Bournemouth has fast become the hottest ticket on the awayday calendar. Aside from the morality issue of extorting money from a fellow Gooner, I could never consent to flogging a match ticket above face value, for fear I'd feel personally responsible if my bad karma should result in the game going awry.

However standing there at halftime, I couldn't help but contemplate my own sanity, knowing I could've stopped indoors with my feet up, in the warm and been a couple of hundred quid better off! But if I was feeling pissed off, I can't possibly imagine the fury of those foolhardy Gooners, with more money than sense, who'd actually stumped up £200 to suffer such a pitiful display. Little did I realise that we would all end up feeling as if we'd enjoyed a blinding return on our investment come the final whistle.

Despite following the Gunners for longer than I care to recall (which admittedly, with me forgetting who scored before a game has even finished, is not very long nowadays!), I still never fail to be amazed by the beautiful game's infinite capacity to confound. Standing around at halftime, trying to stamp some blood circulation back into the ice-blocks at the end of my legs, we were debating Arsène's possible options for attempting to turn this game around. 

What I found so unbelievable was that it was only a couple of weeks back that I was lauding the Gunners strength in depth and the fact that our subs bench looked stronger than it has been for so many seasons. However, with Coquelin having limped off, Elneny having disappeared off to Gabon for the ACN and with a couple of enforced absences, suddenly on Tuesday night we were left with Lucas Perez and Jeff Reine-Adelaide as our only attacking options on the bench. I have to admit that I didn't have much faith in either of these two being able to come on and achieve a sufficient impact.

Having lost away games to Everton and Man City in Mustafi's absence, I was hoping his return might stiffen up our defence. While he might not have had the excuse of being fatigued, after his three week break, sadly Shkodran was incessantly caught napping and appeared to be as "off the pace" as the rest of his team mates, with them all constantly struggling to cope with the Cherries high-energy approach to proceedings.

Hector Bellerin has achieved an admirable level of consistency in recent times, but he seemed to succumb to the same plague of incompetency that afflicted the entire team for 70 minutes on Tuesday night, as Bellerin was suddenly transformed back into the same 'caught in the headlights" bunny, culpable of the sort of naivety that we've not witnessed from Hector since his debut a couple of years ago.

After Iwobi had produced such an impressive performance against Palace, playing in the no. 10 role, frankly I couldn't understand Wenger's logic in shifting him out wide and giving Ramsey this responsibility at Bournemouth. Aaron might well be better suited to this role on paper, but so far this season he has flitted in and out of games, without imposing himself in the impressive way he did for Wales in the summer. Where Ramsey can be guilty of hiding in more arduous encounters, merely laying the ball off at every opportunity, although Iwobi might be prone to failing a little too often for my liking, Alex can at least be relied upon to keep trying to make something happen.

However our shape wasn't rigid on Tuesday night and although Bellerin's schoolboy defending was responsible for Bournemouth's first goal, I got the impression that Ramsey was also blameworthy because Iwobi was in the middle and Aaron was on the right at this point and Ramsey completely switched off, when he should've been tearing back into our box, to at least try and assist.

Both of Bournemouth's two goals in the opening twenty minutes were all the more depressing because they transpired directly in front of us, so close in fact that if I was a little more energetic, I would've been tempted to leap out and give Granit a shellacking. Most Gooners believed ref Oliver got the decision wrong and that it wasn't a penalty. On the radio they suggested that it was a soft decision but that there was sufficient contact to merit the player going down.

I was under the impression that shoulder-to-shoulder contact was permitted and there looked to be very little difference between Xhaka's challenge and the one on Bellerin in the second half that wasn't deemed a foul and which resulted in the Cherries' third goal.

However the main question isn't really whether or not Bournemouth deserved to be awarded a penalty, far more pertinent is the problem with Xhaka's decision-making and what on earth Granit is doing gifting the opposition with an opportunity to go down in the penalty area, when the player isn't presenting an imminent threat on our goal.

I came in for some stick, after daring to suggest that Xhaka might be a £35m ricket in last Sunday's Observer. Personally I feel that the jury is still out and I would dearly love Granit to prove his critics wrong. But the frustration evident in a thousand odd Gooners singing Jack Wilshere's name at Dean Court on Tuesday night, shows that Arsenal fans are fast running out of patience, waiting for Xhaka to demonstrate his worth. 

Until such time (and after watching Spurs v Chelsea last night!), I definitely believe it's a valid debate, whether we might've been better off paying £11m for Wanyama, or £30m for Kanté, compared to investing £35m on a player who has yet to prove his ability to impose himself in the more frenetic and relentlessly competitive climate of the Premiership?

When Arsène bought Mustafi and Xhaka in the summer it looked as if the penny had finally dropped and that le Prof was at long last attempting to address the Arsenal's infamous soft-centre, by adding some steel to the squad. Yet while Mustafi has endeared himself to the fans (with the exception of his woeful display on Tuesday) with his wholehearted attitude, when it comes to Xhaka, it doesn't feel as if I'm in a minority with my disappointment over Granit's failure to live up to his Ronseal credentials to date, in as much as he doesn't "do what it says on the tin" as our new midfield general.

With his dodgy disciplinary record, I was expecting him to be granite by name and nature, as a physically imposing force, where one would gladly suffer the occasional glaring error (such as the penalty he gifted to the Cherries), if this was merely an unavoidable side-effect of Granit haring about, making his presence felt in the middle of the park.

Perhaps it will take time for Xhaka to feel sufficiently confident to become the sort of influential, dominant midfield fulcrum that we were expecting him to be. Yet to date, while he's proved himself adequate in those encounters where our opponents have defended deep and have allowed him time on the ball, in matches against more ambitious opposition, Granit's speed of thought and action has proved questionable.

Invariably, the proof of a midfielder's true quality is seen in their ability to retain possession, to be able to pick a pass and to give an impression of somehow creating time and space on the ball, no matter how severely pressured they are by the opposition. Sadly, thus far, Granit appears to have failed this test, as his composure has crumbled and he's struggled to make his presence felt, to enable us to get a grip of those games where we've had our backs up against the wall.

After Coquelin limped off on Tuesday night, it was left to Xhaka and Ramsey to wrestle control of the game in the middle of the park and the two of them failed miserably. In truth it could've been game over before the break, then my mate made the mistake of tempting fate by commenting at half-time that "at least it can't get any worse".

It was bad enough seeing Bellerin muscled off the ball, just before the hour mark, by the Bournemouth striker who simply appeared to want it more than Hector. But watching a replay of Bournemouth's third goal when I eventually arrived home in the wee hours of Tuesday night, what disappointed me most was the sight of a statuesque Mustafi standing there, ball-watching, when he should've been breaking his neck to try and get back.

Mustafi leaving Bellerin to deal with Francis on his own was symptomatic of our performance for the first hour of this game, where the Arsenal's team ethic seemed to have completely evaporated. We looked like a team of eleven individuals, where none of them were willing to graft for one another. Even Alexis couldn't put a foot right, but he was at least working and while they were all having a go at one another, I had to laugh at the ironic chutzpah of Aaron Ramsey, seeing him lambasting Sanchez for a wasted effort on goal.

As the pundit on Five Live, Steve Claridge admitted on the radio at half-time that he had not seen Xhaka and Mustafi play often, but that on the evidence of such a disastrous first-half performance alone, it was hard for him to comprehend why Wenger had spent 70 million quid on these two.

It was hard to envisage the Gunners being able to turn this game around at 2-0 and then when we conceded a third, I think most of us were merely hoping that the final whistle would come, before the scoreline became even more embarrassing. 

When I saw Gabriel stripping off on the touchline, I assumed Arsène had decided to remove Mustafi from the fray, to try and prevent Shkodran's confidence from suffering permanent damage. But when it dawned upon me that it was Koscielny who was limping off, the prospect of blowing three points and losing both Coq and Kozza to injury, it was my turn to wonder if this evening could possibly get any worse!

It was hilarious when Alexis' header found the back of the net on 70 mins, as in an instant all the animosity and the chants of "you're an embarrassment" (and the less vociferous calls for "Wenger out") from our corner of the ground disappeared and we were back to singing the team's praises. Nevertheless, I'm not sure any of us truly believed that this would prove to be much more than a consolation and a valiant, but ultimately futile effort to get something (other than perhaps recover a little pride) from this game.

Yet it was as if Bournemouth had expended so much effort up until that point that they totally ran out of steam. I hadn't expected Lucas to make a difference. but we were directly behind our second goal and he produced an utterly exquisite finish. Only then did I begin to dare to dream that this game might end up as anything other than a depressing defeat. But at 3-2 and even after Giroud celebrated his equaliser, by doing his daft Eric Morecambe dance in front of us incredulously ecstatic Gooners, the Cherries had a couple of great chances to put this game to bed and I was still convinced the night was destined to end in glorious failure.

I couldn't believe it was Xhaka who conjured up one in the eye for his critics, with the assist for Olly's equaliser. The Gunners admirable fightback ensured that we all headed home feeling far happier, on a journey back to London which felt so much shorter as a result. Yet as pleased as we were with the resolve we witnessed, in clawing back a precious point, the question remains why it took until we were 3-0 down and the 70th minute for us to finally pull our finger out. Besides which, I'm still not certain if this astonishing turnaround was due to the Gunners refusal to accept defeat, or the Cherries failure to pace their performance, with the home side leaving themselves with nothing in the locker for the last twenty minutes.

With Spurs being so kind as to keep our successive victory record intact with their impressive defeat of Chelsea, I imagine any questions about the Gunners' fortitude will be answered in the coming months because this has tightened up the picture at the top of the table and one can perm the four most resolute teams from the six clubs likely to be in the frame. However as delighted as I was to see someone finally put a spoke in the wheel of the Conté bandwagon, in truth Spurs' win only suits us, if we've still got some hope of catching and challenging Chelsea.

Unless the Gunners form improves dramatically and we are able to achieve the sort of consistency that lends us some genuine momentum, we're far more likely to find ourselves involved in our customary battle to guarantee Champions League football, with a top four finish. In which case, we probably could've done without Spurs enjoying quite such a powerful confidence boost from beating the Blues because as much as it pains me to admit it, as it stands at present, based on current form, our old enemy appears better equipped than we do to kick on.

Banner for our WHL farewell in April
But then the same was true last season, when Spurs really should've finished above us. Hopefully we can rely on the Lilywhite's apparent infinite capacity to fall over, somewhere between now and the final hurdle. Although it would be far preferable to see the Gunners profit from the psychological boost of Tuesday night's turnaround, by using this to fuel the unbeatable run of form that might ensure we are not left counting on the failure of others.

It won't be a surprise if the double-barreled likes of Reine-Adelaide, or Maitland-Niles get a run out on Saturday, as Arsène rotates his squad for our 3rd round FA Cup encounter at Preston. Yet with a full week's rest before travelling to South Wales the following weekend, there's no reason to risk defeat (or an unwanted replay!) by playing a weakened side. It's far more important for us to achieve the win, preferably an emphatic one, as progress in the cup will surely assist in building confidence and ensuring that we are in less danger of suffering from a bout of new-manageritis against Swansea.


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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

All Our Xmases Come At Once

Judging by the disappointing number of empty seats at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon, there'll be plenty of Gooners regretting the fact that they chose to avoid freezing their cods off, at an unappetising encounter with BFS' unglamorous Eagles on a miserably damp New Year's day, thereby missing out on being present to witness live one of the most outrageously spectacular goals that the Gunners have ever scored.

I was most fortunate to be in such a rush to dash home and thaw out after the final whistle that I walked in the door just in time to catch the closing moments of the live coverage on the telly; where I was most grateful for Giroud's wondergoal, if only because it presented the TV program editor with an indulgent excuse to screen a selection of the Gunners' best ever Premiership goals, for comparison purposes and Olly's sublime "Scorpion" strike certainly deserves inclusion in this illustrious pantheon of modern day greats.

No matter the quantity, or calibre of the silverware baubles that we've secured along the way, this showreel of supergoals from the supremely gifted likes of Bergkamp, Henry, Pires and Wilshere proved a timely reminder of quite how privileged we've been to enjoy such a golden age of glorious football from the Gunners and I feel truly blessed to have been present to witness all of these sensational scenes in person. In fact, it's the ever present dread of missing out on being there for a moment just such as Giroud's magical goal on Sunday that often motivates me to drag my aching bones out the door to less enticing encounters nowadays.

I used to be able to watch Sunday's lunchtime game on the box, only heading out after the final whistle and still manage to make it to my seat in time for a 4pm KO at our place. However now that I'm forced to drive the short distance around to the ground, if I don't leave at least an hour before kick-off it entirely defeats the object because it's so busy by the time I get to the ground that I'll end up driving nearly halfway back home in search of a parking pitch.

So as I sat in the car on Sunday with the heated seat set to "high" and the blowers on full blast warming up my tootsies, watching the closing stages of Watford v Spurs on my phone and most grateful to have been able to bag my customary parking pitch only a stone's throw from the turnstiles, I have to admit that much like all those who'd seemingly wimped out on coming to this match, I questioned my own sanity and whether, in my lamentably enfeebled state, I'd have been better off stopping indoors in the warm and dry, watching our game on the box.

However as the saying goes "no pain, no gain" and it proved to be well worth braving the elements on this occasion. Unless it's particularly windy, the rain doesn't tend to trouble those of us seated in Row 18 and it's only those in the front few rows of the lower tier who get soaked. Moreover, by cowering into the snood that we received in our membership packs, I didn't suffer too badly from the cold, at least not while I was being distracted by such a heart-warming performance on the pitch.

I must admit to being very pleasantly surprised because I honestly feared the worst upon hearing the team news, as I stood outside Turnstile J prior to KO, sucking on a cancer stick to get my nicotine level up for the ensuing ninety minutes. Watching the first-half of Watford v Spurs, although the Hornets were blatantly guilty of failing to turn up, what impressed me about the Lilywhites was their attitude and a hunger which enabled them to pretty much bag the three points before the break.

Hopefully the fact that Spurs were able to take their foot off the gas and cruise through the second half, this might help to negate the advantage of an extra day's rest afforded to Chelsea in their encounter at White Hart Lane. With Costa and Hazard both enjoying such an impressive hot-streak, I'm not particularly optimistic, but it would be extremely ironic if Spurs should achieve the result that ensures our successive victory record remains intact!

I wondered if we would be capable of an equally determined effort against the Eagles and I wasn't encouraged when I discovered that Lucas Perez had been given the shout, due to the dicky tummy (poor love!) that had resulted from Mesut's Xmas excesses. Despite his recent hat-trick, Lucas strikes me as a player who'd probably excel against lesser talents in the lower leagues. The industrious Spaniard might well adorn an in-form Arsenal side, but he appears to lack sufficient guile and pace to be able to impose himself against higher calibre opposition. I definitely couldn't envisage Lucas playing in a pivotal central role as our principal orchestrator.

With Arsène's apparent tactical inertia, the thought never even occurred to me that he might've opted for some more original thinking than a straight swap of Özil for Perez and for all the criticism Wenger receives, moving Iwobi into the middle proved something of a masterstroke (if Guardiola had done likewise it would be labelled as a stroke of genius!). Alex's impressive performance against Palace and the fact that the youngster wasn't the least bit phased by the additional creative responsibility, proved quite how much the young Gunner has matured in recent months.

With the likes of Wilfred Zaha wimping out and hitting the deck at every possible opportunity, I'm not sure how much of Sunday's success was down to the Eagles' inadequacies and as someone who's long been a firm proponent of always playing one's best XI, I would never argue for the exclusion of a player of Mesut's exquisite ability. Yet with the Five Live radio commentary in my ear, I found myself agreeing with Martin Keown's comments about the balanced look to Sunday's side,  as he pondered whether our best team might not include our best players.

Personally I don't think Lucas has sufficient pace to be effective out on the flank, but it could be argued that he offered a far more positive contribution to Sunday's proceedings than we might've expected from the likes of Theo. Additionally, against teams who come to our place with limited ambitions, I always believe our best opportunity is to break them down on the counter, before they can get ten men behind the ball. As a result, I often find myself angered when anyone dawdles on the ball, more often than not Mesut, taking the pace out of our counter-attack and gifting the opposition an opportunity to get settled in defence.

Iwobi might lack quite the same composure and perfect touch as Özil, but as was evidenced with the swift counter that resulted in Giroud's breathtaking goal on Sunday, where we moved the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, in the blink of an eye, it was the speed of this sort of transition that was most pleasing on the eye and made us look so much more threatening than our alternative, more patient line-ups.

Again I'm not sure how much Palace's impotency contributed (as Benteke really should've done better with his headed opportunity!) but it was most pleasing that we remained sufficiently focused to preserve our second successive clean sheet and seeing Mustafi knocking the ball about on the pitch at halftime, confirming that we won't have long to wait until he returns to the starting XI, should certainly assist in improving our resilience. What's more, who needs to waste millions on somewhat desperate January transfer window signings, when we've got the psychological boost of the imminent return of Danny Welbeck?

Best of all was the early second half goal which alleviated all the tension, with us no longer having to fret about a single smash and grab equaliser costing us two crucial points. Palace seemed resigned to their fate after Iwobi scored and much like Spurs, it enabled us to take our foot off the gas, hopefully conserving some energy for tonight's outing to the seaside. Then again, Alexis obviously doesn't have a second gear, as our Chilean Duracell Bunny only operates at full on, or off!

Arsène's team selection against the Cherries will prove interesting. Seeing both City and Liverpool struggle to produce a sufficiently energetic performance yesterday afternoon, doubtless Wenger might be tempted to rest those players who might exceed his renowned red line, by playing twice in two days. We're fortunate to have sufficient strength in depth nowadays that he can rotate players without there being any appearance of disrespect for our opponents. Yet to my mind, there is no point to leaving anyone out against Bournemouth so as to prevent them from burning out because it will be futile to keep players fresh, if we end up dropping three points and are left with nothing but 4th place scraps to fight over.

Never mind the players, I'll be heading off to the South coast having barely recovered from the exhaustion of all that euphoria on Sunday. As they say, matches are always far less tiring for the victors and I've always believed that even if they don't get on the pitch, there's little difference in the fatigue levels of the squad players involved in all the other matchday rituals.

I can't begin to imagine the psychological boost Chelsea will enjoy if we fail to win at Bournemouth, knowing they can gain even more ground if Pochettino's troops fail to put a spoke in the Conté bandwagon at White Hart Lane. The Gunners badly need to build the sort of winning momentum that can exert maximum pressure on the league leaders and this should be Arsène's only consideration when it comes to choosing the line-up.

It will be no mean feat for the Gunners to go again tonight with the energy and focus necessary to chasten the Cherries on their home turf, but lagging nine points behind the leaders, if we're to keep ourselves in the frame and retain some hope of mounting a challenge, nothing but a win will do.

Come on your Reds

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

What A Difference A Goal Makes....

With all the traditions of the beautiful game in this country fast being gobbled up by the commercial greed of the TV paymasters and our favourite ancient arenas being eradicated, one by one, it remains of some solace that the Boxing Day ritual continues to survive.

After having gorged ourselves on Christmas Day and with the mounting tensions of the claustrophobic proximity of ones extended family often beginning to reach boiling point, the pressure valve of the Boxing Day game is the perfect excuse to let off steam and to blow the cobwebs out, thereby building up an appetite to recommence all the festive excess anew.

However Monday's frustrating encounter with the Baggies only added to Gooner stress levels and we were all fairly likely to be returning home for a guaranteed barney with the in-laws, if it wasn't for the overwhelming relief of Olly's intervention at the death.

I recall that Tony Pullis' team produced an equally accomplished, "park the bus" stifling job at Stamford Bridge, a couple of weeks back. So when Alexis smashed his volley against the woodwork in the second half on Monday, I was beginning to wonder if it just wasn't going to be our day. I turned to my neighbour to moan that this was the principle difference between us and the runaway league leaders, where sadly Diego Costa is in the midst of such an impressive purple patch, with his devastatingly clinical one chance, one goal conversion rate.

However, after barely registering a shot on target during the first-half, the Gunners did at least manage to turn up the heat somewhat after the break. Yet it wasn't as if we were peppering Foster's goal and the more we pushed for a winner, as the clock seemed to wind down ever faster, the more it felt as if there was a greater chance of the Baggies pinching a breakaway goal and burying any remaining hopes of us clinging to a title challenge.

With each passing minute, the rising tide of frustration from the terraces became more palpable, to the point where the audible expressions of Gooner irritation inevitably transmits itself onto the playing field, resulting in the sort of tension that's bound to have a negative impact.

As we patiently prod the ball across the face of the opposition's penalty area, seemingly waiting for Mesut, our very own Moses, to cast a spell that will result in the Baggies defence parting like the waters of the Red Sea, to present us with an opportunity to walk the ball into the back of the net, or eventually once again attempting to thread the ball through the eye of the needle of the massed ranks of the Baggies defence, I invariably end up imploring for someone in red and white (other than Alexis!) to take responsibility and to try and make something happen.

Yet there's little incentive for one of our players to grasp the nettle, knowing that our crowd is on their backs and that they are likely to come in for far less stick for merely laying the ball off, than the extreme levels of Gooner disapprobation should several minutes of patient possession end up with them sending a futile effort, flying high, wide and not so handsome.
Arise Sir Mo

This is what angers me most about the fickle, theatre audience that turns up at the Emirates and sits back, waiting to be presented with a return on their princely investment. When our home support is most urgently needed, to assist in raising the decibel levels and to create the sort of atmosphere that is capable of sucking the ball into the back of the net, sadly the Library's sedentary crowd remain silent, only raising their voices to express their collective dissatisfaction.

I never fail to be amazed by the stark contrast in the reaction, where for example if Giroud's header hadn't nestled in the back of the onion bag on Monday, the Gunners would've undoubtedly ended up being roundly booed off the pitch four minutes later and we would've all headed home, with our mood at the complete opposite end of the contentment spectrum.

Although Arsène might have found cause to whinge about the festive fixture schedule, we should be extremely grateful to have landed home games on both Boxing Day and New Year's Day. With the Baggies' fans having made an admirable effort to fill their corner of the ground on Monday, I couldn't help but think that in their shoes, I would've felt somewhat cheated, if I'd gone to all the trouble of travelling down to London on a Bank Holiday, only to support a side who's ambitions were so limited that they were barely willing to cross the halfway line.

Doubtless I will end up kicking myself for tempting fate, when the fixture schedule for next Christmas ends up being nowhere near as friendly for the travelling faithful. Yet truth be told, I derive far more satisfaction from attending away matches nowadays. For while I might continue to shout myself hoarse at home games, there is very rarely any of that special communal sense of having been a participant in the proceedings, when compared to collective spirit that we Gooners enjoy on the road and the feeling of having contributed in some small way to the Arsenal's efforts.

Instead of the Gunners winning home games with the 12th man aid of our home support, we continue to manage to achieve results, in spite of the lamentable atmosphere in our grandiose arena! OK so there's some excuse and with far too many fans nursing hangovers and indigestion, Boxing Day matches are often more tranquil than most.

West Upper memories
Yet you can probably count the number of times over the past decade that we Gooners have raised the roof, for a thoroughly throbbing ninety minutes at our new home, on the fingers of one hand and it bothers me immensely that I no longer look forward to the vast majority of our home encounters with quite the same thrill of anticipation that I continue to have for our exploits away from home, knowing that the sort of atmosphere that regularly raised the hairs on the back of my neck at THOF as a kid, is no longer present amidst the positively sterile environs of the Emirates.

Then again, much as dog owners might have a tendency to resemble their pets, perhaps the frigidity of our fickle home crowd is reflected in the famed sang-froid of our illustrious leader. These days I find Arsène's apparent impotency on the bench almost as irritating as our players' failings on the pitch. While le Prof fiddle's with his zipper, he increasingly cuts a Nero-like figure, fiddling while Rome burns, in games such as the encounter at the Etihad a couple of weeks back.

Watching on as this crucial match slipped away from us, when City began to dominate in the second half, I found myself increasingly focusing my binoculars on the bench, desperately hoping for some evidence of Arsène taking some urgent action, to try and wrestle back control of the game before it was too late.

Sadly, in the same (somewhat arrogant?) way that Arsène appears to refuse to make any tactical concessions in advance of big games, to try and counter an opponent's specific strengths, he invariably refuses to intervene when our backs are up against the wall, setting far too much faith in his chosen selection, to be able to sort things out for themselves. As a result, as was the case at City, he all too often ends up trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, with his managerial contribution offering far too little, far too late.

I much preferred it when Mourinho was the boss as Stamford Bridge and I bore equal enmity towards the Blues and their gobby manager, as it bothers me greatly to find myself enviously coveting the managerial style of Antonio Conté nowadays. Seeing Conté bouncing around on the touchline and geeing up the the Neanderthals at the Bridge on Satuday afternoon, as if beating the lowly Potters would be the greatest triumph of his career, I couldn't help but long for some evidence of just a little of this sort of passion at our place.

Moreover, watching Jurgen Klopp placing a paternal arm around Lucas' shoulders as he brought his sub on against City, to try and close out a victory, surely it must be the case that "Der Normale Ein"  is far more likely to be able to inspire his charges to give more of themselves towards Liverpool's cause, with this far more intimate managerial style than our antiquated, totalitarian schoolteacher?

Don't get me wrong, I don't plan on starting the New Year by joining the ranks of the WOB, as I firmly believe that our obligation is to support the team, no matter what we might think in private and I'm convinced that the ever-present atmosphere of disunity on the terraces is likely to have a negative impact on the pitch and certainly doesn't help to improve the Gunners' prospects.

Even if we were to hit a hot streak, it's hard to envisage there being a sufficient number of opponents with the sort of belief necessary to force Chelsea to surrender their nine point advantage over us (or even twelve points, should we fail to overcome Palace!). 

But you never know, if we should be fortunate enough to finally vanquish Bayern Munich in February and progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, anything might be possible. It would indeed be a fitting climax to Wenger's venerable career, if the stubborn old bugger was able to stick two fingers up to all his critics, as he walks off into the sunset with the games' most prestigious trophy that elusive big-eared silverware, in his back pocket.

Yet I've long since come to the conclusion that in the absence of a genuine motivator, a vocal leader on the pitch (as they are so few and far between nowadays), it's essential to have a more emotive, inspirational character on the touchline and without which, we're doomed to remain stuck in this tediously repetitive cycle of under-achievement.

There's something increasingly tragic about one of the beautiful games greatest ever innovators, looking more and more like a helpless dinosaur with each passing match, refusing to come to terms with his own inevitable extinction.

I caught some of the Old Firm derby at lunchtime on Saturday and there was a moment during this incredibly passionate encounter which stuck in my mind, where a Rangers defender willingly put his head in the way of a goalbound Celtic bomb, to deflect the ball away for a corner.

There's little doubt that everyone at the Arsenal has the utmost respect for Arsène, but I'd love the Gunners to feel such an affinity for their manager that they are all willing to put themselves in harm's way like this Ranger's defender, instead of timidly shutting their eyes, turning their backs, or in Mesut's case, ducking out of the way altogether!

I hate to knock a player of Mesut Özil's quality because his moments of genius are the reason my 1100 quid season ticket seems such blinding value (relatively speaking, when the media leads everyone to believe our seats are all extortionately priced) and to scapegoat Mesut as being lazy is decidedly unfair, since I'm told his stats in most matches prove otherwise. Besides which, I don't stump up a small fortune following the Arsenal home and away every season, to watch the likes of Mesut tracking back and tackling.

Statuesque City display's explained
Nevertheless, as with almost every other star turn, there are occasions when Özil is blatantly found wanting for sufficient industry and in those matches where we can't afford any passengers, it's down to our manager to make the big calls, for the sake of both the team and the player's own good. Yet the longer Wenger endures, the more he seems to duck making any bold decisions, seemingly preferring to avoid confrontation at all costs. To be perfectly honest, I'm amazed Mesut works as hard as he does in most matches, when he's secure in the knowledge that he could stand on the centre circle for the entire ninety minutes and still not be subbed!

However as far as I'm concerned and as much as I might indulge, it's a complete waste of time whinging about Wenger because frankly the man is not going anywhere until he is good and ready. The Observer asked me to forward a few words about who I want us to sign for their "Fans Network" column about the January transfer window.

With the limited availability of genuine world class talent in the winter window, with so many managers that much more desperate to strengthen their squads than our value for money obsessed leader and following Arsène's summer spending (with many beginning to wonder if he's wasted £35m on Xhaka!), in truth I won't be at all surprised if we have to endure the customary Arsenal inertia in the transfer market in January. But many Gooners might have good cause to be glad if this is the case, since surely the club are only likely to loosen the purse strings at this stage. so long as Arsène has committed to a contract extension?

Although the Baggies didn't exactly make us work for it, I was almost as pleased with the clean sheet on Monday, as I was with pocketing the three points. I imagine we can expect more of the same against BFS' Palace today; albeit that based on past experience, Allardyce is likely to be far more motivated to get something out of the game, since Sam seems to derive some sort of perverted satisfaction in getting one over on Arsène. 

Additionally, if the match goes the same way as Monday's frustrating contest, the Eagles are perhaps far more likely than West Brom to be able to take advantage of any late lapses in concentration, with them potentially having more attacking firepower than the Baggies and the pace and the power to punish us with a breakaway goal on the counter.

Olly's big lift
I can't recall the last time that the Gunners truly took advantage, by properly punishing an opponent who's forced onto the front foot, after initially attempting to park the bus and then going a goal behind. Instead of making the most of the time and space that results from the fact that our guests can no longer afford to keep ten men behind the ball, we've grown accustomed to seeing us take our foot off the gas, only to gift the opposition an opportunity to get back into the game.

Still as much as I'd love to see us start off the New Year with the sort of goalfest slaughter that we know this Arsenal side have the ability to inflict on lesser opposition, I will gladly settle for another "1-0 to the Arsenal". Monday's win was the first clean sheet since October and I feel we can only begin to find some real form, if we can build the sort of confidence in our resilience at the back, which might liberate us going forward.

I can't imagine quite how soul destroying it must be for the likes of Alexis to do the business in front of goal, only for him to have to do it all over again after our defence has gifted the opposition an equaliser. They will all feel doubly sick if they make hard work out of defeating Palace, knowing that they've got to go again against the Cherries in two days time! 

And despite Giroud's crucial goal on Monday, he looked so off the pace during the rest of the match that he looks in desperate need of being afforded more game time, other than brief cameo appearances as a late sub. Otherwise we're bound to end up counting on our French striker at some stage, only to find he needs half a dozen games to get back up to speed. 

A very happy & healthy New Year to one and all

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