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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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