Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Jingle Bells...Oh What Fun It Is To See The Arsenal Win Away

Judging By The Massive Queue, The Essex Refugees Come To The Boleyn
 More For The Pie And Mash Than The Footie
A happy & healthy New Year to one and all

I intensely dislike the stress of having to bash out a missive for the Irish Examiner to meet a deadline immediately after the match. Thankfully I was able to get back from the Boleyn and get this typed up and sent, in good time to put my feet up and savour the game all over again on the box, in Sky's Match of the Day.

However, I wish I'd had the benefit of writing the following after having seen a replay of the match. I commented below that I thought Alexis looked a bit leggy, but in truth this was probably only compared to the incredibly high work-rate that he invariably sets because while he might've flagged a little late on, the highlights of the game suggested he was no less influential overall for most of the ninety minutes and that he was far from being "somewhat peripheral" as I've suggested below.

Moreover, it didn't really dawn on me watching from behind the goal on Sunday, but on watching the replay, I realised that the Hammers first-half dominance largely resulted from the fact that with two defensively-minded midfielders in Flamini and Coquelin, we were pretty much set up to play on the counter. In fact my West Ham supporting mate commented that it had made for a surprise, as he wasn't accustomed to seeing his beloved Hammers retain so much possession against an Arsenal side designed to play on the break.

It's also rare to see Arsène make these sort of tactical adjustments, as he's all too often accused of sending out an offensively-minded team, no matter who the opposition are and refusing to adjust the line-up to counter the opposition's strengths. As it turned out, le Gaffer got it right and Coquelin was particularly impressive in doing the job he'd been selected for, by working his socks off to get his foot in and close the opposition down. It must've made for a pleasant change for the Flamster to find himself with such a willing workhorse playing alongside him!

It's also been suggested that Sczczny was under instructions to make his presence more known, in an effort to limit the considerable aerial threat of Carroll. Considering Shez dominated his six-yard box, more than I've ever seen him do before, I wonder why such instructions should be necessary, as I'm certain our back four would absolutely love it if he was doing likewise in every game, to the extent that they could count on the fact that within a certain range, our keeper could be relied on to come for every single cross.

The two defensive midfielders certainly offered our backline more protection than they are accustomed to and ensured that we were that much more secure at the back. But there can be no denying the significant impact of Koscielny's return and how much more comfortable everyone appears with Kos playing alongside them.

I was chatting with a couple of Hammers fans as I strolled from the car to Upton Park. According to them, Winston Reid has been a lifelong Liverpool fan and so they reckoned he'd be far more likely to end up joining the Scousers than us. To be honest, so long as Reid isn't the only centre-back game in town come the transfer window, I'm not sure I'd be too disappointed to miss out, as long as Wenger is able to come up with an alternative solution because I definitely don't think Reid is the finished article. While he might well possess all the necessary physical attributes in his size and speed, ultimately it remains to be seen if Reid has sufficient quality to mature into a long-term first-choice centre-back and besides, the Gunners really don't need more "promise". Personally I'd be far happier with us opting for a player with proven experience, even if that means us having to settle for a centre-back with somewhat limited capabilities in the short-term.

These not so happy Hammers were moaning about Allardyce having rotated the squad and how disappointed they were that as a result, they hadn't even given it a go against Chelsea at the Bridge. As far as they were concerned, this would've only been acceptable if they were definitely going to get something out of our game (which they didn't!). But with them being so accustomed to going to the Bridge without a hope in hell, they would've much preferred to have seen their side make the very most of their best chance of getting something out of a game against Chelsea for the first time in many moons, rather than merely throwing the towel in.

Hearing their disgust at Allardyce having played Kevin Nolan, I suggested that the two of them seem to have a close relationship. "Never mind that" came the retort, "Nolan must have photos of Sam in the nude"!

It's sad to think that this was perhaps our penultimate trip to Upton Park, pending their move to the Olympic Stadium and it will be a crying shame to have to cross of one the last few remaining traditional grounds off the list of awaydays. But then the sight of all the street sellers flogging half and half scarves (half Arsenal, half WHU) was perhaps indicative of the shape of things to come.

Time was when these abominations were limited to Champions League matches, with them being representative of a souvenir of a special occasion (and I must admit to having purchased the odd one on the Continent in the past, when I still had some room in my drawer full of footie scarves). But the half and half scarf seems to have permeated the Premiership, to the point where they appear to be on offer at absolutely every match, be the opposition as grandiose as Man Utd, or as humble as Hull and the fact that there must be plenty of willing buyers demonstrated quite how much the beautiful game in this country has sadly become less a temple of loyal local devotion and more merely a feature destination on the tourist trail.

COYG
Bernard


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Jingle Bells...Oh What Fun It Is To See The Arsenal Win Away

Somewhat Happier Than The Hammers
I doubt that even the most cynical amongst us would contend that Giroud’s momentary madness against the Hoops was a calculated act, intentionally designed to earn himself a three match winter break while suspended. Nevertheless with his enforced absence and without the miracle of Welbeck suddenly finding some goalscoring form, I arrived at Upton Park believing it would all be down to Alexis, once again, if we were to beat the Hammers.

However for once our Chilean superstar was a somewhat peripheral figure, with Alexis understandably perhaps, looking a little jaded, in this highly entertaining London derby. Mind you, listening to Spurs v Man Utd on the radio, on route to East London and how this match completely fizzled out, as seemingly both sides ran out of steam second-half, I fully expected the fatigue of playing twice in three days to eventually take a similar toll, but thankfully we were fortunate to enjoy ninety minutes of far more energetic high-drama.

I can appreciate Sam Allardyce whinging about Song’s early goal being disallowed. All those of us standing behind the goal, directly in line with the former Gunner’s well-struck shot, thought he’d scored. The sight of the linesman’s flag was greeted with relieved jubilation because it would’ve been an entirely different game if we’d gone 0-1 down quite so early on.

Although the Hammers failed to cause much threat on goal, our hosts pretty much dominated the remainder of the first-half. Our penalty, when it came was against the run of play and was therefore greeted with more relief, enabling us to get a foothold on this contest, which resulted in us scoring a second immediately after, only moments before half-time, leaving the Hammers trudging off the pitch somewhat shell-shocked to be 0-2 down.

Right Time, Right Place For Once
For once it was a case of right time, right place, as Welbeck met the Ox’s cross, to slide home our second. Yet for all Danny’s tireless industry, he’s still some way from being the sort of clinical finisher who can convert more chances than he misses. Then again, I have to admit that back in August, I believed Balotteli would be better value at the same price as Welbeck and there really is no comparing the two players, when you contrast the England front man’s overall contribution everywhere on the pitch, to the Italian striker’s complete anonymity.

It’s a measure of where the Gunners are at right now that instead of sitting there relaxed, thinking it was pretty much job done, to be 0-2 up at the Boleyn at the break, I was instead fretting about the prospect of the resulting long and extremely anxious second-half, should the home side lift the atmosphere by nicking a goal back.

Although the Hammers had some of the stuffing knocked out of them, this didn’t stop them from bombarding us with crosses, with Allardyce correctly assuming that according to the law of averages, we would eventually concede from one of them. Nevertheless, considering how hard they were worked, our defence held pretty firm for once. It is patently evident how much the entire team benefits psychologically, from having Koscielny restored to their ranks. Even Sczczny appeared more commanding than usual, determined to aid in negating Carroll’s aerial threat.

However it was Adrian down the other end who deserved most of the second half plaudits, with the Irons’ goalie making some seriously impressive saves right in front of us. One of these was a volley from Santi that he couldn’t have possibly struck any sweeter and it felt that if this shot didn’t beat their goalie, nothing would.


Least Santi Comes More Than Once A Year And Not Down The Chimney
With our competitors having all dropped points, it was crucial that the Gunners clung on to seal the second successive victory that has rocketed us back into the top four reckoning. Frankly neither of these wins was particularly convincing and this is a game of such fine margins that we could’ve just as easily conceded late equalizers in both matches and been left lagging in ninth place. Instead of which, no one is moaning about our manager and mercifully we Gooners have enjoyed an Xmas were we’ve eat, drunk and been very merry.

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Twitter: @thedogsbollock

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Five Gold Signings, Three Centre-Halves, Two Midfield Behemoths And A Partridge In A Pear Tree

Merry Crimbo and wishing one and all a happy & healthy New Year

I'm sure I'm not alone in struggling to know what day it is, with so much footie coming thick and fast (hopefully unlike any more snow!) but I thought I had better get Friday's Irish Examiner missive posted out before it become entirely defunct.

Even I am not so cynical as to believe there could've been anything contrived about Olivier Giroud's momentary loss of self-control, despite having only referred to the likelihood of some professional mercenaries conveniently earning themselves an enforced Xmas break in my last post.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen quite how significant our French striker's suspension will prove to be in our encounter with the Irons this afternoon and the Saints on New Year's Day. In Olivier's absence and without the minor miracle of Danny Welbeck suddenly finding some goalscoring form, it would appear that yet again, the responsibility for winning both these games is likely to fall squarely on Alexis' shoulders.

Moreover, I fancy that Allardyce and Koeman are both wily enough campaigners and unlike our own manager, I won't be at all surprised if they make tactical changes designed to try and nullify (man mark?) the Gunners single most potent threat. We can but hope that while half the opposition are chasing Alexis all over the park, some one else is going to step up and impose themselves this afternoon.

COYG
Bernard

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Et Voila...Deux Semaines En Vacances!
A St. Steven’s Day derby on an arctic winter’s evening was just what the doctor ordered to walk off some of the Xmas Day calories and to blow off the cobwebs of cosy domestic bliss. Especially against a QPR side that are so accustomed to being trounced on the road that they turned out at our place as understandably timid fodder, for the Gunners urgent need to recover the ground we’d lost in all the day’s earlier results.

Yet in this Jekyll and Hyde campaign, you never know which incarnation of the Arsenal the opposition are going to encounter. Mercifully the horrifically lackluster creature that we’d witnessed at Anfield last weekend had been replaced by the high-tempo entertainers that I’d been hoping for, when I headed out the door, combatting the cold wearing my decidedly timely gifts of snug new thermal long johns and vest

It all looked like it was going to script and we were to be blessed with a stress-free, enjoyable game, when Traore made the mistake of going to ground in the area in the opening minutes. But I should’ve known better and when Alexis fluffed his lines with his resulting powder-puff penalty, I feared we might be in for one of those matches, where Rangers five-man backline were somehow going to rebuff our incessant pressure.

Thankfully Alexis made amends before the break, aided by Rosicky’s energy in the middle of the park and everything was hunky-dory, until Giroud lost the plot. The red-mist came down in a devastatingly momentary loss of self-control, as even if our ten men had more than enough to overcome the hapless Hoops, the absence of our French striker’s height and presence in the penalty area could well prove costly, with Giroud now suspended for crucial trips to Upton Park and St. Mary’s!

With Redknapp going “all in” with his substitutions, suddenly sensing that there might be something to be gained with their extra-man advantage, from what was previously a forlorn effort, Rosicky’s goal was extremely timely. With Alexis influential, as ever, in the build-up, there was a massive wave of relief when Tomas popped up in the space that Traore had vacated a couple of minutes earlier.

Yet if we were thinking a two-goal cushion might afford us an opportunity to conserve some much needed energy for our outing to East London in forty-eight hours, we couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d been hoping for the clean sheet that might instill a little more composure in our defence, but with Charlie Austin in such impressive form, I knew he wasn’t about to look the gift-horse of his spot-kick in the face.


The Gunners recent track record of throwing points away, with our woeful inability to see out a game in a poised and unflappable fashion, ensured we were on the edge of our seats for a nail-biting last ten minutes. Largely thanks to our guests incompetence, for once we managed to achieve this objective. But it remains to be seen on Sunday quite how much this effort took out of us and whether we can go again at Upton Park, with the sort of vitality that will surely be required, if we’re to overcome a Hammers’ side giddy with the rarified air at the top of the table and determined to bounce back after being demolished at the Bridge.

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Twitter: @thedogsbollock

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Ghoul Of Christmas Past

Hi All,

I wrote all this before seeing the analysis of Martin Keown and Phil Neville on MOTD2 on Sunday night (shame on Boom Boom for plagiarising BFR's catchphrases!), but then it really didn't require any great insight to spot that the Gunners midfield trio were over-run in the middle of the park by Liverpool's four and as I've said below, there was a far more basic problem in our failure to turn up and switch on against the Scousers.

What did bother me on watching the analysis on the box was the sight of Per Mertesacker being shown turning his back and pretty much bottling out, to equally calamitous effect as was witnessed in our defeat at Stoke.

Sadly such pictures leave me with the impression that the BFG has reached a stage in his distinguished career where he's no longer inclined to put his body on the line for the Gunners cause, as if he's taken sufficient punishment over the course of his playing days that he's now looking to his younger, more motivated colleagues to be taking these sort of hard knocks.

Giving Blood For The Cause
In this era, I can fully appreciate the possibility that at his age and at the tail end of his playing days, with plenty of moolah in the bank, Per no longer has anything to prove and that he might be disinclined to go in for the sort of challenges that might leave his brain rattling around in his head, but frankly, in return for his obscene wages the BFG is obliged to undertake exactly this sort of robust physical endeavour!

Moreover, it wouldn't feel nearly quite so galling if it wasn't for the fact that Mertesacker is wearing the captain's armband in the absence of Arteta! If Arsène's "leader" out on the pitch is seen bottling out of such challenges, just what sort of example is this setting his team mates? He's hardly portraying the spirit of the "never say die" sort of dogged warrior creed that is demanded in a team of winners.

Perhaps it is being a bit harsh to pick on Per purely because of these two particularly significant moments, when one can doubtless find countless examples of him fearlessly throwing himself in front of the ball, without the slightest hint of self-preservation. But it's the specific circumstances, which makes it so much worse, with our defence so decimated and already looking devoid of composure, in the absence of a second recognised centre-back, where more than at any other time his colleagues at the back must be looking to the BFG for the sort of staunch demeanour that might offer them some reassurance.

In many instances I'm left reflecting on matches, trying to work out whether the outcome was due to the fact that the Gunners were that good, or that the opposition were that poor. I was left in absolutely no doubt after Sunday's game. For all the plaudits Liverpool received, I suspect it might be proved by the Scousers results in forthcoming encounters that they only managed to dominate us because it was quite such a dreadful Arsenal display.

As a result, for all the agony of conceding a last gasp equalizer, things were looking so bad at halftime that I would've bitten the hand of that had offered me a draw at that stage and bearing in mind our 5-1 humiliation back in February, ultimately I think we should be counting our blessings after coming away with a point from quite such a bad day at the office.

Onwards and hopefully upwards
Keep the faith
Bernard
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Yellow Army
Doubtless the sports scientists will contend that the rigours of our hectic festive footie schedule are entirely bonkers. Some of the game’s less committed mercenaries have been known to invite the convenient booking, to enable them to join everyone else with their feet up in front of the telly, stuffing their faces with turkey as they spend Xmas suspended.

Yet those of us on the terraces wouldn’t have it any other way because it just wouldn’t be the festive season, without the relentless rash of games that offers the added frisson of knowing the results between now and the FA Cup 3rd round weekend at the start of January are likely to make, or break most clubs’ campaigns.

With this in mind, I can appreciate the logic of Arsène giving the lads a “calm before the storm” breather with three days off this past week. But if you wanted evidence of quite how fatal such a break in their routine can be, it was witnessed in the woeful first-half performance at Anfield, which was without doubt our worst display of the season. It was agonizing watching the slapdash efforts of a Gunners’ side who played like eleven strangers and who’s football was in such complete contrast to the fluid, rampant team that rolled over the Toon only a week before.

After being blown away in the opening twenty minutes at Anfield back in February, it was a relief that we somehow managed to negotiate the opening period on Sunday, without our goal being breached. But finding oneself constantly glancing at the clock, wishing the time away so early on, was indicative of quite how much it felt like we were struggling to cling on, against a Liverpool side in the bottom half of the table.

Time was when we used to taunt the Scousers “We’ve got Silvinho, you’ve got our steroes” but it would’ve been the Arsenal doing all the thievery, if we’d have somehow achieved the travesty of stealing away from Anfield with all three points in the bag.

With so much being made in the media build-up of him opting for the Arsenal, instead of Liverpool, it was somewhat inevitable that Alexis would have a bad day at the office. But considering the Chilean’s amazing level of consistency thus far, you knew we were bang in trouble, when even Sanchez was as off colour as the rest of his colleagues. You can talk about systems and the fact that we were over-run in the middle of the park by Rodgers’ 3-4-3 until you are blue in the face, but ultimately our formation was irrelevant because we were never even at the races.

The Ghoul Of Xmas Past
Somehow I just knew that when Škrtel spent so long on the deck having his bonce bandaged this was bound to come back and bite us on the backside during an interminable amount of injury time. Sadly the Gunners inability to close out a game is an age-old phenomenon that doesn’t appear likely to be cured any time soon. A draw was the very least Liverpool deserved and the question for me was not if they were going to equalize, but whether their equalizer was going to be late enough in proceedings for us to be able to snaffle a point from such a pitiful display.

Nevertheless, in spite of the nine added minutes when the clock crawled past the ninety, at that stage, I couldn’t help but begin to feel some slight hope that we might just scrabble over the finishing line. In truth, it would’ve been a whole lot less cruel, if all such delusions had been eviscerated by an earlier goal. You’d think I’d know better by now, as the patently obvious leadership required to exude the calm and composure necessary to wind the clock down to a win isn’t likely to suddenly manifest itself amongst our bunch of headless chickens, even with a numerical advantage.

Mercifully, with matches coming thick and fast, we’ve an opportunity at home to lowly QPR on St. Steven’s Day to begin again where we left off against the Magpies. Thereby proving that Sunday’s worst possession statistics since OPTA started counting was a soon to be forgotten anomalous aberration.


Yet what simply cannot be ignored is the fact that our defending is no less panic-stricken than Liverpool’s. With it being likely that Koscielny’s Achilles issue will need to be nursed over the remainder of the season, Arsène has absolutely no choice but to add essential defensive reinforcements in January, joining the queue with Man Utd and all those other clubs desperate to bolster their backlines. Let the bidding mayhem commence!

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Twitter: @thedogsbollock

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
COYG
Bernard

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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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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Twitter: @thedogsbollock