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Friday 24 January 2014

We Are STILL Top Of The League

I'm sure that much like every other Gooner, I never tire of reminding myself and anyone else who hasn't grown utterly fed up of hearing it, that the Arsenal remain atop our lofty perch, looking down upon the rest of the Premiership challengers. Moreover I can't help but feel a certain pressure to savour every second that the mighty Gunners bestride the summit, because even if it wasn't for my customarily pessimistic, glass half-empty outlook, I still couldn't escape the nagging doubt that surely it can't possibly last.

Nevertheless, I'm growing more accustomed to this feeling with each passing week and in some respects, I'm enjoying it all the more, as it reminds me of the days of yore, when a more humdrum, hardworking Gunners were the complete anathema of their current incarnation as everybody's favourite other team. The longer that our anorexic-looking squad continues to make a mockery of the perception resulting from the glut of goals scored by Manuel Pellegrini's bloated battalions that has Man City confirmed as Champions elect in all but deed, the more I relish watching all the pundits squirm, as they struggle to find the least discomfiting means of retracting their premature predictions eg. "I never said that Arsenal couldn't win it, but that they wouldn't".

And no matter how hard I try to keep a lid on it and prevent myself from fantasising about still being there or thereabouts, come May, defying the indubitable odds and still hanging on in there, with a shout for the title, I'm sure that like everyone else, it's becoming increasingly hard to prevent myself from drifting off into such euphoric dreams.

As ever, I've the customary raft of excuses for failing to post Sunday's Irish Examiner missive below (most of which, as usual, relate to my sloth-like tendencies!). Yet I did want to expand on the theme of our seemingly increasing potential for coming a cropper in home games, against opponents whose ambitions only extend so far as to limiting us to the minimum possible number of genuine goalscoring opportunities.

On seeing the highlights of the Fulham game on MOTD, I realised that Serge Gnabry had produced a couple of bold assaults upon the Cottagers goal, but comparing the youngster's overall performance with his man of the match display, in metaphorically pulling Tim Sherwood's pants down in the North London Derby, there was little evidence of the same utterly fearless zest and vitality that did for Spurs.

Arsène's oft repeated "handbrake" references seem to have resulted in the terminology rapidly being adopted into the lingua franca of football clichés. Perhaps it's all the hype that resulted from Gnabry's impressive outing against Spurs which have caused him to become a tad more inhibited? I seem to recall that we experienced something similar after Jack Wilshere first burst onto the big stage with such a bang. Where for some time after this I was just itching to see him repeat the feat of wriggling past half a dozen statuesque opponents, resulting in the sort of "glad all over" feeling upon discovering a young Gunner who appeared to be performing on an astral plane that was entirely out of the ordinary footballing world.

However there was a seemingly interminable, anti-climactic opening act following the sensational prologue to the Jack Wilshere story, where it was as if someone had whispered a "keep it simple" instruction into his shell-like, instructing the young prodigy that he shouldn't be trying to win every encounter single-handed. Similiarly with Serge Gnabry, I get the distinct sense that they've tried to rein in his unbridled enthusiasm, in an effort to try and teach him when to bring his talents to bear to the greatest effect, much in the same vein of the ancient joke about the young bull that's eager to bowl down the hill to bang one of the many cows in the field below, but where his more experienced elder suggests that they stroll down and bang them all.

Still, I'd hoped that the energy and the pace of Gnabry, or with his recent return to fitness, the equally speedy attributes of the other young Ox, would compensate for Theo's unfortunate demise, by offering us a Plan B; both by being able to barrel around the exposed flank of the opposition's parked bus, as they pack the heart of their defence with all the bodies blocking the width of the penalty area and by creating more space for our array of ball-players to operate, amongst opposition defences who could no longer condense the area in the middle of the park, when being forced to drop off due to the threat of being made to look foolish by a single incisive pass, to one of these "B" of the bang, speed merchants.

Yet we've already witnessed the Ox's central midfield aspirations, which perhaps make it less intuitive for Alex to operate as an out and out wide man, with a first instinct to tear down the wing and whip a ball in from the byeline and similarly, along with virtually every other midfielder in red and white, Gnabry also appears to enjoy cutting in from the flank, bearing down on the penalty area, to participate in the customary array of intricate one-twos, as part of the Gunners incessant efforts to pick a path through the most crowded area of the pitch.

What would I give for a George Armstrong type individual right now, a player with the blinkered, singular focus for his cameo role, regularly guaranteed to tear down the flank to the byeline, nine time out of ten resulting in him whipping in a dangerous cross from somewhere near the corner flag.

Without someone willing to turn up the intensity of our football in the sort of performance we're growing accustomed to witnessing at our place, the Gunners seem to settle into this slow tempo, far too deliberate football, affording the opposition defence every opportunity to organise their rearguard. And as we're all sitting, impatiently waiting for one of these long periods of ponderous possession to actually pick the lock to the door of the opposition's parked bus, by achieving the point of threatening our opponents goal (and even then we always seem intent on playing one pass too many, when we're crying out for someone to be a little more selfish and take some responsibility by taking the shot on), it seems to become increasingly difficult for anyone to inject the sort of energetic momentum, which is most unlikely to unsettle their patently inferior opponents.

It's not so easy for teams to achieve when the Gunners are out on the road because the opposition are obliged, or their home fans will encourage them to produce just a little more intent and this will often afford us the opportunity for our superior skills to prevail. Yet according to the law of averages, unless we can produce some more variety to our assault on defences at our place, we're making it that much easier for opponents to effect a strategy to deny us and it's likely that there will come a time when they eventually succeed.

I pray that AW's focus on Tuesday's trip to the South Coast doesn't result in him selecting a team for tonight's encounter that leaves us regretting that we took Coventry too lightly, by neglecting to show them sufficient respect and inspiring the Sky Blues to an infamous giant-killing! Hopefully we'll witness the customary mix of youth and experience which will prove just a little too strong for the embattled Midland's outfit.

Sadly the Coventry game appears to have come just a little too soon for the likes of Yaya Sanogo. Although his Bambi-like nine minute brush with the frenetic cut and thrust of British football since his arrival from Auxerre suggests that the French striker is still a some way from making the transition to the unforgiving pace of Premiership football. But who knows, perhaps he, or another youngster will emerge tomorrow night as the answer to le Prof's prayers.

Although in some respects, we don't need anyone to create the sort of sufficiently significant impression which could kid our gaffer into believing that perhaps he does have sufficient numbers to maintain a title challenge! I have to admit that it was somewhat transparent to hear Arsène throwing his toys out of the pram, in whinging about the January transfer window, merely because Juan Mata is likely to be comfortably in situe for David Moyes, come Man Utd's trip to our place in a couple of weeks time.

I'm afraid you can cry foul all you want Arsène, but as it stands at present, the only solution to this problem is to respond in kind, by getting the cheque book out! Besides, judging by Wednesday's incredibly dramatic and ultimately hilarious Carling Cup semi-final, it would appear that along with the vast majority of the footballing world, Chelsea's "not so special any more" manager has concluded that it is going to take a lot more than the mere addition of Mata to reinvigorate a Man Utd side littered with such mediocrity throughout?

Could it be that le Prof's bitterness is related to the rumours that Juan Mata's dad was being entertained in our directors box a few months back and maybe we should be taking it as a compliment that Mourinho chose to flog him to Man Utd because we're viewed by him as a more serious threat. compared to no threat at all?

Still "nuff respek" to Vito Mannone for his influential part in Weds night's wonderfully hilarious proceedings . Moyes might have had more sense than to accept the poisoned chalice of the Ferguson follow-up act, but if I've got some sympathy for their manager, the Schadenfreude of seeing so many of Old Trafford's spoiled glory hunters suffering at the seemingly forgotten fate of the beautiful game's eternally cyclical nature is positively marvelous

Come on you rip roaring Reds


We Are STILL Top Of The League

After the Gunners turned it on for a five minute spell of football on the half hour mark and took a two-goal lead at Villa Park on Monday night, I was convinced we were about to shoot ourselves in the foot, when we sat back in the second half.  Especially when Benteke finally broke his goal drought and the Brummies suddenly found some belief and lit the atmospheric touch-paper, for a frantic last 15 mins.

Surely it’s time to start handicapping Man City, giving opponents a goal or two start, against the massed ranks of Pellegrini’s mercenaries, so as to make matters more interesting? Nevertheless, in City’s current free-scoring incarnation, it’s hard not to put their disturbingly daunting strikeforce on a pedestal, as the benchmark for all the competition to aspire to.

I couldn’t help but ponder that if it’d been City playing against a woefully lacklustre Villa on Monday, with the home side chasing the game in an effort to salvage some self-respect, the Sky Blues’ positively rampant attack would’ve picked them off at will.

In truth, so long as Pellegrini’ s cohorts continue to suffer from their recent preponderance for not turning up on their travels (compared to sort of intense onslaught seen at the Etihad!), they might also have been guilty of sitting back on a two-goal lead. Yet with such a large array of talent competing for starting places, I suspect that any one of City’s bevy of front men would’ve bagged sufficient goals to ensure a more comfortable win, devoid of our unnecessarily stressful “squeaky bum time” at the death.

Similarly against Fulham on Saturday, despite the encouragement of the Cottagers new “brains trust” (it’s a marvel there’s any seats left for Fulham subs with Meulensteen, Wilkins and Curbishley filling up their bench!), one sensed a disappointing lack of ambition from our guests.

The game certainly lacked the high-octane intensity that’s expected of even the friendliest of London derbies, with both sides far too content to spectate when not in possession. It wasn’t long before I was crying out for someone to stoke up proceedings, by kicking an opponent up in the air (in fact I would’ve gladly settled for any sort of bodily contact!).

In contrast to the sort of “no respect” attitude that’s made for such an enthrallingly unpredictable Premiership competitions thus far, it seemed as if the Cottagers were expecting little from this encounter. Although, once again, I couldn’t help but feel that the likes of City would’ve made much lighter work of securing all three points, whereas at present, the Gunners are making life far too easy for those teams who turn up, merely intent on getting everyone behind the ball and shutting shop.

Who Needs Specsavers, Not Our Santi
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not complaining. I’m sure like many other Gooners, a massive grin materializes on my face every single morning, as the arms of Morpheus release their grip and I realize that I’m not dreaming and that the Gunners really are still “top of the league”.

It’s great that we’re now blessed with a myriad of marvelously talented midfield options. But when you contrast the overall depth of those squads with serious competition for places all over the park, it’s hard to avoid this sense that we’ve somehow sneaked under the nose of the burly bouncer, guarding the entrance to the top of the table party, or perhaps we slipped in after Paddy Vieira left the door to the emergency exit ajar and that at some point we’re going to get a tap on the shoulder and unceremoniously be booted out.

Nevertheless, with Mertesacher beginning to acquire the mantle of a genuine Tony Adams type leader and the unsung Koscielny setting such an impressively stalwart example all over the park, as much as I might try to limit any tendency to get carried away, with each passing week that we can continue to retain our lofty perch (and despite our best efforts to gift Darren “couldn’t score in a brothel’ Bent a consolation prize, the stats show that we’re racking up an increasingly resolute number of clean sheets), there must eventually come a time when the title challenge illusion becomes an inescapable reality.

However, as evidenced by more frustrating “eye of the needle” efforts to pick an intricate path through Fulham’s not insubstantial wall of bodies on Saturday, the Gunners badly need to make it harder for visitors to park the bus. With everyone instinctively cutting in, to try and dance their way through the heart of opposition defences (and with Monreal’s apparent aversion to playing a forward pass!), Theo’s demise has only exaggerated our desperate need to be able to pose a more varied threat, by stretching opponents with the sort of width that’s patently lacking at present.

I tend to ignore all the transfer gossip, believing it’s all hot air until players are actually witnessed putting pen to paper. Obviously we’re crying out for a striker capable of offering Giroud some respite. Yet momentum is everything and with the burgeoning spirit in the Arsenal camp, it’s not so much the “who” as far as transfer targets are concerned, but the signal Arsène needs to send out of our intent, to reassure players and fans alike, with a couple of timely additions, which might instill the belief that our challenge is not about to flounder for yet another season, the moment injuries and suspensions begin to take their toll.

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