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Monday 29 August 2011

Money Can't Buy My Love....But They Could At Least Make The Effort!

Stuck in traffic on a depressingly dreary Friday, it was hard to believe it was only the day before that we’d been watching the Champions League draw, plotted up in the Venice sunshine, fantasizing about further European glory. I was thinking I’d have been better off staying in Italy. After Sunday’s shellacking, I really wish I had!

I’m not sure I’d have bothered stumping up for an overnight trip to Udine, until I discovered it was only an hour and a half away from Venice. I couldn’t resist a first ever opportunity to wallow in the shimmering splendour of this pearl of the Adriatic (albeit a little wiffy in 38˚ heat).

I thought I’d be joining many other Gooners who wouldn't want to miss out on what might prove to be our last Champions League jolly for some time – I’m not sure many of us would’ve fancied following the Gunners around the graveyards of Europe in the Europa Cup. But bizarrely, virtually all of the few hundred Arsenal fans at the Stadio Fruili on Wednesday night had crossed the nearby border, coming from Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.

Assuming this horde of East Europeans Gooners found their way home in their drunken stupor, I imagine they must’ve been hiding behind their sofas come Sunday, as their hero, Woijech Sczczny, endured the most traumatic afternoon of his short career. I knew I should’ve remained holed up behind mine, when I couldn’t find anyone to accompany me on a masochistic trip to Manchester.

I must admit I was sorely tempted to stop indoors, rather than suffer more ignominy at Old Trafford. But after five fruitless years you feel obliged to keep going, for fear the Gunners might perform when least expected. Yet in the absence of Vermaelen, it was obvious the game was up, when I had to check if I’d heard correctly, as Coquelin & Traore were announced in the starting line-up. It must be time to throw the towel in, when one starts pining over the loss of Eboué & Denilson!

Sure Arsène had the excuse that our side was so severely depleted by injuries and suspensions, while others were understandably jaded, after competing in the stifling heat in midweek. But our squad was always going to be stretched at some point during the season and perhaps we should be grateful that it’s gossamer like lack of depth has been so blatantly exposed, while there’s still a day or two left to try and address the situation.

It felt to me as if Wenger had already written Sunday’s match off before it started and if we’d come away with a more creditable defeat, our obdurate manager might’ve been able to continue to kid himself that his invisible suit of armour hadn’t lost all of it’s lustre. But with that 8-2 humiliation, Arsène left Old Trafford with nowhere to hide his manifest embarrassment.

I only hope his sacrificial lambs to the slaughter don’t end up with permanent, career wrecking, psychological scars à la Stepanovs as not all of them were at fault for our impotence in the face of Man Utd’s relentless onslaught. This was all the more galling because apart from Rooney’s scintillating form and Ashley Young’s two stunning strikes, this was far from Utd's most formidable display.

You certainly can’t afford to look the rare gift-horse in the face of a Howard Webb penalty against Man U on their patch and Van Persie’s head dropped after his disappointing spot-kick. As the Gunners trudged off 3-1 down at the break, you just couldn’t imagine anyone in the Arsenal dressing-room with the force of personality to inspire the Gunners to raise their game.

For my money this has long been le Gaffer’s most grievous blind-spot; Arsène’s failure to appreciate the crucial value of those qualities in a footballer that simply cannot be measured on a statistical spreadsheet. We’ve seen countless examples that demonstrate team-mates don’t necessarily need to love one another, but a squad simply can’t survive without the leadership qualities capable of inspiring the sort of common bond, which equips them to fight for the greater good.

However there was little evidence of this on Sunday, when the likes of Arshavin, Rosicky and Chamakh turned tail and ran for cover after the final whistle, without the slightest acknowledgement to the loyal suckers for punishment in our corner of the ground, who’d sung ourselves hoarse, with an unabated reaffirmation of our love of the Arsenal for almost the entire second-half.

If the Arsenal is indeed the model for how a well run "football club” should operate, rather than just a going concern, it’s unfathomable that we should be left with £70 mill in the bank, fighting over the last turkey on the shelf. I’m not so naïve as to believe these modern day mercenaries will ever share our intensity of feeling for the club, but there has to be some semblance of a unity of purpose.

In this time of desperation, it doesn’t really matter who Wenger drafts in. Unless he focuses on unearthing that intangible iron-will, strength of character (over quantifiable talent) that can be the catalyst to bond the disparate individuals, at the end of the day the Gunners will continue to be on hiding to nothing.

In offering those of us who travelled the token sop of a free match ticket, the club should be aware that money can’t buy our love. Perhaps it would be better spent on a punt at the vertebrae needed to provide us with a bit of backbone?
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Monday 22 August 2011

And BTW....

....I've been driven to distraction by the taunts of my Spurs mates that suggest the Emirates is populated by Gooner rats, all rushing to abandon a sinking ship.

1. There were no empty seats on Saturday and those who thought there were from the TV pictures, should be aware that from where I sat, this was just as a result of it pissing down at half-time and all those getting wet in the front rows of the lower tier, either moving back for some cover, or seeking refuge watching the screens on the concourse

2. The "spend some f***in' money" chant only surfaced momentarily from a few voices and soon turned into a chorus of "we love you Arsenal" as everyone realised the need to get behind the team and while the final whistle was inevitably greeted with the expected cacophony of disapproval over such a disappointing result (display!), anyone who lingered long enough will know that the team actually left the pitch with "we love you Arsenal" ringing in their ears

Credit where it's due
Keep the faith
Come on you Reds

Neptune Or King Canute?

There are still plenty of Gooners clinging on like grim death to the hope that the greatest manager our glorious club has ever known, might yet prove he’s not become entirely presbyopic - seemingly to the point of not being able to see the nose on his own face.

In the knowledge that the blow of losing two of our most virtuoso stars has been a problem, which has been on the horizon for so long, it seems inconceivable that Arsène has carried on regardless of this worst-case scenario, without any contingency plans? Recent rumours contend that the club’s failure to plug the most obvious gaps is a direct result of le Boss being at loggerheads with the board, both in his efforts to strengthen the squad and to provide the wage parity, which could prevent our remaining world class talent being cherry-picked at will in future, by those with deeper pockets.

With Arsène being such a steadfast company man, we'll never be privy to what goes on behind the boardroom’s closed doors. Nevertheless, while the media delights in portraying British football’s increasingly endangered Captain Sensible, more and more like a deranged Mr Magoo, we continue to clutch at the straw which protrudes from our manager’s sleeve, so long as the transfer window remains open, praying there’s a masterstroke up there which might stem the Tsunami of criticism.

Never mind the opportunity offered by the trip to Udinese of being able to see Venice before it sinks, I’m more concerned with the potential scuttling of the good ship Arsenal. The mascot for tonight’s game in Italy might’ve been best advised to pack his boots. Or perhaps better still, a bucket, so long as we continue taking on water with the disastrous deluge of injuries that threaten a premature Champions League exit. Far from being a much-needed fillip, survival in Europe is paramount, if the Gunners’ season isn’t to be grounded on the rocks on its way out of port.

With the rash of naïve crimes that have resulted in the suspensions that will see us travelling to Old Trafford on Sunday with a gossamer thin squad, if ever there was an outing that’s guaranteed to sift out the loyal wheat from the glory-hunting chaff, it’s this daunting trip, where only the bravest masochists amongst us will fancy the prospect of facing further ridicule in the North-West.

Even in the event that we scrape into the Champions league proper, with the lucrative cash-cow of the group stages providing welcome respite to what looks likely to be a season long struggle to keep pace with the domestic competition, with each passing day it becomes harder and harder to defend our esteemed manager, in the face of the mounting hysteria.

They were taking bets in the pub before Saturday’s game against the Scousers, on how long Manny Frimpong would last before being booked. But so long as the young Ghanaian tank remained on the pitch, there was a glimmer of hope that, combined with Vermaelen’s resolve, the Gunners have begun to acquire a long-awaited air of robustness. Sadly it’s not like we haven’t grown all too accustomed to dropping crucial points on home turf, but what was most disconcerting about this display was the patent absence of the glue that binds the Gunners disparate parts and which has in the past at least enabled us to dominate possession of the football.

While Arsenal fans have spent so long obsessing about our frailties at the back, suddenly without Fabregas at our fulcrum, there’s an apparent disconnect everywhere else on the pitch; seemingly with Jack Wilshere’s vision as our one and only hope of stitching the Arsenal back into a viable team unit. Not to take anything away from the Scousers first league triumph at our place in 11 years, but compared to the utterly demoralizing massed ranks of Mancini’s mercenary star turns, and in spite of Dalglish spunking up £43 million, Liverpool are still some way from looking anything like genuine contenders.

To my mind, there was no greater admission of our squad’s limitations than the involvement of Nasri and Bendtner, players who are likely to be pulling on a different shirt by next week. But with the inability or unwillingness of the likes of Ramsey, Walcott and Arshavin to stamp their mark and maintain control of the ball over Lucas, Henderson and Adams in midfield, you have to fear for how we might fare in the face of a stiffer test.

Whether Wenger is browbeaten into a bout of panic buying by the circumstances, or the mounting pressure (when he’s never buckled in the past!), what baffles most Gooners is how the likes of Fergie managed to conclude much of Man Utd's transfer business, even before last season ended: while our increasingly forlorn leader is left looking like the kid in the playground, picking over the left-overs, forced to choose from the ever diminishing bunch of ungainly bozos, who no one wants on their side even as a makeweight.

Silent Stan’s arrival was supposed to offer the Arsenal the same sort of success of some of his other “septic” sporting franchises. Who could’ve imagined Gazides’ “sustainable business model” would mean that after all these years of waiting for the pay-off, the Gunners would morph overnight, into the footballing equivalent of Walmart.

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Tuesday 16 August 2011

We Won....Didn't We?

Strolling around to the Emirates for tonight's game, in short sleeves, on a lovely warm August evening, it was only when I heard confirmation of the Arsenal line-up that I really began to fret, as I wondered where on earth the goals were going to come from against Udinese.

As a result, I didn't really feel much motivation to break into a sweat while rushing around to ensure I arrived before KO. After all, anyone who's seen Marouanne Chamakh play of late will know that our utterly ineffectual Moroccan striker isn't likely to score a goal in a month of Sundays (nor any other day of the week for that matter)!

It did occur to me that of the eleven players who started the game in red & white, Walcott was about the only one capable of troubling the Italian team, as a significant goal threat. And then Theo promptly provided confirmation of his potency, just as I approached turnstile H. With me having started the season as I mean to go on, my customarily tardy habits were swiftly punished by his early strike and fortunately I was able to dash inside the ground, just in time to catch the replays on the concourse TVs.

In all honesty, I think we got a massive break with this early goal because it relieved a lot of the pressure. If we were nervously biting our nails during the last 30 minutes, as the Gunners inevitably dropped off and invited the visitors on, just imagine how much more tense the situation would've been without our slender lead?

When I looked up at the scoreboard after the final whistle this evening, as they flashed up the scores from the other European matches, the sight of the results of the remaining candidates for Champions League qualification only reminded me that in my humble opinion, we were fortunate to be facing the fourth placed Italian team, rather than any of the other potentially bigger banana skins such as FC Twente, Benfica, Lyon, Rubin Kazan, Sturm Graz, or even Bate Borisov.

At least the Gunners went into the game against Udinese, knowing their opponents were going to be no pushover, whereas I'd have been a lot more worried if we'd been outright favourites, as I'm not sure that the prospect of playing some of the smaller fry would've offered sufficient motivation for us to produce the attitude necessary to overcome in any contest between two opponents.

Yet even in this more challenging encounter, there were plenty of moments where one could be forgiven for thinking that some of our players had forgotten the importance of this match. Never mind the supposed £20 million quid on offer for qualifying for the Champions League group stages. Top flight footballers must be so blasé about the absolutely batty sums constantly being bandied about nowadays and with incomes that they couldn't hope to spend if they lived to be a 1000, I imagine the money must be meaningless. Nevertheless, you would think that the prospect of guaranteeing themselves a further six games on world football's biggest stage would provide sufficient motivation? Then again, perhaps not, if the participants have been enjoying encores on this particular stage for 14 consecutive years?

Sure Aaron Ramsey produced the pass which resulted in Walcott's goal and the Welsh lad was indeed responsible for much of the Gunners' creative football. But just as was the case in the second half at St James Park, where Ramsey really went off the boil, there were half a dozen instances against Udinese where Ramsey was guilty of conceding possession in such a dreafully casual fashion, that it was mostly down to luck and visitor's wastefulness that they failed to capitalise on our catalogue of mistakes.

Moreover we once again witnessed Thomas Rosicky running out of steam. At least the Czech midfielder was busy early on, energetically trying to make this decimated Arsenal side tick, which is more than can be said for the Moroccan waste of space, who was a passenger from the moment he stepped on the pitch - starting as he meant to go on, when the ball was played into the penalty area for Theo to pounce, Marouanne was nowhere to be seen, still dawdling around out by the touchline.

But the Czech's second appearance in four days only served to confirm his lack of stamina at such a competitive level and in truth, the fact that Arsène's forced to resort to the increasingly waning power of Thomas Rosicky is really only further confirmation of quite how reliant we are at present, in Nasri's absence, on the creative capabilities of Jack Wilshere.

Additionally it was very worrying to see Gibbs and Djourou join the growing queue for the treatment room. Hopefully there might at least be a positive aspect to Johann's injury, as perhaps it will have the effect of forcing Wenger's hand with regard to strengthening the squad with another centre-back? It's pure speculation on my part, but I can't help but wonder if Djourou's injury was a result of the French lad failing to warm up properly, as the fact that he tweaked a hamstring almost the first time he was forced into a turn of pace might lead one to conclude that he neglected to stretch properly before entering the fray?

And with Gibbs glass like fragility in the past, the youngster badly needs a run of fitness for his continued restoration to full confidence. Kieran was noticeable by his absence second half, as we lacked the same threat down our left flank provided by his energetic bursts of speed.

While Gervinho's direct running offers continued cause for optimism, the Ivorian rarely looks as if he's in full control of the ball. So while he poses a threat for opposition defences to focus on, personally I would prefer if this was a distraction for the likes of Van Persie to take advantage of and for Gervinho to contribute the occasional goal, rather than to think that we might have to rely on the Ivorian's ungainly ability to have some influence on the scoreline. I'm unsure whether Le Prof's reluctance to call on the conceited Bendtner has something to do with the fact that the Dane will be harder to flog if he was already cup-tied in Europe? Hut so long as Bendtner remains on the Arsenal's books, surely even this lazy lummox has got to pose more of a goal threat than Chamakh?

Yet despite the fact that the vast majority of us are hardly bristling with enthusiasm after winning our first home game of the season, a 1-0 win and a second successive clean sheet are indeed reasons to be cheerful - even if most of those present will know full well that Udinese were only a few inches away from raining on our parade and that their failure to record a goal wasn't really a reflection on a watertight defence!

Myself I just pray that we don't end up travelling to Trieste for the second leg with the same Arsenal lineup, as without the likes of Wilshere and Van Persie, it will be a frightening prospect. When I informed my neighbour at the Emirates that I was heading for Venice next week because it's only an hour and a half away from Udinese, he quipped that I'd get an opportunity to see the city before it sinks. I certainly hope I'm going to see Venice before it sinks, rather than to witness the good ship Gooner's European hopes being scuttled!

Meanwhile the thought of facing the Scousers and Man Utd without posing such stiff competition a new problem, with the unkown threat of Gervinho and in the absence of Alex Song, when you add these suspensions to our injuries, the Gunner's squad suddenly appears gossamer thin! Unless Arsène is imminently about to address such patently obvious problems (and why would he act when he's managed to ignore them up until now?), we might be left counting on Manny Frimpong to step up to the plate.

On past experience, I won't be at all surprised if Arsène chooses to protect the lad, rather than risk throwing him to the Gooner wolves, should it prove to be a costly disaster. But I'm of the opinion that if Manny is indeed made of the right stuff, then it's this sort of opportunity which is just as likely to make his career, as it is to break it. Still even if Frimpong fails to be given the chance to shine, I guess we should all be counting our blessings, knowing that we at least won't have to endure the inevitable agony of the inadequacies of Denilson :-)

Maybe harder by the minute but....keep the faith
Come on you Reds

Monday 15 August 2011

Reasons to be cheerful. Part 1

...well it put a smile on my face

The Arsenal Out Of Toon

Come the revolution (assuming it hasn’t already started!), it will be the fixture schedulers who’ll be first up against my wall, due to their customary lack of consideration for the long-suffering travelling fans, without whom the Premiership’s multi-million pound TV product might not be nearly so palatable.

Nevertheless, with the dampeners having been put on any remaining new season optimism, by the depressing anti-climax of a scoreless draw in our late KO at St James, I’m sure that unlike this aging wet-blanket, there were plenty of Gooners who didn’t particularly mind being stuck on Tyneside, with this at least offering them the solace of an excuse for a Saturday night out on the Toon.

Saturday night in Newcastle city centre has to be seen to be believed. It’s not that different to the London riots, albeit with revelry foremost on the minds of the thronging crowds rather than mayhem and destruction, mercifully there’s less of the burning and looting; while the masked faces give way too a little too much unflattering, bare-naked flesh, tottering around on high heels, with gangs of lads in their Saturday best sniffing around in their highly scented wake.

Yet this old fart was relieved to escape to the refuge of my hotel room with a takeaway, to watch Match of the Day. Where as if to highlight the lack of incisiveness of the Arsenal’s uninspiring display, the first two matches showed former Gunners Fabrice Muamba and Seb Larssen banging in spectacular goals for Bolton and Sunderland.

It was always a matter of not if, but when Fabregas would return to Barca and as for Nasri, in his shoes, I’m not sure many of us would be able to resist the lure of doubling our wages, with Mancini’s burgeoning army of mercenaries (although this didn’t stop me from joining in with the derogatory adaptation of Nasri’s chant!). Above all else, my greatest concern over the loss of two world class talents, is that the entire burden of responsibility to unlock the tightest defences might now fall upon the (hopefully broad) shoulders of young Jack Wilshere.

There might’ve been a time when taking a point from St James Park was not to be sniffed at, but any team hoping to challenge for honours would be expected to take all three from the sort of tame Toon outfit we enountered on Saturday. There were some positives and the loss of Gervinho’s much needed dynamism going forward could prove a costly blow in games against Liverpool and Man Utd. There’s also no doubting that Thomas Vermaelen’s tenacity leaves our defence looking a whole lot more secure, compared to the hesitancy we’ve witnessed while the Belgian has struggled with his fitness. However in Wilshere’s absence, sadly it seems obvious that we can’t rely on Rosicky for that crucial spark of creativity and such was our lack of potency going forward, on an off day for Van Persie, that we made Coloccini look like Carlos Puyol!

The consensus of opinion suggests that players need a couple of matches under their belt to recover their sharpness. An overweight looking Arshavin certainly doesn’t need more under his belt, but then his immobility around the pitch is perhaps more a matter of a lack of motivation? Meanwhile if the Gunners aren’t to rediscover some form, only to find our season is already over, then Alex Song badly needs to bring his A game to the party. Mercifully Song’s incarnation of the Cameroonian stamp remained unfranked, but he was a certainty for the ref’s attentions for much of the afternoon, with a string of fouls that resulted from him constantly having to make recovery tackles because our midfield destroyer was so slow off the mark.

It was disappointing that Walcott wasn’t able to make any sort of impact when he came off the bench, but hopefully the threat of our newest arrival from the South coast will prove to be the catalyst for Theo to finally fulfill all that promise. Unless Arsene intends for us to operate with two diminutive terriers tearing down the flanks –Oxlade-Chamberlain might be an expensive investment on the back of one’s shirt but please don’t hold it against him for being a descendant of Britain’s “peace in our time” PM!

I’m sure subsequent results will demonstrate that it only requires limited ability to dominate Pardew’s particularly lacklustre outfit but I didn’t end up too downhearted, as I spent much of this match waiting for the Toon to nick a win from a solitary assault on our goal.

Although it wasn’t until I sat down to watch El Classico on Sunday that I really began to feel daunted, as Real and Barca produced a thrilling performance, which really put the overall paucity of entertainment of the Premiership’s weekend offerings in the shade. When one considers the wealth of talent in the Catalan squad, I can’t help wonder if Wenger has missed a trick, when we might have profited more from a player exchange plus cash for the sale of our skipper? Ultimately the Arsenal will survive the loss of Cesc and Samir, but to contemplate a future after the departure of Eboué, now there’s real cause to don sackcloth and ashes!

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Thursday 11 August 2011

Fabregas deal close (to Barca - according to the Beeb)

....and I for one am delighted

Sure I don't ever want to lose our best players, but clinging on to him at this stage is ridiculous, when he and everyone else has made it so patently obvious he wants to return to Barca.

And I'd hate to have started the season, with the unavoidable dampener on team spirit of having our bloomin' club captain wanting away. Thanks for the memories Fab, now f**k off on the double and let us get on with it. And let him learn from his own misadventures, in the same way so many other players who've left the club, that the grass is rarely greener when you leave the Gunners!

In the words of Kevin Keegan, myself "I would love it" if we ended up playing and beating Barca this season :-)

The interesting thing if / when the deal gets done, will be to see quite how much of a snowball effect the transfer has, on the business we and other clubs end up doing as a result. With Chelsea still trying to prize Modric away from the obvious allure of war torn Tottenham (offering Benayoun in exchange), I rather suspect (hope!) there's still plenty of player movement to come - not that it's our midfield which is in most urgent need of bolstering, but it would be amusing if Modric was waiting for us to hijack his move (both pilfering Spurs biggest talent and for once, for us to gazump Chelsea!).

As for Nasri, Gazides went into the question of contracts coming to their end at the AISA Q & A the other night. He refused to speak in specific terms about Samir, for obvious reasons, but he made a point of trying to explain the situation in general terms.

I hope I got the gist of what he said and if not, hopefully others who were there will put me right, but I think he was making the point that contrary to popular opinion, where supposedly a well run club would ensure that none of their playing staff ever reached a point where their contract has less than a year to run, (according to Ivan) the truth of the matter is the exact opposite because if contracts were instantly renewed the moment expiration loomed, this would involve clubs acceding to the players every demand.

Therefore, by implication, I guess we can assume that Samir's contract was not renewed sooner because he's been holding a gun to the club's head, demanding more than the Gunners are prepared to pay and I guess this soon develops into a metaphorical game of poker, involving bluff and counter bluff between the Arsenal and Samir's agent, as he threatens to advise his client to let his contract expire, so he can walk away for free (and I guess grab a massive signing on fee because his new employers have no avoided paying millions in transfer fees - a la Anelka at Chelsea and I imagine many others angling for a Bosman type payday), while the Gunners are forced to play "softly, softly catchy monkey" as we try to encourage him to re-sign a new contract, while ensuring that the extortionate amount required for us to be able to "call" is no more than absolutely necessary.

I might not like it one bit, but looking at the situation from Samir's shoes, I suppose his self-interest is perfectly understandable. I have to admit that I don't keep abreast of all the gossip, so I've no idea if Nasri has non-footballing reasons for wanting to engineer a move. But from a purely economic perspective, with Samir just about at his peak, in terms of the sort of value he can command, especially when you think that if he signs a five year deal, I believe he's going to be pushing 30 when it expires. As a result, I can just picture his agent bending his ear, pointing out how crucial his next deal is, as he's never again going to be in such a financially advantageous position and how he needs to make the very most of it because in the fleeting world of football, he could snap a cruciate tomorrow!

Moreover, we can only imagine the sort of riches being promised to him, by way of signing on fees, bonuses etc should he be allowed to walk away for free when his contract expires

While I haven't the slightest evidence and therefore it's pure conjecture on my part, I rather suspect that if money wasn't a factor, Samir wouldn't be in any hurry to leave the Arsenal and who knows, perhaps, to the contrary, from a purely footballing perspective there's no other club he'd rather be playing for? Mind you, I know we might all feel this way, but without the emotional attachment to the Gunners, one might wonder why anyone would choose to play in the frenetic physical environs of the Premiership, when one had the choice of being involved in perhaps a third of the same amount of games, spending the remainder of the time with your feet up on the bench, in sunnier climes and with those games you were involved in being far less bruising. Not to mention not having to be plagued by tabloid paparazzi and taxed to the hilt. For many it would be a no-brainer!

Meanwhile from my own purely selfish point of view, I'm grateful that the authorities appear to have "manned up" sufficiently to have seemingly put the lid on the spread of trouble. With flights and two nights in a Tyneside hotel booked (because of not being able to get back that same night), it would've been an expensive business if Saturday's fixture had been postponed. I called the hotel this morning, to confirm their cancellation policy and according to the laws of Sod & Murphy, I could cancel up until 9am tomorrow, Thursday morning, without charge, while obviously the decision about whether to postpone will be made soon after!

Hopefully the fact that the rioters seem to have thought better than to return to the streets and risk a battering so far tonight, will mean that there will be no question of our game not going ahead at St Jsmes Park. I'm told that the police were suggesting that whether the matches would take place was just a matter of manpower and whether they'd be able to meet the standard criteria of policing according to the policy resulting from the Taylor Report. Although I couldn't help but think that if the atmosphere around the country had remained at boiling point, the authorities might've been glad of any excuse to prevent crowds congregating in such large numbers and to have to stretch resources even further, trying to police them.

But at the end of the day, I fancy the situation would have to have been pretty desperate to cancel the entire football schedule, as what sort of message would this be sending out to the rest of the world, other than the very public admittance of their complete loss of control.

I've already committed myself to going up to the North-East for work on Friday, in an effort to ensure that I get reimbursed for a share of the costs (a very rare opportunity of providential synchronicity between work and football - when normally it would be more likely that I'd be required on Tyneside for work only days before or after the Gunners are in Toon!). But if it wasn't for the footie, I could've travelled there and back on the same day, instead of stopping up North for a couple of nights and considering the amount of effort and expense involved, the very least I expect is not to have to feel that some of the XI in Red & White are only their under protest!

Nevertheless so long as we can rest assured on the turn out of the vast majority of the Gunners best XI, we've little reason to fear anyone and what's more, things could be a whole lot worse. Watching events in the Championship on Saturday, I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for Hammers fans. Obviously as one of the newly relegated teams, the Irons are amongst the favourites for promotion, but if there was anything proved by that recent documentary on the telly, where they feigned interest in buying Championship clubs with Fergie's best Orizontal pal and man of the match fixer Brian Robson, it wasn't just the farcically lax ownership regulations and the fiasco that is the "fit and proper" test; apart from leaving plenty of egg on ol' Red Nose's face, for me it basically highlighted how every half-arsed millionaire "businessman" and his mate sees ownership of a Championship club and the prospect of promotion as a route to personal glory in the Premiership.

So for every West Ham, Birmingham, Blackpool looking to bounce straight back, while having to cut their cloth according to their reduced means, there's a Leicester, Ipswich and Cardiff investing greedily on the gamble of grabbing themselves a slice of Premiership pie and the Championship has rarely looked like being quite so competitive. Moreover, with plenty of guaranteed, good old-fashioned ding-dongs in encounters with the likes of Leeds, Forest, Derby etc it's going to be no easy ride back to the Premiership's glamorous pedestal. Who'd be big fat Sam, trying to inspire with a teamtalk when all his best players are so publicly being touted on the transfer market and might be out the door before the final whistle blows. And who'd be an Irons fan, singing the names of players who wouldn't be seen for East London dust, if there was the slightest hint of an acceptable offer which might offer them an encore on the big stage!

While we Gooners are sitting here, tearing what's left of our hair out at AW's apparent failure (to date!) to address our defensive inadequacies, we shouldn't forget to count our blessings....for they are many

Keep the faith

Sunday 7 August 2011

Anyone for Venice?

I bashed out my previous post, "You Wait All Day For A Bus.....", on Thursday, prior to the Champions League draw and yet another frustrating pre-season outing in Portugal. This was following a request from The Irish Examiner to file a piece by Friday for their Premiership preview supplement and it was only after I'd sent it that I began to wonder if perhaps it was remiss of me to jump on the bandwagon of Gooners ramping up the pressure for our esteemed leader to pull his finger out and appease the masses with some placatory evidence of his appreciation of the Gunners continued shortcomings. Besides, confined to a mere 600 words by the paper, it's not like I didn't have more to say (nothing new there then :-)

Arsenal fans seem to be split into two camps, with those who are rabidly refusing to accept the possibility that we're going to end up starting yet another campaign with virtually the exact same rostra of players who've failed to produce the goods these past few seasons (with the obvious exception of Gervinho and Jenkinson) and with the remainder desperately trying to dampen down the fervent clamour for the Gunners to splash the cash, by contesting that the club's frugal approach might not reward us with short term success, but that the board's parsimonious tendencies will at least guarantee that the Arsenal remain in business in the long term.

This argument might sound valid and our much vaunted "sustainable business model" might look good on an Excel spreadsheet, but as much as the suits at the club might try to convince us otherwise, the beautiful game is not a "business" like any other and you only had to look at Saturday's dreadfully unconvincing second-half performance against Benfica, to fully appreciate the foolhardiness of trying to run a football club merely as an exercise in strict economic principles.

It was interesting to hear Arsène questioned on Benfica's activity in the transfer market. He said something like "they were everywhere we went" suggesting that the Gunners were looking at the same sort of bargain basement buys that the Portuguese club appear to have bought up wholesale. Forgive any inaccuracies but I got the impression that Benfica have spent something like £22million on half a dozen different players, costing in the region of £2/3million each.

Now while I'm not suggesting that we should have bought these players instead of Benfica (although I don't think I'd have turned my nose up at the durable and experienced likes of Pablo Aimar), rather than seeing us put all our eggs in one basket with one solitary major purchase, I've been arguing for some time that what we really need is some substantial turnover in a squad that has begun to look increasingly stale, by bringing in several new faces to freshen up the dressing room and to perhaps frighten a few players out of their apparent complacency and resulting lethargy.

Watching such an abysmal second-half performance on Saturday, only left me that much more convinced that there are players in the current squad of the mediocre calibre of Fabianski, Squillaci and Chamakh, who should never in a million years be allowed anywhere near an Arsenal shirt. And yet as things stand at the moment, we are left quaking right down to our Nike's, in the certain knowledge that we are going to be left relying on the inadequacies of these no-marks, the moment injuries and suspensions begin to take their toll.

More importantly, while Arsène might be reluctant to so readily accept the mistakes he's made with the hapless Squillaci and the utterly impotent (at least on a football pitch!) Chamakh, just about every potential opponent on the planet recognises our obvious weaknesses when these players take to the field. So instead of the opposition standing in the tunnel at the Emirates, intimidated by the challenge of playing the mighty Arsenal, when they're faced with such undisputed duds they will all fancy the prospect of taking us on.

This is one of the reasons we're so desperate for some turnover in our team, as even if for example Wenger replaced Squillaci with a centre-back who eventually proved no less fallible, we would at least be starting the season with some hope of a new dawn and the change in faces in the squad would at least offer the opposition the challenge of facing an Arsenal side with a veneer of a newly discovered resoluteness.

Instead of which, without the turnover of at least a couple of players in the coming weeks, we'll be commencing this campaign with every Premiership manager knowing that aside from taking steps to try and contain Gervinho's wonderfully refreshing willingness to take players on, they can adopt the exact same tactics that so many profited from last season. They know that in the absence of Van Persie, we offer very little, or no threat up front and that they need only defend in numbers, with sufficient bodies behind the ball, to ensure that it's damn near impossible to pass our way through the heart of the opposition's defence.

And they can trust that according to the law of averages, they need only hoof the ball down the other end of the pitch enough times, into the midst of a defence with a tendency to act like frightened rabbits, caught in the glare of the headlights, knowing that we'll eventually be panicked into a sufficiently rash act that will result in us conceding a goal!

Let's face it, for our opponents setting out their stall to thwart the current Arsenal side is hardly rocket science! This is one of the reasons Gervinho's arrival has offered us some hope, because the Ivorian presents the opposition with a new and different problem (although I have some concerns that his push and run preferences might soon be nullified in the uncompromising environs of the Premiership?). Yet we are undoubtedly in desperate need of more of the same!

I know that sadly Man City ultimately lost the Charity Shield this afternoon, but when I think of the massive physical specimens of the likes of Yaya Toure, Micah Richards, Kompany, Dzeko etc. etc. lining up in the tunnel, it's got to be an imposing, intimidating sight for the majority of teams. By contrast, it's hard to imagine anyone feeling similarly threatened when lining up against the Gunners line-up of diddy men, where even the majority of our bigger players seem far too timid looking, lacking that undercurrent of nastiness which might make opponents think twice about yanking their chain.

I'm not sure what happened to Jagielka in more recent times, but I do recall thinking that he looked like the sort of cultured centre-back who might suit the Arsenal when he first appeared for Everton. However on the basis that Jagielka is likely to cost umpteen more millions than Chris Samba, you could make an argument for buying the Blackburn centre-back, just because he's built like the proverbial brick sh*t house and is the sort of monster that can be the bully rather than the bullied.

However I've avoided such speculative arguments on the comparative advantages and disadvantages of all the obvious transfer targets that the tabloids have been bandying about all summer long. It's a complete waste of time and energy, getting sucked into the incessant claptrap (necessary to fill column inches) and you never really know how well an individual player will perform, as you can have all the statistics in the world, but as a team game, football is all down to chemistry. What's more I can never escape the cynical sense that if a player has worked his socks off to make a name for himself at the club where he has some emotional attachment, after having come through the ranks, it is hard to imagine them achieving their dream big money move, intent on grafting even harder for their new employer.

Yet in truth, I'm not nearly so bothered about the specifics of who Arsène chooses to take a gamble on (it's always a gamble, no matter what the price tag!), just so long as the Gunners come to the table and spin the roulette wheel a few times, to relieve the obvious stagnation in our squad!

The pay-off for keeping the same group of players together for several seasons and their growing distaste for repeating the same miserable experiences should be reflected in the togetherness and team spirit within the camp. But sadly, whether it's down to something lacking in the collection of personalities, or perhaps related to our manager's phlegmatic persona, but up until now it would appear as if there's an obvious lack of chemistry in the current squad. Therefore, to my mind, what's really needed in the players that AW should be targetting, is the sort of strength of character that simply can't be measured by le Gaffer's preference for statistical data.

I'm not saying we should have bought Kevin Nolan (although I must admit it was a shock to hear it revealed in the commentary on West Ham v Cardiff this afternoon that Nolan was amongst the Premiership's top scorers for Newcastle last season!), or to find myself flamed for suggesting we should be spending our hard earned money on jail bait like Joey Barton, but there is an intangible quality that just about every Gooner recognises as being required by the current Arsenal squad, as a catalyst to encourage the best "never say die" attributes out of the rest of them.

The problem as I see it, is that the Fabregas situation is so awkward because it's not as if Cesc is going to accept a transfer to any other club than Barca. As a result, with us having the Catalans over a barrel, refusing to contemplate a deal until they offer an acceptable amount, I rather suspect the Spaniards will continue dragging their heels, waiting to see who blinks first, determined to ensure that the transfer does not happen until the very last possible moment, leaving us in a situation where the vast majority of transfer business has already been done and we're left with little, or no choice of where to spend the money, raking over the dregs of the few players who haven't already secured their immediate future.

What's more, even if Arsène has a few moves up his sleeve, where we are assured of being able to obtain specific targets, when you consider how daunting a schedule we have over the first few weeks of the season, if we are indeed going to be pleasantly surprised (nay flabbergasted!) by a few more additions, they need to be bedded into the squad sooner, rather than later, or else our season could be over before they've had an opportunity to make an impact.

Then again, it could be argued that a defeat to Udinese and the denial of the riches on offer from the group stages of the Champions League, is just about the only thing which might shock the suits at the Arsenal out of their complacency? But this is a Catch-22 because if the Arsenal continue to refuse to spend money without being able to balance the books, what chance is there of us buying more players, without the revenue they've come to rely on after Arsène has worked the Champions League oracle for so many seasons!

Although to be honest, if Gazides and co. continue to resist the inclination to respond to the wake up call of all those Gooners who've refused to renew their season tickets, or the continued, patently obvious frailties on the pitch, quite frankly they must already be dead. Or at least dead as far as caring for what transpires on the pitch, rather than for how much they can rake in at the cash tills!

Unlike many, I wasn't that disappointed by the Champions League draw as personally I fancy the Gunners are far more likely to do themselves justice against the Italian side than they might've been if we'd have faced a bigger banana skin of the likes of FC Twente or Rubin Kazan. Besides, based on the decidedly uninspiring football we've witnessed in our friendlies to date, I'm not sure I would have bothered spending my hard earned wedge travelling anywhere else, but whatever our future in Europe this season, at least the draw with Udinese offers me an opportunity to see Venice before I die.

Based on the paucity of Serie A of late and the fact that Udinese have sold off the best of the players that enabled them to achieve fourth place last term, let's face it, if we can't beat the Italians, we don't deserve to play Champions League football.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it's still a long way from being all gloom & doom, after all, we could be Spurs fans! And we know that on our day, our first XI is perfectly capable of taking on (and beating) the best in the world. The most frustrating thing is that up until now, as we're constantly being reminded, Arsène continues to fail to address the frailties that have plagued us these past few seasons. Watching the Charity Shield this afternoon felt like a painful reality check, as it dawned on me watching the fairly impressive performances of both Utd and City that much to my distress, the Gunners are no better placed for dominating our immediate competition than we have been in recent seasons.

You can sense this frustration in the level of relative apathy felt towards the new campaign, when normally at this time of year, we'd be positively counting the seconds until the Gunners kick their first ball in anger. If I'm entirely honest, I've been procrastinating about arranging my trip to St James Park next week, when normally you would have to tie me down in chains, to prevent me being present at the first game of a new campaign. But with it being a 5.30 KO and with me having discovered there was no way of getting back to Highbury that same night, I have to admit that instead of spending another couple of hundred quid getting to Tyneside and back and staying overnight in Newcastle, the thought of stopping at home and watching the game live on the box did actually cross my mind.

However eventually I bit the bullet and booked my travel and my accommodation, in the certain knowledge that with all the brouhaha in the days ahead, as the media frenzy builds to a climax of traditionally titanic proportions the closer we get to KO, come Saturday, I will be absolutely devastated to miss out, sitting at home bawling at the telly, instead of pointlessly screaming my head off with all the other Gooners, right up in the gods at St James Park.

Come the revolution, it will be those utterly inconsiderate fixture schedulers who will be first up against my wall!

Win, lose or draw, all I expect is a performance full of opening-day enthusiasm and commitment and considering quite how much this first outing of the season is going to cost me, the very last thing I want is to be watching players in red & white who would rather be elsewhere!

It's interesting how Arsène seems to manage to shed the weight of the world during the summer months, to start each season looking reinvigorated. But if the worry lines aren't to return to the face of our very own ostrich before the week is out, he might do well to pull his head out of the sand post-haste

Nuff of my waffle
Keep the faith
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You Wait All Day For A Bus.....

…..and our obdurate conductor still won’t ring our bell!

As an Arsenal fan I’ve long since learned that it’s prudent to switch off during the summer, rather than be driven to distraction by endless rumours, which fail to take into account the tendency of our very own Nero to want to continue fiddling with the flames licking around his feet.

However while Rome burned, the Emirates appears pretty flameproof, which is perhaps a significant factor in the complacency that seems to plague the club after 14 consecutive years of Champions League football. Instead of placating fans by making good on the promise of some serious investment in the squad, they’ve put ticket prices up.

Whether it’s exasperation or hard economics, the net result is probably the largest turnover of season tickets in the club’s modern history. Yet for every Gooner giving up their precious pitch this summer, there’s ten waiting to take their place, who dare not pass up the unheard of phenomenon of actually being offered a guaranteed seat, for fear it might never happen again.

Nevertheless, despite growing Gooner disgruntlement over Arsène’s myopic insistence at overstaying our welcome, seemingly stuck in this Groundhog day loop, it’s every football fan’s prerogative to approach each new season, fuelled by optimistic expectations of a fabulous new dawn. That is until we are left gloomily trudging away from the pre-season nuptials, resigned to another unfulfilled campaign of the ‘same old, same old’ ornamental underachievement, with little or no faith in our manager’s hollow claims that we are ever closer to consummating our long-awaited reunion with the glory days.

Gervinho’s introduction offers a faint spark of promise. Compared to tearing at what little remains of my hair, after enduring six frustrating seasons watching the Arsenal recycle the ball ad infinitum but with no end product, I adore the Ivorian’s directness and pray that he might add some much needed dynamism to our forward play. But despite not wanting to put a dampener on our exciting first glimpses of our new (and along with the untried Carl Jenkinson, so far ONLY) addition, I can’t help but fear that Gervinho’s ‘push and run’ preferences might soon be nullified in the uncompromising environs of the Premiership?

There were other causes for optimism in our pre-season friendlies, with the return of Thomas Vermaelen, who has that aura of resolve about him, which at least doesn’t leave one feeling quite so insecure that we’re about to commit centre-back hari-kiri whenever we concede possession. And after the injury which stalled his career last term, the resumption of Manny Frimpong’s potential development into a homegrown Michael Essien (I often wonder what might’ve been if we hadn’t been gazumped for Essien, as Abramovich signaled his intention to park Chelsea’s tank on our lawn and fire fifty pound notes at us).

Benik Afobe also looked full of promise for the future. But in the here and now, against possibly the most uninspiring line-up in the competition’s 5 year history, the fact that we couldn’t even contrive to win our own bloomin’ tournament was quite frankly downright embarrassing. Carelessly squandering leads in both games of the Emirates Cup felt like a metaphor for all that’s wrong with the club. How can we expect even a facsimile of commitment from this squad, when they see Samir Nasri’s refusal to sign a contract rewarded with the captain’s armband?

As for the Fabregas saga, I think that like most Gooners, I just want it over, as it’s making the club look like the jilted lover, refusing to accept reality to the point of requiring a restraining order. Losing our best player will be a blow, but clinging on to anyone against their will is a recipe for disaster as far as team spirit is concerned. In the apparent absence of Arsène’s imaginary war-chest, or any willing mug-punters for the rest of our deadwood, if they are actually planning on re-investing the fee for our captain into the squad (as opposed to more eateries for the high-rollers), can I humbly suggest they pull their finger out and get on with it, or never mind May, looking at the fixture list we could be casting a few clouts before August is out!
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