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Tuesday 27 September 2011

Something For The Weekend?

Hi folks,

it made a change today, when instead of the piece I'd filed for Wednesday's Irish Examiner being outdated by subsequent news, it seemed as if the disastrous revelation that Jack WIlshere will be absent for 4-6 months, has lent weight to the comment I've made below about the contentions of those concerning the competency of the Gunners' medical team. Perhaps the reluctance to operate on Jack's troublesome ankle was merely a gamble that has gone disastrously wrong. But on the face of it, it seems a major ricket that they didn't opt for surgery sooner, instead of wasting so much time, hoping for Jack to heal while wearing a medical boot.

Whatever the case, the news comes as just another major blow, from which it's likely to prove a mighty task to bounce back. So long as the return of Wilshere and Vermaelen remained somewhere on the horizon, if we could keep plugging away, there was always hope of this bright, shiny light at the end of the dark tunnel we now find ourselves in. But with this being snuffed out by today's news, without Wilshere it's hard not to fear for a long hard winter!

I ran out of room to mention the glimmer of optimism from Oxlade-Chamberlain in last week's Carling Cup win, but this was tempered by my disappointment with the one off-target effort that seemed to be the sum total of Ju Young Park's contribution in our Korean striker's decidedly unimpressive debut. I adore these Carling Cup encounters, where the drastically reduced price tickets makes for an entirely different (more high-pitched) vibe, compared to the aging "audience" at most matches. But personally I prefer to see Wenger select a team full of kids, rather than the mix-and-match of youth and experience that appeared against Shrewsbury.

Perhaps the fact that le Prof wasn't prepared to risk an immature side making a premature exit from the competition is merely a reflection of Arsène's increasing desperation for a glimmer of any silverware whatsoever. But then you are at least guaranteed an enthusiastic and thoroughly committed performance from a side full of kids, who all have something to prove; whereas last Tuesday I couldn't escape this sense of ignominy amongst some of the more senior players, as if being made to perform in this Mickey Mouse tournament was some sort of punishment.

Considering there's an urgent need for this Arsenal side to be able to compensate for the deficit in flair and finesse that we've suffered with the loss of Fabregas, Nasri and now Wilshere (at least for the majority of this season!), we badly need to make up for it in our togetherness and spirit. I was late for Saturday's game because I was watching Man City v Everton and despite the fact that the Toffees lost 2-0, for the first hour or so of this game, I was seriously impressed by the way in which they were prepared to graft like Trojans for one another, closing down Man City's mercenaries in twos and threes all over the park.

Ultimately it proved a disappointing and almost inevitable case of the irresistible force of Mancini's mob eventually shifting Moyes' immovable object, with Man City's almost limitless reinforcements from the bench. But what I would only give for some evidence of just a little of this sort of team spirit, in an Arsenal side, where never mind them all being close friends, there's many an occasion where they appear as if they're only playing with one another on sufferance!

Keep the faith
Come on you Reds


Heading around to Saturday’s game, contemplating the positively unthinkable, looming spectre of finding ourselves rock bottom of the Premiership pile on Saturday night, if we were to lose and the match at the Hawthorns ended in a draw, Owen Coyle’s combative Trotters wouldn’t normally have been top of my list of ideal opposition for a crucial, confidence restoring encounter, in advance of our trip to White Hart Lane. A Derby clash that’ll undoubtedly be billed as the litmus test of any shift in the North London status quo.

However with Bolton having lost in 9 or their last 10 outings, they weren’t exactly brim full of belief and it was a very pleasant surprise that this below-par Bolton proved to be the perfect foil for our bomb damaged Gunners. With Arsène’s side perceived to be on its knees, at present the majority of teams would’ve arrived at the Emirates intent on capitalizing on our current plight, by shattering the brittle shell that’s been so badly cracked in recent weeks.

I fully expected Bolton to attempt to do likewise, by probing all those defensive frailties, which we’ve seen exposed in virtually every match thus far, with a bombardment of high balls into the box. But with our customary nemesis, Kevin Davies, only coming on from the bench after lone front-man Ngog limped off , this typified the limited ambitions of a Bolton side that was principally focused on snuffing out our threat, instead of any gung-ho quest for all three points.

In light of our lamentable recent plight, on paper, a 3-0 win and a clean sheet to boot, looks to be the perfect pick-me-up. Contrary to the 60k full-house crowd stats, there was evidence of empty seats all over the shop. Amongst those Gooners present, I’m sure there’ll be plenty who’ll admit that this result might be somewhat misleading.

The seriously underwhelming form of Dalglish’s Scousers since their first league victory in an epoch at our place, Blackburn’s slapstick defending and the hard work we made of a Swans outfit, who are likely to prove such easy meat for others, all this seems a far more accurate barometer of the Gunners rapid descent towards mid-table mediocrity, than a home win against Owen Coyle’s beleaguered bullies.

If not for Sczczny’s heroics, it might’ve been a different story, as we would’ve been behind before I’d even reached my seat on Saturday - but then at least I wasn’t included amongst all the Emirates tourists, who having stood queuing for halftime refreshments, failed to make it back in time to see the all-important first goal immediately after the restart.

Prior to this we endured a dreadfully disjointed first-half, where, playing in front of our back four, Arteta was easily smothered, causing a disconnect between him and all those in more advanced roles. My neighbour commented “what price the frustrations of pleasing on the eye, ticcy-taccy football, compared to this staccato fare?”

Mercifully it finally seemed as if the Gunner had begun to find their mojo during the second-half. Obviously we were aided by the dismissal of Bolton’s centre-back, but even before this, it felt as if Wenger had found the right buttons to press during the break, to turn on some style.

Although he might lack the control and composure of a more cultured talent, without the millstone of Walcott’s timidity, Gervinho’s willingness to run with the ball is akin to putting a dreadlocked rooster in the opposition’s hen house. On the face of it, the depressing news about Wilshere’s prolonged absence appears to lend weight to the contentions of those who question the competency of our medical team.

Without Wilshere and Vermaelen, an injury-prone Van Persie is arguably the only player left in the current team who’d be coveted by all the cash-rich competition (perhaps along with the unsung Sagna?). Yet with each passing week you can sense the rising frustration in Robin’s demeanour, with his team-mates repeated inability to look up and pass to the unmarked striker. Unless this squad clicks and this situation is rectified pronto, we risk another Arsenal captain requesting his P45, as we can’t expect Van Persie to endure our squad's inadequacies in perpetuity.

Thankfully, on one of Theo's better afternoons, he was able to find Robin on Saturday. But then some might argue that even a broken clock is right twice a day, especially the ever-increasing army of Arsenal fans who are convinced that our misfortunes of late are evidence of the ebb tide of Arsène’s long tenure. Myself I believe Wenger has easily earned the right to prove himself capable of turning the tide. Ask me again after Sunday!

The margins between success and failure are nothing more than the width of a post. If a win against Olympiakos is followed by a famous Derby triumph at White Hart Lane, the clamour will be “crisis, what crisis?” But under the circumstances, rest assured my trepidation is such that I’ll be making the short-hop along the Seven Sisters Road on my motorbike, just so I’ve an excuse to bring my crash helmet.
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Saturday 24 September 2011

The Times They Are A Changing (but surely not the Totts!)

(apologies, as I didn't get around to posting last week's diary piece and when my thoughts were superseded by Tuesday's Carling Cup triumph, I really wanted to write something different, but having not got around to it, I thought that unlike the Gunners, I could at least maintain a consistent record, even if a tirade about zonal marking hardly seems so relevant after beating Bolton 3-0 and keeping a clean sheet against Kevin Davies and co. in the bargain - then again, I'm sure that most who witnessed this afternoon's encounter will freely admit that the fact that Sczczny's goal wasn't breached all afternoon, was more a reflection upon the failure of Owen Coyle's mob to get the ball in our box, than, sadly, any indication of some miraculous improvement in the Gunners' lamentable defensive organsiation, but my musings on these events to follow)

After 11 consecutive seasons of my weekly ravings in my diary missive, it's not exactly an uncommon event for me to find myself staring at my laptop on a Sunday night, with the flashing cursor in the corner of a blank screen, a constant, irritating reminder of my struggle to think of anything original to say. Last night was a little different because it's hardly as if I'm short on material, considering the Gunners recent woeful plight.

To the contrary, a run of bad form is invariably always much more inspiring, offering loads more material than when the Gunners are on song and I find myself scouring through my well-thumbed Thesaurus for adjectives that I haven't used a hundred times before, to depict the same act of the ball hitting the back of the net. Sadly my struggles to put a novel slant on yet another successful Arsenal display have been all too far and few between so far this season.

But while I was left with plenty to whinge about after a gut-wrenching weekend of more Gooner disappointment, I really didn't want to join all the other rabid, spoilt Arsenal ingrates, who are positively foaming at the mouth at present, indignantly demanding that they deserve to be watching a more successful side, as if it was our G-d given Gooner right. With the pond scum of the Red Tops media seemingly revelling in their role as the gravity, giving downhill momentum to the snowball that is the supposed perception of the Arsenal as a club in crises, I certainly didn't want to play any part in adding grist to this particular mill, with yet another heat-of-the-moment tirade slaughtering our manager.

We all know Wenger has his faults and sadly in recent weeks our manager's weaknesses have become increasingly impossible to ignore. Personally speaking, his preference for zonal marking at set pieces is my biggest bugbear, as I've yet to encounter anyone who has been able to provide me with an acceptable explanation of the supposed advantages to a zonal system of defence. I accept that a zonal system might possibly work, when adopted by an extremely well-drilled defence, amongst players who have been playing alongside one another for so long and so consistently, that they have the sort of intuitive understanding between one another, to know exactly where the boundaries of their responsibility lie.

However IMHO this still doesn't prevent them from being susceptible to the opposition getting the jump on them, when attacking the ball in the box and converting forward momentum into vertical height, compared to someone who's competing with them from a standing start. But in a defence where the combined effects of rotation, injuries and suspensions inevitably result in a fairly constant change in the starting line-up and where we have squad members who've only been playing with one another for a matter of weeks, where some of whom barely speak the same language, there cannot possibly exist the sort of understanding between them which would allow a zonal system to flourish.

To the contrary, it seems to me that to continue with a zonal system is a recipe for disaster and it's likely to be the cause of the sort of finger pointing which will inevitably have a detrimental impact on team spirit. At least when a defence adopts the more traditional man marking option, players are tasked with responsibility for containing a specific opponent and there's no room for argument, if said player escapes the attentions of his marker to head the ball in the back of the net. Whereas in a zonal system when an opponent rises in the box to head home, completely unchallenged, they are all left staring at one another and blaming each other for failing to protect their zone.

Nevertheless, as much as I fear for the Gunners fate, should we persist in this patent "zonal" madness and as much as it makes me wonder whether Arsène does indeed "know best", I'm not about to defect from the AKBs, to climb on this futile AMG (Arsène Must Go) bandwagon because such disunity can only be more damaging, at a time when as "supporters" our help is most required, to present a united front, in the face of the most serious threat to the Arsenal's esteem (lest we forget Wenger's remarkable achievement of the perception of the Gunners as a force to nbe reckoned with in world football) that we've endured during le gaffer's long tenure.

Keep the faith
Big Love


You know the Arsenal must be in big trouble, when even your Spurs pals begin commiserating with you. No matter how tiresome it’s been in recent seasons, playing the bridesmaid, never the bride, we’ve always been able to take great comfort in the fact that things could be a lot worse, supporting the no-hopers at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road.

However with Tottenham trouncing the same Liverpool side that beat us at our place a few weeks back and with Redknapp’s squad suddenly looking a far more viable shout for a Champions League berth than our shell-shocked troops, we find ourselves having to come to terms with the possibility of the shoe being on the other foot. After having grown accustomed to lording it over our neighbours for so long, such a grave fall from grace is too much to bear for many Gooners!

All I know is that we badly need a result against Bolton next weekend in advance of our trip to White Hart Lane and rest assured that I’ll be travelling there on my motor-bike, so I’ve an excuse to wear a crash helmet. If Wenger is under pressure now, it’s likely to be a positive cake-walk, compared to the sort of flak he’s going to come in for, should the swing in our respective fortunes be ratified by an embarrassing defeat against our fiercest rivals.

Yet as we well know this funny old game of ours is a fickle mistress. Blackburn fans would still be calling for Steve Kean’s head on a plate, if it wasn’t for the Gunners generously propping up his managerial career with the gift of two own goals on Saturday. I like to kid myself we were merely looking out for one of our own, by helping to keep his assistant, John Jensen in gainful employ.

Perhaps I’m as stuck in my ways as our pig-headed Gaffer, but for all Arsène’s apparent faults and despite even his positively suicidal preference for zonal marking, I refuse to join the growing legions of Gooners who’ve lost complete faith in our not so glorious leader. At least not until someone convinces me of the availability of a more capable alternative.

In the meantime, in spite of Arsene’s drastically reduced odds in the sack race, as far as I’m concerned, any such speculation is pointless because he’s far too honourable a character to give up the ghost willingly and walk away whilst still under contract and none of the nodding-dogs on the Arsenal board have demonstrated themselves to be in possession of the sort of cajones necessary, to be capable of kicking such a giant of world football out on his ear.

So for better or worse, a quickie divorce is not on the cards, at least not until the corporate boxes become vacant and the tills in the Club Level eateries stop playing such a profitable tune. It’s not our position in the league table but its impact on the balance sheet which matters most to the Arsenal’s beancounters and so only when the income begins to evaporate would they be forced into pushing the panic button.

Unfortunately Arsène appears equally detached from footballing reality. A more visceral boss might’ve been more inclined to appreciate that an inclement outing to Blackburn was no place for our new Brazilian left-back’s debut. But Wenger has his head stuck so far up his statistics, that he’s completely out of touch with such intangible instincts. Likewise, the purchase of a new centre-back shouldn’t have been dependent upon the same sort of value for money quotient of someone considering cosmetic surgery, ie. how many additional inches per million pounds spent; when what was really needed was a “money is no object” acquisition of a player with the force of personality to knock our defence into some sort of shape. We might have a team of titans by now, if only strength of character could be measured on the same Excel spreadsheet our manager uses to compare pass completion rates!

I won’t exactly be recommending dull as ditchwater Dortmund as a holiday destination and with their 88th minute equalizer the Krauts hardly sent us packing with the most endearing keepsake. Yet on the back of our serendipitous triumph against the mighty Swans, there was much talk of the Gunners getting our season back on the rails, after grinding out a draw in Germany. Truth be told, our defending was no less shambolic than at Ewood Park and it could’ve been an equally disastrous start to our Champs Lge campaign, if It wasn’t for Dortmund’s profligacy in the final third.

I guess we’d better hope for an outbreak of a mystery illness in the Barca squad, as right about now our only prospect of qualifying for the competition next season would be by winning the bloomin’ thing! As for me, with the required expectation readjustment, I’m focusing on the Carling Cup. Then again, the way Wenger’s luck is going, by the time you read this Shrewsbury Town might’ve already spoiled our best hope of a trophy for yet another season!

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Monday 12 September 2011

Second Class Stamp

Hi folks,

As I'm heading off to Dortmund in the wee hours, I just wanted to add a couple of things which didn't make it into my weekly diary missive "Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss"

My neighbour at the Emirates commented on Saturday that the worst thing about Joey Barton's move to QPR was that we've got the misfortune of meeting Barton at least two more times this season. Yet while there might be many Gooners who would contend that the only thing wrong with Alex Song's infringement up at St James Park was that Alex should've at least stamped on the nefarious little thug's nut, it seems outrageous that Song should come in for such serious retribution as a three game suspension, when Phil Bardsley's stamp on Mata at the Stadium of Light on Saturday barely even rated a mention!

I don't know about anyone else, but while Gary Neville might have plenty of interesting comments to make as a regular Sky pundit, his nasal Mancunian drawl gets right on my tits and puts me off listening to him. They were discussing Newcastle's impressive start to a season on their Monday Night Football program. Those of us who were present for the opening match of the campaign can confirm that even before they lost Barton to QPR and Enrique to Dalglish's free-spending Scousers, Pardew's Toon outfit were little more than mediocre.

In my most humble opinion, the Geordies elevated status is just another indictment of the potential damage of producing league tables from matchday one. Myself I would much prefer a return to a time when league tables didn't appear until something like six games in, as this might help to alleviate the fall-out from the sort of the early season anomalies that have resulted in panic-stricken hysteria in North London and everywhere else, where teams have struggled to get out of the Premiership starting blocks; or the agony for all those fans who are brought down to earth with a bump, when for example, the bubble of the Toon Army's inflated hopes inevitably ends up being burst.

It seems to me that League tables at this time of the year are just another example of the lies and damn lies that are statistics. With his expert mathematical brain, I'm sure my neighbour at our gaff wouldn't agree and doubtless he'd get on with le Gaffer like a house on fire, but on Saturday he also came out with a statement about the much maligned Gunners defence apparently being responsible for conceding the least number of shots on goal last season.

Such information must come from the same studious folks as those who informed us that Denilson completed more passes than anyone else. It may well be bona fide statistically speaking, but it's the sort of information that can be used to misrepresent the stark contradiction of the evidence of our own eyes.

No one is guiltier of this crime than le Gaffer, which is why I've referred to his ability to put a positive slant on a nuclear holocaust. In Saturday's programme notes, he points out "if you compare this season to last, game on game, we have only one point fewer against the same teams", as if this fact alone should convince us disconcerted Gooners that there's little reason to fret!

I just pray that this is merely Arsène's customary way of attempting to reassure the faithful and bolstering his pilloried troops and that he hasn't been staring at his spreadsheets for so long that he's actually blinded by such an obvious delusion?

Talking of delusion, as I trotted around to the ground on Saturday, the commentator on Radio 5 was referring to the "separated at birth"traits of Arteta in an Arsenal shirt and Cesc Fabregas. Although it's true that Mikel does look strangely familiar in that central role in our midfield and that he does possess the sort of ball control to be able to provide the fulcrum around which our ticky-tacca football can rotate, it remains to be seen if he can develop the intuitive relationship with his team mates to reproduce the same incisive moves of his predecessor.

Alan Green was a little more disparaging (as is the cynical old git's embittered custom these days), suggesting that it wasn't bad business on Bill Kenwright's part because Arteta isn't the player he was two years ago. I'm not sure I agree, as, injuries aside, there's not usually any real physical deterioration between the ages of 27 and 29 but if Arteta wasn't as naturally gifted as Cesc back then, he still isn't now and I think it's a little harsh of us to hold the poor geezer up to the incredibly high-standard of one of the greatest players on the planet, as that way lies guaranteed disappointment.

I'm glad Coquelin got a run out as a sub on Saturday, as I felt quite sorry for the French lad at Old Trafford. While most of his team mates played as if they'd received our manager's tacit instructions about having written off the match before a ball had been kicked, at least Coquelin was charging around (even if it was with a passing impersonation of a headless chicken) and so it was good to see him get an opportunity to get this game out of his system.

However, with most Gooners turning up desperate to catch a glimpse of the new guys, I am sure that like me, many struggled to understand why on earth Wenger bothered bringing Chamakh on for the last ten minutes. Then again, perhaps even Marouanne is going to show some signs of benefiting from the increased competition for places. Not only did I have to do a double-take to make sure it was the Moroccan who managed a header on target at the death, but I felt inclined to offer him a Kleenex for his potential nosebleed because from what we've seen of him in recent times, I can't ever recall our reluctant centre-forward getting that high up the pitch.

Meanwhile I'd better get some kip if I'm going to make my crack of dawn departure to Dortmund. I've been vacillating between thinking I must be a masochist sucker for punishment for stumping up for trips to Dortmund, Marseille and Athens and being glad of making the most of such Champions League jollies, while we still can (considering we're so much further from being able to take qualification for granted!). However I'm led to believe that Borussia's stadium is something special to behold, so I'm glad to be going (assuming I don't oversleep :-)

Keep the faith
Come on you Reds

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

If we were picking teams in the playground, I’m not sure any sane captain would select Arteta & Benayoun over Fabregas & Nasri. Yet compared to a couple of weeks ago, when Arsène was left with nothing to choose from but the last knockings of his squad, I’m certainly not moaning about our manager’s uncharacteristic last minute shopping spree.

In fact our humbling at Old Trafford couldn’t really have been better timed to rip our obstinate leader’s blinkers off, before it was too late. Traditional advice suggests that it’s best to get straight back on the horse after such an abysmal fall. However for once I was glad of the break in domestic matters, enabling the Gunners’ gaggle of national team captains to restore some much needed confidence while on International duty.

Thus we all rocked up to the Emirates on Saturday, eager to cast an eye over our new arrivals and bristling with a reinvigorated enthusiasm, in the hope that we might’ve turned the page, after our mauling in Manchester and that we were about to witness a performance against lowly Swansea which might announce the Arsenal’s golden new dawn.

In this respect I guess we were always riding for another anti-climatic fall. Such false hope was perfectly understandable, after the sort of flurry of transfer activity that we Gooners have not experienced in umpteen years. Instead of which, we’ve merely discovered, like the fans of so many other clubs who’s managers have a preference for a more frequent turnover of players than their underpants, that an ‘off the shelf’ panacea for a side’s deficiencies is an onerous task and is unlikely to manifest itself overnight.

What bothers me most is that Arsène had to be backed into a corner, before seemingly being forced to break all his rules. But if the 4-year contract offered to an aging Arteta, had been on the table for the likes of Gilberto, Gallas, or any of the over 30s who’ve exited the club in recent years, the Gunners would’ve never been left grounded in such an unbalanced boat, crying out for more experience.

Moreover, as pleased as I am by le Gaffer’s efforts to beefen up our gossamer thin squad, I can’t help but suspect that he has focused on the sort of players who might be capable of improving our Champions League prospects. But on the evidence of our disappointing domestic opening blows, the Gunners have got a job on their hands just achieving the upper echelons of the Premiership. Experience of the big stage will be of little benefit to us should we fail to even reach its apron!

As a result, in light of Keiran Gibbs error strewn display against the Swans, instead of having the likes of Santos biding his time on the bench, familiarizing himself with our more frenetic brand of football, I can’t help but wonder if we might’ve profited more from Kenwright’s fire-sale, by procuring the more industrial likes of Leighton Baines.

Perhaps Baines isn’t destined to set any fires on the European stage, but he’s a battling “do a job defender” of the sort that could’ve come straight into the side and provided the instant return necessary to recapture our rarified top four status; before being encumbered by the sort of ‘soft target’ perception that’s likely to result in a tense, season long struggle to elevate ourselves beyond the Europa Cup also-rans.

Mertesacher might be a big, immobile lump of a centre-back but he appears to have that economy of movement of an experienced old pro, with his Tony Adams like intervention of a timely extended limb. Coming from the Bundesliga, hopefully a bedding-down period won’t prove necessary and he’ll exude the air of composure that can influence the kids around him (rather than him being infected by their panic-struck mien!). But similarly, it might be argued that we’d have been better off with a player who’s more familiar with the Premiership course and all it’s idiosyncratic prat-falls?

Wenger would undoubtedly find a statistical ruse to put a positive slant on a nuclear holocaust. Yet in truth, in the absence of Wilshere and Vermaelen, you only have to consider how few of our players would be coveted by the competition, to fully comprehend quite what a struggle lies ahead for us to cling onto their coat-tails.

Frimpong’s misdemeanours appear to have left him playing with the handbrake on, which is tantamount to castration of our virile young midfield moose. He even had Shava on his case about his marking on Saturday, with the diminutive Russian returning from Moscow utterly unrecognizable from the disaffected Gooner who departed these shores. Shava might start to win us over, if he can maintain this level of commitment at Ewood Park and beyond?

Yet with Park and Benyoun swelling the ranks of those familiar with the responsibility of wearing the armband for their respective countries, it’s ridiculous that leadership should remain an issue within this Arsenal squad. When I watch the breathtaking way in which Fabregas is flourishing for Barca, I almost feel guilty that we deprived the lad of his pitch on world football’s most talented stage for so long.

We can but hope that for all we might’ve lost in artistic flair (at least until Wilshere’s return), we can compensate with the sort of guts, graft and determination that was all too often on the missing list, so long as we were perceived to have such an advantage. As someone grounded in the Bertie Mee’s boring Gunners, you certainly won’t hear me complaining if we can roll our sleeves up and grind out a run of prosaic encores to a good old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal”.

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