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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

It's An Ill Wind.....

I must admit that I'm enjoying all the bizarre theories that have been surfacing over the past few days about the Gunners' injury woes. It seems everyone and their aunt has an opinion on the subject. I had a good old giggle at Barney Ronay's "Gulliver Theory" in the Grauniad.

With everyone else at it (and as I hate having to bash out my Examiner missive while I'm still boiling, immediately after a match, without the benefit of being able to put events into some proper perspective) I thought I might as well add my own tuppence worth on the topic. Almost everyone, seemingly bar our esteemed manager, could see Alexis' breakdown coming a mile off! For what it's worth, my instinct is that this is yet another instance where we've ended up paying the price for the fact that Arsène is, first and foremost, a scientist, to the detriment of him possessing the sort of more instinctive personality traits that enable less scientific folk to make decisions based on "gut feeling" rather than strictly applying reason according to the data.

I am sure that much like most other Gooners, I warmed to Alexis from the very first moment I saw him play in red and white, simply based on the patently obvious way in which he went about playing the game, with a "joie de vivre" that's sadly become so rare nowadays, amongst all those mercenaries who are merely going about their job of work.

For my money, the fact that the Chilean appeared to be quite gifted was only secondary to the charmingly rare and endearing quality of him playing with a smile upon his face, positively bristling with the same sort of enthusiasm that one of us fans might have, if we ever found ourselves stepping off the terraces onto the pitch.

While I might not have predicted the imminent damage to Alexis' hamstring, standing behind the goal at the Hawthorns last weekend, you could see that he was expending no less effort, but after one particular forlorn chase ended up with the ball going out for a goalkick, one didn't need to see Alexis' face to know that he was no longer smiling, as he trudged back towards the centre of the pitch. Even from behind, it was screamingly obvious that the customarily puffed out chest was deflated and his entire body language bellowed out that while he might never admit it, so long as he was required, the poor bugger was in desperate need of a break.

I would've imagined that a more intuitive manager might've long since sensed this change in Alexis' demeanour, despite any contradictory data suggesting he was still covering the same mileage, completing as many passes etc etc. I might be a complete dinosaur when it comes to football's modern day obsession with statistics (to the point where the analysis of the beautiful game is more akin to the likes of baseball and the Septics' other favourite sports that are appreciated by means of an Excel spreadsheet!). Nevertheless, Alexis goes about his business on a football pitch at such a frenetic pace that a slight dip in form, such as we've witnessed in recent weeks, should've been revealed, if one had the capacity to dig down into the technical data, due to the fact that slight errors are always so much more evident when doing everything at such speed.

While I can fully appreciate Wenger's dilemma, Arsène has no one else to blame but himself for failing to bolster the squad by spending some of the £200 million that was available to him in the summer, to ensure that we didn't find ourselves so far down to the barebones that he couldn't afford to rest the Chilean. Yet there's little point in us continuing to cry over this spilt milk. After last Tuesday's display against Dynamo Zagreb, I'm sure that in Wenger's shoes, I would've also struggled to leave Alexis out of the starting XI on Sunday.

It was amazing to see so many thousands of empty seats at the Emirates that night. When you consider all those kids who would willingly sacrifice a year's worth of pocket money to go and watch a Champions League game live, I have to wonder to myself who exactly are these incredibly selfish season ticket holders, who are so blasé about Champions League football that they can't be bothered to turn up and who can't even make the effort to ensure that their ticket doesn't get left in a drawer in the office, unused, but is given to someone who might be utterly blown away by the opportunity to see a live match.

If we Gooners have become quite so apathetic about attending Champions League matches, can we really expect the players to be inspired to produce their sparkling best in front of a half-empty stadium? And if we're going to treat the most glamorous football competition on the planet with quite such diffidence, why should we care about qualifying for it every season? It pains me to suggest that White Hart Lane would be bursting at the rafters for every Champions League game, if the Lilywhites were to ever take our place!

I appreciate now that the fabulous goals scored against Dynamo were largely due to the fact that the Croatians were such feeble opposition, but after a succession of several lacklustre performances in recent weeks, I came home so enthused last Tuesday night that I was left wondering if it was too late to arrange a trip to Athens next week for our climactic final group game. Unable to bear the thought of not being present to witness the Gunners miraculous resurrection against Olympiakos, I even went so far as to begin checking flights, to see if I could find something cheap enough to be able to justify the outing to my missus.

I will still be gutted not to be present in person, if we go to Greece next week and better Olympiakos' 2-3 victory at our place but I have to admit that after events at Carrow Road, I am somewhat relieved that I didn't blow a couple of hundred quid on getting there. Where before Sunday I was feeling quite optimistic about our prospects of pulling a result out of the bag and qualifying, suddenly I really don't fancy our chances.

Sure a midfield of Ramsey, the Ox and Flamini should still prove more than sufficient to achieve a result against the Greek side, but in order to win by a couple of clear goals, we will really need to go for it and I fear that in Alexis' absence, the Gunners will have no one to offer us the necessary forward momentum, that essential energetic impetus to make something happen.

Saturday's encounter with Sunderland should prove revealing but I worry that (as with Aaron Ramsey) it is a bit soon for the Ox to come to the boil after his recent layoff and other than Joel Campbell, or perhaps one of our full-backs, we've got no one to offer us the sort of incisive pace necessary, to turn a reinforced backline and really trouble the opposition.

Consequently, both on Saturday and in Athens next week, I won't be at all surprised if we end up suffering ninety agonising minutes of us patiently playing the ball back and forth, in front of the opposition's penalty area, waiting in vain for Moses to part a ten-man defence, like the waters of the Red Sea, when our only miracle-worker will be watching from the stands. Mezut might well have the capacity to work this oracle, but he's definitely not accustomed to doing it single-handed. So unless Olly can escape the shackles of being double-teamed by two centre-halves, or Aaron has somehow suddenly reacquired his former sharpness, it's hard to envisage where the goals are going to come from.

Still unlike in Athens, at least (hopefully!!) we won't be wearing that bloomin' blue kit on Saturday. Frankly an unlucky kit is about as feasible as some of the theories doing the rounds about our recent misfortunes. Personally speaking, if I never see that blue kit again, it will be too soon!

I presume there are contractual obligations to Puma that necessitate the wearing of the blue and gold kits a specific number of times, in order for them to be able to sell a sufficient number of replica shirts. Call me a sentimental old fool, but this really pisses me off! Time was when "away" colours (or even a 3rd kit!) was reserved for use when required, as a result of a colour clash with the opposition's strip. Sadly I'm old enough to recall the days when this was dictated by the fact that one wouldn't be able to distinguish the two teams on a black and white television.

Nevertheless, in my head, an encounter between Arsenal and Norwich has always been red and white versus canary yellow and green, just as West Brom should be red and white versus blue and white stripes, anything else is just wrong. While I can abide the gold kit, as it's close to the more traditional yellow and I've fond memories of winning something in it, the traitor at the club responsible for acceding to Puma's design for a blue kit (with or without the turquoise shorts) deserved to be sacked on the spot for allowing such a complete and utter betrayal of our heritage.

It might seem a bit over the top to be worrying about what colour we're playing in, when there's so many other reasons to be throwing our toys out of the pram (after all, we're all of two points away from the top of the table!) but not only do I think it has a detrimental affect on the awayday atmosphere when we're denied half of our, already limited, repertoire of terrace ditties by dint of the fact that we're supporting a team playing in blue, but it seems to me that when the corporate suits start messing with something quite so sacrosanct as the club colours, there are absolutely no traditions left that remain inviolate.

Meanwhile, aside from the threat of choking on my half-time souvlaki at the sound of someone shouting "come on you Blues", with the riots at the Athens derby the other day, perhaps I'm better off stopping indoors, safe and sound next week?


It's An Ill Wind.......

"Gunnersaurus Get Your Boots!"
            Carrow Road might well be one of the most congenial awaydays of the season, but it felt as if the Gunners travelled to East Anglia expecting the Canaries to gift wrap all three points and present them to us, as an early Xmas pressie. Instead of which, not only have we ended up throwing away seven, potentially massive points in our last three league outings, but perhaps far worse, we witnessed Alexis and Koscielny, two of our most influential players, limp off on Sunday with injuries that might well prove far more catastrophic.

            I live in such dread of the Gunners dropping into the Europa Cup, by finishing third in our Champions League group that I was quite ambivalent about beating Dynamo as I headed to last Tuesday night’s encounter. However we’ve been so lacklustre of late that I soon forgot about the permutations and the need for us to have to go to Greece and win by a couple of clear goals to avoid this disastrous consequence, as soon as the opening whistle blew. It felt far more important for us to restore some badly needed confidence, by putting on a bit of a show.

            As it turned out, we produced such a sparkling display against the Croatian champs that we were all left scratching our heads, as to how on earth we’d contrived to lose out in Zagreb (cue all the wisecracks about the opposition being on drugs!). Sadly it turns out that Tuesday’s win must’ve been due to the paucity of the opposition, as instead of bringing this incisive brand of footie to Sunday’s game and turning on the style against Norwich, the Gunners were back to being the same jaded looking outfit that lost to the Baggies last weekend.

            In fact the script was almost identical, as for half an hour, we were by far the better team and after having taken a deserved lead, we completely switched off and only had a missed effort by Hoolihan just before half-time to thank for the fact that we didn’t end up 2-1 down again at the break. We at least made some effort to rectify matters in the second half at the Hawthorns, but as if we didn’t already know just how influential Alexis is, it was brought home to us at Carrow Road, after he’d disconsolately trudged off on the hour mark and the Gunners promptly lost all forward momentum.

            With all due respect to the likes of West Brom and Norwich, I’m sure I’m not the only Gooner tearing what remains of my hair out at the frustrating travesty of carelessly throwing points away against the league’s less illustrious lights. With this season having proved so remarkably unpredictable to date, there would be little shame in losing to worthy opposition. Yet in truth, both these two teams were there for the taking, by the sort of talent we had out on the park and whether it’s down to fatigue, or a lack of focus, when you combine our failure to win these sort of games with the costly injuries, it feels as if what previously looked like a promising campaign is imploding before our very eyes!

            It’s all the more disappointing because after our midweek win and the return of Ramsey and the Ox, there was some guarded optimism in advance of Sunday’s game that the Gunners might’ve begun to turn the corner. Yet once again the weekend’s result pales into insignificance as we await a medical report. With rumours that Coquelin might well be a long-term casualty, we face the horrifying trauma of losing our only viable holding midfielder, our best defender and our most potent attacking threat in the space of the past eight days.

            Such a challenge should soon tell us what this Arsenal squad is really made of, but I suspect the only people rubbing their hands together will be my Spurs pals and Sam Allardyce, as the Black Cats masticating messiah will doubtless be choking on his chewing gum at his chance to stick the boot in next Saturday.
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