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Monday 18 May 2015

It's Happened Again....

Hi folks,

Forgive me for not having posted a diary missive for some weeks but with successive Monday night matches, I've not had a column to write for the Examiner since the bore draw against Chelsea and before that, I've been lazily posting links on Twitter and Facebook direct to my published piece in the paper.

In fact Sunday deadlines for the Irish Examiner have meant that late KOs, especially away from home on a Sunday have become the bane of my life, as I find I can't really enjoy the game because I'm stressing about filing my column. Consequently, I take some of the credit for the Gunners improved second half performance at Old Trafford. I decided to do the journalistic thing of trying to relieve some of the pressure, by bashing out some copy at the break.

Needless to say, I ended up having to start again from scratch come the final whistle, but I like to think that the fact that I had prematurely decreed "our disappointing capitulation at Old Trafford" was largely responsible for what followed in the second half.

As ever, the limitations of my eight hundred words below preclude me from being able to expound on some of the points that struck me during the first hour of this encounter, as I prepared to lay into the Gunners for a second successive sorry display. In truth, I have absolutely no insight into actual events, but I get the distinct impression that AW and LVG are world's apart in their management styles. 

Doubtless Arsène's approach isn't anything like as random in practice, but one gets the impression that there's little attention to the sort of tactical tweaks to counter the opposition's strengths, eg. making provisions for Fellaini and the likelihood of him pulling onto the back stick to maximise his height advantage over Bellerin and Monreal. One could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène's unassailable belief in our boys ability means that for every single game, le Gaffer just sends them out there to get on with it.

By contrast, I get the impression that LVG is something of a stickler for his attention to detail, aware of Man Utd's limitations at present and doing all in his power to counter any perceived failings in his side. For example, I couldn't help but notice the disciplined way in which the likes of Young and Valencia hugged the touchline every time Utd went forward, in an effort to stretch our defence, in the hope that Falcao and co. might find the resulting holes.

We also witnessed one inventive set-piece, straight off the Carrington training ground and considering the endless amount of hours the Gunners spend at London Colney, I find it somewhat flabbergasting and wonder exactly what it says about our team and Arsène's training methods that we seem to lack the ingenuity to ever come up with a variation upon a set-piece that doesn't involve Cazorla, Ozil etc. hoofing the ball into the box?

Finally, although it doesn't look set to last (if the latest claims in Marca are to be believed?), if there's one most obvious contrast between these two teams, it's between the sticks, where it is De Gea's decisiveness and his speed of thought, compared to the hesitant prevarications of Ospina that is the difference between a definitive world class goalie and the Gunners infernal string of keepers, who unfortunately have all amounted to little more than half-decent shot-stoppers.

The way in which De Gea decisively snuffs out threats on his goal, while remaining on his feet and at his most imposing, forcing opponents to fret about having to do something special to beat him and his speed of thought in his distribution, so often playing a crucial role in Utd's ability to turn defence into attack, by rapidly springing the counter-attack and taking advantage of opponents who are forced to chase a game, these are some of the attributes that spread an aura of calm and composure throughout the rest of the team, as the presence exuded by a world class keeper liberates everyone playing in front of them, knowing that even if they cock things up, their keeper is likely to rescue them from any lasting embarrassment.

The contrast between De Gea and Ospina only served to highlight the sadly, enduring disadvantage of AW's failure to bite the bullet and give up on his seemingly infinitesimal efforts to install someone between the sticks on the cheap and instead go out and do (or more's the point PAY!) whatever it takes to obtain the very best "world class" goalkeeper.

As for the Gunners, our painful lack of width at Old Trafford was nothing new. It's an inevitable consequence of the fact that we have such a large clutch of midfield players, who all deserve inclusion in the team and who all ideally want to inhabit the middle of the park. As I've said below, the transformation when Walcott came on and Aaron Ramsey occupied his preferred position at the heart of our midfield was remarkable. 

Ramsey will never be a touchline hugging winger and I presume that even if he's willing to do a job for the team out on our right flank, rather than be left on the bench, he's always likely to be less effective as a square peg, in a round hole, even if the dip in his performance is occurring at a subconscious level. To be honest, I'm fed up of the way in which we always seem to be trying to shoehorn all our talent into the team, instead of buying players to fill the specific gaps in our squad.

Don't get me started on Carl Jenkinson. Apparently the form of the Corporal and that of Creswell, the Hammers other full-back has been the only bright spark at the Boleyn. But on what basis can Arsène try and convince Carl to follow his dream of a successful career in London N5, only to return and find himself behind Bellerin, Debuchy and even Chambers, in the right-back pecking order?

But then I really shouldn't be whinging. The fact of the matter is that we Gooners are so spoiled that we don't know we're born, when we contrast the level of entertainment and the achievements that we enjoy with the endless misery of the vast majority of other clubs.

Keep it under you hat, but an offer of a spare ticket resulted in me venturing down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road on Saturday, to see how the other half live. Despite beating a team of Spurs rejects 2-0, the highpoint at White Hart Lane was Brad Friedel's on pitch retirement announcement at half-time!

Perhaps I should keep schtum, for fear that the Arsenal might put up our prices, but my Spurs pal revealed that he was forced to stump up an extortionate £1950 on Friday, to renew his West Upper season ticket. I imagine their season tickets only include a mere couple of cup ties, compared to our seven, on account of the fact that they're not expected to be involved in any more! But it was worth going to White Hart Lane, if only to remind myself quite what good value my lower tier seat at the Arsenal is at "only" £1095.

I keep reminding my mate quite how much I miss THOF and that it is nevertheless worth renewing his seat, as if they ever get around to building their new stadium, he will miss White Hart Lane when it's gone. But never mind Spurs eternal failings on the football pitch, truth be told, having grown accustomed to the comparatively luxurious surroundings at our new stadium, my bony old bum couldn't possibly endure the cramped and uncomfortable conditions at Spurs all season long.

Compared to the intimidating and ugly atmosphere of our annual derby encounter, it's not nearly so horrible going to Spurs as a comparative neutral and I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that it's somewhat nostalgic, as my old man often took me on alternate weeks to Highbury and Spurs as a kid. But as if to confirm quite how outdated White Hart Lane is, I discovered that there is no disabled access to the West Upper. I didn't realise that I couldn't get up there via the lift at the disabled entrance that I've used to access the away seats in the corner of the South Stand for our derby matches. I eventually found that I needed to go through the directors entrance to get to the only other available lift.

Even then, this only took me up to the high-rollers restaurant at the level of their directors box and I still had to negotiate a flight of stairs and through a door at the rear of the club shop on the concourse to get to my seat. If it wasn't for a kindly lady in the lift, I would've never found this circuitous route. Recognising a familiar face coming down the stairs towards us, after he'd passed I enquired of this lady "what's the name of that comedian?"

No she didn't say Soldado, as it was none other than Michael Mckintyre. I was tempted to grab him and request the obligatory "selfie", if it wasn't for the fact that I was so pooped by this stage that he'd have been forced to linger for at least five minutes, for me to be able to catch my breathe and get the words out.

Enuf enemy waffle

It's Happened Again....

Theatre of Dreams indeed....even Theo scored

Pooping Man Utd’s last home game of the season party was always likely to prove a stiff test, especially after ramping up the pressure upon ourselves, following Swansea’s infuriating “smash and grab” last Monday night.  Having struggled to string a pass together in the opening forty-five at Old Trafford, mercifully the Gunners gave a much improved account of ourselves after the break, with a display that appeared to be deserving of at least a positively crucial point.

As we’ve learned to our great cost in recent seasons, you can't over-estimate the importance of a top three finish, thereby avoiding putting a spanner in the works of pre-season preparations, by having to be involved in a Champions League qualifier. These qualification matches are SO insanely significant, with the financial and all the other implications of defeat so overblown that there are inevitable consequences upon a Premiership campaign from the entire club having to psyche itself up so early on.

Consequently, after our last gasp capitulation to the Swans, I was left thinking that “it serves them bloody well right” if such a lacklustre performance was to end up being the cause of the premature curtailment of our players’ summer pleasures, getting them out of their flip-flops and back into their football boots far sooner than should’ve been the case.

My suspicion was that our game in hand played a considerable part in the lamentably indolent and unexpected conclusion to our winning streak because we started last Monday night’s game with the sort of lack of intensity that suggested we had all the time in the world to secure the points necessary to avoid a fourth place finish.

Mind you, on a more positive note, this defeat did at least force us to refocus on the task at hand for the trip to Manchester. It might’ve looked like the Gunners were merely going through the motions, with a first half performance without a single shot on goal for the first time in ten years, but we eventually managed to raise our game, to the point where we didn’t just look like winning the “race you back to London”.

Never mind the three points on offer against Sunderland in midweek, it would’ve been disastrous if both Manchester sides had won the day and we’d ended languishing in fourth. With Santi having a bad afternoon at the office, constantly conceding possession in the middle of the park and with Aaron Ramsey annoyingly anonymous in his starting position out wide on the flank, thankfully for once le Gaffer didn’t leave it too late to answer Gooners half-time haranguing for the introduction of Wilshere and Walcott.

The results of Arsène ringing the changes couldn’t have been more instant as Aaron was suddenly pulling all the strings, incisively spraying the ball around like Stevie G in his pomp. I suppose I couldn’t let this missive pass without some sort of nod to his retirement. My facility for recall might be well on the wane, but even if I’ve long since forgotten Gerrard’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, the Scouse talisman deserves huge respect as one of the last of a dying breed of “one club men".

By contrast, Walcott’s impact might have been equally unimpressive as his other rare cameo outings this season, but even if his equalising goal was thoroughly unintentional, it made for a pleasant change for Theo to be cast as the hero for once, rather than the villain of the piece. Who knows, with his opportunity to stake a claim for inclusion in the Wembley drama to come, perhaps this will prove to be just the sort of slice of luck that will boost Walcott’s battered confidence and see him finish this campaign with a bang, rather than a whimper (frankly Theo needs it, if he’s to have any leverage in his contract negotiations!).

It was huge fun interrupting LVG’s on-pitch tribute, with a hearty chorus of “Que Sera” but with a patently mediocre Man Utd there for the taking while they remain a team in transition, it would’ve been marvellous to hand out a tonking and lay down a psychological marker for next season. Yet under the circumstances, we were most relieved to be returning to the capital with the point in our back pocket that will enable Wenger to rotate the squad, safe in the knowledge that we only need one more from the two matches to come this week, to avoid spoiling our holidays.

It certainly didn’t appear as if Villa’s players were playing for their Cup Final places, with their six-goal slaughter at St. Mary’s. But with such healthy competition on the Gunners’ bench, I bloomin' well hope we can maintain the positive mood in advance of the big finale, by giving both the Black Cats and the Baggies good cause to be very afraid.

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