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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Le Prof Pulls Out His Chemistry Set

            So just how excited are we all at the prospect of Sunday's Wembley semi-final outing? Perhaps it's the erosion of any last vestige of youthful exuberance that accompanies my advancing years (or merely a result of my increasingly decrepit memory), but personally I struggle to recall facing this familiar, end of season odyssey around the North Circular, with quite so much trepidation.

            It's hard to believe that it was only at the beginning of this same month that we managed to achieve an honours even share of the points with Guardiola's Man City. Then when we returned to our gaff only three days later, to produce some brief cameos of the most entertaining footie that we've witnessed from the Gunners in months, in nailing the Hammers 3-0, we were sucked in by the false dawn of a quasi-religious "born again" renaissance.

            Sadly this premature scent of a barn-storming, end of season resurgence had long since dissipated, perhaps amidst the pollution of all that traffic, as the team coach struggled to transect "the Smoke" to SE25. It was to be replaced by an all together more offensive whiff, as the Arsenal positively "stunk the place out" at Selhurst Park.

            After having to endure another irritating weekend's worth of football, where all the opponents of the teams above us seemed to roll over in an annoyingly meek manner, we were left impatiently waiting for a decidedly unappetising Bank Holiday outing to Boro. But it wasn't merely a win of any description that I was desperate for on Monday evening. 

            It felt as if any self-respecting Arsenal player should be positively desperate to be party to a collective response, to the accusations of a "lack of balls" cowardice, which were levelled at them with the fusillade of deservedly chastening criticisms that came in the aftermath of the defeat at Palace. This was an experience that couldn't have possibly proved any more humiliating (but a helluva lot more hilarious) if BFS had pranked his old foe Wenger with a friendly "wedgie"!

            So I found myself scrutinising Monday night's performance for evidence of some slight chink of Arsenal indignation; some signs of renewed resolve in their demeanour that might give me cause to feel more optimistic about Sunday's encounter. I mistakenly presumed that the players might feel some obligation to at least try to demonstrate that our leader is not an entirely spent force and that he's still capable of motivating his squad, to turn it up a notch or two when the chips are down.

            Sure, much like every other Gooner, I took plenty solace from landing all three points from our Riverside fishing trip, since these were essential just to keep us in the picture. Yet in order to garner a little confidence and momentum going into Sunday's game, we could've badly done with a more convincing display, rather than this somewhat fortuitous struggle to reel in a catch that's seemingly already doomed to relegation.

            While Wenger responded to our frequent moans about his tactical rigidity, by surprising us all with his team selection, it seems more than a little bizarre for him to be waiting until the end of April, to be experimenting with playing three at the back for the very first time in twenty years!

            In the past, our manager's point blank refusal to bow to public and media pressure has been viewed as one of his strengths, but the more cynical amongst up might ponder whether Monday's formation might've been the equivalent of "dad dancing", with Wenger suddenly feeling the need to prove that anything Pep or Conté can do, he can do better.

            I presumed this to be a "horses for courses" one off experiment, with Wenger loading up on centre-halves to deal with Boro's expected aerial threat. Yet when one considers that it might've ended up resulting in a far more miserable outcome, if either of Downing's decent crosses had been despatched, the performance hardly served as validation of our ability to effectively adapt to this particular tactical strategy.

            Others have questioned whether it might've been a dress-rehearsal for Sunday's game and I for one bloomin' well hope not, as I'm already terrified by the likelihood of Ramsey and Xhaka playing in the middle, where I fear neither is willing, nor able to produce the work rate necessary to provide our defence with sufficient protection. And surely the worrisome prospect of us being overrun by City in the middle of the park only becomes more acute, if AW includes an additional centre-back?

            If as I suspect, Wenger reverts to his more standard formation, I imagine that I'm far from alone in questioning whether "two wash-bags" Bellerin will receive a recall at right-back. It's rumoured that Hector has been carrying a knock recently and I certainly hope that this is the case, as it would at least provide Hector with some excuse for his lamentable dip in form and it offers some hope that the disturbing sight of Sane leaving him for dead might just be a one-off aberration.

            Rather than Hector carrying the psychological baggage of the Man City wide man getting the better of him, into next season, I think I'd want him to be challenged on Sunday to go out and prove his mettle. In fact the club could do a lot worse than sitting the entire team down and force feeding them recordings of their forbears more memorable displays, by way of a much needed reminder of the sort of resolve, the 100 per cent committed attitude that's expected of them come Sunday.

            The Ox appeared to be just about the only energised Arsenal player against Boro, willing to take responsibility to run with the ball and at least make something happen. But even he seemed to run out of puff, or enthusiasm, as he slipped into comparative anonymity, along with his colleagues second-half. Will Wenger take a risk on Alex maintaining his energy level for 90 minutes on Sunday. Or will Walcott get the shout, knowing he might contribute little overall, but is at least capable of popping up with a goal? In truth I fancy that all such selection quandaries will not prove nearly so significant as the attitude of the starting XI.

            When I contrast the Gunners utterly tame efforts of late, with some of the engrossing Champions League encounters in midweek, it seems to me that leaving aside the question of sufficient quality, it's been the woeful lack of intensity to the Gunners efforts that's been the most obvious difference. In the past I've invariably been able to kid myself that our players were at least willing to make it look like the outcome mattered to them. But watching a positively distraught Neymar, blubbing his eyes out after Barca had exited the competition, I simply couldn't envisage any of our lot as having been equally distressed after they were trounced by Bayern.

            Never mind the daunting prospect of proceeding to the cup final, I'm absolutely desperate for us to win, or at the very least to produce a performance in which they do themselves proper justice on Sunday, if only to be able to carry some confidence into the North London derby. If, in addition to finishing below Spurs for the first time in a couple of decades, we have to face the ignominy of losing our last ever encounter at White Hart Lane, I'll have a depressingly long summer's worth of piss-taking to look forward to, from all those puffed up Spurs pals who'll be keen to make the most of their rare bragging rights.

            I'll be only too delighted to end up having to eat these words, but watching Spurs batter Bournemouth last Saturday, it didn't exactly appear as if Pochettino's side are about to produce an encore of the way in which they ran out of steam last season. With the Spuds 2-0 up after only twenty minutes, the game already looked done and dusted as a contest and on TV it sounded as if the atmosphere evaporated as the first half wore on; to such an extent that the only noise being picked up by the pitchside sound effects mics was that of their Argie manager bellowing at his team to maintain their high-intensity fervour.

            Equally revealing was that unlike the Gunners far more sedentary displays, there was no sense of Spurs smugly sitting back on a three goal lead and it was hard not to be impressed, watching our neighbours continue to work their socks off, as they pressed for a fourth goal in the 92nd minute.

            As we all know, mercifully form can go straight out the window when it comes to a derby game but it's precisely this sort of hunger and determination that the Gunners are going to need to match (and which has been on the missing list for most of the season), if we're to have any hope of taking them down a peg, or two and putting a spoke in their Premiership hopes, thereby calming the rising panic about a last gasp title charge.

            Even if we're to end up failing, so long as the Gunners give us a performance to be proud of. I'm already dreading the short trip to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road far more than would normally be the case and I couldn't bear the thought of putting myself through such an ordeal, only to watch an uninspired Arsenal side that rocks up expecting to get turned over.

            Sunday's semi-final is crucial in this context because it's essential that we produce the sort of impressive display that inspires some hope. Otherwise I might end up sitting here, seriously wondering if I'd be better off cashing in the gold-dust of my White Hart Lane ticket, putting the cash towards my season ticket renewal and allowing some other mug to suffer a sado-masochistic adieu to Spurs dilapidated old home.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Fit To Wear The Shirt?

            I intentionally avoided joining the chorus of condemnation resulting from Monday night's capitulation at Selhurst Park, but after watching some of the contrastingly competent displays in the Champions League these past couple of nights, I've been left struggling to hold my tongue.

            There was me mistakenly believing that the Gunners had hit rock-bottom in our abysmal defeat to the Baggies, hoping that our players would find themselves sufficiently shamefaced that this disaster might serve as an educational benchmark, of the almost inevitable outcome when one fails to turn up for a game in the competitive environs of our domestic campaign.

            More fool me because as Theo Walcott unwittingly revealed in his post-match remarks regarding Palace "wanting it more", sadly it seems as if there's very little shame remaining, amongst the obscenely rewarding upper echelons of top flight football and apparently the little shame that does exist soon evaporates, by the time players arrive home and wrap themselves in the comforting consolation of their Croesus-like bank statements.

            Meanwhile, before I begin venting my wrath, we Gooners should never forget quite to what extent the slings and arrows of the Arsenal's fortunes need to be viewed from the perspective of how outrageously spoiled we've all become over the course of Wenger's long tenure. Unaccustomed as we are to being the laughing stock of British football and to the merriment being had at our expense, we still need to remind ourselves that barring about four other teams, fans of virtually every other club in the country would be only too delighted to find themselves chasing Champions League qualification (albeit an ever waning chance!) and a Wembley semi-final outing at this point in the season.

            As much as we might belittle the consolation prize of Wenger's astonishingly consistent achievement of a top-four finish, both fans and players alike seem to have grown to believe that we have some sort of divine right to a seat at Europe's top table. In a similar vein, our record of success at Selhurst Park is such that we turned up on Monday night seemingly expecting the Eagles to roll over and present us with the three points on a plate.

            In the past I can recall revelling in those occasions when Palace have survived a relegation battle, in the certain knowledge that they'd provide us with a guaranteed six points the following season. Yet while we've usually been able to trust to the enhanced talents, afforded to us by the Arsenal's vastly superior resources, Palace have rarely proved a pushover on their home patch and we've invariably needed to earn the right to return to North London with all three points.

            Moreover, with Sam Allardyce having seemingly suffered over the course of his enduring slog of a managerial career with the weight of a substantial chip on his shoulder, related to his perception of the increased (and often unmerited) respect afforded to foreign managers, there are few opposition managers who relish more a rare opportunity to put one over on le Prof than BFS.

            Much to my dismay, the current malaise at the Arsenal appears to run so deep that right from the opening forays on Monday night, where we witnessed the slovenly fashion in which Alexis gifted Palace possession with his first three touches of the ball, it seemed patently apparent to me that the club was guilty of a gross dereliction of duty, in neglecting to impress upon our players the likelihood that they'd be leaving Selhurst Park with diddly squat (other than their tales between their legs), unless they at least showed willing to pull their collective fingers out.

            I've been watching the Gunners play for long enough that one comes to accept the fact that every dog has it's day and every unbeaten run comes to an end, eventually. Yet it was the manner of Monday night's defeat that was so deeply disturbing. It's said that one learns a lot more about players in defeat than one ever does when they are winning and 0-3 down still with 20 mins to play, my instincts told me that this was an Arsenal side who've grown so accustomed to taking Champions League involvement for granted that they've lost all sense of what it means to be cast into the relative anonymous European wilderness of the Europa Cup.

            That is unless they've already given up on Champs League qualification and are intent on avoiding the ignominy (and the apparent disadvantageous impact upon one's domestic campaign!) of regular Thursday night footie, by finishing low enough to ensure we avoid Europa Cup qualification!

            For if the Gunners were truly fearful of missing out on Champion's League footie then surely we would've witnessed more of a reaction? In a similarly calamitous predicament, the forceful characters from the Arsenal sides of yesteryear would've been bellowing their anger at one another and would've been taking their immense frustration out on the opposition, likely getting themselves sent off for kicking an opponent up in the air. At the very least they would've been pulling out all the stops, to try and get the travelling Gooners back onside, by at least providing them with some cause to proudly affirm their fealty. 

            I fondly recall defeats in the past, where we've spent the last fifteen minutes relentlessly proclaiming "we love you Arsenal" because despite having failed, it's not been for the want of trying and we've watched them throw the kitchen sink at the opposition, leaving us all with the sense (no matter how misguided) that our players respected the shirt sufficiently to at least make the effort to show quite how much the outcome mattered to them.

            Thus it was the abiding sense of apathy amongst the Arsenal on Monday night that was most distressing and which left me feeling that our club is in desperate need of a major shake-up, both on and off the pitch.

            I hear all these names being bandied about as potential replacements for Wenger, but if I'm honest, I've not watched enough of the football played by their assorted current and former employers, to be able to attest to anyone's ability to fill Arsene's shoes. Additionally, while we are all crying out for change, few Gooners seem to appreciate the likelihood that Wenger will probably be the single most influential voice, when it comes to selecting his replacement. So even if the staid, PR conscious suits on our board were willing to risk the club's reputation on appointing the sort of hot-headed, heart on his sleeve, emotive manager that many Gooners would prefer to see on the bench, it's hard to envisage such a character earning Wenger's seal of approval?

            Max Allegri seems to be flavour of the month as far as the media are concerned and while I might know next to nothing about the Italian manager, watching Juve's performance against Barca on Tuesday night, I was immediately struck by the regimented, disciplined way in which their defence limited the opportunities offered to Barca's prolific MSN. For much of the match it was as if Juve's two banks of four were attached to one another, like two bars of men in a game of table soccer, all moving machine-like, in complete unison. What I wouldn't give for just a little of this sort of supremely well-drilled defence at the Arsenal!!

            In distinct contrast to the Gunners, I can't recall a single incident where Juve's two warhorse centre-backs were left exposed, without assistance, to being exploited by Barca's more fleet-footed strikeforce. Moreover, on the rare moments when the likes of Neymar or Suarez posed a risk in the penalty area, I was struck by the absence of panic and the composed way in which they were able to nullify the threat, knowing that even in the event of failure, Barca still had to beat the imposing, authoritative presence of Buffon. I don't watch much Italian footie, but it was evident that Juve defend in the same staunch fashion of our own former fab back four, who's parsimony gave rise to the "1-0 to the Arsenal" anthem.

            And with one of these sat alongside as Wenger's assistant for some time now, I must admit to being utterly mystified, when it comes to Stevie Bould's apparent inability to drum even the most basic of defensive principles into our current defence. Even with my sadly, rapidly failing memory, I can still recall the cries from the touchline for me to "stay on your feet" when I played as a full-back some forty years ago. OK so there are moments when a defender has to risk all and commit themselves to making a tackle, but witnessing Mustafi, a World Cup winning International, diving in quite so recklessly over by the touchline on more than one occasion (even after he'd been booked!!), where his opponent posed little threat, such ignorance of the most basic defensive principles just about sums up the unforgivably reprehensible, slipshod attitude of this Arsenal squad.

            In a similar vein, we're accustomed to seeing the pitch at our place well watered before games and at halftime, so as to provide the slickest possible playing surface, to best aid our passing game. But it's hardly a closely guarded secret that opposing teams do all in their power, within the rules, to negate any such advantage, by not cutting the grass, nor watering the playing surface when hosting ball-playing sides. And yet watching on Monday night, it was as if the Arsenal players were completely oblivious to the possibility that the ball wouldn't run as quickly on the Selhurst Park pitch. Perhaps it was just pure laziness that accounted for the infuriating number of times players in a yellow shirt lost possession, waiting for the ball to come to them, instead of moving towards a pass which had been under-hit, doubtless on account of the increased drag from the pitch.

            Admittedly, in isolation, such complaints are minor issues, compared to the lamentable lack of motivation and the woefully casual attitude of a team that was devoid of the intensity necessary to triumph in any Premiership encounter. Yet they are the sort of schoolboy failings that one would just not expect of a top-flight professional outfit that's supposedly spent the entire past week in preparation for this 90 minute encounter. As a result I can't help but wonder if they might be symptomatic of the extent to which the malaise at the Arsenal is so deep-rooted, where Arsene's long tenure has resulted in his staff taking their eye off the ball, complacently going through the motions, week in, week out, season in, season out?

            For me, it's not so much a question of whether or not Wenger is capable of turning around such weighty paddle-ship, following a decade of treading Premiership water. For me the problem is that Arsene lacks the same ruthless streak of the likes of Fergie because the man is far too loyal and as a result the stubborn old bugger is never going to throw the baby out with the bath water. So I have to believe that a complete regime change is essential, if only because this is the only way in which we're likely to witness the sort of total transformation of our squad that might result in an entirely different team within the space of a couple of seasons.

            There are several players who might benefit from a move and who we might end up regretting letting go, should they come back to haunt us, as they find their careers reinvigorated elsewhere. But sadly, the complete absence of any sanction at the Arsenal has enabled this stultifying aura of complacency to pervade the club, to the point where I could only envisage the majority of them achieving anything with a renewed challenge elsewhere. As far as I'm concerned, nothing short of a huge clear out and a complete turnaround of the playing staff is necessary to facilitate a squad full of players with plenty to prove and who perform with the constant insecurity of knowing they either shape up, or are shipped out.

            Who knows, this might well result in a disastrous period of transition. I don't know about anyone else, but personally I've reached such a low point, with my exasperation at the complete lack of gratification from watching an Arsenal side full of players who shirk responsibility, content to play sideways and backwards that as far as I am concerned absolutely anything would be better than the prospect of enduring the mere maintenance of this tediously tame status quo, amidst an abiding atmosphere of acrimony on the terraces.

            I hear folks complaining that Alexis isn't a team player, but no matter what your opinion, surely it can't be disputed that the Chilean is just about the only Arsenal player blessed with the attitude of a winner. He might all too often be guilty of losing the ball, but he alone is willing to take players on and to try and make something happen when it's stalemate elsewhere. I can totally empathise if Alexis is intent on leaving, as I've watched over the course of each season, as match by match Sanchez' smile has been wiped off his face and his joie de vivre has evaporated and he's become ground down by his team mates apparent reluctance to let rip, with them all unwilling to risk anything, contentedly going through their more safe, mediocre motions.

            Perhaps it's related to the fact that Alexis comes from such an impoverished background that he continues to appreciate being so richly rewarded for doing something that he loves, when his labour of love is more of a job of work for all those that have never known such hunger and who tend to take their privileged position for granted? But when this one player who's willing to at least try and impose himself on a game begins to hide out on the wing as he did on Monday night, then you know for certain that the Gunners are bang in trouble.

            Faced with a three-pronged attack of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott, one would've assumed that the Eagles' greatest fear would be the thought of being exposed to such blistering pace. Yet such was the complete lack of tempo and intensity to our play on Monday that I can't recall a single instance of us breaking at speed to avail ourselves of our most potent threat. Surely such a total failure to bring this asset to bear constitutes the team's patent inability to put a gameplan into effect?

            As one of Granit Xhaka's greatest critics, I have to admit that he alone conjured about just about the only couple of decent, incisive forward passes all night long. Perhaps Xhaka might prove to be a slow burner and he will progress in his second season, but personally I feel he's the sort of player who might prosper in the less frenetic environment on the Continent, but who appears to lack the speed of thought, the composure and to date, the talent to flourish in the Premiership. Yet no matter whether or not Xhaka has the innate ability necessary, as far as I'm concerned he's not blessed with the attitude, the essential drive and determination that's vital for someone to produce the intensity required to be effective in such a pivotal role, as the Arsenal's fulcrum in the middle of the park.

            When one considers that we started this season with such an over abundance of talent in the middle of the park that Jack Wilshere wanted out, frankly it's hard to believe that we've been left reliant on the limited creativity offered by a partnership of Xhaka and Elneny. Do we think that Wenger is any the wiser as to his first choice pairing in this position? The moment I realised that these two had retained their places in Monday night's starting XI I wondered who was going to pick the lock of the Palace defence, as such is their reluctance to try and impose themselves upon proceedings that we are left relying on an increasingly rare Ozil cameo, or Alexis forcing the issue.

            Moreover, such is Xhaka's apparent unwillingness to break sweat that Elneny is left having to do all the hard graft. And if these two struggled to contain Palace and failed to provide our centre-halfs with sufficient cover amidst the tight confines of Selhurst Park, I dread to think to what extent Man City might be able to make hay, exposing our defensive frailties on the wide expanses of Wembley?

            But before that we've another potential banana skin at Boro on Easter Monday. If some results should go our way over the course of the weekend, it will be interesting to see if the Gunners have the capacity to bounce back and take some advantage. Surely if there was one team you would want to be facing, in the hope of our positively porous defence rebuilding some much needed confidence, it would be the goal shy Teesiders?

            Should we flounder again at the Riverside on Monday, it's likely to prove uncomfortable journeying around the North Circular to Wembley the following Sunday, full of trepidation at the prospect of being tonked by City and worse still the utter dread of surreptitiously sneaking down to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road the weekend after, with a team that (it depresses me to admit!) appears unfit to wipe Spurs boots at present!

            Testament to quite how bad things are for us Gooners at present can be judged by the fact that my Spurs mates (more of whom seem to be coming out of the woodwork with each passing day) are now so confident of finishing above us for the first time in 22 seasons that instead of taking the piss, they're able to wind me up even more as they've taken to sympathising with me.

            If we end up embarrassing ourselves against City, the sound of a couple of thousand Gooners venting their fury at Selhurst Park might prove peanuts compared to the possibility of 30,000 turning on the team at Wembley. Mind you, I'd almost be inclined to sacrifice the prospect of an FA Cup Final appearance, in return for a mere token, meaningless triumph against Tottenham, but where I could hold a victory, in a memorable last ever outing at the Lane, over my Spurs pals for time immemorial

            I wonder if Wenger has circled 1st May as the date to reveal his intentions, hoping he can announce a contract extension on the back of the ecstatic celebrations of an unexpected Derby Day victory, or alternatively where defeat might finally persuade le Prof that there's absolutely no hope of redemption this time around?

            Many Gooners are convinced that Arsene intends to linger for at least another season, but if the Gunners should continue on such a depressingly steep downward curve, surely there must come a point where the level of disapprobation from the terraces will be such that even he and the seemingly impervious suits at the club will find the clamour increasingly impossible to ignore.

            Meanwhile, I was no less aggrieved than anyone else by the Gunners abject failure to demonstrate their commitment to the Arsenal's cause and the complete absence of anyone playing in a yellow shirt showing some balls on Monday night. Yet bearing in mind our "victory through harmony" (Victoria Concordia Crescit) motto, instead of spoiled Gooners spitting out our dummies, perhaps we'd be better off taking a leaf out the book of the 30,000 Boro fans who turned out to loyally support their uninspiring side against Burnley last weekend, despite being six points adrift at the foot of the Premiership, facing the increasingly looming spectre of relegation and the dreaded drop back into the comparative obscurity of the Championship? 

            Our loyalty should be to the Arsenal's cause, rather than to that of its relatively ephemeral existing employees and perhaps there's far more kudos to be had from serving notice to the club's more disrespectful mercenaries of what it means to proudly renew our unspoken contract to maintain our unstinting support through both thick and thin.

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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Long Goodbye

            Usually I’d be positively bristling with anticipation at the prospect of getting around to the Arsenal, in the gorgeous Spring sunshine, following the comparative purgatory of a fortnight’s International break. Yet while the world battles the lack of empathy that’s been labelled “compassion fatigue”, we Gooners are suffering from “Wenger fatigue”, with us all fed up to the eye teeth with the pernicious aura of uncertainty that’s crippled our beloved club.

            A clash with a Man City side, intent on proving their superior purist pedigree should be cause for celebration, compared to all those other opponents who come to our place solely focused on snuffing out all hope of footballing entertainment. Yet with us going into Sunday’s game lagging a terrifying twelve points behind Spurs and with none of the current top four sides appearing to be in imminent peril of the wheels coming off in the finishing straight, it feels as if the vast majority of our fans have succumbed to a sense of apathy about our fate.

            I assumed that our utterly dispirited displays prior to the break might give rise to a far more significant turn out for the now customary pre-match “Wenger Out” protest. Yet Sunday’s demo appeared equally feeble as the humble gathering prior to our last home game against Lincoln. In spite of the sentiments of our chairman, which were splashed loudly across a traveling billboard concerning our manager’s accountability to the fans, I get the distinct sense that the bulk of the Arsenal faithful have resigned themselves to the futility of our position as punters. We’re merely the herd, to be milked as regularly as possible, for all our worth!

            Visiting City fans were enjoying the embarrassing spectacle of some of the more vociferous protestors offering out those Gooners who were giving vent to their support for Wenger. My instincts are that failing some sort of cataclysmic climax to this campaign, it’s already been decided that Arsène will extend his contract and the board have merely delayed any announcement to this effect, in an effort to try and time it, so that there are minimum opportunities for public expressions of outrage from all those Gooners who are clamouring for change.

            While the visiting fans made some effort to add a little atmosphere to Sunday’s proceedings, the remainder of the stadium was even more library-like than usual, with the home crowd seemingly content to sit back and watch the remainder of our season play out. Prior to the game, much of the speculation out on the concourse concerned how quickly the crowd might turn, if we conceded early and another humiliating defeat was on the cards.

            When Sane left Bellerin floundering in his wake and opened the scoring within five minutes and with Xhaka and Coquelin seemingly woefully inadequate in the middle of the park, it briefly looked as if City were capable of inflicting a cricket score. It was exasperating that it once again took for us to go a goal behind, before the Gunners pulled their collective fingers out, but I guess we must be grateful for the entertaining, end-to-end battle that ensued; especially when you consider that it took place amidst the sort of tepid atmosphere that might more normally be associated with  the sort of unsatisfying, end of season, testimonial type affair.

            Ultimately a single point each only benefits our top-four competitors, but a significant defeat would’ve inflicted disastrous psychological damage upon our semifinal prospects. Sunday’s draw does at least offer some hope of us being able to rebuild our severely bruised morale. Besides which, 1-2 down at half-time, I would’ve bitten your hand off for a point, after seeing Gabriel going through an earnest warm-up. In light of how we’ve capitulated the last couple of times that Koscielny has been forced to limp off, I was positively terrified, as my worst fears were confirmed with his substitution.

            I pray his retirement was precautionary as with the games coming thick and fast, we’re going to need all hands on deck. And according to recent evidence Koscielny is the one player that we can least afford to lose, if this squad is to have any hope of doing their bit to affirm that our emperor isn’t in fact stark bollock naked.

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Monday, 20 March 2017

Deux Avions Arsène

            I was so depressed after Saturday's miserable capitulation to the Baggies that I was tempted not to bother adding my own contribution to the resulting inevitable tumult of Arse bashing, at least not until I'd allowed some time to try and put matters into some proper perspective.

            From my point of view, confirmation that our club is so far up kack creek that we've reached an absolute nadir, is evident when our fans start taking their cues from the self-aggrandising antics of the over-entitled Mancunian masses. 

            Never mind "Two Jags Prescott", we've now got "Deux Avions Arsène" as we endured the tortuous disunity at the Arsenal being embarrassingly played out in the West Midlands' skies Saturday lunchtime, for the hilarity of the Hawthorns' crowd and all the local Yam Yams.

            If it wasn't bad enough that the WOB had crowd-funded the fly past with their "No Contract #Wenger Out" banner just before KO, when such needless expense might've been put to far better use to feed the swollen bellies of all those starving babes in Africa, the battles of the skies was joined with the appearance of a second plane, twenty minutes later, trailing the AKB's "In Arsène We Trust #respectAW" ensign (with the more amusing t-shirt alternative "In Arsène We Rust" available online).

            Rumours abound that this second stunt was funded by a firm that's run by our chairman's family and as if to emphasise their superior status, compared to the brief fly-by afforded by the WOB, this second plane seemed to linger overhead for the remainder of the first-half, just to ensure their message was seen. Admittedly the score was only 1-1 up until half-time and I'm certain the response would've been far more emphatic after the final whistle, but if one wanted to take a temperature of the Gooner mood on the terraces, the reaction to the first plane was mild curiousity, with the almost obligatory raft of mobiles appearing to record the event, whereas the second plane resulted in a brief chorus of "Only One Arsène Wenger".

            Obviously, all the usual suspects amongst the publicity-seeking Gooners produced their customary "Wenger Out" and "Thanks for the Memories" banners at the final whistle, thereby providing our humiliated side with an excuse to skulk off into the dressing room, even quicker than would've been the case, if they weren't confronted with the dilemma of them not wanting to risk being seen to condone the WOB. Moreover, Saturday's abysmal display only served to reaffirm what appears to be an increasing consensus on the terraces that there's absolutely no evidence of the sort of commitment from the players to save the gaffer's bacon.

            Nevertheless, although the WOB's social media white noise might be by far the loudest, I remain of the opinion that, much like myself, the vast majority of Gooners feel uncomfortable at the prospect of Wenger being hounded out the door. Much like a doctor's hippocratic oath to do no harm, Arsène is certainly not intent on "killing our club" and has devoted the past twenty years to putting the Arsenal on the map. In truth, Wenger's only crime is his culpability in seemingly not being able to appreciate quite how stale the circumstances have become in London N5. And surely the real blame for this is down to the complacent suits, who've grown so content with the club's full coffers that they are neither inclined, nor have the cajones to proclaim our emperor's stark bollock nakedness.

Never mind Wenger, is Bouldie earning his keep?

            If the headlines on the back pages of Monday's tabloids are to be believed, the board have bottled it and have chosen the path of least resistance, with a contract renewal. Although this would be likely to result in absolute uproar from the Gooner masses, perhaps from the board's point of view it enables them to continue to postpone actually having to do their jobs, by replacing Wenger with the entire apparatus of football management structure that will be required, when he eventually chooses to let go of his all-encompassing reins. Additionally, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is more than a little trepidation amongst the suits at the Arsenal. Failing immediate success for the manager who fills Wenger's shoes, the finger of blame and the clamorous ire of our fan base will rapidly point in their direction.

            When I go back through weekly missives written as the league campaign reaches the finishing straight in the vast majority of recent seasons, I fast lose count of the number of occasions upon which we've witnessed such half-hearted displays that I've been moved to state that one could be forgiven for wondering which of the two team was chasing a top four finish and the side with little but pride left to play for. So when viewed in isolation, Saturday's miserable defeat to the Baggies was little different to many of the unimpressive performances that we've endured in the past at this time of the year, aside from the fact that previously we've often benefited from the likes of West Brom being that little bit more distracted by the summer holyers and remembering to buy their Factor 10 from Boots than our unmotivated lot.

            Yet whether it was the fact that we've ended the weekend in sixth place, behind Man U, on equal points with Everton and enduring a whole NINE point chasm between us and our neighbours, or the circumstances of Wenger's uncertain future and Özil failing to even bother turning up at West Brom (supposedly suffering from a hamstring strain, when gossip might lead one to conclude that Mesut's nocturnal acitivities are far more likely to cause a groin strain!), which might imply that our two world class stars are about to engineer their exit, there's a definite "end of days" feel to this campaign that's distinctly different to the way in which we've grown accustomed to seasons petering out in the past.

            Never mind Wenger, perhaps it should be Bouldie getting the "tin tack" considering our set-piece defending was so unbelievably criminal, against a side that's scored half their goals this season from such routines. Moreover, I don't usually set much store by statistics, but to my mind, only two shots on target from 77% possession and not one of these after the 33rd minute, this screams to me of a side devoid of any real appetite. Most poignantly to me was the sight of our statuesque midfield, as they were bypassed for the Baggies second goal, where not one amongst the likes of Xhaka, Ramsey, the Ox and Theo appeared willing to bust a gut to get back, but were content to leave our defence struggling to cope. Similarly, our alleged zonal defending at corners is perfectly designed for players who are unwilling to take responsibility and eager to apportion blame elsewhere.

Closest Xhaka comes to working up a sweat!
            I can take getting beat by the Baggies and in the great scheme of things, even the spectre of finishing out of the top four wouldn't be such a disaster. Finishing below Spurs would be mortifying and might result in me having to turn my phone off for the entire summer, but to gift them this crumb of comfort only once every couple of decades wouldn't be the end of the world. What I can't accept is watching an Arsenal side simply settling for their fate, without even showing us fans the respect of putting a proper shift in.

            Then again, is this so surprising, as I can't help but wonder how it sits with his team mates that Mesut is an apparent law unto himself and can seemingly swan off, whenever he gets the yen. Whatever happened to the whole squad travelling to matches whether on the teamsheet or not, to at least feign support for their colleagues? Meanwhile, I see all the complaints about Alexis being too greedy and not being a "team player" and it's true, he's increasingly guilty of running with the ball and being reluctant to pass. But in his shoes, I wonder if I wouldn't be exactly the same. Again in the first-half on Saturday Sanchez was the single only player in yellow willing to make the effort to try and make something happen, rather than passively passing the ball around, waiting for the opposition to present us with an opening. 

            When Alexis is the only Arsenal player willing to take the opposition on, why on earth would he want to go past someone, only to lay the ball off and see it end up going back past the halfway line, for us to begin yet again. As just about our only player who demonstrates a "winning mentality' it should come as no shock that he's growing increasingly resentful of being surrounded by team mates who've grown so accustomed to settling for ending up amongst the "also rans"!

            Seeing the decidedly uninspiring but industrious likes of West Brom's Livermore getting an England call-up, I wondered if Theo Walcott might feel like he had a point to prove on Saturday. Yet aside from being caught on the ball in his own half, I can barely recall Theo being involved in the 65 minutes he spent on the pitch. It's wrong for me to single out individuals from such a lamentable team showing, but this was symptomatic of a side that plays as if they've been so immersed in Arsène's cocoon of "unbelievable belief" that they expect victory to be handed to them on a plate and can no longer remember how to go about earning it.

            No matter how concerned I might be about what the future might hold in a post-Wenger era and in the likely absence of Özil and Sanchez, the prospect of more of the same is far more mortifying. I'm sure that like the vast majority of others, I wish Arsène would hurry up and bite the bullet, so we can indeed #respectAW and bid him the fondest of farewells. Even if he's able to galvanise this squad into providing him with a fitting send off and heaven forfend, a 4th place finish and an FA Cup win, which result in him changing his mind, it's likely to prove a whole lot more enticing than an argumentative, ten-game wake.

            As it stands at present, the thought of facing City at Wembley and then going to our last ever game at the Lane the following weekend fills me full of dread and as humiliating as it would be to lose both these encounters, at the very minimum, I need to be going to both games believing we're capable of victory, instead of willingly walking into a masochistic car-crash!



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Monday, 13 March 2017

Come All Ye Faithful

an extended wake, where sadly the deceased appears to be
the only one on the planet ignoring the Grim Reaper's call

            It was only when driving past the Marble Halls of THOF and I saw the gaggle of Gooners gathering, prior to Saturday's game, that it dawned upon me that there was another protest on the cards. But to be honest, it looked like a somewhat meagre turn-out and although they'd collected a couple of hundred more of the WOB, by the time they rounded the bend in Drayton Park and approached the steps of Highbury House on the walk to the new stadium, it was a fairly feeble looking demo, especially when compared to the nine thousand Imps fans who'd journeyed down to London N5 and who were all definitely "up for the cup".

            In fact, I don't ever recall seeing quite such a long queue for the away fans turnstiles at Entrance K in the past, as this seemed to stretch almost halfway around the ground half an hour before KO. It left the few hundred Gooners, who made up this half-hearted "Wenger Out" protest looking somewhat embarrassing by comparison. I had to laugh, when later the 9,000 Lincoln City fans were to be heard singing "Lincoln 'till I die" and "we support our local team", when you consider that the Imps average attendance is only 3,750 (and this is 44% up on 2016, presumably on the back of their impressive FA Cup run!). Yet credit to them, they all turned up, determined to enjoy and to make the most of their big day out.

#Impvasion queuing halfway around the ground
              And thank heavens they did, or else the Emirates might've been less library and more morgue like. When I reflect back upon so many of the incredibly atmospheric FA Cup quarterfinals that I've been privileged to witness the Gunners participate in over the years, frankly, from my perspective, there was something particularly sad about the way in which the Arsenal's home crowd failed so miserably to rouse ourselves and respond, to the fairly constant racket coming from the away end on Saturday.

              Admittedly I had my radio headphones in one ear and might've failed to notice at times, if the Arsenal's laughable, singing section were making absolutely any effort, but it seemed to me that when Theo eventually broke the deadlock just before the break, we couldn't even muster a tepid chorus of "1-0 to the Arsenal"!

              OK, so we were all a bit depressed, after our midweek Champions League humiliation and we'd all turned up fully expecting a perfunctory triumph, as the Gunners finally put paid to the non-leaguer's romantic cup run. Yet while one might've assumed that as a result of the peculiar circumstances, this would've been bound to put a bit of a dampener on proceedings, I would've at least expected something other than a wall of complete and utter silence from the home fans attending the library?

              It was a crying shame, as the Imps and their 9000 raucous fans deserved a more fitting climax, to an accomplishment that hasn't been achieved in over a century (with QPR the last non-league outfit to achieve the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in 1914). Yet it felt as if there were 51,000 Gooners turning up to an extended wake, where sadly the deceased appears to be the only one on the planet ignoring the Grim Reaper's call.

              It pains me to admit it, but when I subsequently witnessed the events on Sunday afternoon, where Spurs fans appeared to be positively revelling, in what was their last ever cup encounter at White Hart Lane, I was dead envious of the seemingly deafening crowd noise. And it's certainly come to something when I'm feeling jealous of the atmosphere created by the even more fickle mob at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road!

              On a similar note, standing outside our ground before KO on Saturday, I found myself debating whether the ultimate ignominy of losing to non-league Lincoln might possibly be preferable, to what is increasingly looking like an odds on encounter with either Spurs or Chelsea, in a Wembley semifinal. 

              Not that I hold with all that horoscope hogwash (even as a typical Scorpio!), but failing a "spacequake" type shift of seizmic proportions in the astrological heavens, which might reverse the Arsenal's fortunes in the coming month and mend the patently obvious disunity in the dressing room (not to mention the climate of uncertainty), at this present point in time, it's hard to envisage the Gunners turning out at Wembley at the end of April transformed into a "team" that's capable of progressing to the final.

              Let's face it, it seems as if this Wembley semifinal and our final outing to the dilapidated environs of White Hart Lane the following weekend looks set to not only define our entire season, but this might well be 180 (or 210) minutes of football which could be the curtain call for Arsène's two decade long tenure.

              Even if by some miracle, we manage to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Champions League by avoiding finishing below Spurs for the first time in 22 seasons and as a result, Wenger leaves the WOB up in arms as he changes his mind, personally I wish he'd announce his impending retirement now, so that the remainder of this season might be a celebration of an autocratic career in top flight management, the like of which we're probably never going to see again in the ephemeral modern game.

              Those Gooners who fail to appreciate the sort of dour football that we were accustomed to enduring in the era before Wenger, they won't understand why the idea of Arsène being hounded out of the club so distresses me. As much as I believe that change is utterly essential, such is my feeling of indebtedness to the man that anything other than respect and gratitude towards him, goes entirely against the grain. Wenger's earned the right to leave on his own terms and even if you happen to disagree, surely it's obvious that no matter how vociferous the WOB, there is no one at the club who's inclined to hand the obdurate old bugger his P45.

              Arsène's phraseology has always been very deliberate and from the recent subtle changes in his post-match comments, I'm of the opinion that he's currently not planning to extend his contract. In fact, with us sadly never having achieved the Holy Grail of Champions League success, after having fallen infuriatingly short these past two decades, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see fate kick us in the goolies, with Wenger going to PSG, spending a couple of hundred million and promptly swanning off into retirement with the big-eared prize in his back pocket!
Nuff Said!

               Meanwhile, with inane social media already twittering away about the WOB's arrangements for next weekend's banner protest versus the Baggies, this is hardly going to prove a positive force, for getting everybody on side and fully focused on the task at hand. If we're to redeem any pride from the remainder of this season, surely we'd be better off presenting the sort of unified front that might enable us to achieve a collective push to clear every remaining hurdle on the finishing straight?

               Instead of which, we're now seeing the infighting and the disunity on the terraces being reflected on the pitch. The fall-out from the rumoured fracas at London Colney was evident on Saturday. Whether he was gesticulating at Gibbs for failing to go on the overlap, or at Giroud for one reason, or another, Alexis spent most of the ninety minutes waving his arms around in frustration. Until Theo finally eased the tension, by finding the back of the net (courtesy of a deflection) just before the break, up until then it was the non-league outfit who had the only decent effort on goal. 

               One could be forgiven for wondering which of the two sides was the top flight club, when Arnold went past Koscielny in the penalty box with worrying ease and very nearly elevated the Imp army into paradise, if it wasn't for Petr Cech pulling off a smart save. Such was the Arsenal's inability to impose our superior ability until almost the last kick of the half that the Gunners' increasing frustration and the chasm that's recently been exposed in the dressing-room camaraderie was patently evident in most of our players' downbeat body language and the obvious lack of intensity necessary in a cup quarterfinal.

Have to forgive Imps' over-eagerness, it's not
every week they get to swap shirts with Mesut Özil
              On the radio they told how the Cowley "Dynamic Duo" had approached the game by breaking it down into nine ten minute segments. If this had been a boxing match, basically Lincoln had almost reached the halfway point, without the Arsenal having barely laid a glove on them! Considering to what extent Özil began pulling the strings after the break, I guess we should be grateful that the Ox was forced to limp off with "a tight hamstring" but Walcott and Bellerin were about the only two players in red and white who deserved any credit for their first-half efforts.

               I guess Lincoln should be lauded, as they definitely didn't allow the occasion to get to them and certainly managed to avoid showing us any respect, breaking the game up at every possible opportunity and thereby ensuring that we had no chance of developing any rhythm.

               However, having subsequently seen the dismissive way in which Spurs mullahed Millwall on Sunday, in a nutshell the Gunners failure to find our mojo until the second-half against Lincoln, compared to the way in which Spurs were camped in the opposition's half from the opening whistle of their quarterfinal, this was incontrovertible evidence of the contrasting moods in the two camps being reflected on the pitch.

               Over the years, one of my Spurs mates has constantly moaned about Daniel Levy's mismanagement and yet they flashed up a screen on Football Focus on the Beeb on Saturday, showing how virtually all of Spurs first choice players, with the exception of Alderweireld have been secured on long-term contracts. Whereas the Gunners are at imminent risk of losing our only two genuine world class players for little, or no money!

               With virtually all the cards being in the player's hand (or more accurately the hand of their agent) nowadays, the moment their contract has less than two years to run, when one considers that this can result in them eventually walking away on a free transfer, instead of being sold for the sort of obscene sum that at least provides the selling club with the wherewithal to be able to try and replace them, it seems to me that failure to avoid such a disadvantageous position amounts to gross ineptitude of the MOST costly nature by the management.

               One has to qualify any reference to David Dein with the rider that the Gunners would've likely ended up playing at Wembley today, if he'd had his own way. Nevertheless, no matter that he might've been a bit of an egomaniac, ever since Dein's enforced departure none of the corporate suits charged with running our club bleed red and white blood, in the same devoted fashion as the man responsible for bringing Wenger to the club. Gazides might be a competent corporate type, but he's not a genuine Gooner, a one-club man like Dein. Some gossip that I heard years back left me assuming that the Arsenal was merely a stepping stone and that Ivan would eventually end up going back to run the MLS in the States.

               Without Dein as Wenger's sidekick, to remove the immensely time-consuming responsibility of constant transfer and contract negotiations from our coach's plate, Arsène soon became a complete autocrat at the Arsenal, with absolutely no one to remind our emperor that under the zip he was always fiddling with, he was all too often stark bollock naked.

               Yet so long as the club's coffers continued to be replenished with such relentless consistency and our value for money obsessed leader parsimoniously played with his transfer kitty, as if spending his own money, the suits at the club have complacently refrained from interjecting upon Arsène's isolated ivory tower. Those clamouring for Wenger's exit might want to bear this in mind because there are no other manager's at this level in world football with such total and utter authority. When Arsène eventually takes his bow, we won't only be left having to find a new coach, but who exactly will end up wearing the other managerial hats that most of the list of potential replacements will be accustomed to being able to delegate to others?

               Don't get me wrong, since there's absolutely no mistaking the almost funereal "end of an era" mood that's enveloped the Emirates in recent days and as I bump into familiar Gooner faces around the ground, it feels as if we've just received news of the impending demise of a close family member. While those who've known nothing else, can't wait to holler "the King is dead, long live the King", others who well recall the dark, prehistoric days prior to Wenger are somewhat more circumspect, as for the first time in twenty years, we look into the unknown Arsenal abyss with righteous trepidation.

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