Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Meet the new Gunners...Same as the old Gunners?

Never mind the new Gunners finally finding the target, if you want the real scoop about the culmination of the Arsenal's mercifully brief goal drought, it was all down to yours truly and the fact that I failed to make it to Anfield (for the first time in umpteen seasons - as it's usually one of my favourite awaydays).

There were extenuating circumstances. It was bad enough getting our car nicked about a fortnight back, but then when Treacle, our sadly, rapidly ageing dog appeared so close to death's door that I dreaded taking her to the vet, in case it proved to be a one way trip, if bad things really do come in threes, I was wondering what on earth the dreadfully fickle finger of fate had in store for us next!

If it had been down to me, I'm not sure I would've had the heart to take the dog to the vet because I would rather see her shuffle off this mortal coil with some decorum, than to suffer the indignity of being poked and prodded, mainly for our own benefit, because we're far too sentimental to want to let her pass peacefully. I'm sure any dog owner who's had to hold their pet's head firm, as their doleful stare suddenly turns into an utterly indignant look of "what did I ever do to you" horror, at having a thermometer rudely shoved up their jacksey, will empathise with my reluctance to want to put the poor thing through a trip to doggy A & E.

Nevertheless, thankfully Ro managed to persuade me otherwise and (for the time being at least) Treacle seems to be enjoying an astonishing reprieve. However with the dog's meds making her do a decent impersonation of "Mannekin Pis" I'm not sure it would've been right to disappear off to Merseyside, for a long day out, leaving Ro to cope with the dog constantly sitting at the door with her legs crossed. 

Moreover, after having what remained of my overdraft swallowed up by vet's bill and following this  miserable tale of woe, when the sound of the alarm eventually pierced my consciousness in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with no-one else to travel to Anfield with, the idea of spending 75 quid on a train ticket, to schlep all that way on my tod, to watch the goal-shy Gunners that I'd witnessed in our first two outings, well if I'm entirely honest, I rolled over and promptly returned to the land of nod, thinking surely fate cannot possibly take me for being quite such a sucker for punishment.

Although if I'm honest, I currently no longer have the same incentive to follow the Gunners over land and sea, quite so religiously as I have done for as long as I can remember (which, sadly, is not very long nowadays!) and after eleven seasons of my regular weekly ravings, you will have to forgive me if my diary entries become somewhat more erratic in future. If I've some regular readers who are likely to be disappointed, rather than relieved by this turn of events, then might I suggest that you register such feelings with the Sports Editor of the Irish Examiner (sport@examiner.ie) because they've finally decided to can the Terrace Talk feature in their Wednesday sports supplement.

Apparently there's still a possibility of a renaissance for my regular contributions in a revamped version of the Examiner's Champions League Monday sports supplement and with this in mind, obviously I'd be most indebted to anyone who takes the trouble to drop them a line to express how much they miss my load of overly-loquacious waffle in the newspaper each week.

Although I must admit, that without having this excuse (or the financial incentive) to encourage me to attend every single match, it will be interesting to see whether my devotion to the Gunners begins to wane. Then again, considering the exorbitant cost of away matches nowadays, financial necessity might dictate that I have to become more selective. Ever since the move to the new stadium, away matches have become that much more of a necessity, in order to get my regular fix of atmosphere. What's more, I've always been of the opinion that one can't be selective in such matters because one has to endure the somewhat repugnant outings to the Potteries, by way of paying ones dues for the pleasures that await at far more glamorous footballing temples.

As a result, from the moment I rolled over in bed on Sunday and slipped back into the welcoming arms of Morpheus, following the vague, hefty thwack of my hand, which silenced the piercing shrill of the alarm clock, I knew full well that I'd be sacrificing the opportunity to witness the Gunners first goals of the season; just as much as I knew that if I'd actually managed to clamber out of my pit, to make the long journey to the Merseyside, I'd be travelling all that way to endure another tedious goalless draw.

Consequently, as I'm always banging on about the different perception one has of events and performances from watching live on the box, as compared to being present in person, my opinions about Sunday's encounter are no more valid than any other armchair Gooner.

The Gunners have won more matches at fortress Anfield than any other team (24) and I've had the privilege of witnessing the vast majority of these over the past couple of decades. However, I am still trying to decide if Sunday's comprehensive demolition was more down to a discernible improvement in our own performance, than Liverpool's decidedly lacklustre display. In truth I suspect that it was due to a little of both because although the Gunners appeared to be the thoroughly dominate force on the day, when I think back to previous outings to Anfield, even at 2-0 up we'd have been positively bricking ourselves second-half, every time the home side had possession, as a wall of sound from the Kop at the opposite end of the pitch, attempted to suck the ball into the back of the net.

However, perhaps as a result of the Scousers disillusionment with the overall negative impact on their squad, following the disappointment of Brendan Rodgers' transfer deadline day business and their failure to fill the whole on the bench, previously occupied by that carthorse, Andy Carroll, even watching on the box, one got the sense that there was very little appetite, or expectation of the customary gung-ho, balls out assault on our goal to try and turn this game around. And with nothing by way of firepower on the bench, other than Stuart Downing to bring on and try and break the Gunners stalwart resistance, both fans and players alike seemed to passively roll-over and accept defeat, in a manner which was most unfamiliar for any Liverpool side on home soil.

There was more than a little irony in seeing off the decidedly anonymous challenge of Nuri Sahin, as the Turkish debutante was subbed a little after the hour mark, with the sound of "you should've signed for a big club" ringing in his ears. To be honest, seeing how ineffective the ex-Real Madrid man was, in some sort of holding role in midfield, it's no wonder Mourinho wanted to offload him. Moreover, if reports of Jack Wilshere's expected return to fitness in a month's time are actually true for once, with Wilshere's undoubted talents to bolster our current midfield triumvirate of Cazorla, Diaby and Arteta, it seems to me that with his limited Premiership experience, Sahin's supposed talents would've proved entirely superfluous.

After last summer's "supermarket dash", if I'm disappointed with Arsène's return to his more habitual custom of shying away from the merry-go-round of deadline day madness completely, it's more because of our failure to add some experienced muscle in midfield. After all, it's not like our squad is exactly short of another dainty ballet dancer.

Obviously while almost every other Premiership outfit was busy fortifying their squads on Friday for the forthcoming marathon, with a little last minute shopping, Ivan Gazides was off in the province of Wan King, pleasuring himself over the overflowing pile of filthy lucre currently stuffed into the Arsenal's coffers; whilst having sent his not-so-trusty compadre, Dick "by name & nature" Law, elsewhere in China, with the strict instructions to secure the signature of the prolific Chinese striker, Fu Kin No Wun!

Nevertheless, it's amazing how any such infuriation over the Gunner's apparent disdain for doing deadline day business, instantly evaporated following Sunday's success. Obviously we'll all be up in arms again Saturday week, should we fail to put Southampton to the sword, but such is the fickleness of football fans nowadays, with poor old Arsène having to endure the radical swings, from pariah to prophet, with each subsequent result.

The truth of the matter is that like Spurs, we could've spunked up £60 million on new players and still produced a performance on Sunday against a more resilient Liverpool side that left us looking no less impotent than the Lilywhites. Instead of which, suddenly Santi Cazorla is the second coming of Christ, Lukas Podolski is a pair of outdoor pants away from the reincarnation of Superman and Abou Diaby is testament to the Return of the Living Dead!

Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking an impressive display on Sunday, which gives us good cause to be optimistic. But instead of pandering to all these tabloid hacks, who would have us believe the Gunners are on the brink of disaster one minute and the cusp of a golden new dawn the next, I fancy some equanimity is required. We badly need to avoid getting on the back of the likes of Giroud, scapegoating him for firing blanks, to the point where his fragile confidence is shattered and he turns into another Chamakh right before our eyes and we also need to ensure that on the back of one decent result, our expectations don't suddenly become inflated, to such an extent that it's only a matter of time before this as yet, unsubstantiated bubble is burst into smithereens, by an unexpected defeat.

From my point of view, as a Gooner who never mind a broken record, I'm beginning to sound like a broken gramophone, after having bemoaned our slipshod defence for so many seasons, the most positive aspect thus far has been the fact that our own goal has yet to be breached. As far as I'm concerned, with the apparent dearth of decent choral material on the Arsenal terraces these days, it's absolutely great to have Bouldie back on the first team bench, if only to hear a reprise of "he's got no hair and we don't care" ringing around grounds once again. We can only presume as to the amount of actual , influence Bould is permitted upon the training ground. Yet the likelihood that he's not just there to put the cones out, has been confirmed thus far in all three performances, as I'm certain it can be no coincidence that the Gunners are suddenly looking so much more composed at the back.

I am still no fan of zonal defending at set pieces, as I've yet to find anyone who can make a convincing argument in regards to the obvious disadvantages of this system, over the advantages of man-marking. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly put into words (although naturally I will give it a go!) how refreshing it is to suddenly find myself watching an Arsenal side, where I am not struggling to maintain control of my bowels, every time the opposition attack with the ball. Long may this continue, because if Steve Bould is truly allowed to impart the sort of regimented discipline that he learned under the auspices of Don Howe, I don't doubt that our defence will continue to look more composed and organised with each passing week.

Quite frankly we've been fortunate in our first three games, as I'm unsure if either Sunderland or Stoke would've proved quite so impotent in attack, if we'd faced them after having strengthened their squads on transfer deadline day. What's more, you can't imagine Suarez and co. will continue to fire blanks in Brendan Rodgers' new-look Liverpool (although I doubt my positively suicidal Scouse pals are feeling quite so hopeful!). 

However, while it might be impossible for us to continue keeping clean-sheets in every game, due to the fact that almost every Premiership outfit nowadays is blessed with at least one striker capable of picking the lock of even the most formidable of defences, if the Gunners can continue to maintain the same focus and concentration (i.e. the likes of TV5 can bring his A-game every week?), I fancy that the one thing we won't miss in the future, is that far too oft-repeated agony of seeing the Gunners concede sloppy goals, game in, game out?

On the basis that virtually every other manager will attest to the fact that good teams have to be built from the back forward, on the solid foundations of a stalwart backline, perhaps we have at long last chanced upon the missing ingredient that has deprived us of silverware these past six seasons?

And there's me suggesting others shouldn't go OTT but it's not just at the back where we've witnessed evidence of Bouldie's influence. For far too long now, I've turned up every week, home and away and wondered why it was that I've sat there chewing my fingernails to the quick every time the opposition are awarded a corner, but knowing there's absolutely no point in me getting the least bit excited about any dead-ball situations down the other end of the pitch. 

It's patently obvious that Mertesacher's near-post runs at corners are straight from the fab back five's playbook and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the opposition gets wise to this age-old tactic before too long. But even if they use their two biggest defenders to block the big German off, it's a percentage game and he's bound to get the odd flick-on, while drawing markers away from the likes of Giroud, Podolski and Vermaelen. But best of all, at long last, we are finally witnessing evidence of them bringing the work they've done on the training ground onto the pitch, where in the past we've sat their and had to suffer RvP aimlessly whipping a ball in from a corner, knowing that it carries no threat ninety-nine times out of a hundred!

AFAIC the jury is still out on Podolski and Giroud and both are still some way from proving that they are blessed with the natural gifts necessary to score the goals we are going to need week in, week out. But I adore Podolski's willingness to track back and graft in defence and there's little doubt that he's powerful enough to have an impact going forward. I'll reserve judgement, until I see Lukas doing the business against the likes of City, Utd or Chelsea, thereby proving to me that he has the sort of winning mentality that belies his decision to return to Cologne from Bayern.

Perhaps Olivier Giroud is a little too much in love with himself, but then what striker isn't? With Giroud having been so used to scoring goals for Montpelier, it's no surprise that he's not shot shy and willing to take on a pop at goal wherever possible. I only hope he finds the back of the net with one of these efforts soon, as otherwise it's inevitable that his confidence will be eroded, to the point where he begins looking to pass on this responsibility to others (and we've already more than enough of that up front!).

As for Diaby, who needs new signings if Abou can remain fit enough for an extended run in the team. Those of us who go every week have seen all too brief glimpses of what Diaby is capable of (up to now, usually about once a season!) but surely, if only according to the law of averages Abou is long overdue a season without serious injury and I positively salivate at this prospect because if AW can crank up the languid Frenchman's conviction, he's capable of having the sort of influence on games of a  younger, hungrier Ya Ya Toure.

It would've been the perfect Sunday, if only the whistle had blown at St Mary's five minute earlier, with RvP in the doghouse, awaiting the hairdryer treatment from Fergie for his failed impersonation of Andrea Pirlo from the penalty spot. However even with Judas saving the day with his hat-trick for the Mancs, I honestly can't envisage the Dutch mercenary being sufficiently motivated by the moolah, to want to save Utd's bacon every week. And in the absence of Wayne Rooney, the irony hasn't escaped me of RvP finding himself playing in a Utd side, where both fans and teammates alike are all looking to him to pull something out of the bag. Same burden, just more bunce....very funny.

Keep the faith
Bernard
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