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Wednesday 20 April 2016

Murder By Numbers

Hi Folks,

Feel free to jump to the Irish Examiner's less long-winded version of this week's missive:

Or if you've nowt better to do, or are in need of a cure for insomnia, my rambling waffle below is bound to do the trick :-)

Considering it's been all over social media, by now, I doubt there are too many people who've yet to see the Tweet that includes a photo of someone sprawled across some of the many empty seats at Sunday's game, but it seems that for me and so many other Gooners, this was one of those "worth a thousand words" images that encapsulates both the apathy and the apparent arrogance, which leaves so many of us wondering exactly where our Arsenal went?

Bearing in mind that many of the ancient anecdotes are genuine and that there was honestly a time when the old North Bank at THOF, or the Clock End was regularly so ridiculously rammed that if one was caught short during a game, making it to the karsey, or having any chance of returning to one's much cherished terrace pitch was so impossible that the only option was to take out one's Johnson and do one's best to avoid peeing down the back of the legs of the bloke standing in front.

Sure we've all grown accustomed to more civilised surroundings nowadays, but quite how far removed are the fervent, sardine-like setting of yesteryear, where there always existed a two-way relationship, with the atmosphere from the stands inspiring events on the pitch and vice-versa, from the sedate, far too spoiled, modern day theatre audience, where everyone sits back and demands to be entertained, in return for the extortionate cost of their seat.

Sadly the Arsenal's audience nowadays refuses to generate any sort of atmosphere, unless events on the pitch elevate the mood. For me and many other travelling Gooners, this is the principal reason I attend away matches so religiously, for my regular fix of atmosphere. I'll often shout myself hoarse at home games, but invariably my humble efforts are in vain and far too frequently the atmosphere at our place is so lamentably lame that it leaves me longing for the wave of noise the would genuinely leave the hair on the back of one's neck standing to attention. Worse still, our glamorous new stadium is now so renowned for it's unsupportive supporters that away fans up and down the country have taken to taunting their unenthusiastic hosts with the standard "just like The Library" refrain.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, as the Gunners grew increasingly frustrated with our opponents throwing their bodies in front of the ball and thwarting our leaden-footed, tippy-tappy efforts to pick an intricate path through the most congested part of the pitch, the desperate need for some inspiration from the terraces, to encourage them to raise the tempo of our game, has rarely been more evident. And yet much like our unintuitive manager, either we failed to sense this need, or perhaps more accurately, we simply couldn't be bothered and struggled to even raise a rousing chorus of the customary "Come on Arsenal".

Even when the Gunners have produced a positively sparkling home performance, I often look around at the dispassionate faces of those silently trudging away from the stadium, thinking to myself that a stranger would struggle to work out which team had just won.

With our record of qualifying for the Champions League for the past 17 successive seasons, we've grown so accustomed to being involved in football's most illustrious tournament, whilst being increasingly deprived of any genuine belief in our ability to achieve the elusive success that would finally silence the smug Blues fans taunts of "you'll never sing that song" that we Gooners have become far too blasé about finishing in the top four. 

Where the fans of the vast majority of other Premiership clubs would give their eye teeth for a single opportunity of Champions League football, we now take it for granted to such an extent that to my mind, our silence on Sunday patently demonstrated that both supporters and players alike, no longer want it badly enough!

Following the misery of blowing another couple of points on Sunday, frankly against piss-poor opposition who, with virtually nothing to play for in the league, will be tuned over by any of our hungrier competitors, we had to endure the agony of seeing a positively rampant Spurs burn down the walls of the not so fortress-like Britannia. The energised end of season efforts of the likes of Lilywhites and the Hammers demonstrates quite how motivated such teams are, by their managers dangling the carrot of the possibility of achieving a seat at Europe's top table.

Whereas by complete contrast, judging by our unenthusiastic crowd and the team's laborious performance against Palace on Sunday, one gets the distinct impression that we expect to retain, by right, our richly rewarded pitch, for a red & white snout in the Champions League trough, without ever having to really pull our finger out to earn it.

The problem is that the increased TV revenues have resulted in the improved overall standard of our competitors, to the extent that there are now various other clubs eyeing Champions League football as a genuine objective, when in the past this has been a mere pipe dream.

What's more, one could make an argument that if our fans can't be bothered and the team aren't sufficiently motivated by the prospect of merely participating in a competition, while lacking any real conviction that we are in it to win it, perhaps it's high time for a less nonchalant club to take a turn at giving it a real go?

Let's face it, as far as all the WOBs are concerned, surely failure to maintain his incredibly consistent qualification record for the Champions League is likely to prove the most effective means of easing Arsène out the door? Moreover for all those who are dissatisfied with the way in which the club is being run, the short, sharp shock of being deprived of Champions League income is likely to be the only eventuality that might stir the suits from their dividend receiving, comfort zone?

Then again, why will I not be surprised if we end up stumbling over the finishing line, scraping Champions League qualification by the skin of our teeth, as has been the case for the past umpteen seasons, only to be back in the same trophyless boat next April, whinging like a broken record.

Meanwhile, from a "careful what you wish for" point of view, we Gooners need to take a cold, hard look at quite how spoiled we've become, in the covetous eyes of the fans of all those football institutions such as Everton, Newcastle, Villa etc. etc who'd all be dancing in their seats and doing the conga around their stadiums to be suffering the Arsenal's woes!

And please don't get me started on the reported attendance of 59,961 on Sunday. Can anyone explain the point of continuing to maintain the obvious falsehood of reporting ticket sales as attendance figures, other than a feeble attempt to try and perpetuate the feelgood propaganda?

With the Baggies having even less to play for then Palace (as the Eagles were at least vying for a run out in their Wembley semifinal outing), we damn well better display more desire and determination on Thursday night, by way of an apology for Sunday's apparent sang-froid. 

I'll gladly (well not so gladly!) endure dropping points, so long as I'm satisfied we've thrown the kitchen sink at trying to secure all three, but there's nothing more infuriating than the sense that our players exist in such a secure comfort zone that they're merely going through the motions and not even sufficiently perturbed to at least feign the act of playing their hearts out.


Murder By Numbers

The infectious apathy evident in the large numbers of empty seats at the Arsenal on a lazy Sunday afternoon was perfectly summed up by the “also ran” half-time interviewee on the pitch. As Bertie Mee’s first signing, Colin Addison’s name rang a bell, but with all of 28 performances in his single campaign for the Gunners in the sixties, it felt symptomatic of our season that, amidst the infinite ranks of ex-stars and world renowned celebrity Gooners, the club couldn’t find a a less obscure candidate to drag out of his complimentary seat for this regular slot.

Sadly Sunday’s encounter proved a disappointingly somnolent finale to such a fabulously dramatic week of football. When I’d mistakenly assumed that the upshot of Dortmund’s surprise defeat at Anfield and the increasingly looming spectre of the Euro permutations that might end up depriving us of our customary consolation prize of a 4th place Champions League slot, would at the very least provide the motivation to prevent the Gunners spluttering over the finishing line, with our France bound Internationals all merely going through the motions.

I must admit that there was some relief in being a neutral, watching Thursday’s heart-stopping, “football…bloody hell” Jurgen Klopp love-in. Yet having witnessed successive nights of televised football, in which Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool all managed to breathe some life back into an exciting end of season denouement, there was more than a little regret involved in being nothing more than an interested bystander.

So in some respects, from a straw clutching, glass half-full perspective, perhaps we should be grateful for Bolasie finding the back of the net for the first time since November, to result in the Eagles’ 81st minute smash & grab, Our meagre return of a single point from such a dominant display against Palace does at least inject some added spice into our remaining five outings.

Instead of chugging along on Spurs” coattails, praying for the miracle that might result in them tripping up, suddenly we find ourselves playing to avoid the ignominious threat of the poisoned chalice that is Thursday night, Europa Cup football. Yet after the Gunners have squandered 12 of the past 21 points that we’ve competed for, in this, the most unpredictable Premiership season to date, we really shouldn’t be surprised by any such eventuality.

In responding to the question in his Friday press conference as to why he’d selected Ospina against West Ham last weekend, Wenger explained that “if you look at his numbers, they are absolutely exceptional”. Yet the psychological impact of omitting our more imposing No. 1 was not the sort of instinctive understanding to be gleaned from the data.

Similarly against Palace on Sunday, it felt as if this was a team playing in our manager’s analytical image, as if this match was going to be won not on the pitch, but on an Excel spreadsheet, with the Arsenal’s far superior “numbers”. I’m sure we beat Palace hands down, in every respect statistically speaking, except the all-important one that counts!

We’ve seen it all before, against those sides that come to our place with such limited ambitions, with the Gunners waiting far too patiently for the weight of their superior ability to tell, as we try to pick the lock through the heart of the massed ranks of the opposition, without anyone assuming responsibility, or having the inspiration to attempt an alternative ploy.

Mind you, I can’t recall seeing a keeper lobbed by a header before and as the shortest player on the park, it was a pity that nearly all Alexis’ opportunities arrived on his bonce. Yet the Chilean’s customary determination aside, Elneny appeared to be just about the only other player sufficiently motivated to try and make something happen. While their team mates were all waiting to notch up another win, according to the weight of their superior statistics

If our old dog has anything to learn from the Foxes remarkable campaign, it is that "the numbers" are far from the be all and end all. But then even Arsène’s staunchest advocates are beginning to wonder if a genuine appreciation of the less tangible, more intuitive aspects to the beautiful game are beyond our scientific prof’s purview?

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