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Tuesday 14 February 2017

Coming Down To The Bierkeller? But We Haven't Started Our Symphony

Too much to hope for that the Allianz Arena is actually an
orange spaceship designed to transport Trump
to Mars (one way!)?
            It's hardly a mood of optimism that abounds, with the Gunners about to head off to Munich for Wednesday night's Champions League encounter in the spectacular Allianz Arena. I've no idea about Bayern's recent form, other than their league table suggesting the appearance of them making their habitual stroll to the Bundesliga title. Nevertheless, no matter what the outcome of Wednesday's game, when it comes to the most glamorous of footballing stages, at the very least, one would expect the Gunners to do themselves some justice with their performance.

            Although I must admit that it often feels most galling, whenever the Arsenal manage to raise their game, amidst all the grandeur and in the spotlight of these massive Champions League occasions because it leaves me so much more furious about our failure to show up consistently on the less glitzy stage.

            I shouldn't really be whinging after a 2-0 win, with us having just pegged Spurs back this past weekend and the Lilywhites having seemingly run up the white flag, in their abysmal failure to mind their three point gap at Anfield. Who knew that a more abject display than our own humiliation at Stamford Bridge could be quite so hilarious. Moreover, at least so long as the Gunners are winning games, hopefully it will provide a timely, albeit temporary interlude to the incessant, acrimonious white-noise of the Wenger debate.

            One could make an argument that it is far easier to motivate oneself to play a top-six competitor than one of the league's current bottom feeders. Yet if there was one thing that struck me after watching Saturday's games, it was that while Jurgen Klopp might not prove to be the Scouse Messiah, he does at least appear to possess the wherewithal to provoke a reaction from his troops, following Liverpool's terrible run of poor results. By contrast, to my mind, there was very little about the way the Gunners went about the task of subduing the in form Tigers, in Saturday's early KO, in the decidedly subdued environs of a shivering, far less than full Emirates that suggested an emphatic response from our players, to the dent they should've suffered to their pride, following successive, embarrassingly flaccid displays against Watford and Chelsea.

            There's invariably a reason why clichés become clichés because their frequency of use suggests there's some substance to the words. I found myself pondering that old adage about the need to change either the team, or the manager every five years. Pretty much everything we've seen from the Gunners since that all too brief spark of form back in the autumn, seems to shriek of a glaringly obvious sense of a squad going through the motions. If the Arsenal's form over the course of the winter was portrayed on an ECG monitor, it would be the worryingly consistent waveform of a comatose patient. A representation of a team that trots out every few days, to climb upon a ninety-minute treadmill, totally oblivious of a leadership soundtrack which has been playing in their ears for as long as they've been present in London N5.

            Even Alexis' relentless bursts of energy appear to be on the wane, as his unbridled enthusiasm seems to be ground down over the course of each season, with the tediously repetitive and seemingly inevitable nature of the Gunners' perennial fall from grace. I had always hoped that Alexis' intensity would prove infectious, inspiring his team mates to try and match our Duracell Bunny's work rate, but sadly the exact opposite seems to be true. Despite adding to his tally with Saturday's brace, with each passing game Alexis appears to suffer from creeping insouciance, as we see his shoulders sag ever lower, with his permanent smile seemingly sapped from his phizog, while one by one, our silverware dreams are steamrollered by far hungrier "team" units.

            As sad as I'd be to see Sanchez go, if I'm entirely honest, I could hardly blame the Chilean for wanting to make his exit. The man is an obvious winner and his frustration at the apparent inability to inspire the same voracious, run until you drop, shit or bust appetite in his teammates is patently apparent. Considering how briefly a footballer's flame flickers, in his shoes I simply wouldn't want to sacrifice any more of my peak playing days to the Arsenal's contented cause of also-ran mediocrity, if there was an opportunity to play for a club, which matched my ambitions for trophy-laden glory.

            Then again the pain of losing such a rare, joy to watch footballer might be somewhat tempered, if by some miracle we had a hope of snaffling Aguero from Man City. How much fun would that be, if Aguero was to stick two fingers up at the magus Guardiola, by scoring thirty plus goals in red and white, on route to the Arsenal's league triumph??!! 

            Having stamped his authoritarian mark on Man City, in his efforts to make it his team, surely even Guardiola has got to come in for some stick, if after dropping Aguero for Jesus (and Hart for Bravo!), City end the season empty-handed?

            Then again, there was another marked contrast between the comfort zone of stability that exists at the Arsenal and the constant air of insecurity used by other managers to keep their charges on their toes, which struck me while watching City pip the Cherries on Monday night. When Jesus had his foot stamped on, only a few minutes into proceedings, Aguero couldn't get stripped off quick enough and was standing, waiting on the touchline to come on, even before Jesus had limped off the pitch. To my eyes, it appeared as if Jesus had to be told that he was coming off. It looked as if the Brazilian lad was positively desperate to try and soldier on, to see if he could 'run off' his knock.

            With Guardiola surprising the entire footballing world by starting the relatively untried teenager, ahead of a player of Aguero's proven calibre, it was evident quite how reluctant Jesus was to give up his golden opportunity to prove himself capable of walking on water, knowing Aguero might force himself back into the box seat, only for Jesus to end up having to bide his time, until he's presented with another opportunity to depose City's main man.

You seriously expect me to lose the toasty blanket and run
around in my shorts, when I'm earning the exact same
obscene sum for snuggling up on this bench?

            I can rarely recall any Arsenal players in recent times showing their frustration at being unable to continue in a game and I've often moaned about their reluctant looking replacements, with the likes of Theo hardly appearing desperate to get involved, judging by how long he dawdles on the bench, readying himself (in fact I'm surprised some of our prima donnas don't nip back into the dressing room for a makeup check!). 

            The Gunners might have plenty of competition for places when everyone is fit, but our perpetual 'top four' machine has been jogging along so seamlessly for all these years that there exists a far too composed absence of insecurity for my liking. Even in the event of a dramatic dip in form that endures too long even for Arsène to ignore, our stars never seem phased by an enforced period on the bench, in the certain and comforting knowledge that their turn will come around again, soon enough. It pains me to think of what some of our players might be capable of, if they were desperate to prove themselves?

            Yet as evidenced by the gossip in Sunday's red-tops, we Gooners do indeed need to be careful about what we wish for. If the Arsenal's immutability and our manager's inability to make himself heard are eventually recognised as a significant handicap by the suits, or more likely, the clamour from the increasingly vacant terraces becomes too loud to be ignored, then chances our that our prayers for a more animated leader will also fall upon deaf ears and our esteemed, inscrutable, unemotive manager will end up being replaced by another French, far less respected wet fish, in the form of Rafa!

            If such an eventuality should come to pass and le Prof ends up passing the baton onto Benitez, I might for once ignore my rule about not betting on the Arsenal, to see what odds I'll be offered on him getting the boot sooner than Moyes did at Man Utd. Surely those increasingly vociferous cries are for change, not for "chump change"?

            Meanwhile, with the away fans allocation at Gander Green Lane amounting to a meagre 750 tickets, I'm trying to avoid getting too wound up at having been one of the many Gooners on the Away Ticket Scheme who were unsuccessful in the ballot for next Monday night's match (at least it's being shown live on the box!). Coming from Bayern's state of the art arena, to Sutton Utd's artificial 3g playing surface, you really couldn't ask for a longer journey, between the two ends of the beautiful game's marvellous spectrum and it pains me to know that I'll be missing out on a rare opportunity to see the Gunners play at a venue I've not yet ticked off.

            It was always going to be an impossible task to satisfy all the most deserving fans, but what pisses me off above all else, is that doubtless only about half of these tickets ended up being allocated in the ballot to those who commit to a ticket to every away match and as always, the balance will have gone to the club's VIPs. 

            So the most loyal Gooners will have lost out to more affluent Arsenal punters, those guaranteed tickets whether they travel to away games or not, because for example, they can afford to spend £100k for their privileged Diamond Club pitches at the Emirates. As a result, my place at Monday night's encounter and those of so many others who travel to most every match, is likely to be taken by a small horde of Gooner part-timers; but then why should we be surprised that matters at the Arsenal are no more fair than every other aspect of a global society where, in the words of comedian Billy Bennett "it's the rich what gets the pleasure, it's the poor what gets the blame".

Give them a shout for me on Monday!


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Monday 6 February 2017

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

Who'd have imagined, AW safer sat amongst Blues' fans
            My mate was absent from Stamford Bridge on Saturday, after falling and breaking his leg on Friday night. As I sat suffering yet another infuriatingly humiliating encounter, in our succession of abysmal batterings at the Bridge, I was left thinking that perhaps it might be worth me enduring the same physical pain next season, in order to be excused from more of this agonising mental torture!
Groundhog Day yet again!

             For the most part, I've tried to steer well clear of the Wenger debate, both because our mulish manager is only about to make his exit when he's good and ready and because I'm reluctant to add fuel to the ever-present, acrid air of disunity on the terraces, by disrespecting a man to whom we owe so much. Nevertheless, another pitiful performance at the Bridge felt like the final nail in the coffin of this particular argument. As the tweets of Bill Murray began doing the social media rounds, we'd just witnessed proof positive of the pig-headed insanity of doing the same thing, over and over and over again and expecting a different outcome. 

             Obviously, one has to take into account that this was a Chelsea team high on confidence, but it was the insufferable sight of the home side winning every 50/50 challenge and being first to every second ball that was the most marked contrast between the two teams. It appears as if Conte has managed to inspire an evident hunger in his troops, where the stasis at the Arsenal ensures that our players continue to merely go through the same prosaic motions of this and every other season in recent times, rooted in their comfort zone of fourth place complacency.

             Whether it causes the Gunners to crash and burn, or hopefully to shoot for the stars, it seems to me that change is now utterly essential at the club, if only to ensure the sort of wholesale upheaval that can guarantee an altered trajectory, to escape this eternal orbit of indifference, in a zero atmosphere vacuum, with no genuine hope of ever actually achieving our destination!

             Returning to Stamford Bridge only to be mullahed has fast become an annual masochistic ritual these past few years. Yet loyal lemmings that we are, we continue to traverse London on each occasion, primarily out of some misplaced belief that our fortunes must eventually change. After having grown so accustomed to suffering so much misery on Chelsea's home turf, there's an increasing sense that one dare not attend, for fear of missing out on the opportunity to inflict some long overdue payback.

             I must admit that as crossed Hyde Park, past the Albert Memorial, towards Kensington and Chelsea and the dreary rain gave way to some misleadingly spring-like sunshine and then managed to park the motor in sight of Stamford Bridge (closer than I've ever managed previously), it felt as if the fates might finally be smiling upon us. Little did I realize that my prize parking pitch was to be absolutely the only result of the day!

             Nevertheless, although Chelsea appeared capable of exposing our over-stretched defence almost every time the Blues threatened on the counter, the skirmishes in the opening minutes of this encounter suggested that the Gunners high-press strategy might just unnerve a Chelsea backline, which has grown accustomed to being shown far more respect by less ambitious guests.

             It was the sort of optimistic approach that I'd been hoping for, however I should have known it was doomed to failure, as these sort of high risk tactics are entirely dependent on an industrious, totally committed performance by all ten outfield players. And sadly, as we've experienced all too often in the recent past, we simply cannot rely on everyone in this Arsenal squad to be willing to roll their sleeves up, run until they drop and risk putting their bodies on the line for the Gunners' cause.
Trousers suitably brown

             As a lover of the beautiful game, I instinctively found myself standing up to applaud in admiration of Eden Hazard's magical, second-half moment of glory. It was akin to the Giggs' goal, in the way Hazard singlehandedly made such blundering monkeys of what is normally a half-decent defence and left the Gunners and the couple of thousand Gooners in our corner of Stamford Bridge, watching on in dumbfounded bemusement. Unlike the more hirsute Ryan Giggs, mercifully at least we didn't have to endure the sight of Hazard cavorting around, titillating opposition fans with his hairy chest!

             However, aside from this brief cameo of footballing genius, perhaps most irritating about Saturday's disaster was that Chelsea managed to embarrass us with such a dominant display, despite a performance that was some way from Conte's side playing at their very best. Ultimately, from my humble point of view, yet another drubbing on Blues' turf was due to the simple fact that in spite of the likes of Costa failing to impact upon proceedings in his customary fashion against the Gunners, all of Chelsea's outfield players were fully engaged in their efforts to set the record straight, after their own humiliating experience in the reverse fixture at our place, earlier this season.

             Whether it was Kanté covering every blade of grass, in his incessantly energetic fashion (once again leaving me debating the logic of paying £35m for Xhaka, if we could've bought Kanté for £5m less?), Matic bullying our players off the ball in every significant midfield battle, or Moses making the most of his more limited talents on the flank, this was a team performance, in which I don't think there was a single player in blue who was guilty of failing to pull his weight.

             Although I'm somewhat reluctant to single out individuals for blame, especially when the vast majority were culpable, one can pretty much go through the entire Arsenal team on Saturday and list all the faults that were responsible for them coming off as second best, by an embarrassing long chalk, to their opposite numbers.

             Personally I've been trying to avoid having to endure further humiliation, watching the highlights (lowlights!) repeated on the box, but knowing how much time goalkeepers devote in training, focusing on improving the speed with which they are able to bounce back up, from the horizontal to the vertical, my gut reaction to Chelsea's opening goal was to be disappointed with Petr Cech's failure to regain his feet, in time to at least attempt to thwart Alonso. As for the catastrophic ineptitude, which gifted Fabregas with Chelsea's third, I can't even begin to discuss this calamitous disaster, without my blood pressure rising dangerously close to boiling point!

             In truth, it felt as if the game was up and all Gooner optimism evaporated from our corner of the ground, with the double-whammy of Chelsea's opener. Aside from the significance of scoring first, we all knew that our prospects of turning this game around had deteriorated dramatically, with the loss of Hector Bellerin.

             I'm certain many Gooners might think I am being far too harsh and I fully appreciate the stringent, modern day Health and Safety regulations, which dictate a compulsory response to any head injuries. Nevertheless, with the aid of my binoculars, it was obvious that the hefty clump from Alonso had left Hector dazed and confused, but he definitely didn't appear to lose consciousness at any point. In light of the overall importance of the outcome of this match and it's impact on our campaign, I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to being disappointed that Hector didn't demonstrate himself to be made of stronger stuff.

             Perhaps if we had the likes of Debuchy on the bench, I might not have been quite so devastated by the sight of Bellerin disappearing straight down the tunnel, but knowing how much hay Chelsea were likely to make down our right flank with the limited mobility of our makeshift centre-half, call me unsympathetic if you will, but I wanted Hector to at least wait on the sideline for a few moments, to see if his head cleared sufficiently for him to be able to return to the fray.
What head injury?

             I know we've come a long way from the days of Terry Butcher and the traumatic images of his bandaged head pouring with blood and his shirt covered in claret, but I can't help but wonder about the psychological impact upon both teams of seeing Bellerin "retired hurt", rather than a display of guts and determination of a player who refused to be bowed?

             I could rave on endlessly, venting my frustrations over Iwobi's first-half anonymity and the apparent distaste of the likes of Özil and Walcott for "putting themselves about" and daring to put their foot in, when it comes to this sort of full-blooded encounter. Yet where we required all of our players to be sufficiently inspired by an opportunity to put a timely spoke in the Conte bandwagon, by taking points off the league leaders and thereby offering some hope of their being a title contest, sadly the depressing truth of the matter is that during all the crucial moments in this contest, the Gunners were guilty of carrying too many passengers.


You get £130k per week
we pay to endure this crap!
          Even on his rare "off days" Alexis Sanchez can usually be relied upon to at least run around a lot, putting in his habitual relentless shift. Not only could he not put a foot right on Saturday, but Alexis appears so averse to sacrificing his "main man" role for the sake of the team that when Giroud eventually appeared after 65 mins, he pretty much gave up the ghost and shut shop. Seemingly the switch on our Duracell Bunny only has two settings, either on, or off and towards the end of Saturday's game Alexis' demoralised body language screamed of his disapproval, to such an extent that I really wouldn't be at all surprised if our Chilean superstar ends up making his exit from the Arsenal (now if there was any chance of trading him in for Aguero, it wouldn't be quite such a disaster!).

             With every high cross into the box proving meat and drink to the home side's centre-halves, I was hoping Giroud might at least improve our aerial prospects. But sadly Giroud promptly set his ineffective tone, when being outmuscled the first few times he received the ball with his back to the opposition, by those who simply wanted it more than our French striker. Nothing summed up the disappointing absence of the Arsenal's appetite more than Monreal whipping a low ball into the box, directly in front of us during the second half. This was a perfect ball into that "corridor of uncertainty" that was simply begging for someone to come sliding in and divert it into the net. Instead of which, we had to suffer the sight of it passing harmlessly through the danger area because no one in red and white was willing to gamble on making the required run into the six-yard box.

             Similarly, Coquelin came in for a lot of stick, for his inability to halt Hazard's impressive progress, on route to scoring Chelsea's second goal. Yet watching a robust individual like Franny bounce off a schnip of a player like Hazard was pretty much symptomatic of the contrasting levels of desire of the two sides. Notwithstanding Giggs' goal back in 1999, where everyone else was dead on their feet, usually in days of yore the embarrassment of allowing an opponent to progress from inside their own half, all the way to the six-yard box, in such a crucial contest, was such that even if it resulted in "taking one for the team" and an early bath, someone in red and white could be relied upon to intercede, by fair means or foul. It was this notable difference in Chelsea's determination that was most exasperating.

Good question!
            Just about the only Arsenal player to come away from Saturday's game with any credit was Danny Welbeck because he alone was sufficiently energised in his twenty minute cameo, to refuse to show Chelsea any respect and to at least attempt to take them on at every possible opportunity. I've always believed in taking maximum advantage whenever a player hits a hot streak. Personally I would've liked to see Welbeck start against Watford last Tuesday, to prove his feats against Southampton weren't "a flash in the pan" and to demonstrate to Wenger the folly of leaving him on the bench against Chelsea.

             If we're to have the slightest chance of achieving a result in Munich on Wednesday week that might offer us some hope of defeating Bayern over two legs and progressing in the Champions League, we're going to need to bounce back first, by beating an in form Hull on Saturday. The return of Elneny and Xhaka will at least bolster our depleted midfield options, but it remains to be seen if either of these two has the mental fortitude, or the ability even, to lend the squad the sort of "jump start" that will be required after quite such a depressing defeat.

             Moreover, with both Liverpool and Man Utd nipping at our heels, after dropping three more points and with the inevitable text message teasing of my Spurs mates to remind me to "mind the gap", as we now lag three points behind our neighbours, either the Gunners find a means of establishing some long awaited momentum, or our entire season will be in serious danger of imploding, with at least five clubs contending for the three remaining Champions League places.

             Then again, as has been mooted in seasons past, could it be that the only thing to stir Kroenke and co. from their profit-laden stupor and to cause sufficient financial alarm to shake up the Arsenal's eternal status-quo, is the possibility of being finally denied our permanent reservation at the Champions League table? After so many successive seasons of our appearance on football's grandest stage, we've grown so blasé about it that it might take being deprived of qualification for us to learn to appreciate the privilege of being involved in the competition once again.

             Mind you the consequences as far as recruitment is concerned, could prove so damming and knowing quite how much all my Spurs pals will relish retaining their highly cherished top four prize, I simply couldn't countenance the prospect of Spurs qualifying at our expense. It bothers me that Gooners increasing contempt for our manager is accompanied by mounting disrespect for his miraculous feat of consistency, when it comes to keeping the club's nose in the Champions League trough.

             However, while form may be temporary and class permanent, if we are to glean something from the succession of bombshells of Leicester's title win, Brexit and Trump, they suggest that the world might've shifted on its axis. In terms of our trivial ball game pursuit, such is the demand for immediate success and the resulting increased competition that Arsène is no longer guaranteed the reassuring comfort of retaining our customary consolation prize, unless his charges show willing to roll their sleeves up and at the very minimum, match the appetite of far hungrier contenders.


             The Gunners have grown far too familiar with reaching the league finishing straight and finding themselves only a single fortuitous turn of events away from Champions League qualification falling in our laps. With the league leaders disappearing off into the distance, we appear destined to witness the remainder of our league campaign culminate in a climactic "winner take all" battle at White Hart Lane at the end of April, in the shadow of Spurs impressive new arena. With this fixture potentially being our neighbours penultimate match at their dilapidated old ground, I really don't fancy the thought of driving to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, still with a points deficit that leaves us trailing behind the old enemy, in the certain knowledge that nothing less than a win will suffice.

             Unless our season is to implode completely, on Sutton's artificial playing surface, progress in the FA Cup would prove a consolation. Yet unless we somehow manage to overcome Bayern and achieve a miraculous challenge for the Champions League, our best hope for salvaging some pride from this campaign would be for the trip to White Hart Lane to be a celebration of Spurs enduring existence in our shadow. Yet where previous results might've given the misleading appearance that we've been playing ourselves into form, two disastrous defeats this past week stand as testament to the extent to which we've flattered to deceive, ever since the autumn.

             Is there anything left in Arsène's tank to coax the real Arsenal out of hibernation, to motivate them to rediscover the rhythm of some genuine form. Just like the four seasons, for us masochistic suckers for punishment, hope springs eternal.

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