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Tuesday 19 September 2017

Never Mind Firing Fifties At Us From Our Lawn, The Arsenal's Armoury Now Includes Our Very Own Tank

Coming soon from a tank near you
So far this season I've started three customarily long-winded diary missives, which haven't been posted because they remain unfinished and they instead sit there, in draft form on my Blogger dashboard, nagging at me every time I open the page.

You never know, the Gunners might eventually win something slightly more impressive than the FA Cup and the Community Shield, thereby affording me with another opportunity to produce a book. In which case you lucky readers might yet get to see all my hard work :-)

Meanwhile, I thought I had better post something to my blog, before anyone starts wondering if my Arsenal related frustrations have finally boiled over, to the point where I might even have popped my clogs! Sadly not so far-fetched nowadays and I'm sure there were plenty of Gooners who had the Samaritans on speed-dial, whilst fretting about going back into work to face the music, following that utterly gutless debacle at Anfield?

Mercifully, we witnessed a contrastingly gutsy display against Chelsea on Sunday, where although upon reflection, when watching the highlights back at home, there was still plenty of disconcerting evidence, on the whole it was extremely refreshing to watch a "team" performance, in which the Gunners proved themselves willing and able to stand up and be counted.

I'm not about to go overboard, as ultimately we dropped another two points. But getting to away games (especially early KOs on a Sunday) requires such an onerous amount of effort on my part nowadays that I must admit to having struggled to get myself going and out of the door, in good time to make kick-off on Sunday, burdened as I was by my reluctance to find myself facing the recurringly depressing prospect of the moment when one exits Stamford Bridge and the stream of dejected Gooners is forced to reintegrate with the piss-taking Blues fans (for the 6th successive time!).

This annual ritual has become so humiliating in recent years, each and every time the Gunners have only turned up at Stamford Bridge for the time it takes to wave the white flag that as I sat in the living room on Sunday morning, stressing about whether I'd left it too late to make the trip to the Fulham Road, in sufficient time to find a parking pitch near enough to the stadium to be able to manage the walk there (and back!), wondering whether I really wanted to put myself through the seemingly almost guaranteed torture of yet another demoralising day out in Chelsea.

I'm sure I wasn't alone with my dark mood, as when the social media tom-toms told of the team news an hour before KO, even my most optimistic Gooner pals were struggling to put a positive slant on Özil's injury and Alexis' omission from the starting line-up, with sarcastic comments such as "how many goals will we be behind, before Wenger brings him on?"

Our annual outing to Stamford Bridge has become such a masochistic ritual that the only debatable result of the day is whether the rain will hold off and whether or not I manage to find a decent parking pitch! Nevertheless, amongst the limited number of certainties in football, is the inexorable fact that no matter how long a run of miserable defeats endures, it's inevitable that it will end at some point. 

And for each additional season that one suffers the soul-destroying ignominy of a battering at the Bridge, the cumulative agony is such that it becomes that much more impossible to duck out of enduring this encounter, due to the exponential increase in the fear of missing out on the euphoric moment when the tables are turned and the feeling of ecstasy is made that much more intense, on account of all the anguish that has gone before.

With this overexcited Gooner
getting thrown out, I guess it rates
as "premature ejeculation"?
Unlike Shkodran Mustafi and many Gooners at the Bridge, I didn't make a fool of myself. With me being almost directly in line with the official who put such a dampener on our delirium, I spotted the lino's offside flag almost simultaneously to the ball finding the back of the net. Yet while we came oh so "close but no cigar" to experiencing the eruption of unconfined joy of the goal that might have secured the victory needed to erase all those nightmares of seasons past, as we all know, there's only a gossamer thin line dividing those two impostors of triumph and disaster. If Pedro hadn't fluffed his lines, when one on one with Petr Cech first-half, it might've proved an entirely different story!
I don't think it's biased of me to suggest that we had the best of the limited number of goal-scoring opportunities on Sunday. Yet if Chelsea had scored first, I fancy that the memories of past defeats would've come flooding back and the Gunners would've capitulated in customary fashion.

I've often criticised Petr Cech and the perfectly understandable timidity that appears to prevent him from dominating his penalty area, on account of his reluctance to risk sticking his head in, where it might hurt; in contrast to the "no fear" bravura evident from so many of his peers, who aren't burdened by the psychological baggage of a previous skull fracture. However, credit where due, since if Cech hadn't stood up long enough to produce the doubt in Pedro's mind, which resulted in a rather feeble effort (aided by Koscielny's determination to apply pressure), not only would a goal have decided the outcome of this game, but this would've also reopened the floodgates of "Wenger Out" hostility that are bound to swing wide open with each and every bad result.

If Cech had gone down too soon and Pedro had scored, this one single moment would've left us trailing the league leaders by seven points, after only five games, with the Gunners going into every subsequent Sunday game following a Europa League outing, in fear of a below par performance. Upon such fleeting moments can an entire season stand, or fall.

Prior to leaving home on Sunday, I sat watching a montage on Sky Sports of goals from Arsenal and Chelsea games gone by. There was such a sparkling collection of stupendous goals of all sorts, from both teams that anyone watching this programme would struggle to believe the disparity between the two teams in recent times. Yet what struck me most, whilst being reminded of the multitude of goals that we've conceded against the Blues, was the complete and utter lack of protection provided for the Arsenal defence, with us freely inviting the opposition to get at our back line, with the sort of ease and frequency that so often left our defenders scapegoated as the principle culprits for our defeats.

How often in the past have we been forced to endure the clichémeisters of TV punditry criticising the Gunners for "leaving the back door wide open" in Wenger's relentless pursuit of entertaining the Gooner faithful. In his comments on Match Of The Day 2, Danny Murphy might have us believe that we've turned the page and that defensively speaking, Arsène has suddenly put the Arsenal world to rights, out on the training ground. You'll have to forgive me if I'm somewhat more circumspect. If Ramsey and Xhaka go on to produce a run of equally consistent performances and can stifle the flow of the likes of City and Man Utd and prevent the league leaders from exposing the limitations of our defence, I might become a believer.

However, with Cesc Fabregas left relying on the accuracy of his pinpoint passes and something of a shadow of the sort of player who in the past might've singlehandedly carried Sunday's contest and with Chelsea losing the battle in the middle of the park, until Bakayoko was introduced after the break, this encounter didn't prove to be quite as stiff a test as I was expecting.

The annual ritual of the squad photo was all over social media during the past week and looking at the pictures, I couldn't help but feel that seated amidst all these buff athletes, by contrast Arsène has the appearance of a frail, elderly interloper. He cuts the sort of unimposing figure who leaves me struggling to imagine him motivating this bunch of players. Is Wenger capable of encouraging the best out of them with his force of personality? Does the departure of the Ox lend weight to the suggestion that the old bugger no longer retains the sort of illustrious aura required, to inspire a willingness to run until they drop? Perhaps this perception is a hangover from my disappointment at the apparent apathy that we witnessed at Anfield. As my old man might've said , if you can't motivate a team for an outing on Merseyside, only three games in, it really is "och and vey"!

Still, after having endured enough negative opinions in August to last us a whole season, I much prefer to focus on the positives. Even if I was terrified of the one mistimed slide tackle from Mustafi that might've left Morata bearing down on Cech's goal, it was great to see the German centre-half leading by example, snapping into the tackle and denying Chelsea any time on the ball. And with "the Tank" as our new talisman, it was brilliant to see them all encouraged by the tone set by Kolosinac and at long last witnessing the Gunners doing some bullying at Stamford Bridge, instead of always being bullied.

From our vantage point in the corner of the ground, it seemed evident that it was Alexis who provoked David Luis into the reckless tackle that resulted in the red card. Luis foolishly lost his rag following Alexis' assorted efforts to ruffle his feathers all the way along that flank, until the irresistible Brazilian force met the immovable Bosnian object.

While we all questioned the sanity of starting with Iwobi, Wenger was perhaps mindful that while Bellerin offers a positive contribution to our attack, the Spaniard continues to struggle to find the necessary focus and concentration in defence. Watching the highlights of the game later that night, I was somewhat mortified by the sight of Hector leisurely ambling back, while leaving Koscielny busting his balls to try and catch up with Pedro. 

As pleased as I was with Kozza's attempt to apply pressure, with his last ditch effort to at least throw his body in front of the attempt on goal, I want to see this same level of commitment from all of our players, all of the time. In his performances to date Hector has appeared happy enough to bomb forward, in his efforts to grab the spotlight and some of the glory, but he seems to struggle for 90 minutes of consistency, when it comes to the more selfless defensive graft.

Hopefully a few more clean sheets will help to improve the confidence level and the spirit in the dressing room; but I do worry about Alexis' incessant whinging and that his public displays of disparaging contempt at the apparent ineptitude of some of his colleagues, might be the source of the sort of disruptive strife that could fracture the mood and which might not make for an entirely contented camp?

It was disappointing that Jack Wilshere didn't even make it onto the bench on Sunday. I'll be delighted if Jack gets a run out against Doncaster on Wednesday night and if he can remain injury free for long enough and be able to motivate himself sufficiently to force his way back into first XI contention. With Cazorla out for the foreseeable future and in Özil's absence on Sunday, personally I remain unsure that a partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka can provide sufficient creativity in the middle of the park. Obviously this pairing has more defensive responsibility, but contrast their inventiveness with the potential for flair football from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.

With Alexis having struggled to have any impact to date when played in a central role, it seemed downright barmy to send him on to replace Lacazette. We all felt that Welbeck should've found the target with his headed opportunity early on, but with Danny having hit good form, I hope his groin strain won't leave him sidelined for long. Yet his retirement on Sunday at least offered an opportunity for Alexis to move to his more effective position on the left, when Giroud came on. Personally I would've liked to see how Lacazette and Alexis might've fared, playing together, but having sent Olly on, it was frustrating that we totally failed to play to his aerial strength at any stage.

Meanwhile, I don't want to make up for my complete lack of diary posts to date in this one missive, by waffling on ad infinitum! Even though it wasn't the win that we all craved, it was nonetheless marvelous to finally come away from Stamford Bridge feeling like we'd dealt a blow to the Blues and taken a decidedly positive step forward for once, as opposed to that all too familiar trudge back with our tails firmly between our legs.

Bring on the Rovers come Wednesday

CFC not quite so carefree
            Traversing London for a trip to Stamford Bridge felt like a decidedly tame affair, after having run the gauntlet of 20,000 German storm troopers on Spursday night. However with this being the first of five awkward awaydays, immediately following our midweek Europa League adventures, there was no mistaking the significance of Sunday’s encounter, as a third successive defeat on the road might well set a calamitous tone for our entire season.

            Despite our FA Cup and Community Shield success against Conte’s side at Wembley, horrific memories of recent humiliations at the Bridge made for a less than optimistic mood, which was hardly bolstered by the pre-match revelation that neither Özil nor Alexis featured in the starting XI.

            I could perhaps understand the logic of including a workaholic Welbeck, with Alexis sadly still such a long way from firing on all four cylinders. Yet as demonstrated, in an otherwise dire display against Cologne in midweek, even when at his worst, the wantaway Chilean is still capable of conjuring up that one inspirational moment of world class genius that Sunday’s encounter was crying out for, in order to unlock the Blues miserly defence. By contrast, seemingly shorn of all last season’s confidence, Iwobi’s benign display against the Bundesliga outfit, left us all baffled by his selection and Wenger only compounded this apparent error, by failing to acknowledge Iwobi’s impotence until his 80th minute substitution.

            Without the psychological baggage of our abysmal record of late against top six opposition and our lily-livered performances at the Bridge in particular, I was counting on the likes of Lacazette and Kolosinac, as the most likely source of a “game changing” contribution. In truth, if I was a Chelsea fan, I would’ve been disappointed by the home side’s failure to try and take more of an advantage of the Gunners recent fragility on the road, by steaming into us with a little more intent right from the off.

            However as the two sides felt each other out in the opening stages, there was a cagey timidity about them both, which spoke volumes as to their limited confidence levels to date and the fact that (with the exception of the Azerbaijanis!) neither outfit has produced the sort of prolific flowing football coming from the Mancunian competition.

After our embarrassing capitulation at Anfield, most Gooners would’ve gladly settled for the draw against Chelsea that might at least enable us to redeem some much needed pride. And it was somewhat refreshing to see a Gunners side set their stall out, focused first and foremost on not throwing the game away.

Kolosinac’s “tank” nickname couldn’t be more appropriate and the Bosnian’s rugged style of football seems to be rubbing off on his team mates, as the Gunners have finally begun to remember how to push back. Albeit that this was the source of much frustration in our corner of Stamford Bridge, as ref Oliver appeared to be suckered into awarding free-kicks, every time Morata and co. hit the deck at the slightest physical contact.

            We spent most of the first-half paying homage to our subs as they stretched their legs on the sidelines directly in front of us. Not that our obdurate manager was about to be influenced into introducing some more firepower at the break, by our adoration of first Alexis and then Giroud. By contrast, the only reference to Walcott was by way of teasing Hazard “you’re just a sh*t Theo Walcott”.

            It was perhaps indicative of the Premiership’s direction of travel, where the fear of defeat has become so incredibly intense that the two most talented players, Hazard and Alexis, were both left parked on the bench. While neither player was deemed sufficiently responsible to graft for 90 minutes, both managers eventually called on their star turns for a 20-minute cameo, in the hope they might take advantage of flagging limbs and convert one point, into three.

            As pretty much our only source of any creativity, Aaron Ramsey was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet first half and Lacazette left us all flabbergasted when he somehow contrived to miss the rebound. He’ll fast need to learn that in a performance of so few genuine chances, you really can’t afford to fluff your one and only line!

            Wenger never fails to confound with his “give with one hand, take with another” substitutions. Yet while we might’ve failed to sufficiently trouble Courtois, there was plenty of consolation in the resilience shown at the other end of the park and with far less arduous opposition to come, the point earned from an all too rare clean sheet affords us some much needed confidence to build on.

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