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Thursday 27 November 2008

Job & Knock (it all on the head!)

I sat here watching the entire 90 minutes of a 0-0 draw between Zenit St. Petersburg v Juventus, prior to our game the other night, feeling somewhat nostalgic watching the feats of Alex Manninger in goal for the Italian side (mind you I spent much of the match trying to work out what sort of weird and wonderful undergarment the little Italian darlings had been given to wear to try and keep themselves warm in the chill of the Russian winter - personally I couldn't imagine anything more annoying than trying to play football with that floppy snood type jobby around my neck!).

However if Manninger made me feel nostalgic, I was positively misty-eyed with sentiment tuning into Pompey's game this evening, with Tony Adams, Kanu, Traore, Flamini, Senderos all involved in a scintillating European encounter. Big up to the Pompey faithful for recreating a proper old-fashioned European night atmosphere, which is so rare to see / hear nowadays, especially in the "will it ever end" tedium of the current UEFA Cup format. How I long for just a little of this marvelously raucous racket at some of the Euro games at our gaff!

Most pundits don't appear to expect the introspective Tony Adams to prosper in his promoted role on the South coast. However, no matter how much TA's new incarnation might've changed from the player we all knew and loved at THOF, watching an extremely animated Adams going through such an emphatic heading motion on the touchline, as if he himself was banging in Younes Kaboul's goal, with all the passion of the Adams of old, if he takes any of this ardor into the dressing room with him, I simply can't imagine Pompey's new gaffer failing to inspire his players.

As it transpired, one could say that the example of this particular match was vindication of Wenger's work (with perhaps the one exception in Arsene failing to persuade Flamini to stay at the club, as watching the Flamster's tireless midfield efforts only served to remind me quite how much we've missed him so far this season).

Yet aside from this one, albeit seemingly costly mistake, I didn't actually realise until tonight that Barca had sold Ronaldihno, but in AC Milan, you have a club with an apparently endless choice of some of the world's greatest and most expensive midfield stars, in the likes of the Goofy One, Kaka, Seedorf, Gattuso, Pirlo (not to mention Pato, who's appearance for the last 15 mins, was I believe the first I've seen of what looks like another Copacabana Incredible off the Brazilian production line) and yet for all this wealth of talent, they can't find anyone better to play at centre-back than our own Phillipe Senderos and for all the millions spent by the wealthy Milanese outfit, they still needed a last gasp equaliser just to snatch a point a Pompey.

Le Boss might've blown millions during the summer and we could've still lost 3-0 at Eastlands last weekend (and how much more miserable would we have all felt then!!) and if memory serves, which it seems to do less and less these days, Arsène's poignant response to my pal (and Gooner editor) Kevin Whitcher's question at the recent Arsenal AGM about his failure to address the centre-back situation was (to parahprase) that Milan wouldn't have taken the hapless Swiss man Matterhorn, if world class centre-back's were available two a penny off the shelves of your nearest Sainsburys.

Nevertheless the one thing that was obvious from AC Milan's line-up tonight, was the game changing ability of their substitutes bench. Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that the backside of the incredibly gifted young Jack Wilshere is warming our first team bench. With Jack having looked so completely and utterly at home when he came on against Kiev, with Bob Wilson, the pundit on Radio 5 live (gawd love the staunch Gooner), positively creaming his pants over the fact that Wilshere was constantly demanding the ball, hopefully he will get plenty more opportunities this season to demonstrate why he's become the latest "great white hope" in the eyes of all of his coaches.

You never know, Jack might have something of the secret weapon factor about him, against those team who underestimate him at their own peril. However he's not (for a while at least!) going to have the same psychological impact on the opposition, of the sort seen at Fratton Park this evening, where having battled manfully against Milan for 75 minutes, you can envisage the Pompey player's mentally wilting at the sight of Milan's "special team" warming up on the touchline. Then again the strongest minds in the world would've been powerless in the face of the set-piece wizadry of Milan's buck-toothed impact sub.

Hopefully, if our Mancunian humiliation served one purpose, while Arsène continues to spout the party-line in public, ever faithful to his young prodigies, in private, where the all-important decisions are made, surely even he can't continue to deny such incontrovertible evidence of his squad's shortcomings, when it's become so blatant that even Treacle our pooch can woof chapter and verse about the imbalance in this Arsenal squad.

Meanwhile in view of our crumbling confidence, it was just a matter of getting the job done against Kiev on Tuesday night, to begin the rebuild and to ensure we can forget about the Champions League for the moment with the stress relieving knowledge that even if all else fails, we still have one important competition to compete in come the Spring (which is doubtless one more than Spurs and most other teams!). Besides which, in our current inconsistent mode, if we hadn't managed 3 points, by way of an old-fashioned "1-0 to the Arsenal" on Tuesday, who amongst us Gooners would've fancied going to Porto, needing a result in the last game?

Much like his derby goal, doubtless Bendtner's winner on Tuesday will have earned the Dane a reprieve amongst his many detractors (including myself). Nevertheless, despite his classy control and his cool, calm finish, Nick still has a long, long way to go before he convinces me that he's the real deal at Premiership level and that he's anything more than a decent Championship level striker. Moreover in a tradition that stretches back to the likes of Gilles Grimandi, John Jensen and all the way back through the mists of time to Geordie Armstrong, I've always said that I can forgive anyone a lack of g-d given gifts, be that natural ability, or in Bendtner's case basic pace, so long as they make up for it in the size of their heart and the level of their commitment to the Gunners' cause.

However, for my money, there was a moment in the second-half which suggested to me that Bendtner would have to be a 30 goal a season striker, before I'd be prepared to excuse the fact that he simply isn't made of "the right stuff".

I think it was Van Persie who fizzed the ball right across the face of an open goal and never mind Bertie's lack of pace, or his failure to be on his toes, anticipating the cross, rather than on his heels, expecting everything to be played to his feet. Bendtner lalloped towards the goal with his body language suggesting he'd already made his mind up that he wasn't able to make contact with the ball. Yet considering we were playing for such high stakes and with the game balanced on a knife edge, a player with any sort of selfless commitment to the club's cause, or even someone who just wanted to con us all into believing they were halfway committed, they would've flung themselves at the ball, or slid in feet first, knowing that any sort of glancing contact would've resulted in a goal.

But no, the Dane wasn't about to eat dirt to demonstrate his desire, as like far too many young stars nowadays, he struts around peacock like, as if he has absolutely nothing to prove and no-one to prove it to and surely his winning goal on Tuesday will only result in him being more assured about his "Big Bollix" reputation, in his own head, if not in ours. Give me a willing grafter like Carlos Vela any day, over lazy good-for-nothing like Bendtner.

Should Arsène choose to start with Bendtner, I will be singing his praises as loud as every other Gooner at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and you should know that the only reason I'm slagging him off so vehemently is in the hope of tempting fate, since no one will be happier if I end up eating a huge portion of humble pie on Sunday night, after Bendtner bangs in the winner.

I was also relieved we didn't end up giving Gallas the bird on his appearance on Tuesday, as I can't imagine Willie wanting to hang around long, if we'd made it obvious we didn't want him. I guess we are soon going to find out if our indiscreet centre-back is able to get to grips with his new found circumstances and whether as a team, they can set any difference aside when they step onto the pitch. Hopefully we are set to see them end Sunday's game celebrating and hugging one another, as there will be nothing like a win against Big Phil's side,, for them all to forget it ever happened.

Come on you Reds

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Hold that call to the Samaritans.....

Hi folks,

With events of the past few days, I could've easily prattled on ad infinitum this week. The restraints of my word quota for the Irish Examiner have rarely proved more restrictive (especially with my overly verbose tendencies) and so having filed my copy below first thing this morning, I was planning on making all the observations I've been forced to leave out, in what would've undoubtedly been another War & Peace like preamble.

But I was far too "cream crackered" after a long day out in the cold of the ballet's stores in Kent, to start writing again when I arrived back home and having heard the news on the radio on the drive back, that events today have somewhat overtaken what I've written below, with Fabregas being announced as captain and Arsene revealing that Gallas will be in the team for tomorrow night's game against Dynamo Kiev, I thought I had better get this missive posted before it gets so outdated that it's not worth reading (heaven only knows how it will read in Wednesday's Examiner - but that's a constant thorn of having to file a piece on Monday for publication midweek).

If there's one quality Arsène has never been found wanting for, it his pragmatic nature. I'm fairly certain he'd have much preferred to have avoided all the recent brouhaha over the captaincy and if at all possible, he's not going to let it deny him of the use of what most pundits would suggest is our most capable centre-back.

So whatever transpires tomorrow night, it's guaranteed to be an interesting evening. Aside from wondering how effectively our team can set any differences aside, to the extent that it doesn't have any negative impact on our performance, obviously Gallas' participation is bound to provoke a mixed reaction from the home crowd.

As hard as I tried to remain faithful to Radio 4 (although you know it's been a long day when you find yourself looking forward to some distraction from the stress of the rush hour traffic in a second helping of the Archers!), I couldn't resist tuning the car radio into the nutters espousing their tabloid opinions on Talksport, as the hosts of the footie phone-in attempted to provoke Gooners into calling in to reveal how they planned on reacting to Willie's return tomorrow.

While one needs to appreciate the phone calls have been filtered by the radio programme's editors, with the intention of broadcasting the more provocative ones, judging by those I heard, Gallas is guaranteed to get some stick and g-d forbid he should put a foot wrong, you can imagine how quick 50,000 Gooners will be to turn on him!

So having had his public pop at some of his teammates lack of fibre, I guess we are about to find out quite what sort of mettle Willie is made of and whether he's the sort of hypocrite who's going to want to cut and run at the first sign of the fans' dipleasure, or if he's made of sterner stuff, with the will to win us around?

Meanwhile, no matter how frustrating it was to see us throw three points away on a day when all our competitors dropped points, on the basis of how far we currently are from having to concern ourselves with the significance of Saturday's result as far as the title race is concerned come the end of the season, I feel sure that I'm not alone in thinking that I'd gladly sacrifice Saturday's game, if it's to result in the sort of dramatic dressing room debate which might have the effect of refocusing our campaign, just in time to give the Blues a hiding at the Bridge on Sunday (not to mention forcing our manager to confront a few incontrovertible home truths concerning those of his charges, who lack both the quality and the commitment that's expected of a Arsène's Arsenal!)

As they say "fair exchange, no robbery" and here's hoping we begin to see some return tomorrow night.

Myself I don't hold with booing any player wearing the red & white, as no matter what I might think of them in private, giving them the bird isn't exactly going to encourage them to try any harder to please their detractors. I'd much rather see us put the Arsenal's cause first, with a demonstration of the sort of blind loyalty shown at Eastlands on Saturday. Perhaps I'm a sentimental old fool, but if I was an Arsenal player, I would've felt absolutely awful walking off the pitch, with the mantra-like chorus of "we love you Arsenal" sung for the entire last ten minutes of the match, ringing in my ears.

Some might argue that our role as fans is seriously diminished, in an age when the modern day's prima-donnas only obligation is to their obscene pay packets. However if we still have a part to play, it is only this sort of support that's likely to inspire players to want to play their hearts out, to make themselves feel worthy of such unwavering fealty.

So might I humbly suggest that instead of slagging all and sundry off, we "sing up for the lads", as you can criticise all you like, but when all is said and done, come kick-off time, in truth this is the one and only means we have at our disposal of making things better

Cone on you Reds

After clocking up close on a 1000 miles schlepping all over the country for work the previous week, I don’t mind admitting that I was struggling to find the enthusiasm for an arduous trek to the North-West on my day off. Especially when I was dumbfounded to discover that for some reason there were no direct rail services the entire weekend. So if I wanted to let the train take the strain, I’d have to take a soul-destroying circuitous route, along the East Coast line to Doncaster, to connect with the Trans Pennine Express (now there’s a misnomer, if ever I heard one!), to cross from East to West and back.

Still at the time, it seemed preferable to another long day, spent battling motorway traffic and after all the commotion of the previous couple of days, there was no way I was not going to be there to support the lads in person, for what I’d hoped would be their glorious efforts to dispel the notion, espoused by our not so glorious (former) captain, that they are not sufficiently “up for it”.

In truth, in the absence of so many significant team members, I half expected us to struggle against Man City and this defeat wouldn’t have been nearly such a body blow, if we’d gone down with all guns blazing, following a display that demonstrated our appetite for the battle. But to go out with a whimper, as a result of a yet another flaccid performance, which only gave fuel to our French defender’s disparaging comments, was seriously depressing.

Arriving at King’s Cross to find my train had been cancelled (perhaps I should’ve heeded the fates efforts to do me a favour!), for once in my life I wasn’t late and I made it onto an earlier departure, literally with only seconds to spare. After an hour’s wait at Doncaster, sadly I was far too stressed about getting to the game on time, to be able to relax and enjoy the picturesque route across the Pennines and as we crawled into Stockport at 2.30 I feared the worst.

Mercifully I was sharing a cab from Picadilly station, with an amiable City fan and his two daughters, only ten minutes later. My thoughts turned to the thousands of deprived young Gooners, when he revealed that his kids' season tickets had cost him a perfectly reasonable 90 quid.

Having often pondered the absence of non-white faces amongst the crowds at many clubs, while watching the pictures broadcast on Match of the Day, I guess the answer lies in this chap’s response as to why he supported City. He revealed that Leeds was his local team but that as an Asian, he wouldn’t dream of subjecting his kids to the sort of racism that’s prevalent at Elland Road. When I enquired about the newly promoted Hull, he said “you must be joking, they’re even worse!”

Prior to striking up conversation with this geezer, I’d been messing around on the train, pulling faces with his two giggling, impish little girls and I suppose it’s indicative of my own somewhat racist conditioning that it never for one moment occurred to me that the three of them might be heading to the game. However it was only on being confronted by the issue that I found myself reflecting on quite what an abhorrent outrage it is, that in 2008 our terraces continue to be the scene of such intolerance, that this poor dad is forced to choose which team to support, based on where his daughter’s delicate little ears are least likely to be assaulted by racist bile.

While the authorities have recently been patting themselves on the back, applauding the success of their “Kick It Out” efforts, perhaps they need reminding that without the re-education of the Neanderthal numbskulls responsible, their multi-cultural ideals remain pie in the sky.

As for the Arsenal’s comparatively trivial troubles, if I’m honest in the long run the William Gallas saga might prove a blessing in disguise. It wasn’t as if Wenger wasn’t warned about Willie’s somewhat abrasive, shoot from the hip tendencies. I’ve always suspected that without any obvious leaders in our squad, he decided to take a gamble on Gallas, on the basis that he might rise to the challenge of responsibility, rather than to risk having him on the outside, criticising a younger choice.

Meanwhile although it’s true, certainly on the evidence of Saturday’s utterly vapid display, that there are youngsters in the Arsenal squad who might benefit from a good kick up the backside, to remind them that at the very least, we require some fire in their bellies, in return for their Bentley boy status, the “omerta” of the dressing room remains sacrosanct. Without this code of silence, I’m sure we’d all astonished by the number of serious spats that occur when such huge egos spend so much time in such close proximity.

However it’s the ability to set personal differences aside when they step onto the pitch that is most important. If Gallas was any kind of proper “guv’nor”, he would’ve made his admonishments in private, rather than detailing them in the French media, whilst drumming up publicity for his book.

Considering Arsene’s non-confrontational customs (other than when rutting with Alan Pardew!), I couldn’t see him relieving Gallas of the captaincy, if it wasn’t (according to rumour) for the influential likes of Fabregas knocking on his door to complain. Many Gooners are proposing Cesc as the most suitable candidate. I don’t dispute his ability to wear the armband well, with the respect of his teammates and sufficient “never say die” qualities to inspire them, but Fab’s own form hasn’t been great of late. Perhaps in contrast to the example of cricket, the challenge of the additional responsibility would prove just what’s needed to reinvigorate our little Franco.

For my money, a goalie needs a massive personality to sufficiently influence the outfield players and this rules out our inoffensive keeper. What’s more, judging by the way in which Wenger spent the entire first-half on Saturday, prowling the very limits of his technical area, as if trying to captain his side from the touchline, his body language hardly affirmed his confidence in Almunia’s ability to galvanize the Gunners.

We can but hope that Arsene gets it right, as Saturday’s defeat was a perfect example of quite how much our young squad is crying out for someone capable of rallying our dejected troops.
Perhaps more worrying was the evidence of how quickly this Gunners side grinds to a halt, in the absence of a couple of crucial cogs. In the past we’ve always been able to compensate for our deficiencies but we were woefully short on quality against City. Richard Dunne usually saves his best performances for playing the Arsenal, but he and the rest of his defence didn’t need to be anywhere near their best against our positively impotent attack. Like the majority of us present, the local radio pundit wondered what on earth Wenger sees in Bendtner and with Kompany keeping Van Persie in his pocket, it was only the late introduction of Ramsey that resulted in us producing the slightest glimpse of some real attacking intent.

Moreover it’s hard to believe I was singing Denilson’s praises the other day. Could this really be the same player who was dangling his leg out as a feeble excuse for a tackle on Saturday and who, along with Song, was guilty of failing to track City’s midfield. As far as their clueless forays forward, they could do far worse than learning a lesson or two from the commitment and hunger for the ball shown by the likes of Ireland.

It would’ve been in keeping with the rest of my miserable outing, if I’d ended up stuck up North. Mercifully I eventually made it home, just in time to suffer a repeat showing on MOTD! Personally I’m glad to be facing Chelsea on Sunday, as it is the sort of glamorous occasion that will at least guarantee we give a good account of ourselves. In the meantime, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, our manager, our team and many of us Gooners could do with treating those two impostors, triumph and disaster, just the same.

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Tuesday 18 November 2008

Would The Real AFC Please Stand Up?

Hi folks,

After pouring a kettle of boiling water over the annoying nest of ants that make up all the ingrate Arsene knockers, by way of beating Man Utd, it seems they've all come crawling back out again after Saturday's upset against Villa.

It's barmy really, as it seems to me that these Gooners just don't know they are born, so spoiled are they by our recent era of relative success that nothing less than silverware to show for our season will satisfy them. To my mind they are the epitome of the sort of glory-hunting Gooners, who sadly constitute a far too great a proportion of the sixty thousand punters populating THOF2, who are all too quick to criticise, but who seriously don't know the meaning of support.

Included amongst the OED's definition of "support" is "give practical or emotional help". It's all too easy supporting a successful team but in such circumstances our efforts are invariably superfluous, having absolutely zero impact. Yet when we are most needed, all we do is get on the player's backs, giving them stick and ultimately booing them off the pitch.

While I can understand Gooners feeling the need to express their disgust when Riley brought Saturday's 0-2 defeat to a conclusion (with several Gooners in my vicinity literally begging the bandy-legged ref to put us out of our misery and blow his whistle), the truth of the matter is that this is hardly the sort of response which is going to encourage our players to feel that they must try harder, to please fans who deserve better.

It might not look like it to us, but in the players own minds, you can be sure that they're going to believe that they've tried their hardest to please us on Saturday, only to end up being booed off by the same fans who were singing their praises seven days earlier. And where we were kissing their feet last week, according to the attitude of many, it would appear that they're now not fit to kiss our arses!

I imagine half the 60,000 present on Saturday wouldn't bother turning up if we were losing regularly. And this would be one slight consolation to a bad run of form, if it had the effect of sifting this sort of chaff from the wheat. When you consider that there are only two decent pots to be won each season and the vast majority of teams haven't a cat in hell's chance of winning either of them and the very most the majority of fans have to look forward to is perhaps a few good games and a half decent cup run, we really should be counting our blessings.

The fact that the media are making such a big deal about the number of defeats the Arsenal can afford is representative of our privileged position as one of only three or four teams that are expected to win anything every season. And it's Wenger who's almost singlehandedly responsible for establishing the Arsenal as one of this country's elite teams, to the extent that there is such a hullabaloo when our top table membership appears threatened.

I rarely read the column alongside mine in the Irish Examiner, written by the Man Utd fan, because I get fed up of his supercilious attitude towards the rest of the domestic competition, as if it's not worth the effort turning up most weeks because the opposition are unable to offer them any sort of genuine challenge

However if ever there was more complete vindication of Arsene Wenger, it came in the Moaner's piece last week, where having written about the absurdity of the Arsenal having been written off, he went on to express his appreciation for the way in which Utd took the Arsenal up on our offer to play real flowing football, as opposed to the various permutations of either attritional tedium, or one sided steam-rollering that constitutes 90 per cent of the Premier League's content (from a Man Utd perspective!).

Despite our lack of any silverware to show for our efforts these past few seasons, virtually every other fan in the country is envious of the football we get to watch most weeks. As a result, for us spoilt Gooners, it is that much more disappointing when we fall short every now and again.

Sadly nowadays many are of the attitude that the extortionate cost of their ticket gives them a right to express this dissatisfaction, at the very time when the players are most in need of our encouragement and our support.

Myself I don't by any means agree with all of Arsène's decisions, but I will continue to remain eternally grateful for all the entertainment we are privileged to enjoy under his management and having been around long enough to have witnessed some of the Arsenal's worst ever teams, I believe this makes it that much easier for me to appreciate how fortunate we've been in recent times. As a result I will continue to have faith in our manager and castigate all those numbskulls who are far too quick to knock him (as I've yet to hear any of them explain exactly where we are going to come across an improved model!).

Believe me, the day will soon come when Arsène decides he can well do without the day to day stress of Premiership management and I'm afraid that he's likely to come to this conclusion all the quicker, if he begins to perceive that he's no longer appreciated. If it is indeed true that you only truly learn to appreciate what you have, after it's gone, then when we end up lumbered with a camel coated nincompoop, struggling to cling to humdrum mid-table mediocrity as the height of his ambition, there's going to be shed load enlightened Gooners rapidly comprehending quite how good we had it under Wenger

Nuff Love

Little did I realise quite what an understatement last week’s reference to football’s enigmatic quality would prove to be, as we were all left scratching our heads on Saturday. After the exhilaration of watching the kids run riot against Wigan and the euphoria of beating Man Utd, it was somewhat baffling to be brought back down to earth with such a bump, as the illusion that we might push on, to prove ourselves genuine contenders, was seriously deflated by such a flat display against Villa.

Personally speaking, it was a defeat that only reaffirmed my instincts that we’re a long way from having the consistency necessary to mount a credible title challenge. Nevertheless, this made it no easier to explain why the same 11 superstars who’d played leading roles in the breathless box-office hit that took the footballing world by storm the previous weekend, could all be transformed back into bit part players, better suited for hamming it in a humdrum soap opera than a Hollywood smash?

In fact it was such an anti-climax, that I felt the need to apologise to Finian and his pal, after they’d travelled all the way over from Cork, to watch an Arsenal side that was such a shadow of the team capable of the scintillating football seen only seven days prior.

In truth we were fortunate that Man Utd were so profligate in front of goal and it looked as if our luck was going to continue to hold on Saturday, when Almunia palmed away Young’s tame effort from the penalty spot. Sadly the penalty save didn’t have the customary galvanising effect and it seemed to me that where we’d raised our game a crucial 5/10 per cent to boss the midfield and beat Man Utd, against Villa we witnessed a 5/10 per cent drop in our desire and commitment, which accounted for such a substantial difference between the two performances.

With fortune’s swings and roundabouts tendencies, there was an element of bad luck to both goals, with Gallas being drawn out of the centre because Sagna was on the deck for the first and with their being a blatant free-kick on Vela, before Villa broke to score their second. But despite my raging and ranting over Riley’s inconsistent refereeing, the result was nothing less than the visitors deserved.

Coming to our place on the back of two defeats, Martin O’Neill’s side were definitely the hungrier of the two teams. I lost track of the number of times Sidwell and his midfield cohorts picked our pocket, anticipating casual passes which lacked the crisp fizz of the previous week and how often we came out second best simply because Villa showed so much more desire.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in a comparison of our respective target men. It might have worked last week but I’m no fan of playing a lone striker on home turf, especially when it leads to us hoofing the ball up far too often. In truth I barely recall Bendtner winning a single aerial battle with Davies or Laursen, but even if he had, there was never anyone in the vicinity to latch on to the knock-down.

However I can forgive anyone a bad day at the office, so long as they work their socks off. Yet where Agbonlahor not only troubled our defence with his pace on the ball, off it we saw him tearing around, denying us the time to settle and prepared to hare back to prevent Walcott from hitting them on the counter. By contrast, from the way Bendtner strolled around when not in possession, I get the distinct impression that defending doesn’t come under his job description!

Most worrying of all on Saturday was our inability to trouble Brad Friedel, We’ve grown accustomed to making up for our inability to keep a clean sheet, by the number of goal-scoring opportunities we create at the other end of the pitch. Yet aside from Theo Walcott’s vivacious forays down the flank in the opening period, we rarely looked like threatening Friedel’s goal. Even when camped in their half of the pitch, trying to salvage a result, our probing was sufficiently flaccid, that at no time did one get the sense that an equaliser was imminent Never mind Creatine, perhaps a shot of Viagra is what’s needed to get the Gunners going!

Even in the Man Utd game Fabregas was guilty of giving the ball away far too often and although Cesc is always capable of conjuring up the odd defence splitting pass, in truth it’s hard to recall the last time the little wizard was really on his game. And where Denilson was so influential last time out, he returned to being woefully ineffectual against the likes of Sidwell and Barry.

Could complacency be responsible for their apparent inability to bring the same intensity to bear in every game, with them being a little too secure in their places on the first team squad? As I see it, the kids who’ve performed so impressively in the Carling Cup are perceived as a separate entity all together, when we really need them to be challenging for first team places as individuals, so as to ensure they pose sufficient a threat to keep everyone on their toes.

Otherwise we might be destined to a season long run of this frustrating Jeckyl & Hyde drama that could end up costing us dear, considering the widespread ramifications of failing to secure Champions League qualification.

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Monday 10 November 2008

It’s Not The Size Of The Dog In The Fight, It’s The Size Of The Fight In The Dog

If I had cause last week to question the logic of le gaffer’s customary efforts to deflect all the criticism away from his own troops, rather than confronting (and heaven forfend, actually dealing with) a few home truths, because it seemed as if he was giving our players carte blanche to wallow in their own self-pity, I guess I got my answer in spades on Saturday.

Then again, it’s the beautiful game's eternal propensity to confound all logic that makes it such an engrossing enigma. Enthralling, almost to the point of being unhealthy for some of us! I came away from Saturday’s game feeling so emotionally spent and having taxed the old ticker to such an extent, that I badly needed a quiet lie down in a dark room to recover.

With our team spirit having been stretched to breaking point over the course of the previous ten days, there was little more likely to encourage a loosening of the bowels than the prospect of facing the likes of Man U, with only half our first choice XI fit.

Unfortunately bran flakes are the only thing that encourages Treacle, our pooch to go through her motions and as I stood impatiently waiting for her to do her business at 11.30 on Saturday morning, I was almost as relieved as she was (bearing in mind she’d had her legs crossed since 3pm on Friday due to the firework barrage), when it was announced on the radio that Almunia, Sagna, Sylvestre, Gallas and Walcott had all been passed fit.

Still, in the absence of our two principal strikers, there was nothing particularly logical about my optimistic mood, as I legged it around to the ground for what I thought was a noon kick-off. For some strange reason, the Gunners rarely ever get going before half-time in these early KOs. But no matter what the eventual outcome, I was confident in the knowledge that we’d acquit ourselves well, as we invariably raise our game against our immediate competitors.

In fact, on the basis that it’s bound to prove far easier to express ourselves against those teams that come to compete against us, than those clubs who are principally focused on thwarting us, then our league campaign is far more likely to be defined by how quickly we learn to grind out results against the more resolute lesser lights, than by Saturday's scintillating triumph.

Nevertheless under the barmiest of circumstances, where recent events have seen Harry Redknapp hailed as the messiah, despite the fact that Spurs were still propping up the Premiership and unbelievably le Prof’s entire footballing philosophy had been called into question while 4th in the table, going well in the Champions League and constantly producing some of the greatest footballing entertainment on the planet, Saturday’s game assumed an importance way beyond the mere 3 points at stake.

Our encounters with Man U are always one of the high points of the footballing calendar, but having arrived early for once (only as a result of my mistake), I could sense a spine-tingling electricity to the mood of nervous anticipation around the ground. We all appreciated the need for a performance that would put a sock in the mouths of Arsène’s critics and which would put our season back on track, by reaffirming our faith and our team’s belief in their own ability.

Even the gods seemed to be smiling down upon us, as having sent down just enough of a shower to slicken up the surface, the rain abated and the sun came out. Encountering his former team mates for the first time, I suppose Sylvestre was likely to be more nervous than most and it might have been an entirely different story if Man U hadn’t been so profligate in front of goal, in some anxiety riddled opening moments.

In truth, this was the story of the day as Man U continued to look such gift horses in the mouth and while Bendtner did little better with his gift-wrapped goal-scoring opportunities, mercifully Samir Nasri managed to grasp the nettle, by making the very most of his two chances to write the headlines.

Perhaps this and the manner in which we took control of the all-important midfield battle was merely a reflection of the fact that Man U had little to prove and would’ve been perfectly happy to take a point back to Manchester. Whereas instead of the sleepy first-halves that we’ve grown accustomed to in these early KOs, right from the off, it was evident that the Arsenal were sufficiently pumped up, to vindicate themselves and Wenger with a display that would serve to demonstrate, in the words of Mark Twain, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”.

The dogged determination shown by the likes of Denilson, left me wondering who was the lightweight impostor I’ve been watching the rest of the season, as the Brazilian youngster finally came of age, with the sort of “lead by example” type display, which fuelled his team mates appetite and which has been so lacking in this Arsenal side of late.

I suppose one of the benefits of Arsène’s customary refusal to criticise his troops in public, is that it has the desired effect on the rare occasion he does take them to task. Almunia was transformed into a keeper who was intent on dominating his area, by coming for every ball and when less brave men would’ve gone in feet first, Manuel didn’t think twice about taking one in the head for the team, by diving at Carrick’s feet.

Even when at our most vulnerable, our keeper’s efforts lent an aura of composure to our entire defence, which was in complete contrast to their customary air of frantic insecurity. So although they were still prone to being exposed by Utd’s formidable front line, there wasn’t quite the same “heart in the mouth” inevitability that they were about to concede every time.

Instead, I have ref Howard Webb to thank for his assault on my blood pressure. It seemed as if the ref was the only man in the stadium who was oblivious to Vidic’s octopus impersonation, when he wrapped himself around Nasri in the area late on. Having denied us the opportunity to put the result to bed from the penalty spot, I proceeded to scream myself hoarse, cursing Webb’s ineptitude, desisting just long enough, to ridicule Wayne Rooney, during a momentary lull in the astonishingly relentless cut and thrust.

Shrek had screwed a shot so wide that it arced its way out for a throw-in, inspiring an amusing chorus of “you’re just a fat, granny shagger”. We obviously achieved our objective, as Rooney responded by directing our attention to the champion’s badge on his sleeve. I was a little worried he might end up making us eat our words but Fergie must’ve been concerned about a more reckless response, as he withdrew Rooney from the fray only seconds later. I can only imagine Wayne’s frustration at being denied the opportunity to exact his revenge.

With the amount of effort expended during the first 45 and the unremitting pace, we were always likely to flag at some point. It was therefore a huge relief to hear the habitually sedate home crowd rise to the occasion, by playing their 12th man part. Although when our 89th minute failure to clear our lines resulted in Rafael’s goal and with the clock-watching knight of the realm staring daggers from his dugout, guaranteeing his team every last second of a seemingly never-ending 6 minutes of injury time, there was a positively palpable mood of apprehension, as we struggled to suppress any notion of some sort of Groundhog Day nightmare.

Saturday’s 3 points won’t win us the title and with Chelsea not looking like they are about to blow many points, we’ve probably only gifted the Blues a leg up by beating Man U. But it was a morale boosting performance that was paramount, in order to restore our pride and the aura of respect that will ensure we don’t get dragged down into the totally unpredictable dogfight taking place below us.

Arsène’s undoubtedly a better man than me in resisting the temptation to tell his tabloid tormentors to stick that in their pipe and smoke it!
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Wednesday 5 November 2008

Sing When We're Winning!

Hi folks,

I filed the following piece to the Irish Examiner before leaving for work on Monday morning, but I had so much more to get off my chest and mercifully I'm not limited to a specific number of words here, so I wanted to wait until I found the time to elucidate a little. However I've been really busy in the meantime and as is invariably the case, I've calmed down quite a bit since, managing to put last week's two disasters into some persepctive.

I suppose Arsène is obliged to come out and attempt to deflect some of the criticism away from his squad but I hate the way in which Wenger has this unerring abillity for his whinging to sound like sour grapes.

Personally I felt that some of his trademark complaints have never been less justifiable as far as Saturday's defeat was concerned, since considering their substantial size and weight advantage, with virtually the entire Stoke first XI being refugees from the Land of the Giants, to my mind they went about their old-fashioned business in a decidedly honest fashion, with hardly a hint of malice or foul-play.

OK so we saw Adebayor needlessly taken out, outside of the field of play. But I certainly didn't get the sense that there was any intent involved on the offenders part. What's more, it might be obvious that Delap didn't have a hope of making contact with the ball and therefore clipping Theo's legs was somewhat cynical, but I'm certain he only intended stopping the pocket rocket, rather than causing him any harm. It was just unfortunate that Theo fell awkwardly and hurt his shoulder and I defy anyone out there who has ever played the game, to suggest that they've never been guilty of this minor indiscretion. Especially those who've played in defence and who've competed against a speedy little winger/striker who's effortlessly capable of embarrassing you, leaving you looking like you are running backwards. Personally speaking, this was my party-piece, in the latter stages of games when I was seriously beginning to flag, as instead of haring after my opponent in vain and ending up allowing them into the danger zone , I often found it impossible to resist the urge to concede a relatively harmless free-kick in the middle of the park by taking their legs away.

However compared to the way we've been roughed up in the past, at grounds like the Reebok, Ewood etc, Saturday's game was a relatively tame affair and it was more down to bad luck, than bad tackling, that we ended up with nine men, looking like the walking wounded.

Doubtless there is some logic to le Boss resorting to the bully boy card, perhaps he feels we might benefit by getting more protection from the officials in future. But as far as I'm concerned the disadvantages far outweigh any potential positives. Let's face it, we had only recently managed to shake off the "don't like it up 'em" tag by breaking our North-West hoodoo and to my mind teams (including the likes of Stoke) had stopped focusing so intently on setting out to disturb us with their muscular attentions. But we've now ended up back at square one, where virtually every single opposition manager will be instructing their sides to do their utmost to try and get under our skin and rattle us sufficiently to put us off our game.

What's more, I get the distinct sense that Arsène's insistence on publically complaining at every possible opportunity, about the fact that opposition teams refuse to politely stand back and invite us to weave pretty passing patterns around them, without any interference (what does he expect?), is offering our squad the perfect excuse. For someone who has proved himself to be psychologically so astute, it baffles me that Wenger doesn't seem to appreciate the negative impact of his actions.

When le gaffer leaps out of his dugout and stands on the edge of his technical area with his arms out wide, imploring the ref to protect his precious charges, every time one of them is clobbered by a full-blooded tackle, he's blatantly sending out the signal to the lads that they have every right to feel hard done by.

When he should be screaming at them to "kick the bleeders back", or to get up, dust themselves off and to do some damage where it really hurts, by taking out their revenge on the opposition's goal, he's basically giving them carte blanche to throw their toys out of the pram because the boss has said they are being hard done by and thus they're prone to losing their focus and getting involved in petty on pitch squabbles, instead of doing what they do best.

With this in mind, in some respects I am pleased we are playing Man Utd this weekend, as it's the sort of match where we will need no additional motivation and Man U will be coming to the Emirates to try and beat us, instead of merely trying to thwart us. Thus it should be a game where we can let our football do the talking and where, no matter what the result, I wouldn't normally have any worries about us acquitting ourselves well.

Mind you, I am just back home from watching us struggle to beat a Fernebace side who I believe are notorious bad travellers and if like me, you believe Fabregas needs to be on song, if we are to achieve any sort of result on Saturday, then there wasn't much cause for optimism based on Cesc's efforts this evening, especially second half, where the incisive, accurate orchestrator of all things good about our game, seemed to have been replaced by an impostor who kept casually conceding possession, with limp, wayward passes.

However Cesc is such an exceptional footballer, that as far as I'm concerned his dip in form must be a mental problem, resulting from the fact that he's not exactly enjoyed himself on the park in the past couple of games. Hopefully he'll be back on song come Saturday, relishing the prospect of going up against Utd with everyone and their mother having already written us off.

Obviously the circumstances aren't ideal, as it's hard to see where the Gunners goals are going to come from, in the absence of Van Persie & Adebayor and based on the woeful recent track record of our defence, it's hard to imagine us being capable of keeping a clean sheet against Utd's formidable front line (in fact it's far easier to envisage Berbatov, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez & Giggs running riot against our positively permeable back line!).

Nevertheless I'm always convinced of our ability to give a good account of ourselves against our immediate rivals and in spite of the adverse circumstances, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see us battle our hearts out to earn a creditable draw, which would be well received, considering all the pundits are expecting us to get a roasting and which might be just the sort of stalwart effort that could get our season right back on track, but which ultimately could condemn us to another season as "also rans", since it seems as if the team that's going to take the title this season, will be the one that takes the most points off the other top three sides.

Meanwhile, considering we've spent the past week, plumbing the depths of our disastrous capitulation against Spurs, with this resulting Saturday's horrible hangover, which seemed to still be in evidence in tonights uninspiring encounter, I would gladly accept getting our campaign back on track against Man Utd (as quite frankly, even on form, I can't really see us having a hope of demonstrating the sort of consistency necessary to mount a genuine title challenge).

Although in some respects, one might argue that it would serve us better in the long of a wake up call for Wenger which even he would struggle to ignore. Whereas any sort of determ to get mullahed by Man U this weekend, since this would be the sort of eye-openercent result against ol' Red Nose's Northern monkeys would only paper over the cracks which appear patently obvious to all but le Prof and it would leave Arsène gloating before his tabloid tormentors, telling them that he has never for one minute doubted his squad's ability to prevail against the Premier League elite

But the truth of the matter is that we've never had a problem competing against the cream of domestic competition. It's been our inability to shut shop and scramble three points from a single goal win, when the luck's against us, in games against the more obdurate of the league's lesser lights that has been the principal cause of the past few seasons of under-achievement.

I get frustrated by our repeated failings, but it's easy to gloss over them when everything is going well. But with adversity usually being the source of so much more material to write about, it's the ideal opportunity for me to do my broken record impersonation, by revisting the well-trodden path of some of my pet complsints, of the sort that regularly results in me throwing my hands up in exasperation.

Our problems at centre-back are legend but I've alwasy been convinced that a keeper with some real presence and the sort of stature necessary to dominate his area and unerringly mop up, by coming out to claim absolutely anything within a specific parameter, this sort of world class goalie would emit an aura of composure and security that's likely to cure many of our current defensive ills.

Meantimes, with most other Gooners believing that Gallas and Kolo Touré are not blessed with the necessary attributes to provide a suitable pairing (with many coming from the little and large school of centre-back beliefs), myself I can't help but wonder whatever happened to the Kolo who was always a far more influential all-round performer back in the day when he was playing alongside Sol Campbell. Back then, Kolo's defensive duties seemed to be accomplished almost instinctively, to the extent that he was able to bring his influence to bear all over the pitch. Whereas nowadays, sadly he appears to have become something of a more peripheral influence to the squad as a whole, perhaps with his lack of pitch time (or could it merely be the bias of the new kit?) accounting for the fact that Kolo seems to be carrying a crucial few extra pounds that perhaps detracts from his explosive ability to compete with the paciest of opposition strikers.

I often scrutinize our defence at set-pieces through my binoculars and am invariably flabbergasted at the seemingly haphazard way in which we go about our business. It's here where the lack of any real leadership is most apparent, as myself, I want a captain screaming and gesticulating at his team mates, reminding each of them of their specific responsibilities. Instead of which, I regularly find myself astonished at how little communication appears to be taking place. But then perhaps they have nothing to talk about?

At this level of the professional game and with Wenger's reputation for his remarkable attention to detail, I'd be expecting our team to be taking to the pitch, with each of them having been advised of their responsibilities at set-pieces, who they are to pick-up, their weaknesses and strengths, which foot to show them on to, whether they are a threat with their head etc. etc. And yet watching us take up positions to defend a set-piece, I've seen many a Sunday league side which appears to be more organised, as apart from two of our smallest players, Fabregas and Clichy, taking up their positions on the post, for anyone else who doesn't happen to be marking fresh air, it seems merely a matter of picking up whomsoever happens to be standing nearest them!

As a result we end up shipping goals like the one conceded the other day, when Abou Diaby switched off just long enough for the player he was supposed to be marking to steal into the six yard box and score. Instead of which, if everyone is allocated their responsibility beforehand, should their target escape their attentions, there can be absolutely no argument about culpability.

Up until recently, Clichy and Sagna have been two of the most effective full-backs in the country, but of late even their consistency seems to have taken a turn for the worse, suffering from the general air of insecurity that seems to have blighted our defending. Moreover, considering they and most of our team is blessed with so much pace, it drives me to distraction every time I seem them clip another floated cross in from close to the touchline, some 20/30 yards out, for the opposition keeper to calmly come and pluck the ball out of the air (that's on the odd occasion they beat the first man).

I simply don't understand why it is that they aren't being told to bomb all the way to the byeline and bang the ball in from close to the corner flag. As has been seen elsewhere in recent days with various own goals, a cross is so much harder to defend against when you are forcing the defending team to risk playing the ball in the direction of their own goal, rather than allowing them to face up and to hack it clear in the opposite direction.

Frankly this is not rocket science, it's extremely basic footballing principles and yet I can't help but glean this impression that le Prof is beyond bothering himself with such mundane matters, trusting to a belief that players who've reached this elevated level of the game, must already have these basics down pat.

Don't get me wrong, as I've stated below, as far as I'm concerned, our manager walks on water and I remain eternally endebted to the man for the utter privilege of watching some of the most entertaining football on the planet. Moreover I would hate to be thought of as one of the idiotic Wenger knockers, who've suddenly started crawling out from under their rocks to make all sort of preposterous suggestions on the radio phone-ins (bearing in mind that it tends to be the more outrageous and contentious lunatics who are allowed on-air by the editors).

However that doesn't mean there aren't occasions where, for such an incredibly sagacious geezer, I can't help but wonder where his head's at. For example, watching Arsène prowling his technical area at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, I could sense his frustration from all the way up in our stand behind the goal and so I'm certain this must've transmitted itself out on to the pitch. Additionally, I got the sense that Saturday's selection policy was based on the fact that Stoke are such an inordinately tall side and so Arsène chose to play all our tallest players. But we were still always going to suffer from a height disadvantage, no matter who Wenger played and personally I don't think it sends out the right message for a team such as ours, to be worried about lowly Stoke's one and only advantage.

We should be playing to our strengths, but by choosing a midfield comprising of Fabregas and Song in the centre and Diaby and Denilson on the flanks, Arsène was attempting to put round pegs, in square holes, as neither of these two is anything like a natural wide man and it left us playing without any width whatsoever, when going around the home side, instead of trying to pick a path through them, might've been the one tactic that could've yielded some success.

Although such was the hangover from our derby debacle that I'm not sure it would've mattered how we had lined up, as we appeared destined to forfeit Saturday's three points.

Hopefully all the reams of criticism that's resulted from events of the past few days will result in a battening down of the hatches, for a fortress Arsenal type "backs to the wall" response on Saturday that will silence all the gloom & doom merchants. And if it doesn't, I guess at least there's the prospect of salvation in another carefree Carling Cup performance against Wigan next week.

As we exited the Britannia on Saturday, my pal turned to me to say that he sure hopes Arsène takes the FA Cup seriously this season. But then considering how much pleasure there is to be had watching the youngsters, without all the tension that accompanies our first team outings, I'd almost prefer to see them selected in both competitions?

Keep the faith....Come on you Reds

The teeming rain that accompanied our miserable return journey south from Stoke on Saturday was an appropriate reflection of the melancholy mood in our motor. Or at least that was the case for myself and my Gooner pal at the wheel, whereas hard as she tried not to gloat, Monica, who’s been a staunch Stoke supporter for more years than a gentleman cares to mention, didn’t need a car to convey her back to Cobham. She was so high on her side’s surprisingly comfortable success that she could’ve floated back to her Surrey home, aboard the rain sodden layer of cumulus.

It’s impossible for those of us who take top-flight football for granted, to fully comprehend what just having a seat at the glamorous Premiership table means to those Stoke supporters who’ve endured 23 long-suffering seasons of lower league mediocrity. Let alone us being able to appreciate the unconfined joy of competing against and actually conquering, those sides who’ve previously existed on another planet all together.

Such has been the Arsenal’s misfortune in the past couple of encounters that I half expected us to end up on the hard-shoulder of the motorway with engine trouble. I certainly wouldn’t have been too disappointed to have missed seeing Lineker and co. picking the bones out of our Brittania Stadium funeral. But on an afternoon where most of the other results went Stoke’s way, Monica was desperate to get back in time for Match of the Day, as if she required this televisual testament, to confirm that it hadn’t all been a glorious dream.

I pulled the covers up on Sunday morning, burying my head in the comfort of a couple more hours of my own reverie, rather then confronting the woeful reality of the 5 points we’ve blown in the past few days, the worrying reoccurrence of Theo’s troublesome shoulder injury, the potentially significant injuries to Adebayor, Sagna, Gallas etc. and the prospect of playing Man Utd without them and the senselessly suspended Van Persie. Still, with one woman’s meat being another man’s poison, there was some slight consolation, as I envisaged Monica being up with the lark, to savour every last morsel of the fillet mignon of the match reports in her Sunday papers.

Having finally sensed some long-awaited signs that Van Persie had struck a vein of form against West Ham and Spurs, I was furious that the Dutchman could be so dumb as to not appreciate the obvious consequences of his petulant frenzy, according to the Fuhrer like Rob Stiles. But as if blowing our best chance of a recovery against Stoke wasn’t bad enough, I could’ve throttled him when I realised he’d ruled himself out of next Saturday’s big game. Some might point to Van Persie’s hot-headed track record as an excuse for his behaviour, while others might suggest his lack of self-control typifies the sort of irresponsible attitude towards the club, that makes an absolute mockery of the badge-kissing mercenaries of the modern era.

I also didn’t appreciate the way in which Robin waved a dimissive hand in the direction of his Danish teammate when he appeared as sub on Saturday. By the looks of things, Bendtner was equally unimpressed at being informed in this fashion that he was to play out wide on the left. Mind you he’d been so ineffective that never mind outside-left, I’d have preferred for him to have been left outside (the old ones are the best!).

Yet it was the wave of Van Persie’s hand which suggested to me that all is not sweetness and light in the Gunners camp at present. Doubtless it’s evidence of the sort of aggravation that only tends to raise it’s ugly head when the wheels begin to come off.

Both fans and players alike were all a little shell-shocked after Wednesday’s derby disaster. Under the circumstances, most of us sensed that Spurs might come away with something, but having demonstrated our undoubted superiority and when we should’ve had the result in the bag, it was the unbelievably bizarre, last gasp denouement of this game that completely knocked the stuffing out of us (and which has sadly provided a massive leg-up as far as the Lilywhite’s confidence is concerned!).
For my money, mentally, we weren’t even at the races on Saturday and it was no real surprise to see Stoke reap some reward from their most potent weapon. Rory Delap’s throw-ins were always likely to wreak havoc, amidst a defence that so frequently struggles to demonstrate the necessary composure, where an undercurrent of insecurity is only compounded due to a keeper who lacks the necessary presence to dominate his area.

Even at our imperious best, our current line-up all too often struggles to find a cutting edge up front and when our ability alone is not enough to break down a resolute defence, we regularly flounder for the want of the sort of “they shall not pass” leadership, capable of cajoling and inspiring his teammates in equal measure, to ensure we aren’t the architects of our own downfall.

Who knows, perhaps in adversity we’ll witness the sort of “backs to the wall” display against Man Utd, which will be just what the doctor ordered to restore the sense of unity needed, to get our season back on track. But as much as I adore le Boss, he seems to have a serious blind spot when it comes to recognising the need for an adjutant out on the park, with the strength of personality to pre-empt the sort of disasters we’ve witnessed alarmingly often of late. Moreover with each successive setback, I come away wondering about our failure to address extremely basic footballing principals at both ends of the pitch.

It’s the mixture of talent and steel necessary to prevail that makes the Premiership so attractive and sadly we seem destined to remain “nearly men” until Arsene gets this balance right. Nevertheless there are plenty of glory-hunting Gooners out there who need to appreciate that we are only so disgruntled because le gaffer has spoilt us rotten. If only they knew the taste of the sort of medicine endured by the loyal likes of Monica, they might not be quite so quick to throw their toys out of the pram!

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