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Sunday 30 August 2015

No New Tunes From Arsène's Same Old Fiddle

Hi folks,

I went to watch the Arsenal U21s v West Ham at the Grove on Friday night and for only four quid, it proved to be the best value football entertainment that I've enjoyed so far this season. Admittedly the result might've been largely due to the fact that the majority of the Hammers regular U21 side were not involved, seemingly with most of them on the bench in the first team squad for their historic first triumph at Anfield in half a century.

Nevertheless the incisive Young Guns were 2-0 up inside of the first fifteen minutes and it was extremely refreshing to see them produce at least two inventive corner routines in the opening forty-five. This was evidence of their productive use of their time spent on the training ground and it left me wondering why on earth our first XI can't do likewise?

In the end, it finished up as a 5-0 tonking for the Irons, with Jeff Reine-Adelaide catching the eye with his silky skills, but with the goals shared out amongst four different scorers, it was a good team performance all round. Obviously I wasn't expecting quite such an easy ride at St James Park the following day but I couldn't have possibly guessed that we'd be going into the Interlull with the Gunners leading goalscorer being the less than prolific OG! Having notched more than the combined efforts of Giroud and Walcott, surely AW should pull his finger out and offer this geezer a contract?

I shouldn't really be moaning with the Gunners faring far better than the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool. Yet watching us dominate 74% of the possession against the ten man Toon, I couldn't help but think that genuine title contenders such as Man City wouldn't have been content to sit on a slender, single goal lead and leave themselves at risk of blowing the three points in the event of the home side nicking a draw with a surprise breakaway at the death. Aguerro, Silva and co. would've been far more clinical and made their superiority tell, with a far more emphatic margin of victory.

Nevertheless things could be a whole lot worse and we could've spent the best part of £250mill and still be even more desperate for a striker, as is the case with LVG at Man U. However I can't help but fret that even if AW has got hopes of landing anyone before the transfer window shuts, presumably he's waiting until either the selling club is forced to accept a lesser sum at the last moment, or we're at the end of a transfer chain that's waiting for the hectic last gasp merry-go-round to begin to move. Either way, we're likely to be at risk of being gazumped by far more desperate managers who are willing to flex their financial muscle and flash the cash necessary to stick a spoke in Wenger's wheel?


No New Tunes From Arsène's Same Old Fiddle

There was much delight amongst the travelling Gooner faithful at being geographically blessed by the dream ticket promotion of Watford, Bournemouth and Norwich. Nevertheless, having previously only dipped our toes in the water, in journeying across the Thames to Selhurst Park, it’s not until after having endured a seriously arduous awayday outing that one feels truly immersed into this season’s campaign.

As ever, the long schlep back to London from Toon Town seemed suitably truncated, not only due to having all three points safely ensconced in our back pockets, but with the time passing so much more pleasantly, as we savoured the titillating Schadenfreude of the radio commentary from Stamford Bridge, with the Gobby One’s anniversary celebrations going so awry.

Despite St. James Park being such a happy hunting ground, with the Gunners having not tasted defeat on the Toon’s home turf during the past decade, there was a prevailing mood of trepidation as we made our assault on the oxygen-starved altitude of Level 7 of the Leazes Stand at lunchtime on Saturday.

As scoreless draws go, last Monday night’s encounter with the Scousers might’ve made for highly entertaining fare, but there was no hiding from the fact that we continue to lack the crucial cutting edge necessary to break our home goal-scoring duck. While the implication to be drawn from the Toon’s creditable 0-0 draw at Old Trafford is that the Wally has been bashing heads with his Brolly. McClaren somehow appears to have introduced more steel into the Geordies’ previously porous defence.

The early KO in the North-East served as merely the first of this season’s succession of customary reaffirmations of the obvious contempt of those responsible for dictating the live TV schedules, in taking it for granted that the travelling faithful can be relied upon to religiously turn up and play our part, in providing the necessary televisual spectacle, no matter how impractical this might be.

Like most other Gooners, I let out an exasperated groan at being lumbered in Bayern’s group (yet again!) in Thursday’s Champions League draw, knowing that the likely limit of our ambitions will be another knockout stage exit, after qualifying in 2nd place behind Munich’s master-race. Frankly, if we can’t overcome Olympiakos and Zagreb, we don’t deserve to be there but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having to seek enlightenment from Google to find a more familiar moniker for GNK Dinamo.

I had the needle to Chelsea, as unlike Blues fans, I quite fancied a trip to Tel Aviv. Still, at least our perennial invite onto the world’s most glamorous sporting stage invariably proves educational. I was clueless as to the location of the Croatian capital before the draw. In the days since, I’ve been struggling to find a means of accompanying the Gunners to Zagreb in a couple of week’s time, without totally breaking the bank.

Sadly, I might be “past it” but for plenty of Gooners, Saturday’s untimely kick-off proffered an excuse to travel up the day prior. As evidenced by those arriving at the ground with obvious hangovers, after having taken out an insurance policy on a bad result by ensuring they’d been suitably hammered the night before. At the very least, they’d be returning home with happy memories of Newcastle’s “banging” nightlife.

Doubtless the Geordies will contend that it was Andre Marriner who definitely got out of his bed on Wearside and that it was the card happy ref who was most in need of some Alka Seltzer. Yet with his aid, these Gooners were grateful to have enjoyed both their piss-up and the three points. Considering the way in which renowned Gooner Mo Farah was simultaneously making history in Beijing, completing his stupendous “triple double”, the Gunners could well do with some lessons in clinical finishing from Mo.

In their efforts to knobble Alexis and le Coq, the Toon shot themselves in the foot with their “over enthusiasm”. Yet as is so often the case, not only did the ref put the kibosh on a potentially entertaining encounter, it really didn’t do us any favours. Mitrovic’s early bath left the Gunners looking as if they’d already won the game and without Coloccini’s inadvertent contribution, we might’ve found ourselves ruing our failure to press home our advantage.

The early start also meant that we made it home in time for Match of the Day. Where one couldn’t avoid the contrast between Walcott’s profligacy in front of goal and Sterling’s instinctively clinical strike for City. Not to mention Arsène’s blinkered obliviousness to the opposition, preventing us from ever profiting from the sort of tactical half-time tinkering seen from Pellegrini.

With most of the competition splashing the cash, like it’s going out of fashion, I refuse to believe that we lack sufficient financial muscle to secure any of those players who are incessantly being touted in the media. Seemingly it’s le Prof’s parsimony that always leaves us waiting for the vagaries of the transfer merry-go-round to fortuitously deposit a star-name at our door, instead of simply stumping up whatever it takes to land our targets. Surely this is a false economy, if it leaves our squad with patent deficiencies and denies them the psychological boost needed to mount a serious challenge for glory.

The old adage says that you can’t buy character. Even in the unlikely event that Arsène silences all his critics and leaves everyone agog, by pulling off a transfer coup (or two!) before deadline day, there’s no guarantee this will have the desired effect. Yet without more firepower, or a viable alternative for Coquelin, our squad will be no better equipped to believe themselves capable of beating the likes of Bayern and it’s hard to envisage anything other than the same “nearly men” script that’s sadly become the Arsenal’s infuriating trademark.

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Tuesday 25 August 2015

You'll Never Walk Alone Perhaps...But A Little More Company Certainly Won't Go Amiss


Several Million Pennies Perhaps, But Please Arsène Don't Let Us Get Caught Short, For The Want Of You Spending Them

                 With no Irish Examiner column to write this weekend, due to it being a Monday night game and with me having lazily neglected to post last week's missive (other than a Twitter/Facebook link to the edited version in the Examiner's sports supplement last Monday), I thought that I had better post some thoughts on tonight's encounter, for all those Gooners who might be feeling somewhat starved of my words of wisdom :-)

                Arsène somehow managed to keep the impending absence of both Koscielny and Mertesacker quiet and I'm sure that much like everyone else, my heart sank somewhat, with the revelation about an hour or so prior to tonight's KO that, having never had an outing playing alongside one another in a major encounter, a decidedly unfamiliar centre-back pairing of Chambers and Gabriel were about to face the unenviable task of having to thwart Benteke, Coutinho & co.

                Although Gabriel has enjoyed a few outings since his arrival, frankly, considering what we paid for Callum Chambers and the fact that he was being touted back then as a fairly certain graduate into the full England squad, it seems somewhat remiss of Wenger to have denied Chambers absolutely any game time, ever since Callum's very promising start with the Gunners ended in comparative ignominy.

                I can understand Arsène wanting to protect his investment and to prevent Chambers' confidence from being completely shattered, to the point where his calamitous contribution might've resulted in there being no possibility of redemption as far as the Arsenal's fickle, not so faithful were concerned. Yet if Chambers and Gabriel are to continue to be considered as our first and pretty much only choice as viable cover for Koscielny and Mertesacker, then surely le Gaffer has an obligation to ensure that both players enjoy sufficient game time, so that neither of them ends up looking like quite such complete fish out of water, if, or more's the point, when he's forced to throw them straight into quite such a frenetic frying pan, in circumstances such as those experienced this evening.

                I'm unsure whether it was down to the fact that our guests adventurous first-half ambitions began to evaporate after the break, as Liverpool inevitably began to focus on consolidating the point that would serve as such a psychological boost, compared to their capitulation at our gaff last term. But whether this was the cause, or it was down to forty-five minutes worth of much needed familiarity, mercifully Chambers and Gabriel both appeared to be a little less out of their depth in the second half.

                However, so dire was our defending early on that an improvement was no great feat. Although it felt as if we had been cheated of the opening goal, with text message confirmations from those watching on the box, stating that Ramsey's strike had been wrongly ruled offside (whatever happened to the former adage of affording the attacking team the benefit of any doubt?), with Petr Cech suddenly coming good and confirming his "point saving" capabilities, with a couple of impressive saves and with the Scousers being denied a couple of goals, with the ball coming crashing back off the woodwork (including a wonder strike from Coutinho), every Gooner present was relieved to reach halftime with honours somehow remaining even.

                Allowing for my colander-like memory in the event that I've remembered incorrectly, but as the stats flashed up on the big screens at the break, showing that the Scousers had managed something like ten shots to our three, with something like five shots on target, to our meagre return of a single effort on goal, these figures told a revealing first-half tale and one in which we couldn't have really complained if we'd found ourselves 0-3 down come the break!

                From what I recall, Monreal was about the only one of our back four who didn't embarrass himself, while Bellerin and Chambers were most culpable, leaving le Coq and Cech having to save their bacon on several occassions. Sadly this left Hector seemingly so terrified of being undone that I can barely recall seeing him making use of his greatest asset, turning defence into attack, by rampaging down the right flank.

                Nacho's consistency has resulted in us having increasing faith in the Spaniard as our first choice left-back. Kieran Gibbs might be quicker, but his physical frailties and the fact that these constantly leave him struggling to regain his form, make Monreal look like Mr Reliability by comparison. However Nacho will never possess the sort of pace necessary to terrify his opposite number and with Hector reluctant to make use of his speed, for fear of leaving the back door open behind him, sadly we are left looking woefully short of the width needed to stretch opposition defences when on the attack.

                And this problem is only made that much more apparent with Arsène's current starting XI. Santi might not have been at his creative best this evening but there appears to be a consensus of opinion that he and le Coq are the most effective pairing in the middle of the park. However if one agrees with AW's apparent belief that Özil, Alexis and Ramsey are all too talented to be left out of the starting line-up, with Mezut seemingly allowed to drift wherever he fancies, we're left with Alexis and Ramsey as our nominal wide men.

                Ramsey definitely doesn't enjoy this position and it's obvious that he would much prefer to have a more central role. Additionally, Aaron patently lacks the pace to be able to stretch a full-back down the flank and in the event we turnover possession to the opposition with him haring towards the corner flag, he's not fast enough to be able to get back and assist Bellerin to thwart the counter attack.

                Such is Alexis' unbridled enthusiasm that I'm sure he'd willingly play in goal, rather than be left chomping at the bit on the bench. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I'd doubt he'd ever complain, I imagine that if he had the choice, our Chilean Duracell bunny would much prefer to be playing in the middle, just behind Giroud, feeding off our French striker's knockdowns.

                It is therefore almost inevitable that both Ramsey and Alexis will instinctively gravitate towards the more congested central areas because they are both a long way from being able to fulfil the responsibilities of a more natural wide-man.

                By contrast this evening, with Benteke being so dominant in the air, Rodgers was able to adopt a simple, but highly effective percentage game, with the likes of Clyne and Firmino flying down the flanks and whipping in crosses for their target man. In doing so, they managed to turn our defence and get them nervously playing towards our own goal, getting in behind our backline and threatening our goal with almost every attack.

                Personally I would've liked to have seen both Theo and the Ox sent on much earlier, but out on the wing, to try and use their pace to stretch the opposition defence. Considering how badly we needed to get a home win on the board and how Liverpool had begun to sit back, allowing us to dominate possession as we pressed for a goal, I definitely couldn't fathom Wenger's logic, in replacing Giroud with Theo?

                Not only has Walcott proved decidedly unconvincing, playing in his preferred role as our principal striker, but there's such an obvious deficiency in Olivier's absence because suddenly we are left (distinctly "vertically challenged"!) needing to keep the ball on the deck, without a hope in hell of winning anything in the air.

                What I find most depressing is our absolute lack of originality at set pieces. When you think how blessed we are, with supremely talented ball-players and how much time these lads spend on the training pitch, I simply cannot comprehend how it is possible that we don't have an abundance of potential set-piece and corner takers, capable of imparting such power and pace on the ball to make every set piece trouble the opposition, instead of invariably presenting a feebly struck ball as "meat and drink" to the opposition keeper.

                Nor can I understand how almost every other side manages to surprise their opponents with the occasional training ground routine, when our wealth of creative geniuses cannot manage to concoct absolutely anything other than the customarily tepid cross into the box.

                Come on Arsène, when you've taken Giroud off and left us seriously deprived of anyone who's capable of getting their head on the ball, surely we are long overdue a modicum of original thinking and can at least attempt some sort of "special teams" routine practiced in training. I don't know about the opposition, but I for one would certainly fall over in amazement!

                Without any width, the Gunners were left, as ever, intricately trying to pick a path through the massed ranks of the Scouser's defence along the width of their penalty box, patiently awaiting the one magical ball that might find a route through all this congestion. Admittedly Mezut managed to conjure one up, in setting Ramsey up for the goal that was wrongly ruled offside. Yet if I've said it once, I've said it a million times and it seems so obvious to a simple soul like myself, that if you can't find a path through the heart of the opposition's defence, then at some stage surely we've got to attempt to go around them?

                Unfortunately, so long as le Prof persists with his square-peg in round hole efforts to shoehorn as much talent into the side as possible, we will continue to be deprived of the necessary width that might afford us the option of this particular Plan B, when faced with the sort of resolute efforts seen from the Scousers this evening, in frustrating our persistent tippy-tappy attempts to create a goal-scoring opportunity, by ensuring they had a sufficient number of bodies in the box to deny us the time and the space necessary to get a shot off.

                I'm not sure what the answer is to this question, but watching Pedro bringing the sort of pace to Chelsea's performance against the Baggies that the Blues have lacked up until now (and at the same time making a mockery of all that crap about needing time to adapt to the Premiership!), I can't help but feel that by leaving the vast majority of our attacking pace on the bench, we're gifting our opponents with the fillip of knowing that they need not be frightened of playing a high defensive line, when only Alexis has the capacity to embarrass them.

                After having to endure so many successive seasons of tense Champions League qualifiers, it was a rare pleasure this past week to be able to savour the anxieties of opposition fans, watching the likes of Man U struggling to negotiate their way into the group stages. They might only have beaten the mighty Club Brugge but Memphis' rampant display left me yearning for the scintillating sight of a speedster in the Arsenal's colours, terrorising the opposition with the same sort of turbo-powered pace.

                I'm really not sure that Benzema would've offered us a guaranteed twenty plus goals per season and according to the comments on the radio this evening, the suggestion was that in the absence of being able to sign any of his targets, they wouldn't be surprised if Arsène does no further transfer business.

                Personally I am not nearly so bothered about "who" but "if" we add to the squad before the transfer window slides agonisingly shut. With all our competitors spending money like it's going out of fashion, in a frantic effort to add more strength in depth to their squads and with rumours of £200 million sitting in the bank, I can't help but feel that we need the psychological boost of a big name signing, far more than we need to be earning the interest on these funds, if only as a signal of intent to the rest of the squad of our determination to kick-on, as opposed to being content to tread water as perennial also-rans.

                Arsène might trot out his traditional response, refusing to bring in players who are not better than those we have already. However I couldn't help but notice the line-ups on the back of the matchday programme against West Ham and again in tonight's programme, where it's impossible to ignore the fact that we've got twenty-four players listed, compared to thirty-seven in the Liverpool squad. We can argue all we like about specific individuals and whether they might be good enough, but there's no denying this patently obvious difference in the basic numbers!!

                I was quite impressed with Wijnaldum's performance for the Toon at Old Trafford and I can't envisage McClaren's less fragile looking Newcastle exactly being a pushover on Saturday. So many other sides have made use of the additional money washing around the Premiership, by going to the well to try and add quality to their squads, either merely to try and avoid the drop and ensure their continued access to this cash cow, or with more elevated ambitions.

                As a result, I suspect that there's a much greater risk of teams taking points off one another this season. Never mind us mounting a title challenge, when injuries and suspensions begin to take their toll in mid-winter, I fear we might regret a failure to add more strength in depth in the most obvious positions, if only to maintain our top four status.

                As disappointing as it was to have failed to secure our first home win against the Scousers and to have failed to conjure up a goal from all that second half pressure, we have to count our blessings because the evening could easily have turned out a whole lot more catastrophic and we can at least seek some solace in the likelihood that Petr Cech's performance should do a power of good to our new keeper's confidence.

                How crucial the two dropped points will be in the long run, this will only become apparent when we see if Liverpool fold more easily against our immediate competitors. If the Scousers prove themselves capable of taking points at Man City or Stamford Bridge, then tonight's draw won't seem nearly quite so costly. However if we've flattered Liverpool, like we appear to have done with West Ham, where the Hammers defence has looked positively porous ever since, should the Scousers prove to be similarly incapable of doing us any favours elsewhere, our failure to break our home duck tonight might prove more significant?

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Sunday 9 August 2015


The Gooners Diary rides again. I only wish I could say the same for the Gunners!

In case anyone is interested, here's Saturday's preview piece for the Irish Examiner

And although I'd much prefer to avoid having to write whilst at my most infuriated, immediately after such a devastating defeat, allowing a little time to calm down, unfortunately Examiner deadlines preclude from a more considered missive

Keep the faith



Five minutes into Sunday’s disastrous Derby Day opener, I turned to my mate to say that I wished I’d had a five quid punt on the Irons, as I heard the radio commentators expressing their surprise at the outrageous odds (in a two horse race) of 14 to 1. Yet with such a wealth of the game’s so called authorities all tipping an Arsenal squad, including the single addition of Petr Cech, as being far more capable of challenging for honours this season, I don’t think anyone really expected the bookies to be paying out on a West Ham win this weekend?

Well anyone that is with the exception of Slaven Bilic and his impressively staunch Hammers outfit. It remains to be seen if Bilic’s new-look Irons have indeed become the sort of formidable opposition who can reproduce this form, against teams who, unlike the Gunners, don’t turn out in so phlegmatic a fashion, as if they’ve swallowed all the pre-season hype and fully expected the Hammers to roll over and gift us all three points just for showing up.

After Chelsea had dropped two points at Stamford Bridge and proffered us an opening weekend leg-up, with the sort of lacklustre display that made Swansea look positively sparkling by comparison, much like everyone else, I was confident that the Arsenal would come flying out of the traps, determined to take full advantage, while laying down an opening-day marker of our intent to lead from the front.

Sadly nothing could be further from the truth, as we sat back for the opening twenty minutes and presented an unfamiliar West Ham side that included new-comers Ogbonna and Payet (who on first impressions, both look like shrewd additions) and the 16-year old centre-back, Reece Oxford playing in a pivotal role in the middle of the park, with the opportunity to assuage their butterflies and to grow in the belief that they were anything but their hosts three-point cannon fodder.

While everyone was swallowing the consensus of punditry opinion that Petr Cech’s arrival would present us with the additional 10/12 points necessary to put us in the title frame, amidst all this premature euphoria, the age-old failings of the ten players in front of him seemed to have been forgotten. Moreover, on Sunday’s showing, Cech looks less like the Gunner’s savior and more like “the Man From Uncle”, inserted into the Arsenal squad as Roman Abramovich’s secret weapon (albeit that it took 43 mins for him to self-destruct!).

As reluctant as I am to prove my own pre-match warning, about how quickly the knives would be out for Arsène in the event that we failed to get off on the right foot, I can’t help but feel that le Boss must bear a large portion of the blame for what proved to be such a massive anti-climax.

Obviously it’s not Arsène’s fault that pretty much everyone, perhaps with the exception of the Ox, had a lamentably miserable day at the office. Yet in the never-ending absence of any demonstrative leaders, headbutting lockers to liven up the dressing room à la Tony Adams, surely it falls to the back-room staff to be putting up posters up of Roy Keane’s disparaging “selfies and six-packs” comments, or to find some means of inspiring their charges with sufficient electricity that they don’t end up starting such a potentially significant encounter like a laidback Sunday kickabout in the park.

Then again, perhaps it was me who was entirely culpable for this catastrophe, after having forsaken my own lower tier seat for the comforts of Club Level. I don’t normally accept the occasional offer of a pitch in the “prawn circle”. Sitting in the lower tier requires a certain level of fitness, in order to be able to get up out of one’s seat quick enough so as not to miss any of the action. But with me feeling somewhat poorly, it made sense to opt for a less strenuous afternoon in the posh seats.

With just about the best seat in the house, it was screamingly obvious to me that the Gunners should’ve been targeting the lumbering centre-back Tomkins with him playing at right back. Yet I cannot ever recall Arsène making tactical changes to target the opposition’s potential weaknesses. In the absence of Bellerin, the only pace we had on the pitch was the Ox, operating on the opposite flank. Tomkins must’ve been delighted to find himself facing rare forays forward from Monreal. Compared to how effective Cazorla was at the end of last season, in a central partnership with Coquelin, Santi looks like the archetypal square peg in a round hole out on the left, as he inevitably gravitates towards the more congested middle of the park.

Everyone was surprised to see Alexis on the bench. It was assumed he was there merely as insurance but we certainly weren’t expecting Le Prof to be left cashing in this policy at 0-2 down. However even with all our firepower out on the park as we chased the game at the death, still we failed to stretch the Hammers defence. In truth our guests looked more likely to nick a third on the break than we were of even scoring a consolation goal.

Talk about coming down to earth with a bump. We can but hope that the Gunners will bounce back at Palace, suitably chastened by Sunday’s reality check and that this defeat will at least loosen le Prof’s purse strings, by convincing him that the £200m will serve us a lot better out on the park than earning interest in the bank. I’m really not sure Benzema would be the answer but we could do a lot worse than Reece Oxford, as some powerful young midfield protection.
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