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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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Monday 22 October 2012

Red Sky At Night....Could We Really Have Been So Shite

            Fortunately I managed to negotiate my way through Tottenham as I headed out to the M11 and East Anglia, before getting caught up in the traffic leaving White Hart Lane after Saturday’s early kick-off. Little did I realize that this (and the fact that Spurs lost) was to be the only result of the day!

If I’m honest, I was tempted to stop at home, put my feet up and watch both live matches on the box, rather than endure a five-hour round trip drive to Norwich on my tod. But after being starved of proper footie for a fortnight, there was no way I was going AWOL from Carrow Road. I even considered the possibility of travelling up there on the train, but frankly, as much as I adore Ian Dury, the prospect of bumping into Billericay Dicky on a replacement bus service on this route wasn’t sufficient an attraction.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the International game, I found myself tuning into the Faroe Isles v Ireland on my laptop in midweek, following the washout in Warsaw and then dashing back from work the following afternoon, in time to watch the rearranged England game. But for a lover of the unpredictable cut & thrust of Premiership footie, a bland diet of World Cup qualifiers is about as satisfying as methadone is to a heroin addict and sadly no less soporific.

Thus by the time Saturday came, I was “jonesing” for my fix of the real McCoy and after the tease of listening on the radio to an enthralling second half between Spurs and Chelsea and the disappointing climax at West Brom, as 10-man City nicked all three points at the death, it was devastatingly depressing to watch the Gunners fail so miserably to deliver the goods.

Doubtless related to their rural setting, amongst the agricultural flatlands of East Anglia, compared to the tension of all those uptight urban grounds, Carrow Road has got to rank as one of the friendliest, least intimidating awaydays on the fixture list. As a result it was hard to begrudge the yokels their hard-earned victory over the Arsenal’s lackadaisical city slickers.

Right from the opening minutes of this match it was obvious that the home side were the hungrier of the two outfits, whereas by contrast we were lamentably complacent and leaden-footed. Mannone might be culpable for the Canaries goal, but when a player as cumbersome as Grant Holt is first into the six-yard box to stab home the rebound, that just about sums it up for me.

In truth I’ve not heard Wenger bleating (on this occasion) about his squad being pooped after their inter-continental obligations, but the measure of a team is their ability to grind out a result when not at their best and sadly on Saturday the Gunners never even came close to nicking a goal, never mind the points.

Instead of re-energizing his squad after an International break, I often get the impression that Arsène is guilty of setting the wrong tone, by pandering to their lethargy and sending his team out, subconsciously aware of the fact that they already have an excuse for being below par. So it’s no real shock when we perennially live up to this lack of expectation.

Such was our frustration on the terraces, that after Gervinho sliced a rare effort wide, many around me turned to applaud in acquiescance, as the home fans responded, with the now customary “Robin Van Persie, he would’ve scored that”! Seeing Jack Wilshere in the pre-match warm-up, positively bristling to be back involved, it was agonizing watching us dawdle in possession, without a single player in red & white willing to take responsibility to carve out an opening; our anguish only compounded by the knowledge that for all the enthusiasm and commitment of Chris Houghton’s journeymen outfit, the Canaries will struggle to contain any of our competitors.

Sadly the Ox’s effort to inject a little gusto proved all too short-lived, as Alex came off the worst from his first effort to make an impact, after colliding with Bassong. Sent on in his stead, to my mind, the wantaway Arshavin was never going to be hell-bent on nicking a point, when the diminutive Ruski is likely to have departed long before we get to prize-giving time in May. Reluctant to risk Wishere, Arsène’s final throw of the die was a debut for Serge Gnabry, where the teenage German at least seemed to demonstrate the sort of zeal and desire that had been so sorely lacking from his team mates, with in an 8-minute cameo of the sort of impressive endeavours we’ve witnessed in Gnabry’s U21 outings.

Yet the Gunners didn’t do nearly enough to rain on the Canaries’ parade and I despair at our failure to have long since learned quite how unforgiving the Premiership is of such a bad day at the office. We’ll get battered by the Bundesliga outfit should we produce a similarly lackluster display on Wednesday, so never mind the racism, here’s hoping Arsène has kicked our complacency into touch before then.
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Sunday 7 October 2012

Deutschland Uber Alles

The Boleyn might have lost much of it’s former claustrophobic fervor, since the main West Stand was rebuilt and the pitch moved. In contrast to the relative comforts of the Emirates, the decidedly decrepit lower tier of the Trevor Brooking stand is positively Dickensian by comparison. Nevertheless, I’m delighted by the Iron’s return to the Premiership fold. Aside from the fact that it’s such a short hop from N5 to E13, to West Ham’s dowdy current domain, standing behind the goal (or perching on the cramped plastic seats) at Upton Park is a rare awayday outing in the Premiership, where one can continue to enjoy that timewarp experience, as sadly, one of the few remaining stands where one can still savour the vivid “in yer face” intensity of top flight footie.

The reach out and touch ferocity, as the less than equal forces of Vito Mannone and Andy Carroll attract towards a cross and a bone-jarring clattering, which leaves thousands of us flinching us one, as the overgrown Geordie knocks seven bells out of a valiant Vito.

And having driven past the glitz and shiny, but sterile glamour of the Olympic Park on route to the game, with the likely future home of the Hammers floodlight by the setting sun, on a glorious Autumnal evening, I was reminded to squeeze every last drop of pleasure out of the gloriously uncomfortable Upton Park experience, while one still can.

The inclusion of our “big effing German” didn’t prevent the Hammers pony-tailed striker soaring three-feet “uber alles” to almost every ball and in truth Per’s return didn’t make our defence appear particularly less porous. Perhaps it’s Mertesacker’s composure, because he definitely lends something to the team dynamic, which restored the sort of vivacious “joie de vivre” to the Gunners performance against West Ham that was so obviously lacking in the games against Chelsea and Olympiakos.

It was great for the confidence of our latest French fancy, to finally get off the mark on Saturday and I swear I saw his stature grow at least a couple up inches, as he soaked up our adoring “Giroud” rendition of Hey Jude. It was equally pleasing to see the other two goals shared out between Walcott and Cazorla. The gusto shown by Theo, coming on as sub for the last half hour was in complete contrast to the enervated cameos we’ve witnessed from Walcott thus far. Could it be that his conscience has been pricked by the lyrics of “Sign Da Ting”, a grime tune bemoaning his contract saga? Or like the rest of us, has Walcott begun to sense that this Gunners squad are beginning to generate their own good vibes?

            I only wish I had a pound for every time I’ve heard myself and countless other Gooners ponder the potential of Wenger’s team, if only the firepower of Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud had been added to a squad that had retained Van Persie’s goal-scoring contribution. However, while I hardly imagine that the Dutch Judas expected to be jumping ship, only to be lumbered with the exact same burden of game-saving responsibilities at Old Trafford (albeit for more lucrative reward), it is Van Persie’s departure that actually appears to have been the catalyst for the Gunners rediscovering a much appreciated “team” ethic.

I’m not such a liar as to deny that it doesn’t pain me, to watch RVP’s exquisite skills rescuing another three points for the Red Devils and not that it wouldn’t be agonising, if by some miracle Utd pip us to the title as a result of his goals. Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder if Wenger might’ve chanced upon an essential sacrificial lamb, necessary to spark the sort of camaraderie and sense of unity within the Arsenal camp that has encouraged a willingness to shoulder more responsibility across the board.

Obviously it helps to have the unstinting enthusiasm of a genuine Gooner like Carl Jenkinson inspiring those around him (along with Cazorla, the Corporal’s contribution has been the highlight of the first ten games). But whether it’s their willingness to put their bodies on the line in their efforts to thwart the opposition at one end, or the proliferation of those with increased appetites for banging goals in at the other, there’s a burgeoning hunger about this squad which can’t help but encourage the (naïve?) belief that they might just want it, as much as we do.

Thus far Man City appear a little too dependent on David Silva firing on all cylinders. But with Torres finally looking interested and with all the firepower available at the Bridge for their flatteringly imitative take on Wenger-ball, if their tikki-takka midfield continues to gel, we might struggle to cling to Chelsea’s coat-tails. However, suddenly a silverware-laden destination doesn’t seem nearly quite so significant, should the journey continue to offer such captivating rewards.

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