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Thursday 30 September 2010

The Real Deal Or Merely A Repeat Of The Attack Of The Time Bandits?

While I’m somewhat loathe to pass judgement on a game that I’ve watched on the box, as from experience, I know the TV pictures can provide a warped view of proceedings, from where I sat (in my armchair), Tuesday night’s encounter in Serbia served to emphasize the failings of both the Champions League format and (AFAIC) the patently obvious Achilles heel in this Arsenal squad .

It’s very easy to point the finger of blame at Manuel Almunia for the calamity against the Baggies, but viewed with the benefit of some time for considered reflection and after watching our utterly uninspired display against a poor Partizan Belgrade side, who would’ve been swallowed whole by many other, more driven Champions League opponents, it seems to me to be a complete injustice to single out poor Almunia as the principal scapegoat for Saturday’s defeat.

Sure Almunia was responsible for a couple of obvious cock-ups, allowing WBA’s second goal to slip by him at the near post and being dragged out into no man’s land and presenting the visitors with an open net, for them to score their third (doubtless paranoid about conceding a second penalty by diving at the players feet. But we mustn’t forget that there were a couple of half-decent saves during the first forty-five, which kept us in the game. In fact if you want to blame anyone, then my neighbour at our gaff might have to hold his hands up, since he must’ve tempted fate when he pointed out that the much maligned Manuel had up to this point, hardly put a foot (or a hand) wrong in any of the matches he’d been involved in so far this season.

In my most humble opinion, it’s never been the Spaniard’s shot stopping capabilities that have been the cause for greatest concern, as he’s often demonstrated himself to be a decent enough keeper, when it comes to making reaction saves - although how mad do they look now, those misguided meshuganas in the media who were proposing Almunia as a potential answer to England’s goalkeeping woes?

It’s always been Manuel’s timid and introverted personality that have proved his biggest handicap, preventing him from being able to dominate his area and to provide our back line with that all important air of calm assuredness, that exists amongst a defence, where everyone knows exactly how the other will react in any given situation

But whatever you might deem his greatest faults, Almiunia only goes out their to do his best and if this isn’t good enough, we can’t blame him for his lack of natural ability. While Lehmann might have been a much bigger personality and offered us the sort of presence in the Arsenal goal that has been on the missing list ever since he left the club, I always suspected that all the Kraut’s bluff and bluster was to mask the fact that he didn’t really enjoy throwing himself in where the boots were flying.

With eleven season’s worth of diary pieces, I am sure I can prove it, if I was sufficiently smug to dig back into my archives, but ever since Spunky hung up his goalkeeping gloves, I’ve been saying that until the Arsenal invest in (or uncover!) a truly world class, dominant presence to play between the sticks, the sort of personality who’s sufficiently respected throughout the game, for him to appear two feet taller to opposing strikers and who will thereby make opponents feel they need to do something special to beat him (rather than looking at our collection of shrinking violets and thinking a punt at any old pot-shot might prove fruitful), any genuine title aspirations rest solely on the complacency, or inconsistency of the competition.

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t get too excited about Fabianski’s performance against Partizan, as quite frankly I’m terrified of the thought that the Pole has thereby guaranteed his place at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. At least Almunia has the experience on his side that might enable him to put his mistakes behind him, whereas Fabianski appears equally fragile to me and I find the thought of him playing behind our novice centre-back partnership on Sunday fills me with even more dread than Manuel.

If Sczczny is all he’s cracked up to be, why not give the kid given a fair crack of the whip, by throwing him in at the deep end, to see if he can sink or swim. Based on what we’ve experienced of our three other timid goal-tenders to date, we know full well that they can’t cut the mustard. Albeit that Mannone hasn’t had that much of a look in, but I’ve seen little to suggest he’s any more extrovert and authoritative than Almunia or Fabianski.

Or will Arsène insist on continuing to rotate the three of them, as and when they’re responsible for mistakes which cost us games, until they’re all shorn of any remaining confidence and the Arsenal are long since out of any title race?

Meanwhile, much as against Partizan last night, on Saturday it wasn’t just a world-class keeper that was required to raise the Arsenal’s performance beyond the mundane. I know that ultimately the boys have done their job and will be bringing those all-important three points back from Belgrade, but their were times during this low-tempo display, especially at the start of the second half, that with this being just the second of the six game group stage marathon, both sides seemed perfectly happy to settle for a face-saving single point.

With one of the three wins that will usually guarantee progress through to the knockout stages, already under our belt, after bashing Braga 6-0, the vast majority of Arsène’s side seemed to display the same lethargy seen on Saturday, safe in the knowledge that they exist in a comfort zone that offers four more matches to secure qualification.

It amused me to hear the pundit acclaim Denilson’s “brilliant midfield tackle” as the Brazilian prevented a Partizan player from making a point-blank effort from close to the penalty spot in the opening moments, with Gooner hearts in mouths due to the panic-struck way in which our defence dealt with the various hair raising moments that resulted from our decidedly indolent start to this game

What the commentator failed to mention (as far as I could see) was that Denilson was only forced to bust a gut to prevent a potential disaster so early on because he’d been ball watching as the move built up and his failure to track back and protect our defence had left them exposed, forcing him into attempting this last ditch effort.

As far as I’m concerned, football’s a simple game. The obligations of a holding midfielder are to sit in front of the back four, doing their best to thwart the opposition’s attacks, by preventing the opposing attack from getting at our defence. But just as was the case with Song and Diaby on Saturday, against Partizan, it appeared as if neither Song nor Denilson were aware of their responsibilities, or perhaps they just weren’t feeling sufficiently enthusiastic to afford their colleagues the required protection.

Time and again they allowed the opposition to pass them by, into the space between the two of them and our defence, only eventually waking up to the potential threat, when it was already imminent. And so instead of being able to face up to the opposition and putting themselves in the way of further advance, they invariably end up forced to try and recover the situation, by attempting to tackle the opposition whilst haring back towards our own goal (far too frequently conceding fouls in a dangerous position just outside the box).

I’m unsure whether this is down to pure naivety, or downright laziness. Despite the memories of several similarly infuriating instances last season, where replays of goals scored against us, shown from behind the goal, all too often revealed the sight of Denilson hardly breaking his neck to get back to help out, I continue to try and give the Brazilian lad the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he’s still learning his trade.

However I have to admit that after last night’s match I can’t help but have some concerns whether all those who have already written off the Brazilian youngster, might have a point and that for all the faith Wenger has in Denilson’s natural talent, perhaps he just lacks the faculty for the necessary speed of thought to ever become the sort of midfield general that we’ll soon be needing at the heart of the Gunners’ game (assuming that sadly Cesc is destined to be out the door in the none too distant future).

Could it be that Denilson is just too dim-witted to fulfill his promise? It would be easy to draw this conclusion from the penalty he conceded against Partisan. It seemed a fairly aimless ball into the box, giving him plenty of time to either take evasive action, or to withdraw his hand and his dumbfounded reaction didn’t exactly paint the lad as the brightest button in the box.

But if both midfield partnerships have looked ponderous and leaden-footed in recent days, the answer to inspiring a more dynamic display out of this duo might lie elsewhere. Although the goalkeeping issue might be glaring, quite frankly there is sweet FA we can do about it until January and so instead of us only aggravating the problem by getting on our goalies backs, we need to do our part and get behind them, to try and build up their confidence.

Personally I believe Arsène needs to back a horse in the Arsenal goal and stick with it, as you can’t have them playing under the sort of pressure that leaves them certain that they’ll be out of favour with every single mistake.

Perhaps a less obvious but no less pivotal problem is evident in the fact that Wenger seems to be rotating the captaincy with every performance. Last night it felt as if Thomas Rosicky was the umpteenth Arsenal player to have worn the armband this season. I can recall personally questioning Arsène on the captaincy issue and hearing him respond that we have eleven captains in his team.

But the constant change in the captaincy is either a reflection of the fact that Arsène doesn’t think the armband issue particularly significant, or perhaps it’s more indicative of the fact that there are so few obvious leaders in the current Arsenal squad?

Myself I’ve been hoping that Thomas Vermaelen might have the necessary leadership attributes and as he grows more confident in his role within this squad, we might begin to see him cajoling and encouraging his colleagues. But at present, in Vermaelen’s absence from our last two outings, it’s seemed to me as if both of these low-tempo displays were crying out for some leadership, for someone to drive the Gunners forward, in an effort to stir us from our apparent lethargy.

Let’s face it the centreback partnerships of Koscielny & Squillaci , or Djourou & Squillaci aren’t likely to be sufficiently comfortable in an Arsenal shirt to be bellowing at Song & Diaby or Song & Denilson, when the players in front of them switch off and let go of opposition runners.

It was interesting last night, as just as was seen at Eastlands on Saturday, in a Serie A style uninspiring sparring contest between City and Chelsea, the only goal of the game came from Carlos Tevez’s single injection of pace, we saw the Gunners opening strike resulting from the first time Arshavin and Wilshere put their foot on the gas and drove at the opposition defence, where instead of standing their admiring our passing, it was the first time that Partizan were forced to try and deal with it.

In my opinion, Jack Wilshere was one of the few players to come away from last night’s performance with any credit, as although Jack might’ve faded somewhat in the latter stages, early on, he was one of the few Arsenal players putting himself about that pitch with any real intent, looking as if he was reveling in this opportunity to impose his talents on the big European stage..

I don’t know about last night, but at our place on Saturday, when I looked around the pitch and for the most part when I watch the Arsenal play live, I invariably find myself disappointed with the lack of communication occurring between the Gunners. Instead of talking to one another, encouraging one another and digging their team mates out when they don’t appear to be pulling their weight, they all appear far too uninterested in what their team mates are doing, only opening their gobs occasionally to complain about a pass which has been played behind them, instead of being played into their path.

Sadly it’s not just in goal where the Gunners appear to lack big personalities, it’s all over the pitch. But then this is not just an Arsenal problem, as there are few big personalities in the Premiership game nowadays because the mercenary merry-go-round nature of modern football isn’t really conducive for local stars to step off the terraces, so steeped in their club’s history, desperately keen to work their socks off towards the cause of bringing the sort of success that they would’ve celebrated equally as a fan and as a player.

How many of those involved in Saturday’s humbling defeat departed THOF2 as disappointed as you and I? Unfortunately I can’t help but believe that there weren’t many Arsenal players who had quite as miserable a weekend as the rest of us Gooners, positively dreading seeing the humiliating headlines in the Sunday papers, as I tend to think that the vast majority of them will have already gotten over the miserable events at the Emirates on Saturday, by the time they were driving their supercars out of the players car park.

But then unfortunately not every player is a Tony Adams, or a John Terry, Jamie Carragher type devoted servant of their club’s cause. But I feel that you’ve got to have something of this spirit within the camp for a team to truly prosper, with players who are prepared to bawl out their colleagues, when they’re deserving of it, after a below par performance. Otherwise there’s no one to tell Andrey Arshavin that it just won’t suffice for him to have a significant part in perhaps helping us to take the lead, only for him to switch off for the rest of the 90, making like a teapot standing with hands on hips in the middle of the park, believing he’s done his bit and spending the remainder of the game lazily laying the ball off, choosing not to take any further responsibility in the outcome.

When we missed two or three chances last night to put the game to bed, we just seemed to take our foot off the pedal, accepting that perhaps it wasn’t going to be our night for a conclusive three point win, when I want someone to be driving the Gunners forward, refusing to accept anything other than a victory.

I want someone to be bellowing at Eboue, Song and Chamakh to get back on their feet, when they hit the deck, lying there waiting in vain, for a whistle which isn’t going to come. OK so Marouanne secured a penalty with his blatant dive against Partizan, but the Moroccan lad did not know that the ref was going to be brave enough to blow up and award a spot-kick to the visitors, in front of such a frighteningly partisan Partisan crowd.

Having got goalside of the defender and being clean through on goal with only the goalie to beat, in advance of realizing the ref had blown up for a penalty, was I the only one screaming blue murder at our new striker for having hit the deck? I also wonder what it says about his striker’s instincts, as in most cases you would expect a genuine goal scorer not to want to give up an opportunity to score a goal, in the feint hope of being awarded a penalty?

Still at least we’re going into Sunday’s game on the back of a successful outing when there were times during the game in Belgrade when it looked as if we’d blown our best chances. Moreover, with six points already in the Champions League back, the pressure is off somewhat in the remaining group games.

Although I’m not sure this will prove in our eventual interest, as if we end up qualifying with games in hand, Arsène’s likely to send out a lightweight line-up for the last couple of games if the results are irrelevant. When this has happened in the past, I’ve got the distinct impression that by doing so, le Gaffer has been giving out the wrong signals to his side and instead of some of the fringe members of our squad going out there with something to prove, our entire team fails to turn up and we invariably either end up having to bring on the big guns to try and effect a rescue at the death, or we end up with an embarrassing result, which will often have repercussions in our Premiership campaign, as far as our momentum is concerned.

Besides, as we’ve witnessed on our two most recent matches, bringing on the big guns as substitutes often doesn’t have the desired effect because when you start matches playing at such a low tempo, it’s invariably impossible to suddenly shift through the gears and inject some pace into the match (even when you go two or three goals down!!).

It’s strange because as the season has progressed, Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge has assumed increasing importance for both teams. If Chelsea are unable to turn us over, this will only confirm the suggestion that their dominance to date has been misleading because their season commenced with such an easy run of games. And should the Gunners fail to stand up to the Blues and offer them some serious resistance, the media will immediately be writing off the Arsenal as serious title contenders, believing us to be a team of flat-track bullies who simply roll over and play dead when faced with more experienced, more physical and equally talented opposition.

I guess it’s also a massive game for le Gaffer, as nothing less than a draw at the Bridge will suffice, if we are seriously to believe our manager’s mantra about his squad having developed in stature and having acquired the necessary maturity and resilience.

Myself I invariably fancy the Gunners to always at least give a good account of themselves against the big fish because we can rest assured that they’ll be sufficiently motivated. But, like most other Gooners I imagine, quite frankly I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I’m bricking it, for fear that the Blues will once again thwart the attack of Arsène’s team of “Time Bandits” and we might end up humiliated.

Here’s hoping I’ve tempted fate, Fabregas (if he makes it!) and of course Fabianski all to prove me wrong

Come on you Reds

Big Love

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Monday 20 September 2010

If There's a G-d, How Long Before The Queen Mum Makes Good Use Of Her Time In The Hereafter, By Converting The Old Geezer Into A Gooner?

Having seen Andy Gray’s analysis on the box on Sunday afternoon and his unbiased take on the traumatic 95th minute equalizer at the Stadium of Light (as the 4 minutes of injury time had already elapsed), I had a little more sympathy with Wenger’s uncontrollable urge to vent his anger at the 4th official.

Unlike the events at Goodison the other week, when Moyes threw his toys out of the pram, after his Toffees had been stopped dead in their tracks and deprived of an attempt at a most unlikely winner against Man U, for reasons only beknownst to himself, ref Dowd decided not to blow up when the Black Cat’s set-piece had run it’s course, choosing instead to allow an additional 15 seconds for the ball to be hoisted back into our penalty area, causing hysteria amongst the thousands of home fans who’d already headed for the exits,, as they missed out on the panic-struck scramble that culminated in Bent finding the back of the net

Nevertheless le Prof’s protestations felt something akin to the student screaming at his teacher for not allowing sufficient time to pass his exam, when in truth culpability lay a little closer to home, in his failure to study hard enough. Moreover, notwithstanding taking the lead with a one in a million fluke and the fact that we should’ve been home and hosed, if only Rosicky had kept his head over his powerfully struck, but ultimately missed penalty, Arsène’s remonstrations to the 4th official felt somewhat hollow, as the Gunners dispirited display barely deserved of a draw, let alone all 3 points.

Sadly the annual shareholders Q & A session with our esteemed leader a couple of nights prior was a shamelessly sanitized encounter, compared to previous years. This last bastion of an opportunity for genuine interaction between Gooners and le Gaffer bit the dust, after wildly exaggerated media reports of a full-scale revolt last time around, when in fact it was merely one solitary contrary question that ruffled Arsène’s feathers, as the remainder of the evening followed its customary reverential course..

The Arsenal’s own Politburo has nevertheless intervened, castrating the Q & A, by restricting the event to questions sent in advance. Not only does this afford an opportunity to redact any queries deemed too contentious, but much to my chagrin it means we’ve since been denied a rare opportunity to engage our Arsenal mentor in meaningful discussion, by pressing le Prof on some of his less revealing responses when previous sessions were entirely open to questions from the floor. Sadly I guess such is the way of things, in an age when the Gunners are consumed by their megalomaniacal efforts to exert complete and utter control.

By comparison to the good old days, when one could turn up at London Colney on spec and enjoy entirely gratis, a post-training cuppa with our heroes, or check on the Young Guns progress, the arrival of electrified gates & fences, during the wholesale modernisation of our training facility, signalled the advent of the ‘behind closed doors’, increasingly remote business that’s unfortunately become of my beloved football club, in this media obsessed modern era.

With £10 grand Arsenal shares priced way beyond the means of the vast majority of Gooner working stiffs, a selection of shareholders’ inane and bizarre pre-prepared queries supplied by some of those attending this privileged gathering, hardly represented the concerns of the average mug punter, many of whom have been shouldering the burden of the Arsenal wage bill for several generations, long before the arrival of a large proportion of affluent “Johnny come lately” high-rollers (where were they when we were sh*t?).

With his irrefutable red & white heart, it was left to poshness personified, in uncle Bob Wilson, to raise many of our more obvious frustrations, whilst chairing the Q & A with customary ease. Coming on the back of our pummelling of Portugal’s own “Arsenalistas” in Tuesday night’s 6-0 romp, from Arsène’s point of view this annual encounter with his subjects couldn’t have been better timed. Singing from his now customary (if a little dog-eared) song-book, trotting out another string of Wenger-ball clichés, Arsène reiterated his desire to win with style.

Alluding to the club’s arrival at the “second stage”, that elusive moneybags Promised Land of milk and honey, after all the (somewhat miraculous) tribulations of maintaining our elite status, despite the enormity of the fiscal implications of our new stadium project, Arsène assured us that we are now in a position where we would never be forced to sell our star turns. Although I somehow doubt it, surely this should also imply that we need no longer fear being outbid for prospective purchases, as considering his current magnificent form, I still can’t forgive the Bues for gazumping us to sign Essien!

Yet in light of what subsequently transpired on Wearside at the weekend, it was somewhat ironic to hear Wenger reaffirm his conviction that this squad have reached maturity, affording us the sort of resilience that will ensure we won’t continue to roll over in any more humiliating repeats of the bashings we were forced to endure against some of the big guns last season. Arsène also reminded us how important it was that we turned up at the Stadium of Light, in the first of FIVE domestic awaydays following midweek Euro encounters.

Much to my disappointment, the Gunners failed to heed our manager’s call to arms. Not only was this apparent in the way Wilshere gifted possession to hungrier opposition in dangerous areas far too many times, but it was the patent lack of leadership in this Arsenal squad, which leaves me fretting that success might continue to elude us.

This was rarely more obvious than when Alex Song received his first booking for his demonstrative display of frustration and none of his team-mates assumed the responsibility for having a word in his shell-like. The situation was crying out for someone to put an arm around Alex’s shoulder, remind him that we were away from home where decisions were bound to go against us and that it was imperative that he kept his cool to ensure that he remained on the park.

Conceding such a late goal wasn’t nearly so distressing as the fact that so few Arsenal players appeared willing to display that tooth & nail determination, in their appreciation of the importance of clinging on to all three points, but instead the Gunners looked like they felt they had done enough (including a fresh-legged Denilson). But then how can we expect the required levels of commitment, from those who seen our ‘lead by example’ skipper withdrawn from the fray, so early on in proceedings, 1-0 up away from home, merely as a precautionary measure?

Although I must admit to wondering about my own culpability. In not quite sure who I’m appealing to in those far too frequent moments when I put my hands together and appeal to the heavens for fortune to favour the Gunners, but despite me being a disbeliever in the religious hocus pocus responsible for so much strife on this planet, considering the obligation to fast on the Jewish Day of Atonement, perhaps the late goal was merely poetic justice, inflicted by the ghosts of my more religious ancestors, for me having greedily accepted the offer a half-time bacon sarnie?

Then again, religious observance didn’t exactly stand Avram Grant in good stead as his West Ham side still struggled to achieve that elusive win. Perhaps we’re both “kicking with the wrong foot”, as according to the stereotype, it stands to reason that the bearded geezer up on high is more at home at White Hart Lane - and Tottenham certainly weren’t punished for their transgressions, scoring two late goals while playing on Yom Kippur!

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Sunday 19 September 2010

Castrated Shareholders Q & A

I'm sure that in this age of instant Twitter news as it happens, by now plenty of reports of the Shareholders Q & A will have long since surfaced on the Interweb, with Gooners everywhere aware that sadly one last bastion of interaction with our beloved club has bitten the dust, as a result of this event no longer being an open forum for questions from the floor.

It would seem that in response to the exaggerated media reports of last season's event, where Arsène flew off the handle in response to a single question and a couple of hundred shareholders were incorrectly described as having started a full-scale revolution (when in fact the evening followed it's customary polite and above all grateful course), the club have exercised their inalienable right to exert their complete control, by turning the evening into an equally sterile occasion as the annual AGM, by only accepting questions submitted in advance.

My own instincts are that the number of questions they were received were so limited that they were forced to use them all, as otherwise, not only do I suspect that the odd (sadly all too rare) contentious question might've been omitted, but surely we wouldn't have been forced to listen to some of the more bizare queries - like the shareholder who took Arsène to task over the number of goals conceded immediately after scoring and who wanted to know what le Prof planned on doing to force the lads to focus on the task at hand. Doubtless this shareholding party pooper is determined that all post-goal merriment is made a capital crime and is not prone to teaching his grandchildren the dance steps of some of the more funkier celebrations?

Or the statistically minded bod who demanded an answer from our footballing focused manager, as to why the Arsenal at 34% per cent have the lowest dependence in the Premiership on TV revenue? Doh! Even I can work out that with 60k every game, £4.5k seats, £190 per head restaurants, £200 memorial stones (can I transfer mine to Bushey cemetery when I shuffle off this mortal coil), £40 for 28 character plaques etc. etc. etc.

In fact, so many of what proved to less than 20 questions turned out to be so incredibly inane that those of us present should be duly grateful to Bob Wilson for making it worth our while turning up, by requesting some of the evening most relevant answers. With all due respect to Uncle Bob (who seems such a kindly sort, he'd have to be everyone's favourite uncle) who's grown quite adept at chairing this annual event over the past few years. Despite being in thrall to the besuited paymasters at the club, dear old Bob is undoubtedly a Gooner at heart and is not afraid to ask those questions that are at the forefront of the minds of your average Arsenal fan. Although as a sometime Arsenal employee, obviously Bob's perhaps more inclined to back up Arsène's answer than to press him any further.

Obviously, as far as I'm concerned Arsène's such an enigmatic geezer that I'm only too delighted for any opportunity to sit and listen to him speak in person. Nevertheless, as far as getting answers to all our most important concerns, apart from Bob's brief interrogation and a far too limited smattering of interesting queries, the evening was pretty much a complete non-starter and other than the opportunity to sit at le Prof's feet and listen to him preaching, the principal reason for turning up was the post-event buffet, the extremely rare opportunity for the Gooner equivalent of a "free lunch".

Considering that this was a gathering of some of the Arsenal's more affluent fans - let's face it, with a single share valued these days at something like £10k, they are already worth more than many of us - it soon became evident how adept many of them are at acquiring their affluence, if the height of the gratis grub piled upon their plates was anything to go by :-) But then I have to admit that even if Arsène wasn't present for this occasion, in light of the fact that I only live around the corner, I'd still turn up, as considering how much of my hard earned moolah I've given the Gunners over the many years, I certainly can't resist any opportunity to get a free nosh up out of the Arsenal (or Azenal as Chris Waddle insisted on calling us to my increasing frustration on his ESPN commentary from the Stadium of Light!)

Wasn't it at last season's Q & A (or the AGM?) where Arsène actually made the mistake of promising us some silverware last season? Having failed to live up to this promise, I'd have loved to take him to task on when actually he expects to come good on this commitment, as in truth on the evidence of what I've seen so far, I believe our best and perhaps only chance of some sort of tangible return by way of tin pots, is if the competition hands it to us on a platter, by proving to be even less committed.

So taking into account the fact that this small privileged selection of shareholders is unlikely ever to express the concerns of the vast majority of average Gooners, what, if anything, was said of interest on the evening (and you'll have to forgive me if my all too fallible memory fails me and I misinterpret my garbled notes made on my phone, as from experience of press-conferences in the past, I always regret not having a dictaphone recording of an accurate account, as unless one is blessed with 140wpm shorthand or typing skills, if you got your head down tapping away on an iPhone making lengthy notes, you are inevitably going to miss the most relevant words, whilst noting down the minutae of all the bullsh*t answers).

Well in his opening salvo, Bob Wilson referred to the fact that Arsène had recently put pen to paper on his new contract, I believe seeking reassurance from le gaffer that unlike the majority of star players nowadays, Wenger's contract might prove worth the paper it's written on and that four more years truly means four more years. But then whatever your opinion of our glorious leader at present, I can't believe there are many Gooner who can imagine Arsène as the sort of person likely to dishonour such a commitment?

Naturally Bob then referred to the frustrations of so many Gooners about Arsène's transfer dealings (or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof?) and the fact that so many of us were left feeling unhappy. As a fully paid up member of the goalkeeper's union, I don't think Bob actually referred to Arsène's failure to sign a keeper, but the implication was sufficiently obvious for AW to respond accordingly.

And this wasn't the only time that the awkward subject cropped up (which was more evidence as far as I'm concerned that there weren't sufficient questions for the Arsenal's own Politburo to redact any awkward queries), as after Bob's reference to the failure to address the keeper was issue was raised again only three questions in - with it being the most pressing concern for the vast majority of Arsenal fans. But as my mate at the Q & A commented, Arsène is caught between a rock & a hard place when it comes to commenting on this subject.

Having failed to follow through on the reported efforts to secure Mark Schwarzer and with us now being stuck with our current all too timid triumvirate for the forseeable future (definitely until the winter transfer window), Arsène's unquestionably loyal attitude towards all of his players, even when they're in the wrong, or when their performance demands more than a little doubt, means that he can do little more in public than to give them his complete and staunch backing, by offering us his reassurance that we have "remarkable keepers" at the club, in response to Bob Wilson.

Then when the subsequent goalkeeping question referred to the significant matches last season in which keeper errors cost us so dear, Arsène came to the defence of Almunia. Fabianski and Mannone, by pointing out the fact that while ultimately it's often the keeper who's deemed culpable for the vast majority of goals conceded, in truth, according to our glorious leader, you can invariably point to at least four or five mistakes by the defending side, in the build up to virtually every effort that ends up in the back of the net.

Basically, the fact that the media linked the Gunners with virtually every keeper on the planet during the summer and following the long drawn-out saga with Schwarzer, where at some stage I'm pretty sure Arsène publicly denigrated his three keepers, by commenting on our need for a new goalie, AW's been left having to backtrack big time, in an effort to try and reaffirm his faith in Almunia'a ability, so as to try and restore the Spaniard's own self-confidence because this must've taken an inevitable battering amidst all the speculation.

In between these two inescapable references to the keeper issue, Bob Wilson followed his comments on our transfer dealing frustrations, by enquiring as to le Gaffer's own aspirations for his four more years. My note about Arsène's response refers merely to the "second stage", where I believe AW spoke about keeping the club at the top level, while ramping things up that notch that we have all been waiting for since we moved to the new stadium.

Arsène referred to the fact that having managed to negotiate (somewhat miraculously, in my humble opinion) that difficult period of transformation, as the club coped with the astronomic financial implications of a new stadium project which was accomplished on such a vast scale (considering all the various subsiduary real estate aspects), while at the same time maintaining the Gunners elite status at the Champions League top table, when in fiscal terms Wenger had both hands tied behind his back, he implied that we have now reached that "Promised Land" of milk and honey, where our elite status should be assured by having the financial muscle, both to fend off and to outbid some of our money-bags opposition.

Perhaps I'm guilty of the oft-made media mistake of reading far too much into a mere couple of words, or perhaps that fact I sacrificed so much of my own, very personal Arsenal history, in the departure from THOF means that I've been waiting so impatiently for the day when we begin to witness a tangible return on the pitch (rather than in the £4 million Club Level transformation, which appears to have been made merely to add more profits to the Arsenal balance sheet, by bringing in more high-rollers to the extremely haute priced cuisine) for all that additional matchday revenue and as a result, I'll grasp at the slightest suggestion we've finally arrived. But this was my own personal interpretation of Arsène's reference to "the second stage"?

Although Wenger did qualify this with his answer to a subsequent question, where he discussed our new found financial clout as having put us in a position where the Arsenal never have to sell a player, either alluding to, or possibly referring specifically to the fact that we were able to resist Barca's summer-long efforts to encroach upon the club's greatest asset.

The first question from a shareholder must've also referred in some form to Arsène's aspirations, for the remainder of his contract, as the comment I noted down was "to win with style", where if I'm not mistaken Arsène was referring to his personal vision of what we come to glibly refer to as "Wenger-ball", as if to intimate that it might be acceptable for other, more desperate, more industrial opposition to bite, kick & scratch their way to a first tin pot in their fans lifetime, but Arsène has been there and done that and it seems that success these days will only be achieved the Wenger way, by means of the the beautiful game's highest possible art form?

Those amongst us who've spent far more than a mere five seasons, in a silverware starved wilderness might not be as impatient as other for success. But as I mentioned in last week's missive, as someone weaned on the resilient, workmanlike ethics preached by the likes of Bertie Mee and Don Howe, I believe that there's room for both sets of ideals, amongst a combination of the eleven footballers who make up a team, or the twenty five that comprise a squad nowadays. Perhaps more importantly, on the evidence of the past five seasons, one might conclude that an amalgam of beauty & the beast is an essential ingredient in any successful side and that Arsène is shooting for the moon, if he truly believes that style alone can endure over the course of a marathon campaign (if they don't end up kicked off the park in the process!).

I can't honestly believe Arsène is the sort of idealist who subscribes to this ideal in some kind of slavish fashion. After all, most of AW's success at the Arsenal to date has been founded on the sort of chemistry in the dressing room, which produces that crucial catalyst to inspire the beauty from the beast and the beast from the beauty.

Nevertheless, in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of events at the Stadium of Light yesterday evening (including that gut-wrenching 94th minute equalizer), Arsène continued to respond to various other queries at the Q & A, by espousing his belief that in the likes of Song and Diaby, the Gunners have strong defensive midfield options and by asserting his notion that this squad have been together long enough to have matured into an experienced outfit.

In what was possibly the last question from a shareholder before Bob Wilson brought events to an end with a couple more queries of his own, which I believe related to injuries, Arsène referred to the fact that perhaps players with injuries are less likely to play nowadays and I guess we witnessed this against Sunderland, when our skipper limped off in what was rumoured to be merely a precautionary measure.

Myself I can't help but wonder if Cesc wasn't in the frame of mind where he knows he's out the door sometime soon, on his way back to Spain, he might have soldiered on against Sunderland? Surely Fab's impending departure must impact on some level, even if only subconsciously on our captain's preparedness to put himself on the line for the Arsenal's cause. As a result I have to suspect that his willingness, or lack thereof, to perform in the same committed fashion of seasons past (if he's started to suspect that success and the achievement of all his ambitions will only be achieved elsewhere) could end up having the opposite effect of a lead by example captain, leaving the likes of Wilshere or Chamakh wondering why they should be risking all, chasing down lost causes, when our skipper has already chosen to remove himself from the fray?

Obviously Arsène can't be seen to be expressing any such doubts and without having the opportunity to press him on some of his answers, with ad hoc questions from the floor, it was easy enough for him to continue reiterating the strengths of his own convictions. Wenger's a wily old fox and I'd be amazed if any humble shareholders would've been able to test his beliefs, to the extent that he might admit his own fallibility (and more significantly the weaknesses of any members of his squad). But perhaps we might've been able to read a little more into his answers, if someone had raised Arsène's choler by questioning his response, rather than letting le gaffer off with such an easy going evening.

Having arrived there early, to bag a pitch in the front row, for the benefit of my short-sighted pal, we were a little put out when the Q & A was about to start and we were approached by one of the minions, to request that we moved because they'd neglected to reserve the front row for an impressive double-figure turn out of Arsenal suits, including the ever present Ken Friar, Ivan Gazides and Stan Kroenke, whose presence at these shindigs might suggest the Septic's keen interest in the club, or perhaps (cynic that I am - does Kroenke live or does he spend much time in the UK?) is merely indicative of the fact that while we are tucking into sausages, mini-lamb burgers and a quirky cup full of fish & chips, the suits only turn up because of their being an opportunity to indulge in a proper slap-up dinner, with all the trimmings, including the rare delicacy of sideplate audience with le Prof (as I can't envisage Arsène being particularly keen to indulge in regular evenings out with this exclusive gaggle of high-flying Gooners?).

Gazides actually got up at one point during the Q & A, to assist Arsène in a finance related query (perhaps the 34% TV revenue poser?) and there was another question, perhaps coming from someone from the Supporters Trust about Wenger's attitude towards the fanshare scheme, where AW made a point of expressing his complete lack of interest in the movement of Arsenal stocks and shares, informing us that ownership of the club was not his business, so long as he continued to be able to do his job (without any interference, was the implication).

As I believe has been reported in the national media, he did refer to the fact that like most other top clubs, he's under some pressure to take the Gunners on a potentially lucrative and market expanding, pre-season tour, but that to date he's managed to resist all entreaties from above, at least as far as World Cup and Euro Championship seasons are concerned, because apparently under FIFA rules every player is entitled to four weeks off. Apart from not wanting to interfere with what has now become the club's traditional pre-season preparations, not only would it be wrong to encroach on the holidays of those involved in International tournaments, but the club would be obliged to involve a sufficient number of the Arsenal's star turns as part of the contract negotiated to sell tickets on any potential foreign tours to countries like the USA and China.

However, perhaps for the benefit of the some of the Arsenal's money men, sitting directly in front of him, Arsène did concede that he would continue to investigate ways in which they might make such outings happen. While I'm sure this might be of interest to some of those geographically challenged Gooners who don't get to see the Gunners play live very often, from a purely selfish point of view, I will continue to look forward far more to the traditional curtain-raiser at a ramshackle Underhill and a sadly all too rare opportunity for local kids to achieve the highly cherished ambition of a photo with an arm round one of their heroes, or the hastily scrawled autograph, than the prospect of the Gunners playing LA Galaxy, putting in another ant-like appearance in some foreign concrete superdome.

Wenger wasn't going to escape without taking at least one question on the national team and the ingredients contained therein, which led to further discourse on the subject of the aggression level of the game in this country, compared to the less physical brand of football played elsewhere. Unlike the calls for more protection which ended up backfiring at the Stadium of Light with Alex Song's sending off on Saturday, Arsène's more diplomatic response related to his belief in "passion, not violence".

Le gaffer was also requested to hold forth on his opinions about the 25-man squad rule, which he felt had not been thought through to analyse the full impact, as not only did he talk about a potential for paralyzing the transfer market, but also about the possibility of it being an artificial rule which might be to the detriment of all those clubs that can end up involved in twice as many games as some of their opponents over the course of an entire season.

Another question, perhaps relating to the character attributes of some of the Arsenal youngsters, provided Arsène with an opportunity to explain that the club explore this facet of the nature of their employees with scientific aptitude tests. But then in light of Jack Wilshere's recent fracas on Kensington High Street (and not being a reader of the tabloids, I've little idea of what Jack's been accused, suffice to say that the youngster's inability to know any better than to be out on the razz in the capital, doesn't exactly bode well for his future).

And I'm reminded of what I believe was a previous revelation by Ivan Gazides, during a similar encounter, about the GPS gadgets being used to analyse our players' "load" (an amusing term for more salaciously minded Gooners, used to describe the amount of pressure on his feet during his time on the training ground / pitch), in order to establish their propensity to incur injuries. Well according to the way in which the squad is currently falling like ninepins, I'm hardly sold in this particular appliance of science.

Considering that most modern day young footballers (seemingly with the sole exception of the far too sensible Theo Walcott and in whose case most Gooners wouldn't mind Theo's personality acquiring just a little "edge") appear to lose the necessary hunger and appetite to able to achieve the blinkered focus necessary to fulfill their prodigious potential, from the moment they sign their first mega money contract, believing they've little left to prove, or achieve, once their agent has rewarded their latest money spinning contributor to their Florida retirement home, with a trip to the nearest supercar showroom, I'm somewhat sceptical about Arsène's aptitude tests.

When posed a question soon after about the potential for obscene salaries to spoil some of our more immature stars, Arsène replied that money can't possibly be a player's only motivation, as a basic love of the game must be the principal driving force. Nevertheless, in my most humble opinion, I've always felt that similar principals seen in boxing, are also applicable as far as the beautiful game is concerned.

Perhaps the fact that Theo has to date survived the absurd rollercoaster ride of media mayhem and all the adverse impact of being thrust into the spotlight of glamour and fame at such a tender age, is related to some extent to the fact that he comes from a relatively grounded, somewhat middle-class background, compared to so many of his peers. As it seems to me that in the modern era, any half-talented youngster from these shores undergoes such a meteoric rise to the sort of glamorous lifestyle, with all the sort of trappings of fame and fortune that most can only dream of, that it's almost inevitable that this will have some sort of detrimental impact on their personality, their hunger to achieve that childhood dream of perhaps captaining their country and holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy and their appetite for the game, by way of their propensity to continue working their socks off on the training ground and demonstrating their commitment to a single club's cause, when their agents have already mapped out their career moves, leading their clients to believe they've already cracked it.

Hopefully Arsène's aptitude tests will prove me entirely wrong about the latest crop of Brady Boys rolling off the Arsenal production line?

With the whiff of the food being prepared nearby in his nostrils, Bob Wilson brought the curtain down, by encouraging Wenger to have a whinge about the fact that we face five away trips in the Premiership following our six group stage matches in the Champions League, providing le Prof with an opportunity to remind us how important it was for them to get off on the right foot with a decent performance on Wearside, following our 6-0 pumelling of the Portuguese Arsenalistas, which now seems all the more poignant, considering how many of them failed to turn up on Saturday (and sadly I'm not just referring to the lame and the blind).

Although Arsène didn't need an excuse, Bob also offered him an opportunity to revel in the ravishing football witnessed in Barca's performance earlier in the week, whilst at the same time assuring us that our squad has developed sufficiently since last year, for us not to have to suffer similar embarrassment against the Spanish champs as we endured last season.

But I guess I should end by offering my own personal prize for the most pertinent shareholders questions and the one which caused the most merriment. Considering the makeup of an audience that's accustomed to the all too rare privilege of being able to enjoy some interaction with Arsène and the players at events like the Q & A and high-priced charity dos, it was quite refreshing to hear someone stand up and ask why (in a world of electric fences and gates to keep the riff-raff out of London Colney) it's no longer possible for the rest of us plebs to have the slightest contact with any of our heroes and why we no longer have the sort of more accessible events, like the annual end of season awards evenings that your average fan was able to attend in the past.

Arsène explained apologetically that with all the clubs charity commitments, it's hard to find suitable dates for such occasions and I suppose the massive increase in the Arsenal's number of core supporters in recent years (where were you when we were sh*t?) would make it that much harder to accommodate all those who wanted to attend nowadays. Still even if attendance ended up a lottery, considering the club's focus on catering for all the Club Level and Exec Box high-rollers in recent years, providing memorablia and facilities dedicated to relieving them of their substantial amounts of disposable income, it would be most appreciated if the club made some effort to prove that the support of so many of the hard core punters who have paid the club's wage bill for all those decades prior, when football was still an affordable hobby for working class punters, isn't now being taken for granted (but then I guess it's naive of me to believe that it was anything but ever thus!)

As for the loudest laugh of the evening, this was in response to the answer offered by Arsène to a question which suggested that he might be missing a trick, in his failure to work on the weaker foot, of some of our player's who like Van Persie, are disadvantaged by a "chocolate leg". Considering an event for a couple of hundred shareholders doesn't rank as the most emotive Gooner gathering, it was perhaps more of a giggle than a guffaw, but Arsène definitely raised a smile when he suggested "I'd like to be as bad with my left foot as Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere"

Enough of my far-too long-winded waffle as I'd better defer to the Gaelic advice to "hold yer whisht" before I get on to whinging about the Sunderland game, in order that I might at least save something to say in this week's Examiner piece (rest assured I'm never short on a moan or two!).

Here's to four more years of Arsène's fantasy football and if it's not too much to ask for, just a glimmer of silveware to show for it?

No matter the number of increasingly vocal critics, at the end of the day we all need to bear in mind that there is still "only one Arsène Wenger"

Big Love

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Bully Boys v Flat-Track Bullies

Hi folks,

I hope you'll forgive my failure to post out last week's missive. I wrote it on Sunday but in the knowledge it would appear in Wednesday's Irish Examiner and with me having referred to "tonight's game" against Braga, I planned on sending it out on Wednesday morning. Sadly along with most everything else that doesn't merit an alarm in my iPhone's diary, it slipped through my positively sieve like memory.

Then I guess, after having been left just a little egg on my face, by referring to the fact that I thought the Portuguese side would be no pushover, I wasn't in any hurry to publicise this fact following our 6-0 thrashing of Braga - although I've limited my embarrassment by also suggesting in my diary missive below that perhaps just getting to the group stages of the Champions League would be the equivalent of Braga's Cup Final and that they might not have the stamina to maintain the same adrenaline level for a six match European marathon. As it turned out, this looks likely to have been the case, as the side that turned up on Wednesday night bore absolutely no resemblance to the team that fought tooth and nail, to knock out Seville.

Meanwhile having taken the time to tap out the following diary entry, I might as well post it, in case there are those of you who've got nothing better to do with your Sunday morning and if only for my own pedantic pleasure of maintaining my weekly record of the season. Moreover, in light of such a gut-wrenching 94th minute capitulation at the Stadium of light last night (OK so we came away with a point, but it certainly felt like a capitulation), my comments about the sense that I have of a disconcerting undercurrent to the Gunners' team-spirit, seem all the more poignant.

But I'll say no more, or else I'll only end up repeating myself in this week's missive, which I will get around to either sometime this afternoon or tomorrow morning, save to say that it makes something of a mockery of Arsène's faith in this squad's new found maturity and resilience.

In the meantime, should I have nothing better to do with my Sunday morning, I might try and make some sense of the notes I took at the Shareholders Q & A on Thursday night and try to fashion these into something readable. Even if the event was sadly lacking in very much meaningful comment (most of which will by now have doubtless been reported elsewhere on the Interweb), by nature of the fact that the club have managed to sterlize the evening - after last season's outrageously exaggerated reports of le Prof's rumbustious response to criticism, when in fact it was one single question which upset Arsène and the remainder of the evening followed its customary reverential course.

Sadly the shareholders Q & A has followed the annual AGM down the road of only taking questions posted in advance and although this did not mean that the shareholders inquiries were strictly limited to non-contentious issues (although I have my suspicions that this might merely have been due to the limited number of questions emailed to the club in advance, as if there'd been a wider choice, perhaps some of those issues raised on Thursday night might have been conveniently omitted?) but the most distressing aspect to this change in format, is that this was perhaps the one and only occasion when Arsenal fans could involve themselves in earnest discussion with our esteemed manager, whereas with no open questions from the floor, it was no longer possible to respond to any of Arsène's answers, to explore further any of his thoughts on particular topics, which is a crying shame.

Personally I'm sure Arsène would have no complaints about being quizzed by those who pay his wages, even if not all of the queries were to his liking. But as is so often the case nowadays, we the punters pay the price for the incessant and unscrupulous media spotlight, of the sort that leaves the club eternally paranoid about allowing anything to escape their constricted, so often blinkered control.

Ho hum, one last forum for some interaction with those inside the walls of London N5 bites the dust. Pity :-(

Big Love

I’m oblivious to the specifics of the alleged infidelities in the Wayne Rooney furore, but I was disappointed Fergie left him out at Goodison, as I tuned in to Saturday’s live coverage looking forward to seeing the spectacle of Toffee fans in the Gwladys Street End donning Bob Marley wigs, to serenade Wayne with their rendition of “No Woman, No Cry”.

Still it proved well worth the mad dash around to the Arsenal, for the pleasure of watching the dying throes of the Merseyside encounter on the box and a rare instance of Man Utd receiving an agonising dose of their own late goal medicine.

With such a multi-cultural bouillabaisse on the Arsenal books, sadly we’ve grown all too accustomed to the costly injury toll of International breaks. I should’ve known it was tempting fate to tease my Spurs mates about losing Dawson and I was half-expecting Walcott to end up in a crumpled heap. Nevertheless, with Theo in such scintillating form and with Van Persie (another “sick-note” striker!) already ruled out for a couple of months, it was no less disappointing to see our precious ‘Road Runner’ stretchered off against the Swiss.

With Squillaci making his debut alongside Koscielny, a centre-back partnership that’s never played together, Chamakh on his own up front and the likes of Sagna and Clichy confined to the bench, Arsène's severely shuffled pack in advance of tonight's Euro curtain-raiser didn't exactly leave me bristling with confidence on turning up, tardy as ever, for Saturday's KO.

However in contrast to the way in which we’ve suffered in the absence of significant players in recent times, an important feature of Wenger’s most successful teams, has been the seamless integration of squad players with no apparent detrimental effect on our performance.

It was somewhat disturbing to see Jack Wilshere disappear straight down the tunnel when he was subbed after an hour and to see his replacement do likewise ten minutes later, with Diaby suffering the lingering effects of a bone-crunching, full frontal assault. Yet even with Denilson forced to take his first bow of the season, it was very promising to see such an unfamiliar line-up pass Bolton into a coma in 26-move build up to Vela’s 83rd minute finale.

I very much doubt Arsène expected our squad's depth to be quite so stretched this early in the season (or perhaps we'd have been less parsimonious in our transfer dealings?). It’ll be interesting to see who emerges from a treatment room full of our walking wounded, fit enough to play against Braga and whether we've sufficient quality to continue to build on Saturday’s momentum.

Judging by their performances against Celtic and Seville and the evidence of a ‘never say die’ team spirit that appeared more Premiership-like than the majority of our top-flight outfits nowadays, I certainly don’t expect the Portuguese side to be a pushover. Hopefully just getting to the group stages will have proved to be Braga’s cup final and they won’t have the stamina to be able to maintain this sort of adrenaline level for a six-match Champions League marathon.

Meanwhile, perhaps one of the benefits of being forced to send out the sum total of our summer spending, is that this unfamiliar pairing at the back aren’t burdened by the panic-struck baggage of our recent defensive insecurities. As a result, notwithstanding Koscielny’s unfortunate cock-up, both he and Squillaci appeared reassuringly composed, in the face of the “robust” attentions of one of our more uncomfortable opponents. Give them both a few games in front of our goalie and they’ll doubtless soon develop into the sort of nervous wrecks we’ve come to know and love!

In spite of Owen Coyle’s supposed affinity for the beautiful game, so long as Kevin Davies staggers on, his Bolton team continue to retain much of the familiar, in yer face, aggression that’s been the foundation stone for maintaining the Trotters Premiership status. I might be bitter about the bruising consequences, ever since artistry became the Gunners trademark under Arsène’s tenure. Yet while I might no longer be the physical game’s greatest advocate, as someone who was weaned on the workmanlike resilience preached by Messrs Mee & Howe, I’m certainly not knocking it.

Davies has that canny, Mark Hughes like knack of making himself enemy No. 1, by preying on less experienced opponents, getting away with blue murder with officials who can’t ever have played the game, both by inveigling free-kicks and when dishing it out.

The contempt evident on both sides of the partisan fence is often the yardstick of an utterly incompetent official. Cahill’s clattering of Chamakh was no more offensive than several other challenges. Never mind Atwell missing Song’s foul seconds earlier, with us all baying for blood after Davies had wiped out Koscielny just before that, with a “welcome to the Premiership” bodycheck that Big Daddy would’ve been proud of (if he wasn’t pushing up daisies), Atwell attempted to compensate by making the defender pay for his captain’s crimes.

As for the Arsenal skipper, in contrast to his poor previous performance, we were left positively purring as Cesc produced the sort of incisive passing which should really have seen us home & hosed by half-time, if we hadn’t been so profligate in front of goal. In spite of Fab’s symphonic footwork, I continue to sense the discordant body-language of a pouting teen who’s fed up of constantly being told to tidy his room, leaving others around him to do all the donkey work.

And if we’re talking commitment to the Arsenal cause, Arshavin might’ve struggled to escape the attentions of Bolton’s defence, but there was definitely no lack of pace when he dashed off the pitch, looking like he had a taxi waiting for him, when Shava mistakenly thought his number was up. Our star players can be as selfish as they like, so long as we maintain the current scoring ratio. But my sense of a disconcerting undercurrent in our team-spirit won’t be entirely dispelled, until we prove ourselves more than mere flat-track bullies by burying the big guns.

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Wednesday 8 September 2010

Haute Cusine Ou Le Beau Jeu

Hi folks

I guess it was tempting fate for us all to have mocked Spurs's woes with regard to Dawson's injury the other day. With Theo in such fine form, I was actually watching Friday's England match, expecting him to end up in a crumpled heap at any moment and was relieved to see him substituted. I guess with the current spate of injuries at N5, we should've known it was inevitable that Walcott wouldn't last two consecutive International performances without ending up on a stretcher.

In truth I'm a little relieved, if reports of him only missing a couple of weeks actually prove true, as it would be a disaster to lose Theo for longer. But then we were told Van Persie would only be asbsent for a fortnight and this now turns out to be at least a couple of months :-(

If I'm honest, I was half hoping his replacement Adam Johnstone would have a stormer, scoring a hat-trick and thereby leaving Theo out of the England spotlight for the foreseeable future!

This International break has felt like purgatory and I for one can't wait to get back to some proper football this weekend

Big Love



There was no disguising Gooner disappointment as the transfer window came and went, without Arsène addressing the Gunners’ much debated goal-keeping situation. Although Mark Schwarzer might've been an improvement, personally I was never convinced that he's the defensive panacea we’ve all been pining for these past few seasons.

Yet even if the Aussie keeper was only intended as a stop-gap solution, from a strictly economic perspective, surely the disparity between the amount the Arsenal were prepared to pay and the figure Fulham were willing to accept, this rumoured half a million quid would’ve seemed a relative pittance, if at the end of the day Schwarzer’s presence proved to be the difference between us fending off the concerted challenge for our highly-prized seat at Europe’s top table, or conceding the goals that could cost us qualification for the Champions League next season?

Moreover le gaffer’s apparent inertia, in the face of incessant media stories linking us with virtually every goalie on the planet, is guaranteed to have some impact on the current incumbent. I must admit to feeling some sympathy for Almunia, as not only have his confidence and self-esteem endured a summer long shellacking, but the pressure upon the Spaniard to perform between the sticks has increased exponentially as a result of all the speculation, to the point where his every action will come under intense scrutiny and poor Manuel’s every mistake will be considered from the point of view of whether his replacement might’ve done better.

Our goalie’s former happy-go-lucky persona certainly wasn’t apparent amidst all the frown lines on his face at Ewood Park and few will have been more relieved to come away with 3 points. While the majority of his team mates contented themselves with a perfunctory clap in the direction of the travelling faithful at the final whistle, as a new alumni from the Manny Eboué charm school, Almunia made a point of coming over to throw his shirt into the crowd.

Perhaps I’m guilty of reading too much into a run-of-the-mill post-match celebration, but observing this scene from the upper tier and in the knowledge that we’d all been hoping for a new improved model, I got the distinct feeling that this was a deliberate effort on Almunia’s part, to try and begin to rebuild some of the faith that he must undoubtedly sense has been lost (although you can’t rebuild something which never existed in the first place!).

Meanwhile there’s little point in us griping about the situation. Getting on our keeper’s back isn’t going to help us win games, nor will it repair his deflated confidence. When you combine Almunia’s insecurity with our skipper's supposed discontent, I can’t help but be perturbed about the potential disunity in the Arsenal dressing room at present.

Goal celebrations are an obvious litmus test of the amount of love in the air and will often offer an inkling as to whether team spirit continues to quell individual ambition in these mercenary modern climes. But as can be seen in the ebullient mood at Stamford Bridge, it’s all too easy to be happy campers when everything is hunky dory. It would be naïve of me to expect a “one for all” attitude to continue to prevail at the highest level nowadays. Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking the signs of a team that’s hungry for success and who are prepared to run their socks off for one another, compared to a collection of individuals who are far more inclined to point the finger of blame.

I guess we’ll have to wait until the Gunners backs are up against the wall, to discover the truth in Arsène’s conviction that his squad have matured into the real deal. To date, we’ve witnessed conflicting evidence in Theo Walcott's fervour and Cesc Fabregas' apparent langour. You’ll have to forgive my skepticism but between the jigs and the reels, it seems to have been forgotten that le Prof actually promised us a trophy last season!

Perhaps what bothers me most, is that in spite of the economic climate and the evidence of empty seats elsewhere, I can't escape the sense that the Arsenal have struck on a formulaic business model, whereby the club can continue to maintain a healthy balance sheet with minimum investment on the pitch. It’s as if we’ve become a business first and a football club second and so long as Wenger manages to work the oracle of Champions League qualification each season, there’s no real incentive to mortgage our future and risk roulette wheel type gambles, merely to satiate the punters desire for silverware.

On the face of it, one might contend that instead of investing in a keeper, the Arsenal chose to spend £4mill on the Club Level redevelopment, offering a guaranteed tangible return from £190 per head diners in the ritzy new restaurants. But while the government (or we the people!) end up paying the tab for obscenely haute cuisine, written off against the tax liability of a privileged few, such sound economic logic leaves the vast majority of us looking at the likes of Joe Hart with our tongues hanging out, starved of nothing more than a team we can truly believe in.