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Sunday 23 December 2012

All I Want For Xmas......

Hi folks,

Was it good fortune, or merely convenient that Olivier Giroud was left in London on Saturday, with him and Rosicky suffering from colds, as after Monday's result at Reading, surely it would've been impossible for AW not to have continued with Theo playing up front. Sadly we were not treated to a repeat performance at Wigan. I was pleased to see Arsène continue with this experiment (even if it is all merely a ruse to convince Walcott to sign a new contract)  because there's nothing that frightens defenders more than blistering pace and we've not benefited from this threat since Thierry took his leave.

Nevertheless, unfortunately Theo didn't leave me feeling convinced that he's about to devote himself to the Arsenal, as he stood around on Saturday, largely unemployed, waiting to receive the ball at his feet. Say what you will about the comparatively lumbering Giroud and the fact that the French centre forward is unlikely to develop into a "top draw" striker, but compared to Theo, Olivier is a far more willing grafter and I would've imagined that if he had been playing on Saturday, he would've soon grown tired of his lack of involvement and unlike Walcott, he would've gone looking for the ball, even if this involved him having to drop deep.

My main reason for not wanting Walcott to leave is because of what it says about our club if he does and that it would be confirmation of quite how far we've slipped in the natural pecking order of clubs. However AW's efforts to convince Walcott to sign a new contact to date don't exactly speak volumes for his strategic prowess. First he tried the big stick, by refusing to play him and now the use of the carrot of playing him at centre forward, it all feels a little desperate and perhaps too little, too late.

Whats more, I wonder if last week's big PR stunt was all for Walcott's benefit and if so, I am not sure Theo is so naive as to be influenced by the sight of our five English youngsters all sat round a table signing their new contracts. Apparently Carl Jenkinson's deal was agreed months back and much like Tony Adams, I envisage true Gooner Carl being willing to put pen to paper, no matter what his contract included. But it would appear as if the club saved the actual signing ritual for a suitable occasion.

I didn't have room below to refer to Thursday's Champions League draw. Malaga would've been the plum draw, not just for footballing reasons, but because personally I would've preferred the prospect of travelling to somewhere warm in the spring. Still, I am looking forward to an opportunity to make my first visit to an impressive looking Allianz Arena, Bayern's new home and it's far preferable to a return trip to the cavernous Olympic Stadium, where one inevitably ends up confronted by the trauma of the 1972 hostage tragedy as one walks past the largely unchanged scene of this outrage on route.

Sadly nowadays, one feels obliged to make the very most of every successive Champions League encounter, just in case if it might be our last for some time to come. And so I sat down to watch the live draw on the telly, with a list I'd prepared of various permutations of cheap flight alternatives to the eight possible destinations.

Interestingly, during their coverage of the draw, Sky Sports played a rare interview with Alisher Usmanov courtesy of CNBC. It's the first time I've seen the man speak publicly about his interest in the Arsenal and I have to wonder if this is a significant indication of an effort on his part to raise the stakes, as Usmanov seeks to apply some pressure upon the Arsenal board, by increasing his profile and thereby building upon the corresponding level of public support amongst the many red & white malcontents? 

Who knows if Usmanov's riches are any dirtier than those of Abramovich, or any of the many other fortunes sunk into football clubs in recent times by billionaire investors. His money is certainly not too dirty for the charities that have pocketed £120 million of his disposable readies! 

What I do know is that unless the Gunners can recapture the glory days in the near future, there will be plenty of Gooners who are likely to grow increasingly frustrated about the fact that we have this potential benefactor sitting on the sidelines, eager, but thus far unable to throw his substantial financial weight behind bringing success back to London N5, while our current owner sits in his Montana ranch, content to count his profits from the club, but seemingly unperturbed by and utterly uninterested in the Arsenal's silverware drought.

Meanwhile, the most stressful part of the Champions League draw is the period after the opposition has been decided, as one sits anxiously awaiting for the actual dates to be announced, constantly refreshing the Arsenal web site page, so as to be able to be quick off the mark booking flights, within minutes of the seeing confirmation of the fixture schedule.

All the budget airlines are wise to the Champions League draw nowadays and their ability to react to the instant increase in demand is reflected in the fact that all bargain fares disappear in a flash. Easyjet prices to Munich were originally under 70 quid but these shot up to £130 and were about £400 before the end of the day. Fortunately we were able to bag four flights on BA via air miles and I was left feeling quite smug when I checked out of curiousity on Thursday evening, flabbergasted to find the same flights were now priced at an extortionate 700 quid!

I now have to worry about whether my large stock of Camel filters (purchased on our trips to Schalke and Olympiakos) will last me up until March and then how I'm going to be able to maintain my nicotine addiction if we should end up exiting the competition against Bayern. I daren't even contemplate the impact upon my noxious smoking habits should the Gunners fail to qualify for the competition next season.

But enough of my waffle. Here's wishing everyone a great Xmas and a happy & healthy New Year. Eat, drink and be very merry

Come on you Reds


Ho Ho Ho

In case anyone failed to notice the arrival of the festive season (or a blue moon), Stuart Downing marked it’s arrival on Saturday by stunning Scousers with an actual goal. Soul, or no soul, the beautiful game will maintain it’s allure, so long as it retains it’s eternal ability to confound.
Listening to the radio in the car on route back from our ridiculously early kick off in the North-West, I simply couldn’t fathom how a star-studded Man City could make such a meal, out of overcoming the same statuesque Royals side that rolled over against us on Monday night.
After setting off at 5.45am, I made it up to Wigan by way of Stoke, where my pal Stuart donned his santa outfit, to join all the other Xmas crackers in fancy dress bashing out 5k park run in the pouring rain in Hanley Park, cheered on by a decidedly damp and only slightly less bonkers Donner and Blitzen (myself and his lad).
Following a brief pit-stop to freshen up with a shower at Sandbach services, Stuart was probably closest to the land of the living, by the time we joined the other 4500 Gooners at the JJB; where many of us turned up in hope and expectation of witnessing the same sort of energized Arsenal performance that we’d enjoyed at the Madjeski earlier in the week.
Arriving home from Reading on Monday night, I promptly sat down to watch a repeat of the game on the box because with Walcott finally fulfilling his wish to play up front, I hadn’t been able to work out whether the Gunners had miraculously begun to discover some real form, or if this was a bit of a delusion and that our 5-2 thrashing of the Royals was more down to the inept display of a side that had performed like obvious relegation fodder.
Considering their precarious position, Reading were surprisingly meek. Yet, nevertheless, you could sense a response to our humiliating cup exit in Bradford, by the way we tore into the Royals. Right from the opening whistle, Chamberlain charged at their defence with such drive and determination that he ended up filching the ball back from Cazorla’s feet before taking a pot shot. Perhaps for the first time this season, we set about the opposition from the start, with the sort of vim and vigour, which has been sorely lacking from all the low-tempo performances that have been devoid of this sort of intent.
If we’d finally managed to release the handbrake on Monday, most disappointingly it was firmly back in place come Saturday, as sadly we reverted to type, trudging about in the unabating downpour, back to relentlessly moving the ball sideways and backwards, with no one in red & white willing to take the game to the opposition and with none of them looking as if they really wanted to be there.
Although Wigan played their part in nullifying the likes of Cazorla. After McCarthy trod on the Spaniard in the opening moments and continued to bite at his ankles every time he received the ball, Santi soon began to acquire the demeanour of someone who’d have much preferred to have been left back in London with Giroud and Rosicky. McCarthy then turned his attentions upon our other main creative source, welcoming Jack Wilshere to Wigan. But unlike Cazorla, with his terrier like qualities, Wilshere wasn’t about to seek refuge on the ropes, but remained in the centre of the ring, to give as good as he got.
The fact that we clung on to grind out a victory, when in the past we’d have probably failed to keep a clean sheet, might be viewed as an indication of an increasing resilience. Yet in truth Wigan were hard done by, as our success was only due to the fact that we were slightly less slipshod than our hosts.
If they’d been more clinical in front of goal and Walcott hadn’t bought us a penalty from the utterly incompetent ref (as a match official, Jon Moss makes for a good bisexual drummer in an 80s New Romantic pop outfit), merely by getting goalside of his opponent, it might’ve been a miserable, empty-handed return trip from the North-West.
Instead of which we came home with the 3 points and a small, token reward for our support, by way of an Xmas card, handed out as we entered the ground, which included a £10 voucher for food & drink at any home game. Never mind a free voucher, at the very top of many Gooner festive wish-lists would be for the club to put an end to their farcical refusal to entertain the advances of Alisher Usmanov. Can you imagine any other club, but the Arsenal, taking such an intransigent stance, with a fan who happens to be one of the wealthiest men on the planet, willing to throw whatever it takes, from his seemingly bottomless pit of resources, in order to make our club successful?
Mercifully six points in a week has elevated the Gunners from the mid-table morass, back to the battle for 3rd and 4th place and enables us to go into the festive schedule with some momentum. But it highlights the fickle way in which the media machine has clubs constantly lurching from crisis, to the comfort zone, from game to game. 
Only last week, after the debacle at Bradford, Arsène Wenger looked like the proverbial little boy, trying to plug the Gunners leaky dyke, not with his fingers but with rolled up copies of his Excel spreadsheets, whereas suddenly he’s back to being courted, as the media sycophants admire the cut of our Emperor’s new clothes. Meanwhile those of us of a more considered nature and who’ve endured so many disappointing performances so far this season, beyond all the hype, sadly we know that le Gaffer remains stark bollock naked!
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Monday 17 December 2012

Champions League...Now We're Really Having A Larf!

Hi folks,

I only discovered on Sunday afternoon that the Irish Examiner weren't expecting a Terrace Talk missive from me this weekend (with us playing on Monday night) and I was already 515 words into the following piece, when they suggested I limit my submission to 500 words. So you'll have to forgive me if I've short-changed you on this week's diary entry, in my efforts to wrap the following up as succinctly as possible. With brevity hardly being my strong suit, this was quite a challenge. I also have to apologies if I've repeated some of the sentiments expressed in midweek but I definitely didn't want to get into yet another Wenger (Gervinho, Podolski, Ramset et al) bashing.

Knocking Wenger is tantamount to banging one's head up against a brick wall each week. The only pressure le Prof is under, is the pressure he puts on himself and that's probably one of the biggest problems at the club nowadays. AW is such an autocrat at the Arsenal that there is no one capable of making him aware of quite how stark bollock naked our Emperor appears, every time he comes out and publicly reiterates his belief in the quality of such a mediocre looking squad.

Can anyone ever recall an incidence of a board getting shot of a manager because he declines to dip into their ever increasing bank balance? Besides which, even if the suits at the Arsenal should begin to get a little twitchy, if the number of empty seats continues to increase in direct proportion to the number of goals conceded as an inevitable result of our positively moribund zonal marking system, can you honestly envisage the scene in which Gazides, the MD who was interviewed by Wenger for his job as our manager's boss, finds the cajones to pull club's greatest ever servant into his office, to advise him that his time is finally up?

In season's past, I wouldn't be panicking just yet, as I'd be looking at our next five Premiership fixtures, thinking that we should be perfectly capable of pulling our socks up by the time FA Cup 3rd Round comes along and that this will enable us to head into the New Year with a bit of momentum. Sadly nowadays we go into every game, praying our opposition might be more out of sorts than ourselves and with Reading having hit the bottom of the table over the weekend, you can bet they're not about to roll over for us on home turf tomorrow night.

As with any manager worth his salt, I fully expect ex-Gunner, Brian McDermott to target our obvious frailties at set pieces and you'll have to pick me up from my seat at the Madjeski in shock, if the Gunners finally remember how to take a game to the opposition and for once they pull their finger out before going a goal behind

Come on you Reds
Keep the faith

The only feint consolation in an exhausting seven hour round trip trek to Bradford in the freezing fog, to endure the sight of a full-strength Premiership outfit having their pants pulled down and their bare arses well and truly smacked by the lowly Bantams, is that whatever else transpires this season, it simply can’t get any more embarrassing for the Gunners than that.
The welcome we received in West Yorkshire was as warm, as the weather was brass monkeys. For those of the 4000 lunatic Gooner suckers for punishment who arrived early enough to bag one, there were free Santa hats laid out on our seats, as part of the effort made by our impoverished hosts, to try and create a big, cup final type occasion of their brief moment in the footballing limelight.
If I’m entirely honest, when I contrast quite how much our fans and the team would’ve taken the result for granted, if this game had run to form, with the euphoria of the fulfillment of a rammed Valley Parade’s not so far-fetched fantasies and a potential career highlight for many of the Bantam’s journeymen pros, I couldn’t really begrudge them their momentous night of giant-killing glory.
It wouldn’t have felt nearly so bad if we’d merely been victim to bad fortune, as opposed to this season’s most blatant demonstration of the obvious limitations of our current squad. Perhaps the most telling appraisal of an Arsenal team, with a cutting edge that is no less blunt than the likes of Torquay, came as were consoled by the jubilant locals on our miserable, hangdog trudge back to the motor.
They’d turned out on mass to support their team against the mighty Arsenal and they all seemed genuinely mystified and more than a little disappointed that a regular amongst Europe’s elite, containing an assortment of International stars, who cost umpteen millions more than the combined value of their entire squad, could produce no more threat and offer little more entertainment value than any of their regular 2nd division opposition. But then we’ve been asking ourselves this same question for far too long!
Whether Wenger’s team selection was a reflection of his desire to relieve the pressure, by throwing us a League Cup bone, or an effort to instill some much-needed confidence in our beleaguered troops, by banging in a few goals against lower league opposition, whatever the motive, le Prof’s plan seriously backfired. As I listened to the announcement of our line-up, while queuing for a hand-warming cup of Bovril, my prevailing reaction was not just surprise but I was left feeling more than a little cheated.
In recent seasons our League Cup campaigns have often proved a highpoint, a welcome touchstone to the real thing and a breathe of fresh footballing air, outside of the rarefied hype within the artifice of the Premiership bubble. Whatever the outcome, one could always rely on the refreshing pleasure of experiencing the eager “have a go” exuberance of assorted youngsters, with plenty still to prove. By comparison, after the madcap excitement at the Madjeski in the last round, it was unbearably frustrating to endure yet another low-tempo display, as we sat back waiting for our quality to win out, without anyone willing to grasp the mantle and make something happen.
Having been in touching distance of a day out at Wembley, the long journey home afforded plenty of time for the realization to sink in that the Gunners had just blown our best opportunity of ending our silverware drought. Moreover, where in the past one might’ve expected the sort of positive reaction to our humiliating cup exit, in five subsequent bankable Premiership fixtures, on current form the Gunners will inevitably make a meal out of the meekest opposition. It’s hard to believe that we’ll be travelling to Reading this evening more in desperate hope of some redemption, than in expectation.
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Friday 14 December 2012

I Schlepped All The Way To Bradford And All I Have To Show For MyEfforts Is A Free Santa Hat!

(having attempted to exorcise some of my frustration on the Arsenal mailing list, my reply to a post on the list  about AW's future, resulted in such a rambling and all too long-winded rant - nothing new there then - that I thought I might as well post it to my blog, in the event that there might be other sad buggers like myself, who based on recent events, really should get a life because as far as the Gunners are concerned, I fear that the prospects for the immediate future suggest that according to Gooner Jagger's immortal words, there really "ain't no satisfaction"!)

From my most humble perspective, what many seem to fail to appreciate is that there are basically only two possible ways in which Arsene will depart the Arsenal, either if he decides he's had enough, or if we the fans end up revolting to such an extent that his position becomes untenable.

Wenger has been working the oracle for so many years, maintaining Champions Lg qualification, even when the club's finances were stretched to the brink and the stadium build was in jeopardy and he's so obsessed with "value for money" that he's the ultimate dream manager, for any football club that's primarily focused on maintaining a viable, profitable business.

As a result, can anyone seriously imagine that there's a single suit at Highbury House who doesn't revere our leader to such an extent that they worship the very ground AW walks on and you are seriously off your rocker, if you believe that, even if there was the slightest element of the board losing faith in Wenger's ability to continue running the club at a profit, the likes of Ivan Gazides actually possesses balls big enough to tell Arsene Wenger that his time is up!!

Get real! Arsene will only leave when he chooses to, either because he's had enough, or because we end up making his position positively unbearable.

As someone who's schlepped to Athens and Bradford recently, I'm certainly no Arsène apologist, as his decisions, such as those to persist in showing such faith in the headless chicken Gervinho, remain infuriatingly unfathomable. Nevertheless, I am someone who would dearly love to see his reign at the Arsenal end in a high, rather than suffer the unbearable sight of the great man, sloping off into the sunset with his tail between his legs.

And the criteria I have always used to judge whether I feel Arsène's time is up is exactly who would we be guaranteed to be able to replace him with, at that precise point in time, where we could be certain of them doing a better job? How many of our competitors would be queuing up to take Wenger off our hands, albeit probably primarily nowadays because of his capacity to keep a club operating at a profit, while remaining within the new FFP rules. Finally and perhaps most significantly, quite how much my Spurs pals will rejoice euphorically on the day Arsene finally receives his P45.

The day my Spurs mates' attitude changes and they start to grieve at the prospect of Wenger's departure because they feel his replacement is more likely to ruin any remaining fantasies they have of finishing above us, this will be the day when I know Arsene has outstayed his welcome.

Moreover for those of you expecting a miracle in January, you might do well to remember that there will be a myriad of clubs, many in a far more precarious position than ourselves, with many prepared to gamble the shirt off their back, for some hope of salvation and as a result, willing to throw far more moola at potential answers to their problems than the value obsessed Arsène. Take the rumours about our interest in Huntelaar for example. Does the fact that he found the net against our positively porous, zonal defence, prove him capable of producing an immediate impact in the Premiership? Some might think him to be more of a "Giroud plus" than a genuine top draw signing ? But all of these clubs will be desperately seeking solutions from the relatively limited pool of talent available in the January window and whether it's physical or mental, many of whom would already be considered to be damaged goods!

As for Tuesday's debacle in Bradford, we can argue all day about the rights & wrongs of AW putting out such a strong side. With us not having a game until Monday, I suppose it was a typically logical decision on Wenger's part, but I was nevertheless surprised to see the line up and I'd be a liar to say that I wasn't a little disappointed.

With the game live on the box (and with me not feeling nearly so obligated midweek, as I do with weekend games, when having to write my weekly column on Sunday night), the principal reasons I enjoy attending such Carling Cup awaydays (or whatever it's sponsor is this week) quite so religiously, is the prospect of seeing a few kids playing in red & white, who are willing to give it a real go.

Moreover, you really had to be there on Tuesday night, to fully appreciate that after a decade of depressing misery, quite what a Cup Final occasion this was for lowly Bradford and the entire town in general.

I expected the Bantams to be so hyped up that they would steam straight into us, but I guess it wasn't so surprising that, after putting out a pretty much full strength Arsenal team (on paper!), the home side were sufficiently intimidated that they showed us far too much respect during the opening few minutes, timidly standing off our players, not daring to kick us up in the air with a tackle.

What really pissed me off is our complete and utter failure to recognise this and take advantage, as I could envisage the likes of Utd taking the piss from minute one, by tearing their lower league opponents apart. Sadly, where it might've been a different story with an injection of over-exuberant youth, our first team regulars started the game at the tragically low-tempo that we've grown all too accustomed to in recent times.

As a consequence, after pushing the ball sideways and backwards for the first twenty minutes, barely disturbing the Bantams' defence (while, by contrast, poor old Tommy Vermaelen appeared to completely crap himself every time the nippy Nakhi Wells came anywhere near him!), we completely blew any advantage we might of had with the home side's deluded perceptions of us as footballing giants, as we blatantly gifted them the time they needed to settle into the match, with the absence of any brilliance on our part presenting them with the opportunity to begin to sense that this Gunners side are mere mortals, who were no less beatable than bloomin' Torquay!

Frankly you don't need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the complete absence of a cutting edge with the likes of Podolski and Gervinho playing up front (making Olivier Giroud look positively potent by comparison to these two anonymous twonks!). But in truth it wasn't so much a lack of effort which bothered me (as someone who's always harping on about being sufficiently gratified, so long as the Gunners put a shift in) but the fact that our now traditional lack of tempo prevented us from putting Bradford under the cosh.

Amongst my main criticisms of AW is that he's far too cerebral, setting far too much store in science and statistics but that unfortunately he has always seemed to be dreadfully lacking in the crucial ability to be in touch with the intangible emotional qualities that simply cannot be measured on an Excel spreadsheet.

For example, I suspect that if AW let Stevie Bould off his leash, he'd have been standing on the touch line bellowing at the players from the opening whistle, both encouraging and intimidating in equal measure, to try and get them to "take the handbrake off" and make the most of their superior abilities by taking the opposition on, whereas Wenger just stood there with his hands stuck in his duvet and his silent frustration etched in every new wrinkle on his ageing phizog

When ever we start a game at such a slow tempo, it's invariably impossible to shift up through the gears and put the foot on the gas, so as to turn up the heat. At least not without the significant sort of event needed to act as the catalyst for the necessary inspiration, namely the act of going a goal behind.

Even then, on Tuesday night, it was only as the desperation mounted and the clock ticked down towards our embarrassing cup exit on 90 minutes that we discovered the necessary motivation to throw the kitchen sink at getting an equaliser and we still lacked the guile and the craft to get behind the Bantams' rearguard, as their staunch efforts continued to limit us to long range efforts from outside the box.

And you stand their freezing your cods off on the Valley Parade terraces, having forsaken a day's wages to undertake a seven hour round trip drive on our dangerously foggy, icy motorways, wondering why on earth it took until the 80th minute for the Gunners to pull their collective finger out?

It's not that I'm complaining about our work-rate, as frankly on such a cold night, it's not as if any of them were going to be guilty of standing around idle for too long. Who knows whether it's down to a lack of belief, confidence, or merely due to complacency, but there's this thoroughly conspicuous lack of intent about the Arsenal's football nowadays, in all the utterly superfluous sideways and backwards passes (which invariably end up with me leaving the ground hoarse, after spending much of the match hollering "Sczczny's on"!) which results in the sort of impotence in so much of our play that leaves the likes of Bradford and every other opponent believing that we are there for the taking.

With a little more intent in Gervinho's game, he wouldn't have missed that sitter on Tuesday, as no matter how little control he seems to have, a player with sufficient commitment (eg. The cumbersome Grant Holt) would've barrelled into the six yard box, so that he, the ball and even the keeper if necessary, would've all ended up in the back of the net.

Now where I presume that Arsène stands there thinking that after such a glaring miss, "statistically speaking", according to mathematic logic, the Ivorian has just improved his odds of putting his next opportunity in the back of the net and thereby comes to the conclusion that he's best leaving Gervinho out there, even though his confidence is so shot that he's taken to hiding out wide on the wing and even his team mates have stopped wasting possession by giving him the ball, a more instinctive manager, like Mourinho for example, would've been so incensed at such incompetence that he'd have grabbed the board out of the fourth official's hands in his impatience to pull the numpty off the pitch! 

While Wenger puts his faith in science, waiting for the law of averages to have its say, a more emotionally sensitive manager would immediately recognised the need to alter the status quo and to take immediate action, both to serve as a warning to all concerned that there is some "cause and effect" consequences of such a complete f#ck up and to give an all too comfortable opposition defence something different to worry about. Sure this alternative approach might well prove to be no more effective but it at least leaves everyone feeling as if we've tried to play all our cards, instead of constantly and stubbornly sticking with the same hand until it is too late.

Santi smacked his stunning extra-time shot from outside the box with more than enough intent and when such a deserved effort failed to dip under the bar, you kind of sensed that our search for silverware bobbled away off the bar with the ball. 

I really don't want to relive the emotional trauma of the penalty shoot-out, suffice to say that with the Bantams' confidence from the penalty spot, we should've known full well that we couldn't afford to let them get that far. In our failure to put them to the sword, or in Bradford's heroic efforts to thwart us during 120 minutes of football, I have to admit that when Dean eventually blew the whistle that took us to the dreaded crap shoot of spot-kicks, there was some small part of me that felt that the locals deserved their long awaited moment of glory and would be far more appreciative of it than we would, in making such a meal of rolling over lower league opponents.

What's more, we were made to feel most welcome in Bradford. They might've taken the maximum advantage of this rare opportunity with the exorbitantly priced, four quid programmes, but we'd paid a paltry "macaroni" (25 quid, or a pony for the uninitiated amongst us), by today's extortionate standards, for a prime pitch, bang on the halfway line and they'd even been so kind as to throw in an Xmas pressie of a free Santa Hat on the seats of those of us who arrived early enough to bag one.

Set amidst streets of the sort of terraced Victorian housing that looks like a scene straight out of Coronation Street and built on the sort of slope that leaves the more imaginative amongst us wondering if it was constructed on top of a coal mine slag heap (forgive my historic inaccuracies, as I suspect Bradford was built on woollen mills rather than coal mines but doubtless I was akip in the corner dreaming of being Charlie George, during that particular history lesson?), Bradford has the feel of a proper old-fashioned football club.

Amongst my old man's Bernard Manning type racist material back in the 70s was an oft repeated crack about dialling 999 in Bradford and them calling out the Bengal Lancers. But unlike so many other traditional footballing epicentres around the country, like Leicester and Birmingham, where the glory might be faded but sadly the racism remains far too entrenched, there is some sense that supporting Bradford City FC is a far more inclusive experience for its massive Asian community, as absolutely all the locals of every hue and creed seemed "up for the Cup"

Thus as much as I would've preferred for Santi to have saved us from the excruciating agony of the shoot-out (as we blew our semi-final berth by going 0-2 down, only for Sczczny, the redeemer, to restore our belief but in vain, as TV5 extinguished it again!), despite all this angst, I couldn't help but feel a little pleased for the locals as a rammed Valley Parade savoured their moment in the limelight, especially after witnessing the way in which all that euphoria was sucked out of that stadium as we burst the bubble of their league cup fantasy with only three minutes left on the clock.

Perhaps the most telling appraisal of the obvious limitations of our current squad was heard from the Bradford fans that we chatted with, on the miserable, hangdog walk back to our motor after the match. They seemed genuinely mystified and more than a little disappointed that they'd turned up to see the mighty Arsenal and that a team from the upper echelons of the Premiership and a regular amongst Europe's elite, had failed so patently to produce the sort of entertainment they'd been expecting. 

As was the case against the Baggies on Saturday, apart from the odd all too rare glimpse of artistry from the likes of Cazorla & Wilshere (not forgetting Francis Coquelin surprising us all, with our holding midfielder's single and very nearly successful effort to demonstrate the art of attacking to his more recalcitrant team mates, with his mazy run into the box, as a precursor to le Prof baffling us all once again, by replacing our best player on the park thus far?), the Bantam fans were more than a little mystified how it could be possible that a collection of international stars, costing umpteen times the couple of million quid value of their more humble squad, could produce a display so utterly devoid of class that the Gunners were no more effective than any of their 2nd division opposition.

But then we've all been asking ourselves the same question, for far too long now!

I thought a couple of locals lasses were being sarcastic when they told me that they'd happily take Gervinho (perhaps they weren't talking football, but it's not as if his elongated forehead is an indicator of our empty-headed striker's gene pool contribution towards an over-developed brain - although at least he's got plenty of space in this void to stuff his gloves - and there are plenty of more attractive players to idolise as a sex god!). I said that I'd happily swap him for my Santa hat and we'd already been given that for free!

Still unlike all those Gooners who were forced to endure yet another humiliating Gooner experience on the box, at least we didn't end up returning from Bradford entirely empty-handed

Keep the faith 

Monday 10 December 2012

Bring On The Bantams

I’m mad for my football.  Least it was warm in Athens and I came back with a carrier bag full of cheap fags. But if travelling a couple of thousand miles to watch last week’s load of old tosh against Olympiakos wasn’t sufficiently batty, then sacrificing a day’s wages to schlep up to Bradford in this bitterly cold weather, for the depreciated denizens of the Capital One Cup, must surely rank as positively certifiable?

After all these years, it’s pretty much an automated response for me to turn up to support the Gunners. Yet compared to how eager I was to drink in the high-class entertainment that we were enjoying, whilst being spoiled by the more rewarding early years of Wenger’s reign, never mind our players, nowadays I find myself reflecting on whether I’m merely going through the motions.

Such was my limited enthusiasm for forsaking the far more cozy environs of our flat, to freeze my cods off on the terraces (and I would’ve done, without the aid of my trusty longjohns!) that I didn’t get out of the door until ten minutes prior to kick-off of our crunch encounter with West Brom. In the past I would’ve nearly induced a heart-attack by hurtling around to the ground, for fear of missing out on a flurry of goalmouth activity in the opening moments.

I suppose it’s a reflection on quite how far the mighty have fallen that I wasn’t about to get into a lather about being late on Saturday. There were already 5 minutes on the clock by the time I took my seat and I didn’t even bother turning to my neighbour, to enquire what I had missed. After all, sadly most of our recent matches have tended to start at such a low-tempo that we end up playing amongst ourselves for at least 10 minutes, before anyone even dares take on the opposition.

Our guests might have lost their last couple of games and my tardy arrival might’ve coincided with Liam Ridgewell limping off. Nevertheless it’s hard to believe that such a surprisingly docile West Brom, could be the same over-achieving Steve Clarke outfit that’s been the Premiership’s surprise package to date, soaring to 5th in the table. But I’m not complaining because if ever the Gunners needed the leg-up of meeting the Baggies on a “bad day at the office” it was Saturday.

Under less stressful circumstances, it would’ve been great to see Cazorla stand up and do a Robbie Fowler, dismissing our penalty claim. Sadly such momentous sporting gestures aren’t exactly encouraged, amidst the obscenely high stakes of the modern game. It will also be a shame if Santi ends up branded as a result, with his card marked, along with the likes of Suarez and Bale, to the point where opponents can take a frying pan to his head, without worrying about conceding a spot kick.

Besides, despite being camped in the opposition half, we were making such hard work of breaking the Baggies down that it was a massive relief when Cazorla conned the spot-kick from the laughably incompetent ref (to be fair, everyone in the ground, bar our guests, thought it was a stuck-on penalty claim) as we hadn’t looked like scoring up until that point.

I heard Ray Parlour admit on the radio that it was a blatant dive and I was fully expecting the karmic reward of Arteta cocking up the penalty, but mercifully it would appear that cheats can prosper in the Premiership. Up until now, I’ve been impressed at the way Cazorla has ridden challenges, rather than hitting the deck. But in this instance, our desperation for success, deserved or not, is such, that the Spaniard would’ve been the principal guest at a 50,000 lynching, if he’d declined his ill-gotten gain.

At least the goal resulted in the game opening up and where we’d looked like a team of complete strangers first-half, after the break, for the first time in ages we savoured some all too brief glimpses of sort of graceful artistry between Cazorla and Wilshere that does at least offer a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, presumably having been informed of his ricket, the hair-brained ref spent most of the second half trying to right his wrong, with a succession of unfathomable decisions. It was therefore ironic that we should end up benefiting from the most significant of these, as he ignored the foul in the build up to the second penalty.

The Ox did well bursting into the box, but overall Alex has been decidedly disappointing, thus far wasting the opportunity Arsène has afforded him, to demonstrate Theo’s dispensability. But how much longer must we suffer Gervinho’s headless chicken impersonation, before our stubborn manager finally admits that compared to the incompetent Ivorian striker, Walcott looks world class.

Saturday’s much needed victory would appear to vindicate Wenger’s decision to leave half our team at home for the midweek trip to Olympiakos. Albeit that there was little evidence of the benefit of fresh-legs during such a dull first-half display. Chelsea may have exited the Champions League, but perhaps their 6-1 victory will have kickstarted their spluttering league campaign, as you can only build momentum by winning games. But we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on our defeat in Greece and the logic of fielding a team too weak to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to win our group, over a long cold winter

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Sunday 2 December 2012

Blowing In The Wind

The league table never lies. The Gunners are marooned in the doldrums of 10th place because based on our recent run of dreadfully pallid displays, that’s exactly where we deserve to be. Most disconcerting is that where in the past there’s always been promise aplenty of better to come, in a calibre of player capable of putting wind in our sails and breathing some life back into our season, there appears to be a lamentable level of apathy, arrogance and a basic lack of quality amongst our current incumbents. Thus it’s hard to envisage exactly where the inspiration is going to come from, for a resurrection from mid-table mediocrity, no matter how Arsène shuffles our current pack.

I’m unsure if opponents have sussed out that the Arsenal’s passing clock cannot tick, so long as they apply sufficient pressure upon the mainspring of Miguel Arteta. Or if we simply can’t afford to carry passengers like Gervinho and Podolski, leaving only 8 outfield players frustratingly, flailing in vain for incisive creativity, against the far more integrated likes of Laudrup’s Swans. At times during the first-half on Saturday, the Gunners’ laboured impotence compared to our guests’ elegant fluidity, was so embarrassing that many of the tourists might’ve been forgiven for thinking that the teams had already swapped shirts.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and on the day of a relatively unimpressive “We Want Our Arsenal Back” protest march (exactly which Arsenal…the dour doctrine of George Graham, Terry Neill’s single FA Cup in 7 seasons?), it was somewhat ironic that Swansea should turn up, to remind us of the graceful geometery of an artistic passing game that was previously responsible for making the Gunners the preferred choice of viewing for all aficionados of the beautiful game.

It always infuriates me when Arsène’s post-match mitigation includes the “physically jaded” absolution for such lifeless dross. With 60% of the season still to come, Swansea showed no signs of tiredness. Fatigue is so rarely a factor for teams buoyed by success that surely it’s obvious this is a mental issue. Moreover, by pointing out our players’ proximity to his fabled “red zone” and reiterating this in the media, the problem becomes self-perpetuating, as le Gaffer gives them license to perform as expected.

Mercifully we discovered sufficient energy second half to muster some attacking threat, but we were devoid of momentum during the first forty-five. Our limited time in possession was solely dedicated to passing the ball sideways and backwards. No-one was willing to take the opposition on, as we sat back, waiting for Swans to part, like the waters of the Red Sea and present us with an open invitation to approach their goal. After all, why should we tax ourselves further, when our lord & master is waiting in the wings with a ready-made excuse?

Our squad should be forced to join my stage crew for two shows in the theatre on a Saturday, followed by an all-night changeover, for a taste of real exhaustion. In return for the obscene rewards these fit young footballers receive, I really don’t think it’s unfair of us to demand that they bust their balls for 90 minutes a couple of times a week.

Yet no matter how badly we perform, the Gunners are “my” bad and I don’t hold with booing our own. Instead I stood to begrudgingly applauding the Swans at the final whistle. Sadly their slick, stylish performance only served to highlight quite how far we’ve fallen from this perch, as a result of the year, on year decline in our squad (and we’ve got to do it all over again with Swansea, but at their place in the FA Cup!).

However football has and always will be cyclical and most fans only have their memories, or their fantasies of mere fleeting moments of glory, to tide them over endless seasons of forbearance. The Gooner contingent amongst those fickle modern footie fans who demand instant gratification, can’t comprehend the fact that we are now paying our dues, for having savoured such a gratifying period of the most entertaining brand of the beautiful game that it has ever been my privilege to witness these past 40 years and which was the envy of football lovers everywhere.

It’s only because Arsène set this bar so high that the likes of the Black Scarf Movement are throwing their toys out of the pram now (frankly I’ve yet to even see a black scarf at an Arsenal match!). They mask their anger in rants about the corporatization of our beloved club. Yet in truth football is all about results and if this Arsenal side is ever going to be capable of stringing a run together, you can be sure it would silence all such white noise.

I don’t disagree with some of BSM’s basic tenets, but I’m not about to join them pissing in the wind. So long as there remains umpteen thousands waiting to grab our season tickets, as ever, the board will continue to pay the same token lip-service to our wishes. Besides, how many of those marching on Saturday in favour of a seat on the board for Red & White holdings, were also amongst the “Love Arsenal, Hate Usmanov” sheep, protesting back in 2007 against accepting the Uzbek’s ill gotten gains?

As much as I might despise it, football is big business nowadays and we might as well be protesting against the invention of the wheel. Sadly there is no going back to shanks’ pony, no matter how cuddly and intimate life was back at Highbury, compared to the cold, clinical machinations of the corporate behemoth that has become of our club.

Here’s hoping the weather in Athens is better, as I’m not particularly optimistic about the footie!

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Saturday 1 December 2012

Sounds far more like my kinda protest–-sign-up-now/

Thursday 29 November 2012

Plain As Le Nez On Le Prof's Mush

Just in the door from the long schlep back from Merseyside and I made the mistake of putting a recording of the midweek MOTD on the box. No sooner than the programme had started, than I found myself suffering the sight of Gareth Bale storming forward, to create Spurs opening goal against the Mickey Mousers and then when Shearer highlighted Dembele's midfield strengths in the montage shown at the end of this match, this only served to highlight the patently obvious weaknesses in the Gunners game at Goodison and sadly, in all our other recent outings.

Everton's equaliser came as a direct result of us casually gifting the home side possession, in a far too dangerous position, for the umpteenth time on the night. With my positively sieve-like memory, I can't be certain but I think it was Ramsey who was at fault; besides, you can't go far wrong in blaming Aaron nowadays, since his increasingly infuriating habit of not paying due regard to the importance of retaining control of the ball, is fast making him the latest scapegoat of the fickle terrace boo-boys.

But my point is that this incident occurred in the aftermath of what seemed like a ten minute period, where the Gunners controlled the ball, with endless sideways and backwards passes, constantly switching play from one side of the pitch to the other, without anyone in red & white showing the slighted bit willing to take responsibility to go past the massed ranks of the Everton defence. Thus we dominated the play for this long spell without ever even looking like getting behind the defence and creating a tangible threat on the Everton goal and then seconds later, after we've gifted them back the ball, the Toffees string a couple of passes together that result in Fellaini beating Sczczny.

There's been plenty of times in the past, when the Gunners patience and their penchant for wanting to walk the ball into the back of the net, has left me tearing my hair out on the terraces. But there is a big difference between patiently biding our time, waiting for the right opening, or the precise moment to unpick the lock and the situation we have now, where we appear to have absolutely no one on the pitch willing to drive forward with the ball, or to take responsibility for lending our attack that all important forward impetus.

I suspect that if the opposition were to allow them, the current first XI could spend the entire 90 minutes  tamely prodding the ball about amongst themselves, in two-thirds of the pitch, without ever making progress into the final third. Then perhaps this blindingly obvious lack of drive against Everton, or the age-old problem of the absence of any leaders, willing to inspire those around them with their determination to produce this forward momentum, wasn't so surprising on a night when Koscielny limped off after his first kick of the ball.

Along with most other Gooners, I would've happily settled for a point at Goodison Park, if we'd managed the humble feat of achieving all three against Villa on Saturday. Yet against Paul Lambert's inexperienced and unfamiliar outfit, it was left to our French centre-back to create just about the single only credible threat on Villa's goal, as he at least attempted to inspire those around him, by bulldozing his way into the box. With a little more composure and if Laurent's sight of the ball hadn't been obscured by his nose bleed, he might well have won the game for us, almost singlehandedly.

But surely something is seriously amiss, when we are left relying on our commendably committed but somewhat lumbering centre-back for the only evidence of any forward momentum. Moreover, I can't help but wonder if there's an element of incompetence involved in Koscielny's injury this evening. Obviously I don't know the facts, but my instincts are that when a player limps off, with what looked like a groin strain, after his first effort to make contact with the ball in the opening moments, one can't help but wonder whether this is a result of him having failed to warm up properly.

On a bitterly cold night, there's the suspicion that they've come out to stretch and warm up twenty minutes before KO and subsequently sat down in the dressing room, long enough for their muscles to grow cold and stiffen up, to the point where they're far more susceptible to injury the moment they exert themselves.

Most worryingly is the fact that it is hard to see where we are going to find the solution to an Arsenal side devoid of any drive. There were a couple of instances this evening, down on the wing in front of where we stood in the Upper Bullens, where in the past you would've backed Theo to turn on the turbos and go past the likes of Tony Hibbert as if he was standing still, but watching the defender match Walcott stride for stride this evening, I can't help but wonder if Theo has lost some of his blistering pace?

Both Wilshere and Cazorla undoubtedly possess the guile and the composure, to outwit lesser mortals and go past their opponents, but when playing on the park together, both of them seem to be reluctant to press home their obvious advantage. Time and time again, we witness one of them drop a shoulder, or drag a ball back to leave their opposite number for dead, enter the space between the opposition's midfield and defence, to the point where it appears as if we're capable of mounting a challenge on goal, only for them to turn and play the ball sideways or backwards, for a frustrating return to "Go", to begin our march around the board anew.

It's got to the point now, where in some respects I often find myself half-hoping for us to go a goal down in games, if only because this appears to be the only way of inspiring this Arsenal side to pull their finger out and induce the sort of forward propulsion capable of creating a genuine threat on the opposition's goal.

Then again, it just about sums up where this Arsenal side is at right now, when I find myself listening to the scores elsewhere on the night, on my terrace tranny, at first grateful to hear that the likes of West Brom are having a 'mare and then only to end up fretting that we might find ourselves falling behind the likes of lowly Swansea. Still at least we can take some solace in the fact that there are always others worse off than us and I suppose at this present point in time we can count our blessings that we're not Liverpool fans.

Sort it out Arsène
Come on you Reds

Sunday 25 November 2012

Get Up Off Of That Thang

According to a 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story' article in this weekend's FT, I am a "keen historian of the club", which is a laugh, considering my increasingly sieve-like memory prevents me from recalling who scored yesterday, never mind forty years ago...but then sadly we didn't score any goals yesterday!

While many might think I'm clutching at straws, searching for some positives, I really don't think things are quite as bad as many would have us believe. It's true that we have every right to expect more, but there are plenty of Premiership fans who are so starved of success that they think the winning of a corner sufficient cause to celebrate. What's more, for all the money spent at the likes of City & Chelsea, it's not as if they're enjoying much cheer at the moment.

But above all, it is in the genuine Gooner spirit of those such as Carl Jenkinson & Jack Wilshere and the 'no-holds barred' commitment of Laurent Koscienly that I derive most optimism because if this can be fostered, to the point where team spirit prevails over the complacent efforts of those who are merely going through the motions, that will do me.

No matter where we end up each season, all I really demand in return for the increasingly extortionate cost of following the Gunners nowadays, is the ability to feel that I'm watching a bunch of players whose desire to win football games is far more important to them than the mere accumulation of wealth.

Keep the faith


Still smothering with some nasty lurgy, I thought it best to stop at home on Saturday and watch the game on the box, instead of schlepping up to Villa Park on a cold, wet afternoon. That was until I received a call sometime after midday, from a couple of Egyptian Gooner pals, who’d come over for our midweek match against Marseille, but had decided to extend their stay, to take in the dubious delights of the country’s second city and who were looking for a last-minute lift up to Villa.

It might be nice to think that I changed my mind and decided to drive them up to the match as some sort of token contribution towards peace in the Middle East, but in truth, as a regular awayday traveller and having endured the torment of trips to Norwich and Old Trafford, one lives in dread of missing out on being there for that moment when the Gunners miraculously rediscover some form.

And so with a glance at the clock, it didn’t take much to persuade me to avoid this risk and that I still had plenty of time to jump in the car, pick my pals up and head on up the motorway in the pouring rain.

It transpires that I need not have worried about missing out, because if this Arsenal side is EVER going to blossom, it was always most unlikely to occur on a positively miserable afternoon at Villa Park, when the lamentably uninspiring performances of many of our players suggested they’d have also much preferred to have stopped at home with their feet up.

Little did I realize that the highlight of my outing would occur outside the ground, before the game, while we were waiting to pick up my mates’ tickets and we saw Carl Jenkinson’s dad collecting his tickets from the box office. I adore the fact that Jenkinson’s dad rocks up to a match to watch his son play, along with all the other Gooners, rather than demanding he be closeted with all the corporate leeches, amidst the sterile, but far more comfortable surroundings of hospitality.

With Paul Lambert having seemingly reinvigorated his Villa side from their early season incarnation as obvious relegation fodder, I expected an awkward encounter; especially in the sort of conditions that rarely encourage the best out of an Arsenal side that invariably seems to perform better with the sun on their backs, rather than in the cold and pissing rain.

Yet, in truth, after Ron Vlar, their talismanic captain, limped off early in the second half, Villa were there for the taking and I’m certain they would’ve succumbed to any one of a myriad of Premiership sides, who are currently capable of producing more attacking potency and intent than the Gunners.

Hence it wasn’t really that surprising when Wenger’s removal of Giroud resulted in brief clamour of “You don’t know what you’re doing” frustration from the travelling not-so-faithful. If I’m honest, I felt likewise when he’d previously sent Arshavin on, to replace Chamberlain for the last 13 minutes, as personally I don’t think the disaffected Russian should be anywhere near the first XI, infecting our squad with his lack of motivation. But when Coquelin replaced Giroud for the last few minutes, it felt as if we were settling for a point, when we should be throwing the kitchen sink, at a last minute effort to grab all three.

There can be no doubt about the growing mood of Gooner discontent, manifesting itself in the occasional “We want our Arsenal back” outburst on the terraces. Arsène’s substitutions on Saturday are perhaps indicative of the sort of pragmatic, businesslike philosophy that’s responsible for this unrest. It was a safety first approach, where perhaps moving the fresh-legs of Gervinho to the middle, we might possibly pinch a goal, but at the same time Coquelin would ensure we didn’t sacrifice the prospect of a draw.

Yet we wanted to witness a gung-ho assault on the goal of weaker opposition because Arsenal fans have patently had their fill of this “settle for what we have” approach to football. Arsène can point to his esteemed track record, as testament to the fact that his management has ensured that the Gunners have won more games than we’ve lost, but our current squad look as if they are going to find it harder than ever to achieve the 4th place qualification for the Champions League next season.

Moreover, if merely maintaining the status quo is the be all and end all of modern football and as fans we are denied the ability to dream of silverware glory, there really will be no incentive for me to get up off my arse on a Saturday.

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Sunday 18 November 2012

Derby Day Triumph A Fitting Celebration Of Treacle's Life

Writing below about how much I adore Koscielny's commitment, I simply couldn't post this missive without mentioning how impressive it was to see Santi staggering back to his feet, in the build-up to the third goal. Despite the man advantage, this was just the sort of drive & determination that's been so sorely lacking in recent performances and much like last season, I hope it can be the catalyst for us to kick on and make Harry Redknapp eat his MOTD words. Not to mention the boy Theo didn't do too bad. Sign da ting mate!

Come on you Reds
Big Love

We were left inconsolable on Friday, following the devastatingly impossible decision to have Treacle, our faithful dog, put out of her increasingly decrepit misery by the vet. Loyal to the very last, at least Treacle left me feeling far less apprehensive than the vast majority of Gooners, as I wandered around to the ground on Saturday morning.

Compared to the emotional trauma of the passing of our beloved pet, the biannual trifle of the North London derby seemed relatively insignificant. And boy was I grateful for this poignant perspective for the first 17 mins of Saturday’s encounter. Spurs’ bold, four-pronged assault had the Gunners defence at sixes & sevens, until “Fergie’s bum boy” influenced proceedings, by sending Greedybayor for his early bath.

I despise these early KOs. A 12.45 start inevitably detracts from the grandeur of these huge derby games, by making a rushed mockery of the traditional pre-match rituals, thereby depriving us of an outbreak of hostilities, amidst the sort of well-oiled atmosphere that such occasions merit. More importantly, despite Arsène’s appliance of so much science, le Gaffer has yet to master the Gunners’ biorhythms, to get us galloping out of the traps at such an ungodly footballing hour, with sufficient focus and intensity.

It also appeared to be a particularly shrewd move on Spurs part to turn the teams around after winning the coin-toss. It was strange to see us playing towards the North Bank first-half and this could’ve had an even bigger impact after the break. We’re accustomed to benefiting from the inspiration of the more raucous end of the stadium, to be able to lay siege to the opposition’s goal late in the game. But AVB’s attention to detail could’ve been partially responsible for the control of the Arsenal choke, contributing to our engine’s spluttering cold start?

Although no matter what time of day this game had commenced, nor in which direction, we would’ve had the same concerns about the obvious frailty of the Arsenal’s left-flank, without a bona fide wing-back. Our skipper is patently out of his comfort zone playing on the left. With his defensive mindset, or perhaps his awareness of how suspect he is to coming unstuck with his lack of pace, Vermaelen appears instinctively reluctant to overlap down the flank.

Marauding wing-backs are crucial in the modern game, both as an attacking threat and to avoid inviting pressure on your own goal, by giving the opposition enough to worry about, to ensure that they are forced to stop at home. But just how significant a disadvantage it is, to have one’s club captain cast in the role of apprehensive full-back, was brought home to me on Saturday, when I actually found myself contemplating whether perhaps Santos would’ve been a better option.

Still at least with Vermaelen on the left, this allows for the inclusion of Koscielny. No matter one’s preference concerning the least hapless of the Arsenal’s centre-back pairings, we simply can’t afford to leave Laurent’s inspirational commitment languishing on the bench. Kos’ wholehearted attitude warms the cockles of my Gooner heart, as such an obvious antidote to the age-old flaw in the Wenger masterplan that’s been the much-maligned absence of the Arsenal’s “stand & deliver” attributes. The shy Frenchman might not be obvious captain material, but somehow we invariably feel like a more steadfast, far less fragile outfit, for Laurent’s lead by example willingness to put everything on the line.

I’ve got to be grateful to Howard Webb, for the spark that finally lit the Gooner touchpaper, with the dismissal of the vilified pantomime villain. It’s part of our remit on the terraces, to try and browbeat the ref into ruling in our favour. So naturally, I was amongst the thousands of Gooners bellowing “off”, baying for our old friend’s blood. Yet while the slow-motion replays off Adebayor’s dangerously high assault on Cazorla seemed to vindicate the necessity for a red card, mercifully there was no lasting damage.

Obviously I’m not about to look this game-changing, 3-point gift horse in the mouth. But if I’m entirely honest, I would much prefer if refs were able to exercise some discretion, instead of ruling to the letter of these red card laws. Surely there’s something wrong when the tail wags the dog and the officials are obliged to make decisions, without taking the circumstances into account, or their potential for ruining the spectacle for all the watching millions.

As it turned out, in this instance we benefited from the supremely entertaining results of Webb’s salvation, in a game that le Gaffer simply couldn’t afford to lose. Yet while I appreciate the desire to stamp out dangerous tackles, this encounter needn’t have turned on a single moment of madness that was entirely lacking in malice. I’m no less delighted by the outcome and hopefully the much-needed confidence boost shared between all five goalscorers.

I guess we’ll have to wait for the return at White Hart Lane, to see how the Gunners fare in a more even, 11 v 11 contest. Albeit that in swings & roundabouts fashion, doubtless it will be our turn to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, which appear to be the increasingly frequent upshot of this epidemic of automaton officiating.

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Sunday 11 November 2012

Berbatov's Cottaging Maxes Out Arsène's Credit?

Surrendering a single two-goal lead might be deemed careless but squandering a two-goal advantage twice in the same week is downright unpardonable, It is perhaps worryingly indicative of a disturbing malaise in the Arsenal camp, which is beginning to test the patience of even the most devout of Arsène Wenger’s Gooner disciples. 
Competing for trophies is the icing on the cake for any supporter and most Arsenal fans are rapidly having to come to terms with the fact that possibly THE most average looking squad during le Prof’s tenure, is now considered little more than an irritating flea with delusions of grandeur, desperately clinging to the coats of those clubs with genuine ambitions of challenging for the big baubles.
Yet if Gooners are whinging now about Wenger’s perception concerning the ‘also-ran’ prize of consistent Champions League qualification, this will be a mere murmur of misgivings, compared to the clamour of revolt that will result, if mid-table mediocrity should condemn us to conceding our precious seat at Europe’s top table, to any one of the half-dozen clubs that are currently performing like more viable Champions League contenders than the Gunners.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to win trophies as much as the next Gooner. Sadly the reality is that any such silverware fantasies are growing ever more fanciful. Nevertheless, all I really demand in return for the ever more extortionate expense of watching the Arsenal each week, is the pleasure of watching eleven players put in a sufficiently committed shift, to prove they’re not merely going through the motions; so I might naively continue to kid myself that they’re playing for the red & white shirt and not just for the reward of their obscene pay packets.
What is most disappointing, is that I would’ve happily accepted another season of under-achievement, if it was accompanied by the compensation of the sort of unity of purpose and the burgeoning team-spirit that we sensed from this squad in our opening few fixtures. But unfortunately, in the past few weeks the Arsenal’s pets seem to have acquired the same attributes of our owners, becoming far too complacent about our place in the Premiership pecking order.
In our current uninspiring guise, the Gunners are unlikely to intimidate the top teams, even on a bad day at the office for the Premiership’s real movers & shakers. Even more disconcerting, against the lesser lights of Norwich, QPR & Fulham, we’ve performed with the misguided belief that the points will be awarded on reputation alone.
Santi Cazorla might have a legitimate case if he chose to sue the Arsenal over the Trades Description Act. I very much doubt Santi was sold a package, where the diminutive Spaniard was made aware that he’d be shouldering the club’s entire creative burden. Against Fulham, Cazorla’s frustration with some of the failings of his team mates was patently evident in his body language.
Vermaelen’s inadequacies at full-back leave our defence looking no more secure than when Santos is on the pitch. But the Belgian is our captain and when the skipper ambles back towards his own goal with his arm up, praying in vain for an offside flag, instead of breaking his neck to catch up with play, this is hardly an example of the sort of commitment that’s likely to raise the game of those around him.
However I shouldn’t really be picking on individuals. To his credit, Giroud was a whisker away from crafting a goal of the season effort on Saturday and yet when ref, Phil Dowd gifted him with a last-gasp opportunity to grab his hat-trick, why didn’t the French striker stake his claim on the spot-kick? Perhaps Arteta was desperate to atone for his earlier gaff and when such a commendable workaholic like Miguel gets caught in possession in his own penalty area, it kind of sums up the lack of focus and concentration that’s afflicting the Arsenal across the board.
Don’t get me, or any other Gooner started on the blindingly obvious brittleness of our zonal defence. Exactly how many set-piece goals do we have to concede, before finally admitting that this system is the most brass-naked emperor anyone has ever seen?
I was truly envious of the atmosphere conjured up by Celtic’s commitment against Barca in midweek and where Villa were looking like early season relegation fodder, Lambert appears to have rejuvenated his side, with an influx of hungry youngsters. So why is Wenger still resorting to throwing the wantaway Arshavin into the fray, when we have players with still plenty to prove waiting in the wings, such as Gnabry and Eisfeld. I’ll take the enthusiasm of youth any day, over Shava’s indifference.
Modern football has become so capricious that suddenly Saturday’s North-London derby is looking like a watershed. Beat Spurs and Arsène will be straight back in the black. Lose against the auld enemy and our manager will have exceeded his overdraft limit and the mounting criticism is likely to result in more than just a few polite letters! 
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Sunday 4 November 2012

We Want Our Arsenal, Our Jack & Our Mojo Back

Standing in the corner of Old Trafford in advance of Saturday’s game, with all the Gooners around me eagerly awaiting their opportunity to lambast our latest Judas with a chant of “you’re just a Dutch Jimmy Saville”, I turned to my neighbour to suggest that I would gladly accept a draw. He replied that he’d be happy just to avoid a repeat of last season’s humiliation. Yet despite suffering a mere 2-1 defeat, in some respects I felt far more depressed travelling back to London on the train, than I did following the embarrassment of the 8-2 fiasco.

You could write last season’s carnage off, as one of those footballing anomalies (much like the magical madness that we enjoyed at Reading in midweek). Besides which, the transfer window was still open and Wenger was still able to react to the catastrophe, with his last minute “Supermarket Sweep”.

By contrast Saturday’s insufferably insipid performance felt far more like a heart-breaking affirmation of the Arsenal’s more humble positioning in the Premiership pecking order. I might have vented my wrath at ref Mike Dean at the time, along with everyone else around me, but I’ve no complaints about the combination of fatigue and frustration that resulted in the rash challenges responsible for Wilshere’s red card. In fact it was a small crumb of comfort that there was at least one player on the pitch willing to rage against the dying of the glorious Gunners’ light.

Sadly, the highpoint of Saturday’s game proved to be Wayne Rooney’s penalty miss just before half-time. As Dean awarded the spot-kick, we all assumed the game was up and that the best we could hope for would be a resumption after the break at 2-0 down, in which the Arsenal attempted to salvage some pride. But after the “fat granny shagger” screwed his effort wide of the post, there was suddenly a glimmer of hope that the Gunners would come back out for the second half and take advantage of the gift of Rooney’s glaring miss, as the inspiration for the sort of shift in momentum that might result in us taking the upper hand.

After all, this is what we’re accustomed to in contests with Man Utd. Despite having endured an all too persistent succession of defeats at the Theatre of Dreams in the recent past, there was always some solace, in the sort of shifts of momentum that would occur between two fairly evenly matched sides, where we would at least be able to enjoy a period of the encounter in which we applied some concerted pressure and made the opposition graft sufficiently in front of their goal, to at least feel that they’ve earned the right to triumph over us.

However, despite the fact that the porous form of the Utd team that we faced on Saturday hardly places them amongst the most formidable of Fergie’s teams, in all the Arsenal’s plodding and far too predictable sideways and backwards possession on Saturday, the Gunners demonstrated negligible evidence of our belief in our ability to turn up the heat and take the contest to our hosts.

But then, in truth the only surprising factor about such an impotent performance is that, as a masochistic sucker for punishment, I actually travelled up to the North-West in the misguided belief that anything was possible. I was sorely tempted to stop indoors, instead of getting up at the crack of dawn and wasting 75 quid on a train ticket to more misery against Man Utd. Especially when I could endure the same anguish in the warm, with my feet up on the sofa in front of the telly. 

Yet after the ignominy of last season’s outing, I didn’t dare go AWOL on this one, for fear of being punished by the footballing gods and missing out on the rare pleasure of the Arsenal upsetting the odds at Old Trafford and being condemned to umpteen more depressing outings to the Theatre of Dreams, waiting for the law of averages to prevail once again.

However we travelled up there fretting about the likelihood of Santos being a liability. All the previews in the papers pondered on how best Fergie might take advantage of the liability that is our left-back. And surprise, surprise the Brazilian “defender” more than lived up to his predicted shortcomings.  Moreover watching the Arsenal old and new performing on the same turf, only highlighted quite how laughable it is that anyone should expect our new French striker to be able to hold a match, never mind a candle, to the feats of our former prolific front man.

Seeing Van Persie caress the ball and glide easily across the Old Trafford turf without breaking sweat, compared to the cumbersome and ungainly exertions of Olivier Giroud, is like comparing the respective merits of a predatory cheetah and a vegetarian mountain gorilla!

I despise these midday kick-offs, as the Gunners customarily fail to start these matches with anything like the necessary intensity. Yet the significance of our results against Man Utd would’ve always provided sufficient motivation in the past to spark the fire in the Arsenal bellies before too long. Yet I fear that our chief-executive’s “sustainable” mantra has become all-pervasive, to the point where our players are going about their business on the pitch, as if their only ambition is to get to the end of 90 minutes and collect their astronomic wages.

Fortunately the impact of Saturday’s defeat upon Arsène’s imaginary 4th place trophy was mitigated by results elsewhere. But unless the Gunners rediscover a more spirited mojo before our midweek trip to Schalke, our Champions League campaign could end up being no less distressing.

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Sunday 28 October 2012

Lucrum Super Omnia

After the peasants revolted at the AGM in midweek, following two of the limpest possible defeats, in which we barely mustered a shot on goal, it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves pacified on Saturday, by the slice of cake that was the long-awaited comeback of Wilshere & Sagna.

Under normal circumstances, Wilshere’s reintroduction to first team football would’ve probably occurred away from the pressure-cooker intensity of the Premiership, in Tuesday’s League Cup encounter, surrounded by the smattering of youngsters that are likely to turn out at Reading. But I suppose Wenger badly needed to find a means of drawing a line under our lackluster recent form and to raise the mood in the camp, both on and off the pitch. In this respect, Jack’s return was just what the doctor ordered.

It might not have resulted in a spectacular display against QPR and for a long time on Saturday, with the visitors’ Brazilian keeper intent on thwarting us with his acrobatics, it felt like it might just be ‘one of those days’. Nevertheless, rarely has there been an encounter where the three points were so much more significant than the performance, as evidenced by the exultant wave of relief that greeted Arteta’s goal.

Appearing down the flanks for the final third of the game, Gervinho and Walcott stretched QPR’s ability to defend the edge of their penalty area in quite such a compact fashion. But ultimately the bottom of the table side beat themselves, with Mbia foolishly inviting the card, to match the colour of his moment of pitch rage.

If Rangers shot themselves in the foot, by substantially improving our prospects of grabbing a late winner, the Gunners were little better, with the somewhat feeble resistance that we subsequently offered to ten-man QPR, and our guests creditable, last-gasp refusal to lie-down. However, having held our breath every time Wilshere hit the deck, all that really mattered was that Jack survived 67 minutes unscathed and that we banked the victory that will temporarily blunt the knives of all the doom merchants in the media. Any other outcome and next Saturday’s trip up the motorway to Man Utd might’ve begun to feel like a funeral procession.

Carl Jenkinson must be feeling hard done by, as he’s certainly not let us down so far this season. Still as much as I adore the fact that the Corporal bleeds red & white, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling reassured by Mr Reliable’s reinstatement at right-back, with Bakari seemingly straight back into the groove, in time for the trip to Old Trafford.

I only wish I could say the same about our left flank and I will be equally relieved by the return of Kieran Gibbs. We all love Andre Santos, but while the Brazilian full-back might be high on entertainment value, unfortunately his unique approach to defending also has the same impact on one’s blood pressure. Mark Hughes obviously targeted Santos’ idiosyncrasies and I will amazed if Fergie doesn’t instruct Utd to do likewise.

It was ironic to hear Cazorla announced as our choice of player of the month before Saturday’s game because after his massive impact early on, Santi seems to have gone right off the boil. Perhaps our opponents have fast cottoned on to the fact that as our principal creative force, if you can cramp Cazorla’s style, you nullify the Arsenal. With Wilshere doubling the creative geniuses in our ranks, hopefully Santi will begin to find more space now that the opposition have more to worry about.

Meanwhile at least our defeat to Schalke means that qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League is no longer a given and my principal “raison d’etre” for travelling to Germany and Greece won’t only be to stock up on cartons of Camel cigarettes. More importantly, achieving the all-important 10-point threshold in the group stages in the past has provided Wenger with the opportunity to rest players in meaningless matches, but where the resulting dip in performance has drained the momentum from our Premiership campaign.

After our abysmal display against Norwich, I don’t think many of us expected to beat Schalke but it was disconcerting that as an attacking force, we struck about as much fear into the Germans as the Maginot Line. Gervinho’s frustrating efforts are fast making him the target of the terrace boo-boys. On Saturday my neighbour posed a pertinent question, comparing the more composed talents of Hoylett to our Ivorian headless chicken.

I’m no less eager than everyone else, for the Gunners to demonstrate some real ambition by spending the £70 million transfer kitty on a couple of marquee signings and thereby proving that our club isn’t merely a “going concern”. Yet on returning home in midweek and watching the laughable results of the £40 odd million Zenit invested in Hulk, this was a sobering reminder that the poker game of net spend is no guarantee of success. Still, in the year-on year diminishment of our squad strength, we’ve endured more than our share of our risk-averse manager’s point blank refusal to play this particular game.

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