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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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