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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Who Ever Said Xmas Only Comes Once A Year?

Only just realised I neglected to post this on Sunday and thought I'd better get it up before tonights events make it completely irrelevant.

The constraints of the Examiner's requirements didn't allow me enough room to mention that I've been impressed with Wanyama, ever since seeing some of his impressive displays for Celtic last season (although I'm yet to be convinced that he produces it consistently enough for Southampton) and although he got the better of Aaron Ramsey on various occasions on Saturday, I absolutely loved the fact that Aaron was so willing to mix it with him and it's extremely encouraging to witness evidence of this more tigre-ish aspect to our midfield.

Although on the downside, there was also further signs against Southampton that, as willing a grafter as Mikel Arteta may be, he increasingly appears to be prone to the effects of fatigue in the latter stages of matches, where he ends up struggling to get goalside and inevitably incurring free-kicks as he's forced to stretch to tackle from behind.

Nuff of my waffle

Despite the distractions of the O’Neill & Keane win-double act, during the past fortnight of yet another comparatively tedious Interlull, it was a blessed relief to return to the real business of competitive domestic footie. In fact, after savouring the scintillating drama of the Scouse derby on the box, I was positively salivating as I headed out the door, at the prospect of enjoying more of the same, from two of the Premiership’s most entertaining outfits.

Sadly our hosting of Pochettino’s high-flying Saints didn’t quite live up to the hors d’ouevres. Aside from the odd sporadic burst of attacking flair, our match never quite caught fire in the manner I’d expected, considering the large number of in-form combatants involved.

Not that you’ll catch me complaining, after a clean sheet triumph that ensures we remain ensconced at the top of the table for another week. Moreover, Walcott might’ve only returned to the fray for a late 20-minute cameo, but even if Theo takes time to rediscover some form, after spending two months out injured, just the threat of having him available should prove a real fillip.

We’ve achieved and maintained our pitch on this lofty perch thus far, largely by means of a one-dimensional attack, almost totally devoid of any real pace in the absence of Theo, the Ox and Podolski. While most opposition defences have struggled to contain Plan A, despite their industrious efforts to condense the space available in the middle of the park, it should prove even harder, now they also have to worry about Walcott bursting onto the ball over the top and it will be a great relief to have this much missed, essential string restored to the Gunners bow.

However, I hope the eventual return of this triumvirate from the treatment room to the bench, doesn’t reduce the pressure on Le Prof to pull his finger (and the chequebook!) out in January. When you consider the array of striking options available to the likes of Pellegrini, it’s downright ridiculous that a club of our stature is reduced to a single viable centre-forward.

You could hear the sound of 57,000 Gooners collectively holding their breath, every time Olivier Giroud hit the deck on Saturday and our foppish French striker appears only too aware of our utter reliance on his continued fitness, playing to his adoring faithful when massaging life back into his muscles with every dead leg and each thwack in the back. But so long as Giroud maintains his consistent work and strike rates and remains on stage, rather than in the wings, the Arsenal’s own “Larry” Olivier can act out all he likes.

You certainly wouldn’t have banked on Giroud bearing down on Boruc with sufficient vitesse, to pressure the Southampton goalie into the sort of brainstorm that gifted us the opening goal in this game. In fact, if I’d been putting a bet on a Polish keeper being culpable for such a farcical cock-up, my money would’ve been on our own more immature goal minder.

Up until this point, with first Wilshere and then Ramsey hitting the woodwork (with a backheel that might’ve been a shoe-in for another goal of the month award if it had found the back of the net), it was beginning to feel as if it might be one of those days when fate failed to smile upon London N5.  Considering how badly we needed to bounce back, after the break, from our defeat at Old Trafford, Boruc’s benefaction was welcomed like manna from heaven and we spent the remainder of the afternoon sarcastically expressing our gratitude.

However it was somewhat disconcerting that the Gunners failed to press home this advantage. I spent much of the remaining 70 minutes on the edge of my seat, expecting the Saints to produce a sting in the tale, until the penalty area tug of our BFG’s shirt, eased our mounting anxiety, as the unflappable Giroud despatched the resulting spot-kick.

I was looking at a representation of the total miles travelled and the minutes played by each of the top flight’s myriad of International representatives and perhaps fatigue was responsible for the Gunners sitting on our slender single goal lead. But I wonder why they can’t conjure up the same intensity that would’ve been demanded of them if we had been a goal behind.

It took a couple of smart saves from Sczczny to maintain our lead on Saturday and while this might’ve been the sort of contest where the Gunners would’ve let the three points slip through our fingers in the past, I can’t help but worry that we’re going to need more of the sort of killer instinct necessary to put opponents properly to the sword, in order to prevent such mishaps in the future.

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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Sadly The Winds Of Change Prove To Be More Of "A Bout De Souffle"

Having been obliged to bash out the following diary missive for the Irish Examiner before an 8pm deadline on Sunday evening, I was left feeling I didn't really do proper justice to events at Old Trafford.

In fact, although I've an unattractively smug habit of being a little snooty about the legitimacy of those passing judgement on the Gunners from the comfort of their own armchair, compared to the more comprehensive impression afforded to those fortunate enough to be present and despite the unavoidable sense of deception about contributing to a "Terrace Talk" feature, without having actually been anywhere near the terraces (even if my sense of guilt is easily assuaged by the likes of "committed" Gooner, Piers Morgan, who deemed himself entitled to pass judgement on an entire season in the Gunners' glorious history, by means of having a book published, while seemingly admitting to watching the majority of matches on the box!), it actually proved quite fortunate that much like Rosicky and the BFG, I wasn't passed fit for Sunday's performance. I'm not at all sure how I would've managed to write and file my column for the paper before 8pm if I'd attended the game, without having been forced to plot up in Manchester for the night (albeit that this might have proved somewhat more amusing if we'd actually managed to win!).

It was Amy Lawrence's Guardian blog, Five Talking Points From Old Trafford, which reminded me that whilst debating the possible starting line-up prior to Sunday's encounter, I was whinging about the enforced absence of the likes of Theo and the Ox and the possibility that we might eventually come a cropper to the one-dimensional appearance of our attack, when with the exception of Kieran Gibbs, AW's team selection is almost totally deprived of a genuine turn of speed.

I'm sure I was far from alone, in throwing my hands up in the air and bellowing my disapproval, at the sight of Nicky Bendtner standing on the touchline, awaiting his introduction on Sunday. There was more than a little sarcasm to the text I sent to one of my Gooner pals present "relax mate, Bertie Big Bollox on a rescue mission!"

Knowing we might have no option but to make use of our Danish lummox at some point, before Arsene absolutely has no choice whatsoever, but to rectify our absence of options up front in the January transfer window, I was willing to afford Bendtner an opportunity to prove himself, as I would any player who's prepared to work their socks off for the Arsenal cause.

Yet as was evident to me and millions of others in our disappointing Cup exit against Chelsea, Bendtner simply isn't willing to "put himself about", even if only in the interest of putting himself in the shop window. His attitude and body language scream to me that Bendtner knows he's not really wanted and is only back in the squad by default. Frankly, it appears as if he can't even be bothered to feign the sort of effort which might win us over.

To my mind, there's rarely been a more spoilt player, with his swollen head, containing his over-sized ego, shoved so far up his own rectum that he simply can't fathom the possibility that he's "not all that" and one who's more deserving of the "you're not fit to wear the shirt" ditty. No matter how limited Arsène's choices, myself I would much prefer to see a hungry, inexperienced youngster given Bendtner's place in the squad, someone who's capable of demonstrating how much they appreciate the opportunity of wearing the red & white (or blue & yellow), than a player who patently lacks sufficient respect for both the club and its fans.

Moreover, rather than bringing on the lumbering Dane, it was the bustling pace of young Serge Gnabry that we were crying out for on Sunday. When you consider that Utd had lost three-quarters of their first-choice defence by then, even if Gnabry failed to influence proceedings, it was the mere threat of his blistering pace that was so urgently needed.

Thankfully, prior to Sunday and with the exclusion of Villa, all our opponents have succumbed to Plan A. Although I might have found our marvellous triumph in Germany in midweek somewhat more stressful and was nowhere near as sure we would prevail, I couldn't escape the sense that it was going to be our night and having nicked a goal, our defence seemed to exude this air of certainty that they simply weren't going to concede.

However, so long as the Gunners remain shorn of so much of our genuine pace, at some point in this campaign there was always likely to come a time when more doughty opposition defence was likely to succeed in throwing a wet blanket over our ability to thread the ball through the eye of the needle, or deny us the opportunity to nick a set-piece goal. And so it proved on Sunday, where hard as Gibbs and Sagna might've tried to forage forward and to lend our attacks some momentum in the second half, they were restricted by their knowledge of the limited speed in the legs of the likes of Arteta and the Flamster and the resulting need to pay that much more heed to their defensive duties out on the flanks.

Additionally, with Man Utd's more simple defensive souls aware that they were in no danger of being exposed to a turn of genuine attacking pace, by a simple ball over the top, thereby enabling them to focus on our single, habitual means of breaking the opposition down, they were able to condense the area in the middle of the park and deny the likes of Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey the time and space to be able to trouble our hosts.

However, while we might've made a decent fist of exerting some pressure in the second half, once Wilshere had been introduced and offered us some forward momentum, as far as I'm concerned, the truth of the matter is that we lost this match right at the start, perhaps even in the tunnel before kick-off because we failed to set about our old foe with the sort of vim and vigour that would've expressed our certainty that the Arsenal's new found might will out.

I adore the thought that the Gunners might have begun to recapture some of the confidence and stature that has in the past seen us line up in the tunnel prior to a game, with some of our more nervous opposition requiring a change of underpants at the terrifying prospect of the challenge before them.
Yet sadly there was little sense of this as we were led out on Sunday. Where Arteta's awesome display left Stevie Gerrard looking like a pensioner waiting for his bus pass the previous weekend, you only had to contrast the performances of the likes of Rooney and Vermaelen at Old Trafford, as evidence of which of the two teams went into this game more desperate for success.

Although I'm not about to criticise our club captain, as with so little game time to date and with him being suddenly thrown into such a significant fixture, TV5 was bound to be suffering from some butterflies and it was hardly a surprise that he was almost exclusively focused on his own game as a result, desperate not to be culpable in any glaring defensive errors. Nevertheless, while Rooney might not have been wearing the Man Utd armband, he lead by his committed example in covering every blade of grass and the Gunners could've done with a similar leader out on the park on Sunday, who might've ensured that we started this match how we meant to go on, with the same determination and desire witnessed from the not so fat granny shagger.

Still, are we can bet your life we're not, so long as this season continues to hold so much promise of the thrilling entertainment to come



Sadly The Winds Of Change Prove To Be More Of "A Bout De Souffle"

Excuses out of the way first. One of these days we might get to go to Old Trafford without some sort of squad decimating drama depriving us of essential players. The discovery of the enforced absence of our BFG and the resulting reorganization of our defence was a serious blow to our pre-match bluff & bluster. One sensed this might be a make or break game for our returning club captain and although Vermaelen didn’t exactly do much, to stamp his mark on the game as our team leader, he did at least acquit himself sufficiently well in his defensive responsibilities for us to feel somewhat encouraged about his ability to perform as adequate cover.

Yet in truth, after our creditably stalwart and professional performance in Dortmund midweek, it seemed as if we began Sunday’s match in the exact same “what we have, we hold” frame of mind. Keeping a clean sheet once in a week, against such formidable opposition was impressive, but twice in a week was a little bit too much to ask for, from an Arsenal side, where even at full strength, we’ve never exactly been cut-out for playing games on the backfoot.

Besides which, as the likes of West Brom and Southampton ably demonstrated earlier this season, the best means of unsettling Man Utd on home turf is to take the game to the hosts. Unfortunately, having started the game in “hold” mode, reluctant to commit to taking the opposition on, by the time we finally pulled our finger out and began to gather the momentum necessary to exert some real pressure in the second-half, it proved to be too little, too late.

Meanwhile perhaps this narrow 1-0 defeat was indicative of which of the two teams was more desperate to win this match. With the likes of Chelsea, City and Spurs all dropping points, psychologically Man Utd needed to seize on this opportunity somewhat more than the Gunners, as a defeat for the home side might’ve resulted in everyone writing them off already. Whereas with the Arsenal squad stricken by flu and returning from Germany, perhaps having swallowed a little too much of the media’s invincibility hype, the early battles in this encounter left me with the distinct sense that we lacked that same adrenaline level and struggled to match the intensity of our hosts.

Nevertheless, despite the Gunners having failed to take best advantage of the situation, we still go into an International break sitting pretty at the top of the pile and even if we’re left with only two points breathing space, hopefully this defeat won’t prove too damaging to our moral.

Yet having suffered so many humbling embarrassments at Old Trafford in the past few seasons, I calculated before this game that I’ve suffered over 30 hours of thoroughly depressing return trips from the North West, following defeats to Man Utd in recent times. Therefore, I was more than a little gutted, when I finally had to concede that I wasn’t in a sufficiently fit state myself for such an arduous outing, knowing that for the first time in years, we Gooners would be journeying to Old Trafford, fuelled for once by some genuine expectation.

So if there was some slight consolation for me on Sunday, it was that at least after enduring so much misery against Man Utd, I was at least saved from the agony of missing out on our first triumph up there for years and have avoided yet another miserable four hour journey back home. Moreover, I’m sure I’d feel a whole lot worse, if I’d been able to invest in yet another futile schlep up North, but somehow I’m not left feeling too downhearted. Victory denied seems more like victory delayed and not only do I still have a triumphant return trip from Old Trafford to look forward to, but it also feels as if the battle lines have only just been drawn in this season’s challenge and unlike seasons past, the Gunners remain right in the mix.

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Monday, 11 November 2013

Monday, 4 November 2013

Trick Or Treat

With my Mum's wonderful 80th birthday party yesterday and a speech to write (the writing of which was no bother, but I only wish I could say the same for the painfully embarrassing public experience of having to deliver it!), the following  missive needed to be written and sent early Sunday morning, without knowing whether we'd still be five points clear by the end of the weekend.

Thankfully the Toffees subsequently ensured the maintenance of this status quo by taking points off our neighbours at Goodison and I've not been able to wipe the smile off my face since. Yet I thought I'd better get this week's diary piece out there, before events in Dortmund on Wednesday make it obsolete.

Come on you Reds


Long may the media pundits continue pooh-poohing the Gunners title pretensions, as with each successive victory I find myself anticipating, ever more eagerly, the enthralling prospect of these so-called experts being left having to eat their words. It remains to be seen whether our sumptuous triumph over the Scousers will prove to be a significant indicator of the Arsenal’s entitlement to an invite for the end of season title shake-up. Yet no matter what the eventual outcome, there will be few complaints along the way, so long as the tortuous Premiership marathon continues to be quite so captivating as Saturday’s euphoric pit-stop.

What I do know is that this was a badly needed tonic for both fans and team alike, after Tuesday’s night’s Cup capitulation against Chelsea, especially combined with the psychological impact of keeping a clean sheet in the face of Liverpool’s formidable firepower. A bad result on Saturday would’ve left us facing a big week, wondering if there’s any merit to some of the “flat-track bullies” suggestions that have been mooted by many to date. By contrast, we now travel to Germany on Wednesday and to Old Trafford next weekend, brimming with renewed confidence, knowing that at our best, we’re a match for absolutely anyone.

Dortmund might test such conviction but I fancy we will fare far better against the Bundesliga outfit than we did at our place, when all the pressure is on the home side to perform. And having put a dampener on the Scousers in-form dynamic duo, by shutting out Suarez & Sturridge, there’s no reason why we can’t do likewise against messrs Rooney & Van Persie. In fact, having seen the likes of West Brom and Southampton take advantage of Man Utd’s recent insecurity by taking the game to them at Old Trafford, compared to the agony of some of our recent humblings on their turf, we’ll be travelling to the North-West with more expectation than we’ve experienced in many a moon.

Myself I’ve yet to make any travel arrangements, as I’ve not been in great form. If I was sensible, I should’ve stopped indoors on Saturday and watched the game on the box, in the warm. But sadly there’s no substitute for sharing such rapturous thrills with 60,000 Gooner mates and I’d have to be a death’s door to willingly miss a match, so long as the “craic`’ meter continues well beyond the ninety mark.

As is so often the case when a team is on song, even the fates seemed on side on Saturday, as evidenced by ref Atkinson’s failure to allow the quick free-kick that might well have resulted in a first-half equalizer and Sturridge looking Sczczny’s gift-horse in the mouth, when presented with an opportunity to pull a goal back late on.

Admittedly we could’ve well done without Kieran Gibbs adding to our seemingly eternal injury woes, in what was one of his most impressive displays thus far. Not that Monreal isn’t more than adequate defensive cover, but in the absence of Walcott and Chamberlain, we are already shorn of so much pace that this is the only possible justification I can think of for Arsène’s inclusion of the painfully lightweight Myaichi against Mourinho’s more manful outfit. On the evidence of the Blues defeat at St. James Park, perhaps their manager would be feeling more special, if he availed himself of his second string more often!

And judging by the constant ear-bashing Kolo Toure was getting from Gerrard and Suarez’s demonstrative frustration for the want of more support on Saturday, obviously losing wasn’t helping Liverpool’s happy-camper cause, but I’m uncertain that the Scousers can count on team-spirit to keep them in the frame. To my mind it’s Coutinho who really makes Rodger’s side tick and I was most relieved to see him on the bench and then only brought on out on the flank after the break, where he had less opportunity to influence proceedings.

But then amongst the weekend’s expected headline grabbers, such as Cazorla & Ramsey, much kudos to Mikel Arteta for putting a leg-weary looking Gerrard to shame, with a genuine captain’s performance. The Spaniard was so masterful in midfield that he made of mockery of my fears for Flamini’s enforced absence.

Never mind my unbearably smug glee over the relatively meaningless feat of starting another week sitting atop the Premiership pack, far more enthralling is the thought that we’re only a quarter of the way through and that we are to be blessed with another seven months of such supremely satisfying football!
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