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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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Anonymous said...

Now that Arsenal are 12 points off the top,there will be no Chelsea bottling it. Of course if Wenger were leading by 12 points chances are he will be caught. No ifs and buts. His track record shows it.
Now when I read about Arsenal buying this wc guy,I say forget it. Get down to the basics. Make Arsenal hard to beat and then score goals and pretty soccer at thebottom.
The problem is the fm is too arrogant for the good of Arsenal.His
blue print aint working and he still shows no sign of tearing it up.
This could be the season when the gunners cant or wont be able to finish in the top 4.Even if they make it,the board must be ruthless and show him the door.

Bern said...

It seems to me that the board will NEVER show AW the door. As far as they are concerned "in this life, one thing counts, in the bank large amounts"

Unknown said...

Well written report on the Chelsea fixture.

Wenger has done great things for the club, but the game seems to be passing him by. Some commentators say our talent isn't as talented as other teams, but I don't buy that. Perhaps Wenger just can't motivate them well enough, and his tactics are usually lacking. Whatever it is, Arsenal is just not getting anywhere. Some games they show up, but at other games there is too much anonymity.