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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.