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Monday 31 August 2009

All Guns Blazing, But Poor Blondie Brought His Blunderbuss

Six yellow cards (and a resulting automatic £25,000 fine) in a game which didn’t include a single malicious tackle; Man Utd back on terms from a the award of a spot-kick at the Stretford End, after Shava’s far more blatant penalty shout had been ignored (enabling Man U’s man of the match to remain on the pitch!) and our much maligned manager suffering the ultimate ignominy of being sent to the stands, for the last few seconds, after harmlessly venting his frustration on a water bottle. All in all, a fairly typical, fruitless afternoon at Old Trafford.

I’d love to give it to the despotic nincompoop of a ref with both barrels. But in truth Dean would’ve probably only flashed Fletcher a yellow and with Shava demonstrating his outrage, moments later, in the best possible fashion, by banging the ball into the back of the net, I know full well that the Gunners have nothing more to blame, than the blunderbuss which we brought to the North-West, with which we contrived to shoot ourselves in the foot.

To be the architects of our own downfall was the most depressing aspect to Saturday’s encounter. But it might’ve been an entirely different story if Foster had failed to divert Van Persie’s goal-bound effort early in the second half. Instead of the tabloids making hay with headlines about Arsène kicking the bottle, they might’ve been taunting Fergie about losing his, by leaving the likes of Berbatov on the bench? Ol’ Red Nose appeared guilty of showing the Gunners far too much respect on home turf, by going like for like and focusing on nullifying our threat, rather than maximising his own team’s potency.

Despite Almunia and Diaby gifting Man U the game, I doubt there will be many other teams who go to Old Trafford this season (without their most influential player!) and dominate the home team so comprehensively. Perhaps I’m guilty of seeing the game through Arsène’s opaque specs, but from where I sat, the fact that Utd’s midfield terrier Darren Fletcher won so many plaudits was merely evidence of the sort of destructive graft necessary, to try and prevent us from dictating the match entirely (if you discount the couple of incidents at the death, where desperation led to us being caught chasing the game).

I’m loathe to join the charabanc of Gooners intent on kicking our keeper when he is down, as it’s a cruel world for goalies, who get very little credit for keeping clean sheets, but who invariably get crucified for their every error. But even the needle has now been worn blunt, upon the broken record from which I’ve been banging on about our need to break the bank, to sign a recognised world-class Rottweiler of a goalie, to replace our slightly fey Poodle, if we’re ever going to mount a serious challenge for the title.

Forgive me for mixing my mammalian metaphors but just how many more monkeys will it take, to prove to le Prof that this is the one position on the park, where there’s absolutely no value in paying relative peanuts. Manuel comes across as a sweetie and I’m sure he’s kind to animals and kids. Yet for all his shot-stopping talents, Almunia’s unauthoritative “after you Abou” type failure to command his six-yard box is always going to leave the soft underbelly of our defence looking as dodgy as the blonde, skunk-like streak in his barnet.

It was foolhardy of me to think that Vermaelen could be the answer to all our defensive ills. It looks as if we’ve lost a shilling and found five quid, judging by the overall improvement at the back, after trading in Kolo for Tommie the tank. But Saturday’s defeat demonstrated that despite an accomplished and relatively untroubled performance from our two centre-backs, there remains a potentially calamitous air of defensive insecurity, for which the only real cure remains a “heaven help anyone who gets in my way” type goalie, who can be relied on to react in a relentlessly consistent fashion, in any given situation.

In the absence of Fabregas, the customary orchestrator of the majority of the Arsenal’s sweetest music, Denilson and Song demonstrated that they’ve come on in leaps and bounds since last season, with the presence to impose themselves, where in the past they might’ve looked like little boys lost on the expanses of the Old Trafford pitch. But they are both still only 21 and hopefully have some way to go before entirely fulfilling their potential. At his best Diaby is a world-beater, but Abou continues to blow hot and cold with infuriating consistency. While Shava seems to have a sixty-minute limit, past which his little legs seem to run out of steam.

Thus despite such an impressive display, what troubled me most as the clock ticked down after Abou had inadvertently handed Utd the lead, was the lack of urgency and a prevailing sense that an undeserved defeat was already on the cards. As captain for the day, Van Persie toiled away largely in vain, while having apparently acquired an annoying tendency to hit the deck in feint hope of a free-kick, instead of toughing it out and causing his marker more of a headache.

Watching Adebayor notch another winning goal for Man City, one can’t help but wonder if the Togonator would’ve provided just the sort of unpredictable nuisance factor, which might have made all the difference in this match. But then his enthusiasm and focus had long since waned at our place and once the novelty wears off at Eastlands, I’m imagine it won’t be too long before his work rate begins to nosedive once again.

There was no lack of industry from the Arsenal (“the team in blue” sounds as wrong as it looks!), but sadly there was an all too familiar absence of that inspirational “never say die” charisma, needed to force home our advantage and truly turn this result around. Utd have the advantage of the winning habit and so despite being bettered on the pitch, you never really got the sense that they feared for the 3 points, once we’d gifted them back the lead. Whereas the Gunners might have made great strides, but on this evidence, we remain a work in progress. We undoubtedly have sufficient ability, but psychologically we still need to develop the sort of force of personality necessary to swallow whole the Premiership’s bigger fish.

It remains to be seen how costly a defeat this will ultimately prove to be and I've little doubt that there were many Gooners around the globe who had to resist the temptation to vent their frustration, by putting their foot through their 42" plasma screens. But in the cold light of a less emotionally distraught day, there was plenty in this performance to assuage the bitter disappointment, when you contrast it with the Champions League capitulation of only a couple of months back.

I guess I can’t end without passing comment on the simulation debate. If I thought that banning Eduardo was going to act as a deterrent to this blight on the beautiful game, I might be all for it. However to my mind the authorities are on very thin ice persecuting poor Eddie, when in anticipating the keeper’s dive, both he and Rooney did exactly the same thing, save for the fact that the granny-shagger's effort was legitimized by Almunia’s extended arms. I’d love the likes of Eboué to desist from his amateurish antics because he’s too fearful of the consequences, but I rather suspect that as usual, it will be us poor punters who end up ultimately footing the bill, paying extortionate prices, only to find ourselves watching inferior football, with far too many of our favourite players sitting out games suspended.

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Wednesday 26 August 2009

In The Line Of Fire

Hi folks

Having neglected to post the following missive out when I wrote it on Monday, I thought I had better get on and do so, before events overtake it.

With many pundits questioning the Arsenal's ability to grind out results, in the manner of our competitors, tonight's second leg against Celtic is likely to prove an interesting exercise in the absence of Cesc. There've been occasions in the recent past when we've looked like an orchestra without a conductor when Fabregas has been out injured, still making mazy passing patterns, but without anyone with the perception to play that killer ball, capable of unlocking the most resolute defence.

Moreover Cesc has become so venerated by the footballing world that I can't help but wonder about the psychological impact when he's missing from the team sheet Therefore I guess there's no better test of our squad's maturity and whether they've made the step up and are prepared to accept the mantle of player's capable of imposing themselves in significant encounters, than by being forced to perform without our Spanish maestro.

We should still have plenty in the tank, even without Fab, to cope with Celtic tonight and hopefully it will prove the perfect opportunity for Aaron Ramsey to stake his claim, as a serious contender. However I can't avoid the feeling of trepidation that we will end up having to travel to Old Trafford on Saturday without el capitaine, as it's almost been de rigeur in recent seasons for us to face Man Utd, feeling as if our backs are up against the wall because we invariably find ourselves playing this fixture without the aid of one significant star, or another.

Although we have overcome in the past under such circumstances,I'd be worried that Fabregas's absence might inevitably result in us lowering our sights, merely grateful to come away with any sort of result. Whereas if I'm going to schlep all the way up to the North-West, I really want to see the Arsenal take Man Utd on. I definitely don't want to see our new centre-back put under the sort of pressure of a team trying to nick a point, as that could prove fatal and besides, even if we should end up getting beat, I would much prefer to see us go down giving it a real go, rather than struggling for an unlikely change in momentum after going a goal behind.

I also hope that there's no hangover from our demoralising Champions League exit last season, as on our day, we know full well that we having nothing to fear from Man U, but the fear that might put us on the back foot and prevent us from playing our natural game.

Talking of which, with Arsène's new penchant for playing 4-3-3, I thought we looked a lot more balanced with Eduardo and Arshavin playing alongside Van Persie, than in a 4-3½-2½ with Bendtner looking like a fish out of water, being asked to play the wide role. Don't get me wrong (for once), I am not knocking the Dane, as I'm sure it doesn't exactly come natural to Bertie Big Bollix to selflessly sacrifice his striking instincts in favour of the team's needs, but he's done so admirably to date, in a couple of half-decent displays. Still his instinctive tendency to want to cut inside, towards the goal, rather than to stretch the opposition by taking them on down the flank, is fairly apparent.

Personally I feel 4-3-3 will work at home against teams like Pompey, with limited ambitions, where players, absolved of defensive responsibilities, are able to flood forward into the penalty area, as Diaby did for his two goals on Saturday. But in other circumstances, without this support, Van Persie (or who ever fills the front man role) is likely to end up somewhat isolated and in such cases, I reckon we'd be making a lot better use of Bendtner's talents, by playing him in his preferred role, as part of a pair up front.

But then what do I know!! I guess my aversion to playing Nicky out on the right, is that physically he just doesn't possess the nimble athleticism that one has come to expect of the traditional nippy winger. Although in truth, Arsène's idea of a 4-3-3 is a very fluid animal, offering players plenty of license to roam and to interchange with one another. But to my mind, for some intangible reason, Saturday's front line somehow had the feel of what the front three in a 4-3-3 should look like.

People have had a pop at me in the past for knocking Nicky and although his oversized ego has often merited the majority of my mickey taking, perhaps I have been harsh on him. However I'm definitely not making a case for his exclusion in this instance, as to date, on the basis that you can only play the opposition that's put in front of you, Bendtner has looked pretty sharp.

About the only disappointment of the opening three fixtures has been the fact that Arsène has appeared to leave Jack Wilshere out of the squad, in favour of Fran Merida. Perhaps le Prof is making a concerted effort to dampen down the inflated Gooner expectation levels, after Jack's impressive pre-season efforts. Nevertheless, 3-0 up against Everton at Goodison and positively playing on cruise control in the latter stages against Pompey, hopefully we'll blow all our opponents out of the water without really breaking sweat, but I can't honestly imagine there are going to be that many more perfect opportunities to give young Jack a pressure free, Premiership run out.

Meanwhile I've no doubt that I could prattle on, ad infinitum, as usual, but if I don't hit the send button before leaving for work, I probably never will and since I'm late as ever....

Come on you Reds
Big Love

There’s rarely been a more convincing argument for returning to the days when they didn’t bother producing a table until six games in, than the positively laughable image of our friends from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road crowing from the Premiership’s top perch. Apparently they are queuing around the block at the club shop, to have their souvenir photos taken alongside a print out of such an implausible league table.

For me, the ultimate litmus test has always been that so long as Spurs fans continue to be more worried about the Arsenal’s exploits than their own club, I know that the Gunners remain in rude health and unless Ledley King is about to be reborn as robo-man, I can’t seriously envisage a threat to our humble title of top North London dog.

You need only look at the midweek fixtures for undisputable evidence of the two clubs differing status. As the Arsenal trot out in front of 60,000 fans and a worldwide TV audience of millions to take on Celtic in the return leg of our Champions League clash this evening, Spurs will be appearing at the Keepmoat Stadium, in a slightly less glamorous Carling Cup encounter against Doncaster!

Although in a slightly masochistic sense, I’m not entirely displeased by Spurs current resurgence under Redknapp, as they’ve languished in the league doldrums for so long that I’ve been more inclined to sympathize with my Spurs pals, than to take the mick. Whereas there will be plenty more fun to be had when their balloon becomes so pumped up by expectation, that it’s fit to burst at the slightest prick.

Moreover, it’s got to make for a more interesting season, if there are more teams capable of taking points off anyone on their day. It would be the ultimate irony if, instead of threatening our chances of qualifying for the Champions League, the likes of Spurs and Man City end up paving the way for us to challenge for the title.

Meanwhile, tearing myself away from weekend’s sumptuous smorgasbord of sporting entertainment on the TV, just long enough to stroll around to our first home game on Saturday, to watch the Gunners make hay in the sunshine, against a Pompey side that never really forced us to break sweat, I was pleased to discover the first signs of the long awaited “Arsenalisation” of our new stadium.

I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s out of some misguided sense that I’m no longer quite such an anonymous face in the Block 18 crowd, but I was quite tickled to find that my seat is now right at the mouth of the image of a white cannon which has appeared amidst the lower tier seats over the summer.

Having focused almost exclusively on the high-rollers in the Diamond Club, The Exec Boxes and Club Level, ever since the stadium opened, finding money in the budget for wooden floors, crystal chandeliers and memorabilia on the walls for the benefit of our more affluent members (many of whom are the sort of corporate suits who are least likely to appreciate any of it!), it’s interesting that at a time when the club can least afford it, they’ve woken up to the need to appease their core support, by addressing the somewhat soulless feel of the grey concrete concourses elsewhere in the stadium, along with various other improvements, intended to make the place feel a little more homely.

Apparently our new MD has been a vocal proponent of this ongoing process, promising to have the clock reinstalled inside the ground and the eventual naming of the four terrace quadrants. Although Gazidis will have to go some way to overcome my cynicism about his sincerity. He may have grown up in the UK but he learned his trade amongst the Yankee charm school culture, where instead of being armed with a kitchen knife in their back pockets, kids go about inflicting serious mental harm with their simpering “have a nice day” clichés.

I’m not knocking the efforts of Ivan the Terrible, as anything that makes the place feel a little less impersonal is to be applauded. But it’s a little late in the day as far as I’m concerned. We’ve struggled for many years with the unrelenting increases in the cost of our season ticket renewals but have somehow always managed to stump up the readies, up until now.

Despite season-ticket prices having been frozen since the move, we’ve finally succumbed this summer and although the fact that we’re so b’rassic was a big consideration in leasing out Rona’s ticket, I’m sure I would’ve been digging out the stocking mask and the sawn-off once again, if it wasn’t for the fact that the missus no longer feels anything like the same emotional attachment to the new gaff (if only we’d known she’d be sitting at the mouth of the cannon once a fortnight!). Apparently we’re far from alone, as reports suggest that Gooners as far down as no. 10,000 on the waiting list have been offered season tickets this summer.

It was originally purported that the income from the three exclusive areas of the stadium would be sufficient to cover the entire overhead of the place and that the revenue from the regular punters would be pure profit. Yet as the economic downturn begins to bite, with corporate entertainment budgets evaporating and the businesses that paid for Club Level seats going bust, perhaps one positive outcome to the banking crises is that it has provided a timely reminder to the board that it is the regular Gooners who can be relied on to continue buttering their bread during good and bad times.

No matter the waning cachet of an Exec Box at a club which hasn’t won anything in four seasons, or whatever the economic climate, the Arsenal can always count on a guaranteed income from Joe “the Gooner” Schmoo, who’d sacrifice his car, job, even his wife, before giving up his season ticket.

Such loyalty was rewarded in the sweltering heat on Saturday, with a woolly (albeit 100% acrylic) red & white scarf on every seat. While on the pitch Arsène’s team selection answered all those pundits who dare to question our strength in depth. I have to curb the temptation to go a little overboard, until Tommie “the tank engine” Vermaelen has faced a stiffer test of his true credentials at Old Trafford on Saturday. But it’s been a long time since the Arsenal backline has benefited from the sort of commanding presence that’s capable of liberating his team-mates from the panic-stricken defending of recent times.

Still with haunting memories of the likes of Stepanovs, Cygan and Senderos still fresh in the mind, I daren’t tempt fate in advance of what could well prove to be a make, or break encounter.

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Wednesday 19 August 2009

Now We Know Why Hadrian Built That Wall

G’day fellow Gooners,

Now we know why Hadrian built that wall. It wasn't to keep marauding Celts out (or in), it was just as a reminder not to bother going there to watch any decidedly mediocre football teams.

It’s always a bit of a nightmare having to file my diary missive to the Irish Examiner on a Monday, for publication on a Wednesday, when there’s such a significant encounter as the one in Glasgow in between.

I can’t simply ignore the fact that (hopefully) folk will be reading my column on the morning after the night before but it’s invariably impossible to refer to the game in the future tense without either tempting fate and making myself singlehandedly responsible for a bad result, or ending up with egg on my face for getting it completely wrong.

However there was little fear of that, on this occasion, since despite all the “Battle of Britain” hype (hardly appropriate with only one Anglo on the pitch, playing for the Hoops) in the big build up, to my mind the the match itself turned out to be a bit of a wet blanket.

Then again this might have something to do with the fact that, much to my chagrin, I ended up watching the live TV coverage on Sky, instead of being there in person. And having ruined my perfect attendance record, only two games in, it’s easier to bear, if I perceive this “contest” as not quite being the Titanic clash that I’d envisaged it to be when the two teams were drawn out of the hat.

I must be getting old, as in the past, I would’ve dropped everything and wouldn’t have given a second thought for the consequences of taking the opportunity to see the Gunners play in Scotland for the first time ever. In fact I was so excited by the thought of my first trip to Celtic Park, that despite being as b’rassic as we’ve ever been, there was absolutely no question about whether I’d be applying for a match ticket.

Up until last Friday morning, I was planning on driving up to Glasgow with a mate, as without having to stay overnight, it seemed the cheapest option. But with each passing day, I found myself increasingly fretting about not being able to afford it and not being able to organise my work around it (as it certainly wouldn’t be a cheap outing, if it ended up costing me a couple of days’ wages).

I was umming and ahhing for so long, that when my pal finally told me that there were only four seats left on the travel club train, I told him he had better go for it and book a seat for himself. The closer we got to Tuesday, the more dependent he was on me driving and I was worried about leaving him high and dry, deciding I couldn’t make it at the last minute.

According to the laws of Sod & Murphy, no sooner had I lost my travelling companion and found myself having to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be going, than I received a call to say that a long awaited cheque had arrived in the post (providing funds to facilitate the trip, even if the gas, electric, bank etc might have something to say about it!).

Moreover, only an hour after that, I discovered that the ballet had no work for me on Tuesday and so it turned out that I wouldn’t have lost out on any wages if I’d gone! As a result, when we were driving home from Goodison on Saturday night and the time finally came for me to make a decision about whether to let go of my ticket for tonight’s game, in all the euphoria of eviscerating Everton, I once again found myself thinking I simply couldn’t miss out on the trip to Glasgow and sod the consequences.

But where a few years ago I would’ve decided I was going and worry about how I was going to get there when the time came, in my dotage the practicalities impinge on my decision, as I found myself calculating that it was going to cost me a couple of hundred quid, no matter which way I travelled and the thought of wanting to be there on the night was balanced out by the fear of not having enough petrol to get to work, or enough food to eat between my return from Glasgow and payday on Friday!

Sadly, in the end, common sense got the better of me and most reluctantly I advised my mate that he should let my seat go to some Glasgow Gooners. Even after that, I was still trying to think of ways of getting there on the cheap, only for it to dawn on me that I no longer had a match ticket.

It was doubly frustrating sitting in front of the box during the pre-match build up this evening, thinking of how I always pay my dues, schlepping to such glamorous destinations as Hull and Wigan to support the Gunners, only to miss out on the infamous atmosphere at Celtic, while almost every other Gooner I know was up in Glasgow this evening, including many fair-weather fans, who wouldn’t normally dream of driving outside of the M25 for your average run-of the mill match.

I sat here with my mobile phone in hand texting team news to everybody, trying in vain to get some sort of vicarious feel for the vibes on the terraces via SMS! The noise from the Celtic fans seemed to live up to expectations from what I heard on the telly, but perhaps Sky just had their effects mics turned to full volume, as two people I spoke said that they were a little bit disappointed.

The Arsenal certainly didn’t seem at all intimidated and perhaps that’s the source of my sense of an anti-climax, as this turned out to be a fairly routine, somewhat uneventful Champions League away performance.

I guess we were all expecting a few more fireworks and at least the odd moment of high-drama. However it might well be viewed in a positive light that it turned out to be such a mundane match, as some kind of testament to the Gunners increasing maturity and the fact that the majority of Wenger’s squad have now become experienced European campaigners.

At the end of the day, it was always going to be a bit of a stretch to produce a seven goal thriller, so as to improve on Saturday’s 6-1 slaughter and considering quite how much we’d all be bricking ourselves over the prospect of a premature exit from the Champions League in the second leg, if we’d returned from Scotland with some sort of score draw, I guess we should be most grateful to have seen the Gunners go to Glasgow and execute a consummately professional performance.

I’ve doubtless revealed details previously, but one of the main reasons I really detest watching the Arsenal play on the box, is because I tend to be a much harsher critic than I am when watching live and tonight was no exception, as for much of the first-half, I sat here slaughtering them for casually conceding possession far too frequently.. I wouldn’t dream of coating off out own players when I’m there in person, watching from the terraces, since I’m a firm believer that no matter how badly someone performs on the night (day), our remit as supporters is to offer our support.

Even if I’m angry because I don’t feel they are giving 100 per cent, so long as they are wearing red & white (or yellow & blue / blue – BTW as I can’t see any sort of colour clash between our red & white and Celtic’s green & white hoops, I am assuming the only reason the Arsenal trotted out in our new blue kit was so as to encourage sales of the latest replica tops?), I’ve always felt that slaughtering them from the terraces is counter-productive, as to my mind, you are hardly going to encourage a player to try that much harder to please those fans who are giving him stick.

Yet it’s a completely different story on those rare occasions when I’m forced to watch the Gunners play on the box. My missus, Rona, gets really upset with me, as she’s convinced that the neighbours must think that my unrelenting stream of invective is directed at her, as I’m unable to desist from bellowing out “You Cnut” every time we give away the ball. And with all the doors and windows open with this warm weather, Róna frets even more about me being heard, all the way to the Emirates.

I’d happily have Fabregas’ babies if it kept him out of the clutches of Barca, but that didn’t stop Cesc from falling within my sights, the principal target for my ire, for habitually conceding possession. Mercifully Celtic weren’t able to capitalise but we will undoubtedly be meeting more accomplished teams in the group stage, who will be able to punish such profligate passing.

Although Celtic were working their socks off early on, doing their utmost to deny us time and space on the ball and I suppose if I was on Cesc’s shoes, with two or three Celtic players bearing down on me every time I received a pass, I imagine I might be inclined to treat the ball as if it were a hot potato, intent on handing it off toute suite, more concerned about avoiding being clattered, than making sure we retained possession.

On the box, the pundit panel of Strachan, Redknapp and Hoddle (now there’s a trio to tear your hair out to, while listening to them talk utter twaddle!) all seemed to think Alex Song performed admirably, breaking up any Celtic attacks before they could amount to anything. Personally I felt that like the rest of the team, Alex was a little more on song, 1-0 up, after the break, but after raving about the new, improved versions of both Song and Denilson on Saturday, their first-half displays were more akin to the sort of naïve football we were accustomed to last season.

Nevertheless it feels decidedly mean-spirited to be digging anyone out after demolishing Everton and being the first English team to bring a result back from Celtic Park, since Cloughie’s Notts Forest beat them in black & white (well maybe not that long ago, beside Cloughie’s era was anything but colourless!). If I do have one criticism about our display against the Hoops, it is perhaps the feeling that we could’ve been a tad more ruthless in the latter stages, when the Celtic lads were out on their feet. With it being a long season ahead, perhaps they were thinking that they’d already done enough.

Yet I’ve often felt that it was a lack of ruthlessness in the past that was the crucial difference between us and the title winners because so many of their wins were effortless walkovers, as a result of their killer instinct. So for example, instead of taking our foot off the pedal and playing the ball back into our own half, intent merely on retaining possession, we could’ve gone for Celtic’s throat, put a couple more past them and made the second leg a genuine formality, where our entire first XI could take a night off.

I texted one of my pals during the last 15 minutes,, to say that I would be seriously pissed off if we went to sleep and conceded a sloppy goal. But we didn’t and for me, the most positive aspect to tonight’s performance was a second successive command performance from our new centre-back.

I’ve got to resist the temptation to go over the top about Vermaelen, at least not until we come away from Old Trafford with a clean sheet. But after impressing me on Saturday, he produced another decidedly influential display tonight. However the one thing I hadn’t noticed from the Upper Bullens stand at Goodison (even with my binoculars) is that Tommie the Tank is a vocal communicator, of the sort that we’ve not seen at the back since Phillipe Senderos.

Here’s hoping that unlike Phillipe, Tommie doesn’t turn out to be another defensive false dawn, but to date Gallas (and the rest of the backline) seems to have responded by upping their game and it’s been the absence of any talkers at set-pieces and the like, that’s been one of my biggest bugbears for a long time now. Moreover, I am sure I’m not alone in my covetous feelings at the sight of Carvalho rampaging forward for the Blues and so long as Vermaelen can curb his desire to impress up front, to the extent that his defensive colleagues don’t end up exposed to the swift-counter, up until now Tommie appears to be the complete centre-back package.

If Vermaelen can go to Old Trafford and continue gaining in confidence, by demonstrating himself to be the Arsenal’s answer to Nemanja Vidic, then perhaps our one good egg will prove to be “une ouef”

However the gossip on the Gooner grapevine has it that so long as we qualify for the Champions League group stages (thereby securing the additional £40 million odd of income), then Arsène will strengthen the squad with a couple of new arrivals. It seems to me that one couldn’t wish for a franker admission of the actual state of the Arsenal’s finances (and the fact that we haven’t got any), compared to the sort of BS the board have been force feeding us Gooner mushrooms since the move.

Surely if we buy two players subsequent to qualifying for the group stages, mea culpa this amounts to an acknowledgement that the club couldn’t afford to make any transfer moves without the Euro moolah?

Whatever it is, this is a long way from the contention that Arsène has unlimited funds available, but hasn’t been inclined to dispose of them as a matter of choice!

Money…..who needs it? (I do!) but as Gazides might say, 2 games and we’re 2 and 0. Bring on Pompey

Big Love

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One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make

It would be all too easy to be sucked in by all the hyperbole following Saturday’s astounding goal-fest at Goodison. Yet with the world and it’s myopic media mate having written us off, we Gooners are entitled to feel just a little bit smug. Not to mention cream crackered, after 90 minutes spent cavorting in the aisles, to the tune of “jump up cos we’re 1..2..3..4..5..6 – 0 up”, as we milked the Arsenal’s emphatic response to the full, while the lads let their feet (and their heads!) do all their talking.

As did all the Evertonians who refused to accept more miserable medicine and began flocking out of the ground at half-time. I had to ask a steward if they were perhaps heading out for a fag, as I couldn’t believe my eyes and the sight of so many home fans throwing in the towel on the first day of the season, after only 45 minutes of football. Although in light of what transpired, perhaps these premature evacuators were proved right.

Personally I expected the Toffees to come tearing into us after the break, after the Ginger had given them a piece of his deranged mind (nothing could’ve stopped Denilson’s scorcher, but Moyes must’ve been positively seething about the awful defending that saw Vermaelen and Gallas gifted free headers) and to at least try and restore some self-respect by winning the second half. But then with Everton chasing the game, they were always at risk of being sliced and diced by the Gunners, on a blisteringly swift counter. When Fabregas turned the knife, only a couple of minutes after the restart, galloping onto Van Persie’s pass and nutmegging Howard for our fourth, I suppose this knocked any remaining stuffing out of the home side and sent even more disconsolate Toffees fans trudging towards the exits.

I’ve been wallowing ever since in the glowing reports of all those journos who were only digging Wenger’s grave a few days prior. Yet I’m still uncertain if this result was an anomaly, a consequence of an awful day at the office for an Everton side suffering the fallout of the Lescott farce, or a brilliant performance by the Arsenal, offering a genuine promise of the shape of things to come.

I suspect a little bit of both but whatever the case, there were plenty of positives to be drawn from our breathtaking display. Vermaelen couldn’t have possibly scripted a more impressive debut. Aside from getting his name on the scoresheet and seemingly offering the sort of aerial threat at set-pieces that’s been absent at the Arsenal, since Stevie Bould made the near post flick-on his trademark, more crucially there’s an assuredness about our new centre-back’s bearing that could just prove infectious, as our entire backline appeared to benefit from the Belgian’s composure.

Nevertheless, I’ve witnessed enough defensive false dawns since the demise of our fab back four, to know better than to tempt fate, by hailing our one and only summer signing (to date?) as the panacea for all our defensive frailties. It might seem churlish of me to complain but I was a little disappointed that we went to sleep at the death, allowing Louis Saha to spoil our clean sheet with Everton’s 91st minute consolation prize.

There were a couple of similar lapses in concentration that gifted Barnet two goals in a pre-season friendly and which left me wondering if Tommie the tank engine was going to prove himself to be the real deal. So I guess I’ll reserve judgement, until we’ve seen whether he’s capable of maintaining the sort of concentration and focus needed, to shut-out some of the Premiership’s more accomplished strikeforces, before putting him up on a pedestal as a potential Tony Adams and watching him fall from such a great height. We don’t want Vermaelen ending up in the same psychological boat as Phillipe Senderos, as permanently damaged goods, subsequent to a roasting by the likes of Didier Drogba.

In the meantime Thomas’s calm and decisive interventions on Saturday proved a much welcomed tonic, compared to some of the panic-struck defending that we’ve grown accustomed to in the recent past. Moreover there was some pleasing evidence of the likes of Song and Denilson justifying the faith that Arsène has shown in them, as they both demonstrated that they might just be maturing into big game players, with some of the naivety of seasons past perhaps being replaced by a confidence and a presence that has been borne out of the unstinting belief of le Gaffer.

Wenger couldn’t have wished for a more resounding response to all those other doubting Thomases, who’d begun to question whether Arsène still knows. Although I kind of wish he’d known enough not to leave Wilshere back at home, since such blinding opportunities to give the boy a run out are unlikely to present themselves every week.

We hadn’t turned into also-rans prior to tonking the Toffees and we’ve not proved ourselves genuine contenders on the strength of one great result. We’ve merely demonstrated that on our day we remain a formidable match for any side and that hopefully a season further on, Arsène’s work in progress is perhaps a little closer to bearing some fruit. Yet it remains to be seen whether we’ve sufficient depth to our squad compared to our competitors and whether we’ve developed the hunger, drive and determination needed to grind out results when we are not quite at the races.

I spend much of my time at matches scrutinizing the interaction between players through my binoculars, trying to ascertain the genuine mood within the camp from their body language, both in success and adversity. While it’s easy to be best mates when everything is hunky-dory, there’s no mistaking the swagger of those sides that possess the sort of spirit of togetherness, which refuses to be torn asunder, no matter the circumstances, or the opposition. It’s an increasingly rare commodity in the mercenary money merry-go-round that has become of top-flight football.

I’m not about to make any precipitous claims that the Gunners have cracked it, but the club’s parsimonious policy has ensured that the majority of this Arsenal squad have developed together, to a point where it’s hard to ignore a burgeoning sense of the cohesion and camaraderie, of the sort that many of the other big clubs are forced to try and fake nowadays.

Encounters don’t come much more stirring than the intense cauldron at Celtic Park and hopefully by the time you read this, Wenger’s squad will have proved their Champions League pedigree, with the sort of result that ratifies their increasing maturity. Yet no matter where our destiny lies this season, so long as they’re prepared to put themselves on the line for one another week in, week out and can continue to conjure up such scintillatingly stylish entertainment every now and again, you certainly won’t find me complaining.

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Monday 10 August 2009

One Egg Is An Oeuf, But Will It Be Enough?

Pre-season is the one time in the year when all footie fans are entitled to enjoy a little optimism, believing anything to be possible until all that delusional euphoria disappears, with the first defeat. For most Gooners it feels like Groundhog Day, as we approach yet another campaign hoping le Gaffer can pull it off, despite putting all his “ouefs” into our Young Guns basket.

I don’t think anyone was too disappointed to see the back of Adebayor but this was on the assumption that Man City’s “financial doping”, by way of an exorbitant transfer fee, would provide Arsène with the funds required, if not to replace the striker, then to strengthen the squad elsewhere.

The debate rages over whether Wenger’s actions (or lack thereof!) are dictated by necessity or choice. The board went to great pains to assure us that their foray into the property development business was ring-fenced. But it’s hardly credible that there’s been no negative impact on the affairs of the football club from the building and sale of the apartment complex that has become of Highbury and all the blocks of flats around the new gaff .

A walk along Avenell Road or Drayton Park reveals the sad sight of so many bare white walls of the vast majority of vacant apartments. You certainly don’t need an economics degree to be able to appreciate that instead of realising huge profits, as would’ve previously been expected when the project began, the club are now lumbered with a massive financial burden.

I guess in some respects we should be grateful to have a manager who appears happy to assume the burden of responsibility and who even appears to relish swimming against the tide, as he once again attempts to field a competitive side, with both hands tied behind his back. Most managers wouldn’t give a monkey’s about being prudent, in order to preserve the club’s long term future, preferring instead to risk the coffers and all they contained, in the hope of short term success and personal glory.

Arsène could speculate on a couple of players and I certainly hope he does before transfer deadline day. But there’s no way we can compete with the King of Spain’s seemingly bottomless pockets, to buy proven quality such as Ronaldo, Kaka and Benzema. With there being no guarantees of success from the sort of players Wenger can afford to bring to the Gunners’ party, one might reason that it’s better to be unsuccessful, than both unsuccessful and bankrupt.

What bothers many Gooners is their perception that le Prof is on some sort of personal crusade, to force the Premiership to bend to his will. Personally I just don’t swallow this nihilistic image of the pragmatism that is one of Arsène’s greatest assets and perhaps his Achilles heel.

Gooners around the globe are holding their breath, in the hope that Cesc remains sufficiently indebted to his mentor for Fabregas not to want to go any further than Celtic Park in the near future. However Arsène is no fool and he must know that Fab can’t be expected to mark time indefinitely. I’m sure Wenger would love to be able to break the bank, in order to stump up for the sort of world class holding player, who could convince our midfield maestro that the club’s ambitions match his own.

Our one and only arrival to date, Thomas Vermaelen, has yet to demonstrate that he has the capacity to be the Arsenal’s answer to Nemanja Vidic and we’ve witnessed little in any of our pre-season displays to suggest that our defensive frailties have been addressed. Still there was entertainment aplenty in the Emirates Cup, where, over the course of the weekend, young Jack Wilshere firmly imprinted himself on public perceptions (inc. Fabio Capello).

In concert with Arshavin, this diminutive duo demonstrated the sort of skills that really should’ve reminded spoilt Gooners everywhere, no matter what ultimately transpires on the tin-pot front, compared to the prosaic fare likely elsewhere, we should be grateful to be on the precipice of another feast of fabulously entertaining football.

Although I must admit to having some worrying concerns about Wenger’s recent fixation on playing 4-3-3. A system which appears to be forcing a square peg striker like Bendtner, into a round hole, playing out wide. I imagine Arsène has amassed plenty of statistical data, to prove that this is the most efficient use of our resources, when it seems patently obvious that the current Arsenal squad contains the sort of horses for 4-4-2 courses?

It’s probably fortunate that the buoyant mood after beating Atletico and Rangers, was somewhat deflated by the defeat to Valencia. It’s no wonder that Wenger was so animated on the touchline at the Mestalla, considering the crap-shoot 24 hrs prior had resulted in an imminent outing to Celtic Park and potentially a season defining encounter with the Hoops.

To my mind, there are only two possible denouements to the daunting first two weeks of this campaign. If after overcoming Celtic, we can manufacture a rousing triumph against Man U, there will be a groundswell of optimism, which could just be the springboard for us to kick on and mount a genuine challenge. However should we exit the Champs League prematurely, our young squad might struggle to recover from such a kick in the teeth and with the resulting dent to our confidence, our season might be all over bar the shouting by the time we depart Old Trafford.

Watching the Community Shield proved something of a reality check. I remain confident that on our day, the Gunners are more than capable of giving any side a run for their money. Yet seeing Fergie turn to the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Owen & Fabio and Ancelotti bringing on Ballack, Bosingwa, Deco & Kalou , when it comes to the unrelenting grind of the Premiership, I can’t help but feel that compared to Chelsea, Man Utd & perhaps Liverpool, we continue to lack the physical and numerical strength in depth, to compete week in, week out.

Who knows? Perhaps with another season under their belts, we are about to witness a dramatic improvement in this Arsenal squad. However Sunday’s game showed both Man Utd and Chelsea to have the aura and presence of genuine contenders and many of their opponents will be beaten, psychologically, before a ball has been kicked. Whereas without the sort of additions who might lend some much-needed stature to our squad, it’s easy to imagine opponents fancying their chances, as they line up against some of our pint-sized players in the tunnel.

At the end of the day, it’s all about confidence and perceptions. If we get off to a flyer that puts the fear of g-d (and the Gunners) into our opponents, anything is possible. Meanwhile, in light of the concerted “at any cost” efforts of other clubs to filch our seat on the Champs League gravy train, if you asked any of those Gooners who were disappointed with 4th place and two semis last term, at this precise point in time, I’d guess they’d bite your hand off for a repeat performance!

Unless the kids are about to step up to the plate, many will argue we are only three players away from an all-conquering outfit. It’s just that those three happen to be a world-class keeper, defensive midfielder and a 30 plus goal striker! Myself I’m always happiest when everyone else is writing us off.

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