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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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Vic Crescit said...

Your memory is playing you up Bernard. Boxing Day and New Year's Day games used to kick off at the ungodly hour of 11.30am. I've no idea why.

Bern said...

Gotta take your word but I've great memories of playing the likes of Charlton & I'm certain these wouldn't be nearly so fond, if I'd had to get there at such an ungodly hour?