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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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