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Tuesday 20 April 2010

Our Kingdom For A Keeper

Hi folks,

The last thing any Gooner might want to see is another table in which the Gunners feature even further down than 3rd, but I've reproduced this one in response to the increasingly disconcerting rash of critics coming out of the woodwork to denigrate le Gaffer, after yet another barren season.

The evidence above of clubs nett spend on players since the inception of the Premiership, highlights Arsène's amazing achievement over the last 16 years, maintaining the Gunners as a competitive force, for a fraction of what other far less successful clubs have forked out on their squads. Moreover, in answer to the clamour from impatient Gooners, who are convinced that the solution to our silverware drought is to spunk up millions, the figures above patently demonstrate that breaking the bank to bolster one's squad brings absolutely no guarantee of success.

To the contrary, with only three domestic trophies to play for each season, many Premiership managers have mortgaged their club's future in the pursuit of self-glorification and short-term success, with little or nothing to show for all the millions they've blown on modern football's "have boots, will travel" mercenaries. Whereas the Gunners have amassed shedloads of silverware over the same period, stumping up a relative pittance by comparison.

For the most part, our minimal nett spend compared to much of the competition is a reflection of Arsène's incredibly shrewd transfer dealings. Although if these figures include all those youngsters who've gone on to forge careers elsewhere, because they were unable to make the grade with the Gunners, I wonder if they've factored in the substantial cost of their development. And if I've one regret it is that sadly (as yet!) we've had barely any homegrown players who've played their part in the disproportionately small outlay on the Arsenal's squad

With the income from the 100,000 seater Camp Nou and 12 homegrown players (inc. 6 local lads) in the current Barca squad, it's no wonder the Spanish champs can afford to blow us out of the water when competing for star players. What's more, after having endured the Arsenal's multi-cultural bouillabaisse being caught napping, when out for an afternoon stroll at the DW Stadium on Sunday, unable to regain any momentum, after Fabianski's gift gave Wigan cause to believe that there might just be a point in them turning up for the last ten minutes, I couldn't help but wonder if the Gunners would've let themselves and the travelling Gooner faithful down so badly, if there was just a soupcon of a homegrown vibe at the heart of this Arsenal squad.

Then again, the homegrown double act of Scouse scallies, Gerrard & Carragher were no less guilty of swanning around in Liverpool's encounter with the Hammers last night, a game which was no less significant for both sides than our match against Wigan, but which from what I saw (as it wasn't exactly riveting fare!) seemed to have the fervour of a testimonial match. Despite the fact that like Wigan, West Ham were supposed to be battling to avoid the relegation trap door and the Scousers should be scrabbling to secure themselves some sort of European competition next season, both sides seemed to be suffering from a severe case of end-of-seasonitis.

Perhaps I'm growing more cynical with old age, or could it be that our overpaid footballing heroes are making less and less effort to disguise the fact that far from being prepared to sweat blood for the cause, as each successive season draws to a close they're actually only prepared to make a patently obvious token effort to prove themselves vaguely interested in the fortunes of an institution which is merely viewed as their cash cow. And if they can't be bothered to expend the sort of graft necessary to prevent its demise, or to achieve the level of success necessary to keep them in the extravagant fashion that they've grown accustomed to, well then there will always be another mug along in a minute for them to feign kissy-kissy with another shirt badge.

My Spurs mates were hoping that we would get a result at Wigan, in order that we remained sufficiently interested in the title shake-up to turn it on against Man City. I'm hoping that the Gunners are going to feel sufficiently shamefaced about events on Sunday, that they feel obliged to try and make up for it by putting on a bit of a show against City.

Although I have to admit that if we were to lose this weekend and this would guarantee that the Lilywhites would be left watching Eastenders again next season instead of joining us in the Champions League (I suppose there could be room for amusement in watching them get all excited about qualifying in fourth, only for them to fall at the first knockout hurdle in August?), I for one wouldn't be so disappointed to suffer a defeat against a team where, with the potential involvement of the likes of Vieira, Kolo, Adebayor, Silvinho & Wrighty's lad, it could end up taking on the uncommitted ambience of an inter-club practice match.

Meanwhile, Arsène has to appreciate that for the majority of football fans, sound economic housekeeping doesn't rank anywhere near as important as bringing home the baubles for us to celebrate at the end of a long season. The Irish Examiner sent me a note reminding me of the deadline for our end of season report and for a moment there, in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's massive disillusionment, I felt like suggesting to the paper that they need only cut and paste any one of the corresponding missives from the previous five, ultimately disappointing campaigns, since they've all basically said exactly the same!

Jens Lehmann fell on his feet, walking into the Arsenal's Invincibles in 2004 but Jens was found out the following season. Basically since then, I have been saying that until Arsène invests in a keeper who truly possesses a world class presence, our only chance of winning the title would be by default. With Chelsea seemingly falling over themselves to throw the Premiership crown and Man Utd having one of their least impressive seasons for many a moon, we've perhaps come as close as we are ever going to come, to being gifted the title this season.

Believe me, I wouldn't have turned it down, but it would've taken some of the gloss off, if we'd have ended up being domestic champions, largely due to the inconsistencies of others. But as far as I'm concerned, until such time as Wenger addresses the goal keeping situation, instead of continuing to insist on making do with the sort of monkeys that result from only being prepared to pay relative peanuts, we will always be dependent on the charity of others.

I've referred below to Arsène's apparent blind spot between the posts and I wonder if this is related to his clinical, scientific approach to football, compared to more instinctive managers. In my humble opinion it's both part of what makes Wenger so brilliant, while at the same time being perhaps his greatest weakness. Where the likes of Mourinho might send on three subs after the break, based solely on a hunch that the changes might throw a spanner in the opposition's works, Wenger will wait until the last 15/20 minutes because his decisions are based solely on statistical analysis of perhaps his players fitness, or his subs potential for having a significant impact. Le Gaffer's approach to the game is evident in his habit of describing every single facet of football in terms of a percentage.

Seeing our goalkeeping problems through le Prof's eyes, it is perhaps the case that a top notch keeper might only improve the Gunners' goal difference by a relatively small margin and as a result, Arsène cannot see the logic in breaking the bank and spending 30 odd million quid on a goalie, who is only half a dozen goals better than what we have already. Doubtless Wenger believes he can get away with spending a hell of a lot less, on players with the ability to balance the books at the other end of the pitch.

This might make for great entertainment, but the fact of the matter is that you simply can't outscore the opposition every single week. Instead of putting so much pressure on our front men, how much better would it be, if we could count on our keeper to assume some of the responsibility, so that we are not still sat on the edge of our seats, wondering if a two goal lead will be enough because of our inability to shut shop at the back.

Arsène's pragmatism perhaps prevents him from being able to compute the real value of a world class keeper, in terms of something quite so intangible as the benefits of having a big personality between the sticks, the sort of colossus, not necessarily in size, but in stature and presence, who's capable of intimidating opposition strikers and who spreads an air of calm reassurance amongst the rest of our defence.

I can't envisage our opponents nowadays giving a monkey's about which of our far too timid triumvirate of keepers they find themselves playing against. Whereas I want a goalie who's reputations is sufficiently intimidating that opposition strikers are forced to hesitate, or to over-analyze any attempt on our goal, in the belief that they need do something a little bit special in order to beat him.

Moreover, there's often an air of calm composure between the likes of Ferdinand & Vidic, or Terry & Carvalho when they need to clear their lines at the back, which I assume is due to the fact that they have complete confidence in a keeper who is thoroughly consistent in everything they do. By contrast our centre-backs all too often seem to express the exact same feelings of blind-panic that we endure on the terraces, in their frantic efforts to address the danger whenever our defence is put under pressure, because the frequent change of keepers and the fact that all three lack the self-confidence to dominate their area, means that our defence never quite knows what to expect from the man playing behind them.

The relationship between a keeper and the two centre-backs is just about the most important one on the pitch. I don't know for a fact, but I've always had this sense that le Prof's technique in attempting to instill "unbelievable belief" in his charges, involves treating them all as adults, expecting them to have learned their trade by the time they reach the Arsenal first XI. Sadly, in my opinion, Don Howe was put out to grass soon after Arsène arrived at the club. Seemingly Howe's sergeant-major methods were bad "feng shui" and all that screaming and shouting didn't fit in with Wenger's Zen philosophy.

Arsène not only revolutionised the Arsenal, but the ripple effect of his approach to the game changed the entire face of British football. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that absolutely everything the new broom swept clean was all bad. If they do, it's certainly not apparent in their actions on the pitch, but I can't envisage the current squad spending time on the training ground, enduring the sort of regimented defensive drills that are likely to have been an integral part of Don Howe's "old-school" training technique.

I'm all for the fluid, unfettered nature of the Arsenal's beautiful football, but at the back you want players to be so well versed in their expected role in any given situation, that their actions are entirely second nature. Amongst the best defences there is no thinking time necessary because centre-backs and goalie have the sort of intuitive relationship, which means that they're instinctively aware of what each other will do.

Jens Lehmann might at least have had the sort of confrontational personality which meant that unlike the current incumbents, opposing teams were aware of his presence (Jens could start a barney in a phone box). Yet I always had the feeling that all the bluff and bluster was something of a pretense, designed to distract from the fact that underneath, the big German goalie wasn't the bravest of characters. With opposing teams having learned to disrupt our defence by having a man stand right in our keeper's face at set-pieces, where Lehmann would have a row with anyone who stood on his toes, in recent times our keepers appear content to accept this tactic, as their excuse to stop at home.

In such circumstances, with two six-foot plus players standing nose to nose, it always amuses me to see a relatively diminutive schnip of a team mate tasked with separating the two, by standing in the middle. As far as I'm concerned, it will be perfectly obvious to me when (if?) the day should ever come that Arsène ever gets around to solving our goalkeeping quandary because he'll have drafted in a goalie with the sort of dominant, intimidating personality that has his team mates requesting permission to enter his six yard box.

Moreover, he won't need any protection at set-pieces because he has sufficient confidence in his own physical presence (and the fact that the use of his arms affords him a three foot advantage) that instead of trying to get around the player obstructing his path to the ball, he will simply go through them, to either claim possession, or in the process induce the ref to award a foul.

Every season of late, I've tried to find comfort in the thought that our success would've only enabled Arsène to paper over the cracks, hoping that our failure would at least force our manager's hand and his short arms, into long pockets, in order to address the more obvious of our squad's deficiencies. Sadly I've been proved wrong, as each summer Arsène has shown himself to be a mean pontoon player, preferring to stick instead of twisting and potentially going bust.

With his tendency to keep a tight rein on the purse strings, as if he was spending his own daughter's inheritance, I keep hoping that Arsène's frugality is due to a basic lack of spondulicks, rather than him being parsimonious by nature. With each passing season I expect the club to have reached the promised land, where all those highly profitable revenue streams from our new stadium and the purported additional £3 million per match begins to have some impact on the Gunners purchasing power. After all, since I already had my guaranteed (and far superior) pitch at my former home of football, this was the principal basis on which we were sold the new stadium project.

Meanwhile I've been waffling on for so long that Barcelona have lost to Inter since I began this lengthy preamble. I don't want to sound too smug, but in all the slaverish "best ever club side" type praise that followed our pumelling in Spain, I said that I fancied that the paucity of the Arsenal's performance would only be truly reflected in the fact that Barca were likely to make a lot harder work of defeating Mourinho's aging mob.

Driving down Aubert Park these past few gloriously bright sunny mornings, as I approach the bottom of the hill, the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky is suddenly filled with vista of the new stadium and the looming mural of the backs of the likes of Mclintock, Bould, Parlour and Rice, framed by the new apartment developments on either side.

It's a sight which has moved me to wonder what on earth some of these old Arsenal legends would make of the sort of limp-wristed displays that pass for end of season commitment from their modern day counterparts?

Come on you Reds


If there’s one thing that never fails to amaze me, it’s a football fans eternal propensity to rebound from the very depths of heart-rending disillusionment. In light of the array of significant injuries that have exposed the limitations of Arsène’s squad and all the pre-season predictions that we’d be the team most likely to end up in Liverpool’s predicament, until we were banjaxed by Barca, I felt that by and large the Gunners hadn’t done so bad, managing to stick around to the end of the season, like a not so malodorous smell. But it’s all gone pear-shaped since our capitulation in Catalunya, culminating in our disgraceful demise at the DW Stadium on Sunday.

Whereas by contrast if I was a cock-a-hoop Spurs fan, after their remarkable derby win double this past week, I couldn’t help but wonder how it is that my side suddenly bears absolutely no recognition to the team of impostors who threw in the towel against Pompey at Wembley?

Hard as they tried, my Spurs mates couldn’t get much of a rise out of me after our Derby debacle. For all their gloating about scuppering the Gunners last glimmer of a title challenge, their incessant leg-pulling wasn’t nearly so excruciating, when a Premiership trophy this season has always seemed little more than a pipe-dream.

Obviously I would’ve rather it had happened absolutely anywhere else but White Hart Lane, but in some respects there was almost a certain sense of relief to the perceived finality of events last Wednesday night. The length of the pole has been extended and retracted game by game, in direct proportion to the inconsistencies of the other two main contenders, but there was some solace in the belief that we had at least seen the last of this unattainable carrot that’s been dangling from it all season long.

If this Gooner Dobbin was in any danger of believing that there was still some slight chance of sinking my oversized molars into that juicy Premiership carrot, all such feint hopes of glory evaporated, the moment Vermaelen limped off the Lilywhite’s field of dreams, 1-0 down, after only 20 mins.

I couldn’t have been more wrong to mock Sol Campbell's comback. Faster, stronger and more committed than many players nearly half his age, Sol’s reminded us that unlike the majority of our decimated squad, he still retains plenty of the 'right stuff’ aura of a genuine title-winner. The Gunners have proved positively porous in Alex Song’s absence, with Sol’s unstinting resolve all too often the only bulwark between a potential landslide of embarrassment prompted by his team mates flaccid efforts.

Meanwhile I couldn’t escape this image of Fergie falling off his sofa for the second successive week, laughing hysterically at the success of his secret weapon, having successfully slipped the handicap that is Mikael Silvestre into the Arsenal camp - a defensive time-bomb designed to implode just at the point of maximum, devastating impact. Gawd love him, Silvestre might’ve scored on Sunday but for the most part he should be playing in a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe, having acquired the mantle of our very own Grim Reaper! Personally I’d much prefer to see the likes of Kyle Bartley, or any of the Gunners’ youngsters given a go, than to suffer the torment of Peanut Head’s obvious limitations.

Having skulked back down the Seven Sisters Road after our midweek humiliation, needless to say, there wasn’t too much Gooner gusto for Sunday’s crack of dawn departure for a lunchtime encounter with Wigan. After Wednesday’s ‘too little, too late’ cameo display from our much missed Dutch striker, the prospect of Van Persie starting his first match since November was perhaps the only saving grace for a long schlep to the North-West.

With inconsistency the only consistent element in this topsy-turvy campaign, even if Robin had remained fit there’s no guarantee that his contribution would’ve made a considerable difference; especially with le Gaffer’s current fixation on a 4-5-1 formation. Nevertheless, Van Persie’s introduction for the last 23 minute against Spurs was like turning on a light. Our tempestuous front-man immediately produced the sort of scintillating skills that highlighted exactly what we’ve missed these past four months from Arsène’s motley selection of pinch-hitters. By contrast to the delicate artistry of our Dutch thoroughbred, suddenly Bendtner, looked a clumsy, leaden-footed Danish dray horse.

In the past, the Gunners could often be guaranteed 'to get their groove on' with the sun on their backs. With Chelsea seemingly intent on stumbling over the finishing line, following their unconvincing efforts against Spurs, we’d not quite seen the last of the carrot. Myself I would’ve much preferred to see Van Persie and perhaps a big stick! Judging by the apparent apathy on display, for 80 insipid minutes on Sunday, it was hard to believe the home team were playing for their Premiership survival and that fate had left the door ajar, for the Gunners to make one last push for glory.

I’m sure this was far from being the only Premiership game with an ‘end of season’ feel, in spite of incredibly high stakes, where loyal fans on the verge of a nervous breakdown are forced to suffer the indolent efforts of overpaid mercenaries, who are already more focused on the prospect of working on their tans, or self-glorification in South Africa this summer.

Up until Fabianski’s costly fumble, it felt as if Wigan might as well have handed us 3 points. Instead of both sides merely going through the motions, we could’ve avoided the expense of a costly outing and all enjoyed a leisurely lie-in. Doubtless many Gooners will believe our Polack keeper culpable, but his momentary cock-up was symptomatic of an overall lack of concentration that's eventually brought the curtain down on another barren season. It’s not so much the defeat that bothers me, but the depressing fact that our season has expired with a shameful whimper, when the very least loyal Gooners deserve is a far more fervent bang for our hard-earned bucks.

Having gifted Wigan their Premiership lifeline, while hardly winning friends amongst the Hammers, Hull & Burnley faithful, how many more seasons will we have to endure our prospects of silverware floundering on a triumvirate of powder-puff goalies, before le Gaffer gets dragged to the opticians, kicking and screaming, to cure his genuine blind spot when it comes to the Gunners desperate need for dominant personality between the posts.

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