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Sunday 29 January 2017

Underdog Day Afternoon

            From the large swathes of empty seats at Selhurst Park for Palace's glamorous date with Guardiola's City on Saturday, evident in the TV pictures seen later that night, one might concur with those who contend that the allure of the FA Cup is on the wane. 

            In fact, after a couple of utterly miserable recent outings to St. Mary's, I myself was intending to blow out Saturday's trip to Southampton. With me feeling somewhat under the weather, it seemed far more sensible to stop indoors, in the warm, than to schlep to the South coast and risk pneumonia in the brass monkey weather. 

            Yet less than five minutes into watching Derby v Leicester on the telly on Friday night, I'd already caught the fourth round bug and decided that barring not being able to drag myself out of my pit on Saturday morning, there was absolutely no way I was going to risk the possibility of missing out on being present to witness live, not only our own slice of cup drama, but with the increased allocation of visiting fans, what invariably proves to be one of the most atmospheric awayday outings.

            Far from disrespecting world football's oldest knockout tournament, personally I believe that the fact that managers of the clubs from the upper echelons feel obliged to avail themselves of squad players, in order to avoid the risk of burn out for some of their established stars, this has only revitalised the competition, by restoring a genuine threat of dramatic giant-killings.

            With Liverpool's recent run of dreadful results, the Scousers humbling by Wolves in Saturday's midday KO wasn't such a shock, but it kind of set the tone for an underdog deluge that afternoon. I don't think any of us expected the Chairboys to have the slightest hope of pulling the rug out from under Spurs at White Hart Lane. Parking up at St. Mary's just as the three o'clock matches were approaching half-time, no one in the car took me seriously when I told them that Wycombe were two goals to the good.

            So we walked to the nearest boozer to savour all the second half drama on the multiple screens, amidst the jovial atmosphere of a pub packed with nearly as many Gooners as there were Saints' fans. Despite Wycombe's valiant efforts, in a display that, at the very least, was thoroughly deserving of the fiscal windfall of a replay, it was a visceral gutter when our ten-man neighbours conjured up a "get outta jail' card, eleven seconds after the allotted six minutes of injury time.

            With Lincoln putting on a suitable giant-killing show for the Beeb's cameras, at the Seagulls' expense and Oxford embarrassing the Toon, we weren't short of a cup upset or two. Yet after revelling in Tottenham's tribulations, only for them to squeak into the last sixteen, I spent the short walk back to St. Mary's fretting about this worrying omen. 

            I can barely recall seeing Martina play again, ever since he scored that screamer against us last season and while Saints' fans tried to reassure us that this would be a guaranteed walkover, against their severely weakened starting XI, with memories of our miserable South coast defeats still relatively raw, I certainly wasn't anticipating quite such a comfortable afternoon's entertainment.

            I expected Southampton to be stoked after their impressive midweek triumph at Anfield and the home fans to be suitably pumped, upon achieving their first final in fourteen years (since losing to us in Cardiff in 2003). Perhaps the surprisingly subdued atmosphere amongst the locals was due to the fact that the travelling Gooners occupied the majority of the North stand behind the goal, but as a result we spent much of the first-half taunting them with the enquiry "is this the Emirates?"

            Despite having always been such a fervent advocate for selecting one's best starting XI and getting the game won first and foremost, before resting players, the recent trend for rotating the squad in cup competitions, with Wenger usually opting for a mix of youth and experience, ensures that these encounters offer a rare opportunity to appraise the progress of the likes of Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles and Holding, in a proper competitive environment.

            However, despite the fact that the Saints have accomplished such a successful production line of talent in recent times, their latest crop of youngsters appeared to show the Gunners far too much respect, in what proved to be a surprisingly one-sided affair. Nevertheless, as they say, you can only beat the team in front of you and with Arsène watching on from the stands, beginning the first of his four-match touchline ban, le Boss must've been chuffed with the impressive display of his teenage midfield pairing.

            I always adore watching Reine-Adelaide play. Much like Thierry Henry, the French youngster bestrides the pitch with a panther-like grace. Yet as with all his young team mates, Jeff has bulked up and the formerly gangly lad now looks far more built, with the physique to be able to hold his own in the middle of the park.

            Maitland-Niles is nothing but muscle and appeared to relish the increased responsibility, looking far more at home in the middle of the park, than the rare occasion when he's featured out on the right. Doubtless Granit Xhaka was preoccupied, rubbing Factor 10 into Mesut Özil's back on some beach in the Caribbean, but Granit could do worse than to study Ainsley's dominant midfield display as a lesson in how his job should be done!

            Theo might've come away with the match ball, after his hat-trick, but aside from stabbing home the three goals, which were pretty much served up on a plate for him, I can barely recall Walcott having any other involvement in the game. It was "Dat guy Welbz" who deservedly earned most of the glory, with his slick, intuitive interchanges with Lucas Peres.

            Watching from the other end of the pitch, I thought Danny had fluffed the shot for his first goal and didn't think the second had enough legs to get over the line, without it being scrabbled away by the Saints defender. Fortunately I was back home just in time to watch Match of the Day, where I discovered that both of Welbeck's goals were wonderfully composed finishes and cause for much optimism, as this is just the sort of clinical end product that's eluded Welbeck in the past, as the one missing ingredient that might well make Danny the complete striker.

            When given a rare opportunity, Shane Long was his customarily persistent, irritant self, but from our hosts, Sims was about the only player to offer any real threat and on the odd occasion when he was asked to defend, captain for the day, Kieran Gibbs made a disappointing hash of things.

            With Steve Bould usually shackled to the bench, it was interesting to see Bouldie, barking instructions from the touchline, unfettered by Arsène's enforced absence. And as the travelling faithful went from the classic refrain of "he's got no hair, but we don't care", to a relentless rendition of "Stevie Bould's yellow army", I found my binoculars drawn to our manager, easy to spot in the director's box, alongside "old faithful", Boro Primorac in their grey outfits. Not that I was expecting them to be joining in the celebrations, but I couldn't help but wonder what Wenger was making of the adulation of his lieutenant and how quick we were to show Bouldie the sort of love that our leader rarely hears nowadays.

            Meanwhile, it's great to be in the hat for Monday's fifth round draw in such convincing style, able to sit back and enjoy, as hopefully others endure the jitters in some of Sunday's remaining matches. What's more, with their entire season on the fritz, hopefully Klopp's suitably chastened Scousers will be doubly determined to salvage some pride, by getting something out of Tuesday's encounter with Chelsea. Who knows, with a bit of luck and another emphatic win against Watford, we might end up travelling across London to Stamford Bridge next weekend, brim full of confidence, with the wind in our sails and everything to play for?


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Thursday 26 January 2017

Is That A Matchday Programme In Your Pocket....?

At this rate, even if Alexis is off, never mind a 2-footed replacement,
we might be left with two 4-footed golden boys galloping down the flanks
            It's normal to wet one's knickers with the ecstatic euphoria of awayday goal celebrations, but when the customarily inhibited high-fives with one's neighbour, amidst the irritatingly sedentary environs of London N5, give way to exultant, dry-humping man-hug convulsions that save for the smoking ban, would otherwise leave one instinctively reaching for a post-coital fag, then you know you've enjoyed a satisfying Sunday afternoon!

            Of late, the Gunners have been making a heart-stopping habit of snatching games at the very death. With ref Jon Moss awarding TWO injury-time penalties, I was left flummoxed by the baffling logic of those bozos who spend such big money to watch the Arsenal, only to sacrifice the unique drama of yet another astonishing denouement, merely for the utterly mundane sake of trying to beat the queues for the tube, in their eagerness to get back home?

            After Mustafi eased the tension, by breaking the deadlock with his glancing header around the hour mark, without the cushion of scoring a second, it was likely to be a long, anxious half an hour until the final whistle. Then, after scything down Mesut Özil, we all assumed Marney was merely feigning injury in his efforts to avoid punishment. So while I guiltily applauded as the Burnley player was stretchered off, I was actually fretting about the inordinate length of his treatment and the thought of the endless agony that we'd be likely to endure, with so much injury time to be tagged on to the ninety.

            Still actually seeing the board flash up SEVEN whole minutes was like a swift dig in the solar plexus. Yet even after the appearance of the archetypal panto villain, Joey Barton, a ten-man Arsenal looked perfectly capable of clinging on to all three points. Perhaps not the convincing, confidence-boosting triumph I was hoping for, but in light of all our rivals squandering points on Saturday, it looked like being the perfect riposte of a gritty, old-fashioned "1-0 to the Arsenal", until Coquelin dangled an injudicious limb in the area, for Burnley's Barnes to take full advantage by falling over such a fortuitous gift.

            Not having a great view from the other side of the ground, there was a momentary interlude, before the realisation dawned that Moss had just burst our 2nd place bubble. Since by awarding the visitors a spot-kick this was tantamount to presenting them with an equaliser. It's the first time I can recall Cech laying a glove on a penalty and I can't remember him ever actually saving a spot-kick in an Arsenal shirt (sadly with far too much practice for all our liking recently!)?

            The prospect of only coming away with a demoralising draw was so depressingly deflating, but credit where due, as with four minutes still left on the clock, the ten-man Gunners eschewed any such notion and girded their lactic-acid filled loins, to throw the kitchen sink at regaining the lead. It was the sort of valiant, totally committed last stand that couldn't help but leave one wondering why they couldn't have produced this sort of visibly determined effort, only an hour and a half earlier, thereby saving us all from such an angst ridden afternoon. But then "it's the Arsenal don't ya know" and without the car crash prior, our dramatic salvation, courtesy of such exhilarating late goal airbags, wouldn't be half as thrilling.

Gabby goes nuclear
          It was hilarious seeing Arsène lose the plot on the touchline and then scolding himself post-match for throwing his own toys out of the pram. Ignoring Mustafi's far more blatant claim for a penalty, the TV pundits were of the opinion that Moss got most of the big decisions right. Yet with us Gooners increasingly baying for the ref's blood, after he sent Xhaka for an early bath, awarded Burnley with a penalty and left Wenger skulking in the tunnel like a naughty teenager with ADHD, if it wasn't for some subconscious urge to seize upon any excuse to balance the scales, would Moss have blown up, when brave Koscielny conveniently put his mush in the way of a Burnley boot?

            Or perhaps this was merely a result of my own sense that a 98th minute penalty was surely far too good to be true? After having seen Alexis confidently claim the ball for the spot-kick, I turned away, almost unable to watch, in the certain knowledge that we'd tempted fate by celebrating too soon and that this intense high had to be followed by the agonising trough of Heaton pulling off a save, with the last action of the afternoon. Yet with Sanchez having had his last two penalties saved, I certainly hadn't counted on our Chilean hero displaying his balls of steel, by dinking it straight down the middle.

            Poor old Burnley! Sean Dyche must be wondering precisely which gods his Lancashire troops have offended, for them to be undone in such a cruel, last gasp fashion, in both our encounters this season. Still it must be noted that, once again, the Gunners got away with it on Saturday, without hitting top gear. 

            So with the exclusion of Chelsea, while our immediate competitors have hit brief purple patches that has seen them earning plaudits from the pundits in turn, as the teams best equipped to maintain a challenge, I take great comfort from the fact that the Gunners have clambered into second place in the league and remain in the last 16 of the Champions League (not forgetting the FA Cup but I'm loathe to tempt fate!), without barely having managed to get out of second gear. Just imagine what we might accomplish if this team truly finds its mojo?

            With this in mind, I felt there were some encouraging moments against Burnley. Considering how frequently I've found myself ranting in the past, wondering how the team occupies their time on the training ground, when we never ever produce any set-piece routines, well they might not have amounted to anything, but it was most pleasing to see us at least attempt a couple of inventive corners on Saturday. 

More signs of a burgeoning spirit?
            What's most encouraging about such routines is that they attest to a team that isn't merely content to throw every corner into the mixer of the six-yard box, hoping that someone will eventually get their head on one and direct it into the goal, but that they've managed to put their heads together, to try and concoct a plan that might catch the opposition on their heels. Should this actually be the case, then I adore the possibility that this alludes to a burgeoning team ethic amongst this group of players.

            Yet despite coming away with the psychological boost of bagging all three points at the death against Burnley, sadly this doesn't disguise the inadequacies that were all too evident once again. I've seen some Gooners contend that a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka is the key to the Arsenal's success in the future, but sadly I've yet to see ANY evidence to support such conjecture.

            There were a couple of moments on Saturday, where Aaron produced the sort of skills that offer some slight hint that he might be back on the road to recovering the sort of scintillating form of a couple of seasons back. But for the most part, from my point of view, it appeared as if there was a disconnect between Giroud, Sanchez, Iwobi and Özil up front and the rest of the team, with Burnley occupying the space between our midfield and attack. I'm of the distinct opinion that we suffer from the fact that there is no clear distinction of roles in this midfield pairing and as a result, they're destined to remain jack of all trades, but unfortunately, master of none.

            I'm sure I can't be alone in watching matches involving other teams in the past few weeks and constantly comparing their midfield options with our own. For example, witnessing Romeu's dominant display for Southampton against Liverpool last night, I couldn't help but wonder if we'd have been better off, doubtless paying a lot less for the tree-trunk thighed Spaniard than we did for Granit. Similarly, watching the efforts of Kante, Wanyama and any number of other midfielders elsewhere, the same question has crossed my mind.

            If Xhaka is destined to spend nearly a quarter of the league campaign suspended, his utterly brainless indiscretions could only be forgiven if his severely restricted eligibility offered us a player who spent the remainder of his time bullying opponents and commanding the middle of the park, much like a boxer who dominates the centre of the ring. 

            After Granit was left sprawled on the deck in the centre circle, when he bounced off a Burnley player, in a shoulder-to-shoulder confrontation with just about his first involvement in Sunday's contest, I was left screaming "you've got to be stronger than that". To date, Xhaka simply hasn't demonstrated the sort of imposing physical presence that might excuse his occasional tendency to attempt to inflict ABH. Far be it from me to condone doing physical harm to an opponent, but if one is intent on incurring the ref's red card wrath, then surely such rash behaviour wouldn't seem quite so futile, if his victims were left feeling somewhat intimidated about the prospect of encountering him on the pitch in the future.

            Although Coquelin's subsequent introduction only resulted in him conceding a penalty, Franny is at least a dedicated holding midfielder. While he might be prone to the occasional nose-bleed appearance in the opposition's penalty area, Coquelin appears content in the knowledge that his principal responsibility is to thwart the opposition from being able to threaten our defence.

            Xhaka's suspension as a result of his red card might be untimely, with Elneny still stuck in Gabon, as Egypt progress to the quarterfinals of the ACN, but mercifully, with Coquelin returning to fitness, it might just prove to be the case that Jon Moss has done us a massive favour, by guaranteeing Granit's enforced absence and taking the decision of our best option in the holding role out of Wenger's hands, since the stubborn old git is not about to admit that he's made a £35m ricket?

            Has anyone actually been tuning in to events out in Africa? I've watched the odd match on Eurosport, when there's been nothing better on the box and perhaps the competition will improve as it reaches the latter stages. Yet compared to some of the enthralling matches witnessed in African Cup of Nations of yesteryear and considering the increasingly liberal smattering of stars from established clubs across the planet, frankly I've been flabbergasted by the paucity of entertainment on view. 

            On any given weekend, one can find any number of far more engaging games of football, on a stroll across Hackney Marshes than much of the dross seen in Gabon this past week. It seems farcical that a competition of such poor overall quality can wreak quite so much havoc and can have positively priceless repercussions, for so many European clubs in their domestic affairs. I guess we should be grateful only to have lost Elneny and in light of the impact of losing players to the ACN for a couple of crucial months in seasons past, one wonders if this conundrum has any influence upon AW's transfer decisions.

Bugger off!
          Meanwhile, with the media seemingly intent on turning Arsène's hissy-fit into a hanging offence and Xhaka apparently being hauled over the coals by the coppers at Heathrow, if I'm honest, I relish this sort of "mountain out of a molehill" type scandal. How many times over the years have we seen the club respond to a raft of negative publicity, by bringing down the portcullis and turning the situation to our advantage, inspiring an "Arsenal against the world" atmosphere, which only serves to stiffen our resolve. In truth, when you consider Wenger's rare incidents of unprofessional conduct, compared to some of his peers, it stands as testament to his many years of self-control, since the majority of us would be losing our rag, during every other match.

            Nevertheless, I quite like to see Arsène struggling to control his temper because it proves that despite the complacent comforts of his £8 million quid per annum salary, it's the football and more importantly the Arsenal's results that continue to matter the most.

            I was quite impressed with Southampton's deserved triumph at Anfield. It might've served us if the Saints had been forced into extra-time and ended up that much more fatigued, after playing 120 minutes in midweek. However I'm hoping that they won't be nearly so motivated to continue their progress in the FA Cup on Saturday, than they might've been if they'd failed to make it to Wembley for the League Cup Final, as then Saturday's encounter would've been their last chance to keep their season afloat.

            Still it was evident from their performance against the Scousers that Southampton will certainly not prove any pushover at St. Mary's. I want Arsène to be sufficiently wound up by the media circus surrounding his disciplinary proceedings and so desperate to right any resulting injustice, by means of the Gunners doing all his talking with their boots on the pitch that there's no prospect of our manager being influenced by next week's Premiership outings against Watford and Chelsea, thereby risking the potentially detrimental impact of him selecting a weakened starting XI.

            Whatever Wenger's faults, we can at least take comfort in the fact that, unlike Jose Mourinho, our manager has never been a despotic media whore, willing to cruelly deny kids the thrill of being ball boys (and girls), using some feeble excuse to replace them with the club's youth players. In fact it's bizarre how the cult of the football manager has come to be such an obsession that the TV cameras are now focused as much on their touchline antics, as they are on the football.

            Jurgen Klopp's attempts to rouse the Kop and raise the temperature at Anfield eventually proved futile last night. Yet I couldn't help but be impressed by Guardiola's tactics against Spurs at the Etihad in Saturday's late KO. After the TV pundits had all taken Pep to task, prior to the game, predicting the impending downfall of City's attacking line-up, it was amusing to hear them eat humble pie after the home side's dominant display. I wonder if Guardiola's strategy against Spurs might offer some clue as to the best means of subduing a rampant Chelsea?

            Not that I'm expecting our obdurate leader to make any tactical concessions to Conte's team, as this would be tantamount to an admission of weakness and surely Arsène is too arrogant to admit that the Arsenal need adapt to counter the Blues formation. Yet it seems to me that there is no rocket science involved in the logic of selecting a sufficiently attacking lineup that enables you to maintain control of the ball in the opposition's half of the pitch and thereby starving their more potent players of possession and limiting their opportunities to do damage. 

            The likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane barely got a look-in at the Etihad and it left me pondering upon whether we might do likewise against Chelsea, by denying the likes of Hazard and Costa time on the ball, with a sufficiently ambitious approach that puts faith in our front five's ability to control the game beyond the halfway line.

            Although Chelsea have achieved an impressive level of consistency ever since, after Conte responded to their 3-0 drubbing at our place by adopting a three man defence, I've always believed the Blues back line appears vulnerable, if only Luiz and co. could be exposed to sufficient scrutiny. Yet they've accrued a level of confidence which ensures that most opponents limit their ambitions to a far too respectful containment effort, when it seems obvious to me that a more assertive approach is a far better option. It might not prove successful, but surely failing after giving it a proper go has got to be better than merely attempting to avoid defeat?

            Yet with Southampton and Watford to come before we travel to Stamford Bridge, a helluva lot can happen in the interim. Above all, I hope the Gunners can take the feeling of euphoria at Sunday's final whistle, into Saturday's encounter on the South coast.

Shiny balls of steel. Alexis impassive as ever
            I've yet to fathom the phenomenon that seems to limit Alexis effectiveness, whenever he starts alongside Giroud. Although he's not limited to his starting role out on the left and is certainly not starved of the ball as a result, for some reason playing Olly as a front-man, focal point restricts Alexis' ability to impact upon proceedings. Hopefully Hector Bellerin's return will prove significant, for while Gabriel certainly hasn't let the side down while standing in at right back, he's not blessed with the threat of Bellerin's pace and perhaps more problematic is the fact that his presence invites pressure on that side of the park, with opposing players aware that they need not fear the peril of Gabby capitalising on space left behind them.

            Perhaps our Cup outing will offer le Prof an opportunity to experiment with Alexis alongside Welbeck and/or Peres. Or if the media is to be believed, our utterly relentless Duracell bunny might be forced to cool his heels and in which case we might witness Giroud and Peres. Whatever the case, I pray that Arsène selects his optimum starting XI, offering us the best chance of beating the Saints. To my mind there is absolutely no point in rotating the team to conserve players' energy, if we end up with nothing to play for. Therefore the focus must be on progressing into the 5th round and finally garnering some much needed momentum to this season's campaign.

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Friday 20 January 2017

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

"There'll be a welcome in the hillsides"
            Poor Paul Clement endured a baptism of fire with our somewhat flattering 0-4 thrashing of the Swans and Abel Hernandez's Hull chomping on the Cherries, as his Welsh wastrels ended Saturday afternoon rock bottom, propping up the Premiership table. Yet with the trip to the Liberty Stadium having fast become a firm favourite on the awayday calendar, I certainly hope Clement can somehow rediscover the heart, which seems to have been ripped out of this model club in recent times, with Swansea positively flat-lining ever since they flogged Ashley Williams.

            Hopefully the taunts from the travelling Gooner faithful of "we'll never play here again" won't come to pass. Swansea City fans might not have a reputation for being the most hospitable bunch, but certainly from my experience, whether it's been queuing with the locals at the chipper opposite the ground, or sharing some jovial banter before, or after the game, we've always seemed to enjoy "a warm welcome in the hillsides". With the Swans efforts to remain true to their footballing principles, our day trip to South Wales invariably promises the sort of entertaining fare that isn't always available in encounters against so many of the league's lesser lights, with their timid tendencies to amass bodies behind the ball.

            Then again, after it took a frustratingly lethargic half an hour for Alexis to register our first effort on target, the Gunners infuriatingly tepid first-half performance left us feeling as if Saturday's game might be the tediously bland exception, to prove this invariably highly entertaining rule. Perhaps the rainbow that appeared after we crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales, should've offered us a clue to the pot of three-point gold that awaited us at the Liberty Stadium end.

            It's been a long time since the Gunners failed to register a league win in four away games on the spin and we badly needed to get our away form back on track. Once again, it appeared as if the Arsenal players were the only ones unaware of our urgent need. Just what is it with this recent trend for starting games in quite such a lethargic fashion?

            I'm sure I was far from alone in being utterly stupefied to hear the post-match remarks of Giroud and Ramsey, after yet another late, late smash and grab at Preston, where the two buffoons both admitted to being surprised by the intensity with which Preston had started the game! 

            Aside from the fact that they'd experienced exactly the same approach from the opposition, only four days prior, with Bournemouth banging in three goals before the Gunners finally woke up to the fact that they had a contest on their hands, just what were they expecting from a Cup encounter, against lower league opposition?

            I'm fast coming to the conclusion that our apparent inability to pull our finger out, right from the opening whistle and the likely absence of sufficient adrenaline coursing through the Gunners' veins, for them to be able to commence games in a far less casual fashion, this all appears to be symptomatic of a culture that seems to prevail at the Arsenal, where we are devoid of suitably vocal leadership figures.

            Surely someone should've been tasked with the responsibility of reminding the troops at Preston that their opponents weren't about to roll over and play dead, in the face of their more illustrious guests, but that they were bound to do their best to ruffle our feathers, by getting in our faces and making up for what they might lack in natural ability, with effort and determination.

            Mercifully yet another late show from Olly ensured that we avoided the ignominy of having to squeeze a cup replay, into an already crowded fixture list. Yet as we came out of the traps at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, with all the energy and intensity of a snoozing kitten, although the Gunners might just about have got away with it in the past couple of contests, it would appear as if the players are absolutely impervious to these lessons, in not being so passive as to gift-wrap the opposition an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

            Swansea will have felt hard done by to be going in at half-time 0-1 down, after stifling us for the majority of the first-half with their energetic, high pressure approach. What's more, most of us Gooners behind the goal assumed that ref Mike Jones had blown up to award a penalty, when Koscielny presented Ki Sung Yeung with an opportunity to fall over his outstretched leg, right in front of us, only moments before the break. With me being unable to recall the last time Petr Cech even came close to laying a glove on a spot kick, this would've been an almost guaranteed equaliser, which would've offered the home crowd and their team the sort of encouragement that might well have altered the entire course of this match.

            Instead of which, we all breathed a massive sigh of relief, as it suddenly dawned on us that ref Jones was actually booking the Swansea player for going down too easily, Upon reflection, I think the ref got it right, but playing away from home and with a partisan Swansea crowd all baying for blood, I don't think any of us would've been too surprised if this decision had gone against us.

            I imagined the ref watching a replay of this incident during the break and then spending the entire second-half looking for any opportunity to balance things out, by gifting the home side some recompense. However, whether it was down to yet another half-time rollocking, or the fact that Swansea had expended so much energy during the opening period, but the Gunners came out after the break and began knocking the ball about, with the sort of purpose and intensity that I'd been hoping to witness from them right from the opening whistle.

            Iwobi, Alexis and Özil produced a scintillating twenty minute spell, which knocked any remaining stuffing out of the Swans. Yet as we revelled in a second half goalfest, which sent as all home smiling, temporarily sitting above the Scousers on goal difference, in the knowledge that the cut and thrust at the top of the table could prove so close that a couple of extra goals might end up being worth an additional point and on a four-hour drive back along the M4 to the Smoke, where the journey never feels nearly so tiresome after such a comprehensive triumph.

            Nevertheless, yet another lacklustre first-half display was no less infuriating because while Swansea might be too poor to have made us pay for it, someone will one of these days. Perhaps the club's team of highly paid psychologists are far too pre-occupied with Alexis' obsession with Atom and Humber, his two labradors, to be able to concentrate on the far more significant task at hand, in developing a means of getting our players suitably fired up for matches?

            I've got to be careful, as I don't want to be accused of going over to the Darkside, but the uninspired manner in which we started Saturday's game was all the more galling because I'd spent the latter part of our journey to South Wales listening to the commentary of Saturday's early kick-off at White Hart Lane, where I had to endure the pundit's remarks about it being "one of the most impressive first-half performances" he'd witnessed so far this season.

            I might be way off the mark, but perhaps one could make an argument that the marked contrast in the way Arsenal and Spurs went about their business from the opening whistle in Saturday's respective encounters is most easily explained in terms of humility and arrogance? Knowing that they'd suffered a bad run of recent results against Tony Pullis' industrous Baggies, Pochettino's more humble Spurs side steamed into their opponents, with the intensity of a young team that's hungry to try and prove themselves.

            So while I certainly don't claim to have any particular insight into the cause of the decidedly uninspired way in which the Gunners have began our recent encounters, on the face of it, it pains me to admit that there is this disturbing appearance of arrogance, as if our players have swallowed the hype about their ability and turn up onto the pitch expecting to be presented with a win, without ever having to work up a sweat in the process.

            At Bournemouth, Preston and again on Saturday at Swansea, the Gunners far too casual and slipshod start to these matches suggests they've pretty much all been infected by a certain hubris. As we patiently prod the ball sideways and backwards, with me sarcastically bellowing "Cech's on" whenever I lose patience at our apparent unwillingness to take responsibility and to try and make something happen, instead of going out there intent on imposing themselves on the opposition, it seems as if our players are waiting for their superior natural ability to tell, as if they expect the opposition to defer to their betters, by eventually presenting us with an opportunity to walk the ball into the back of the net.

            With Shlong's last gasp intervention against Norwich on Wednesday presenting us with a troublesome trip to St Mary's in the Cup, I certainly hope Arsène selects a full-strength side against the Saints because it's going to take convincing wins in this and the two home games against Burnley and Watford, on either side of our 4th round FA Cup outing, if we are to travel to Stamford Bridge at the beginning of February and then on to Munich a couple of weeks after that, with the sort of momentum that will enable the Gunners to achieve the confidence levels necessary to overcome these far tougher challenges ahead.

            However, with there being potentially at least six clubs vying for a highly-prized top four finish and as the pressure mounts with each passing week, one of Wenger's biggest quandaries compared with most of our competitors, is that our best starting XI is still a long way from being obvious. With Giroud in such good goal-scoring form, personally I agreed with his inclusion in Saturday's line-up. But although this shouldn't impinge on Alexis' performance, with our Chilean dynamo only starting in a nominal wide role on the left and not being restricted to playing out on the flank, for some strange reason Alexis seems to be so much more ineffective when the two of them start alongside one another.

            In a perfect world, when a team with the relatively modest capabilities of Swansea adopt a high-press, it should force the sort of increased tempo to the Arsenal's passing game that will only increase our opportunities to carve open the opposition with incisive tikki-takka football. Logic dictates that if players are applying pressure on the ball high up the pitch, there will be less bodies and more space for us to be able to threaten their goal at the other end.

            However this presupposes that we have players in midfield with the composure and the quality to turn the opposition's tactics to our advantage. Thankfully Swansea fast ran out of steam on Saturday but on the evidence of our pitiful first-half display, based on current form, a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka simply doesn't cut it. Aaron had an opportunity in the second-half which he would've scored blindfolded, if playing in a Wales shirt, or when he couldn't put a foot wrong a couple of seasons back. 

            Yet while Ramsey might've attained the sort of elevated status in his career that leaves him feeling that he deserves a role as the Gunners' midfield fulcrum, I get the distinct impression that he wants all the glory, without having to get his hands (or feet!) dirty and that he doesn't relish rolling his sleeves up and doing all the donkey work, where both in and out of possession, relieving the pressure on our defence is an integral responsibility of the midfield pairing playing immediately in front of them.

            As for Granit, my initial impression when he first arrived was that his refreshing tendency to look for a forward pass would prove a great asset, but to date, Xhaka's apparent struggle to cope with the frenetic pace of so many of our encounters has eroded any such ambitious tendencies, with Granit seemingly infected by the same passive, sideways and backwards habits of some of his team mates. Granit's erratic efforts in the face of Swansea's pressure was more grist to the mill of those who are fast coming to the conclusion that he lacks both the mental acuity and the technical adeptness to flourish in the Premiership.

            I know I really shouldn't be whinging after such a comprehensive victory but if a midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka struggled to impress against Swansea, I can't help but fret that these two might be overrun by the likes of Chelsea, or Bayern! We couldn't see them from behind the goal at the Liberty, but according to the radio, there where two rainbows, one at either end of the ground. Yet while good fortune favoured the Gunners, as we cashed in with our twenty-minute second-half cameo, with my dodgy recall faculties, it's hard to remember the last time we manages to extend this sort of all too brief "Blitzkrieg" into an impressive ninety minute performance.

            Hector Bellerin's continued absence doesn't help, as although Gabriel has yet to let us down, filling in at right-back, our Brazilian centre-half isn't exactly blessed with the attributes, which are essential in a modern day full-back. It's not just that Gabby lacks the pace to pose a threat going forward (or to be able to recover quick enough to avoid leaving a hole at the back), but it's also our opponents' awareness that they need not fear the threat of a rampaging full-back, which invites pressure from their opposite number.

            With it being so rare nowadays for one club players to make it from the terraces to the first XI, I'm sure I won't be alone in being sad to see Gooner Jenkinson being sold to Palace, but with both Carl and the out of favour Debuchy having been on the books as experienced full-backs, it's hard to comprehend how we've ended up with the gangly centre-half as our only stopgap solution?

            While pegging back Chelsea appears a daunting task, Wenger badly needs to find a solution that will enable us to play ourselves into some genuine form because when you compare our performances with any of the teams around us at the top of the table, it's certainly not the Arsenal who are producing the sort of imposing form necessary at present, to truly exert some pressure on the competition. Now if only we could string together three dominant displays against Burnley, Southampton and Watford, the force might be with us by the time we go to Stamford Bridge in February.

Friday 6 January 2017

Bring Me Sunshine......

Olly's passable Eric Morecambe impersonation
I don't know if I'm seeing things through rose-tinted specs, or if my decrepit recall faculties are increasingly unreliable, but as capricious as our home crowd can be (albeit often no worse than the fickle home fans elsewhere!), I continue to refer to the "travelling faithful" because the hard core Gooners, who go home and away, could, in the past, ALWAYS be relied upon to remain loyal to the Arsenal's cause, no matter how undeserving the team might be of such staunch support.

Win, lose or draw, there's always been an implicit understanding from those willing to endure endless hours, schlepping up and down congested motorways, relative to the comparatively brief ninety minutes of a match, that one endures these sort of hardships for the purposes of being present, as a constant reminder of the reason why the players need to show some pride in wearing the shirt.

In the past, if we'd been 3-0 down against modest opposition after only 60 mins, with the sort of pitiful display that made the humble likes of Bournemouth look like Brazil, the travelling Gooners might well have resigned ourselves to our fate. Yet instead of adding insult, to injury, with a chorus of "you're an embarrassment", you'd be more likely to hear a resolute, 15-minute rendition of "we love you Arsenal", thereby ensuring that even if the opposition had little respect for our team, our relentless support would at least be worthy of some admiration.

Perhaps the sound of us Gooners throwing our toys out of our pram, in absolute disgust at our performance at Dean Court was merely indicative of the constant undercurrent of disunity that exists at our club these day? Or maybe it's merely a symptom of the changing makeup of modern day Premiership fans in general, where in a world of instant gratification, folks no longer feel an abiding obligation to continue to voice one's support "through thick and thin"?

Two-nil down at the break and in the words of Bill Shankly, with us being lucky to have nil, I was no less infuriated than all the other Gooners around me. After seeing both Man City and Liverpool struggle to muster a sufficiently energetic performance, I fully expected the Gunners to suffer some negative impact of having so little recovery time between Palace and Bournemouth, but I certainly didn't anticipate the prospect of us capitulating against the Cherries, much in the same manner that Watford rolled over against Spurs.

As has been the case in the past, it felt as if Arsène had been remiss in his pre-match protestations about Eddie Howe's side benefitting from an additional day's rest. By making it known that the Gunners were likely to be more fatigued, it was as if he'd planted this seed in the player's minds, providing them with a ready made excuse for a below par display and they turned out onto the pitch intent on proving their manager correct. 

Moreover, by presenting the media with an opportunity to focus on Wenger's complaints prior to the match, Arsène appears to have (somewhat naively?) presented Howe with a gift-wrapped game-plan. The post-match quotes from the Cherries' players suggested that there was little rocket science involved in Bournemouth's tactical strategy, with Howe sending his charges out to try and capitalise on the Gunners' heavy legs, by going at us full pelt, right from the off.

You put your left leg in.....
Dean Court is a wonderfully intimate stadium, where one can literally almost reach out and touch the players, during their pre-match warm-up. With it's modest capacity Bournemouth has fast become the hottest ticket on the awayday calendar. Aside from the morality issue of extorting money from a fellow Gooner, I could never consent to flogging a match ticket above face value, for fear I'd feel personally responsible if my bad karma should result in the game going awry.

However standing there at halftime, I couldn't help but contemplate my own sanity, knowing I could've stopped indoors with my feet up, in the warm and been a couple of hundred quid better off! But if I was feeling pissed off, I can't possibly imagine the fury of those foolhardy Gooners, with more money than sense, who'd actually stumped up £200 to suffer such a pitiful display. Little did I realise that we would all end up feeling as if we'd enjoyed a blinding return on our investment come the final whistle.

Despite following the Gunners for longer than I care to recall (which admittedly, with me forgetting who scored before a game has even finished, is not very long nowadays!), I still never fail to be amazed by the beautiful game's infinite capacity to confound. Standing around at halftime, trying to stamp some blood circulation back into the ice-blocks at the end of my legs, we were debating Arsène's possible options for attempting to turn this game around. 

What I found so unbelievable was that it was only a couple of weeks back that I was lauding the Gunners strength in depth and the fact that our subs bench looked stronger than it has been for so many seasons. However, with Coquelin having limped off, Elneny having disappeared off to Gabon for the ACN and with a couple of enforced absences, suddenly on Tuesday night we were left with Lucas Perez and Jeff Reine-Adelaide as our only attacking options on the bench. I have to admit that I didn't have much faith in either of these two being able to come on and achieve a sufficient impact.

Having lost away games to Everton and Man City in Mustafi's absence, I was hoping his return might stiffen up our defence. While he might not have had the excuse of being fatigued, after his three week break, sadly Shkodran was incessantly caught napping and appeared to be as "off the pace" as the rest of his team mates, with them all constantly struggling to cope with the Cherries high-energy approach to proceedings.

Hector Bellerin has achieved an admirable level of consistency in recent times, but he seemed to succumb to the same plague of incompetency that afflicted the entire team for 70 minutes on Tuesday night, as Bellerin was suddenly transformed back into the same 'caught in the headlights" bunny, culpable of the sort of naivety that we've not witnessed from Hector since his debut a couple of years ago.

After Iwobi had produced such an impressive performance against Palace, playing in the no. 10 role, frankly I couldn't understand Wenger's logic in shifting him out wide and giving Ramsey this responsibility at Bournemouth. Aaron might well be better suited to this role on paper, but so far this season he has flitted in and out of games, without imposing himself in the impressive way he did for Wales in the summer. Where Ramsey can be guilty of hiding in more arduous encounters, merely laying the ball off at every opportunity, although Iwobi might be prone to failing a little too often for my liking, Alex can at least be relied upon to keep trying to make something happen.

However our shape wasn't rigid on Tuesday night and although Bellerin's schoolboy defending was responsible for Bournemouth's first goal, I got the impression that Ramsey was also blameworthy because Iwobi was in the middle and Aaron was on the right at this point and Ramsey completely switched off, when he should've been tearing back into our box, to at least try and assist.

Both of Bournemouth's two goals in the opening twenty minutes were all the more depressing because they transpired directly in front of us, so close in fact that if I was a little more energetic, I would've been tempted to leap out and give Granit a shellacking. Most Gooners believed ref Oliver got the decision wrong and that it wasn't a penalty. On the radio they suggested that it was a soft decision but that there was sufficient contact to merit the player going down.

I was under the impression that shoulder-to-shoulder contact was permitted and there looked to be very little difference between Xhaka's challenge and the one on Bellerin in the second half that wasn't deemed a foul and which resulted in the Cherries' third goal.

However the main question isn't really whether or not Bournemouth deserved to be awarded a penalty, far more pertinent is the problem with Xhaka's decision-making and what on earth Granit is doing gifting the opposition with an opportunity to go down in the penalty area, when the player isn't presenting an imminent threat on our goal.

I came in for some stick, after daring to suggest that Xhaka might be a £35m ricket in last Sunday's Observer. Personally I feel that the jury is still out and I would dearly love Granit to prove his critics wrong. But the frustration evident in a thousand odd Gooners singing Jack Wilshere's name at Dean Court on Tuesday night, shows that Arsenal fans are fast running out of patience, waiting for Xhaka to demonstrate his worth. 

Until such time (and after watching Spurs v Chelsea last night!), I definitely believe it's a valid debate, whether we might've been better off paying £11m for Wanyama, or £30m for Kanté, compared to investing £35m on a player who has yet to prove his ability to impose himself in the more frenetic and relentlessly competitive climate of the Premiership?

When Arsène bought Mustafi and Xhaka in the summer it looked as if the penny had finally dropped and that le Prof was at long last attempting to address the Arsenal's infamous soft-centre, by adding some steel to the squad. Yet while Mustafi has endeared himself to the fans (with the exception of his woeful display on Tuesday) with his wholehearted attitude, when it comes to Xhaka, it doesn't feel as if I'm in a minority with my disappointment over Granit's failure to live up to his Ronseal credentials to date, in as much as he doesn't "do what it says on the tin" as our new midfield general.

With his dodgy disciplinary record, I was expecting him to be granite by name and nature, as a physically imposing force, where one would gladly suffer the occasional glaring error (such as the penalty he gifted to the Cherries), if this was merely an unavoidable side-effect of Granit haring about, making his presence felt in the middle of the park.

Perhaps it will take time for Xhaka to feel sufficiently confident to become the sort of influential, dominant midfield fulcrum that we were expecting him to be. Yet to date, while he's proved himself adequate in those encounters where our opponents have defended deep and have allowed him time on the ball, in matches against more ambitious opposition, Granit's speed of thought and action has proved questionable.

Invariably, the proof of a midfielder's true quality is seen in their ability to retain possession, to be able to pick a pass and to give an impression of somehow creating time and space on the ball, no matter how severely pressured they are by the opposition. Sadly, thus far, Granit appears to have failed this test, as his composure has crumbled and he's struggled to make his presence felt, to enable us to get a grip of those games where we've had our backs up against the wall.

After Coquelin limped off on Tuesday night, it was left to Xhaka and Ramsey to wrestle control of the game in the middle of the park and the two of them failed miserably. In truth it could've been game over before the break, then my mate made the mistake of tempting fate by commenting at half-time that "at least it can't get any worse".

It was bad enough seeing Bellerin muscled off the ball, just before the hour mark, by the Bournemouth striker who simply appeared to want it more than Hector. But watching a replay of Bournemouth's third goal when I eventually arrived home in the wee hours of Tuesday night, what disappointed me most was the sight of a statuesque Mustafi standing there, ball-watching, when he should've been breaking his neck to try and get back.

Mustafi leaving Bellerin to deal with Francis on his own was symptomatic of our performance for the first hour of this game, where the Arsenal's team ethic seemed to have completely evaporated. We looked like a team of eleven individuals, where none of them were willing to graft for one another. Even Alexis couldn't put a foot right, but he was at least working and while they were all having a go at one another, I had to laugh at the ironic chutzpah of Aaron Ramsey, seeing him lambasting Sanchez for a wasted effort on goal.

As the pundit on Five Live, Steve Claridge admitted on the radio at half-time that he had not seen Xhaka and Mustafi play often, but that on the evidence of such a disastrous first-half performance alone, it was hard for him to comprehend why Wenger had spent 70 million quid on these two.

It was hard to envisage the Gunners being able to turn this game around at 2-0 and then when we conceded a third, I think most of us were merely hoping that the final whistle would come, before the scoreline became even more embarrassing. 

When I saw Gabriel stripping off on the touchline, I assumed Arsène had decided to remove Mustafi from the fray, to try and prevent Shkodran's confidence from suffering permanent damage. But when it dawned upon me that it was Koscielny who was limping off, the prospect of blowing three points and losing both Coq and Kozza to injury, it was my turn to wonder if this evening could possibly get any worse!

It was hilarious when Alexis' header found the back of the net on 70 mins, as in an instant all the animosity and the chants of "you're an embarrassment" (and the less vociferous calls for "Wenger out") from our corner of the ground disappeared and we were back to singing the team's praises. Nevertheless, I'm not sure any of us truly believed that this would prove to be much more than a consolation and a valiant, but ultimately futile effort to get something (other than perhaps recover a little pride) from this game.

Yet it was as if Bournemouth had expended so much effort up until that point that they totally ran out of steam. I hadn't expected Lucas to make a difference. but we were directly behind our second goal and he produced an utterly exquisite finish. Only then did I begin to dare to dream that this game might end up as anything other than a depressing defeat. But at 3-2 and even after Giroud celebrated his equaliser, by doing his daft Eric Morecambe dance in front of us incredulously ecstatic Gooners, the Cherries had a couple of great chances to put this game to bed and I was still convinced the night was destined to end in glorious failure.

I couldn't believe it was Xhaka who conjured up one in the eye for his critics, with the assist for Olly's equaliser. The Gunners admirable fightback ensured that we all headed home feeling far happier, on a journey back to London which felt so much shorter as a result. Yet as pleased as we were with the resolve we witnessed, in clawing back a precious point, the question remains why it took until we were 3-0 down and the 70th minute for us to finally pull our finger out. Besides which, I'm still not certain if this astonishing turnaround was due to the Gunners refusal to accept defeat, or the Cherries failure to pace their performance, with the home side leaving themselves with nothing in the locker for the last twenty minutes.

With Spurs being so kind as to keep our successive victory record intact with their impressive defeat of Chelsea, I imagine any questions about the Gunners' fortitude will be answered in the coming months because this has tightened up the picture at the top of the table and one can perm the four most resolute teams from the six clubs likely to be in the frame. However as delighted as I was to see someone finally put a spoke in the wheel of the Conté bandwagon, in truth Spurs' win only suits us, if we've still got some hope of catching and challenging Chelsea.

Unless the Gunners form improves dramatically and we are able to achieve the sort of consistency that lends us some genuine momentum, we're far more likely to find ourselves involved in our customary battle to guarantee Champions League football, with a top four finish. In which case, we probably could've done without Spurs enjoying quite such a powerful confidence boost from beating the Blues because as much as it pains me to admit it, as it stands at present, based on current form, our old enemy appears better equipped than we do to kick on.

Banner for our WHL farewell in April
But then the same was true last season, when Spurs really should've finished above us. Hopefully we can rely on the Lilywhite's apparent infinite capacity to fall over, somewhere between now and the final hurdle. Although it would be far preferable to see the Gunners profit from the psychological boost of Tuesday night's turnaround, by using this to fuel the unbeatable run of form that might ensure we are not left counting on the failure of others.

It won't be a surprise if the double-barreled likes of Reine-Adelaide, or Maitland-Niles get a run out on Saturday, as Arsène rotates his squad for our 3rd round FA Cup encounter at Preston. Yet with a full week's rest before travelling to South Wales the following weekend, there's no reason to risk defeat (or an unwanted replay!) by playing a weakened side. It's far more important for us to achieve the win, preferably an emphatic one, as progress in the cup will surely assist in building confidence and ensuring that we are in less danger of suffering from a bout of new-manageritis against Swansea.


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