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Monday 28 December 2015

Ya Mezut Ya

Examiner missive finished and filed in time to put my feet up and enjoy the highlights on MOTD Wishing one and all a very happy & healthy New Year
Big Love


Driving back to London, after enduring an infuriating “wonder why on earth we bothered” rout on the South Coast, we were debating the limited options available to Arsène, to freshen things up for our date with the Cherries less than 48 hours later.

As it turned out, in introducing the likes of Gibbs, Gabriel, Chambers and the Ox to the starting XI, Wenger made the very best of a bad job. I had assumed that the vast majority of those involved in such a lamentable display against Southampton, would be required to lift themselves off the floor, to play against Bournemouth. So I was pleasantly surprised to see the team that took to the field on Monday night looking quite so different, without needing to draft in any of the kids who’d previously failed to have an impact in our cup defeat against the Owls.

Mind you, I think we were fortuitous to have Bournemouth as the visitors because judging by the cat and mouse tactics of the two sides, until Gabriel soared into the box to bury Mezut Özil’s corner around the half hour mark, I’m really not sure we’d have ended the day on top of the table, if we’d encountered more ambitious opposition.

            You could hear that the Cherries fans were in good voice as we approached the stadium this evening, seemingly determined to enjoy every minute of their Premiership adventure. In Eddie Howe’s shoes, I might’ve been more inclined to want to stick the boot in, after our battering only two days prior. But Bournemouth’s own “special one’ knows there’ll be more significant battles to come, in matches that they are going to have to get something out of, in order to retain their top flight status.

            As a result, with Josh King ploughing a particularly lonely, unrewarding furrow up front, there was the distinct sense of our guests approaching this game, believing that anything more than a defeat would be a bonus. With both sides primarily focused on avoiding being the architects of their own downfall, one sensed that the first goal was all the more crucial than usual. With lactic acid rapidly affecting fatigued legs all over the park, you really didn’t want to end up being the team chasing this game.

My Spurs mate was perhaps guilty of trying to fill me with a false sense of security, but after we were suddenly installed as the bookies favourites after beating City and with the other usual suspects falling away so dramatically, he was contending that the Gunners were about to run away with the title. Yet after such a severe reality check at St Mary’s stadium on Saturday, mercifully there was little, or no evidence of any cavalier “top of the league” chants on the terraces, at least not until long after Mezut had secured all three-points with our sumptuous second goal.

I managed to find the photo online, on my phone at half-time, of Özil sunning himself, since much like myself, there were several Gooners who were surprised to discover that he’d been allowed to disappear off, to somewhere that looked just a little warmer than Bournemouth during the week. However, after debating whether such special treatment might impact upon his team-mates, we were all left so blown away by the peerless brilliance of the beautiful football, in the build up to our second goal that in the euphoric celebrations which followed, we were left joking with one another, about Arsène allowing our German playmaker carte blanche, to do as he pleases. At this precise point in time, with our squad so depleted, Mezut’s importance to the team reminds me of the joke about where the 800lb gorilla sleeps. “Where ever he wants!”

I’d watched Spurs steal an undeserved winner at Vicarage Road before heading out the door to the game, with Watford only millimetres away from doing likewise some fifty seconds earlier. This left me terrified of losing against Bournemouth and finding ourselves reeled back into the fourth place battle, with all the good vibes evaporating over the festive period.

Thankfully, having knocked all the stuffing out of our guests, it ended up being a comfortable victory, with Petr Cech savouring the moment as he achieved the clean-sheet record. Personally, I’ve no idea if the DM we’re supposed to be signing from Basel is any bottle but my Egyptian Gooner pals are getting very excited about the possibility of him playing for the Arsenal. Hopefully, having restored some of the “va va voom”, we can now motor in the New Year, whilst savouring plenty more of this sort of breathtaking view from the summit.
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Sunday 27 December 2015

Premier League The Observer Premier League fans’ half-time verdict....

Premier League The Observer Premier League fans’ half-time verdict part 1: Arsenal to Manchester United

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Oh Come All Ye Faithful (if only we could get there!), Hardly Joyful, Nor Triumphant

Cech revealed on Football Focus that he speaks five languages to be able to
speak to all the defenders in their own tongue. Can he make it clear they've
taken "Getting stuffed for Xmas" a bit too literally!
Sadly football fans in this country appear to be not nearly quite so militant as our counterparts in Germany. At the Gunners we’ve got “Red Action” attempting to disturb the library-like peace and quiet at our place. They’re to be commended for all the effort that must’ve gone into inserting red and white plastic bags in 57,000 seats, to try and stoke up the atmosphere prior to last Monday night’s crucial encounter, by producing the “Arsenal Together” display. Yet it is the club who stump up for the cost of these occasional stunts, so I very much doubt Red Action would want to jeopardize this cosy relationship, by being involved in anything that might be frowned upon by their sponsors, as being the least bit contentious.

With families in such close proximity over Xmas, in the past, it was always a most welcome tradition, to be able to escape the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the festive family hencoop, for a couple of hours on St. Stephens’s Day, thereby easing the tensions, avoiding yet another barney, blowing off the cobwebs and at least burning off some of the coronary-inducing, calorific intake.

In fact, for me a Boxing Day Derby match was always no less of an integral part of my own festive ritual, than the retelling of my dear old dad’s ancient joke about the kids doing show and tell in class after the Xmas holidays. Where after all his classmates have told how they wake up and open their presents, little Hymie reveals that his dad, the toy wholesaler, takes him down to the warehouse on Xmas morning, to stare at all the empty shelves and to join in with their annual rendition of “What a friend we have in Jesus”.

What do you mean Shane Long got you a teasmade?
You mean Père Nöel doesn't exist?
I would’ve loved it if we had staged a repeat of the sort of extremely effective demo seen from the Bayern fans, a couple of months back. They were protesting over the extortionate cost of their tickets at the Arsenal and I hope it came across as impressively on the box, as it did in person, when the game commenced with their corner of the ground entirely empty, save for the banners draped across the seats stating “£64 ticket but without fans football is not worth a penny”. Having boycotted the start of the game, by remaining on the concourse, it was most dramatic (ignoring the disturbing historical connotations!) when they all marched in, in unison five minutes in.

We really should’ve done likewise at St Mary’s stadium on Saturday. With such limited public transport, not only was it preposterous that the most loyal travelling faithful were faced with such a tortuous St Stephen’s Day outing, when they’re the fans who are mainly responsible for creating the sort of fervent atmosphere that actually affords our domestic game with its unique brand identity, but also the farcical 7.45pm KO meant that for many this match was a complete non-starter, as it would’ve proved impossible for them to get home.

I’m not such a sentimental idealist that I can’t appreciate the TV tail’s obligation to wag the football dog, wringing every last possible drop of return from their humungous, obscenely inflated investment in the broadcasting rights. So it was that we drew the short straw on Saturday, with our match the last of four successive live broadcasts. Yet if we don’t at least attempt to make a stand, at some point, the TV schedulers have absolutely no reason to consider the interests of us travelling fans and will continue to not even bother paying lip service to the practicalities involved in making it to matches (and home again!).

They continue to get away with it because we’re represented by so many disparate voices and it’s about time someone made it clear that “we are mad as hell and not going to take it any more!” We should’ve left the terraces empty on Saturday, except for banners stating “no fans…no product!”

Frankly I would’ve been content to have boycotted far more than the first five minutes of this particular encounter. Standing out on the concourse would’ve surely proved preferable to the agony of witnessing quite such a woeful display. Such was the Gunners apparent languor on Saturday that we could’ve been playing up until now and still not breached the Saints’ goal.

There might’ve been evidence that you can teach an old dog new tricks, in the tactical coup that Arsène pulled on Pellegrini last Monday night. Yet while it was great to beat City with such a mature and disciplined rearguard action, in the absence of such influential likes of Alexis, Cazorla and Coquelin, it might’ve been an entirely different story if De Bruyne had found the net first.

Despite all the resulting media hype, knowing that City could’ve easily nicked a last minute equalizer, I really don’t understand how we suddenly deposed the massed ranks of Pellegrini’s mob, as the bookies title favourites? Could this have been responsible for some complacency against Southampton, or were we subconsciously guilty of trying to keep something in reserve, knowing that most of them will be obliged to turn out again within 48 hours?

Petr shows off the scorch marks from
Martina's Goal of the Season contender
What was most depressing is that it didn’t take a particularly impressive performance from the Saints, but with only one point to show from their last five games, Koeman succeded in imparting the necessary kick up the backside. Even at 4-0 up the home side were still pressing for more and they could and really should’ve scored another couple of goals.

Anything less than 100% from the Gunners was always likely to be punished and I was left wondering if perhaps, in the absence of Alexis’ energy, the Gunners were left struggling to get on the front foot, after their earnest efforts to master the counter-attacking tactics that did for Man City?

I imagine that Shane Long must be an absolute nightmare to play against and Mertesacker looked like a frightened rabbit, caught in the glare of Long’s fully-focused headlights. Aaron Ramsey was far from alone, as there were several midfielders who appeared guilty of ambling back, as their sides conceded goals on Saturday. However having worked so hard to beat City and achieve the small cushion that meant we could afford to drop a couple of points, the criminal margin of Saturday night’s humiliation is tantamount to throwing away four points, should we end up missing out in May, merely on goal difference.

"Ich bin in ordnung Jack"
Moreover Ramsey’s apparent lack of concern about conceding a fourth, suggests that the good vibes from Monday have fast evaporated. While Mezut Özil might well have earned himself some respite, I can’t help but wonder how the Instagram photos of Arsène’s golden boy went down with the rest of his team mates. It appears Mezut was sunning himself in warmer climes on Thursday, while they were stuck in London Colney, enduring the dreary depressing weather with the rest of us. Did I miss the dictate from the TV paymasters for every Premiership manager to stir up friction in the dressing room that might guarantee even more unpredictability for our viewing pleasures in the New Year?

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Saturday 26 December 2015

Reasons To Be Cheerful....Part Deux

David Bailey I am not. THOF2 moments after the impressive display thanks to Red Action's commendable efforts
After waffling on for a few thousand words in my previous effort (It's Only A Stupid Game) about the sad demise of Don Howe and Jimmy Hill and pretty much failing to mention any details, or reflections upon the way we went about deposing the title favourites in Monday night's encounter I thought I'd better have another go, hopefully before we thrash the Saints and it all becomes irrelevant :-)

Despite flopping onto my bed with utter exhaustion, after arriving home on Monday night, I imagine that like most every Gooner, I was so euphoric and so pumped that I was delighted I'd walked indoors just in time to watch the highlights on MOTD.

Better still, no sooner had this finished than I made my way into the living room, to watch the recording of Sky's Monday Night Football. I'm sure I'm far from alone in being disappointed about Gary Neville accepting the manager's job at Valencia, only because I'm going to miss his analysis on MNF. He's just about the only footie pundit on the box who doesn't antagonise me and who finds interesting aspects of the game to analyse, instead of merely using meaningless post-match analysis as a means to fill the airtime.

As much as I adore Titi Henry and can't watch enough of him on the box, amongst the current crop of TV pundits, I really cannot imagine there being anyone who's capable of filling Neville's shoes on MNF competently, let alone the thought of one of those mind-numbing numbskulls regularly winding me up, to the point of me having to contain myself from doing serious damage to the telly.

To be frank, there are time when, for example there's the unenticing prospect of watching an encounter between the likes of WBA v Villa, I only tune into MNF to watch the pre-match analysis of the weekend's other games and without Neville, I am really not sure I will bother.

"Mezut Weiß"

However, in view of what actually transpired and Arsène's apparent tactical coup over "the Engineer", it was brilliant being able to savour the pre-match prattle, after the event on Monday. For those that were at the game, or who didn't see Sky's coverage, Titi and Carragher produced a fairly detailed comparison of Özil and Silva. Unsurprisingly, I can't recall the specifics, but they showed the stats which suggest that after a decent first season, Mezut's form dipped in his second season, but as we've all seen, thus far, he's truly on a roll in this campaign.

Jamie Carragher's argument was that David Silva has been doing the business, consistently, for the past four seasons and on the face of it, based on the contribution of the two players to date, it is hard to argue with those who contend that Mezut tends to decorate a game with his talents, compared with Silva's ability to entirely orchestrate a victory. Nevertheless, even when Özil has been a less influential figure, I've always contended that anyone who cannot appreciate Mezut's gifts, simply doesn't appreciate the beautiful game.

Admittedly, I've often tuned into City's encounter in the past, to enjoy watching Silva pull the strings and despite Titi's obvious Arsenal bias, even he felt obliged to agree with Carragher in the suggestion that Silva was likely to have a more significant influence on Monday night's encounter. I found myself giggling watching this because as we all know, whether or not Silva is entirely fit, or has grown complacent and merely lacks sufficient drive and determination to stamp his undoubted authority on this sort of crucial contest, with the sort of delicate, artistic and incisive probing in the final third, with which he is perfectly capable of carving open even the most resolute defence, this incarnation of David Silva just did not turn up on Monday.

With Yaya Toure also only arriving in his own supremely influential manner, for merely the last fifteen minutes, perhaps Silva's form is affected by the lack of sufficient motivation in his team mates, or the lack of proper match fitness in the likes of Aguero? But whatever the cause, Silva's talents certainly weren't in evidence on Monday night and he was instead substituted by an increasingly petulant, obnoxious little midfielder, who simply couldn't hold a candle to Mezut's positively imperious display and who's snide, niggling contribution to the game simply didn't merit comparison on the same page as Özil, let alone alongside him!

There were more amusing aspects to the pre-match analysis on Sky's MNF. If I've had one recurring criticism of Arsène, it's been what has often felt like arrogance, in le Prof's point-blank refusal to cater our tactics to best counter individual opposition. For example, when West Ham turned up at our place for the opening game of the season, with Tomkins, a lumbering centre-half with the turning circle of an oil-tanker, playing at left back, it seemed like a complete no-brainer to target his patently obvious lack of pace! If I recall correctly (and feel free to set me straight), the only pace in our starting XI that afternoon was the Ox and he lined up on the opposite flank to Tomkins.

If it had been me on the touchline, I would've immediately instructed the Ox to swap sides and to try and terrorise Tomkins on the wing. Yet while I know it's utterly preposterous, up until recently one might have imagined that Arsène never even bothers to look at the up coming opposition, in order to make tactical adjustments to best counter their strengths and weaknesses because in the past he has always appeared to send out his side to play the same way.

The other long-standing grievance we've all had with le Gaffer is his refusal to make tactical adjustments during games and where those such as the Gobby One might keep his squad on their toes (although most amusingly, Mourinho currently has authority over no one other than his cleaning lady :-), by making three changes at half-time, perhaps after having perceived a weakness in the opposition, or trying to confuse them with a different formation. By contrast, we can all set our clocks by the regularity of Arsène's "too little, too late" substitutions, where players barely have sufficient time to get into the game before the final whistle has blown. I seem to remember that he sent on Theo and Alexis, only after we were 0-2 down against the Hammers and I'm sitting here wondering if it was one of those infuriating instances where Walcott was standing there, waiting far too patiently for my liking, only to end up joining the game at the resumption of play, when it was already too late, immediately after the death knell of the second goal.

Could it really be that our old dog is learning new tricks at his time in life? The evidence of Monday night's match might lead one to conclude that this is the case. I must admit that much like myself, on the telly prior to KO, they were all suggesting that we needed to tear into City, in a similar fashion to the way we vanquished Man Utd, in a positively scintillating opening fifteen minute spell. In fact, I was left tearing what remains of my hair out, in frustration, watching us sit back and afford an obviously nervy-looking City all the time they needed to settle, retain possession and grow in confidence. Evidently, along with me and everyone else, Pellegrini wasn't expecting us to try and reproduce the same tactics that had proved so profitable at the Etihad.

On questioning "the Engineer" prior to the game about what he thought would be the most important factor in this contest, Pellegrini said it would be possession, implying that whoever dominated control of the ball would win the game. I assume this was why he made the fairly conservative decision to start with Delph, leaving the bristling pace and the goal threat of Sterling on the bench (along with £111 million's worth of talent, with £270m on the pitch compared to our £105!!). It seems Arsène pulled a flanker on him, me and everyone else with his tactics, thereby proving that he is now capable of tinkering as much as the next man. 

Seemingly aware of the limitations forced upon us by the absence of pace and dynamism of Alexis, the security afforded by le Coq and delicious delivery of Cazorla, instead of blindly sending the boys out to do the business, in the same manner that they and we are accustomed to, it appear as if Wenger catered our tactics to perfectly suit the occasion.

Mercifully March is a long way off and hopefully by then, our ranks will be bolstered by the return of a number of influential players because I'm really not sure we can beat the likes of Barca in this same fashion. For it we afford the Catalan giants all the time they require to get their heads up and pick out a pass, the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar will inevitably punish us. Nevertheless, as they say, it's horses for courses and these tactics proved just the ticket to beat City (again!) on Monday. And in so doing, it certainly feels as if, psychologically, we've now got the Indian Eye over the Mancunian Johnny Come Lately's.

Personally I feared that unless Ramsey, Walcott or the Ox truly came to the party on Monday, in the absence of Alexis' incisiveness I worried that we might struggle to get behind City's defence and beat Joe Hart. However, although I'm aware of the astonishingly stark stats showing the hilarious number of goals City have conceded, compared to the single goal scored against them in the presence of Kompany. Yet it wasn't made manifest until Monday night quite how incompetent a pairing they've purchased for a trifling sum of £70m (?), in Mangala and Otamendi!

Although it was winding me up, quite how often Giroud won the ball, only for it to fall to the opposition, I struggle to recall seeing a game in which Olivier has outmuscled and dominated a centre-half as thoroughly as he mastered Otamendi. I'm still unsure if this was because the Argentinian was so poor, or Giroud enjoyed a particularly impressive day at the office, but in case it wasn't apparent on TV, it was obvious how frustrated Otamendi was at being so thoroughly outplayed, when much like David Silva, he resorted to the "if you can't beat 'em, kick 'em" school of football. Mangala might have slightly more excuse, with the French centre-half being somewhat less experienced than his partner, but the only reason I have some inkling of their colossal combined cost is because the two of them looked so incompetent that having exclaimed "how much!", my neighbour at the Emirates promptly Googled it on his phone!

All of which leaves one wondering that if these two lumps cost £70m and the likes of Martial was £36m (increasing almost with every game he plays, so no surprise if he ends up being left on the bench for Man U to try and avoid paying the £58m total!), what price a decent centre-back, or a proper experienced centre-forward in today's obscenely inflated market?

Sadly, while everything else slips through my porous grey matter, hard as I try, I can't forget that we ended up losing our opening game 0-2 and that Petr Cech played a significant part, in an extremely disappointing debut. Mercifully his opening day boo-boos merely dampened our soaring expectations, as Petr has gone on to prove his worth in spades. I didn't realise until watching the replay that De Bruyne might've done better to square the ball to Silva, when he could and really should've opened City's account and perhaps changed the course of the game entirely, moments before Theo left us all agog with his magical strike.

I have my doubts as to how intentional it was of Mertesacker, as I still have some vague memory of my playing days as a defender and there's absolutely no time for thought and Sherlock Holmes-like deduction in that fraction of an instant, with two strikers bearing down upon your goal, but nevertheless, Carragher was suggesting that it was Per's great positioning that caused De Bruyne not to square the ball and instead take the shot himself. I go with Titi on this one and that the Belgian was just being greedy, but if he didn't score, at the very least De Bruyne should have forced a save out of our keeper by hitting the target.

Petr earning corn aplenty!

To my mind, this is where Petr truly earns his corn and in the words of that unsavoury racist, John Terry, will save us the additional 10/12 points per season that might well prove extremely significant. I believe Cech had the far corner of the goal covered, so he would've saved De Bruyne's shot, even if it had been on target. Yet as I've repeated, ad infinitum, in all those years that I've been entreating Arsène to invest in a world-class goalie (while Wenger repeatedly paid peanuts for an endlessly frustrating succession of goal-keeping monkeys!), it really doesn't matter whether Cech is in tip-top form or not, unless he's facing a thoroughly fearless idiot, for the vast majority of opponents, when they come up against a goalie of his immense stature, physical presence and unimpeachable reputation, psychologically the oppos are far more likely to fluff their lines because they are certain in the knowledge that they need to do something special to beat him. 

So for example, on Monday night, where against another, less reputable goal-minder, De Bruyne might merely have concentrated on hitting the target, against Cech he attempted (and failed) to find the very bottom corner of the net. If he'd scored with this effort, who knows what might've subsequently transpired?

Sitting in the lower east, I'd held up my red plastic bag, along with everyone else as the players entered the arena and the floodlights did their disco thang - is this now de rigeur for every night game, or will they save "the light show" (and ease the fears of any epileptic Gooners) for special occasions? One can usually tell the number of tourists present (and there were plenty on Monday night) by the ubiquitous presence of smart-phone cameras, but sadly I was so slow off the mark that by the time I'd got my phone out and tapped the "panoramic" setting, I managed to catch the scene just as everyone was putting their bags down!

Nevertheless, "nuff respek" to the folks from Red Action and all the volunteers who must've grafted like trojans to put 57,000 plastic bags on our seats. All credit to anyone who makes such an effort to improve what is all too often a tragically depressing lack of atmosphere at THOF2. Mind you, with their efforts and the team's success in such a crucial clash, I have to admit that the place was rocking on Monday, with the atmosphere more intense than we've experienced in many a moon.

From my seat, opposite the principle camera viewpoint in the west stand, I assumed the pattern of red and white striped was repeated on our side of the ground and it was only after returning home and seeing the pictures on the box that I discovered that the red and white bags spelt "Arsenal" (upper tier) "Together" (lower tier). This sentiment proved particularly appropriate on the night, since their was a togetherness and a team spirit that was sorely lacking in the opposition.

I spent most of the match bellowing at them to "get stuck in" and to "take them on", as I grew increasingly frustrated at our willingness to let City have the ball and our reluctance to both put them under pressure in possession and our timidity in attack. What's more, if City had nicked an equaliser in their late flurry of pressure, doubtless I and everyone else would've been slaughtering Arsène ever since for failing to have a proper go at them.

Seeing the success being achieved by the likes of Watford, with Quique Flores' 4-4-2 tactics - although I'm certain that he has a far more impressive definition of their line up, but whether it's 4-1-2-2-2 or 4-1-3-2 etc. etc for a simplistic soul like myself, basically I'm merely referring to his preference for playing with two strikers - I've often questioned why Arsène completely abandoned his own old favourite and along with every other top flight team on the planet, it seemed to be consigned to past as an utterly outdated tactic, at least until the last few weeks.

Maybe not against the likes of City, but I've often wondered why we don't terrorise some teams when playing at home, by starting with two strikers and I've never quite understood why such a standard formation disappeared, almost overnight. To my mind this is evidence of the lack of originality in football management nowadays, where there appears to be a sheep-like tendency, where if a playing style is not suitable for a top four team, with all their resources and their off-field analysis, then every other bugger follows suit. So big up to the likes of Flores for bucking this trend.

Thankfully, albeit not nearly as emphatically as it appeared, prior to Yaya suddenly stirring from his slumber, AW got it right on Monday and in the papers on Tuesday morning, all the journos were once again bowing to the fact that "Arsène knows". Although we were all entitled to get a bit carried away, we really don't want a dose of reality biting us on the bum at St. Mary's tomorrow night.

It was very impressive to see the disciplined manner in which the Gunners stood their ground and stung the title favourites with our two goals. This was exactly the same mature triumph that we witnessed at the Etihad some months back and I'm really not sure we'd have been capable of winning a game in this fashion previous to that, as it's not only Arsène but his team who seem to have finally begun to acquire that crucial ability to achieve victory, in any shape or form.

It was hilarious watching Carragher (and Titi) swallowing their slice of humble pie, after Mezut had received the Man of the Match award. Özil is so ridiculously precious to us at this precise point in time, in the absence of Cazorla and a fit Alexis that I really don't want to have to hold my breath every time he makes a tackle. However seeing Özil track back to recover possession with proper fully-committed challenge, this must have a similarly encouraging effect upon his team mates as is does upon all of us.

Does a "double-assist" count twice ya?

Myself, I'd gladly pay the price of my ticket just to watch Mezut decorate games with a couple of his sublime touches. Tit even described Özil's contribution to the first goal as a "double-assist" as I didn't realise until seeing the replays that he'd ducked, in the knowledge that Theo's effort was curling into the top corner. There's no escaping the sense at present that the lad REALLY wants it! Nevertheless, I refuse to go overboard and considering the eventual fine margins of Monday night's success, it's hard to accept that in the bookies eyes, we've suddenly deposed Man City as title favourites. Personally, until such time as we are running away with the trophy with a ten-point lead, I'd much prefer to have remained under the wire and leave City to cope with the pressure of every opponent wanting to put one over on the favourites.

Meanwhile I don't want to be the voice of doom, putting a dampener of your festive good cheer, but with Southampton having been turned over by Spurs last weekend on their turf, they are likely to be desperate to avoid such a New Year downer with two successive home defeats. The assumption is that Leicester will struggle to maintain their current pace because Ranieri doesn't have the resources to be able to rest any of their best players over the hectic festive schedule and if the Tinkerman cannot do much tinkering, surely fatigue must impact upon them at some stage? Should the Foxes reach the middle of Jan without showing signs of flagging, then I guess we will all have to take their challenge more seriously.

Meantimes, in view of the inconsistency of all the usual suspects, it feels as if it will the first side to effect a serious run of consistent results who will put themselves firmly in the box seat for the title. Ignoring all the hype, the great thing about winning on Monday night is that it affords us a slight cushion over City (with both Kompany and Aguero returning to the fray!). In the past one might've looked at all the fixtures in the next couple of weeks and considered them all to be winnable, but with this being the most unpredictable campaign in years, Monday's three points puts us in a position where we can afford to drop a point of two, without it being such a disaster.

As much as I would love to continue to build on the momentum of Monday night by winning every game between now and May, if we should end up losing 1-0 and snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat, at least the apparent extremely healthy spirit in the camp won't take a hit as a result.

It would be beautiful if Leicester blow it against the likes of Liverpool or City and leave the door open for us to straddle the summit, but my feeling is that so long as we can keep ourselves in the title challenge frame and maintain this positive mood, until (barring any further disasters!) hopefully the squad begins to return to something approaching full strength, then I might really begin to get excited!

Wishing one and all a wonderful Xmas and a happy & healthy New Year

Eat, drink and be very merry

PS. You'll be most relieved that there's no "Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3". "Why don't you get back into bed" is the opening line, but if I don't drag my lazy backside out of my pit, I'm never going to get to Southampton.....first up against the wall come my revolution will be the schedulers responsible for a 7.45pm KO and a trip to the South coast on Boxing Day (St. Stephens Day for those in the Emerald Isle). 

Time was when tradition dictated a 3pm KO, London derby on Boxing Day and I used to adore a friendly festive outing to the likes of Charlton. With families in such close proximity over Xmas, it was always a great excuse to get out of the house, avoid a barney and burn off some of the millions of calories consumed on Xmas day. Whereas with absolutely no consideration to the travelling faithful (as ever!) and the limited public transport, those buggers have squeezed in four live games for the armchair viewer, with as always, the most loyal fans having to pay the price, in our struggles to get to and more's the point, home from an arduous awayday! Spare us all a thought, as you are tucking into your turkey sandwiches and we're giving the Gunners a much needed shout on your behalf?

Come on you rip, roaring reds.......

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"It's Only A Stupid Game!"

(right to left) Don Howe, Bob Wilson, Frank Mclintock,
Tommy Baldwin, John Radford, Terry Neil, Bertie Mee.
What value this bunch at today's batty prices?
After Monday night's excitement. it's taken a couple of days for me to calm down, for the adrenaline to stop pumping and for me to be able to put matters into some proper perspective. Despite the fact that I consider myself to be far too old, jaded and world-weary to be suckered into getting too carried away, on a wave of optimism, driven by all the media hype, when the final whistle blew on Monday night's triumph, along with 57,000 other Gooners, I swallowed hook, line and sinker the "yes we can" mood. I'd just about recovered my more customary sang-froid, when I found myself turning on the telly upon arriving home on Weds night, only to discover "Fever Pitch" showing on one of the movie channels.

Although my increasingly colander-like memory might be so lamentably shot that I often struggle to recall who scored, even before I've departed the ground nowadays, there's some small solace in the fact that I can watch any movie that I might've already enjoyed and if I've seen it more than a couple of weeks prior, I can savour it again, almost as if watching for the first time.

With the infinite number of TV channels and wall-to-wall movies, one can probably find such a hugely popular film as "Fever Pitch" being broadcast from somewhere on the planet, pretty much any time. Thus I suppose it's hardly an omen to find such a sentimental ouevre adding its own particular warm glow, to the thousands of other overly schmaltzy repeats that form the traditional dross offered up by the broadcasters, as the veritable opium of the masses, for us all to vegetate in front of over the festive period. Nevertheless, with it's extremely nostalgic memories of '71 & '89, it was more than enough to get my Gooner blood up again, just as I was beginning to return to being my old curmudgeonly self!

There's nothing quite like a brush with one's own mortality to put the significance of footie into some proper perspective and yet with two such iconic Goliaths of the beautiful game as both Jimmy Hill and Don Howe sadly shuffling off this mortal coil in such a short space of time, there's some hint of the last few days of 2015 ushering the end of an era.

I wrote a half-term report blurb last week, for the Observer's customary "fans' network" feature but I mistakenly thought it would appear in Sunday's paper. Having subsequently discovered it's for publication this weekend, I was left feeling particularly stingy and was wondering if I should increase my 7/10 mark for our illustrious manager, after Arsène's apparent tactical coup on Monday night.

Then again, it will make a very pleasant change to find myself dammed for such feint praise, instead of enduring the customary tedious castigation of le Prof by the hordes of the WOB. "It's all gone quiet over there" and I get extremely pissed off at the likes of the loudmouth yob Piers Morgan pitching himself as our spokesperson. I'm not such a liar as to suggest I don't resent the fact that he might've sold just a few more copies of his slim publication Va Va Voom than my own humble collection of diary missives from 2003/04.

I've never got around to actually reading Morgan's novella, but I seem to recall hearing how our committed No. 1 fan frequently comments on his appreciation of the TV coverage of our performances (as opposed to the likes of Alan Davies, who, if I remember correctly rejected the recording schedule of Jonathan Creek because of clashes with Arsenal fixtures). Moreover, one of the very few memories not to have fallen through the gaping holes in my grey matter, is from the summer before our last (or our penultimate?) season at THOF, when my pal in the box office revealed that only two new season tickets had been issued and apparently, one of which had somehow been wangled by this glory-hunting, gobby self-publicist! Should Arsène actually go on to orchestrate the sort of prestigious success that might prove a well-deserved prelude to his retirement, there'd be a massive added bonus, in seeing exactly how Piers Morgan would dig himself out of his disrespectful hole.

Meanwhile, I had the right needle on Sunday because not only did I think my blurb in the Observer had been bumped by the coverage of the sad demise of Jimmy Hill (AKA "the Rabbi"), but with us playing City on Monday night, I had no Terrace Talk column to write for the Irish Examiner's Monday sports supplement; and to cap it all, it felt like a complete chutzpah that the paper ran a piece related to a match my dear old dad took me to at Highbury in Sept '72, when surely it should've fallen to me to offer my own account, as a ten-year old sitting in the West Upper that day, watching as a fiercely contested 0-0 draw between Bertie Mee's Double Winners and Bill Shankley's Scousers was interrupted by an injury to one of the linesmen. Everyone in the ground heard, as a call went out over the PA system, asking for any qualified referees to make themselves known to one of the stewards.

Seven thousand per cent inflation!!!
You have to bear in mind that going to football was a distinctly different experience back in the days before the advent of the smart-phone and all the other forms of modern day technology that we all now take for granted. Barring the odd anorak with a terrace tranny and the old-fashioned means of revealing the half-time scores at all the other top-flight matches (in a long-forgotten world where every game kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday!), where one required the details beside ref Ken Aston's column inside the matchday programme (eg. A. Aston Villa v Chelsea, B. Derby v Leeds etc. etc) in order to be able to interpret the scores shown under the letters in a row of boards at pitch-side, in opposite corners of the ground, back then one spent 105 minutes in glorious isolation, focused solely on events on the pitch, with a hand-warming half-time cup of Bovril and the music of the marching Metropolitan Police Band, as just about the only other distraction.

That is unless one happened to be connected to the terrace tom-toms, by being close enough to someone with an old-fashioned transistor radio to receive updates on any other significant matches, so that you didn't fall victim to the sort of Chinese Whispers that so often resulted in misinformation spreading around the ground like wildfire.

So when a geezer eventually appeared from the tunnel in a sky blue tracksuit (coincidence that this was in Coventry colours?) to run the line on the opposite side of the pitch to us, I'm assuming it was only the trademark beard, which revealed to an astonished crowd that this was actually Jimmy Hill. I just wish I had a more detailed memory of the afternoon, as I'm certain Hill must've come in for some hilarious stick from the residents of the East Lower.

As for Don Howe, I really don't have a clue as to the details, but have always thought that the Gunners made a massive mistake in not making the most of his legendary coaching know-how. After Howe returned to the Arsenal as a youth team coach (1997?), I've always assumed that his sergeant major style of drilling a defence into an extremely disciplined unit, didn't exactly gel with our new manager's "zen and the art of football maintenance" approach to the game. Perhaps the new broom believed that with Howe barking out orders on the touchline, he was too "old school" to be part of Arsène's more sedate revolution?

However I am certain that it will be evident in the tributes from all the game's great and the good, quite how revered Don Howe was as a coach and not only did it feel as if the club failed to do right by such a loyal servant, by putting him out to grass when they did, but when I think of our defensive frailties post the fab back five, we might well have benefited if Howe had still been on side.

I recall the firm grip of an ageing Frank McLintock bruising my arm, as he demonstrated the art of marking touch tight, when I asked him about Arsène's penchant for zonal marking, when I was fortunate to have Frank sitting beside me, at a celebratory Gooner dinner at the Ivy (back in the days when we were in the habit of having something to celebrate!!). I'm certain Howe would've been open to new ideas, as he was a real student of the game, but I can't help but wonder if he'd have had any truck with zonal marking?

I'm under the impression that there's a consensus of opinion that with Bertie Mee's back seat management style, it was coach Don Howe who played a significant role in our Double success in '71 and captain McLintock was convinced that Howe's methods of endlessly drilling a defensive unit, to the point where they were sticking their hands up for offside in their sleep, would've ironed out all our defensive frailties very quickly.

Having myself somewhat miraculously avoided being in a position to welcome Hill and Howe at the pearly turnstiles, I've recently made such progress with my own recovery that Monday night was the first time I've managed to walk around to the ground and back again after, in the past eighteen months. Watching the Arsenal has always proved exhausting because one becomes so engrossed, mentally kicking every ball and making every save and tackle; and with the Gunners rarely ever being a side to do absolutely anything the easy way, most matches tend to be so stressful that I'm invariably left completely cream-crackered, come the final whistle.

Also, considering I've always muttered under my breath in the past, at the killjoys who can often be heard bellowing out "Siddown!" at anyone obscuring their view by standing in front of them, I've had to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming one of them. But I fret about missing a crucial moment because I can no longer jump up out of my seat quick enough, when folks in front of me in the East Lower are up and down like jack rabbits, whenever the ball comes down our end of the pitch.

In the past I was in the habit of turning down the occasional kindly offer to sit with some mates in Club Level because I prefer my own seat in the lower tier and there is at least some atmosphere generated by us plebs in the "cheap" seats. Also, whenever I've been in Club Level, I've felt so ridiculously self-conscious of disturbing the peace and quiet, when hollering out my habitual encouragement that this inevitably inhibits my cries of "allez Laurent" and "gehen Mezut" (I envisage my pals in Club being told in no uncertain terms "don't you dare invite that noisy bugger back again!").

Whereas, nowadays I will bite my pals hand off whenever offered a pitch upstairs because matches are so much less exhausting, without having to constantly jump up out of one's seat. My missus is in the habit of very kindly driving me, around the corner, to home games and then picking me up as close as possible to the south bridge afterwards. But with her being otherwise engaged, dropping off the grandkids on Monday night, I ended up having to walk around to the game. I even managed to make it up the stairway at Highbury House, without the usual panic attack at the summit, where I usually have to stop and catch my breathe.

Amongst the most irritating consequence of my health issues is that I haven't been able to enjoy a pre-match pie from Piebury Corner for the past 18 months or more, as this had become a ritual, ever since Scots Paul first began serving up their tasty grub. Rona can't drive around that way because there are too many pedestrians in Gillespie Road and if I walk around, my heart is pumping so frantically by the time I get to the bottom of Avenell Road that I'd need a half an hour sit down, before I could entertain digesting anything.

And up until now, I'm usually so shattered after matches that it is a great relief to be able to fall into the motor and be driven home. Aside from the recent remarkable progress in my fitness, which is directly attributable to this sadistic dominatrix, posing as my physio, who appears determined for me to become a fully paid-up member of the Village People with my twice weekly sessions at the amazingly well-equipped facility of the YMCA gym in Great Russell St., I guess it was all that adrenaline coursing through my veins that resulted in me texting my missus, to relieve her of chauffeur duties for the night, telling her that she could remain in her slippers and PJs and need not come to fetch me.

It was perhaps a little ambitious of me, as my neighbour at the Emirates almost had to push me up the last little hill on the way home. Yet although it's still somewhat of a struggle for me to walk and talk simultaneously, I soon realised that one of the other rituals that has been sorely missed, is the ability to shoot the breeze and dissect the game on the way back home (not to mention that it's a great help to be reminded of all the incidents that I've already forgotten!).

The Piebury Corner stall had sold out of pies by the time we reached there, so I at least didn't feel quite so disloyal for trying out one of the other relatively new food stalls in Gillespie Rd that seem to be raising the general level of grub on offer outside the ground (mercifully, as they are still serving up the same expensive crap inside the stadium!).

Prior to the game, standing outside the Club Level entrance, debating our prospects with a couple of pals, we noticed that they were using a hand-held metal detector to scan everyone entering Club Level, but that the stewards at the regular turnstiles had no such devices (or at least there was no sign of them at turnstile J).

For those who remain unaware, the increased security arrangements since the tragic events in Paris amount to stewards standing on the approach to the external stadium concourse, asking fans to open their coats and then (perhaps my face is familiar to them?) a relatively cursory search by more stewards before entering the turnstiles.

Whatever the case, IMHO it really doesn't feel as if the heightened security measures are likely to save us from the most determined terrorist and if they are only scanning fans entering Club Level with metal detectors, I can't help but wonder if it's all for show? As my mate headed off to enter Club Level, he joked "I'm alright Jack" and so obviously it crossed my mind to wonder if this is a case of the club being more concerned about protecting the safety of their high-rollers than the rest of us?

Standing outside, I also made the discovery that there were at least four difference matchday programmes, with a choice of Mezut, Olivier, Laurent or Alexis on the front in their Xmas jumpers. I thought this was a first (as I heard them talking about it on Radio 5), but I'm told that the club did the same last Xmas and although it is a novel idea, I feel some sympathy for the determined programme collectors, who'd need to pay an outrageous 14 quid, in order to collect all four.

Mezut, Alexis, Laurent & Olivier...which one
would you want coming down your chimney?
Meanwhile, there was a rat-ta-tat-tat on the glass windows, from inside the Club Level entrance, where my pal was proudly holding up against the glass, the collection of programmes that he'd obviously blagged from the pretty Emirates girls who hand them out to Club Level residents, since the £3.50 price is included in the thousands that they pay for their seats. Personally, it's force of habit which keeps me buying matchday programmes, as it's another couple of hundred quid over the course of a season and the price has gradually crept up to a point where, with it being the best part of a fiver, it's no longer a negligible expense. But there are times when I've found myself frantically running around inside a stadium, trying to find a programme seller, when I've found myself inside the ground and having forgotten to buy one because I'm terrified we might end up losing and it would feel like it was all my fault!

Having prattled on for far too long already, without even getting to the actual game, I'm sorely tempted to trash this post and start again. But I've written it, so I might as well post it and if I don't fall asleep, I will bash out a second missive before heading off to Southampton tomorrow.

Until then, here's wishing everyone a wonderful Xmas and a happy & healthy New Year

Eat, drink and be very merry
Big Love

Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part One)
......(with such a load of complete dross on the telly!!) Part Two to follow....... (unless I nod off in the meantime :-)

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