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Monday, 13 January 2014

Winds Of Change, My Arse!

Apologies for failing to post last Sunday's Examiner missive. With my paltry 650 words below, it didn't really feel as if I'd done justice to such a wonderful occasion. But perennially lazy bugger that I am, I never got around to adding some more meat to the Derby day bones and with a trip to Villa Park looming tomorrow, it was a matter of sending this out now, or never.

After such a thoroughly gutless Spurs performance, personally I would've expected my Spurs pals to have been left completely schtum for the remainder of the season, or at least until our date down the wrong end of the Seven Sister's Road. But, remarkably, the poor, terminally downtrodden loves have been trying to wind me up, over the loss of Theo Walcott.

It's true, I was crying for Theo's return as loud as the next Gooner. Yet it was the threat of Theo that was required more than anything, even though we've managed quite well without him for the majority of the season so far. We are desperate for the threat of some pace, any pace, out on the flanks, so that opposition defences were threatened by the risk of the ball over the top, thereby preventing them from solely focusing on denying us a route to goal through the middle.

As much as I adore Walcott and would love him to prove me wrong, I do worry that he's far too fragile and his recent, sadly all too brief return to fitness resulted in performances that only reinforced my feelings that he's never quite going to fulfil the promise of all of his undoubted ability. I'm not sure whether it was the Cardiff game but there have been various instances when Theo has been faced with a full-back who should be left for dead, in a straight race between the two of them and where I've been left tearing my hair out, wondering why Walcott doesn't have the feller on toast, taking him on at every possible opportunity.

Who knows, perhaps Theo's constant injury woes have resulted in some psychological damage and much like Kieran Gibbs, all he really needs is an injury free, consistent run in the team, to regain complete confidence (sadly, not going to happen now for some time!). Walcott went down in a heap a couple of weeks back, clattered by the opposition as they both fell over the goal line and as he clutched his arm, I immediately assumed he'd popped his dodgy shoulder.

The pity is that this confidence might have begun to return, as much like the incidence of a blue moon, I swear I saw Theo actually make a tackle against Cardiff and lest it be forgotten, he actually injured himself in an attempt to win the ball back against Spurs. Yet in virtually all of his all too rare recent appearances, I've got the distinct sense of an absence of that all important total conviction, in almost everything he does on the pitch, whether this be closing down the opposition keeper, or racing to reach a ball, when competing with an opponent who should really be left trailing in his wake.

For some reason my rapidly failing memory doesn't prevent me from recalling certain nuggets of wisdom from my distant youth. I remember flying in for full-blooded tackles as a teenage full-back, with the mantra in my head that injury often only results for those who attempt anything on a pitch in a half-hearted, timid fashion. This has always sounded logical because any fear of doing oneself some damage will invariably result in the sort of tension and rigidity that is more likely to cause injury.

And I often wonder if this is the case with Walcott, where the football can't flow naturally from his feet, due to the possibility that subconsciously he's constantly plagued by the thought of trying to avoid another tedious spell in the treatment room. By complete contrast, perhaps having never been familiar with the pain and the endless boredom of months of rehabilitation work in the gym, young Serge Gnabry knows no such fear.

As it happens, Gnabry is also built like a compact, far more robust brick sh*thouse and his diminutive physique doesn't look anywhere near as likely to fail on him as Theo's. Gnabry  goes about his business on the pitch with the conviction of a youngster who's determined to get somewhere, double quick. His rare appearances thus far have been very promising and in truth, after he was involved early season, I've been disappointed that we've not seen more of him since.

If Theo hadn't suffered an injury which consigns him to crutches for the remainder of the season and with Gnabry slipping down the pecking order, with the return to fitness of Podolski and the Ox, I guess we wouldn't have seen much more of him, especially in a World Cup year, with players anxious to earn a squad place for the trip to Brazil.

However having grabbed his rare opportunity with both hands (or both feet) with such an impressive performance against Spurs, hopefully Serge has forced himself back into the frame and if Theo's absence means that we get to see more of the pugnacious young German prospect, I for one won't be too disappointed.

Meanwhile, I was patting myself on the back because I thought that my comments in the last para below were proving to be quite prescient (considering I didn't know the extent of Walcott's injury at the time of writing). Yet with the (disappointing?) news that Bendtner might be restored to fitness, sooner than expected, perhaps this will alleviate some of the pressure on AW to take immediate action.

Again, if we're forced to use him, I sure hope Bertie Big Bollix proves me wrong, coming on as he's done recently, to score the sort of crucial goals which will result in the instant transformation from villain, to superhero amongst the fickle Gooner faithful. But it's hard for me to envisage any such renaissance because although Bendtner has the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, it seems to me that we're never going to see him working his cods off for the Arsenal cause, when our backs are up against the wall in games to come, with the sort of relentless graft that we've come to expect from Giroud, due to the likelihood that mentally Bendtner is already beyond the point of no return.

With his over-inflated ego and his assorted loan spells elsewhere, the Dane knows he's not wanted at the club and that there's no possibility of earning his redemption because he only remains in the squad at present out of necessity. The fact that we're constantly being linked with every single available striker on the planet, only confirms that Bendtner is out on his ear, the moment AW finds adequate cover and unfortunately he's far too full of largely unjustified self-belief, to ever deign to feel he's cause to prove his detractors wrong.

Yet whether or not Bendtner remains as viable cover for our single only centre-forward is not really the question. With, or without his aid, our squad continues to appear farcically deficient compared to the competition. Even the likes of lowly Hull have more striking options than us and in truth, AW is living in cloud cuckoo-land, if he truly believes our squad has sufficient depth to survive the attritional battle ahead.

Someone sent me a list of the fixtures we face in the two months from the beginning of February to April. Needless to say, I didn't thank them, as presented in this fashion, it's a mouth-watering, but unnerving succession of mammoth clashes, where it's almost inevitable that injuries and suspensions will eventually begin to take their toll. 

Where the likes of Negredo and Dzeko can pick up the slack for City, in the absence of Aguerro, with the likes of Jovetic still waiting in the wings, desperate just to get a look in, I'm not convinced I'd want us resorting to the possibility of the bad attitude of the likes of Berbatov, impacting upon our dressing room spirit, but it would be absolutely desperate, following such a surprisingly impressive start, to see all this good work go to waste, as our challenge for yet another unrequited season flounders on the necessity to throw a patently unripened Yaya Sanogo into the fray because we've no other remaining fit options.

In the meantime we've got three points to bring back from Birmingham tomorrow night. Apparently our record at Villa Park in recent times is very good. Yet it always seems to me that no matter how content Villa have been to lie down like lambs against previous opposition, they always appear to save something for their matches against us, with individuals in claret and blue suddenly producing a performance out of the blue.

Having been leapfrogged over the weekend by City and Chelsea, we really can't afford to slip up tomorrow night and after a relatively long break, if ever our squad was to be found out for a lack of sufficient focus and some slight tendency towards arrogance, I'd fancy Villa Park could be just the sort of venue for such a calamity, if we're not totally up for it!

Personally I was surprised that Flamini wasn't included in the starting line-up against Spurs as the team that took to the field appeared a little lightweight compared to our neighbours and I thought we might need the Flamster's aggression, to ensure we weren't outmuscled. But what do I know, the Lilywhites left their hearts at home and appeared with a flag of the same colour and le Prof proceeded to pull Sherwood's pants down.

Nevertheless, it will be most reassuring to see Flamini included in a solid looking team tomorrow night. Although a weekend without an Arsenal game affords me an opportunity of a stress free Sunday, without having to file a column for the Examiner, it's agony having to watch everyone else bank their points before us. But as they say, a pleasure delayed, is a pleasure enhanced and here's hoping that the wait proves worth it and that our trip to the second city results in a sumptuous three point feast (although I'll gladly settle for sneaking another old fashioned 1-0 :-).

Come on you Yellows

Winds Of Change, My Arse!

It’s amusing to think that it was only a few months back that many pundits were pondering on the potential shift in the balance of power in North London. Arsène Wenger was being spoken of as a spent-force, ready for his pipe and slippers and Spurs were about to usurp our perennial consolation prize as potential Champions League qualifiers.

Mercifully, any prospect of this Orwellian nightmare coming to pass has been safely put to bed (for yet another season) and the world continues to turn on it’s axis, as the Arsenal cruised into the 4th round of the FA Cup on Saturday in a euphoric triumph over the old enemy. In fact, if I’m entirely honest, compared to some of the blood and thunder North London derbies of yesteryear, I was a little disappointed that our guests didn’t make a better fist of putting up more of a fight, instead of tamely succumbing to the demise of their last glimmer of domestic silverware.

Sure it might’ve been a different story if Eriksen had shot across goal, instead if trying to beat Fabianski at his near post early on, or if Greedybayor hadn’t gone down like Bambi, with the goal gaping at his mercy second half. But considering the pre-match butterflies had me back and forth to the karsey earlier in the day, the fact that these were the only two memorable heart-in-the-mouth moments during the entire ninety, stands as testament to quite what an unexpectedly comfortable afternoon it turned out to be.

Still it was a great occasion, with the atmosphere at our often all too sterile stadium ramped up umpteen notches, to the point where one is left wondering why we Gooners have to save such an intimidating racket for Spurs and can’t create the same cauldron-like intensity at every home game. It was a baptism of fire for the brother of a Gooner pal of mine from the USA, who was attending his first ever football match. Sadly, I had to explain to him afterwards that it was all downhill from here because any other game at our place is likely to be disappointingly dull by comparison.

With Walcott playing up front, backed up by Gnabry, Rosicky and Cazorla, my first thought was that we weren’t exactly going to win any aerial battles. But as Mark Twain once said “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” and with Sherwood naively sticking to his preferred 4-4-2, Spurs neutered Rottweilers in midfield were positively overrun by our feisty Jack Russells. In fact I was relieved when Wenger eventually retired Jack Wilshere, as he was tearing around, looking to start a row with anyone in a white shirt, determined to demonstrate how much this derby match meant to him and looked an obvious candidate for a red card.

Yet it was young Serge Gnabry who leant us the sort of vitality that Spurs so obviously lacked, positively bristling with energy and intent and at the same time having the composure to put the first all-important goal on a plate for Cazorla. I wanted to go home there and then, but I needn’t have worried, as the expected reaction never materialised and any concerns I might’ve had evaporated, once Mertesacker was restored to our defence for the second half.

Doubtless Theo was getting untold stick from the Spurs fans in that corner of the ground and with hindsight his somewhat smug reaction from the stretcher might be deemed irresponsible because it nearly started a riot amongst the Neanderthal Lillywhites as he was carried along the length of the Clock End stand behind the goal. Nevertheless it made for hilarious viewing from where we stood and far more importantly, with Bendtner having limped off against Cardiff and Theo stretchered off on Saturday, no matter how hard Arsène tries to maintain his best poker face, circumstances are contriving to force his hand in the coming month, as far as strengthening our striking options are concerned.

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