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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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