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Sunday 26 July 2009

Lies, Damn Lies & Transfer Rumours

Hi folks,

I intentionally try to avoid the newspapers at this time of the year, having endured several summers tearing what's left of my hair out. My head knows not to expect any seizmic announcements, but my heart can't help but be bouyed, as I grasp at every groundless glimpse of the Gunners involvement in the relentless merry-go-round of tabloid tittle-tattle.

Personally I find myself laughing at the preposterous criticism of all those who seem to want to paint Le Gaffer as some sort of ego-maniac, hell-bent on a blinkered, do or die strategy to force the Premiership to bend to his will, when it seems patently obvious to me that we are merely witnessing Wenger's prudence, in his valiant efforts to maintain the Gunners competitiveness, whilst guarding the club's best long-term interests. When many other managers in his all-powerful position, wouldn't give a monkey's for where the Arsenal will be in ten years time, but would merely be pandering to the fans demands for instant gratification and their own self-glorification, by mortgaging the club up to the hilt in the HOPE of short-term success.

Sure, as it stands at the moment, it might appear that the likes of Man City are spunking up millions, in an effort to make an immediate, massive leap up, to join the elite group of four teams chasing Champions League qualification, but theirs is no long-term strategy, they are merely fortunate to be in a position where they can throw together the most expensive available talent, in the hope that they might instantly bond, to form a team capable of producing immediate success.

By contrast, in the face of the malaise of modern day football, which conspires at every turn to put a spoke in the wheels of Wenger's best laid plans (with agents constantly whispering in their client's ears, enticing players away with offers of the sort of exorbitant but tangible pay packets, which will inevitably turn their heads away from the promise of Wenger's long-term vision), our manager really deserves a medal for having managed to maintain the Arsenal on a competitive level, whilst he endeavours to build another successful team.

Above all, Arsène is a pragmatist and having understood the financial constraints that would be inevitable as a result of the massive scale of the new stadium project (but which unfortunately have been magnified by the misfortune of the climax of the project coinciding with cataclysmic economic climate, where instead of realising expected profits, we've ended up being encumbered by additional debt!), Le Gaffer chose the only course available to him, by using his limited budget to try and build a squad, which might mature together into formidable team unit that's capable of competing with and beating all those clubs made up of star-studded mercenaries.

I don't know about anyone else, but from my personal point of view, I'm happy to have seen us tread water these past few seasons, whilst savouring some sumptuous footie along the way, where on our day, we've been a match for anyone (eg. I can't imagine there were many more entertaining games than last season's 4-4 at Anfield), just so long as we witness evidence of continued progress. Last summer I think we were (Wenger was) particularly unfortunate to take one step forward (in terms of maturity) but two steps back (unexpectedly losing half of our midfield), with both Flamini and Hleb not having learned the lessons of those who'd gone before them, in chasing the money, to the detriment of their footballing careers.

I don't really blame them, as for example, it's easy for me to say that I'd much rather be earning £70k a week and playing regularly, than to be getting £90k a week as recompense for the splinters in my backside, from spending the vast majority of the season warming the bench. But loyalty needs to cut both ways and you can't expect players to buy into a manager's vision and the promise of rich rewards by way of bonuses a couple of seasons down the road, when they know full well that as far as the clubs are concerned, they are only as good as their last game and that they are nothing more than "fixed assets", to be peddled on the transfer market, the moment their form begins to wane, or their bodies begin to break down, before they depreciate in value completely.

My biggest fear is that while Arsène can count on my patience and the loyalty of all those Gooners who truly appreciate how incredibly privileged, we've been during this past decade of incredible entertainment during Wenger's tenure, I'm concerned that the club's failure to make a statement of intent in the transfer market this summer might precipitate the departure of our greatest asset, Cesc Fabregas. My feeling is that it's not a matter of if Fab is going to return to Spain. but when, as I can fully appreciate that with Fab having never played senior football in Spain, he's bound to want to go back and do the business on home soil at some stage in his career.

My instincts are that up until now Cesc has been able to resist the undoubtedly lucrative lure of the likes of Barca and Real because of his loyalty to Le Boss and his desire to repay the debt he owes to Arsène for developing him into a world star, by seeing Wenger's vision through to it's conclusion and leading the Gunners on to glory. So for example, say if the fates smiled upon us, to the extent that we were to win the Champions League this season, although Cesc might decide to stick it out with a winning team, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he felt that his debt was "paid in full" and pissed off to Spain, to prove himself in front of his own people, while still performing at his peak.

However, as one of only two or three truly established world class talents in the current Arsenal squad, there is a lot of responsibility on Fab's young shoulders and if we get off to a good start this season everything will be hunky-dory, but if we fail to hit the ground running, I can't help but wonder how long it will be before Fabregas begins to feel frustrated with the calibre of some of those playing alongside him and with the relentless grind of trying to win games for the Gunners, when he could be making hay playing alongside the likes of Messi. I'm worried that if things should begin to go awry, Fabergas' fealty could be seriously tested, as a player of his quality really deserves to be winning trophies and can only be expected to survive on promises for so long.

As a result, unless Arsène is about surprise us all, by going on a spending spree, it feels to me as if we've rarely needed so desperately to get off to a good start to a campaign, as otherwise, a couple of bad results and the tabloids are guaranteed to be tearing Arsène a new arsehole, with the media in general laying into the lack of spending, that it's bound to have some impact on the morale of the squad and in the continued absence of any real leadership figures, capable of rallying the troops, if we start off on the back foot, we could end up struggling to cling to the coat tails of the top three again, with perhaps City & Everton, joining Villa in challenging for that crucial fourth spot.

That said, with this young squad having another season under their belt, with Shava having the potential to be the Arsenal's own Ronaldo, coming up with those match winning interventions at crucial moments, with Van Persie well overdue a big (20 plus goal) season and having shipped out Adebayor, if we can get off to a flyer, hopefully we're going to witness the sort of team spirit developing in our dressing room that was patently absent last term. If the smile returns to their faces on the pitch, there's no telling what we might achieve, as we all know that on their day, this squad is a match for anyone and everyone would soon forget the fact that we spent f**k all this summer, in fact we'll probably be taunting everyone else with our penny-pinching parsimony :-)

Meanwhile, with Róna travelling to Dublin for her Da's 80th birthday, I dropped her at Stansted at the crack of dawn this morning and came home without any Sunday newspapers. But instead of heading back to bed, thanks to the marvels of the iPhone, I ended up in the library, retiring to the smallest room in the house, for a good cra...wl through the headlines on the NewsNow website.

I don't know what qualifies Usmanov's supposed pal, Farhad Moshiri to comment on the state of play at the Arsenal. He only demonstrated that he doesn't know his arse from his elbow, in moaning on Radio 5's Sportsweek about us selling Adebayor to Man City, because you don't exactly need to be a brain surgeon, to work out that City are absolutely the only club to be bonkers enough and sufficiently loaded to be blowing such batty amounts of money for the Togolese mercenary. Still it was quite amusing to see the "mistake selling Adebayor to City" headline, just above the one announcing "Adebayor misses sitter for City"!

The next story to catch my eye was one detailing our interest in Salomon Kalou. I'd forgotten all about the Chelsea player, but it was only back in May that one of my pal's was telling me that his WAGlette daughter was off, with some of her mates, a posse of Arsenal youngsters, to a party that was supposed to be Kalou's leaving do! Back then I can recall making the corny crack that the wisdom of Salomon was hardly what was required at the Arsenal, but following the departure of Adebayor and with Nasri biting the dust, before a ball has been kicked in anger (at least by anyone except Diaby, as apparently it was Abou who did for Samir's fibula), I certainly wouldn't turn Kalou away, especially since he wants to play for the Gunners and already appears to be good pals with many of our lads.

However it wasn't long before I was regretting my first foray into the mass of largely unfounded transfer gossip, for a long time, as I alighted upon a tale from Channel 4's Football Italia site:

which would have us believe that the Viola are about to inveigle Manny Eboué over to Serie A. I can believe that this story has some mileage but I somehow doubt it's quite the done deal that the bloke from Fiorentina would have us believe, as according to Gazetto De La Sport, personal terms have been agreed with the player and the Gunners are eager to end the matter!

It seems that Eboué was originally the makeweight, in our efforts to prize Melo from the Viola and it's a fairly typical irony of the transfer market, that in our efforts to obtain Melo, it's likely that we bumped up the price that Juventus were eventually forced to pay (as £21.5 million turned out to be too rich for our manager's blood), thereby playing an unwitting part in providing Fiorentina with the sort of funds that might now enable them to be able to afford Eboué, with us gettting the money but no Melo!

The fact of the matter is that after the shameful treatment of Eboué last season, by some sorry excuses for Arsenal "supporters", Manny is undoubtedly aware of the fact, if he was indeed proposed as the makeweight in any deal to try and lure Melo to the Arsenal and so he's hardly going to be feeling particularly wanted by the club at this point in time. So if there's a serious offer on the table (and if Arsène is actually going to be able to reinvest the money), it is perhaps a good time to cash in, as otherwise we're only going to end up with a repeat of the Adebayor episode, with another disruptive influence in the dressing room, as Eboué spends the season resenting the fact that he wasn't allowed to leave, certain that the grass would've been greener on the Continent, or that the rewards would've at least been greater - because while Manny might envisage it would be all sunshine in Serie A, if some reprobrate Gooners were able to bring the Ivorian lad to tears, it's probably nothing, compared to the sort of racist treatment he's likely to experience over in Italy!

It wasn't long before I was regretting my mistake, in getting myself caught up in morass of transfer tittle-tattle, as the media goes into overdrive with the approach of the August deadline, latching on to various other unsubstantiated gossip on the Arsenal page on the NewsNow web site, my iPhone working overtime as I Googled various names of players who I've never heard of before.

However after being told a couple of weeks back that the word on the Gooner grapevine was that Arsène had no specific targets and at that stage, even if the Adebayor deal went through, he wasn't likely to be splashing the cash, while I left the karsey this morning having done all of my business, I was somewhat reassured that the Arsenal have yet to do all of theirs this summer. I only hope they don't all turn out to be quite such a load of crap :-)

Big Love

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Sunday 19 July 2009

Next Year In Jerusalem?

G'day fellow Gooners,

With the team just starting to tune themselves up for the forthcoming campaign, with today's match, I thought I'd be best warming up for the return of the Gooners Diary in a couple of weeks. Although unlike the brief run out for vast majority of the Gunners, I guess the following marathon effort must constitute the equivalent of a full ninety minutes :-)

I can’t ever recall the customary Underhill curtain-raiser not selling out and so I was a little surprised to see tickets showing as still being available, when I glanced at the AFC web site last night. Perhaps this is a sign of the parlous economic climes (or even a taste of things to come?).

But, after an arduous week, where I was dead envious of my affluent pal’s ability to spunk up five hundred quid on a ticket to Thursday’s first day of the Lords’ test match (while I spent the day sitting in traffic at the wheel of a van, cursing the lousy reception of Test Match Special on Radio 4 LW, with the feint signal on 720 MW the only option on an FM/AM radio), the fact that our first friendly of the season wasn’t the usual sell out, meant that I was left contemplating whether I should forsake an eagerly anticipated afternoon spent with my feet up on the couch enjoying the coverage of the cricket, to schlep up to North London, in the hope of being able to queue up and pay-in at the turnstiles.

It’s been a few years since I missed this annual encounter on the infamous Underhill incline (you can’t really appreciate the bizarre gradient of Barnet’s pitch unless you’ve actually been there!). However as it turned out, my mind was made up for me, when I realised I had an unmissable appointment at 2pm and after dawdling in a nearby deli, so as not to come home empty-handed, without some tasty morsel to appease the missus, prior to deserting her for an afternoon of sporting indulgence, it wasn’t until I parked up that I realised to my horror it was already half-past three.

As a result I ended up missing most of the first-half, by the time I settled down on the sofa, with the cricket on the TV, the radio tuned to Test Match Special and I’d fiddled around on the computer to get the live pictures of the match on my laptop. All I needed was an additional set of eyes and ears, to achieve the armchair sport’s fans equivalent of nirvana.

Personally I think it’s a bit of a rip off (or at least that was until Setanta went belly up) that we had to pay for Arsenal TV as part of the Setanta package and then another subscription fee for the online version, especially since the Arsenal TV web site is one of the few remaining sites which doesn’t function properly on the Apple Mac. The Quicktime plug-in works well enough, but no matter how one adjusts the settings, it always frustrates the hell out of me that I can’t get the full-screen option to function. It’s fine for watching interviews, but trying to watch an entire match in a small window is a waste of time.

So initially I found myself having to choose, between watching a decent quality picture on a far too small, four inch window, or a lousy quality picture but in “full screen mode” from a feed of Arsenal TV on some Iraqui web site. Considering my 12 quid direct debit to Setanta went out of my account on 20th June, a few days before their demise, it feels a bit of a chutzpah that the four pre-season friendlies are restricted to AFC online and aren’t being broadcast on the Arsenal channel on the box.

Although I initially baulked at the idea of having to pay further satellite TV subscriptions in order to watch the Gunners when Setanta arrived on the scene and the Irish firm have always come across as a bit of a cowboy outfit, I guess in retrospect I guess you’ve got to admire the folly of them trying to take on Sky and Murdoch’s aspirations for world domination with his global media monopoly.

Despite the dodgy quality of the full screen pictures on the Iraqgoals TV feed, I was nevertheless fortunate to have it up and running just in time to enjoy the sight of Shava opening his account with the first goal of the game. Jack Wilshere played in Sanchez Watt down the left flank and with Watt’s perceptive awareness of Arshavin dragging his marker in one direction, before jinking towards the near post and leaving himself completely free, the youngster put the ball on a plate for the diminutive Gooner to effect an easy tap in.

I guess the Gunners are obliged to provide a reasonable turn out of star turns, to ensure that the occasion remains a cash cow reward, I assume, for our continued use of Barnet’s facilities for reserve games. But with Champions League qualification dependent on a play-off that’s only a month away, it was good to see that the likes of Almunia, Gallas, Djourou and Arshavin getting some pitch time in.

However aside from the habitual opportunity afforded by such friendlies to check out the progress of the youngsters who appeared in the starting line-up, like Wilshere, Frimpong, Watt and Randall (albeit that Mark Randall will be 20 in September and needs to make the step up sharpish, lest his “promising prodigy” status, turns into more of a Stephen Hughes type nearly man), the most noteworthy aspect to this afternoon’s encounter was to actually see evidence with one’s own eyes of Tomas Rosicky getting 45 minutes of competitive football under his belt (when there was a time not so long ago, when many wondered if Tommy would ever kick a ball in anger again) and the opportunity to see what our new centre-half is made of.

Sadly from this evidence it hardly seems as if the introduction of Thomas Vermaelen is going to prove the instant panacea to our defensive problems that we might have all hoped for. Instead of which we witnessed a demonstration that old habits do indeed die hard, as the Gunners made the mistake of presuming they would be going in at the break a goal to the good, as the last action of the first-half resulted in a fairly typical corner-kick, where they all switched off, thereby allowing Yakubu to rise, unchallenged and head home the equalizer.

Having seen far too much evidence of the TV pictures failure to tell the whole story, I’m not a massive fan of trial by TV. Yet the focus of the cameras suggested that Gallas was most culpable, for failing to track his man and allowing the home side a free header. However, in my most humble opinion, if Gallas was guilty of anything, as our most experienced defender, it was the Gunners habitual lack of communication amongst one another at set pieces, whereby someone needs to take responsibility for opening their gob, to ensure everyone is patently aware of where they are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing – I was going to say “who they’re supposed to be marking” but knowing me and my overly loquacious tendencies, we’re likely to be here all night as it is, even before I get drawn into yet another exasperating tirade on the advantages of man marking over zonal defending!

I’d love to be able to report on the likes of Manny Frimpong and the Ghanaian’s ever-increasing resemblance to his countryman, Michael Essien, in his all-action approach. But the goals in the last couple of minutes apart, I can’t really comment on the rest of the half because I didn’t see it.

Half-time resulted in the inevitable rash of substitutions, as all our experienced stars were replaced by the young pretenders and the likes of Wilshere, Frimpong and Randall, gave way to Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin and Simpson. Of the starting XI, only Vermaelen remained on for the entire ninety.

It’s invariably the same story in our annual outing at Underhill, as while the journeyman likes of Gary Breen and 40-year old striker Paul Furlong feel like they’ve something to prove, playing against our more established stars, the arrival of an entire team full of kids on the pitch always seems to sap any remaining intensity and tempo out of the game and a competitive contest turns into a far more casual kickabout.

While many of his teammates had been afforded an opportunity to impress during last season’s peerless FA Youth Cup campaign, after his spell out on loan at Derby, Dutch forward, Nacer Barazite appeared most eager to catch Arsène’s eye and perhaps book his place on the imminent annual trip to Austria. And catch the eye he did, in a busy six minute spell at the start of the second half which culminated in him demonstrating his finishing prowess, as he curled the ball into the top right-hand corner for the Gunners to regain the lead.

I have to admit that I was surprised to discover that this is the third season in succession that Nacer has notched in this fixture, as I didn’t think he’d been around that long. With Barnet playing up the slope second-half, I was hoping the young Guns would take advantage, tiring out the opposition with the sort of slick, one-touch passing that has become our trademark and which might have the home side chasing shadows but sadly this encounter drifted aimlessly towards and unsatisfactory conclusion, as eight minutes before the final whistle Barnet pegged us back again.

I’d like to see a replay of the second equalizer before pointing the finger of blame, but I suspect that both Mannone and Vermaelen were guilty of being caught on their heels, losing focus as the game petered out. I suppose the new boy is still some way from full match fitness and as the only one to play ninety minutes, perhaps he had some excuse. Nevertheless, as his first appearance in the red & white, I would’ve hoped Vermaelen might never have been more pumped up, anxious to win over the Arsenal fans and to demonstrate that Wenger has unearthed a definite winner. Yet I’d be hard pressed to give Thomas the thumbs up on the evidence of this display (or at least what I saw of this display!), as bearing in mind this was only Barnet, unfortunately Thomas hardly proved himself to be the Arsenal’s answer to Man U’s Nemanja Vidic this afternoon!

Meanwhile, for all those of you who’ve been waking up on the sticky patch, after tantalising dreams of giving the likes of Man U, Chelsea and Spurs a serious Gooner going over, with the talent that might be added to the squad when we spunk up the proceeds of the sale of Adebayor, I’m not even sure such fantasies are worth a semi, since sadly the word on the grapevine is that le Gaffer has no intentions of blowing big bucks on anyone!

This will leave us with Nicky Bendtner as just about our only seriously viable option in the lone striker’s role, if as seems likely, Arsène continues to favour playing 4-5-1. Doubtless le Prof’s answer to any such speculation would be to run off a list of Van Persie, Eduardo, Walcott etc as alternative striking options. But even if he has no plans to replace Adebayor, I suspect it will be the source of some serious unrest amongst the Gooner masses, if he doesn’t end up diverting any of the millions we might receive, by dispensing with the disruptive services of the Togonator, on strengthening the squad elsewhere.

Should we get off to a good start, everything will be hunky dory, but a couple of bad results and Wenger’s supposed faith in his development project will come in for some serious flak.

At the shareholder’s Q & A Arsène deflected questions about the captaincy by assuring us that we have a team of captains. However he later admitted “who wouldn’t want a Puyol type leader in their side”. Watching Gilberto perform for Brazil during the summer, I was reminded that all the best sides are a blend of both youth and experience, but it seems evident that we’re always going to struggle to retain a crucial thread of experience, so long as we continue to restrict ourselves to only offering the over 30s one year deals, instead of the security of the sort of four year contracts that they can find elsewhere.

Having been forged in the American “customer is always right” school of commerce, Ivan Gazides obviously has the tools to talks a good game but having talked the talk, I guess we are about to discover if he’s capable of walking the walk in the current parlous economic climate, as the club sweats it out, sitting atop untold amounts of unrealised equity in all those empty properties.

Myself I remain unconvinced that Wenger has embarked on some sort of blinkered “sh*t or bust” project to force the Premiership to bend to his purist will, as some in the media might have us believe. You only have to read some of the latest blog reports about the state of the club’s finances eg. Robert Peston's "Has Arsenal Borrowed Too Much" to begin to appreciate that it is far more likely that le gaffer’s course of action is dictated by necessity, rather than by design and by his selfless capacity to act in the long term interest of the club, when other managers in his shoes would merely be motivated by the self-aggrandising interest of short-term success.

I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that I would be a whole lot happier if the club were to relieve Arsène of the entire burden of responsibility, by being a little more honest and telling all of us genuine supporters of the club how it really is, instead of continuing to inflate our expectations every season, to the point where we expect everything and end up seriously deflated when we end up with nothing.

If those at the helm turned around and admitted that there is, for example, a five year plan in place, where we have to tread water and try to hold our own, until such time as we begin to realise the advantages of the increased revenue from our new stadium on the pitch, I could cope with that. This sort of reaility and honesty would be a whole lot easier to handle than the sort of mushroom treatment, where we’re kept in the dark and fed a constant line of bullsh*t, setting us up for the disappointment every season of discovering that we still haven’t reached the Promised Land.

Big Love

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