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Sunday, 1 January 2017

What A Difference A Goal Makes....

With all the traditions of the beautiful game in this country fast being gobbled up by the commercial greed of the TV paymasters and our favourite ancient arenas being eradicated, one by one, it remains of some solace that the Boxing Day ritual continues to survive.

After having gorged ourselves on Christmas Day and with the mounting tensions of the claustrophobic proximity of ones extended family often beginning to reach boiling point, the pressure valve of the Boxing Day game is the perfect excuse to let off steam and to blow the cobwebs out, thereby building up an appetite to recommence all the festive excess anew.

However Monday's frustrating encounter with the Baggies only added to Gooner stress levels and we were all fairly likely to be returning home for a guaranteed barney with the in-laws, if it wasn't for the overwhelming relief of Olly's intervention at the death.

I recall that Tony Pullis' team produced an equally accomplished, "park the bus" stifling job at Stamford Bridge, a couple of weeks back. So when Alexis smashed his volley against the woodwork in the second half on Monday, I was beginning to wonder if it just wasn't going to be our day. I turned to my neighbour to moan that this was the principle difference between us and the runaway league leaders, where sadly Diego Costa is in the midst of such an impressive purple patch, with his devastatingly clinical one chance, one goal conversion rate.

However, after barely registering a shot on target during the first-half, the Gunners did at least manage to turn up the heat somewhat after the break. Yet it wasn't as if we were peppering Foster's goal and the more we pushed for a winner, as the clock seemed to wind down ever faster, the more it felt as if there was a greater chance of the Baggies pinching a breakaway goal and burying any remaining hopes of us clinging to a title challenge.

With each passing minute, the rising tide of frustration from the terraces became more palpable, to the point where the audible expressions of Gooner irritation inevitably transmits itself onto the playing field, resulting in the sort of tension that's bound to have a negative impact.

As we patiently prod the ball across the face of the opposition's penalty area, seemingly waiting for Mesut, our very own Moses, to cast a spell that will result in the Baggies defence parting like the waters of the Red Sea, to present us with an opportunity to walk the ball into the back of the net, or eventually once again attempting to thread the ball through the eye of the needle of the massed ranks of the Baggies defence, I invariably end up imploring for someone in red and white (other than Alexis!) to take responsibility and to try and make something happen.

Yet there's little incentive for one of our players to grasp the nettle, knowing that our crowd is on their backs and that they are likely to come in for far less stick for merely laying the ball off, than the extreme levels of Gooner disapprobation should several minutes of patient possession end up with them sending a futile effort, flying high, wide and not so handsome.
Arise Sir Mo

This is what angers me most about the fickle, theatre audience that turns up at the Emirates and sits back, waiting to be presented with a return on their princely investment. When our home support is most urgently needed, to assist in raising the decibel levels and to create the sort of atmosphere that is capable of sucking the ball into the back of the net, sadly the Library's sedentary crowd remain silent, only raising their voices to express their collective dissatisfaction.

I never fail to be amazed by the stark contrast in the reaction, where for example if Giroud's header hadn't nestled in the back of the onion bag on Monday, the Gunners would've undoubtedly ended up being roundly booed off the pitch four minutes later and we would've all headed home, with our mood at the complete opposite end of the contentment spectrum.

Although Arsène might have found cause to whinge about the festive fixture schedule, we should be extremely grateful to have landed home games on both Boxing Day and New Year's Day. With the Baggies' fans having made an admirable effort to fill their corner of the ground on Monday, I couldn't help but think that in their shoes, I would've felt somewhat cheated, if I'd gone to all the trouble of travelling down to London on a Bank Holiday, only to support a side who's ambitions were so limited that they were barely willing to cross the halfway line.

Doubtless I will end up kicking myself for tempting fate, when the fixture schedule for next Christmas ends up being nowhere near as friendly for the travelling faithful. Yet truth be told, I derive far more satisfaction from attending away matches nowadays. For while I might continue to shout myself hoarse at home games, there is very rarely any of that special communal sense of having been a participant in the proceedings, when compared to collective spirit that we Gooners enjoy on the road and the feeling of having contributed in some small way to the Arsenal's efforts.

Instead of the Gunners winning home games with the 12th man aid of our home support, we continue to manage to achieve results, in spite of the lamentable atmosphere in our grandiose arena! OK so there's some excuse and with far too many fans nursing hangovers and indigestion, Boxing Day matches are often more tranquil than most.

West Upper memories
Yet you can probably count the number of times over the past decade that we Gooners have raised the roof, for a thoroughly throbbing ninety minutes at our new home, on the fingers of one hand and it bothers me immensely that I no longer look forward to the vast majority of our home encounters with quite the same thrill of anticipation that I continue to have for our exploits away from home, knowing that the sort of atmosphere that regularly raised the hairs on the back of my neck at THOF as a kid, is no longer present amidst the positively sterile environs of the Emirates.

Then again, much as dog owners might have a tendency to resemble their pets, perhaps the frigidity of our fickle home crowd is reflected in the famed sang-froid of our illustrious leader. These days I find Arsène's apparent impotency on the bench almost as irritating as our players' failings on the pitch. While le Prof fiddle's with his zipper, he increasingly cuts a Nero-like figure, fiddling while Rome burns, in games such as the encounter at the Etihad a couple of weeks back.

Watching on as this crucial match slipped away from us, when City began to dominate in the second half, I found myself increasingly focusing my binoculars on the bench, desperately hoping for some evidence of Arsène taking some urgent action, to try and wrestle back control of the game before it was too late.

Sadly, in the same (somewhat arrogant?) way that Arsène appears to refuse to make any tactical concessions in advance of big games, to try and counter an opponent's specific strengths, he invariably refuses to intervene when our backs are up against the wall, setting far too much faith in his chosen selection, to be able to sort things out for themselves. As a result, as was the case at City, he all too often ends up trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, with his managerial contribution offering far too little, far too late.

I much preferred it when Mourinho was the boss as Stamford Bridge and I bore equal enmity towards the Blues and their gobby manager, as it bothers me greatly to find myself enviously coveting the managerial style of Antonio Conté nowadays. Seeing Conté bouncing around on the touchline and geeing up the the Neanderthals at the Bridge on Satuday afternoon, as if beating the lowly Potters would be the greatest triumph of his career, I couldn't help but long for some evidence of just a little of this sort of passion at our place.

Moreover, watching Jurgen Klopp placing a paternal arm around Lucas' shoulders as he brought his sub on against City, to try and close out a victory, surely it must be the case that "Der Normale Ein"  is far more likely to be able to inspire his charges to give more of themselves towards Liverpool's cause, with this far more intimate managerial style than our antiquated, totalitarian schoolteacher?

Don't get me wrong, I don't plan on starting the New Year by joining the ranks of the WOB, as I firmly believe that our obligation is to support the team, no matter what we might think in private and I'm convinced that the ever-present atmosphere of disunity on the terraces is likely to have a negative impact on the pitch and certainly doesn't help to improve the Gunners' prospects.

Even if we were to hit a hot streak, it's hard to envisage there being a sufficient number of opponents with the sort of belief necessary to force Chelsea to surrender their nine point advantage over us (or even twelve points, should we fail to overcome Palace!). 

But you never know, if we should be fortunate enough to finally vanquish Bayern Munich in February and progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, anything might be possible. It would indeed be a fitting climax to Wenger's venerable career, if the stubborn old bugger was able to stick two fingers up to all his critics, as he walks off into the sunset with the games' most prestigious trophy that elusive big-eared silverware, in his back pocket.

Yet I've long since come to the conclusion that in the absence of a genuine motivator, a vocal leader on the pitch (as they are so few and far between nowadays), it's essential to have a more emotive, inspirational character on the touchline and without which, we're doomed to remain stuck in this tediously repetitive cycle of under-achievement.

There's something increasingly tragic about one of the beautiful games greatest ever innovators, looking more and more like a helpless dinosaur with each passing match, refusing to come to terms with his own inevitable extinction.

I caught some of the Old Firm derby at lunchtime on Saturday and there was a moment during this incredibly passionate encounter which stuck in my mind, where a Rangers defender willingly put his head in the way of a goalbound Celtic bomb, to deflect the ball away for a corner.

There's little doubt that everyone at the Arsenal has the utmost respect for Arsène, but I'd love the Gunners to feel such an affinity for their manager that they are all willing to put themselves in harm's way like this Ranger's defender, instead of timidly shutting their eyes, turning their backs, or in Mesut's case, ducking out of the way altogether!

I hate to knock a player of Mesut Özil's quality because his moments of genius are the reason my 1100 quid season ticket seems such blinding value (relatively speaking, when the media leads everyone to believe our seats are all extortionately priced) and to scapegoat Mesut as being lazy is decidedly unfair, since I'm told his stats in most matches prove otherwise. Besides which, I don't stump up a small fortune following the Arsenal home and away every season, to watch the likes of Mesut tracking back and tackling.

Statuesque City display's explained
Nevertheless, as with almost every other star turn, there are occasions when Özil is blatantly found wanting for sufficient industry and in those matches where we can't afford any passengers, it's down to our manager to make the big calls, for the sake of both the team and the player's own good. Yet the longer Wenger endures, the more he seems to duck making any bold decisions, seemingly preferring to avoid confrontation at all costs. To be perfectly honest, I'm amazed Mesut works as hard as he does in most matches, when he's secure in the knowledge that he could stand on the centre circle for the entire ninety minutes and still not be subbed!

However as far as I'm concerned and as much as I might indulge, it's a complete waste of time whinging about Wenger because frankly the man is not going anywhere until he is good and ready. The Observer asked me to forward a few words about who I want us to sign for their "Fans Network" column about the January transfer window.

With the limited availability of genuine world class talent in the winter window, with so many managers that much more desperate to strengthen their squads than our value for money obsessed leader and following Arsène's summer spending (with many beginning to wonder if he's wasted £35m on Xhaka!), in truth I won't be at all surprised if we have to endure the customary Arsenal inertia in the transfer market in January. But many Gooners might have good cause to be glad if this is the case, since surely the club are only likely to loosen the purse strings at this stage. so long as Arsène has committed to a contract extension?

Although the Baggies didn't exactly make us work for it, I was almost as pleased with the clean sheet on Monday, as I was with pocketing the three points. I imagine we can expect more of the same against BFS' Palace today; albeit that based on past experience, Allardyce is likely to be far more motivated to get something out of the game, since Sam seems to derive some sort of perverted satisfaction in getting one over on Arsène. 

Additionally, if the match goes the same way as Monday's frustrating contest, the Eagles are perhaps far more likely than West Brom to be able to take advantage of any late lapses in concentration, with them potentially having more attacking firepower than the Baggies and the pace and the power to punish us with a breakaway goal on the counter.

Olly's big lift
I can't recall the last time that the Gunners truly took advantage, by properly punishing an opponent who's forced onto the front foot, after initially attempting to park the bus and then going a goal behind. Instead of making the most of the time and space that results from the fact that our guests can no longer afford to keep ten men behind the ball, we've grown accustomed to seeing us take our foot off the gas, only to gift the opposition an opportunity to get back into the game.

Still as much as I'd love to see us start off the New Year with the sort of goalfest slaughter that we know this Arsenal side have the ability to inflict on lesser opposition, I will gladly settle for another "1-0 to the Arsenal". Monday's win was the first clean sheet since October and I feel we can only begin to find some real form, if we can build the sort of confidence in our resilience at the back, which might liberate us going forward.

I can't imagine quite how soul destroying it must be for the likes of Alexis to do the business in front of goal, only for him to have to do it all over again after our defence has gifted the opposition an equaliser. They will all feel doubly sick if they make hard work out of defeating Palace, knowing that they've got to go again against the Cherries in two days time! 

And despite Giroud's crucial goal on Monday, he looked so off the pace during the rest of the match that he looks in desperate need of being afforded more game time, other than brief cameo appearances as a late sub. Otherwise we're bound to end up counting on our French striker at some stage, only to find he needs half a dozen games to get back up to speed. 

A very happy & healthy New Year to one and all

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Anonymous said...

Have to say your comments in the observer were total rubbish. Apart from you, I am not sure who thinks Xhaka is rubbish, but he gets stronger each game and is a bargain in this day and age. I used to really like what you write, but these days it is so vitriolic as to be unreadable.

Unknown said...

You are the first and only gooner that i've heard of wondering if xhaka is a £35 million waste. Come on, you'll be trying to convince us that petit wasn't that important next. Seriously, what games are you watching