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Monday 31 October 2011

A Load Of Refreshingly New Bull

Hi folks,

Saturday scintillating encounter was the sort of match that was a complete and utter privilege to attend, for all the reasons I've explained below (and more!). Whether it's likely to prove some sort of watershed, remains to be seen in the weeks ahead.

Personally I tend to believe it's just one more step, in the process of rebuilding of this Arsenal side as a force to be reckoned with (albeit a slightly bigger one than the more mundane home wins against Sunderland and Stoke). As inclined as I am to want to shout about our credentials as the capital's top dogs, after such an emphatic triumph on enemy soil, I'm loathe to get too carried away on all the euphoria, because as we've witnessed all too frequently in the first quarter of this season, all competitors involved are only one bad day at the office away from serious humiliation.

If I'm honest, I was full of dread from the moment I arrived at the Bridge, on discovering that we were still relying on Djourou for defensive cover, as to my mind Johan looks such a fish out of water when playing at full-back that he's an accident waiting to happen.

However I was left questioning Andre Villa Boas' credentials as a tactician, as I would've thought it would be patently obvious to anyone who's seen us play in recent weeks that it was worth targeting our right flank and Johan's lack of positional nous in this position. But instead of which AVB appeared to have opted for the other side, judging by the number of times Chelsea played the long diagonal ball, perhaps believing Santos could be done for pace by Sturridge.

Admittedly Andre struggled first-half and it was the source of most of the Chelsea threat, as both Mata and Sturridge gave our Brazilian full-back a hard time, but where a younger head might've gone to pieces, Santos showed the benefit of his experience, eventually seeing off the challenge of the over-hyped Chelsea youngster.

Having got ourselves back onto equal terms by taking the game to the opposition, I was devastated when we conceded a second, only seconds before the break. Although I have to admit to being a bit preoccupied at the time, with our fate tempting taunting of John Terry, who sadly responded in the most painful fashion to our vociferous chorus of "Simon Cowell shagged your missus" (thankfully we were to have the last laugh at JT's expense!). In contests against Chelsea in the past (where we've been physically dwarfed), this might well have proved decisive.

Plenty might point the finger of blame at Per Mertesacher, but personally I believe this goal was purely down to the sort of defensive disorganisation that is almost inevitable when you've got players who aren't familiar with their duties. Under normal circumstances Bakari Sagna would've automatically occupied a position guarding the near post, which would've prevented this goal going in and instead of which we had Arteta aimlessly wandering about, right in the middle of the posts, making more of a nuisance of himself to Sczczny than the opposition, with Miguel seemingly unsure which post to position himself on.

To my mind these are the exact sort of defensive nightmares that could be ironed out by the type of regimented drilling which would have everyone instinctively aware of their responsibilities at set-pieces, without a second thought. But then for the want of a vocal outfield defensive general, we can at least take comfort in the fact that Sczczny appears to be growing into a leadership role, judging by the way in which he was man-handling his team-mates into position in a set piece later in the game.

Who knows if Mertesacher is hindered from taking charge by his limited command of the language, but on current form there's absolutely no justification for Arsène dropping Koscielny in favour of Vermaelen, as Laurent is just about the most dependable and consistent component of our all too porous back four. Perhaps Vermaelen would be more comfortable than Djourou at left-back (let's face it, that's no great ask!).

Although in truth, despite the fact that he's likely to come a cropper occasionally because of his lack of experience, I'd be far more happier with Jenkinson playing there than Djourou because it is at least his natural position and besides Carl's crossing ability (with both feet!) offers us so much more going forward than Johan. Then again, if Theo's going to bring his crossing boots to the party every week, in the same way as he did on Saturday, then we might no longer be starved of decent ammunition into the box.

Going into the break 2-1 down, it was patently obvious that the next goal was going to be crucial. I don't think there'd have been any way back from 3-1. But we started the second half with some real intent, with Santos deciding that the best form of defence was attack. In the best traditions of Winterburn and Silvinho, from the moment Andre spanked home (beating Cech at his near post for the first of three times on Saturday!!), you just had the feeling that something special was on.

In the past I've always felt that Walcott had a little too much respect for Ashley Cole (about the only person on the planet who does!), or perhaps for Cole's reputation as the country's no. 1 full-back. But it was as if Theo finally discovered some real belief on Saturday, suddenly realising he's was capable of leaving the greedy little emperor looking as bare-naked as the day Cashley had the misfortune to be born. Now if only Theo could reproduce the same sort of hungry display on a more regular basis, he'd soon win me and his many detractors over.

Despite Alex Song's desperate lunging efforts to effect a block on Mata's shot, I'm sure I wasn't alone in fearing the worst as the Spaniard made it 3-3. When the myopic ref Marriner ignored the intervention of the brick shithouse that is Lukaku, as he eased Santos out of the way in the build up, it felt as if the Gunner's valiant efforts were to go unrewarded yet again, by dint of another bad decision. But the very best was yet to come.

Arsène was still apoplectic with rage, giving the 4th official an ear-bashing, when Malouda attempted his heavy-footed backpass. At first glance, I thought Terry had thrown himself to the floor, realising Robin was already past him. But on watching the replays (which I haven't stopped doing since!), it would appear that fate intervened to pull the rug from under JT's feet.

Such misfortune couldn't have befell a more deserving specimen of human "drech" as far as I'm concerned. Nevertheless, I'm sure many might disagree, but I can't help but be amused by the entire overblown Terry/Ferdinand racist saga. While all those in the media shout down from their high horses about the England and Chelsea captain setting such a deplorable example, where exactly are all these high-priests of political correctness when far worse racial epithets are being bandied about like confetti on football pitches up and down the country every Sunday.

I find it so laughable that we look down our noses at the Neanderthals responsible for racism elsewhere in the footballing world, while patting ourselves on the back for merely brushing such intolerance under the carpet in this country. The fact that there aren't too many numbskulls like Terry getting caught on camera trading insults in their efforts to wind up the opposition, are we really so naive as to believe this means that such behaviour does not occur?

Perhaps not the most delicate metaphor under the circumstances, but personally I prefer those who call a spade, a spade, in order that we are at least able to recognise bigotry where it exists. In some respects it is at least far more honest than existing in an overtly PC world, with the pretense that all is sweetness & light, when the exact opposite is patently obvious to anyone who's dared dipped their croutons into our multicultural bouillabaisse.

All those who sit / stand on the terraces every week can confirm that the fact football fans have desisted from the disgusting habit of throwing bananas at black players, this doesn't mean to say that the multitude of racists who once populated the most obvious breeding grounds for the right-wing Nazi parties such as the NF and BNP, they haven't simply evaporated into thin air.

It might be understood that such overt racism is no longer acceptable, but all the engrained prejudice remains to a greater or lesser extent, amongst everyone, even those whose best friends swear otherwise! In my most humble opinion we are far better off recognising this fact and making continued efforts to combat such intolerance, than we are slaughtering a single public figure for their (in Terry's case, inevitable) failure to live up to the fantasy standards of our perfectly PC society.

Perhaps I'm better off sticking to the footie, anyone for Laurent's Frog's legs soup on Tuesday :-)


Obviously I would’ve much preferred to have avoided all that early season agony. Yet our suffering was almost made worth it at the weekend. The majority of us would’ve bitten your hand off for a draw at Stamford Bridge, as we traversed London on Saturday, merely hoping to avoid further embarrassment.

Therefore the distance travelled from pessimism to the positive euphoria of our 3-5 triumph, ensured that the satisfaction quotient was off the scale, compared to all those recent encounters, where we’ve been expected to give the Blues a run for their money. Not since Kanu’s hat-trick in ‘99 can I recall a more ecstatic outing to the Kings Road.

Admittedly, arriving late as ever, we could’ve been 0-2 down before I even found my seat on Saturday, as the Blues came out of the traps at a canter. However for all Abramovich’s covetous efforts to introduce a manager capable of injecting more verve into his functional Chelsea side, in recent seasons the Blues have grown far too accustomed to achieving results against us, without really have to work at it. They’ve been able to sit back and soak up our tippy-tappy football, patiently waiting to be presented with an opportunity to tear us apart on the counter at their leisure.

It should really have been 2-2, by the time the initial burst of adrenaline of Saturday’s lunchtime KO had begun to subside, with the Gunners proving equally profligate in front of goal. I seriously believed we were going to rue our own wastefulness with such gift-wrapped opportunities, as you don’t expect to be offered many more, by a defence that has in the past proved to be so parsimonious.

However perhaps this is a Chelsea side that’s wobbling between two stools, with a young manager intent on laying down a marker in the Premiership, with a team that can win games with style, but whose ageing combatants remind me of the ancient joke about the old bull, who contrary to the instincts of a young calf that wants to run down the hill and service a heffer, he prefers to stroll down and service the entire herd.

Thus after the match had settled down, following the madness of those opening minutes, Chelsea reverted to type, inviting the Gunners on to them, in the belief that we’d be the architects of our own downfall. But aside from the absence of our customary nemesis, in the form of the suspended Didier Drogba, perhaps the most crucial factor is that mercifully the “men against boys” physical differences that were patently obvious in so many recent no-contest encounters, are no more!

Just as reports of the Arsenal’s demise might’ve been somewhat premature, in a season that’s throwing up such anomalies each week, so are any suggestions that a single, albeit sensational, triumph over Chelsea, is confirmation that the Gunners are back to our best. Who knows, we might be brought back down to earth with a bump on Tuesday night, by a Marseille side intent on revenging their last-minute misfortune in France.

There were too many incidents to mention in Saturday’s match, which highlighted the gossamer thin margins between success and failure – few more poignant than the poetic justice of JT’s oopsy-daisy. Nevertheless, it was something far less tangible which gives us Gooners most cause for optimism, in the sense that even if we’re set to endure a season-long scrap to claw our way back into contention, with a squad of players who might struggle to reproduce the same precision artistry that we’ve been spoilt by in seasons past, the Gunners fall from grace might just be the making of us.

Our bullish determination to respond to all those detractors who’ve written Wenger’s team off has manifested itself in the sort of burgeoning spirit which has been markedly absent up until now, epitomized by Walcott scrambling back to his feet to burst through and score; or in the willingness of Koscielny, Song & co. to put their bodies on the line, in safeguarding our goal at all costs.

Sure we're still some way off strutting our stuff as composed, genuine contenders, Yet in setting out to prove we’re far from being a waning force that’s there for the taking, we’re witnessing the sort of passion and commitment that inspires renewed faith on the terraces that perhaps it’s not just the size of their wallets that matters, but the size of the Gunners' hearts that's fuelling this revival.

Having been so enthralled by such an emotive display, I'm sure few would’ve moaned if (as expected) ultimately we’d failed at the Bridge. But Saturday’s success tasted so much sweeter with it having been earned on the back of the sort of ardour that I for one will continue to revel in, win, lose or draw.

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Monday 24 October 2011

Winds Of Change

Hi folks,

Sincere apologies as I didn't get around to posting out last week's missive. Limiting myself to 650 words for the Irish Examiner is an impossible target, since they've reduced the size of our columns this season; especially when you consider that I've been struggling for a decade or more to confine myself to less than a 1000 words. As a result, I invariably end up feeling that I've left out more than I've included and so I delay from posting my piece online, thinking that I will expand on my thoughts, in a typically long-winded preamble. However, as happened last week, I don't get around to doing this and then another game comes along and leaves my missive looking decidedly out-dated, as you will see below, with Ju Young Park making me eat my words, with his composed finish against Bolton on Tuesday night.

Still I've written it, so I might as well send it out, so I can get on and add all the comments that I've been forced to leave out of this week's missive. After all, it's not exactly every day you beat Chelsea 3-5 at the Bridge and to find myself restricted from spouting forth on such an auspicious occasion is positively criminal :-)

Feel free to read or ignore last week's ravings as you so choose and hopefully, in somewhat atypical fashion, my impressions of yesterday's events won't be quite so tardy.

With three home games in such quick succession, I have to admit to suffering some withdrawals yesterday, deprived of a trip to Piebury Corner. You are probably thinking I've got shares in the place by now, but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to looking forward to tomorrow night's match, if only for my stomach's sake.

One thing is for certain, if I continue gorging on pre and post match pies with such regularity, no matter where the Gunners end up this season, I'll definitely have something to show for my efforts. But then when it comes to trophies, I'm not sure a pot-belly counts!

Big Love


Arsène’s desire to protect Van Persie is perfectly understandable. But ironically, in attempting to overcome Pullis’ uncompromising Potters with our Robin reliant parked on the bench, le Prof only managed to prove quite how impotent we are without him.

In fact the Gunners’ attack appears so lamentably goal-shy with Chamakh standing in for our captain, that after RVP had come on halfway through the second half for his crucial two-goal cameo performance, in Wenger’s shoes I’d have been tempted to take him straight off again; to be able to wrap Robin up in cotton wool, rather than to risk him for a second longer than absolutely necessary, in the sort of roughhouse environment that is de rigueur in the presence of Shawcross and co. (just how crap can our Korean striker be, if our Morrocan misfit continues to keep him out of the team?).

After enduring more than our fill of all that “8-2 be an Arsenal fan” mirth, we also enjoyed the mouthwatering ‘what goes around, comes around’ irony of Man Utd’s simultaneous humiliation against City on Sunday. Although, I said at the time that perhaps the biggest embarrassment of our worst defeat in living memory, was that it transpired against such a mediocre Man U outfit (with the exception of an on fire Wayne Rooney). And so while I certainly don't mean to dissuade Gooners from the sweet revenge of giving their Man U mates all the stick they deserve in the days ahead, in truth it hardly reflects well upon us that we were so severely ravaged, by the same Utd outfit that rolled over against City.

Meanwhile hopefully our midweek ‘smash & grab’ in Marseille and 3 points from one of the bi-seasonal banana skins of Stoke’s kick (or chuck) & rush, spoiler football, are further small steps in the total rebuild required, following the utter decimation of both our team and our confidence during the most disastrous start to a campaign in the Wenger era.

Doubtless Arsène remains confident that we can recapture the fluidity that has seen the Gunners find global favour. Perhaps it will come in time, but I’m not convinced that the current incumbents are capable of reproducing the same stylish patterns of play for which we were formerly renowned; at least not without crucial missing ingredients.

Sure we can conjure it up in fits and starts for the odd breathtaking goal. Yet while we appeared in control for the majority of Sunday’s encounter, what was obvious from the Potters’ relentless efforts to discomfort us, was that in Wilshere’s absence, we’re devoid of the sort of rare talent who refuses to be panicked into gifting the ball back to the opposition, or who has the speed of thought to preempt such problems, by moving it on at pace.

After we’d established a 2-goal cushion and with the visitors having all but given up the ghost with only 8 minutes left on the clock, there was a brief spell when the “olés” echoed around the Emirates, as the Gunners risked a clattering with our contemptuous control of possession. Although this actually felt more like a fond remembrance of times past because the majority present were only too aware that in the heel of the hunt, sadly we are no longer capable of maintaining such composure.

Thus the Potters’ fans “we’ll play how we want” chant could also be perceived as ironic, when you consider that in France, only four days prior, the Gunners were grinding out a win, with a performance which, in effect, was no less negative than Pullis’ brand of anti-football.

Am I bovvered? The artistry of the beautiful game that we’ve enjoyed this past decade has been an absolute privilege. But right at this precise point in time, I’d willingly sacrifice the casual style, for more committed substance. If only Arsène could locate the button to release the handbrake that’s been holding us back for so long, resulting in a transformation to the sort of “win at all costs” mentality that motivates his team to work their socks off for one another, you won’t catch me moaning.

There were some anxious glances amongst the Gooners on our plane, as we waited for take-off from Marseille airport on Thursday morning, with Le Mistral gusting away outside. Apparently it’s known as a wind of change and it needs to blow away some of le Boss’ preconceptions on success, if he’s going to stem the ever decreasing number of bums on seats.
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Monday 17 October 2011

Pie In The Sky?

You might think that I'd have quite a lot more to say, after having a week off for the International break and the truth is that I could probably prattle on ad infinitum, if allowed. However with the Irish Examiner having confined our (myself, Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool fans - guess they are soon going to have to find a City fan!) contribution to a smaller section of the paper, I've had to struggle to restrain my overly loquacious tendencies even more than usual. Sighs of relief....surely not :-)

Keep the Faith
Big Love


Pie In The Sky?

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I contrived to miss Van Persie’s 29-second opener on Sunday. At least I had a good excuse for my tardiness, as I’d been tucking into a delicious pie. In fact it’s an appropriate reflection on our miserable campaign thus far, that the absolute highlight to date has been the discovery of Piebury Corner close to the old stadium.

Time was when I’d be dashing around to the Arsenal to savour the footballing delights; whereas these days I’ve found some grub on offer outside the ground that’s far more enticing than the sort of uninspiring fare that we're fast growing accustomed to inside the stadium, which of late has been as bland (and as overpriced!) as the burgers.

Mercifully on Sunday our Robin reliant set out almost singlehandedly, to serve up an aide-memoire of the sort of sumptuous feast of artistry, from the days when the Gunners would’ve been guaranteed to mullah Steve Bruce’s badly bruised Mackems. Although combined with a second-half cameo display from Arshavin, after the diminutive Ruski was sent on to try and rescue a result in the last 20 mins, such brief interludes of brilliance seem only to serve as a reminder of quite how far the mighty Gunners have fallen, when contrasted with the mediocrity of the majority of our present day play.

However, having been forced to come to terms with the fact that we’ve been completely written off as a force to be reckoned with in the Premiership, it might be sacrilege to admit it, but I’m not nearly as outraged as so many of my neurotic Gooner mates. If I’m entirely honest, after six angst filled seasons of tearing my hair out in frustration with such a talented Arsenal side’s perennial failure to fulfill expectations, there’s something quite refreshing about going to games, fully prepared for the worst from such a weakened squad, only to be pleasantly surprised when they actually produce the goods.

I guess that the evidence of so many empty seats and the fact that tickets are on general sale are signs that we’ve begun shaking off some of the glory-hunting chaff and there’s nothing like a spell of adversity to forge the “us against the world” sort of unifying spirit, which has been on the missing list since the Gunners became everyone’s favourite purveyors of ‘the beautiful game’.

There may come a time down the road when this squad finds its feet and a return to fitness of some of our most vital components results in Arsène finally being able to field his best XI. But until then, I suspect that we’re going to have to fight tooth and nail for every point, while on the terraces we’ll be praying that our talismanic red, red Robin, keeps bob, bob, bobbing along.

No longer can we afford to sit back and wait for fatigued opposition defences to part like the waters of the Red Sea, mesmerized by our mazy passing patterns. Aside from handing out written invitations to the requiem for Wengerball, with our recent inability to retain control of possession, the perception of the Arsenal as an accident waiting to happen is only going to encourage all those sides, who in the past would’ve limited their ambition to defending in numbers, merely hoping to escape our place with their dignity intact.

Carl Jenkinson is a case in point. The young full-back is a long way from the finished article and there’s little doubt that the lad is going to need rescuing every now and again, so long as his trade learning efforts include such regular roastings. However, unlike Theo Walcott, who can be found aimlessly wandering around the Emirates pitch with a bewildered puss on, which suggests he doesn’t believe that grabbing games by the scruff of the neck for a struggling Arsenal side formed part of his original job description, I adore Jenkinson’s committed attitude and his willingness to run his socks off up and down the flank. Never mind Walcott giving the boy a bollicking for dereliction of defensive duties, Theo should be begging Carl for some crossing lessons!

Meanwhile we’re off to Marseille, for what’s fast beginning to feel like the Arsenal’s farewell European tour. Schlepping around the Continent for so many successive seasons takes such a toll on the finances that I’ve been forced to be more circumspect about following the Gunners through the procession of the group stages. But I’m glad I had the foresight to throw caution to the wind this season, so as to be able to make the very most of our Champions Lg campaign.

On the basis that our efforts to ensure an encore haven’t exactly been auspicious thus far, here’s hoping Arteta and co. can do likewise, with a tour de force in the Velodrome on Wednesday night?

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Monday 3 October 2011

Hats (or Helmets) Off To Spurs

Apologies for pinching a few lines from my previous post, for my piece for the Irish Examiner below (I couldn't resist repeating the image of Arsène as our very own Pol Pot!)

I'm not sure if our ability to compete in yesterday's game was due to an improvement compared to our recent lamentable form, or the fact that the home side had an off day. Perhaps it was more a case of Spurs not being able to adapt from their former mindset, where traditionally they are accustomed to going into these Derby games as outright underdogs? Their fans were undoubtedly nervous, as few of them have ever experienced the feeling of encountering the Gunners as favourites for a win and perhaps this was reflected in their team's apparent timidity for much of the first-half.

Yet while we might have controlled much of the possession for the first 45, the principal difference between the two sides was that Spurs two efforts on goal were both on target, while we failed miserably to test Brad Friedel, with the Spurs goal gaping for Gervinho.

I was particularly disappointed with the dreadlocked Frenchman, as he all too frequently failed to remain on his feet, in his contest with Spurs' lightweight schnip of a left back. His was a strangely hesitant performance, considering he's capable of creating such havoc with his directness (even if he rarely looks to be in full control of the ball). I was equally discouraged by Walcott's display. Contrast Theo's reluctance to run with the ball and his overall lack of involvement, to that of Gareth Bale when he was allowed to build up a head of steam!

In fact based on his contribution (or lack thereof) in recent weeks, quite frankly I'm surprised Walcott's earned another England call up. To my mind Theo's body language suggests he's not overly enamoured to find himself playing in a struggling side and when we most need the likes of Theo to be racing off with the ball down to the other end of the pitch, you get the impression that he didn't sign up for a role in which he's obligated to spend much of the match tracking back.

And if Walcott is disillusioned with the Gunners lack of success, it's hard to imagine Van Persie wanting to put pen to paper, to commit himself to several more seasons surrounded by such mediocrity.

It wasn't all bad, as Francis Coquelin certainly did himself justice, putting in a decent shift. But the French youngster is positively naive, compared to the wilyness of the likes of Scott Parker and his ability to snuff out a flame before the outbreak of dangerous fire. Yet while the Gunners looked up for the battle early on, what bothered me most was that there where 17 minutes left on the clock when Spurs took the lead for the second time and where once we might've laid siege to the Spurs goal, in our efforts to ensure that we came away with our pride intact, on this occasion it felt far more likely that they were going to score a third.

At one point you had the bizarre scene of our lumbering "big f***in' German" standing on the halfway line, while our centre-forward dropped back to defend a corner and it seemed to me that our failure to conjure up a single effort on goal during that final 15 minutes, reeked of the Gunners lack of self-belief.

I'd love to be able to put a brave face on yesterday's game, but while the sacrifice of three points might not be such a big deal in the great scheme of things, I fear the long term loss of the unsung Sagna might be!

Keep the faith

The best thing about the short trip to Tottenham is that I can get there (and back) on my motorbike in no more than 10 minutes. Arriving at White Hart Lane on Sunday, I had to ask a small firm of Spurs fans to move, as they were standing, sinking a few tinnies on the last parking pitch on the pavement.

Having parked up and attached my crash helmet to the lock on the side of the bike, I stood there shooting the breeze, in the hope of ingratiating myself sufficiently to dissuade them from doing any damage. But it was a daft mistake to admit my Arsenal allegiance. After they’d jokingly put the thought in my head, I spent the remainder of the afternoon fretting about the prospect of returning to find they’d left a nasty present for me in my crash helmet!

Now that really would constitute “taking one for the team” if the Gunners had managed to turn Sunday’s encounter around to achieve a result, only for me to have to suffer a return journey with my head jammed inside a urine soaked helmet! Unlike the cliché shots of friends and family sat side by side in red & blue shirts, enjoying the Merseyside Derby, unfortunately, in modern times, we’ve invariably experienced a decidedly loathsome edge to the North London equivalent.

In the past I’ve often believed we’ve had karma on our side, whenever the Spurs Neanderthals have resorted to their paedophile taunts of Le Prof. But on Sunday I had to stop myself from joining in with the Gooners beyond the pale chant of “shot in Angola, it should’ve been you” aimed at Adebayor. I was fearful that we were only providing the Togolese Judas with added motivation to let his feet do the talking. But it was hypocrisy in the extreme to hear Harry Redknapp castigating us Gooners, when en masse, his own fans have been incessantly guilty of equally vitriolic and racist abuse.

Redknapp might’ve managed to rejuvenate the lanky front-man for the moment, but I will be amazed if this renaissance continues on into the bleak mid-winter. Harry will have to prove himself a better man-manager than any of Adebayor’s managerial predecessors, if he isn’t to end up tearing his hair out, when the lazy striker’s initial enthusiasm begins to wane and he’s left loafing around on the halfway line.

Mercifully Adebayor failed miserably to live up to all the pre-match hype. Yet I suppose it was only fitting that an individual performance didn’t steal the show, on an afternoon when Spurs proved the advantage of having a more well-rounded squad. Although, in truth, considering we rolled up there in absolute dread of the sort of rout experienced by the Scousers, I imagine most Arsenal fans were pleasantly surprised to see us dominate possession for large periods of this match. However in the end, this only made the eventual outcome so much more depressing, knowing we weren’t that far from a result that might’ve rescued me from my fate of several months worth of gleeful mickey-taking from my Spurs mates.

As the single most consistent and reliable defender in our squad for many seasons, probably the most significant outcome of the afternoon was the tragedy that befell Bakary Sagna. I adore Carl Jenkinson’s committed attitude, but he lacks both the experienced nous and the pace of Sagna and our reliance on such a callow youth over the coming months is only likely to add to Arsène’s woes.

It’s no great secret why the flakiness of a backline that’s beset by injuries is being exposed week after week. In the past the Arsenal have been able to compensate for such inadequacies, with our ability to retain control of possession for such large periods. So it stands to reason that so long as the current ensemble insists on gifting the ball back to the opposition, as they struggle to orchestrate the same tippy-tappy, mazy passing patterns that have so frustrated opponents in the past, our porous defence is bound to come under that much more scrutiny.

Le Prof finds himself cast as the Arsenal’s very own Pol Pot, presiding over the dawn of day one in an entirely new Gooner calendar. Perhaps this squad will begin to gel as the new boys find their feet and Arsène eventually settles on his best XI, but at present the Gunners appear to be an entirely different creature to the one we’ve grown accustomed to in recent times.

In the absence of Wilshere and unless Arteta is to discover the energy and the same third-eye perception of his predecessor, perhaps we need to drop our former soubriquet as “the entertainers”, so we can rapidly develop the required resilience, which will enable us to make up for what we now might lack in pure artistic flair, with honest graft, commitment and team-spirit?

Meanwhile how times have changed. I always used to despair at the annoying interruption of International breaks, whereas nowadays I’m grateful (I’m guessing as is le Gaffer) for the welcome relief of some respite.

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Sunday 2 October 2011

Once More Into The Breach Dear Friends

Hi folks

My brother-out-of-law was over from Dublin on Thursday, for the Spurs v Shamrock Rovers, Europa Cup encounter. I was hoping to be able to accompany him to the game, but after juggling work to ensure I wasn't late getting back for our game against Olympiakos on Wednesday, I wasn't particularly confident of being able to make it home from the ballet's stores in Marden, Kent, in time to make it to White Hart Lane the following evening. Fortunately for once, things worked in my favour, but if I'm entirely honest, after sweating my cods off in the balmy heat all day and then dashing home, I wasn't feeling nearly so enthusiastic about rushing off to Spurs and I was half regretting my decision to commit to asking Con to get me a ticket earlier that afternoon.

However having made the short hop from Highbury on my motorbike and arriving in plenty of time for KO (only because I mistakenly assumed it was a 19.45 start :-), I was absolutely delighted that I'd made the effort to join Con, as the craic was positively up to 90 amongst the thousands of Hoops fans who travelled over for what turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining evening. One of my Spurs mates admitted after the match that if it wasn't for the atmosphere created by the incredibly vociferous Irish support, White Hart Lane would've been completely dead.

Amongst his assorted TV & radio obligations, Con is the front man for RTE's Monday Night Soccer show, which is the League of Ireland equivalent of MOTD. Despite his unbiased and supremely professional endeavours, as a wonderfully congenial host (which always leaves me questioning why he's not raking it in, giving all the Muppets on the box over here a run for their money!), he gets plenty of stick for his partisan allegiance to the Hoops.

It seems that moving the League of Ireland from winter to summer has proved a big success and Con tells me that it's great to see so many kids, who would've previously been running around Ireland in the colours of their favourite Premiership outfit, now proudly sporting replica shirts from their local team. Apart from the prestige of seeing their side compete against high-profile foreign opposition in the Europa Cup, this competition is an extremely big deal because relatively speaking, the €70,000 on offer for every point earned in the tournament could prove a massive shot in the arm for sides like Rovers, who have to survive on a shoestring budget, compared to the obscene sums washing around the game on these shores.

Myself I was delighted to have an opportunity to don my green Ireland shirt (a present from Con after he drew me in the Murphy clan's Kris Kringle last Xmas) and obviously I was a Rovers fan for the night (even before I heard them winding up the home crowd, with their chants of "Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal"). For a while there, when the Hoops went 1-0 up, it looked as if a shock result might be on the cards, as everything seemed to be running their way, including a couple of timely interventions from the crossbar.

Perhaps if they'd taken the lead a half an hour later, things might turned out just a little more interesting, as a subsequent five minute spell in which Spurs scored three times, ruined our hopes of a fantasy result . Nevertheless Rovers were no pushover for a Spurs side that included the likes of Defoe. Lennon, Corluka etc and as has been the case in various other European contests this past week, the Hoops ably demonstrated that no matter how vast the gulf in comparative resources, a well-organised and seriously committed outfit can make life extremely hard for opposition of any calibre. In light of our own recent dramatic reining-in of expectations, this is a lesson that the Gunners might do well to heed!

There was cause for optimism in the performances of the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and perhaps Per Mertesacher and Andre Santos in midweek - although while Santos may have scored on his Champions League debut, the jury is a long way from making any decision as far as his defending is concerned!

It wasn't so much that Alex achieved the title of the club's youngest ever Champions League goal scorer that pleased me most about our latest Road Runner from the South Coast production line, but it was in the chance that Chamberlain missed that I sensed most promise, where one on one with the keeper on such a massive stage, Alex had the composure to try and chip the onrushing goal minder, which is something I'm not sure we would have witnessed with the rush of blood to Walcott's head, in similar circumstances.

As for our German behemoth, he made some impressive interventions and perhaps, given time, Per will grow into a more pivotal role. But, although there's something of the Tony Adams in some of his physical traits, I have to admit to being a tad disappointed that we've yet to see anything from his personality on the pitch, to demonstrate that Mertesacher has the potential to develop into the sort of vocal defensive general that we've been craving for a decade or more.

In truth, I felt it was most fortunate that we scored so early on in this match and that we were two from two, with a two-goal cushion after only 20 minutes. Otherwise these precious three points could've proved a far greater struggle, in what was quite frankly, an encounter against a Greek side, which would've previously been perceived as a bread and butter, six points, in previous perfunctory group stages.

However the abiding sense I have from Wednesday night's victory and the draw with a Dortmund side that was so easily disposed of in Marseille and who probably would've beaten us in Germany, if they weren't quite so profligate with all the possession we gifted them in the final third, is that without a substantial improvement in our current form, I fear the Gunners might struggle, when we come up against any seriously decent opposition.

Never mind Le Prof, the evidence of recent weeks suggests that Arsène finds himself as our very own Pol Pot, presiding over the dawn of day one in an entirely new Gooner calendar, because to date, this team is so far removed from the Arsenal side that we've grown accustomed to in recent times. Perhaps I'm being harsh and we might start to gel, as the new boys begin to find their feet and Arsène eventually settles on his preferred choice of a starting lineup. Yet at present, with a defence that changes from game to game and a fluidity in most other positions, as we discover who provides the best fit with one another, the Gunners have taken on the appearance of an entirely different creature.

On Tuesday night Bayern Munich produced a damn near perfect representation of that old adage about not being able to lose a game, so long as your team retains possession of the ball. Once they were 2-0 up, Bayern saw off Man City with a masterful display in how to close out a European encounter, moving the ball around and barely giving Mancini's mob a sniff, as City spent the remainder of the evening chasing shadows.

In the past the Arsenal have been able to compensate for our frustrating failure to be able to pass the ball into the net and for our defensive frailties, with our ability to dominate possession for large periods of the game. The insecurities of Almunia and co. weren't too frequently exposed, so long as we retained control of the ball (hands up all those who sympathized with the Hammers when they heard news of our timid keeper's loan move to East London?).

On Wednesday night we had a Frenchman, a German, a Cameroonian and a Brazilian, playing in a defensive formation that has never played with one another before. I wasn't so concerned about Alex Song, as many seem to have forgotten that the midfielder started life as a centre-back, but it did occur to me to wonder exactly what language this International melange used to communicate with one another?

Arteta is undoubtedly a cultured player, but as yet I've seen little evidence of the sort of third-eye perception of his predecessor, of the sort that previously allowed Fabregas to know, without having to look up, exactly where all his team-mates are on the pitch and to appreciate the spaces they were about to occupy (or that the opposition were about to vacate), even before Cesc received the ball and which enabled him to retain possession, with a pass to a red shirt, no matter how many opponents were bearing down on him.

Who knows, perhaps Aaron Ramsey is destined to come to the fore, but as yet and in the long-term absence of Jack Wilshere, we don't appear to have anyone capable of picking up this baton and being able to orchestrate the tippy-tappy, mazy passing patterns that have in the past so frustrated the opposition, to the point where they eventually tire of running their socks off in vain and begin to wish that they had their own ball to play with.

To the contrary, recent opponents have forced us into conceding possession of the ball so frequently and far too cheaply for my liking, that their success has encouraged them to play a pressing game, closing us down in pairs. And it stands to reason that the more frequently we make such a casual gift of the ball, the more often our defence will come under scrutiny. Unless this can be rectified pronto, it seems to me that we might have to dispense with our soubriquet of "the entertainers", so we can rapidly develop the required traits of resilience that might enable us to make up for what we now lack in pure artistic flair, with honest graft, commitment and team-spirit?

Writing this on the eve of our trip to White Hart Lane, I'm sure that like most other Gooners, I am as apprehensive as I can recall being in many a moon, prior to a North London Derby. I know that all my Spurs mates are looking forward to this match with great relish, their mouths positively drooling at the prospect of finally usurping our position as North London's big cheese, in the case of many long-suffering Lillywhite fans, probably for the first time since they had the misfortune to make their entrance on this mortal coil.

And when I compare the proposed teams on paper and our respective recent form, it's hard not to admit that the home side are likely favourites for a win. However, mercifully football retains its perpetual propensity for reminding us that (in the words of the White Hart Lane hero) "it's a funny old game" and as we all know, form should go out the window, when it comes to a Derby game. So for all my trepidation about tomorrow's short trip to Tottenham, in light of Spurs faithful's certain conviction that their time has finally come, I can't help but anticipate just how delicious it would be, if we were able to put a massive dampener on this dream, with anything more than a draw (to be honest, I'd bite off the hand that offered me a boring 0-0 right now!).

David Moyes' Toffees might have lost their last two fixtures, but for an hour or more of the contests I've watched with Man City and Liverpool, I saw plenty to admire in Everton's efforts to stem the tide of what Arsène has labelled "financial doping", with honorable sweat and toil. If the Gunners can demonstrate similar focus and work-rate, in denying the likes of Adebayor, Bale and Lennon (hopefully Shamrock Rovers will have done us a favour by at least seeing off Lennon with a groin injury) the time and the space to do any real damage and thereby proving their willingness to fight for one another, I for one will be satisfied, no matter what the result.

What will really depress me is if AW sends out a team of individuals, who in their eagerness to point the finger of blame at one another, are only portraying their readiness to roll over, in a match which will have been lost mentally, even before they take to the pitch. So long as the Gunners demonstrate the sort of fortitude and resilience that indicates their understanding of what this game means to us and hopefully thereby avoiding the sort of embarrassment we've had to endure of late, I guess it will have to be deemed a result and who knows, if I talk our chances down with sufficient conviction, perhaps fate will intervene and leave me with egg on my face, after a resounding victory?

Come on you rip, roaring Reds
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