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Sunday 14 January 2018

The Arsenal way or the wayward Arsenal?

Who knew that after witnessing the Ox adding injury at Anfield, to this afternoon's (vitality lacking!) insult at Dean Court, this morning's post would end up looking quite so prescient?

Seemingly no responsibility shirking for the Scousers!

After the humiliating debacle against Forest, there wasn't much cause for optimism at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, especially after discovering the decidedly underwhelming starting XI that Wenger had selected to take to the field against a full strength Chelsea side.

As a result, I imagine that much like me, there were many of us who spent the majority of the 90 minutes on Wednesday, holding our breath. Obviously the odds of us reaching the League Cup final would've been considerably improved, if we could've been starting the second leg in a fortnight's time with an away goal under our belt. Nevertheless, under the circumstances and considering our strike-force was so utterly impotent on the night, to come away with a clean sheet was a creditable achievement. It was a great relief to be escaping back down the Fulham Road following a goalless draw, with the semifinal still in the balance and everything still to play for back at our place.

In truth, the Gunners really didn't need to do too much against Chelsea, in order to improve upon what was such a disappointingly limp departure, from a knockout competition, where we'd complacently begun to consider as if we'd earned some sort of divine right to remain involved in. With all the premature talk of the potential for a four FA Cups in five years record, our pratfall against Forest really shouldn't have come as a surprise! 

Frankly I was surprised that Chelsea subsequently let us off the hook because I was fully expecting Conte's team to try and make the most of their opportunity to take advantage of our demoralised state, by steaming into us, in a manner which might've better exposed the brittle nature of our comparatively inexperienced and unfamiliar backline.

Instead of which, a somewhat lacklustre and mercifully uninspired effort from the home side, enabled us to avoid further embarrassment and to make a significantly redemptive baby step, with the sort of stalwart display that ensured we were able to salvage some remaining hope of silverware this season.

Yet despite achieving a shut-out at our end, such was the complete and utter lack of threat on Courtois' goal that our failure to exert any pressure with our rare attacking opportunities was all the more infuriating. Watching Granit Xhaka frittering away a succession of set pieces, with painfully feeble strikes from corners, not for the first time, it struck me to question how on earth it is possible that there's such a dearth of dead-ball quality, at a club that's been so lauded for the calibre of our footballing artistry.

In Mesut Özil's absence and with Alexis on the bench, as perhaps our single only creative source on the night, one might've expected Jack Wilshere to have stepped up and assumed set-piece responsibility, instead of Granit Xhaka. Yet over the past few weeks, I've been moved to ponder whether there might be an inhibited culture at our club, where players are disturbingly reluctant to stick their heads above the parapets?

Watching Liverpool play on the box the other night, I couldn't help but notice that the Ox had assumed corner taking duties for Klopp's team and every time I've watched the Baggies since Kieran Gibbs rocked up at the Hawthorns, it's been evident to me that Gibbs has attempted to assume a position of responsibility for Pardew, not just by taking set pieces, but as a prominent figure of experienced authority for West Brom, compared to his peripheral, bit-part role at the Arsenal over so many (admittedly injury ravaged) seasons.

I fully appreciate that one can make a good argument about there always being more capable candidates for taking set-pieces at the Arsenal, whenever either of these two players were afforded sporadic runs in the first XI. Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that it is no coincidence that both the Ox and Gibbs have appeared to come out of their shell somewhat since departing the club. While I honestly can't claim to have any great insight, on the face of it, from what I've witnessed to date, it's almost as if leaving the Gunners has proved liberating for both players.

Obviously, it's not exactly surprising that any player should defer to the gifted likes of Mesut, or Alexis, when it comes to dead-ball situations and perhaps this theory is entirely a product of my limited imagination. But anorak that I am, I scrutinise such moments with the aid of my binoculars and it troubles me greatly that I never see anyone else in red and white, exactly ripping the ball out of their teammates hands, demonstrating their eagerness to make their mark on the game. 

Rather than risk being slaughtered by the crowd, the TV critics and the watching millions and enduring endless humiliating replays in a YouTube montage of gaffes of the season, for a free-kick that ends up hitting the corner flag, there appears to be a learned response at the Arsenal to leave it to someone else and to avoid responsibility at all costs?

Similarly, I've witnessed young Reiss Nelson rip opposition defences to shreds when I've watched him play for our U23s. I've been waiting on tenterhooks to see him do likewise, whenever he's been afforded a rare opportunity to shine in a first-team shirt. And yet for the most part, it feels as if Reiss is playing "with the handbrake on", inhibited by specific instructions to keep it simple. I'm sitting there waiting with baited breath, for Nelson to unleash his breathtaking pace and "carpe diem", by making the most of his chance to force himself into first team contention, while a seemingly reticent Nelson chooses instead to lay the ball off, rather than risk ending up a laughing stock, conceding possession (and the wrath of his manager?), while attempting anything audacious.

I've often mentioned my habit of studying our substitutes, when they get the wave from Bould, or Banfield to return to the bench, in order to ready themselves for their introduction to proceedings on the pitch. If we were in their privileged boots, we simply couldn't get our tracksuit off quick enough and we'd be out on the touchline in a flash, absolutely desperate for the ball to go dead, so we could get out there and have some impact on the game. When I recall the sight of the likes of Ian Wright, positively straining at the leash on the sidelines, in his anxiousness to get involved in the game, by contrast, watching the likes of Theo Walcott, during the time Walcott takes dawdling with his tracksuit, shinpads and anything else which might delay his introduction, one can't help but conclude that Theo is less than eager to get out on the park.

I mention all of the above as evidence of some sort of pernicious comfort zone that exists at the Arsenal, where in the absence of any vocal, demonstrative leadership figures, both on the bench, or out on the park, there's absolutely no encouragement for players to challenge themselves to take the sort of risks required to impose themselves on a game. Nor is there any threat of censure, for all those who are content to go through the motions, game in, game out, knowing that no matter their level of mediocrity, they'll continue to collect their obscene remuneration every week and at the very worst, they'll find themselves sidelined, until injuries, or suspensions eventually forces them back into the first XI frame.

This is the main reason why we are all so desperate to witness the renaissance of Jack Wilshere. After enduring so much sideways and backwards, possession obsessed football with no real purpose, at long last, here is a player who's first thought is to always look forwards, to see if he can make something happen. Moreover, Wilshere might be no less likely than Iwobi to be foolishly caught partying on camera, when in return for such incomprehensibly exorbitant rewards, players nowadays are unrealistically expected to endure a monk-like existence of complete and utter abstinence. However, we're more likely to forgive JW's occasional indiscretions, on the basis that (like Iwobi!). he's always been and will always be a Gooner. We can deludedly believe that it's not only about the money and that unlike some of the more mercenary players, Jack can't wash the agony of an Arsenal defeat off in the post-match shower because he feels our pain.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in being surprised to see Iwobi retain his place in Wednesday night's starting XI and it's sad that Alex has to date, largely failed to fulfil his early promise. In an age when the likes of Man City are seemingly able to spend their way to complete and total superiority, I adored the fact that Wenger was previously striving for an alternative model, based on a more affordable, homegrown core.

Since starting this piece, I've seen highlights of Burnley's defeat at Palace on MOTD and despite losing, what struck me most was the do or die willingness of Sean Dyche's defence, to put their bodies on the line to thwart Palace. Wilshere and Ramsey are the only two survivors at the Arsenal, from the five smiling faces shown signing their new contracts in the photo at the top of this piece and at this precise point in time, Jack's future remains in doubt. I can't help but wonder precisely how Wenger has failed to make more from the massive advantage possible, given the potential motivation of a homegrown core, when compared to the collection of "have boots will travel" mercenaries making up the majority of our competitors?

I can't envisage us offloading Theo Walcott, unless we're prepared to do a deal whereby we subsidise a substantial proportion of his wages, but like many, I think "unlucky Theo" needs to go. If taken out of his comfort zone at the Arsenal, to a club and a manager who can challenge Walcott to perform, his career might well be rejuvenated to the point where he's capable of scoring 20 goals a season.

On their own, Gibbs, the Ox and Walcott might not be the sort of global footballing luminaries that we crave at our club, but as a unit, their whole should be greater than the sum of the individual parts and it has to be viewed as a failure on Arsène's part that their careers have all plateaued at the Arsenal.

I'm desperately trying not to sound too despondent, but it was a decidedly unfamiliar feeling to find myself with my nose pressed firmly up against the FA Cup window, excluded from the thrill of the 4th round draw for the first time in over twenty years, envious of the enemy and their awayday outing to the wilds of South Wales (you never know, maybe their coach will get washed out to sea, crossing the Severn Bridge?).

We go into tomorrow's encounter with the Cherries, grateful to remain in top six contention, only thanks to the inconsistency of others. With another eight games between us and a potential Europa Cup final in Lyon in May, as our best chance of a sniff of any silverware this season, the League Cup takes on greater significance. All we need is to beat Chelsea in the return leg and (assuming Bristol City don't beat us to it) perhaps to bring City's unbeaten run to a poignant end in the final!

Every time Petr Cech faces a penalty, I'm moved to ask if he's ever laid a glove on a spot kick, let alone save one and I've yet to receive an answer. If our first choice keeper is way past his "sell by" date, it appears as if our first choice centre-half is fast approaching his own "good until" expiry point, with Koscielny having to be nursed from game to game, with his chronic achilles injury (I'm no longer considering Mertesacker as a viable alternative and I pray Wenger saves Per from further humiliation by doing likewise!).

Our most consistent centre-back so far this season is actually a left-back and as a result, we've got a kid playing at left back who might actually be a half decent midfielder (if ever AMN is given a chance to play in his preferred role, where surely he'd prove far more effective than Xhaka?). While our right back is so far up his own backside that I'm surprised he hasn't launched his own designer brand of toothpaste.

Much like poor Rosicky, our most creative midfielder is plagued by an injury from which Cazorla is unlikely ever to return to playing top level football and we're fast coming to terms with the fact that we're destined to lose our most reliable source of goals, with no guaranteed replacement for Alexis on the horizon. Meanwhile, the club's single only world class talent could choose to walk any day and could you really blame Özil if he did, when in so many inept displays nowadays, I want to apologise to Mesut for having to endure such rank incompetency around him.

Far from leaving us with a legacy, one could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène has contrived to ensure that he departs with the club in the sort of pitifully parlous state that will be guaranteed to sabotage the efforts of any eventual successor.

Still beat Bournemouth and we're only one win away from overtaking Spurs
'Nuff waffle!
Happy New Year


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Potato Recipes said...

Greeat post