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Monday, 26 October 2015

Ya Gunners Ya!

(or the Irish Examiner's far less long-winded version here )

It was hilarious to watch the "happy as Larry" Hammers turn over Chelsea, before trotting out the door in the teeming rain, to head around to our late KO on Saturday. Surely based on his influential displays to date, Dmitri Payet would undoubtedly appear to be the bargain buy of the summer?

Where's Wally?
I imagine that much like the majority of Gooners, I seem to be enjoying almost as much satisfaction from the self-combustion of the current title holders and their far too smug manager, as I am from our own recent exploits. In fact, if the Gunners were chugging along in the same less impressive fashion that we've grown accustomed to in recent seasons, Chelsea's apparent implosion would be of great solace, but the burgeoning optimism at the Arsenal of late means that the Blues' demise is merely an absolutely hysterical distraction.

As Mourinho appears to increasingly lose the plot with his paranoid "they're all out to get me" delusions, I can't help but wonder quite how infuriated he must be, seeing Petr Cech's safehands save all three points for his arch-rival's side in our last two outings. In fact I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was Jose's indignation at Abramovich allowing Cech to cross to North London that is the initial source of much of Mourinho's resulting petulance. Even if not, as our season progresses, I will continue to envisage the incensed image of the Chelsea manager as a constant source of amusement, every time Petr pulls another save out of the bag.

I tried, honestly I tried to get engaged in the World Cup rugby on the box the Sunday before last, but it's one of the few sports that I struggle to appreciate and in the end I found myself turning over, to watch Connery and Caine hamming it up, in one of my all time favourite movies "The Man Who Would Be King"

However, after quite such a magical occasion at the Arsenal last week, if I never watch those Philistine egg-chasers again, it will be too soon! Perhaps I fail to understand the finer points of what's labelled "the gentleman's game" but to my mind this contest of pure brute force and physical huff and puff brooks absolutely no comparison with the best football has to offer; as in the sort of utterly absorbing chess match of an artistic contest between the Gunners and Bayern Munich.

Doubtless all the pundits will soon be clamouring that the Arsenal have finally come of age, with the mature manner in which we forsook our more natural attacking instincts, in order to produce such a disciplined defensive display. Despite the German champions domination, resulting in a remarkable 70 per cent possession, with Petr Cech's impressive aid, we stood firm, preventing them from breaching our goal and eventually shocked the unbeaten outfit with the perfect sucker punch. It was indeed the epitome of a counter-attacking masterclass.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that I was far from alone in having screamed myself hoarse before half-time, bellowing out my frustration with the tactics that eventually proved so profitable. As I incessantly cursed the amount of time and space we gifted Guardiola's team in the middle of the park, affording Alonso and co. all the opportunities they needed to get their heads up and pick out threatening passes, my pal commented that this was no different to the success achieved by Mourinho's "park the bus" tactics on route to their vainglorious European triumph.

However the difference was that Chelsea were accustomed to effecting this sort of shut-out, whereas few Gooners would've put their money on our porous back-line being able to do likewise. Yet with Cech finally beginning to exert the sort of Schmeichel-like, imposing influence on our opponents, where he appears to fill the goalmouth and leaves an opposing striker far more likely to fluff his lines because he knows he needs do something special to beat him, suddenly the Gunners are starting to acquire a considerably more composed demeanour in defence.

I replied to my mate that if we continued to gift the German side so much time on the ball, eventually we'd be bound to succumb to the law of averages and be breached by one of their attacks. Yet thankfully they proved me wrong and game by game, we appear to be maturing into a side where I'm no longer bricking it every time the opposition threaten our goal with the ball.

Again on Saturday, after we gifted the Toffees a goal before the break with Gabby's unfortunate deflection, I feared this might offer Everton the incentive to put us under the cosh in the second-half. Yet although our guests saw a little more of the ball and despite fearing that we might show signs of fatigue as the game wore on, I wasn't nearly so nervous about us conceding a late equaliser as I would've been in the past because of this sense that we've begun to eliminate the costly aura of frailty that's pretty much been an ever-present problem since Spunky departed the scene.

Also, Per Mertesacker might've covered himself in glory against Bayern and you sensed in the determined displays of both him and Mezut Özil that our two member of the master race both had a point to prove. However even with Per in such great form, I'm glad Arsène is able to use him sparingly and seems to have increasing faith in Gabby. I've moaned before that for all our Big F#cking German's height, he seems to lack the sort of aerial ability one might expect from a man of his size because in truth, he doesn't appear to be able to get very far off the ground.

By comparison, there's an intensity and a resolve about our Brazilian centre-half that might occasionally find disturbing expression, but with a trio of Gabby, Kos and Giroud on the pitch, I feel we suddenly look so much more threatening at set-pieces, to the extent that I'm no longer merely raising my eyebrows at the award of yet another corner, but am instead eagerly wondering if the ball might end up in the back of the net.

I've been forced to become a little more discriminating about awayday outings of late, as my unfortunate state of decrepitude means that they are that much more exhausting and in truth, I'd actually settled for the likelihood that I'd end up watching tomorrow night's outing live on the box, with my feet up. However away matches in the League Cup have taken on a certain significance in recent times, as a rare opportunity for some of our youngsters to grab some limelight, in a genuinely competitive environment and with reduced ticket prices offering so many more youngsters a rare opportunity to see their heroes play live, there's invariably an entirely different atmosphere.

My increasingly colander-like grey matter leaves me struggling to recall my last outing to the extremely traditional environs of Hillsborough and so when the opportunity to travel up to tomorrow night's game presented itself, there was no way I was going to turn it down!

It's brilliant that the Gunners seem to have developed from our more one-dimensional all out attack previous incarnation, to the multi-faceted side of the past three outings. Having seen us successfully park the bus against Bayern and torture the Hornets and the Toffees by mixing up the tikki-takka and the long ball percentage game, heaven only knows what the kids are going to conjure up next?


Ya Gunners Ya

Singing in the rain "Top of the League" for the first
but hopefully not the last time!
After a week in which we’ve beaten one of the best teams on the planet, in Bayern Munich and temporarily tasted the rarefied air at the top of the table for the first time in 20 months, it would be easy to get carried away. However we’ve witnessed more than a few false dawns in recent times and after having endured so many seasons where the limit of the Arsenal’s ambitions was a top-four finish, I’m not about to pass on a rare opportunity to revel in the possibility that the Gunners are finally beginning to acquire the appearance of a force that is capable of achieving the sort of consistency which might, at the very least, keep us in the frame for a competitive title challenge.

In these hysterically capricious times, where we are only ever one dodgy result away from see-sawing between being a club in such comparative clover, to one in supposed crisis, the mood of optimism that currently abounds can be so ephemeral that you simply have to make hay while the sun shines.

While it feels like such a privilege to be witnessing the Gunners manufacturing such magically entertaining fodder and the recent evidence suggests that the imposing presence of Petr Cech might indeed amount to us amassing a sufficient number of additional points to mount a serious assault on the big prize, I still can’t escape the sense that our campaign continues to rest on a knife-edge.

In the past, the evidence of an Arsenal team that truly has the bit between it’s teeth, has been seen in the way Arsène has been able to rotate the squad. Where the confidence has been sufficiently high that players are able to seamlessly slip into the roles of their counterparts. If you look at our bench at present, there might be the appearance of sufficient strength in depth, but along with most Gooners, I live in permanent fear of how we’d cope in the absence of the likes of Coquelin, Koscielny or Alexis.

So I’m savouring the smorgasbord of tikki-takka, long-ball and counter-attacking success that we’ve relished this past week and hoping the Gunners can garner sufficient wind in our sails to avoid floundering on any of the many precarious reefs of fixture congestion, fatigue, injuries and suspensions that are bound to assail us between here and our distant destination next May. At the same time, I’ll spend most every match praying that fate smiles upon us, for us to be able to avoid the couple of key absences that might result in our campaign running aground long before then.

The injury to Aaron Ramsey in midweek, at least afforded the Ox a rare berth in Saturday’s starting XI and it feels as if Alex needs a decent run in the side for him to begin to shine. And it’s brilliant to be able to keep our opponents on their toes, never knowing if they need plan to contain the pace of Theo, or the threat of a more traditional centre-forward and the aerial ability of Olivier. Giroud might’ve rightly been the man of the match against Everton, but as against Bayern, ultimately it was Cech’s safehands that saved all three points.

The well renowned library-like atmosphere at the Arsenal is invariably improved somewhat, by nature of the fact that the vocal chords of the majority of fans are that much more well lubricated come late kick-offs on a Saturday. Approaching the stadium before kick-off, I lingered outside the away section, impressed by the raucous serenading of the tanked up Toffees bellowing their hearts out on the concourse.

While personally I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice a single moment of such a sensationally enthralling encounter with Bayern, all credit to the German fans for their fabulously effective protest against exorbitant ticket prices. If ever the Gunners were likely to fall victim to an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” impact of our midweek triumph, it was in having to re-energize themselves sufficiently to overcome Everton. It’s in achieving a result immediately after such humungous and draining Champions League clash that is a real test of a team’s mettle.

Although it would be a disaster if in beating Bayern, we only end up slipping through the third place trapdoor into the Europa Cup, our midweek success was far more important in terms of lending us the sort of swagger that will hopefully engender the sort of respect that might have us beating most of our domestic opposition, before a ball has even been kicked. It might only be a shadow side that takes to the field at Hillsborough on Tuesday night, but these league cup outings have acquired a significance, as a rare competitive opportunity for our second string to grab the limelight. It will be interesting to see if the burgeoning aura of invincibility at the club is sufficiently pervasive to ensure they maintain the all-conquering mood?
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