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Monday 19 December 2016

All Arsène Wants For Xmas.....?

            It was adding insult, to injury, to finally get back in the car at Euston on Sunday night, after the long train journey back from Manchester, only to hear Arsène on the radio, banging on about offside, as if the two disastrous defeats of the past week were purely down to some sort of nefarious "they're all out to get me" conspiracy by the officials. 

            When we all know full well that we've been subject to officiating that is no more incompetent than at any other match and that this finger pointing is merely the same ingracious and frankly feeble attempt to divert attention from the real issues at hand, as is always the irritating habit of our autocratic manager, in his exclusively privileged position of not having to answer to anyone for more pertinent failings, far closer to home.

            As the Gunners' campaign implodes in the blink of any eye, it's usually around this time of the season when I'm most often reminded that if it wasn't for the cathartic benefit of being able to vent my frustrations, in truth, instead of posting individual weekly missives, I could easily rotate a meagre stock of around half a dozen different diary piece templates and simply amend the facts to suit the specific occasion.

            We might enjoy the occasional tease, where events on the pitch provide a glimmer of optimism that the Gunners have finally escaped our Groundhog Day existence, but sure as eggs is eggs, it's always only a matter of time before this balloon is burst and it becomes self-evident that there is no reprieve from our lifetime sentence of cyclical non-fulfilment.

            Whether or not David Silva was standing offside when Sterling beat Petr Cech at his near post, or whether Sane's big toe was offside when Silva put him in on goal for the equaliser, I certainly don't hold Martin Atkinson responsible for Sunday's defeat and the main source of my anger is not the ref. 

            What seriously pisses me off is that with Conté's Chelsea churning out wins, like genuine title favourites and with us going into this match a massive nine points adrift of the cowboy outfit that Abramovich told Santa he always wanted, the world and his wife knew that if we were to have any hope of clinging to Chelsea's coattails, the Gunners badly needed to lay down a marker of intent against Man City.

            Following the feeble manner of our demise at Goodison, we needed the sort of performance that would silence all those who'd returned to the age old question of the Arsenal's soft underbelly, by proving that we've at long last evolved from habitual 4th place also-rans, into genuine contenders.

            Instead of which, after having given us all false hope that an "eff off" win was on the cards, when we scythed through a patently inadequate City defence (as evidenced by the number of goals shipped against all and sundry!), like a knife through butter, in our first attack on goal in the fifth minute, much as we did after grabbing a far more fortuitous lead at Goodison on Tuesday night, instead of pressing home this advantage, fatally, the Gunners were culpable of taking their foot off the gas.

            Who knows if this is down to conceit (believing we can always score another, if needed), complacency, or fatigue. Yet no matter the cause of any such mental weaknesses, when one considers our new Kiwi psychologist's former rugby clients and the renown of the All Blacks for relentless ruthlessness, (unless you count an improvement in Theo's attitude) Ceri Lewis certainly doesn't appear to be earning his corn at the Arsenal as yet. 

            On the pitch, mercifully Mustafi appears to have brought some much needed grit to the Gunners party. Yet in Shkodran's absence, sadly we seem to have returned to being a side that is all too often capable of rolling over, for the want of some vocal "stand and deliver" authority.

            Just how often do we have to suffer the bitter taste of blowing a lead, before we learn the costly lesson of the difficulties in shifting up through the gears, once a side has slacked off and sacrificed all momentum and intensity?

            Moreover, although personally I refuse to swallow all the hype surrounding Guardiola and have witnessed nothing to suggest that City's new gaffer is blessed with some sort of tactical superpower, with Pep having experienced the Gunners make relatively light work of containing a City side deprived of the likes of Aguero, Gundogan and Fernandihno during the first half, in contrast to our stubbornly unyielding pensioner, City's gaffer did at least shake things up with their lineup after the break, in an effort to present us with a different problem.

            Instead of berating the officials, as far as I'm concerned, Wenger would earn far more respect if he questioned his own impotency on the bench. From our perspective, high up in the gods, behind the goal that we were forlornly hoping to see the Gunners attack in the second half at the Etihad, it fast became blatantly obvious that with the listless body language of the likes of Özil and Xhaka, we would struggle to stem the tide of sky blue pressure.

            With City equalising only two minutes after the restart, frankly it didn't take a genius to realise that in spite of returning to the pitch several minutes before our hosts, this was only because we were eager to get the game over and done with. If the determined spirit of togetherness that Arsène so often remarks upon, truly existed in this Arsenal squad, then surely they should've spent the break stoking the fire in their bellies, reminding themselves that they had quietened an already anxious home crowd with the opening goal and that they had a perfect opportunity to silence them permanently, by starting the second half with the concentration and commitment necessary to stick the knife in.

            Sadly, with us seemingly still being devoid of any leadership characteristics, we commenced the second forty-five much like we finished the first, as if we could sluggishly continue going through the motions, thereby gifting City the goal, which got the home crowd's gander up, leaving the Gunners on the back foot. 

            This is where I struggle most to remain loyal to our vainglorious manager because it seemed evident to me that this situation called for a bold response, with an immediate injection of two or three subs, to overhaul our flagging side and to try and turn our fortunes around.

            Theo might've scored a great goal and earnestly grafted first-half, in aiding Hector to defend our right flank, but he joined Özil and Xhaka on the missing list after the break and the mere replacement of Iwobi with the Ox was never likely to achieve a sufficiently significant impact. Instead of which, we had to endure the almost inevitable sight of Arsène shutting the stable door, after City's horse had bolted, with Olly only entering the fray after Sterling had scored what would eventually prove to be the winner.

            This was only marginally more infuriating than the incessant badgering from the home fans beside us, before they and the entire home crowd came back to haunt us, with a piss-taking rendition of our own "1-0 to the Arsenal" anthem.

            Although it was galling to hear our own red and white refrain continue to echo out from jubilant home fans, as we were herded like cattle, around the metal maze of the crowded queue for the tram back to Picadilly Station, it could've been a lot worse. Wearing my bobble hat and scarf to ward off the cold as the temperature dropped, I was expecting plenty of stick as we inched our way towards the platform. 

            Yet the mood was surprisingly sympathetic and amongst the hubbub of foreign languages from hordes of tourists, I sensed a mutual respect from the more knowledgable City fans. With their campaign no less precariously balanced, perhaps they concluded that the scoreline was merely a reflection of a more pro-active Pep, compared to our reactive Prof?

            Continuing the bovine theme, my mate proposed we club together to buy Arsène a cattle prod for Christmas. Suggestions on a postcard for who'd be more suited to wearing the back of the Arsenal's panto cow. I imagine there might be plenty more Gooners who'd prefer for Santa to bring him a more chair like electrical appliance?

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Sunday 11 December 2016

That's No Limp, Aaron's Just Pleased To See You

Milk it for all it's worth
When Gary Lineker asked Wrighty  on MOTD last night what the Gunners need to do, to still be top of the table come May, WWW suggested that our entire team needs to replicate Alexis' work-rate. In truth if they all showed half the determination and intensity of our Chilean Duracell Bunny, or half the team put in the same sort of unstinting shift every match, the Premiership title would probably prove an absolute stroll in the park!

Against Stoke yesterday, as in most games, I invariably find myself bringing my binoculars up to my eyes at some stage to scrutinize Alexis' reaction, after he's chased yet another lost cause and has turned to cast a thoroughly withering stare at his team mates, for failing to attempt to make his fruitless efforts worthwhile, by accompanying him in the high press that might've denied the opposition a get out of jail ball.

I know, I know, I really should be savouring the pleasure of looking down upon the rest of the Premiership, even if it should only last a few brief hours, until Chelsea are given an opportunity to leapfrog us back into top spot at the Bridge, by not blowing all three points against the Baggies.

But curmudgeonly Grinch that I am, even as I celebrated Theo's crucial 42nd minute equaliser, knowing that psychologically, coming back out after the break all square would make a world of difference, I still couldn't contain my frustration that it had taken the indignation felt over the penalty awarded to Joe Allen (for prostrating himself in a passable impersonation of one of Anthony Joshua's string of chump patsies), to pull our finger out, half an hour into yesterday's encounter and finally begin to put the Potters under the cosh.

Aside from the media's obsession with the delicate negotiations concerning the contract renewals of our two most high profile stars, the only other focus of attention in the build up to Saturday's game seemed to be fact that Sparky's side had managed four clean sheets in their previous seven outings. 

When Lee Mason played Santa, gifting Hughes an early Xmas pressie (now there's one ref who I really wouldn't mind being permanently stuck down a chimney.... I couldn't get the kindling lit quick enough and if Granit was going to concede a penalty, he could've at least made the crime fit the punishment, by knocking Joe Allen's lights out and perhaps busting his cheek bone!), I thought surely we must be long overdue the sight of Petr Cech finally laying a glove on a spot-kick.

Yet as Stoke strolled back to the halfway line, after Adams had celebrated his birthday by duly dispatching the penalty, with consummate certitude, I'm sure I wasn't alone in seeing my image of a victory by the two goal margin necessary for us to mount the table summit, fast evaporate. By scoring first, Stoke no longer had any attractive attacking illusions to distract them from their primary "park the bus" objective of getting all eleven men behind the ball. I therefore envisaged a frustrating hour of the sort of huff and puff efforts to thread the eye of a needle around Stoke's penalty box, which was pretty much guaranteed to leave me in a mood for the remainder of the weekend that was as foul and miserable as the teeming weather.

Personally I preferred it when I was able to despise the Potters, as the Premiership's archetypal panto villains. With Hughes having added the artistic skills of the likes of Bojan, Arnautovic and Shaqiri (coming to a theatre near you with Snow White and six of his diminutive pals) to the smattering of Irish internationals that make up our favourite "rugby club", I come over all schizophrenic nowadays. 

One of our own
If wishing harm upon Joe Allen sounds a bit below the belt, even in the absence of Shawcross, the Potters principal leg-breaker and "he's behind you" bwad bwoy, any suggestion of sympathy for Saturday's opposition was easily suppressed, at the sound of the alluring charms of the Neanderthal scum who follow them and their oh so sporting repertoire of such classics as "Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp". Even without Shawcross, the manifestation of such genial banter was evident from Stoke's birthday boy (OAP more like - my neighbour described him as the bloke who only gets to play cos his Mum washes the kit). In just about Charlie Adams' last contribution to proceedings, he stamped on Alexis' leg after having brought him down, in the build up to Alex Iwobi hammering home the third nail in Stoke's coffin; where the advantage played by ref Mason was just about the only thing the incompetent nincompoop got right the entire afternoon!

Stoke simply couldn't live with us, when the Gunners turned up the heat and began to move the ball around with some real purpose and intensity and it was irritating that we had to go a goal behind before discovering the necessary motivation. Perhaps the club's new Kiwi psychologist should get them all doing the Haka before kick-off, as a means of getting the Gunners fired up right from the start?

Mind you, it was certainly no coincidence that the change in tempo to our game coincided with Hector Bellerin's introduction twenty-five minutes in. But it was desperate bad luck that Bellerin's return from injury was only necessary due to Mustafi succumbing to a dreaded hamstring strain. 

Shkodran has fast become a firm favourite on the terraces because of his wholehearted, "take no prisoners" type attitude. He might still be learning the level of composure and consistency that perhaps makes Koscielny the more reliable member of our centre-back partnership, but unlike the more demure Laurent, Shkodran appears to be far more vocal. Amongst less partisan pundits, it's the pair's apparent complementary attributes, which has rapidly resulted in them inheriting the mantle of the likes of Alderweireld and Vertonghen, last season's defensive top dogs, as the league's current most respected double-act.
Another man's gain

The enforced interruption to this burgeoning relationship, at such a pivotal stage in proceedings is extremely disappointing because it's the one area of the pitch where one can least afford disruption to the sort of routine that enables the two of them to instinctively know what their partner will do in any given situation. Personally I'd prefer to see Holding come in at Goodison on Tuesday night, rather than Gabriel, but so long as we get away with it, then hopefully they'll be able to build on this performance to produce a competent display at the Etihad next Sunday. 

However, if we end up getting beat by Everton, the blame will inevitably fall on the uncertainty caused by this defensive disturbance. The resulting dent to our confidence would make the game against City suddenly look a lot more daunting. So I won't be at all surprised if Arsène tries to afford our back line as much protection as possible, sacrificing some midfield creativity, with the likes of Coquelin and Elneny as their screen. Whether Wenger chooses Holding or Gabriel (or Per makes his long-awaited comeback?), he's going to need to fill Mustafi's boots because, as we all know only too well, a three-week recovery for a hamstring strain at the Arsenal will invariably mean that we've far more chance of the Easter bunny filling in at centre-half before Mustafi is fit!

Although Gabby definitely hasn't let the side down, while standing in at right-back, any suggestion that he might be suited to this task was shot down in flames within moments of Hector's reappearance. Monreal might not exactly be lightning fast, but he's capable of lending sufficient threat down the left flank to put the opposition on the back foot. But when we've got Bellerin burning rubber on the right, as evidenced against Stoke, the threat of his pace transforms us into a far more potent attacking force.

Hector also appears to be a liberating catalyst for Theo, since Walcott's performance on Saturday was as influential as he's been in weeks. Time was when Theo would recede into his shell against the physical likes of Stoke, whereas on Saturday he was not only willing to bounce off their defenders, but seems to have completely shaken off the shackles of his timidity of seasons past. I for one was gutted that his breathtaking second-half slalom run into the box didn't result in his 101st goal, as it would've been a fitting cherry on top of 250th appearance in red and white and might have earned him some capsules to go with the coffee machine Melanie had promised as his pressie.

Write your own contract Mesut
After losing to Watford on Saturday and with Koeman feeling the strain, I suspect the wounded animal that is the Toffees will be no pushover on Tuesday night. Mesut looked totally wasted walking off, after putting in a proper shift on Saturday. It would be a big loss, but I won't be so surprised if Arsène leaves Özil out of the starting line-up against Everton. I've always been an advocate for starting your best available XI, especially if they're in such a spectacularly rich vein of form.

Talking of riches, it was ironic that the players gave up their wages to charity on Saturday, following a week in which the tabloids have been bandying about such obscene sums, in all the speculation about their contracts and the earning potential of Alexis and Mesut. If one considers the humungous cost of trying to replace either of them in a hyper-inflated market (where the unproven likes of Martial could end up costing Man U a whopping £58m!), it seems evident to me that the club should just bite the bullet and do whatever it takes to get both of them to sign on the dotted line.

Otherwise we all know full well how this story will unfold, with eighteen months worth of unsettling disruption, as Wenger bats away the same annoying questions at every press conference. Meanwhile with feats such as Mesut's sublime goal on Saturday, with each passing match their stock will rise and with the looming spectre of them walking away on a free, their agents' bargaining position will only be bolstered.

For a club that's run principally as a commercial operation and that constantly lauds its business acumen, on the face of it, to us mere punters, it always appears as if our penny-pinching (albeit with a fair few pennies involved in this particular instance!) is so short-sighted and that the suits struggle to appreciate the big picture.

Obviously there's no keeping a player who wants out, but ultimately if either of these two departs for the sake of a few million quid extra, it will be a damming indictment of the Arsenal's limited ambition and will have ramifications about the way the Arsenal is perceived for the foreseeable future.

Are you watching Tottenham?
Meanwhile I've managed to finish this far too long-winded missive with the Gunners still top of the league and with us bristling with anticipation at the prospect of Monday's Champions League draw.

As they say, with eleven goals in the last three matches, a week is a long time in football. Living only a stone's throw from the stadium, I'm embarrassed to admit that I drive to home games, even if I have a decent excuse because the short walk is too strenuous for me. 

It was only a couple of weeks back when the Gunners' uninspiring form was so infuriating that I was more concerned about arriving in time to bag my parking pitch than I was about the game itself. I was parked up an hour before KO on Saturday, impatiently wishing the time away because I couldn't wait for the game to begin. Up until last week, I would've been waiting for the team news, to pick holes in Arsène's selection, whereas suddenly I'm no longer fretting about the starting XI because whoever he plays is suddenly capable of pulling their weight.

I'm reluctant to be too presumptuous and to go overboard, since we're always only ever a couple of dodgy results away from it all going tits up. Obviously I'm still whinging about our inability to keep a clean sheet because when (if?) the goals dry up, we're going to need to be able to rely on some resilience at the back. We've grown far too accustomed in recent years to successive campaigns crashing and burning as a result of our slipshod frailties.

It's often said that you can judge a team by the strength of the players on the bench and with our subs so regularly chipping in with goals, it's been a long time since the Gunners have looked better equipped to meet the challenge. Moreover where we've suffered in the past from cliques and resulting dressing room tensions, for all the bullshit regularly trotted out for the TV cameras, there's a long awaited sense that the force might finally be with us and that for once we might all be pulling in the same direction.

Doubtless I'm tempting fate just by opening my big gob and I better hit "post" before we embarrass ourselves against Everton and I'm left rueing my misguided optimism.


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Thursday 8 December 2016

Fortune Found In Stratford Bursting The Irons' Bubble

No it wasn't the fog that enabled Lucas to ghost into the box
 Hi folks,

With such a surprisingly delightful denouement to the Champs League group stage, both in Basel and in Paris on Tues night and the 3rd round FA Cup draw throwing up an outing to Preston, the following missive has been pretty much outdated by more recent events. However having started half a dozen posts in recent weeks, only to fail to get around to finishing them, I thought I might as well post this one, if only for my own satisfaction.

I have to admit that from the little we'd seen of Lucas Perez prior to Tuesday night's hat-trick, I wondered what on earth anyone had witnessed from him, to believe he was worth a weighty £17m investment. I was flabbergasted when Wenger played him on his own up front, in our disappointing League Cup defeat to Southampton. We'd seen us nothing to suggest that he'd be capable of fulfilling the lone striker role, in as much as sadly he doesn't appear to be blessed with either the talent, or the turn of pace to sufficiently ruffle the feathers of opposition defences.

Nevertheless, while Lucas might not possess any outstanding natural assets, he is a grafter and is the sort of sufficiently busy player who doesn't warrant criticism, If a player is working their socks off, you can hardly knock him for the fact that he's not gifted with the game-changing abilities of the likes of Thierry Henry.
Long way to go for a Toblerone

Despite decrying Lucas as a waste of money, I distinctly recall commenting as we came away from our dismal League Cup exit that he was the sort of player who would probably do well, when playing with an in-form Arsenal side. The suggestion being that when the Gunners are on song, Lucas is busy enough and hungry enough to offer a positive contribution to our slick passing moves.

I'm unsure whether Basel qualifies as a quality defence, but up until Tues night Lucas struck me as being much like the Spurs' acquisition Janssen, the sort of second rate striker with the attitude and determination that meant he might well have impressed against lesser opposition, but who lacks the top-shelf striking abilities necessary for him to be able to really cut the mustard on the big stage, against first rate opponents.

However I'm always happy to admit when I'm wrong; never more so than when writing off an Arsenal player too quickly. Albeit that folks who know me can confirm that I rarely do anything in a rush, least of all with a "rush to judgement" and in truth, the jury was still out as far as Lucas was concerned. I'd yet to see anything from him to suggest Lucas was capable of adding something to our existing squad, other than as merely adequate cover to make up the numbers.

Yet while one swallow definitely does not make a summer, on the evidence of Tuesday night's display alone, Lucas demonstrated that he might well be blessed with one single, vital attribute that the Gunners have been crying out for, for as long as I can remember (but then sadly I've the recall faculties of a goldfish nowadays!). 

Ever since Arsène had his fingers so badly burned, buying the long-term crock Franny Jeffers, any utterance of the phrase "fox in the box" has been a sacking offence at the club. So whisper it quietly, but Lucas produced a fairly decent impression of this particular creature in his performance against the Swiss champions.

One of my mates commented that Walcott wouldn't have been in the six-yard box to get on the end of the passes for Lucas' two tap-ins. As has been all too evident with the likes of Theo, when it comes sniffing out goals, knowing when to run, or when to remain stationary, sadly this is an asset that simply cannot be taught.

My old man used to call Jimmy Greaves a "goal hanger" and when playing as a hard working left-back as a kid, I can recall being seriously pissed off with those players who contributed little, other than to dawdle in the box, waiting to snaffle all the glory. The offside rule was intended to thwart these scene stealers and the development of the modern game seems to have largely put paid to goal poachers, to the point where it's become a lost art.

I saw some stat about there being 32 passes in the build up to our 2nd goal on Tuesday night, a record in the Champs Lg this season. With our nine goal haul in the past couple of outings, the Gunners have given us a glimpse of the sort of sweet rhythm and tempo to suggest the promise of some proper "on song" footie to come. Hopefully this might offer Lucas more opportunities to demonstrate the art of being in the right place, at the right time, thereby confirming that the Spaniard truly has "a nose for goal"?

As for Monday's Champions League draw, according to the laws of Sod and Murphy, it seems blatantly obvious to me that having finally managed to win our group for the first time in years (more by luck, or Ludogerets than good judgement!), we are pretty much guaranteed a bum draw against the likes of Bayern, or Real Madrid.

Although in the past it's usually been a "glass half full" effort to find some solace in the sort of duff result which is responsible for a daunting knockout stage draw as group runners up, I remain convinced that one has a better opportunity of dispensing a bloody nose to one of Europe's big boys, by meeting them earlier in the competition, before they become more motivated by the scent of a possible Champions League triumph.

Moreover, while I'd be delighted by the prospect of inflicting a Valentine's day massacre in Portugal versus the likes of Porto or Benfica, personally I believe who we end up facing as a result of Monday's draw is far less significant than the psychological impact of finishing above a star-studded PSG and such a sweeping victory in Switzerland - although I was more than a little miffed that for the second successive game, we fluffed our opportunity to build some belief in our defensive resilience, with the lapse in concentration that dirtied our clean sheet.

'Nuff Said
Come February, no one will be thinking about the fact that we could've been 0-2 down in the first half against Ludogerets, or how many goalscoring chances we gifted to Cavani. No, hopefully we'll be going into this game with the swagger of group winners, having not complacently lost a Champions League group game for the first time in over a decade. 

And the winning momentum that inspires the necessary belief is not just crucial in enabling us to play to our full potential. Hopefully it will also mean that whoever we end up meeting will no longer be going into this game with the perception of the Gunners as the sort of pushover we've all too often proved in recent seasons.

As they say, familiarity breeds contempt and personally I like the fact that the Champions League shuts shop for the next three months, enabling us to focus fully on domestic matters and ensuring there's a mounting air of anticipation, until our European crusade is rejoined. I wonder how many attendance records Spurs will set for their Europa Cup outings at Wembley and I can hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of an encounter between the mighty Zorya Luhansk v Man Utd on the box tonight!

Say what you will, no matter which side of the Arsène Wenger divide one is on, one thing is indisputable, it's not us watching Eastenders!



Finding Our Fortune In Stratford, Bursting The Irons' Bubble

In space no one can hear you scream!
            As an increasingly sentimental old bugger it was hard not to view the demise of West Ham's Boleyn ground through rose-tinted, nostalgic eyes, as yet another of the last few remaining traditional British stadia to bite the dust.

            Nevertheless, with season after season of schlepping around the country to largely the same selection of Premiership venues, there's inevitably a certain frisson to the novelty value of a first visit to see the Gunners play somewhere new.

            The thirty quid cap on away match tickets (plus a generous further four quid discount from the club) has ensured that all the Arsenal's awaydays have become increasingly hard to come by, seriously hot tickets. However seats at our debut London Stadium derby were like gold dust and it felt as if every Gooner wanted to be there on Saturday.

            The last time I made this same journey to Stratford was when I was incredibly fortunate to find myself invited to Super Saturday at London 2012 and I've been curious ever since to discover how this wonderful athletics arena would be transformed into a decidedly less appropriate football stadium. 

            Mind you, I must admit that in my frustratingly enfeebled state and in such arctic conditions, I might well have been tempted to give up my seat to one of the many desperate Gooners, to stop indoors and watch the game live on the box from under a duvet, if it wasn't for the fact of having yet to see a match at the Hammers new home.

            Albeit that any such decision would've been based on our infuriatingly tepid form of the past few weeks and I would've been absolutely gutted if I'd ended up on missing out on witnessing quite such a memorable Alexis' hat-trick live. However having lucked out on one of only eight disabled parking pitches for visiting supporters (seemingly preposterously limited availability, considering it's such a new gaff, set in such a huge expanse of what was formerly East London wasteground), I faced the daunting prospect of an unfamiliar journey on public transport, with it being the first time I've ventured onto the train in the past couple of years.

            Consequently, I spent most of the week fretting even more about getting to Saturday's match than about the Gunners ever more depleted options at right-back. Credit where due, my enquiries with the Hammers resulted in them being kind enough to post out a pass for a disabled shuttle bus service from Stratford station and actually the fifteen minute journey on the overground from Canonbury proved to be a doddle.

            Despite concerns about all the (undoubtedly exaggerated) tales of the aggro that's occurred at the London Stadium to date, I didn't feel uncomfortable combatting the cold with my Arsenal scarf, bobble hat and the surprisingly useful snood, which was included in our membership packs. Although I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to making sure that I didn't wear any colours that I wouldn't be able to stuff inside my coat, in the event that the atmosphere turned nasty and I felt the need to be more inconspicuous.

            However announcing my affiliations so publicly, as the solitary Gooner climbing onto a mini-bus crammed with home fans at Stratford station, pretty much guaranteed a good deal of banter. Having pleaded with all the other infirm old codgers to treat me gently, they were trying to persuade the driver to dump me at the Carpenters Arms boozer, presumably a pretty hostile Hammers watering hole.

            Hopefully the snaps might convey some slight impression that in spite of the cold, it was a wonderfully crisp and clear evening, standing on the concourse outside the ground, watching the sun drop and the moon rise, as a wonderfully picturesque backdrop to the East London skyline.

            Although the stewards were subjecting folk to a fairly comprehensive frisk, it would appear as if they remain on a steep learning curve in managing this arena. Much kudos to any of those Gooners who allegedly took advantage of the lack of focus on the turnstiles, to be able to achieve the rare feat nowadays of being able to bunk in, supposedly passing through the electronic facilities more than one at a time.

            I've seen all the complaints about the stadium and the fact that one is so far from the pitch, but I have to say that my initial impression as I arrived on the terrace in our corner of the ground was quite favourable. I was relieved to have remembered to bring my binoculars, but didn't feel nearly quite so detached from the proceedings as being stuck up in the gods at St James Park.

            Obviously the circumstances dictate that with the area of an eight-lane running track between the stands and the pitch, there was always going to be a world of difference between the sightlines of a purpose built football ground. I'll never forget the incredible atmosphere in this arena, when an 80,000 full house had the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention, creating an atmosphere that carried Greg Rutherford and Jessica Innis to gold, before roaring Mo Farah to victory in the 10k with an utterly deafening racket for the entire 27mins.

            However West Ham's new home is now so unrecognizable from the Olympic venue that I sat there on Saturday struggling to work out where I'd been seated back in 2012. Little did I realise that we were in for an alternative encore to Super Saturday. I'm no fan of any stadium where the vast space between the terraces and the pitch discourages me from hollering at the players during the game, in the certain knowledge that any delusions of influencing proceedings by making myself heard on the pitch are utterly pointless.

            Yet with me sitting in the lower tier for home games, I don't mind having this distant perspective on the rare occasion because much like some of the mammoth grounds abroad, you benefit from the ability of being able to appreciate better where the spaces appear are on the field and enjoy a better understanding of how the two sides formations and tactics match up.

            Albeit perhaps the most obvious conclusion at West Ham on Saturday was that even if this particular Hammers team selection was seriously depleted, I'm inclined to believe that the Irons home form is likely to suffer for some time to come, certainly until the team grows more accustomed to surroundings that are in such stark contrast to the tight confines of their former home.

            Moreover I gleaned the impression that many of the more staunch Hammers' fans begrudge the fact that they've suddenly inherited twenty odd thousand newbies at every home game, resenting their apparent failure to appreciate the unwritten rules. The reason for such irritation was evident when Alexis scored his 2nd and our 3rd with ten minutes still left on the clock and the home fans began to file out en masse. Rarely has the "is there a fire drill" chant seemed more appropriate as vast areas of empty terracing rapidly appeared in the previously rammed stands all around us.

            Someone in front of me commented that they'd never seen anything like it and I couldn't stop myself from remarking that they'd obviously missed our midweek cup exit, where I was mortified at the many thousands who abandoned our team, long before the final whistle,
Did I miss the free Pie & Mash at Westfields for
1000s of Billericay Dickies doing an early bunk?

            It was hilarious to see so many of these premature evacuators charging back into the stands only a couple of minutes later, when Carroll caught our defence napping, as the lanky Geordie reacted first to head home what merely proved to be a consolation goal. But they only lingered long enough for the Ox to put the kibosh on a repeat performance of Carroll's one man rescue mission, when Alex smashed in our 4th only two minutes after we'd annoyingly cocked up our clean sheet.

            On route to the ground, I'd joked with the Hammers' fans on the bus, bargaining for safe passage in return for restoring Carl Jenkinson to their porous defence and with the Corporal having enjoyed such competent looking performances whilst playing claret and blue, I'd wondered if this might be the ideal opportunity for Carl to try and redeem his severely battered reputation, playing before a crowd that has more faith in his ability than we do.

            Hector Bellerin has been such an asset this season that by comparison, Jenks has looked like a bumbling incompetent accident waiting to happen. Yet with his culpability in both of Southampton's goals, by leaving him out immediately after our cup exit, in favour of Gabriel, it felt as if Arsène has permanently written the Corporal off.

            Not only am I loathe to lose a rare squad member who'd be on supporting us on the terraces with his family, if he wasn't a professional player, at least Carl is a full-back by trade, who is accustomed to haring down the flank and whipping in a decent cross. But if Wenger doesn't have sufficient trust in Jenkinson, then personally I'd prefer to see the Ox, or the likes of Maitland-Niles afforded an opportunity in the right-back spot. Although Gabby might not have been guilty of any major defensive gaffes thus far, it seems to me that by using a player who gets a nosebleed whenever he crosses the halfway line, we are only inviting pressure from the opposition.

            In the opposition manager's shoes, I'd certainly be instructing my side to target our right flank, knowing there's so little jeopardy involved in their left sided players rampaging forward, with Gabriel so unaccustomed to exploiting the resulting space at the opposite end of the pitch.

            Mercifully, even before James Collins was forced to depart proceedings only a few minutes in on Saturday, with the Hammers defense already in such disarray in the absence of their full-backs, this concern was irrelevant. Still I can't help but feel that ultimately the 1-5 thrashing was somewhat flattering,

            At the time, when Alexis scored our second and the first of his three goals, with his first touch having taken him so wide, presenting him with such a tight angle to shoot at, it seemed that such an accomplished finish was, as they say, worth the price of admission alone. It wasn't until drooling over a replay of his feats on the box later that evening that I realised Alexis third goal was the pick of the bunch, upon discovering how he'd sat Randolph down with quite such a sublime, piss-take of a dummy, in the astonishingly casual climax to his hat-trick.

            Yet truth be told, we should've put this game to bed in the first half and not only did we fail to press home our patently obvious advantage after the break, we were guilty of going to sleep, playing in such a complacent and sloppy fashion that I was convinced we were far more likely of suffering a late sucker punch. It wasn't until West Ham had given up the ghost following our second goal on 72 mins that we began to relax in our corner of the ground, as the Gunners turned on the style.

            Up until this point, I'd spent most of the match tearing my hair out in frustration at our blatant failure to get any bodies in the opposition box, with Alexis as usual, just about the only player in red and white showing the willingness to try and make something happen, whereas following the watershed of our second goal, suddenly everyone wanted in on the act.

            Meanwhile, even accounting for the infuriating lack of concentration that gifted Carroll with the opportunity to spoil Cech's clean sheet, it feels decidedly churlish of me to be whinging after a rare five goal treat (so long as Spurs superior goal difference on Saturday ultimately proves irrelevant!). What matters most will be the abiding sense that such a comprehensive margin of victory might at long last lend the team with the perception that they are finally playing themselves into some much needed form at such a crucial stage in the campaign.

            Assuming the Hammers struggles to come to terms with their cavernous new arena doesn't end up costing them a disastrous relegation trap door exit into potential oblivion, the memory of Saturday's scoreline will certainly ensure that we'll be looking forward to returning to the London Stadium in future.

            There was little more damming evidence of Bilic's problems than the long spell of "olés" ringing out from our end of the ground, during an extended period of possession of piss-taking proportions in the dying stages. In any previous London derby the increasing sense of outrage emanating from the home fans would've inevitably resulted in the sort of "take one for the team" type clattering that might've silenced our taunts and which I was become increasingly fearful of the longer our possession and the chant persisted. 

            My own "olés" might have been as loud as anyone else but at the same time, I was terrified that the ignominy felt by the homegrown likes of Noble might eventually force him into losing the plot, perhaps causing serious damage to the positively pivotal likes of Mesut or Alexis. Yet the fact that the home team failed to even intercede with such a blatant foul speaks volumes about the absence of fight in the claret and blue dog and this might not bode well for the sort of gutsy determination that might be required to drag themselves clear of the relegation mire.

            Having begun this missive before Lucas banged in another hat-trick in Basel, seemingly with two such fulsome away victories on the spin, it behoves the team to produce a similarly sweeping triumph before a full-house of Gooners against Stoke on Saturday, in the hope of getting our home crowd all pulling in the same direction.

            There's a role call of hat-trick heroes, with their individual feats recorded inside our ground near to where we sit, between the entrances to blocks 18 and 19 on the opposite wall and I was only looking at it a couple of weeks back, contemplating what the club will do when they run out of space. I reckon there might only be room for one or two more, once they've added the hat-tricks of Alexis and Lucas and hopefully, should the Gunners continue with this prolific strike rate, it might be like buying a new car because the ashtrays are full but hopefully we'll be needing another new home before this season is out!

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Saturday 26 November 2016

Please send Buster Bloodvessel back into retirement vs Bournemouth on Sunday?

With my West Upper Homies in Highbury Heaven
Back in the day at THOF, our West Upper crew used to have a chant of "Arsenal loony, loony Arsenal" every time this bloke a few rows behind us blew a gasket, with his frequent rabid barrages aimed at all and sundry, players, opposition and officials. As a result, I'd often get teased with the same refrain, on those occasions when I began throwing my toys out of the pram too vehemently.

I always swear that the loony wound Sheffield Wednesday's Des Walker up so much with his offensive barrage of bile that Walker attempted to silence him, by aiming the ball in the direction of his huge gob. His verbal assaults were so abusive that I often recall turning around to see the blue veins in his neck set to burst, as he bellowed his disgust and I'd wonder why on earth this geezer spent a small fortune on his season ticket, only to put himself through 90 minutes of such unhealthy looking rage at every home game.

I have to admit that such has been my own level of frustration these past few games that hard as I try to continue to holler out my encouragement of our players, rather than accompanying all those Gooners who are a negative influence, coating off our own men, I'm beginning to think that those around me in the East Lower must be wondering if the Arsenal loony has been reincarnated in their midst in recent weeks.

I have some sympathy for those with the misfortune to be sitting directly in front of me, as my woefully limited lung function doesn't appear to have had an adverse effect on my decibel levels and despite my efforts to direct my incessant racket up over their heads, it must be murder to have me constantly hollering in their shell-likes.

I started from minute one on Wednesday night, incessantly imploring for some evidence of "pressure!" I've been wondering ever since whether it was a tactical plan to sit off PSG and leave them to have possession in their own half totally unchallenged, with a view to sitting deep and hitting them on the counter. Or could it have been in some way related to the fact that a 0-0 draw would've sufficed, leaving us with a superior head to head record with the French side, after Alexis' goal in the Parc des Princes back in September?

It's said that no team goes out intent on achieving a scoreless draw and while mercifully the current incarnation of the Gunners' defence seems to be finally stifling our long-standing slipshod reputation, the Arsenal still wouldn't exactly be anyone's first choice for our bus parking attributes, as a team emminently capable of effecting the sort of faultless shut-out that older Gooners amongst us cherished from the "boring, boring" Arsenal of the 70s.

Yet perhaps the knowledge that a 0-0 draw would suffice had some negative psychological impact, resulting in the sort of inertia we witnessed in the first half on Wednesday, with the Gunners feeling that the onus was on the visitors to try and break us down because we didn't NEED to take the game to PSG, unless, or until the Parisians put the ball in our onion bag?

It certainly felt like this was the case as I screamed myself hoarse, imploring us to "close 'em down" and "get hold of it" during an opening spell, in which we appeared to be gifting our guests with the freedom of London N5. I wonder if the fact that we've successfully managed to surprise opponents this season with a stand-off, counter-attacking style, compared to our customary keep-ball tactics (not to mention the achievements of the likes of Leicester), this has instilled the team with a belief that we no longer need dominate possession in order to win games?

Tottenham watching Eastenders
The surprise element involved in an Arsenal side gifting possession to their opponents perhaps makes for a suitable option away from home on the odd occasion, when the team is in sound defensive form. But I simply cannot countenance such a passive strategy in home games, especially against a PSG side controversially deprived of Serge Aurier, their man of the match in the 1-1 draw in France and the potentially influential likes of Di Maria.

My greatest gripe is that rather than starting the game at a high tempo, pouring on the pressure to maximise home advantage and stoking the nervous tension in the visitors to reinforce the sense that they are not going to be in for an easy night, you are instead gifting them all the time they want on the ball, to grow comfortable with their surroundings and to become increasingly emboldened by their unexpected amount of possession.

I'm loathe to join the bandwagon of fickle Gooners laying into the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi as principle scapegoats for our recent ills. He might be experiencing a dramatic dip in form but we should not forget that Iwobi began this season in seriously impressive style and was our star player in several matches.

As for Rambo, I must admit to having some concerns about a potential hangover from this summer's Euros, where he deservedly received such plaudits for his main man exploits in carrying Wales all the way to the semis. Yet as a result, Aaron has inevitably become a bit full of himself and appears to believe he's earned the right to languidly stroll around the park, much like Mesut Özil (which, as my neighbour is constantly reminding me, is somewhat unfair on Mesut because his mileage stats regularly prove that any apparent air of disinterestedness is a complete illusion!).

Still, instead of getting on the player's back, I'd rather be patient and afford Aaron sufficient time to see if it's merely a matter of him continuing to recover some proper match sharpness. Although watching some of his performances in the Euros for Wales on the box and witnessing him grafting his socks off, covering every blade of grass on the pitch, I'm certain I wasn't alone in having mixed feelings, struggling to contain my irritation, as I wondered where the hell this particularly impressive incarnation of Ramsey had been all season long in his Arsenal shirt!

However it's evident that Ramsey relishes the sort of no. 10 role that he adopts for Wales, with himself and Bale assuming creative responsibility for the entire team. Yet frankly, unless (heaven forfend!) Özil suffers a long term injury, Ramsey's never going to get an opportunity to play in this position for the Gunners and having made his mark on the International stage, Aaron's hardly going to be content with spending most of his time on the bench, in a bit part role for the Gunners.

This leaves Wenger with a bit of a conundrum because on the evidence we've witnessed to date, it would appear to be impossible to shoehorn Ramsey into the team in any other role, without this having some sort of detrimental impact. Even if it's only a nominal starting position out wide and Aaron is not restricted to the wing, much like with Jack Wilshere, it seems blatantly obvious to me that we'll never get the best out of either of them because they just don't enjoy playing on the right or left and both players will never be totally happy and therefore won't truly fulfil their potential, unless they're afforded a central role.

Nevertheless, Wenger simply can't play everyone in the middle of the park and as evidenced on Wednesday night with Alexis utter ineffectiveness playing on the flank during the first half and with the Gunners woeful lack of width (not helped by Hector's enforced absence), it seemed as if the price of selecting Ramsey to play alongside Coquelin was far too high, both in sacrificing Alexis impact and because Aaron just wasn't busy enough to be deserving of such a significant role.

No matter their form or match sharpness, for my money, the very minimum required of the central midfield partnership is for them both to be constantly on their toes, in order for them to be able to react to any signs of danger, especially when facing such pacy opponents as the likes of Matuidi. Thus it irritated me no end to see Aaron strolling around in a flat-footed fashion.

I'm certain that both teammates and the opposition must pick up on this sort of body language and it feels somewhat disrespectful to both, as if to suggest "I don't need to be on my toes to deny you" and because it takes a flat-footed player that bit longer to react, it infers that he's leaving Coquelin and the rest to do all the donkey work.

I also felt that we suffered on Wednesday from the fact that Jenkinson is still some way short of looking comfortable with a spot in the starting XI. No one would be happier than me to see Carl force his way into the first team reckoning because in these mercenary times, it's so rare nowadays to have a genuine Gooner in the squad, who can kiss his badge without the slightest hint of insincerity. Moreover Jenkinson's consistency for the Hammers last season suggested that we might regret losing him.

Yet hard as I try to continue to cling to the hope that it's merely a confidence issue with the Corporal and all he really requires is a run of games, when I compare Carl's ungainly looking efforts with the silky smooth skills of Hector, sadly I can't help but feel that the lad simply doesn't have the appearance of an Arsenal left-back.

Additionally, with Carl only finding himself selected as a result of Bellerin's injury, I get the distinct sense that he is so desperate not to mess up this rare opportunity that this inevitably impacts upon his willingness to forage forward, for fear of leaving a gaping hole at the back. It's a pity because from what I recall of his performances for the Irons, Jenkinson is eminently capable of getting to the bye line and whipping in a decent cross, but there's an obvious timidity to Carl's efforts in red and white, compared to his far more confident displays in claret and blue.

With the forgotten man, Mathieu Debuchy popping up with a goal for the U23s against Spurs the other day, I wonder if Wenger will persist with Jenkinson during Bellerin's absence? Sadly, I fancy that we'll continue to miss Hector, no matter who Arsène chooses to play in his stead At least not unless AW surprises us all with a rare bold move and throws the Ox in at right back.

Hector's a keeper
What Bellerin brings to the party is not just his ability to scamper down the flank and stretch opposition defences, but it's also the threat of Hector's bristling pace that puts opposition defences on the back foot, knowing that they don't dare leave space for him to exploit. Consequently his continued absence might well leave us coming under more pressure, with the opposition knowing there's less jeopardy involved in attempting to stretch our defence down that flank.

However instead of focusing on individual positions, with so many Premiership managers beginning to follow the trend for playing three at the back, the Gunners fast need to find a wholesale solution to combatting this set up. Against PSG on Wednesday it seemed to me that our failure to apply any pressure on the ball in the opposition's half ensured that the Parisian side were easily able to take advantage of the extra man in the middle of the park and the width of their two wide men.

It always angers me when we fail to set a high-tempo from the start in home games and I felt we needed to press PSG, in order to push the two wide men back and to ensure we weren't outnumbered in midfield. I rarely trust my memory nowadays, but as I recall Alexis adopted a more central role after the break and this appeared to contribute to somewhat more competitive second half display.

Like most Gooners, I am just grateful that (unlike Spurs!) we are still in the hat for the Champions League knockout stages and largely down to the inconsistency of others, we remain in the frame at the top of the Premiership table. Yet surely we simply can't continue to drop points, without at least one of our competitors putting together a consistent run, which will result in them establishing the sort of points gap that's likely to put the kibosh on any hope of a title challenge.

The arrivals of Mustafi and Xhaka had me bubbling with optimism early this season. At long last it looked as if our defence had acquired the sort of resilience and determination, which meant that I wasn't left bricking it every time we conceded a corner and where I finally felt we offered a threat at set-pieces at the other end of the pitch. But truth be told, with the exception of the 6-0 win against Ludogerets (which in itself was a misleading result because it was no walkover), not since the 3-0 demolition of Chelsea back in September have the Gunners produced any real form.

In recent weeks it has felt as if my optimism and any confidence that this team had built up, has been bleeding away, game by game, to the point where the whole club is fast becoming positively anaemic. Arsène's laissez-faire approach doesn't exactly help. When it's patently obvious to every watching Gooner that the team is crying out for some sort of tactical readjustment because our opponents have the upper hand, or because what we're doing just isn't working, Wenger refuses to intercede, seemingly investing far too much faith in his players ability to resolve the problem themselves.
Cavani came, saw and conquered

I've not been particularly impressed with Cavani in the past, but on Wednesday night he suddenly looked transformed into a world-beater, leaving Mustafi and Kozza for dead at almost every opportunity. Perhaps our centre-halves were guilty of an off night, but where the two of them started the season looking as if they were fast developing one of the best partnerships in Europe, of late they've both been guilty of the sort of lapses in concentration that is once again leaving our back line looking as porous as ever.

As in the Man Utd game, against PSG Arsène was guilty of leaving it too late, to shut the stable door after the horse had bolted, when another manager might've rung the changes at half-time. It's no coincidence that Chelsea and Liverpool, the two clubs not involved in Europe are both enjoying domestic success. Nevertheless, I can't help but covet the enthusiasm and the pro-active approach of both Klopp and Conté, compared to Arsène's Alsatian sang-froid.

Personally I much preferred it when Chelsea had a manager who I despised, since my growing respect for Conté leaves me feeling somewhat conflicted. What I wouldn't give to see an Arsenal manager frantically geeing up our apathetic theatre audience because he's dissatisfied with the support and frankly there are few grounds more in need of a metaphoric cattle prod to galvanize our feeble home fans!

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Tuesday 27 September 2016

Kozza's Gonna Get Ya (And If He Doesn't Mustafi Will)!

If revenge is indeed a dish that's best served cold, then after five agonisingly long years, Saturday's thrashing of the Blues came straight out of the freezer!

After having endured Chelsea's piss-taking humiliation of Arsène's previous two big anniversary celebrations, there was plenty of anxiety in advance of the commencement of the stubborn old bugger's third decade in the box seat.

Tweets to the Sweet
Moreover, after hearing the line-up, I don't think you'd have found many Gooners wandering around the concourse prior to Saturday's game who'd agree with the sentiment that "Arsène knows", since pretty much everyone was moaning about his team selection.

With the cracks that had been exposed in Conté's team in the past couple of weeks, myself I was praying AW would capitalise on Chelsea's current frailty, with a "nothing to fear" statement of intent, by putting out our most positive XI, pairing Santi and Xhaka in the middle of the park. And with my nephew, Shane and his girfriend over on a rare trip from Dublin (and with her being a Gooner virgin), I definitely didn't want to see us struggle for goals, playing without a recognised centre forward.

Nevertheless, with all the brouhaha about the managerial merry-go-round, I'm guessing it's top of Arsène's agenda to avoid having his pants pulled down, by any of the limelight hugging Premiership newbies. As a result, I was certain le Gaffer would be more conservative, not wanting to risk playing without the proven protective instincts of the likes of Coquelin.

With me not being sufficiently match fit for the trips to Hull or Nottingham and with a tally of eight goals in our last two awaydays, I've been wondering if I should avoid travelling more often!! Knowing quite how frequently the comments of those who've watched the Gunners play on the box have contradicted the opinions of those who've seen the game live, I tend to avoid passing judgment from the comfort of my armchair (although I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to my laziness being a contributing factor in my failure to post these past couple of weeks!)

Still I could understand the logic in not wanting to tinker with the team that trounced Hull's paper Tigers and with the infuriating consequences of our red card history against Chelsea, I could appreciate Arsène choosing his players from those who were least likely to cost us victory by losing their cool in a tetchy contest.

Yet while I chuntered about the absence of Xhaka and Giroud, others were whinging about Walcott's inclusion and absolutely everyone seemed to be walking into the ground irate. It was some contrast to the ecstatic mood fifteen minutes in, when much like London buses, you wait three and a half years for a derby goal against Chelsea and then two come along at once!

No sooner had I commented to my neighbour that Ivanovic was past his "sell by" date than he played Cahill into trouble, to have his pocket well and truly picked by Alexis. But if we were dancing in the aisles after our first, we were left tripping over our own open-mouthed jaws, with the gobsmacking gorgeousness of our second.
No stopping Hector!

Then just as Chelsea were beginning to recover some composure and threatened to spoil the party by pulling the goal back just before the break that might've changed the course of this match completely, our German playmaker entered stage left. We were right in line with Mesut's effort and he seemed to have an eternity to think about his volley, as Sanchez set it up on a plate.

I thought he'd missed the target and many seem to think he fluffed it. Yet after his glaring miss at Hull, I reckon Özil was concentrating so hard on making contact and keeping his head over the ball to keep it down that this was how he ended up striking it into the deck. It was one of those "car crash" moments, where I was convinced the ball was about to bounce harmlessly off the post, which only heightened the euphoria as it bobbled into the back of the net, knowing this was pretty much "game over".

I've been plagued by neck pain the past few weeks and having been prescribed some different meds by the doc on Friday, I made the mistake of taking them for the first time, only an hour or so before KO. While they didn't seem to do much to alleviate the pain, I didn't really care because they left me so gaga that I struggled to make it over the south bridge to the turnstiles. Moreover, after suffering so many years of "men against boys" misery against Chelsea, with Mesut making it 3-0 up before the break, I really needed to pinch myself to make sure this wasn't some fantastic imaginary trip.

It was hilarious seeing Alex Iwobi getting a mouthful from Nacho in one ear, presumably for failing to assist Monreal with William's advances down our left flank and more "agida" in his other shell-like from Mesut, for not offering an outlet at the other end of the pitch, when all the while, young Alex was having one of his best ever games in an Arsenal shirt.

I guess it was inevitable that we would take our foot off the gas after the break. In the absence of John Terry's determination, you sensed that so long as we remained solid and didn't offer our guests a glimmer of hope and a route back into the match with a goal in the opening period of the second half, the three points were in the bag.

Yet while my head knew this was sensible football, my heart wanted the Gunners to return some of the humiliation we've endured, with interest, by turning the choke-hold we had on this encounter, into a psychologically damaging strangulation, with the sort of scoreline that would truly put the West London "no history" wannabees back in their rightful place.

Not that I wanted to see Franny limp off, straight down the tunnel for treatment, but I'm sure I wasn't alone in welcoming Granit's arrival into the fray, with us already two goals to the good. To my mind Xhaka's stunning long-range strikes in successive games are symptomatic of the way in which he only plays in forward gear.

From what I've seen of Man City's extremely impressive start to the season, the most noticeable difference has been the scintillating tempo of City's play, compared to our more deliberate advances. Yet with Xhaka's reluctance to dawdle on the ball, we appear to make the transition from front to back so much faster, denying the opposition the opportunity to get bodies behind the ball.

It occurs to me that this might be why he's not started a Premiership game because his refusal to play sideways or backwards risks losing possession more often and our statistics obsessed leader prefers more caution? Or perhaps Xhaka didn’t rate consideration merely because AW feared his tendency to incur the official’s wrath? It also occurred to me that Granit's had success with his long-range efforts because of the surprise element and with 55,000 shouting "shoot" every time he receives the ball, he's hardly going to catch anyone on the hop.

Meanwhile football is all about chemistry and le Prof’s struggled in recent years to chance upon a recipe that might result in the perfect feast. It would be foolhardy to go overboard based solely on a single result, especially when you consider that up until Saturday’s game we were all whining about assorted missing ingredients. Nevertheless, it’s hard to keep a lid on the cascade of optimism that’s sprung since Saturday’s magical victory.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in relishing the opportunity to return home and savour the highlights again (and again!) on MOTD, Goals on Sunday and every other review of the weekend’s games and frankly I was flabbergasted by the limited attention given to our result, by all the pundits and the media in general. I agree with those who said to me that it’s better for us to remain “under the wire”, out of the limelight. Yet to my mind, compared with Man U scoring a few set-piece goals against a Leicester side that’s a shadow of the team that won the title, or the Scousers rolling over Hull at home, much as we did on the Tigers own turf, our supremely dominant defeat of a team that many assumed would be title challengers was far more momentous and deserving of much more recognition.

Then again, if our own fans can’t be bothered to demonstrate due appreciation for such a sensational result, why should we expect it from others? Just how long have we been waiting to be able to stick two-fingers up at Abramovich and all the dodgy millions he’s thrown at his plaything? When I reflect upon quite how deliciously satisfying Saturday’s result was, it absolutely baffles me that there were so many Gooners departing their seats before the final whistle, as if this was just any old game!

I sat there on Saturday wondering what sort of hot date, or precisely what sort of exciting event would be more enticing than the pleasure of lingering to relish such a rare occasion. Exactly what sort of Gooners dash off merely to beat the traffic, the queue for the tube, or to seek any such mundane advantage, rather than savour such a marvellous moment?

Perhaps the same Gooners heading for the exits before full-time were those crass folk giving Fabregas the bird. I'm all for absolutely anything that adds a little atmosphere to the overly sedate environs of our theatre-like surroundings at home games (and have never understood how the same fans who sing their hearts out at away games, sit on their hands at home matches?) and I was coating off Costa as loud as anyone. 

Yet I can't forget that Cesc pretty much carried our team on his young shoulders for a couple of seasons and if it wasn't for his desire to fulfil a boyhood ambition of playing for his home team, in front of his Catalan countrymen, I can't help but think that he might have become a one-team Arsenal legend. And so while I might've momentarily, instinctively joined in with the booing, on account of my dodgy eyesight, I'd much rather we applauded a player who gave so much of himself to the Gunners and who, as far as I'm aware, has never said a bad word about his former home.

The significance of chemistry is patently evident in the difference seen in Kanté’s influence in Chelsea's midfield, compared to his crucial contribution to the Fox’s success last season and more importantly, although it’s still early days and I’m only ever one disastrous performance away from contradicting myself, there appears to be a very promising chemistry between our new centre-back partnership.

Is this our "shall not pass" partnership?
After enduring all those years of first Drogba and then Costa making monkey’s out of our defence, perhaps the most pleasurable aspect to Saturday’s display was the way in which Koscielny and Mustafi completely nullified Chelsea’s goal threat. In fact I was almost as satisfied with the clean sheet, as I was with our three goals. Personally I feel that if these two can fulfil the promise of their burgeoning relationship to the point where we no longer have to fret about conceding sloppy goals, we might at long last have the capacity to mount a genuine title challenge.

When I posed the question as to who was my neighbour’s man of the match, he rightly pointed out that there were so many brilliant performances that it was far easier to pick the couple of players who weren’t worthy of this prize. For his last minute, last ditch tackle alone (not to mention the assist for Theo’s goal), I suggested Bellerin, but one could just as easily pick Nacho, Kos, Mustafi, Iwobi, Alexis, Mesut, even Theo and it was perhaps only Santi, or Xhaka who didn’t produce stand-out displays.

Aside from being far more irritated than usual by the early leavers, the only other disappointment on Saturday was the complete and utter lack of vocal appreciation shown to Wenger. No matter which side of the fence you happen to sit when it comes to our manager, surely everyone can agree that his twenty years of loyal service to the Arsenal cause merits our appreciation and respect?

Beating Basel Weds, The Tollington Thurs
I heard Chelsea’s Neanderthals singing their offensive ditty about our leader, but in his seat in the upper tier my nephew was most disappointed by the absolute lack of response to his attempts to lead a chant of “one Arsène Wenger”, which will only perpetuate our library like reputation upon his return to Dublin. His girlfriend had sprung a surprise birthday present of the trip over to the Chelsea game and all her pals had told her that she was bonkers because it was bound to be a miserable weekend with our customary defeat to the Blues. I’d joked with her that with it being her first ever game, we had better win, or it would be her last!

Mercifully Shane and Aoife departed beaming at their good fortune and with Aoife being instantly converted to the Gooner faith, I had to try to explain to her that it wasn’t quite this euphoric every week. But with them both being such lucky charms, if it was down to me, I would’ve paid to change their flights home to try and maintain Saturday’s spell against Basel tomorrow night.



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