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Tuesday 30 May 2017

Not Over, Not Out!

          News of Wenger’s contract renewal hardly came as a shock. Would it have been any different if he’d not just become the most successful manager in FA Cup history, I doubt it because the club simply doesn’t have the structure in place to cope with a smooth accession.

            No new manager is going to come to the Arsenal and expect to be running the club from top to bottom, in the same fashion that Arsène does. Yet therein lies the quandary, as with Wenger agreeing a two-year extension, how do the tame suits at our club intend to engineer a transition, persuading their overlord to relinquish control of contract renewals, transfer signings etc., to leave his eventual successor able to focus solely on managing events on the pitch.

            Too little, too late perhaps, but while there can be no disputing the form the team found in the final month of this campaign, off the pitch it’s been something of a shambles, gross incompetency even that they’ve failed to nail down the futures of the club’s prize assets.

            I’m not so concerned about Özil as I don’t exactly envisage there being a queue of tempting suitors; but surely the club have been remiss in not securing Alexis, long before his agent turned his head. If Alexis decides to depart, Wenger will have a massive problem, filling the hole left in the absence of the Chilean’s goals and assists.

            Even if Alexis chooses to stay, something needs to occur during the summer to convince the fans that next season is not merely going to offer more of the same old, same old unconvincing Arsenal. I suspect Arsène is far too loyal to effect a merciless overhaul of his squad, by shipping out those players who’ve patently failed to fulfill their promise. But without some serious transfer window action to signal the club’s intent to compete, I absolutely dread the reaction from the terraces the moment the team fails to perform.

            The club appears to be preparing itself for a rash of refusals to renew season tickets, judging by the numbers on the season ticket waiting list who’ve received notification of their opportunity to purchase a seat. With so many fans eagerly waiting to replace dissatisfied Gooners who choose not to renew, irritation over the stasis at the Arsenal is unlikely ever to be reflected by a lack of bums on seats.

            You have to credit the stubborn old bugger’s staying power, as even if the Wenger Out Brigade have the summer to come to terms with the situation, it’s obvious that Wenger will be in for an immediate shellacking every time results go against us. In addition to having to contend with the negative impact of the Europa Cup’s Thurs/Sun schedule, Wenger needs to find some means of getting all those far too entitled Gooners back on side. Otherwise it’s hard to imagine how we can expect the next two seasons to play out any differently, amidst an increasingly rancorous atmosphere of disunity. 

            Over to you Arsène?
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Better than Cannavaro, Rob Holding You Know

            It felt like one of those slow-motion car-crash moments when Koscielny recklessly clattered into Valencia during last Sunday’s climax to our league campaign. Doubtless I might feel somewhat differently next season, when forced to schlep to some far-flung East European wilderness in the Europa Cup on a Thurs night, but at the time I was more devastated when the realization dawned with the resulting red card that our defensive lynchpin would be suspended from the Cup Final than I was with being denied Champions League football by Boro’s capitulation at Anfield.

            All hope I had of us denying Abramovich’s upstarts the double and ending the season on a high by beating Chelsea in the Cup Final evaporated in that instant. Any remaining vestiges of Gooner optimism departed upon the stretcher that subsequently bore Gabriel from the fray.

            Such was the seemingly incredulous misfortune of the decimation of the Gunners rearguard in advance of our big day out at Wembley that as I fiddled with my radio, impatiently awaiting team news while negotiating an illusory security cordon around the national stadium on Saturday, I half expected to hear that Alexis and Özil had collided in the warm up and would also be on the missing list.

            Whether Ospina’s cup appearances are written into our Columbian keeper’s contract, or his selection was merely testament to Arsène’s obdurate loyalty, frankly it seemed to me that it didn’t matter who’d be facing Chelsea between the sticks, if our defence proved too porous to provide sufficient protection.

            After witnessing Mertesacker’s brief cameo against Everton, I was positively dreading the prospect of our BFG enduring a humiliating last Arsenal curtain call. However I’m delighted to be left eating humble pie, after Per seemed to muster his entire career’s worth of experience and put it all into Saturday’s majestic swansong. 

            To prevent the likes of Costa and Hazard exposing his oil tanker like pace, the BFG tried to maintain a 20-yard buffer zone. This often left him dropping so deep that I was most surprised Conte didn’t pick up on the opportunity to target the amount of space provided by our old warhorse’s reluctant to push up and play the opposition offside.

            Yet ever since their 3-0 defeat at our place back in September, Conte and his charges had invested so much focus and concentration into mounting a consistent title charge that it perhaps wasn’t surprising that they went somewhat off the boil after securing their principle target. For the first half hour of Saturday’s enthralling contest, it appeared as if the two sides had swapped personalities, with the Gunners coming out of the traps like a team possessed, seemingly intent on producing the sort of committed performance on the pitch that would provide the best possible response to the season’s worth of callous criticism that their Cesar was past it.

            The question left on most Gooners lips was why had we failed to produce this sort of intensity for the vast majority of our campaign and what might’ve been, if only we hadn’t hidden the light of such scintillating footie under a bushel for much of the past eight months.

            While many tried to draw inference from Arsène’s tactful withdrawal from last Sunday’s “lap of appreciation” at the Emirates, watching Wenger soaking up the heartwarming adulation as the squad celebrated their shock success in the Wembley sunshine, it was hard to imagine le Gaffer being anywhere else. I could see Gooners everywhere nudging and teasing one another over the hypocrisy of our fervent chorus of “only one Arsène Wenger”. What a complete contrast to the poisonous vitriol spewing forth from the terraces at Palace only last month!

Up for the Cup
            For the past couple of months, most have been convinced that the only question was whether Wenger would sign an extension for one year or two. But I sense a change in our manager’s demeanour over the last week. He’s suddenly responded to what he perceives as a betrayal by those Gooners who’re intent on besmirching his illustrious legacy.

            Whenever our ageing dinosaur has appeared to be at the point of extinction, the euphoria of the FA Cup has been there to provide the kiss of life. But this was no expected victory over Hull or Villa, this was a derby triumph over the club that’s provided the benchmark in recent times. In an age where quietude is invariably impinged by the bling of a mobile phone, the hush of the 90,000 crowd in memory of Monday night’s tragedy was particularly moving.

            Yet it saddens me that the authorities have been cowed by this outrage, in cancelling the traditional trophy parade and thereby depriving the red & white half of North London the opportunity to come together and revel in the very best of what multi-culturalism has to offer. I guess we’ll have to wait for the Community Shield to regale the Blues about sticking their double where the sun don’t shine and to chide Spurs about ending their best and our worst season in decades with  “no silverware”!
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Monday 8 May 2017

The Fat Lady Takes A Rain Check

Prior to yesterday’s match I met up with a mate who’d flown over from Dublin to bring Joel, his youngster to his first ever Arsenal game. If one was planning such an outing, you would’ve thought that with the momentous history between the two sides and with so little love lost between Wenger and Mourihno, a high-profile, end of season clash between Arsenal and Man Utd should prove a guaranteed winner.

Don’t get me wrong because as far as I’m concerned, there can’t possibly be a more pleasant way to pass a Sunday afternoon than watching the Gunners, while soaking up some particularly agreeable Spring sunshine. Yet when one reflects upon the obscenely inflated sums invested in the prima-donna purveyors of our afternoon’s entertainment, frankly I sat there at half-time thinking that my Irish pal and his lad must’ve felt like they’d been sold a pup, with the sum total of the first forty-five minutes amounting to quite such disappointingly dour and uninspiring fare.

I can recall so many titanic encounters with Man Utd in the past, where often the tension has been so great that it’s been ten minutes into the match before I’ve even dared draw breath. This might only have been a clash between the also-rans in 5th and 6th in the table, but it was hard to credit that both teams were supposedly battling to cling to the slightly increased hope of Champions League qualification, after the Scousers had kindly left the door ajar by dropping two points at Anfield.

Even the library-like Emirates has risen to the occasion in the past and the atmosphere has been absolutely electric for so many of our previous meetings. Perhaps there was still some hangover from the gut-wrenching disappointment of last weekend’s derby defeat. Or maybe it’s down to an abiding mood of disillusionment, amongst all those Gooners who are distraught at the inertia that exists at the club and the apparent unwillingness to dynamite the current, complacent status quo and effect some long overdue change.

Yet even by the sedentary standards of our new stadium, I struggle to recall a Man Utd game where the home crowd has been quite so insipid, as the testimonial like circumstances of the first-half on Sunday. I guess the lack of goalmouth action didn’t exactly help. I’m not sure that the containment of an unimpressive Martial counts as much of a test, but while the Gunners might’ve acquired a more calm and composed aura in defence with the current formation, sadly it would appear that the inclusion of an additional centre-half is not without cost to our attacking potency.

With both Alexis and Özil finding themselves forced to drop deep to see anything of the ball and with Ramsey and Xhaka reluctant to make runs into the box, on those rare occasions when the Ox or Gibbs threatened down the flanks, either an isolated Welbeck was the only target in the box, or more often than not, our lone striker’s tendency to roam left the opposition’s penalty area entirely vacant of red and white.

While enduring our lamentable display at White Hart Lane, it struck me that Spurs formation was far less rigid, with their three centre-halves having more license to influence proceedings when they were in possession and only reverting to five across the back when they lost the ball.

Every time I’ve seen Man Utd play this season, I’ve marveled at the club’s ability to spend SO much money, while managing to remain quite so mediocre. I almost feel sorry for Rooney, since he’s become such an ineffectual shadow of the player who left us all with our jaws on the floor when he burst onto the world stage with THAT first goal at Goodison. 

I guess Arsène was long overdue some luck against his gobby, managerial nemesis. Mercifully he got it in spades on Sunday. It was only upon seeing the replay on the big screen that I realized Xhaka’s speculative effort had deflected off Herera’s back, causing the bizarre arc that defeated De Gea.

I was most relieved that Joel was able to enjoy the euphoria of witnessing his first live goal, as up until then, this contest was so sterile that it appeared destined to end goalless. It was the hunger of young Rob Holding that was the catalyst, which led to Welbeck heading home and much as occurred last weekend, with the second goal coming in such swift succession, it pretty much killed the game off as a contest.

Alexis should’ve been embarrassed by his inability to disturb Utd’s debutante right-back. With our Chilean pocket-rocket seemingly so out of sorts, it’s hard to envisage where the goals are going to come from. Yet amidst all the doom and gloom, it would be some feat if we were to sneak under the wire into 4th spot.

Not that I’d wish harm upon anyone, but after knobbling Silva in the semi (I'm really not sure if we'd have won otherwise!), Gabriel might do likewise with Hazard in the final. If we were to beat Chelsea and end a miserable season on a high, by both winning the Cup and qualifying for the Champions League, much like UKIP, the Wenger Out mob would be left with little to protest about. Personally I feel fans should be forced to endure a season supporting the likes of Leyton Orient, or Blackburn Rovers to afford all those Gooner ingrates some proper perspective.

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