Sunday, 14 December 2014

Walking In A Wenger Wonderland

Hi All,

After suffering so much criticism for timidly remaining glued to his seat in the dugout at the Britannia, it was interesting to see Arsène up and down in his technical area, like a jack-in-a-box on Saturday.

Even Podolski cast off his customary lethargy on the bench and was for once stripped off and standing on the touchline in an instant, when he was given the nod to come on for the last 15 mins.

Like everyone else, I'd love to play Monaco or Porto but truth be told, the odds of us pulling one of the big three out of the hat in tomorrow's draw are fairly high (it's the price we pay for our negligence in throwing away a three goal lead at home to the likes of Anderlecht!). So with this in mind, as far as I'm concerned only Bayern would be a bitter disappointment.

Not that the thought of facing Messi, Suarez and Neymar, or Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema isn't intimidating, but a lot can happen between now and February and while I would fear that psychologically, Bayern have got our number, I'd fancy that we would at least have a fighting chance against either of the Spanish giants.

Meanwhile, no matter one's opinion about Wenger's wilful gamble with our gossamer thin squad (at least as far as the defensive front is concerned), it is essential that we retain some proper perspective.

One of my Spurs mates has been a season-ticket holder at White Hart Lane for as long as I've been watching the Gunners and he's become so incensed in recent times with Levy's mismanagement that he's made the previously unthinkable decision to give up his seat for the remainder of the season. Myself I remain unconvinced, as if Spuds string together a couple of decent performances, I simply cannot imagine him choosing to sit at home for the North London derby, or him not going to any of the big games, as the excitement mounts towards the climax of the season (never mind their quarterfinal v the Toon in midweek!).

But it is all relative and when one considers the grief being endured by fans of the vast majority of other clubs, we really should be grateful that the Gunners remain in comparative clover

Keep the faith


I think that like myself, there were a lot of Gooners joining in with the chorus of “There’s only one Arsène Wenger” certainly not because our rampant display against Newcastle meant that all was forgiven and forgotten.

You only had to hear the mutterings of discontent prior to kick off about our makeshift defence, to know that we were all decidedly unhappy about the fact that we were once again going into an important game, with only one recognized centre-half available for selection. It was hardly ideal that this time it was Debuchy who was forced to assume the crucial responsibility of partnering Mertesacker in the middle, with our French full-back only recently returning from his long enforced absence. My neighbour sarcastically cracked that we’d have Sanogo at centre-back next week!

Yet despite our abiding anger over Arsène’s culpability in our lack of cover in defence, in our hearts, the vast majority of us are far too grateful to the man, to be able to suffer seeing him disrespected by the handful of ignorant yahoos who gave him the bird boarding the train back from Stoke.

Saturday’s vocal demonstration of support for le Gaffer was by no means indicative of an Xmas truce. Football fans have become so fickle nowadays that Saturday’s convincing victory won’t prevent the level of disapprobation from being any less vehement, should we fail to beat QPR in our next home game.

But for all the recent criticism and in spite of the increasing clamour for Wenger to walk, the core of all those of us who can still recall the woefully dour mediocrity of the Arsenal’s football in the era before Arsène (or more accurately, before Rioch signed Bergkamp) were intent on making it known to him and the rest of the football world that no matter how we feel about his competence, in return for what he’s done for the club and for all the joy he’s given us over the entire course of his long tenure, Arsène will forever be adored.

            In fact we set about the Toon with an intensity and verve that suggested our squad also had a point to prove about their staunch loyalty towards our leader, after letting him (and us!) down last weekend. Playing “with the handbrake off”, by contrast to the vast majority of our comparatively sedentary showings thus far, the Gunners were an irresistible force. Infused with the same irrepressible energy of Alexis, Bellerin was extremely impressive at right-back. And the robust vitality of the Ox was influential in the middle of the park.

Birthday Boy
It was also brilliant to see Santi mark his 30th birthday with the rediscovery of his mojo. The somewhat astonishing sight of the tank like Tiote bouncing off the diminutive Spaniard was indicative of Cazorla’s desire to bring his influence to bear on proceedings. It was so refreshing to see him desperate to stay on his feet, hungry to secure our second goal, when Santi could've easily opted to hit the deck following the contact from Coloccini in the area. Especially compared to the irritating sight of all those Chelsea players going down like ninepins on Match of the Day later that night.

This encounter might've been a whitewash if Welbeck had scored the brace of goals he deserved. Yet if I was a Newcastle fan I would’ve been disappointed with the Toon’s minimal efforts to take advantage of our panic-stricken defending.

Personally I’ve still not got over the trauma of us being pegged back to 4-4 at St. James Park a few seasons back. Despite our dominance on Saturday, the defensive calamities we’ve endured in more recent times resulted in a slight air of anxiety, as we began to run out of steam and Perez took advantage of us going to sleep at another set-piece.

Thankfully Santi put a supremely fitting cherry on the top of this long-awaited celebration of Wengerball and warmed the cockles of Gooner hearts, with his “Panenka” from the penalty spot. The Gunners new fitness guru has certainly got his work cut out, as our players continue to drop like flies. But if Wenger can bolster our defence and with so many of our talented stars to add to Saturday’s mix on their return to fitness, it’s good to be going into the festive season feeling so much more optimistic. Now if only we can avoid Bayern, Real and Barca in the Champions League draw, it will feel as if Santa has turned up prematurely.

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Pointless In The Potteries (Again!)

Warm Welcome To Stoke
So frustrating, one-step forwards, two steps back! After an impressive victory over Dortmund, we weren’t particularly convincing against an impotent West Brom and we scraped a somewhat fortunate victory in midweek against Southampton.

Nevertheless with three successive clean sheets, we were just beginning to regain some composure at the back and to gather some winning momentum and it all goes out the window at the weekend, along with the previously improving prospects of an Xmas truce that was in danger of breaking out between the AKBs and the WOB.

If Koscielny is still being plagued by an Achilles problem, I can fully appreciate the necessity to avoid overplaying him, but it was utterly unfathomable that Arsène should choose one of our most arduous awaydays of the season, for such a substantive defensive reshuffle.

It’s not rocket science and no coincidence that up until recently, the two most consistent teams in league were those that fielded the same seven of their eleven players in every match. Mercifully Matic’s absence appeared to take it’s toll upon Chelsea at St James Park.

Having been unable to avoid increasingly focusing on the exploits of the Blues with each passing week, fretting about the looming spectre of Mourinho erasing Arsène's only exclusive "Invincible" achievement, their defeat was such a blessed relief that getting anything out of our outing to Stoke was only every going to be a bonus.

Truth be told, in Koscielny’s absence, most of us had been crying out for Wenger to give Chambers a run out at centre-half instead of Monreal and for the twinkletoed Bellerin to be let off the leash at right-back. But why would anyone (in their right mind!) wait for the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Britannia, to give these two a baptism of fire?

Peter Crouch, He's 'Armless
The anxiety-ridden environs of the Potteries certainly wasn’t the place for the sort of wholesale tinkering that left our back line playing like a bunch of tentative strangers. The stat of one successful tackle during the course of the entire ninety just about says it all.

With the comparatively sedate atmosphere at our place, I adore the far more fervent experience on the road nowadays. But our annual outing to the Britannia is probably bottom of the list as the least preferable awayday outing, with Stoke having become such a bogey side in recent times.

Bizarrely the Stoke faithful seemed to have turned around our own lingering fury about the ABH effected by Shawcross upon Ramsey, somehow making themselves out to be the far from innocent victims. Mark Hughes is a wily old campaigner and after his side were unfortunate to have nothing to show for two decent performances on the road at Anfield and Old Trafford, by pouring fuel on the animosity between the two clubs, the Potters were fired up to produce the necessary intensity to get under the Gunners’ skin (yet again!).

It’s as if this encounter has become a class war, where putting one over on the lily-livered landed gentry from the capital has become a much vaunted feather in the cap for their more agricultural brand of football. But it’s hardly as if the home side’s burning desire should’ve come as the sort of surprise that saw us capitulate within seconds of kick-off!

If the Gunners were to get anything out of this game, we needed to be bang up for it. Instead of which, witnessing our positively feeble, feint-hearted efforts in some of the 50/50 challenges, it felt as if the majority in red and white on the pitch shared the same lack of relish for this outing, as those of us singing “we wanna go home” on the terraces.
Adams' Sleep-hold Audition For NYPD

I’m still uncertain why Stoke’s fourth was disallowed but this did at least save us from the ignominy of being totally embarrassed. The sight of Alexis’ potential goal of the season bouncing back off the post summed up our disappointment. Yet if there was some consolation, it was that at 3-0 down, I looked around the pitch and couldn’t see players with the strength of character to try and muster a revival. While there might have been an element of good fortune involved, I’m delighted that they proved me wrong.

Hopefully the fact that we came quite so close to a remarkable recovery will stand us in good stead and we can bottle some of this “never say die” spirit because it’s bound to be required in the hectic travails of the relentless festive schedule.

No Let Up From Alexis, Deserved To Score "Goal Of The Season"contender

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Sunday, 30 November 2014

All I Want For Xmas.......

            The utterly remorseless footballing diet that feeds the insatiable appetite of the sporting media beast and it's ever more bloated online belly has created this farcically fluid environment, where any absence of consistency has clubs constantly portrayed as lurching between absolute boom and bust. 

            For all the media's effort to throw kindling on the smouldering fire of discontent at the Arsenal, the two wins this past week that have put us through to the knockout stages of the Champions League (for the 15th successive season!) and restored us to the upper-echelons of the Premiership, have inevitably taken the pressure off our pugnacious manager. To the point where the unfurling of the "thanks for the memories" banner behind the goal at the Hawthorns, after beating the Baggies on Saturday, seemed more than a little churlish.

            After having gone to all the bother, it felt as if le Gaffer’s hard-core detractors were going to broadcast their anti-Arsène bulletin, no matter what had transpired on the pitch. Although their message might've been loud and clear, the sentiments expressed were far from unanimous, judging by the unrest it's appearance caused as the majority of us were communing with our match-winning heroes after the final whistle.

            Truth be told, no matter what side of the great Gooner divide one sits on, the vast majority are not the least bit interested in throwing our toys out of the pram, so long as our beloved team are doing the business; even after witnessing our title prospects sink faster than the Belgrano, in our worst start to a campaign since the Falklands War.

            And if any assistance was required to put events into proper perspective, it came in the form of the chilling reminder of the tragedy in the Antipodes, upon seeing "Hughes 63" etched on the homemade cardboard tribute in the hands of one of the travelling faithful exiting the Travel Club charabanc as we strolled towards Saturday's unacceptably early sporting spectacle.

          Shorn of their early season ebullience with them languishing at the bottom of the Bundesliga, Klopp’s cohorts were unrecognizable in midweek as the same daunting side that bulldozed us in Dortmund early doors. And on discovering the recently unveiled, gravity-defying bronze statue of Tony “Bomber” Brown outside the Hawthorns, doubtless this Baggies hero of yesteryear won’t have been impressed by the home side’s impotent efforts at the weekend, where despite a hearty chorus of “you don’t know what you are doing” disgust, it wasn’t until after Irvine replaced Sessegnon with Samaras on 76 mins that they finally managed an effort on goal.

            Whether it’s down to biorhythms or their maladjusted bodyclocks, with the early KO, inevitably we failed to produce the sort of zestful blitzkrieg we witnessed against Man Utd & Dortmund. But with Giroud and Koscielny restored to our ranks, the Gunners are instantly transformed into a far more physically imposing outfit, by contrast to psychologically disadvantaged team of nine-stone weaklings that we’ve grown accustomed to watching in previous weeks.

            The nerve-wracking responsibility of amalgamating our decimated defence has taken its toll on Mertesacker and it might take time for Per to rediscover his Teutonic efficiency. But having his regular partner back playing alongside made an immediate difference as that crucial aura of calm and composure that we’ve so sorely missed was patently apparent on Saturday.

            At least it was, up until the last ten minutes, as the tension mounted and the Gunners appeared no less haunted than those of us on the terraces, by all those costly gaffes that we’ve endured in recent games. So it was important for us to prove ourselves capable of reaching the finishing line, with our clean sheet intact.

            Obviously Southampton are likely to offer a far more testing examination of our credentials on Wednesday. But with Welbeck and Giroud demonstrating that they can play together and Cazorla having his most influential game to date, at last there appears to be some light at the end of our inconsistent tunnel.

            With matches coming thick and fast as the festive season approaches, I worry that Alexis might eventually burn out. Especially while others in midfield appear to be taking advantage of his astonishing work-rate. On occasion Ramsey doesn’t bother closing the opposition down, knowing he can rely on our Chilean terrier to all the donkeywork. Now if only Aaron could add his compliments to the Xmas season, things might start to get truly festive.

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

One Egg Is An Oeuf, Obviously Six Defenders Ain't!

Hi folks,

I thought I'd better get Sunday's Irish Examiner missive posted out, before events on the pitch make it obsolete. Moreover, as I suffered the ignominy of exiting the ground on Saturday via the South Bridge, followed far too closely by the hordes of joyful Utd fans heading back to their Surrey homes, I felt no less angry than all those Gooners having kniptcheons around me, muttering their contempt for our not so glorious leader.

Yet with the benefit of a couple of days to calm down, it's much easier to put Saturday's disaster into proper perspective. There can be no denying the groundswell of anti-Wenger feeling in recent weeks, as even Arsène's most staunch supporters struggle to defend the seemingly blatant incompetence of commencing this season's campaign without sufficient defensive cover.

Nevertheless, while we might all be entitled to express our opinions, I couldn't be more against the idea of bringing this mood of disunity to the terraces on a matchday. I can fully appreciate that an increasing number of Gooners are inclined to vent their mounting frustration and to make their feelings known in this vocal fashion, but in my most humble opinion, by doing so on the terraces, during a game this constitutes a gross breach of our eternally binding contract.

It is perhaps indicative of the changing face of football crowds, where nowadays we've grown accustomed to occupying our extortionately-priced seats on a matchday, only to sit back and wait to be entertained. But in the past, entertainment and enjoyment of a football outing was merely a bonus by-product. Our primary objective, nay obligation even, amidst the privilege of being present to witness the spectacle, was to make our presence known with our unstinting vocal support for whoever happened to be representing the red and white of the Arsenal.

"If Only I'd Spent £250M, We Could've Been As Crap as Man U"
I'm not against protesting, or making ones feelings known in any shape or form, so long as all such animosity gets left at the turnstiles. And for all those who think otherwise, I have two things to say. Firstly, do you honestly believe that any such visual or vocal expression of anger from the terraces during a game is going to benefit the Gunners' cause? At best, it only fuels the fervour of the opposition fans and their team. At worst, the mood of dissension is transmitted from the terraces onto the pitch, eroding the motivation of our players and diminishing any prospects we might've had of turning the game around!

Secondly, it's the futility of it all that I find so farcical. Aside from damaging the moral in the Arsenal camp, does anyone seriously envisage there being absolutely anyone at the club with the necessary cajones to be able call Arsène Wenger into their office and hand him his P45 as he informs le Boss that he's been given the "tin tack"? Absolutely the only protest that might cause a few raised eyebrows in the far too cosy environs of the Arsenal boardroom might be the sight of empty seats on a matchday, if fans began voting with their feet.

Moreover, with there being no-one in authority capable of making the decision that 'enough is enough', knowing the stubborn old-bugger as we do, can you honestly picture Arsène buckling in the face of concerted protests, handing in his notice and walking away with his tail between his legs? Personally I think it more likely that this will only encourage Wenger to hang on in there, for grim death, in the hope of turning things around, getting everyone back on side, in order to be able to hold his head high as he brings his long reign to a conclusion at a time of his choosing.

At this particular point in time, my instincts are that with AW having lost his shirt, in his apparent gamble on the Gunners being able to last the distance with the gossamer thin number of defensive bodies in the existing squad and with us having been dealt yet another awful hand, as far as significant early season injuries are concerned, I fancy Arsène is intent on sweating it out, safe in the knowledge that if we can manage to string a couple of results together, the fickle Gooner faithful will soon forget and our expressions of anger towards our "lame duck" leader will fast begin to wane.

Like many other Arsenal fans, I am in such awe of what Wenger has achieved during his long tenure, both for our beloved club and for British football as a whole that I find it very hard to come to terms with the increasingly overwhelming evidence that suggests that the man who once revolutionised the game in this country, has now become an outdated dinosaur.

I've read where others have used the marital analogy and at this particular point in time, we've reached that stage in our relationship where the best hopes for many are for them to be sufficiently nasty to their spouse that he ends up being left with absolutely no choice but to walk away. Myself I still believe that it would be such a travesty and a tragedy for "irreconcilable differences" to be cited as the cause of our divorce. I still hold out some hope that the marriage might be annulled in an amicable fashion, as both parties accept that the relationship has reached a natural conclusion, with minimal psychological impact upon all the offspring.

Yet whatever your opinion and no matter how certain you might be that le Prof is long past his sell-by date, we shouldn't become the sort of parents who are constantly berating their partner to try and influence the children. Nothing good will ever come from this!

For all his failings this summer, Wenger has been somewhat unlucky (although we should expect nothing less by now) and if he's able to make good on his promise to strengthen the squad in January, I can't help but feel that if only according to the law of averages, the current team will eventually come good. Albeit that sadly, should it happen, it appears increasingly likely that it will be far too late in the day for anything but the feint hope of a decent cup run.

Watching the Villa v Soton game yesterday, I heard it commented that seven of Koeman's side have started every game this season. Similarly, I heard exactly the same thing said of Mourinho's team in the radio commentary of their impressive display on Saturday. Football isn't rocket science and surely this statistic and the fact that these two teams have been the only consistent sides in the Premiership is no coincidence?

Despite the dismal outcome, there were some promising signs on Saturday and our defeat to Man Utd certainly wasn't for the want of trying. I've watched plenty of games where I've been left disgusted by our failure to win because I just didn't feel that we've wanted it enough. But you couldn't fault the effort on Saturday and as a result, although we witnessed the customary (and IMHO disgusting) "fire drill" before the final whistle, there wasn't the expected barrage of booing from those of us who did remain to the bitter end. 

As Mertesacker and a couple of other of the usual suspects with the maturity to comprehend the value of showing their appreciation to the more devoted amongst us who pay their wages, lingered for a few moments to applaud the faithful, despite our devastated misery, the majority felt obliged to return the compliment, in the knowledge that they'd given everything over the course of the 90 minutes.

Additionally, despite all the obvious criticisms from the pundits about our defensive naivety, while I might agree as far as the sucker punch of Utd's first goal was concerned, in truth, I've got no problems about us conceding the second. Personally, I would've been far more disappointed if we hadn't thrown the kitchen sink at trying to turn the game around. To my mind, getting caught on the counter with five minutes left on the clock is always an acceptable risk, when you end up chasing the game in this fashion.

The hilarious sight of Jack Wilshere more belly-buttoning than head-butting Fellaini happened right in front of me and at the time I assumed he'd be lucky to escape with just a booking. It's therefore more than a little ironic that for once, I was left praising Mike Dean for using his discretion. How often have I been left bemoaning a ref, for thoroughly spoiling a high-profile encounter such as this, by reacting by the book to a momentary rash incident, where no real harm has been caused.

Instead of which, quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the way Dean handled it and I only wish more referees were able to apply some common sense to this sort of petulant temper-tantrum, rather than immediately producing a red card and instantly ruining the spectacle for the watching millions.

However, as it turned out, since we lost the game anyway, Dean would've actually done us a favour by sending Jack off, saving him from the subsequent injury and us from losing, currently our most effective midfielder for at least a couple of months and just as Jack was beginning to find the sort of form that's expected from him!!

Trying to find some sight of a silver-lining to another depressing injury cloud, on the basis that to date Ramsey's form has been so poor compared to his fabulous feats of last season and the fact that we never seem to get the best from both him and Wilshere whenever they play together, hopefully Jack's enforced absence might give Aaron an opportunity to shine.

Similarly, Giroud's late strike might have been scant consolation, but this instantaneous thwack on target was a sight for sore eyes, as evidence of something that's been sorely missing in Olivier's absence.

With Dortmund coming to us on the back of an even worse run of form than our own, I sincerely hope we capitalise on their lack of confidence, by laying into the German side with the same sort of intensity that we witnessed from the opening whistle on Saturday.

And hopefully this time, with just a little more luck on our side

Keep the faith


One Egg Is An Oeuf, Obviously Six Defenders Ain't!

I didn't see any of the reported in-fighting between the AKB (Arsėne Knows Best) and the WO (Wenger Out) brigades outside the Liberty Stadium a couple of weeks back, but with many more displays like Saturday's infuriating defeat to Man Utd and we Gooners will all turn into total schizophrenics.

This might not have been the heavyweight, top of the table clash of yesteryear, but coming on the back of, thank heavens, the last of a succession of interminable International breaks, at least until the end of March, it felt like a significant encounter. It remains to be seen whether this was, in effect, a fourth place play-off, but there was definitely an added frisson, with both sides desperate to acquire some momentum at the recommencement of domestic hostilities.

I really didn’t fancy the chances of our makeshift backline being able to keep Man Utd’s £250 million’s worth of talent at bay. Yet there was some solace, in hearing how their fans were no more confident in the prospects of their own pre-pubescent rearguard. Thus on the face of it, this appeared to be a contest to decide which of the two defences would prove least incompetent.

In the end, it was our experienced professionals that were left looking woefully naïve and there’s certainly no arguing with the scoreline. Nevertheless, considering how terrified I’d been at the thought of Di Maria, Rooney and Van Persie running Monreal and Chambers ragged, quite frankly I was shocked, as I can rarely recall us ever meeting a more subdued bunch of Red Devils.

In fact it was most pleasing to see the Gunners tear into the opposition right from the opening whistle, with a verve and vigour which left Utd’s youthful five-man defence looking entirely at sixes and sevens. This opening onslaught resulted in the sight of Wayne Rooney running around the pitch, hollering in the shell-like of his team-mates, seemingly attempting to calm their nerves.

Fortunately Fellaini's Afro Not Nearly So Sharp As His Elbows
Nevertheless, as the Arsenal’s initial intensity began to fizzle out and Fellaini’s elbows began to impose themselves in the middle of the park, I began to fear that we might find ourselves rueing our failure to make an impact on the scoresheet with all that early dominance.

Sadly thus far, Aaron Ramsey has been a shadow of the player that was running the show last season. So when Wilshere hobbled out of the fray, the Gunners seemed to lose much of our forward impetus, as evidenced by the fateful and ultimately calamitous sight of our BFG doing his best Stormtrooper impersonation, when we were left chasing the game at the death. I can’t knock Monreal, as our lack of defensive options are certainly not his fault, but if I was going to choose one player to guard the Gunners back door, the Spaniard wouldn’t exactly be top of my list!

I fancy that Van Gaal has too much talent at his disposal for Man Utd not to come good at some stage, which makes Saturday’s defeat all the more distressing because we’ve wasted a prime opportunity to stick the knife in while they are at such a low ebb. However, after their lavish spending spree last summer, if I was a Utd fan, I’d be disappointed my side could muster nothing more than this somewhat hollow “smash and grab” victory.

Hands Up Who Thinks I Should've Been Sent Off
As Rooney celebrated Utd’s second goal in front of their travelling fans, I initially thought the Gooners in front of me were turning to watch some “handbags” in the prawn circle above. In fact they were all looking aghast, as for the first time we heard the mood of discontent made manifest in the stadium as some of the posh punters attempted to start a “Wenger Out” chant.

Mercifully, we’ve an opportunity to get misery of losing to Man Utd out of our system, by climbing straight back on the horse with Wednesday’s big clash and beating Dortmund to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Failing that, the clamour for Arsène’s head will only grow louder as pretty much our entire season comes crashing down around our ears, in the space of five days!

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