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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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