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Tuesday, 13 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enuf waffle

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Tuesday, 6 November 2018

A Welcome Glimpse Of Gooner Cojones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 16 August 2018

Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Both Guendouzi and Torreira appear capable of contributing to a braver, more determined looking Arsenal side and so long as Unai’s touchline exhortations can continue to encourage more consistent and more competitive performances, I for one will be satisfied with Unai achieving such baby steps.
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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Adieu Arsène

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 21 April 2018

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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