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Thursday, 30 December 2010

It's Behind You

I guess a comic ending at Wigan was fitting, considering it's the pantomime season. But as much as I adore Arsène Wenger, in my most humble opinion, if le Gaffer has one almighty blind spot, it's in his cold clinical attitude to the game and a statistical mindset, which apparently leaves him unable to weigh up the significance of such intangibles as gut feeling and the sort of instincts that might've convinced some of his peers to put out their best XI at Wigan, in the certain knowledge that we'd have been travelling to Birmingham on Saturday far less burdened by legs (or minds?) filled with lactic acid and any thoughts of fatigue, with a victory under our belts.

I can fully appreciate Arsène's logic in wanting to rotate his squad, during the hectic run of fixtures over the festive period. However I've always firmly believed that those players on the bench who spend long periods of the 90 mins running up & down the touchline and who then come on like Nasri & Walcott, to chase the game for the last few frantic minutes, they expend just as much adrenaline and end up no more refreshed than those who've played the entire 90.

Moreover, you only had to look at the disappointment etched on the faces of some of our players, as they came over to acknowledge the travelling faithful at the final whistle, devastated by their failure to consolidate Monday night's spanking of the Blues, with a win at the DW, to be able to appreciate quite how much more important it was for us to build some momentum tonight by maintaining that winning feeling, than to try and give so many of our best players some R & R.

That's not Diaby, Denilson & Squillaci in the starting XI?

Surely some mistake?

Instead of which, sadly, as is all too often the case, we end up climbing the ladder against Chelsea, only to carelessly slip back down the Lactic's snake. Pray tell me what exactly is the point in trying to keep players fresh for the business end of the season, if we are to end up with nothing to play for, before there's any blossom on the trees?

AW might be obliged to talk up a point away to Wigan, but we've patently failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity to try and exert a little pressure on Man Utd and perhaps more importantly (in light of the fact we've hardly performed this season with any hint of the consistency necessary to mount a concerted title challenge), we've wasted a rare chance to put a little breathing space between us and all those other Champions League wannabees.

We've also managed to ramp up the pressure on us to produce a result at St. Andrews on Saturday. Whereas I fancy that if Arsène had focused more on winning tonight's game than on maintaining his team on a statistical even-keel as far as fatigue is concerned, we could've been travelling to Birmingham at the weekend with everyone feeling a far greater sense of well-being, following a midweek victory and as a result with everyone able to perform with far more freedom, in hope of a win, rather than in fear of defeat.

As astute as Arsène was with his team selection on Monday night, he couldn't have been more wide of the mark tonight, if he'd tried. In fact the injury to Diaby was about the most fortuitous thing to happen up to that point in the match (although many might argue that we'd have been better off if Denilson, Fabianski or Squillaci to name but three, had been injured instead). However prior to Jack Wilshere's appearance from the bench, we struggled to put our foot on the ball and control possession.

Worse still Denilson & Diaby presented Wigan with such a powder puff core at the heart of our midfield that the likes of N'Zogbia & Rodallega were able to breeze through at will, to cause our backline a major headache.
Although I've often criticized Denilson as being neither sufficiently manly, or committed enough to play the holding role, nor nearly talented enough to replace Fabregas, I've always been reluctant to write the Brazilian lad off completely, trusting in AW's belief that the best is yet to come.

However from where we stood behind Fabianski's goal in the first-half, I caught sight of Denilson crouching down, seemingly trying to catch his breath, from as early as 10 mins in and enough times after that to leave me in some doubt about the lad's match fitness.

Yet far more disconcerting (and perhaps not unrelated to his fitness level) was the number of times during this evening's game that I was unable to contain myself from bawling out the Brazilian for ball watching. Now I come from the school of terrace thought where I've always believed that as supporters, we are there to support our team and as much as I might coat off a players in private, I've always felt that they are hardly likely to be encouraged to try harder & to work their socks off, when they're receiving untold stick from our own fans.

Perhaps I'm growing more intolerant in my dotage, or perhaps a midweek trip to Wigan, with a return to Euston in the wee hours, followed by a hard day's graft for the ballet, is such an exhaustingly long schlep, that the very least I expect in return is some evidence of earnest endeavour on the pitch. But where once I might have bitten my tongue and responded to the catcalls of other Gooners, by offering the target of their ire even louder encouragement, last night, on the many occasions Denilson wafted out a leg in his downright feeble attempts to halt the Lactics' progress, I found myself growing increasingly irate at his patent failure to put any effort into trying to recover the situation.

Although Alex Song still seems to get caught, failing to get goalside of his opponent on far too many occasions for my liking, to Alex's credit, he's in the habit of working like a Trojan to rectify matters, even if he does concede a few too many naive free-kicks around the edge of the area, in trying to make a challenge when chasing back towards our goal, when if he'd had the forethought to get goalside, he'd be tackling face on. Whereas this evening we witnessed a stark reminder of those miserable occasions from seasons past, when the TV pictures of us conceding a goal, shown from the camera behind the onion bag, these have frequently portrayed our Brazilian midfielder in the background, ambling back towards the goal, hardly busting a gut to get back and offer our defence some support.

Watching a game as an away fan, from behind the goal at the DW Stadium, this apparent indolence was that much more obvious, as time after time Denilson was bypassed in midfield and I stood there apoplectic with rage, at his lack of urgency to even attempt to make amends. It's as if the lad believes that once the opposition have breached his feeble midfield bulwark, the responsibility becomes that of our defence alone to deal with the threat.

By contrast, you only had to watch the likes of Scott Parker busting a gut all over the pitch at Upton Park the previous evening to appreciate the opposite end of this energy level spectrum. Where Parker has the experience to know that even if he has no chance of getting there to prevent the player with the ball from taking a pop at goal, he continues haring back at full pelt, in the knowledge that if the keeper should parry the ball, he might just make it in time to prevent a tap in.

Having done my best to argue that Denilson might still need time to mature into the sort of talented all-round ball player that Arsène obviously believes he has the promise of becoming, sadly I have to admit that I'm finally coming to the conclusion that if such basic tenets of the unglamorous, "water carrying" aspects of the beautiful game still haven't been banged into his seemingly impenetrable bonce by now, then they never will be?

If like life, the Gunners are a box of chocolates, I'm afraid that Denilson is always going to be the soft centre at the crucial heart of our side, that's likely to melt at the most inopportune moment!

But it's wrong of me to save all my disapprobation for the Brazilian. I'm yet to reach home on my long trek back from the North-East and so have yet to suffer the masochistic act of watching the highlights on MOTD. But on seeing Wigan score their equaliser from the opposite end of the pitch, it seemed to me that Flappy Handski had absolutely no chance of ever getting to the corner which resulted in the home side's second goal and if Lucasz had stopped on his line, it might have been a relatively easy save to make.

Moreover, I couldn't see enough to say quite how culpable Squillaci was for this goal, but whether or not the French centre-back was at fault, whenever I've cause to focus my attention on him, the one single thought that always comes to mind is that at his elderly statesman like age, if Sebastien was truly anything more than a journeyman pro, then surely he'd have been picked up by a bigger club, long before le Boss came a calling?

Thomas Rosicky was earnest enough in his endeavours and I've a feeling that amongst some of his more incisive passes was one that led to our second goal. Nevertheless for all Rosicky's hard graft, I invariably get the sense that ultimately his efforts result in very little end product. What's more, studying Thomas through my binoculars in the build up to a Wigan free-kick and his passive part in putting a seemingly haphazard wall together to protect Fabianski's goal, the Czech lad patently doesn't have the necessary personality to lead the troops as the Arsenal skipper.

But then who does in the current Arsenal side? To be perfectly frank, while I'm sure there were others out there on the park this evening who were keen to prove a point (if only the disappointment Bendtner expressed at the final whistle was mirrored in his performance, but then Nicky is no more a winger than I am!), as far as I'm concerned, the only player who I noticed demonstrating the necessary desire was Jack Wilshere and I left the ground thinking that (unless I missed the evidence of others in a yellow shirt showing their commitment to the Arsenal's cause) Jack alone proved to me that he wanted the three points on offer this evening quite as much as I did.

Having travelled up to Wigan on the travel club's "footie special" train service - a throwback to days of yore and something I hope they will persevere with, despite the fact that of the amazingly healthy turnout of 5,000 Gooners (so I'm told), only about a 100 of us came on the train - this at least ensured that I arrived at the DW Stadium sufficiently early that I was tempted to turn around and head for a stroll down Wigan Pier for an hour or so, for fear of ruining the tardy reputation that I've been cultivating for so many years.

The Gunners mimic this Gooner's tardy habits

Mind you I was somewhat surprised to discover that I'd arrived there even before the team, who's coach only rolled up to the ground an hour before KO. I'm don't usually arrive early enough to know whether this is the Gunners' customary schedule, but some might conclude that this sort of approach would suggest to the home side that we aren't really taking our opponents particularly seriously.

Add to this the revelation that Arsène had made eight changes, with the likes of Van Persie, Song and of course our club captain Fabregas not even bothering to make the journey, leaving what amounts to basically the weakest possible side Wenger could have put out, what more encouragement did Roberto Martinez require in order to motivate his team, by demonstrating to them that we were under the impression that we only had to turn up, in order to return back down South with all three points in the bag!

Still at least I was inside the ground early enough to take advantage of the free mince pies that were on offer on the counters of the bars on the concourse. Can anyone imagine the Scrooge-like suits in charge of the catering at the Arsenal making such a generous, festive gesture at our gaff?

Then again, they'd have to break open a few thousand boxes of mince pies to please a full-house crowd at our place, whereas I'm sure the local late-night grocers would've been able to cater for the shamefully meagre turn out of home punters at the DW (another reminder if one was required, that Wigan will always remain basically a rugby town).

Everyone (in red & white that is) left the stadium bitterly disappointed at having blown three points, against a team, which despite the best efforts of what appears to be Martinez's astute management, look very likely relegation candidates. Mercifully for the few of us returning back on the 23.15 charter train, not all was lost.

Arriving back at the station after an obligatory stop at Burger King to kill the waiting time with some fast food polyfilla, I was surprised to see the team coach once again, pulling into the station car park. Enquiries with the rozzers who were tasked with keeping the baying hordes (half a dozen weary Gooners and a handful of well lubricated locals) from bothering the occupants, resulted in the response "this lot....taking the must be joking". According to him they were heading back to Blackpool airport for a flight home to Luton.

However, after hanging around for half an hour or so, getting my nicotine level up for a four hour train trip, envious of the Gunners, with their feet up on the coach watching Match of the Day on their TV screens (wondering what they'd make of the highlights and whether any of them would groan at Fabianski's gaff for the equalising goal), it eventually came to light that there was fog at Luton airport and as a result, we were to be ejected from our First Class seats, as the team would be joining all the plebs on the return train trip and the front three carriages were reserved for their exclusive use (it was ever thus!).

While the typical "angry of Tunbridge Wells" whinging Gooners were threatening to write to the Travel Club for a refund, the rest of us were chuffed to bits, as (immature kids that we are when it comes to the slightest chance of fraternizing with our heroes) it positively made our day out. I was hanging out the window of the train, with my iPhone at hand, the video app all set up just waiting to hit the record button, only to discover that I should've remained in my seat, as I'd missed them all, as they'd taken a back route.

Mercifully I didn't make the same mistake twice and was hanging out the window, eagerly waiting to record their departure from the train when we arrived at Watford Junction. You'd have imagined that there would've been plenty of us who would've been eager to give the Gunners (or some of them at least) a peace of our mind. However in a world where our heroes have become more and more detached from their fan base (although nowadays at least the likes of Twitter has begun to redress this imbalance), hidden behind electrified fences and 12-foot metal gates, unless you have upwards of a couple of hundred quid to fritter away, in order to join the prawn sandwich supporters at any of these "black tie" charity dos, the prospects of an opportunity for any face-to-face interaction with these superstars of modern football have become so few and far between, that everyone was far too delighted to see them all, up close and personal, to even consider any negative comments.

Never mind the distress of schlepping all the way to Wigan only to see the Gunners blow it (again!), as you'll hear the lunatic comment (more then once) in the attached video, such a soppy thing as seeing your heroes pass by on the platform of Watford Junction positively made our trip!

What's more, I'm not sure we'd have flown through green signals all the way back down South, arriving back into Euston an hour earlier than scheduled, if it wasn't for the VIPs aboard our train?

Now if only Nicky Bendtner can answer my call for a hat-trick on Saturday, we'll all be happy bunnies. But then I thought I'd better get this posted before I go to work, as I very much doubt I'll be in quite such good humour after barely any kip before a hard day's graft for the ballet!

Come on you Reds
Big Love

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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Only One Team In London

Who could wish for more from Santa the Gooner, than a nodding Arsenal bulldog to adorn the dashboard of my motor and 3 points from our encounter with the Blues, which guarantees that the Gunners will ring in the New Year, if not as top dogs, then at least as the capital’s big kahuna. Despite the unremitting positivity of a new car mascot (that doesn’t do negative!), the optimism hardly abounded as we headed for the ground on Monday night, banking on the law of averages as our best bet for finally breaking our infuriating hoodoo against the Premiership’s big fish.

I suppose if you eat the competition's dust sufficiently often, there must eventually come a time when your desire to avoid the bitter taste of defeat will ensure that you are just that little bit more ‘up for it’ than an increasingly complacent opposition. Admittedly it would’ve felt slightly more fulfilling if a less flaccid display from Ancelotti’s side had forced the Arsenal to produce their scintillating best to beat the Blues, but it feels as if it’s been so long in coming, that absolutely nothing was going to spoil the euphoria of finally getting one over on Abramovich's plaything and the satisfaction of putting those Kings Road upstarts back in their place, in such emphatic fashion.

Although I’m not sure everyone welcomed the return of Flappy Handski, Arsène proved spot on with his team selection, with a centre-back pairing that went into this game without any of the baggage of Drogba’s recent bedevilment and with the inspired choice of Theo Walcott in his starting XI. Aside from the fact that Theo is a far more willing grafter than Arshavin (who’s work ethic nowadays amounts to little more than the energy our diminutive Ruski expends counting his obscene weekly wage packet!), it seemed as if the disreputable Cashley Hole was so focused on his forlorn attempts to bully his replacement as the brightest star in the Gunners firmament, that the Chelsea left-back completely forgot the raids down our flank, which have proved such a crucial facet of the Blues recent success against Cashley’s former employers

Additionally Ancelotti’s defensive selection served to our advantage, as Ivanovic is a far greater threat as a raiding full-back, than he is a bulwark at centre-back and in beating Ferreira, after giving him a three-yard start, Samir Nasri made the Portuguese stand-in look positively sluggish.

Still for forty minutes on Monday night it seemed as if the rope-a-dope tactics that Chelsea have perfected in recent contests might prevail once again. Mercifully the Gunners appear to have learned the lessons of various fruitless, one-dimensional attempts to pick an intricate path through the massed Blue ranks at the heart of the Chelsea rearguard, by at long last adding a bit of variation to our forward play.

By being equally willing to use some width to try to go around the Blue backline, instead of incessantly attempting to tippy-tappy their way through the middle of the park, or by mixing it up with the occasional long ball, Chelsea were unable to rest on their laurels, leaving us to retain possession, secure in the knowledge that our flyweight attacks would bounce back off the Blues’ heavyweight fortification.

Compared to a far bigger, beefier opposition, Jack Wilshere still looks more like the club mascot when he comes trotting onto the pitch. But if ever there was a player to make a mockery of the ‘men v boys’ analogy, with his increasing influence on such crucial clashes, Jack is the man. In fact considering our skipper had a bit of a stinker, by his world-class standards, in a match littered with Cesc’s misplaced passes, I was somewhat flabbergasted on returning home to find Fabregas had been awarded Man of the Match, when there were at least half a dozen more deserving candidates.

When you consider how Chelsea have communed with their travelling faithful, after grinding out results on the road in the recent past and how I’ve been envious of this allusion to a winning spirit within the Blue’s dressing room, you only had to look at the faces of the four lonely losers who came over to their corner of the ground at the final whistle, while the majority of their teammates trudged off the pitch without even acknowledging the away support, to appreciate that everything is far from hunky-dory in the Abramovich house.

The question is whether the Gunners can build on the momentum gained on Monday, by acquiring the sort of swagger that might have the likes of Wigan and Birmingham quaking in their boots at the prospect of playing host to the purveyors of such quality football. All our good work on Monday will amount to naught, unless we consolidate our success with the sort of honest endeavours, which will be necessary to endure on the road in the next few days and without which my nodding dog might end up lobbed out the car window in frustration, disappearing in my rear-view mirror, along with any remaining aspirations of an Arsenal title challenge.

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Monday, 20 December 2010

Sunday Lunch Without The Spuds

A weekend without footie is like Sunday lunch without the spuds. Naturally I lapped up the meagre morsel of mashed swede from the Stadium of Light & Ewood Park on Saturday. Bolton pressed for an equalizer against Sunderland, with the sort of drive and determination that was sorely missed when we played Man Utd. While our skipper ponders our squad’s apparent insecurities against the better sides, myself I wonder if the finger of blame for the Gunners misfortunes can be pointed elsewhere?

After banning Spurs from any Xmas booze ups, judging by the tabloid tales of a bleary-eyed Ledley King, it seems Harry “He’s got a twitch” Redknapp relented and allowed the Lilywhites a night out on the town. By contrast, instead of Jack Wilshere’s customarily dull “tweets” concerning his big decision of the day, about whether to choose “Starbucks” or “Costa” for his morning cup of java, or loving pics of his two pugs (is there a theme here, with the Gunners and their slightly effeminate choice of dog breeds?), we were treated to some snaps of a somewhat tepid looking Xmas lunch at the Arsenal's training ground.

I’m not suggesting I’d be happy for the Gunners to be caught with their pants down, out on the razz (à la Bendtner). But considering how few players lingered long enough for these fairly drab group shots, one might deduce that there’s a decided lack of team spirit amongst this lot and we’re devoid of leaders with the force of personality to negotiate a night out for the lads with le Gaffer. Perhaps therein lies the problem?

Instead of reveling in the skills of Samir Nasri and joining in with the celebrations of our first against Fulham the other week, Arshavin showed a disdainful air of insouciance, as he turned and trotted back to the halfway line. The diminutive Ruski comes out with such crackpot claptrap that he might be deemed closer to certifiable than a typical example of our disunity. But this incident certainly alluded to the possibility that the Gunners are badly in need of some proper male bonding.

Apparently Barca are a shoe-in for the Champions League quarterfinals. There’s no disputing that on paper, man for man, they are better than us. The only way we’re going to beat them, is by demonstrating as a “team” that we want it more than them, matching their undoubted class, with some elegant skills of our own, but ultimately trumping the Spaniards with our passion and desire. Surely it’s not individual “belief” that’s the stumbling block, with so many stars having egos the size of houses nowadays, but their confidence in the Arsenal as a unit and the absence of that vital strength of character, capable of both encouraging and cajoling genuine conviction and a winning mentality out of the Gunners (never imagined I’d be drawing comparisons between us and the England cricket team!)

Having already confirmed my trip to the Catalan capital within a couple of hours of Friday’s draw, I suppose I’ve good reason for convincing myself that I’ve not wasted my hard-earned dosh on another embarrassing hiding. But personally I’m never happier than when the Gunners go into a big game with something to prove, as outright underdogs. Remember the Bernabeu and the San Siro?

Although I must admit that with the Spanish side’s scintillating form of late, beating Barca appears to be an increasingly daunting prospect. But two months is a long time in football and as disappointed as I was with the two sloppy defeats that left us with a more difficult draw, in some respects, as long as we do ourselves justice, I’d much rather we go out in a blaze of glory against the best team on the planet, than to see us lie down like lambs against the likes of Lyon.

Admittedly it would be galling in the extreme should the Gunners European aspirations evaporate, before those of our North London neighbours. After schlepping all over the continent in pursuit of the Champions League Holy Grail, I daren’t even countenance the prospect of Spurs actually having the “chutzpah” to succeed in their first ever tilt at the big-eared prize – in this format, (although I seriously doubt there can be many readers old enough to recall Blanchflower and co’s glorious semi-final failure in 62?).

Yet there might still be some solace, should we find ourselves forced to focus all our attentions on a concerted title challenge, while Spurs domestic ambitions take a backseat during Spring, to the distraction of their continued involvement in the tournament; only for the Totts to end up having to wait for all eternity, for another crack at a Champions League encore.

Meanwhile I’d have much preferred to have got the defeat to Man Utd out of our system against Stoke, rather than mulling it over, until Chelsea’s visit next Monday. Fortunately I only had to look out my window at the Highbury white-out at noon on Saturday before snuggling back under the duvet, knowing there was no chance of a game going ahead. But my heart went out to the thousands that travelled in vain, Mind you, in spite of their tortuous journeys, I imagine it might’ve been a novelty for some, for once returning from an away trip without the bitter taste of defeat.

I’ll be positively chomping at the bit by the time the Blues come a calling, stir crazy with cabin fever. After an impromptu winter break, I pray our football reflects the same enthusiasm from the Gunners?

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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Never Mind The X-Factor, Where's The "Who Really Wants It" Quotient?

It’s been a highly entertaining first few months of the season, with so many sides capable of playing with the sort of panache that has enabled them to take points from anyone, on any given weekend. But in some respects it’s felt as if we’ve been treading water, waiting for one of the big guns to kick on. The question is, are the Gunners merely pacemakers, or can we prove ourselves to be something more, when it comes to the crunch?

Certainly not on the evidence of our performance at Old Trafford. After yet more foolhardy full-back play presented “three for a tenner” with a flukey lead, following 40 mins of far too tentative sparring, much like Chelsea’s rope-a-dope display at the Bridge, Utd sat back in the second half and invited us to do our worst.

Once again, sadly our worst wasn't nearly "bad" enough. It was as if the Gunners were firing BB pellets, offering little more than a mere stinging sensation as they bounced harmlessly back off Utd’s defence, while we prayed in vain for an attack of the calibre of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum, capable of punching the sort of hole that might mortally wound Fergie's mob.

With most Gooners having few illusions about our tenuous sojourn at the table's summit, we'd have gladly settled for a draw. But it's also as plain to us as the red nose on Fergie's miserable mush that unlike the competition, Wenger's side simply doesn't possess the resilience to set it's stall out with containment as it's principal ambition.

All credit to Utd's solidity, but contrary to all Arsène’s assurances as to the belief that exists in our squad, an arduous trek back South in the wee hours of Tuesday morning felt all the more wretched, knowing that we'd performed without any real conviction.

Doubtless Arsène will turn to the stats, to argue that we deserved better. But for all our possession, in playing with the handbrake on, the Gunners never brought the sort of vitality and pace to this party, to sufficiently unsettle a more resolute opposition.

It’s a contradiction in terms to accuse an indolent Arshavin of recklessness, but if our diminutive Ruski deserved to be booked, then surely Rio’s full-frontal assault was nothing less than ABH? But then you know you’ve endured another night of unfulfilled expectations at the Theatre of Dreams, when the highpoint of the evening was some hearty “fat, granny shagger” ribbing of Wayne Rooney.

This was in response to the red mist that descended as Rooney lost his rag, when for once “Fergie’s rent-boy” ref failed to rule in the home side’s favour. I’m unsure whether the 60,000 Muppets heeded their manager's request in his programme notes to desist with the paedo chants, or if it was merely the Arsenal’s impotence which failed to inspire the home fans wrath. But just as I expect the Gunners to rise to le Gaffer’s defence, by producing the goods on the pitch, I often fear that we might end up regretting rubbing the likes of Rooney up the wrong way with such inflammatory antics.

With the incessant shenanigans of Nani and Anderson and relentless appeals from the terraces, I suppose Webb’s seemingly fatal intervention was inevitable. Although in this instance I like to believe that we played a considerable part in Utd's failure to nail down the 3 points from the penalty spot. From where I stood, I got the distinct sense that instead of focusing on finding the back of the net, Rooney burned with such intense indignation that he was hell-bent on imparting sufficient impetus on the ball to force the taunts back down the throats of a couple of thousand Gooners.

Mercifully we can take some comfort from a solitary cause for optimism, in the promising league debut of a young keeper, who might just have the necessary presence and personality to fill this gaping hole in the Gunners armour. Now if only Arsène could chance upon the Premiership Holy Grail of an equally charismatic outfield leader, the sort of character who might appreciate the significance of Rooney’s miss and who’d recognize this as the moment to step up and try to inspire his teammates to turn the screw, by grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck.

No matter if such efforts had resulted in glorious failure, it would’ve been far less unsatisfying than trudging away from the architectural wastelands of Old Trafford, wondering why we’ve put ourselves through the wringer once again, schlepping to the North-West on a Monday night, for a contest that was more Strictly Come Dancing than X-Factor, to support a side that’s patently failed another crucial examination of the hunger and desire quotient that’s likely to be the telling factor in a “who really wants it” title race.

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Monday, 6 December 2010

The Chassé Is On

While everyone insists on making us Gooners ever more aware of the length of time the Gunners have dallied in the silverware starved doldrums, you’d have to be a pretty damn visually challenged footie lover, not to be grateful for the privilege of watching Arsène Wenger’s lads play live every week. Myself I never forget to count my footballing blessings, every time I stand, mouth agape, dumbstruck in awe, at the sort of breathtakingly balletic ball skills that leave us in rapture on such a regular basis - and as someone who’s grafted for a ballet company for 20 years and has watched the Gunners for twice as long, I feel fairly qualified to comment.

Few of us are getting carried away with our elevated status. We know full well that we only bestride the Premiership pile by default, We’re also reminded all too often how fragile we can be, as evidenced by the repeated sense of hanging on for a heart-stopping final half hour against Fulham on Saturday. Yet as frustrated as I am with our tendency to turn into a panic struck bunch of schoolgirls, how can we possibly complain, when we get to savour the sublime pleasures of the scintillating likes of Samir Nasri, pirouetting his way around Premiership defences.

I wasn’t even that upset at the sight of Koscielny switching off, or having his lights switched off in a clash of heads with his team mate more like and then conceding a soft goal. If Laurent was less honest (or if Squillaci hadn’t knocked all seven bells out of him), he might’ve gone down in a heap and got the game stopped before Kamara struck. There was another moment, when Nasri could’ve collapsed in the opposition’s box in search of a penalty, in the more cynical tradition of the modern-day mercenary, if he wasn’t so completely focused on his objective.

But I wasn’t pinning for the loss of a potential penalty because in Nasri’s intent and Koscielny’s commitment, there is perhaps a glimmer of the sort sincerity and hunger, which might yet forge a more tightly-knit unit of worthy contenders, out of Arsène’s multi-cultural bouillabaisse. Far from suggesting we’re anywhere near looking like the finished article, on current form, most Gooners will admit to their delighted amazement, to find themselves dancing into a positively arctic December as top dogs.

And yet our table-topping moment couldn’t possibly be more interestingly timed, coinciding as it did with the postponement of an opportunity for Fergie to affirm Man Utd’s position as the bookies favourites (even if we’ve come to expect the more exuberant unexpected from Ian Holloway and his Seasiders), following last week’s shellacking of Fat Sam’s side.

Unless the Hammers’ defensive Wallies (coming to a headline near you?) ship a shedload against City next weekend, Spurs will be playing Chelsea at the Lane on Sunday, knowing that if they get anything from Ancelotti’s dysfunctional Blues, we’ll be heading to Old Trafford the following night for an encounter that’ll suddenly assume an increasing “clash of the Titans” significance. Who knows, if we could just display sufficient obduracy to stick around at the top for a week or two, perhaps we could even begin to acquire that arrogant aura of true pretenders to the Premiership throne.

Judging by the way we almost eviscerated the visitors, leaving the Cottagers chasing Red & White shadows for the first 20mins on Saturday, the Arsenal certainly didn’t appear disadvantaged by the absence of our illustrious World Cup winner. I’ve already opined on whether there might be a silver-lining to the loss of our ‘want away’ skipper and if others continue to pick up the baton of our customary conductor, perhaps Fabregas himself could benefit, should he returns to a dressing room in more buoyant mood?

Although I’m a long way from counting my chickens (or turkeys!). The only predictable aspect to this Premiership campaign is that the immediate competition have all looked equally vulnerable, at times, against the league’s lesser lights. Nevertheless, few will take Arsène’s insistence on our new-found tenacity entirely seriously, until the Gunners produce an indisputably convincing performance against one of our two nemesi.

Meanwhile we’ve the small matter of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages on Wednesday. But if we can’t beat Partizan Belgrade on our own patch, then we really don’t deserve to be there. I wonder if the sordid stench from FIFA headquarters in Switzerland might cast a malodourous whiff over UEFA’s cash cow monopoly of European football?

As far as I’m concerned International footie is merely an increasingly irritating bloodsucker that all too often slips under the bedside mosquito net of the domestic game. But I must admit that I baulked at the blatant inequity of it all, when it was revealed to me that last week’s decision means I might not see a World Cup on these shores in my lifetime (after all, aged only four, World Cup Willie is just about my only genuine memory of Bobby Moore & co.).

With so many big games coming thick and fast, perhaps my limp home from Saturday’s wonderful entertainment was psychosomatic. I’ve been offered two lucrative weeks work with the ballet after Xmas. Yet one look at a crowded fixture list leaves me fretting about what I might miss. So I’ve just about convinced myself that my increasingly decrepit joints can no longer bear up to grueling all-nighters in the theatre I guess I’ll be blaming Samir Nasri when I end up b’rassic in the New Year, but hopefully grateful to the Frenchman and his team mates for the sort of massive grin that money can’t buy!

Come on you Reds
Big Love
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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Love In A Cold Climate

G'day fellow Gooners,

I certainly can't claim to be Nostradamus, with my assertions in recent weeks, that after treading water since the start of the season, without losing a game, those gombeens at Old Trafford were bound to come good at some point.

Then again, I'm certain it's not the first time we've seen one of Fat Sam's sides roll over and play dead for the benefit of his Red Nosed pal. Apart from Man Utd knocking us off our table-topping perch, the biggest wind up as far as I was concerned was the sight of the Red Devils positively gorging on the success of Fergie's decision to revert to 4-4-2 on Saturday.

When was the last time that the Gunners capitalised on our dominance, by putting Premiership opposition to the sword in such an unequivocal fashion at our place? Sadly we're all too often guilty of letting lesser opponents off the hook, failing to go for the throat at the first scent of blood and invariably ending up sweating out games, on the edge of our seat right up until the final whistle because we lack the killer instinct needed to press home our obvious advantage.

Amongst a relatively diffident Arsenal squad, I've often bemoaned the absence of the sort of big personalites who are capable of almost single-handedly grabbing games by the scruff of the neck. But then this is a perennial problem nowadays, in a more mercenary era, where the archetypal Tony Adams type 'dogs of war' are hardly growing on trees.

However, in my most humble opinion, a far easier failing for Arsène to address is le Gaffer's frustrating insistence on gifting away home advantage to less illustrious visiting sides, with his fixation on playing 4-5-1. I suppose many might contend that le Prof's's preference is more of a 4-1-2-3 formation, but which ever way you choose to analyse Arsène's line-up, after having been an advocate of 4-4-2 for so many years, it's suddenly become passé and for some strange reason our manager refuses to entertain the idea of playing a strike partnership any more.

There must be something to it, as Arsène is far from alone in forsaking old-school 4-4-2 tactics. Doubtless the statisticians have come up with a convincing argument that has converted virtually all of football's major players to 4-5-1, but while many opposition manager's have a more flexible, "horses for courses" attitude, it would appear as if our pertinacious gaffer has decided that there's only one way to play the game nowadays.

Wenger would probably contend that there's more pliancy in his line-up and that in fact we play with three strikers on the pitch in home games. However, all I know is that when visiting sides peruse the Arsenal team-sheet, I'm certain their defence must breathe a sigh of relief on realising that they only have a lone front man to contain and I'm convinced that this must serve to encourage their belief in being able to shut us out.

Whereas surely weaker opponents like West Brom and Newcastle would feel far more apprehensive about the prospect of having to stifle a pair of strikers of the calibre of Chamakh and Van Persie and would perhaps be sufficiently concerned about preventing us scoring, to limit their ambitions at the other end of the pitch.

With Robin's frustratingly brittle bones, we've yet to discover if the Dutchman can actually form a working relationship with our new Moroccan front-man. Yet we know Van Persie doesn't particularly enjoy leading the line and prefers to play a deeper role and with Chamakh's seemingly unstinting willingness to unselfishly work his socks off, it might prove that the pair of them would compliment one another.

But whether it be Van Persie, Chamakh, Bendtner or even Vela, above all, I firmly believe that the most important factor about lining up at home against the lesser lights with a couple of strikers on the park, is the psychological statement of intent, which says that we're far too good to worry about being outnumbered in midfield, because we're about to batter you where it hurts most.

However it's not just our failure to put teams under the cosh which is responsible for this rash of pathetic results at our place (as evidenced against the old enemy, where for once we actually went at our guests right from the off). I'm convinced it's no coincidence that the Gunners are far more likely to play with the handbrake off away from home of late. Aside from the fact that we're bound to find more room to hurt the opposition, when playing against teams who are forced to show a modicum of ambition on their home turf, I get the distinct sense of a more relaxed Arsenal side that's far more likely to enjoy their football on the road.

Whereas, not only do we risk visting players being inspired to play out of their skin in the glamorous surroundings of our grandiose gaff, but I fear that the Grove will never quite become "Fortress Arsenal", so long as the Gunners continue to shoulder the burden of an affluent audience that gets on their backs, the moment they put a foot wrong.

The contrast with our travelling support couldn't be more stark. Despite missing a sitter on Saturday (prior to scoring a stunning second goal), Samir Nasri's new ditty echoed around Villa Park, drowning out any noise from the home fans (if there was any?). This is the main reason I continue to attend away games so religiously, so I can continue to support the Gunners. Often the loudest noise at home games is the collective sound of 60,000 groans, as our fickle fans express their feelings that the football on offer is simply not an acceptable return for their obscenely priced tickets.

Consequently I can't wait for this evening's Carling Cup quarterfinal, where hopefully 10 and 20 quid tickets will attract the sort of support that's prepared to show their appreciation for a rare opportunity to be able to afford to watch the Arsenal play live.

Enuf of my whinging. Come on you rip, roaring Reds

Big Love



Can there possibly be a more fickle mistress than modern day Premiership football? There were plenty of deluded Wenger whingers calling for le Gaffer’s blood after the injury of our Derby Day debacle was added to by the insult of those cock-a-hoop cockerels (or Stratford Hotspurs, when I’m pulling the leg of my Spurs pals) qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages, while, following another fiasco in Braga, we’re left to sweat it out until our final group game.

Although any criticism of AW must be water off a duck’s back, to a manager who’s tenure is cast-iron, compared to the utterly farcical insecurity of so many if his contemporaries, who float in as the flotsam on the tide of instant gratification of their King Canute chairmen and who can just as easily end up washed up with the discovery that this team sport tide’s not for turning.

Notwithstanding all those poor touchline Johnnies permanently on the precipice of a potential nervous breakdown as a result of the relentless pressure, the punters certainly aren’t complaining. We savoured the widest possible spectrum of everything that is wonderful about the beautiful game, on a weekend which left the scintillating football of a 4-2 victory at Villa Park as a mere footnote in the tale of the top flight’s response to “the big freeze”, with what felt like a concerted effort to stoke up the temperature by several degrees.

We Gooners have grown accustomed to seeing our season shipwrecked during “black November” in recent times. Yet despite a miserable month, where the depressing gloom of defeats to Shaktar, Newcastle, Spurs and Braga was only temporarily lifted by all too brief interjection of decidedly fortunate wins at Wolves and Everton (where you could barely slide a Rizzla between the slim margins that separated success and failure), are we downhearted? You bet your life we’re not!

Considering we started out in the August sunshine, struggling to believe Arsène’s continued stubborn resistance to taking care of the pressing business of addressing the Gunners patently obvious inadequacies, most Gooners would’ve bitten the hand off that proffered the prospect of approaching the festive season with everything still to play for. Meanwhile we’re not so naïve as to kid ourselves that we remain in contention, courtesy of anything other than a Premiership marathon, where up until now all the contenders have been plodding along, merely jockeying for position, wondering when one of the contenders is going tp put their foot down.

Abramovich’s increasing interference might’ve ensured that Ancelotti’s Blues continue to sputter, but you sensed that Saturday was a day when others were determined to put in a burst as a statement of their intent. The Gunners certainly came out of the blocks in Birmingham as if their backsides were burning from the exhaust emissions of the timely insertion of a nitro-glycerine fuelled rocket.

Fabregas has been such a pivotal presence in the recent past, that those hardy Gooners who braved the trip to Braga, despite a general strike, would’ve expected to walks through arrivals on their return from Portugal, to be greeted by a posse of “the end is nigh” sandwich-board bearers. Perhaps it’s an image entirely of my own creation, but I couldn’t help but seek comfort when Cesc limped off last week. Saturday’s effusive display was more grist to the mill of my theory that no matter what Fab might contend in public about giving of his all to the Gooner cause, I can’t help but wonder if our skipper’s a more sullen and resentful private persona casts a demoralizing shadow in the dressing room?

It remains to be seen if Nasri, Wilshere, Arshavin et al are to cast off the shackles of their inhibitions and truly let rip with the free-flowing football in Fabregas’ absence, in the sparkling manner which left Villa struggling to catch their breath during Saturday’s frost-bitten first forty-five. But I’m sure I sensed a certain “joie de vivre” in Saturday’s display that we’ve rarely witnessed of late.

Perhaps this was merely a response to the bitter taste of the ignominy of events of the previous week. Yet despite being one of the greatest players on the planet, not only is Cesc some way short of the vocal “stand firm” leader we’ve required in recent matches, in his present state of mind, I can’t envisage him being a particularly positive influence?

Meanwhile, with 14 goals in our first 3 games, it’s hard to believe we’ve ended up making such heavy weather of potentially the weakest Champions League group. But then if we can’t beat a Serbian side that’s yet to secure a single point, we really don’t deserve to take our seat at the top table of Europe’s elite. I’m off to pick a bone with the bouncer who let Harry’s uncouth Hotspurs in.

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Monday, 22 November 2010

Treacle (our mutt) Heads To London Colney To Teach The Lads How To Hang Onto A Lead

Handing Harry Redknapp’s mob the odd crumb of comfort in 17 years isn’t really grounds for the renting of Gooner clothes and the donning of sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless there were enough angry fans calling for the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater, when the final whistle blew on Saturday’s fiasco. Such frustration was perfectly understandable, as Spurs didn’t win this game; the Gunners presented it to them on a plate, as a gift-wrapped premature Xmas present.

Considering the huge police presence at these Derby games, it seems downright daft that the coppers should be so conspicuous by their absence at the most obvious point of contact, on exiting the ground. So it wasn’t so surprising to see Gooners letting off steam, as I also felt the inclination to want to punch someone, or something, because only 45 mins prior we’d pictured ourselves heading home with 3 points in the bag and that smug satisfaction of knowing we’d be sitting pretty atop the Premiership pile, even if it had only turned out to be for a couple of hours.

As things transpired, our capitulation proved to be even more infuriating with Chelsea getting beat in Birmingham, knowing we could’ve been heading to Braga as the current “Big Kahuna”. I say heading to Braga, but then as things stand at present, that might be easier said than done with several flights being cancelled due to a local baggage handlers’ strike.

It wasn’t until walking the dog later that evening when I finally managed to put Saturdays dumbfounding events into some perspective - note to Arsène Wenger: whilst also managing to hold onto the lead for the duration! Truth be told, most Gooners who witnessed quite how fortunate we were to come away from Wolves and Everton with all three points, they’ll be able to appreciate that our elevated Premiership status is something of an illusion. As much as I rue this rare Derby defeat and the bragging rights we’ve gifted our local rivals for the next few months (least until we reap vengeance at the Lane in Feb), in some respects it was a timely reality check, reminding us that we only reside amongst the top three, by dint of the fact that the competition has been equally inconsistent and the chasing pack only somewhat more so.

However, as it stands at the moment, it’s tantalizing to think that all it would take is a for us to put a decent run of victories together to perhaps be able to put ourselves in the box seat. Sadly Saturday’s slap in the face demonstrated that the Arsenal are still some way short of that “B of the Bang” blinkered focus and concentration for consistently grinding their way to a title triumph.

For some time now I’ve been grumbling about the Gunners inability to start home games with the necessary intensity and pace to immediately put the opposition on the back foot and often as not we’re particularly slow to come out of the traps in these early KOs. So I was delighted to get off on the right foot on Saturday, taking the game to Tottenham and rattling them right from the opening whistle. Yet despite our first-half dominance, having failed to fully press home our advantage, by killing the game off with a third goal, come half-time, it seemed obvious to me that our opponents were bound to rally at some point.

What disappointed me most about our Derby Day defeat was our patent inability to cope with the inevitable Spurs surge, when it came early on in the second half. For all the first-half brilliance in Fabregas’ cultured promptings, in his current “want away” state of mind, our skipper certainly is not now, or never really was what one would call ‘a natural leader of men’. Cesc was handed the captaincy as a carrot, not because he has the required character attributes and on Saturday when we needed a leader capable of encouraging his team mates to stand firm, calm them down and remind them of their ability to retake control of possession, sadly our skipper was no less guilty of a headless chicken impersonation than any of his team mates.

The only consolation at the minute is that we’re no less mired in mediocrity than anyone else. But where I can envisage both Man Utd and Chelsea benefitting from that all-important experience of knowing what it takes and being imminently capable of putting their noses to the grindstone when it matters, I’m far from being convinced the Gunners are any closer to being the real deal. Yet despite our more obvious and much debated shortcomings, with Van Persie playing his way back into fitness and the likes of Walcott, Ramsey, Vermaelen all still to come, in a season where the title is dangling there, waiting for anyone to demonstrate they’ve large enough cajones to make a lunge for it, I’m still a long way from giving up hope.

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Monday, 15 November 2010

À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu

I always look forward to the annual Everton expedition. Like a comfortable pair of battered old shoes, Goodison Park remains a Coronation Street style peoples’ palace, compared to the modern glass and steel aesthetics of the Gunners’s iconic Canary Wharf-like atheneum. With chips & gravy for all, under the familiar shadow of Dixie Dean’s fixed bronze stare, rather than the exclusive surroundings of the Arsenal’s 190 quid a head pre-match haute-cuisine.

Followed by 90 minutes spent dodging either side of a post holding up the roof, in the positively ancient Archibald Leitch environs of the wooden Upper Bullens enclosure of the Toffees’ Grand Old Lady. Some jocular banter with the Scousers and best of all, skipping round Stanley Park, heading back to Lime Street station with three points in the bag, making just about bearable the traditional Sunday train delays due to seemingly inexorable signal failures and engineering works, which turn the return trip into a riotous Red Army trudge.

Moyes was spot on about neither side being at their best, but I’m certainly not bellyaching about it. It’s been a while since we awoke on a Monday morning to find the Gunners breathing down the neck of the league leaders. I imagine there’ll be plenty of pundits prognosticating about the Arsenal’s capabilities of mounting a credible challenge. Nevertheless, while the league table may never lie, the more avid spectators amongst us will confirm that the Wenger Boys still look some way short of convincing title-winning material.

I almost felt sorry for the Wolves fans on Wednesday, their evening spoiled by a first and last minute Chamakh attack that once again left Mick's Black Country boys feeling deservedly hard done by. And if Everton had pulled a goal back on Sunday with a little more time left on the clock for a Canonières meltdown, we might just as easily have collected a mere deux points, instead of six, from our forays North these past few days and would be going into Saturday’s big derby, with the Gareth Bale show arriving in buoyant mood, our neighbours retaining misguided delusions of reeling the old enemy back in.

Instead of which, our annual St. Totteringham’s Day festivities suddenly hove into view, with their customary inevitable feel, as we soar into 2nd, five places and seven points to the good of Harry Redknapp’s 'glory, glory' wannabees. On the face of it, with our squad returning to something vaguely resembling full-strength, with the likes of Van Persie and Walcott cooling their heels on the bench, hopefully impatiently waiting to remind us what they have to bring to the Red & White party and our manager getting more than his fair share, everything is looking decidedly rosy. So why am I not feeling more a flutter with excitement at the prospect of the Gunners kicking on?

Sure Cesc Fabregas finished Everton off in fine style on Sunday, with the culmination of a sadly all too rare flourish of dainty “pass & move” football at it’s very best. However considering how accustomed we’ve grown to Fabregas being the Gunners creative fulcrum, the inspiration behind all our most incisive moves, it’s disconcertingly evident in recent weeks that the Arsenal’s formerly shy and retiring skipper has developed into an all together different, more resentful creature.

After seeing Heittinga trying to bully young Jack Wilshere, to the point where poor Jack was left nursing his bruised limbs on the bench after the break, it’s not the occasional evidence of the Gunners biting back that bothers me, as many might contend that a sighting of this sort of mettle is long overdue. However Cesc’s couple of rash tackles, his recent relentless tendency to try (and more often than not fail!) to pick the perfect through ball and the fact that Fab’s struggling with that World Class trait of finding time and space in the most frenetic of circumstances, this might all be construed as evidence of his personal Barca frustrations boiling over and having a negative impact on the pitch?

I was gutted when Howard denied Samir Nasri a potential goal of the season on Sunday, following the French midfielder’s mazy run from inside his own half. Hopefully with the likes of Nasri and Wilshere stepping into the limelight, we’ll no longer be quite so reliant on the promptings of our Spanish pass-master. I’m certain Cesc will continue to shine when the Gunners are on song but it’s when our backs are against the wall that any underlying bitterness is more likely to manifest itself.

I sincerely hope time proves me wrong, but truth be told, I’d have rather Cesc had packed his bags for the Nou Camp than to have him trash so many wonderful memories, should we have to spend the duration questioning whether our skipper’s heart has long since departed London N5.

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Monday, 8 November 2010

Martha to Andy Carroll's Arthur

If some French floozy has managed to distract an obsessed Arsène Wenger from his spreadsheets and his wall-to-wall diet of world football, long enough for some extra-curricular activities, well all I can say is that she must’ve presented him with some seriously attractive statistics. But then the scandalmongers obsession with salacious tittle-tattle in this country, is more an expression of the warped sense of moral propriety of their readership than their targets.

The only roasting I’m really interested in is the one I expect our manager to be dishing out in the dressing room after the Gunners casually coughed up another costly three points at the weekend. Despite all the much deserved plaudits earned by Chris Hughton’s Toon, sadly I can’t envisage them taking points off of any of our rivals on their travels, with the sort of smash & grab tactics they deployed at our gaff.

Sure Andy Carroll is a handful, Arsène acknowledged as much in his programme notes. But then how is it possible that a Premiership defence isn’t sufficiently well-drilled to know they need to pick him up at set-pieces. There was much mirth over the way the Everton backline joined hands the other week, but personally I adored this evidence of Moyes' regimented defensive drilling from the training ground being reproduced on a match day. If only we could see a few more signs at the Arsenal of this sort of concerted, disciplined effort to address our defensive frailties.

I can’t claim to be a seer to have predicted that it was only a matter of time until Flappy Handski’s next gaff, as unfortunately such is a goalkeeper’s lot. Some suggested he’d have done better to remain on his line but I’m delighted to see a keeper keen to dominate his area, by coming for everything inside his domain. However at the time I couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t able to beat Carroll to the ball considering he has the three-foot advantage of the use of his arms.

It wasn’t until watching the lowlights on the box later than night that I realized it was his indecision that was to blame. He started to come for the ball, hesitated and then realizing Chamakh had left Carroll with a completely free header, he had no choice but to challenge for it. Fabianski is a decent enough goalie, but he lacks that abrasive cocksuredness of a keeper who does everything with total conviction. If he hadn’t hesitated, he wouldn’t have been competing with Carroll from the standing start that left him struggling to get to the ball.

Nevertheless our susceptibility to defensive faux-pas notwithstanding, Sunday’s defeat was several more times frustrating than having our bum smacked by the Baggies. At least they caught us on a bad day and posed a threat by playing some entertaining footie, whereas on Sunday Newcastle merely endured because they wanted it that it that much more than we did.

Arsène’s argument for squad rotation is only valid if players need to be kept fresh for the business end of the season because we’re challenging for trophies. I’ve always been an advocate of starting with our best XI and hopefully giving players a breather once we’re a couple of goal to the good. I’m certain there can be little benefit when we’re forced to send our star turns on to rescue a result, since I'm convinced they end up no less spent than if they’ve played the entire 90. Besides which, as far as I’m concerned, above all it is the maintenance of a winning momentum which is most crucial.

Coming on the back of our defeat against Shaktar Donestk, we once again went into Sunday’s game against lesser opposition, with a low tempo, lackluster approach, as if we have just a little too much belief in our own ability and that this will eventually tell as the opposition begin to flag, without ever needing to match their work rate. The fact of the matter is that the key to success against such sides is for us to play the game at the sort of pace that they can’t live with for 90 minutes. But sadly when you start matches at such a pedestrian pace, without the necessary vitality, it becomes impossible to shift down through the gears, until invariably we go a goal behind and are forced on to the front foot.

Not to mention my bugbear about psychologically gifting away home advantage by lining up with a lone striker. If Hughton was brave enough to play 4-4-2, why couldn’t we go like for like, as surely it would’ve been better off to start the game with a front pair, than to have to risk chasing the game at the death with FOUR strikers?

There might’ve been some solace in the Scousers stuffing Chelsea, but in truth it only made me that much more enraged at having wasted a rare opportunity to reel the Blues back in. Although based on our current inconsistent form, we’re still some way from mounting a viable challenge.

Wednesday night’s trip to the Black Country is not one for the feint-hearted, against a Wolves side that’s bound to be indignant about their recent run of bad luck. Should the Gunners find the necessary fortitude, as we often do away from home, it’s only going to leave me feeling that much more mystified why we insist on playing Martha to visiting Arthurs in our own backyard!

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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Will we ever learn?

Is it just me, or does it feel like Groundhog Day, where we storm ahead in the Group Stages, then take our eye of the ball and end up having to make a bit of a scramble to get into the knockout stages, when we should really have been on cruise control.

We’ve got a tricky game in Portugal next and instead of storming into the last sixteen, we could end up having to play a full strength team against Partizan in the last game because we need a result.

Worst still this defeat could end up taking all the steam out of the momentum we’ve built up these past couple of weeks and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we end up making hard work of the Toon on Sunday as a result.

It seems as if Arsène sets far too much store in the need for rotating players, in order to try and keep them fresh. But there’s very little point in players being fresh, unless we end up involved in those important end of season games which are likely to test their energy levels. Besides which, nothing keeps players fresher than that crucial winning momentum and by the same token, fatigue creeps in a lot quicker with defeat.

See Ancelotti’s Chelsea this evening. He pretty much sent out his strongest XI at home against Spartak Moscow and although it sounded as if they were a long way from their best, they still had more than enough in the tank to roll over the Russians and maintain and build on the head of steam they’ve been building up in the Champions League.

Moreover by sending out a weakened side, Wenger will have only fuelled Shaktar’s determination to prove that we were wrong to take them lightly and it sends out the wrong message to his own dressing room, where flat-footed Gunners think they can get away with giving the ball away cheaply all evening. And the likes of Clichy isn’t sufficiently focused two minutes from half-time to appreciate that he’d be best putting the ball into Row Z, rather than conceding possession in a dangerous area and his midfield team-mates, the likes of Eastmond and Wilshere, complacently believing Clichy will take care of business, don’t bother to track the runners.

And don’t talk to me about Bendtner and Eboué! I had to laugh when one commentator suggested the Dane made a run to distract defenders, allowing Theo room to shoot. If he did, it was about as much running as Nick did all night, as he was sat on his heels all evening and as a lone striker, he was as much use as the proverbial spare penis and only slightly less infuriating for his apathy as Manny Eboué was with his customary headless chicken impersonation.

I’ve always believed that there is very little to be gained in terms of keeping players fresh, if you are forced to send the likes of Chamakh on to chase the game with 15 mins to go, as the French striker will have ended up no less spent than if he’d played the entire 90. In my humble opinion we’d have been better off starting with our strongest possible XI and then taking players off for the latter stages once we’d secured a win, as the players involved would have been no more fatigued for Sunday’s game and psychologically speaking, they’d have come home feeling a whole lot more positive!

Ho hum, two steps forward, one step back! So what else is new. Although it's only slightly more galling this time around, with our friends from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road crowing like it was going out of fashion. Bring on Spurs in the knockout stages so we can well and truly put a spanner in their glory, glory delusions

Keep the faith


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

We're The Famous....

With the looming prospect of dropping two costly points on Saturday, when Gael Clichy careered down the left flank in the 88th minute against the Hammers, I offered up a little prayer that our profligate French full-back might for once find a team-mate with a decent cross. We’ve grown so accustomed to promising forays forward petering out with Gael’s final pass, that we were all left somewhat agog, when he played a perfect ball (with his right foot!) into that “corridor of uncertainty” between defence and keeper, for Alex Song to steal in and pull the rug from under the Hammers feet, by heading home the winner. I didn’t dare celebrate for an instant, before casting a glance towards the lino and the ref, convinced that someone, or something was about to spoil this rare fantasy.

I think everyone, including the team, believed Avram Grant’s confidence bereft Irons would prove to be relatively easy prey. But the combative likes of Parker and Noble are more than capable of showing up an opponent that isn’t really “at the races” and with our principle orchestrator having seemingly turned up without his baton (would Wenger seriously risk an unfit Fabregas, or as Lineker implied on MOTD, was Cesc merely preparing the ground with his hamstrung excuses for being on the missing list for an unglamorous midweek schlep to the Ukraine?), the Gunners were guilty of sliding back into their shell, waiting for the game to come to them, when we were all hoping they’d turn the heat up on the Hammers' hapless defence.

Nevertheless, as much as I would enjoy watching the Arsenal turn over the opposition every week, with a glut of goals in every game, rather than tearing what’s left of my hair out, with the stress of having to sweat it out until a decisive intervention at the death, there’s probably something far more positive about the Gunners nicking a last gasp winner, in a goalless game.

With Robert Green yet again saving his best for the Gunners and with both Theo and Samir hitting the woodwork, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking it was going to be one of those disappointing afternoons, where all hopes of a title challenge began to flounder. But in demonstrating the fortitude to keep plugging away in a below par performance, there is perhaps at long last a glimmer of the sort of steel on which genuine champions are founded.

For a while there I thought Chelsea were going to slip up, but if anyone’s got the knack of banking all three points while not performing at their best, it’s the Blues and it’s this winning habit which is likely to take some serious consistency of our own if we're ever going to reel them back in.

Three clean sheets on the bounce is not a bad start. I’m not a stats man but I’d guess it’s been a while since the Gunners achieved a succession of dot balls. Although Fabianski is growing in confidence, I can’t help but feel that with each additional shut-out, we’re that much closer to his next ricket. Whereas to my eyes Wojciech Szczesny really looked the part (kudos to the first terrace songsmith who manages to work our young keeper's bonkers moniker into a catchy chant) with a performance at St James Park that suggests he might possibly posses the sort of “big I am” personality that the introverted likes of Almunia and Fabianski patently lack.

I can appreciate Arsène’s reluctance to push Szczesny into the pressure-cooker spotlight too soon, for fear his promising career could be shipwrecked on the sort of glaring errors which might be inevitable for a player with such meagre big stage experience. The Carling Cup is the perfect proving ground for the Polish youngster. After tricky away games against Spurs and Newcastle, the quarter-final draw was a bit of a result. It’s a bit premature to be planning a trip to Wembley but with only three games between us and our long awaited debut at the new incarnation of the Home of Legends it’s hard not to get ahead of oneself, especially when the first of these is a home banker against the Lactics. Although for fear that similar expectation might permeate the dressing room, it could be argued that we might've been best served by a stiffer test.

Meantime if we can ease our way past Shaktar, into the knockout stages of the Champions League on Wednesday, it would be a great help, taking the pressure of the last two group games, easing the strain of fixture congestion and perhaps giving the kids more game time. It’s laughable to hear Shaktar’s manager explaining away his team’s inadequacies by blaming the Scandinavian ref’s Anglo-Saxon roots, but bristling with indignation at their humiliating trip to Highbury, we’re bound to face a harder examination on the Ukranian side’s home soil.

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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Outta Toon

G'day fellow Gooners,

I've been getting very slack of late, filing my missive to the paper on a Monday morning and failing to post it out, until it ends up being out-dated by events in midweek. Truth be told, I've been forced to become just a little more self-disciplined, as the sports ed at the Examiner will no longer accept my typically (overly)loquacious pieces and unless I restrict myself to an acceptable number of words, he'll just send it back to me.

As I result, on those rare occasions when I do manage to limit myself to anything less than a mere 800 words, I'm invariably left feeling as if I've omitted so much of what I had to say that I'm loathe to post out my piece without adding a preamble including some of the more salient points.

With procrastination being the thief of time, suddenly it's Thursday and I still haven't got around to doing it. Everyone tells me that I'd be better off sending out shorter posts anyway, but since I don't earn anything from my blog, there is no real incentive for me to split my missives into separate posts, in order to generate more traffic and besides, after ten years of writing my weekly diary pieces, I'm pretty certain that if I was producing my War & Peace like efforts for anything other than my own self-gratification (and in the vague hope of offering a little flavour to a few geographically challenged Gooners), this would be bound to become a chore rather than a pleasure and would be likely to lose something in the process.

Meanwhile I'm now in a position where it would feel farcical if I sent a post without referring to events at St James Park last night and so I guess I'd better get on with it...

As a member of the Away Ticket Scheme, I feel somewhat obliged to go to every away game, with my tickets turning up automatically in the post. I'm sure that if I wasn't writing my weekly column for the paper, I'd probably pass on the occasional exhausting schlep around the country, but both for the benefit of myself and others, my column gives me the excuse that I simply have to go to every match because it's "work".

Whereas Carling Cup match tickets are optional and if I'd received a ticket for the match at St James Park last night, I might well have made more of an effort to get there, since in my experience over the past few seasons, some of our awaydays in this Mickey Mouse tournament have been amongst the most enjoyable trips of the season, for one reason or another.

As desperate as we all are to secure some long awaited silverware, the nature of this tournament means that I can enjoy watching and screaming my head off at these games, but without anything like the same excruciating tension that I invariably experience at the vast majority of the Arsenal's other matches. Similarly, there's often an absence of anxiety on the pitch that allows the players that Arsène selects to play with a certain freedom, which often isn't quite so evident in Premiership and Champions League clashes.

However, while this is all well and good when the Young Guns have run riot, embarrassing and often humbling far more experienced opposition, in some incredibly memorable performances in this competition, I have to admit that there have been times when we've had our backs up against the wall and have ended up exiting the tournament, where I've wondered if Arsène's attitude and his prioritization of the bigger prizes has permeated down into the dressing room, to the point where we've ended up waving goodbye to the season's first sniff of silverware because we simply haven't wanted it enough.

Usually I so enjoy the opportunity of watching our carefree kids cavorting around in a rare first-team context that I'm keener to go on Carling Cup outings than any of the other trips. But in this instance, after a long eight hour drive to Manchester on Sunday and with me being up to my eyeballs with work that wont wait, I was forced to stop at home. Perhaps if I'd had a ticket, I might've made more of an effort to try and juggle my responsibilities to the ballet (after all I've never let my "show must go on" obligations interfere with my footballing pleasures in the past and at forty-eight years of age, I've a feeling any such prudent maturity might well have long since passed me by!) but with the match being live on Sky and hopefully plenty of material to come from our weekend encounter with the Hammers to fill my Examiner column, it was easier and substantially more economical for me to "just say no" for once.

A couple of my pals were flying up to the Newcastle on Air Miles tickets. Compared to an exhausting drive up the A1 to Tyneside, I would've loved to have taken much of the strain out of such an arduous trek, by joining them. However not only have I been unable to accomplish the sort of travel that would amount to sufficient Air Miles for a free ticket, they travelled up on Tuesday and aside from the cost of the flights and hotel, it would've meant losing a couple of day's wages and as a result, I doubt I would've lasted until Monday with the meagre contents on next week's pay packet.

The problem with this is that with me having not travelled and with the Gunners having managed such a resounding triumph against the Toon, should we progress to an away draw in the quarterfinals, I'll have to struggle with my superstitious nature, dealing with the dilemma of knowing that if we end up losing, I will inevitably feel personally responsible for our cup exit, as a direct result of me being present at the match.

But if, as looks likely, le Gaffer is giving the Carling Cup a bit of a go this time around, I guess I'm definitely going to have to resolve this groundless hogwash, since if we should end up going all the way to Wembley, I'm certainly not missing out on the Gunners first return to the new incarnation of the "Home of Legends"!

Myself I don't agree with all those who might contend that this competition has been devalued by Arsène and all those other managers who've followed suit, by making use of the Mickey Mouse cup as a means of blooding the youngsters. To the contrary, I believe this policy has injected some much needed lifeblood into the Carling Cup, by turning it into the one and only piece of silverware that fans of every single club in land can aspire to.

The Cup of many drinks (Milk, Coca-Cola, Carling) has always been the least prestigious trophy but it's acquired a whole new interest in the modern era, as just as we've been doing for several seasons now, fans of all the other major clubs are seriously interested in the tournament as the principal opportunity to run the rule over some of their young prodigies. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, I now look forward to our Carling Cup games with far more enthusiasm than the vast majority of decidedly unenticing fixtures in the Champions League group stages (try telling that to those poor unsuspecting numpties at White Hart Lane!).

Sadly last night, not only did I not get to go to the game, I couldn't watch it live, or even listen to the commentary on the radio. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm only just watching a recording of it now for the first time!

I had to fetch some of the painted backdrops cloths for the ballet's new production of the Nutcracker yesterday afternoon and when I turned up at the scenic artist, he asked if I minded having a cup of tea and a biscuit, as he only had to put "a couple of ribbons" on the cloth stretched out on the floor, for it to be finished, so I could get that out of his way (as it's an enormous cloth and I could appreciate how keen he was to get it out of his way). However it wasn't until I was sitting outside in the van waiting for him to finish (and for my cuppa) that it occurred to me that if he was still painting on it, I'd have to wait until the paint dried for us to be able to fold up the cloth. I ended up sitting outside his Hammersmith studio for about two hours!!

As a result, I found myself driving to our stores in deepest, darkest Kent in the very worst of rush hour traffic and it took an absolute eternity. I actually got to hear the first half hour of the radio commentary, but as I reversed the van into the stores, it suddenly dawned on me that there was no AM reception on the radio once the truck was inside the stores and by the time I'd finished unloading and loading up again and drove back out, the Gunners were 3 goals to the good. Having dropped the shutter around the back, I had some more stuff to fetch from the front door of the stores and having left the van doors open and the radio blaring, mercifully I just about heard the commentary as the fourth and final goal went in (or at least enough of it to know that the Gunners had scored) and for the benefit of no-one but myself and to the surprise and amazement of the local rabbits. foxes and assorted other wildlife, I stood there whooping and hollering.

The worst thing is that I'm trying to watch the game (as I simply can't go to work without even seeing the goals at the very least) whilst catching up on a load of correspondence and you miss enough watching football broadcast on the box (compared to being there in person) but for me, I find it impossible to absorb anything, unless I concentrate fully on the telly.

Nevertheless, while I don't feel particularly qualified to comment on the game, I've seen enough to know that I like what I see of Wojciech Szczesny in goal (kudos to the first terrace songsmith who manages to work our young keeper's bonkers moniker into a catchy chant?). Despite our incessant pleas and mounting media pressure to address our goalkeeping situation, I'm guessing that le Gaffer has been doing his best to rein in the young Pole because (hopefully much in the manner of Joe Hart), he appears to have the sort of unbridled confidence of youth which is bound to end up with him making the occasional glaring ricket.

But give me this sort of confidence any day, over the timidity we've grown accustomed to from our other triumvirate of kack-handed keepers, as I'd gladly suffer Szczesny dashing out in his efforts to dominate his area and being sold the occasional dummy by a wily striker, rather than us and our defence having to suffer the abiding air of uncertainty that we've grown accustomed to at the back, never knowing if the vacillating likes of Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone intend on stopping at home, or coming out and making their presence felt.

Who knows if Wojciech is going to be the answer to all our prayers as he proves himself to be the real deal in games to come? But what I am certain of, even on the little evidence I've seen to date, is that unlike our introverted trio of goalkeepers, the youngster definitely seems to have the personality which at the very least, leaves me feeling confident that he has the potential to become a sufficiently imposing presence between the sticks. And no matter how impressive a shot-stopping display we witness from the likes of Almunia and Fabianski, sadly they both appear to be the sort of shrinking violets who are never going to be able to lend that much needed aura of calming reassurance to our back line because it's not in the nature of their somewhat pusillanimous personalities.

But that's more than enough of my prattle for one post. Anyone for the Hammers in the quarterfinals? It will certainly make for an awkward atmosphere (as will be the case on Saturday), with my boss, as the master carpenter at the ballet is an Irons season ticket holder (according to EEC terminology, he's actually now deemed as the ballet's "Chief Mechanist" but sod that, as master carpenter sounds a whole heap more impressive :-). Mind you, it will probably be me who ends up chopping up an endless pile of wood, if the Gunners give them a hammering (but it will be well worth the resulting punishment :-)

Come on you Reds
Big Love


In light of the Arsenal’s abysmal recent record against our immediate rivals, we were tickled pink to come away from Sunday’s game with all 3 points, as it was looking like the sort of significant encounter that was either going to leave us clinging to Chelsea’s coat tails as a credible challenger, or battling it out with the also-rans for Champions League qualification.

Nevertheless I was so keen to see us lay down some sort of marker against Man City, that I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappoinment that our comprehensive 3-0 triumph was somewhat cheapened, by the way in which the ref Clattenburg demonstrated his cajones, by reducing the home side to 10 men in the opening minutes, thereby leaving Mancini able to contend (albeit almost unintelligibly) that his team would’ve won the day if it’d been an even contest.

It’s hard to argue, as City looked good value in those opening moments. With Richards running riot down their right flank with his athleticism and Silva pulling the strings with his silky skills, City looked more than capable of posing a threat against any defence. You only had to see the £100 million’s worth of bench-warmers to suspect that City’s strength in depth is likely to serve them well, when other sides might start to hit the wall in the Premiership marathon.

A red card for the opposition isn’t often cause for celebration, as aside from ruining the spectacle for the watching millions, it invariably ends up with them battening down the hatches, to the point where we struggle to break them down. Normally the penalty area would be far too congested with bodies, for us to carve a route through with the sort of one-two that resulted in Nasri’s opening goal. Still playing at home and with their own point to prove, City couldn’t spend the entire 85 minutes sitting on their heels and for once, the extra-man served to our advantage.

Despite Fabregas being on the receiving end of several clatterings early on, Clattenburg seemed to spend the remainder of the first-half intent on evening up the odds. By half-time we were left wondering who in an Arsenal shirt hadn’t been booked and it’s to the Gunners credit (and much to my amazement) that we avoided giving the ref his get-out of jail card and lasted the remainder of the ninety with all eleven still on the pitch.

Never mind the victory, keeping our first clean sheet away from home since Villa Park in January was cause to get the flags out and Fabianski was in fine form. Nevertheless it’s not our keepers' shot-stopping capacity, but their failure to dominate their area where they tend to fall down. On a day when I should be singing his praises, there was one too many instance when hesitation at the back should’ve been resolved by Lucasz bellowing in the ear of his defenders to leave the ball. Standing behind Joe Hart’s goal and watching his impressive work, I couldn’t help but wonder where the Gunners might be with an equally imposing personality between the posts.

It wasn’t until Alex Song emphatically stabbed home our second that I began to espy the difference between an organically grown squad and a hotch-potch of star talent that’s been thrown together thanks to City’s loadsamoney owners, as any remaining resistance seemed to evaporate and we were left to savour watching the Gunners “taking the Michael” with a keep-ball session for the remaining 25 mins. Perhaps Mancini will foster a greater fighting spirit over time, but it’s not a facet of a team sport that you can turn on like a tap.

Myself I was just delighted to be there. After having my car pinched a couple of weeks back, I replaced it with another old banger and fatalist that I am, I spent the entire couple of hundred mile journey, fully expecting the engine to blow up in my face. Hence having stopped at the services for something to eat just outside of Manchester and being accosted by a City fan in just such a predicament (his mate’s motor having died on them), I simply couldn’t refuse to come to his rescue. Besides which I benefitted from my Samaritan act, as apparently my new Mancunian mate saved me from the scallies in hi-viz yellow coats, who pounce on unsuspecting travelling fans, by waving them into illegal parking pitches, where they are easy prey to unscrupulous private tow-away firms.

Chamakh appears to rise to these big occasions. I’m sure his teammates appreciate the lone striker’s selfless efforts to provide the likes of Samir Nasri with space to weave his magic spell. But by ramping up the positive reading on the Gooner karma meter, I like to believe I too contributed to our success, in my own small way.

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