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Thursday 16 August 2018

Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You

In response to unprecedented demand (in truth, one kind soul on Twitter who was doubtless curious to know if I was still breathing :-) it was about time I pulled my finger out and posted a diary missive.

Albeit, I must admit that after waffling on for the past decade or more, desperately seeking original means to whinge on about the same old woes, whilst trying to avoid sounding like a broken record, if the appointment of Unai Emery has achieved one thing, it is the far more gratifying possibility of me actually having something more stimulating to write about.

What's more, I'm grateful for Emery's appointment, if only from the mercenary point of view that it provides the Irish Examiner with a good reason to have requested a Terrace Talk column from me, after Sunday's main Premiership feature. Yet in bashing out 700 words for a deadline only a couple of hours after the final whistle on Sunday, I invariably end up not having the time, or the space to get my points across, in my customarily loquacious fashion. 

So with the benefit of a few days to reflect upon events this past weekend, I beg your indulgence while I elucidate with all those thoughts that might've brought on a bout of angina for the sports ed at the Examiner, if I'd prattled on at such length in the missive below.

Going into Sunday's game riding on the crest of the tidal wave of enthusiasm that resulted from the first managerial change in many Gooners' entire lifetimes, there was always the faint possibility of the Gunners beating the bookies and leaving virtually every pundit on the planet looking foolish, by pulling off a shock opening day defeat of the side that many seem to expect to turn the retention of their Premiership title into a Sunday afternoon stroll (even if some of us have a sneaking suspicion that Klopp's mega-spending Scousers might give City a run for their money?).

Sure, there was some slim hope of catching City cold, with Guardiola's squad still some way short of attaining maximum force. Nevertheless, in the cold light of day, when you put the respective squads under the microscope and consider that we've barely any players who'd be guaranteed starters in City's first XI and with the added potential handicap of there being a likely psychological hangover from last season's humiliation, no matter the extent of Unai's evolution over the summer months, it was always almost inevitable that Sunday's encounter would prove to be a disappointing anti-climax.

Even before Granit Xhaka's blatantly inadequate attempt to block Sterling's goalbound strike on 14 minutes, Gooner desire to witness quite such a stark contrast to the decade's worth of unimpressive mediocrity that had gone before, was so desperate that virtually from the kick-off on Sunday, the hiss of all that Emery-inspired optimism evaporating out of the Emirates was almost audible.

It wasn't long before I heard the first moans from those seated in my vicinity that our undynamic, sideways and backwards football was "no different" to what we've grown accustomed to enduring in the past. Truth be told, barring sending his side out to play standing on their hands, on Sunday Emery faced a nigh on impossible task to effect a sufficiently dramatic change to fully appease the Gooner faithful, upon a club that's been so steeped in the culture of his predecessor for the past twenty-two years.

As a result, in contrast to some of our more fickle "fans" who seem far too willing to write the Arsenal off, I much prefer to focus on those glimpses of small shoots of positivity, poking their head up through the semi-artificial turf on Sunday.

Like so many others, I'd have much preferred to have seen Leno and Torreira included in the starting lineup, instead of Cech and Xhaka. Yet it occurs to me that Unai might've been somewhat trepidatious about getting all of his new toys out of their boxes, for fear that if we'd suffered the same sort of embarrassing trouncing that City inflicted upon us last season, he'd be left with nowhere to go.

Moreover, I'm far from convinced that we can afford to play both Özil and Mkhitaryan against the stronger Premiership opponents. Aside from this leaving us looking too lightweight in the middle of the park, from what we've seen from Henrik to date, it could be argued that he's little more than a poor man's Mesut, with Mikki being not quite fast enough, not quite everything enough to merit his inclusion?

If Unai felt the need to temper his team selection on Sunday, in order to maintain some thread of continuity, hopefully at least the defeat to City will liberate him to continue the revolution over the coming weeks, so that we won't have to wait too long to see a team that is unrecogniseable from Arsène Wenger's Arsenal.

He might've waited until the 70th minute but at least Emery eventually subbed Xhaka, which is more than I can remember Wenger doing. As far as I'm concerned the first big test for our new manager is just how long it will take to dawn upon Emery that Granit Xhaka is too slow-witted and simply lacks the tools to occupy such a pivotal midfield role.

Ultimately, as the saying goes, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and this might be precisely why the suits opted for Unai, in the hope he'd prove capable of repeating his accomplishments at his former clubs, where he's managed to coax competitive performances from comparatively limited resources, against far more moneyed opposition?

Let's face it, not many teams will turn City over this season and although it can be argued that our guests took their foot off the gas after going 0-1 up and might well have put the pedal to the metal if they'd been in danger of dropping points, in actuality, up until Silva scored their second just past the hour mark, we can console ourselves that the Gunners looked perfectly capable of nicking an equaliser.

Moreover, considering we'd lost Maitland-Niles and were left playing with such a makeshift back-line, the so called best team in the land didn't exactly carve us apart, in the sort of humiliating fashion that we endured last season. 

Based on their respective transfer fees, Virgil Van Dijk should be four times the player that Papastathopolous is and based on his cameo appearances in pre-season, our new Greek centre-half struck me as being a bit of a carthorse. Frankly I was terrified when I saw our starting XI, as with AMN's lethargic tendency to try and use his pace to get him out of trouble, playing alongside Sokratis on the left, I was fully expecting City to rip us a new one.

In truth, as our only option for replacing the injured AMN, Lichtsteiner coped like the consummate professional he appears to be, even though he's all right-foot and I can't recall a single instance where Sokratis was exposed for a lack of pace. Perhaps this was down to the fact that City failed to really test him, but I guess we'll find out in the weeks ahead whether our new centre half is going to prove himself to be a real bargain, or just another example of the sort of monkeys one invariably gets, when paying peanuts?

Whatever pairing Unai eventually settle upon as his first choice centre-backs, I fancy that the reputations of both will end up benefiting, with an indefatigable Torreira providing the screen to limit our defence's exposure. Albeit it's only upon seeing Torreira standing alongside his colleagues on the pitch that it dawned on me quite how tiny the Uruguayan is. Hopefully he makes up for what he lacks in stature, with his terrier like tenacity?

In the absence of the likes of Kompany and Otamendi on Sunday, it was only when we were eventually awarded our first corner and they mentioned on the radio that City had already taken six such set pieces that it occurred to me that our guests had yet to expose any failings in Emery's preference for man to man marking. 

After having spent the past two decades moaning about zonal marking and what I have always perceived as the blatantly obvious ("space never scored a goal") disadvantages of Wenger's penchant for zonal marking, I'm most keen to see us concede less set-piece goals. I suspect Chelsea might put Emery's efforts to impose the new system under more scrutiny on Saturday, but here again, we're going to have to be patient because when one has been used to doing the same thing, every day, for the past twenty years, it's inconceivable to expect Emery to be able to drum this new discipline into them overnight.

Less "Sideshow Bob" more "Main Stage Matteo"
Above all else, the most obvious positive on Sunday was the competitive debut of Guendouzi. Again, the French youngster is a work in progress and I only hope Unai can afford to have him learn "on the job". I don't watch much French football but, for example. I suspect strikers in Ligue Une aren't renowned for tracking back and winning possession and so Matteo is fast going to have to appreciate the increased awareness necessary in the Premiership, if he's not to have the ball stolen from him quite so regularly.

Watching Liverpool v West Ham, before I left for our game on Sunday, like every other Gooner, I was wondering if we'd end up regretting letting Jack Wilshere leave. Yet watching the game pass Jack by, as he stood flat-footed in the middle of the park, doing that infuriating pointing thing, for the ball to go elsewhere, instead of demanding it himself, my instincts are that football is a job of work for JW and he's just going through the motions.

Pellegrini strikes me as a competent manager, but I fancy Wilshere needs a more animated gaffer who might be able to inspire him to fall back in love with the game? Contrast this with Guendouzi, who never once hid during 90 minutes against possibly the strongest opposition he's ever faced. For all the potential faults resulting from his inexperience, these are more than compensated by Matteo's wholehearted attitude and intensity.

Who knows, perhaps the French youngster's commitment will prove catching and he can inspire Aaron Ramsey alongside him. Surely Emery has to start Ramsey, if Aaron is to be encouraged to sign a new contract, as I honestly can't envisage the likes of Kroenke allowing quite such a valuable asset walk away on a free at the end of this season.

Personally my preference would be to see a midfield diamond of Torreira, Ramsey and Guendouzi, with Mesut playing as our no. 10, feeding Lacca and Auba, to see if these two can truly strike up a proper, instinctive partnership. We might have to be prepared to suffer a few more knocks along the way, as Unai finds his feet and searches for the right selection chemistry and should he fail at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, I'm certain defeat wont be greeted with quite so much Gooner understanding.

We must keep the faith as we set out on this intriguing journey, whilst not forgetting that mercifully no matter what, we've seemingly got a full season's worth of mickey taking as the world laughs at Tottenham's expense.

Don't get me started on buy out! Who could've possibly imagined that the Bank of England club would become the bank of Kroenke. Old man Hill-Wood must be turning in his grave! I'm certain that in the years to come, folks will look back and marvel at the rank incompetency that resulted in this country selling off its footballing crown jewels to a horde of unscrupulous billionaire robber-barons!


Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You

            Sitting at the Arsenal on Sunday, enduring the almost inevitable sight of Guardiola’s swaggering Man City squad rain on Unai’s opening day parade, I was reminded of that ancient joke about the priest impatiently waiting at the graveside of a funeral, for one of the mourners to share some pleasantries about the deceased, until eventually a voice at the back pipes up “his brother was worse”!

            Frankly our encounter with the title favourites proved to be something of a free-pass for our new manager, with the limit of most Gooners expectations being our fervent desire to experience a stark contrast between the football of Emery’s Arsenal, compared to the decade long comfort zone of Arsène’s perennial under-achievers.

            I must admit to being disappointed by the sight of Petr Cech leading the Gunners out. Since to my mind Cech remains as a talisman of the old regime and a squad that had become psychologically bereft of that blinkered ‘winning spirit’. Sure we didn’t exactly break the bank to buy Bernd Leno, but why would the Gunners bother blowing the best part of £20m for Leno, if the German net-minder is no better than the cotchel of adequate keepers already at the club?

            I’d hoped Leno might be immediately installed as our unequivocal No. 1 and that we could avoid the sort of keeper rotation, which might continue to hinder the new broom’s prospects of building a stable defensive unit. Perhaps with Guendouzi and Sokratis both making their debuts and with us being deprived of a recognised left-back, Emery felt it was safer to opt for experience, instead of sweeping away all that had gone before him?

            Yet Sunday’s most blatant stumbling block in Emery’s efforts to mould an Arsenal team in his image was Cech’s apparent discomfort with the ball at his feet. In attempting to teach this old dog a new trick, it appeared as if Petr had been threatened with a severe fine for each and every long ball, such was our keeper’s insistence on risking repeated calamities, rather than simply playing himself out of trouble by hoofing it down field.

            However Rome wasn’t built in a day and aside from reinforcing the relative gulf in class and comparative squad depths, this 0-2 defeat to the champions only served to demonstrate the size of the task at hand for Emery, in transforming the culture that’s existed at the Arsenal for nearly a quarter of a century. The big question is whether our fickle home fans and the many millions of social media numpties are willing to cut Emery some slack and afford him the time necessary to effect such a significant transformation?

            I feared the worst when Maitland-Niles limped off and the 34-year Lichtsteiner was left having to contain the pace of Mahrez and Walker for the remaining hour, with our aged Swiss debutante seemingly having a stick of Toblerone for a left leg. Despite my suspicion that City were able to coast after taking the lead and with the likes of De Bruyne and Sané on the bench, even if we’d managed to score, this would’ve only encouraged our opponents to put their foot down, there was at least some solace that this somewhat more competitive encounter was so far removed from last season’s humiliation.

            With both City and Liverpool looking so strong on paper, it’s hard to envisage us competing with the bookies favourites and it will be our results against the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd by which project Emery will be measured. So next Saturday’s outing at Stamford Bridge is likely to prove far more of a litmus test of whether we have genuine top four credentials.

            Considering we might’ve suffered seeing all our pre-season optimism extinguished by a far more embarrassing scoreline on Sunday, I much prefer to focus on the positives and quite how refreshing it was to witness an Arsenal manager actually coaching from the touchline and who, in complete contrast to his predecessor, is seemingly able to have some impact upon his team at halftime. Not to mention how unaccustomed we’ve been to seeing a team selection that’s designed to counter the opposition’s strengths (and take advantage of any weaknesses?).

            Both Guendouzi and Torreira appear capable of contributing to a braver, more determined looking Arsenal side and so long as Unai’s touchline exhortations can continue to encourage more consistent and more competitive performances, I for one will be satisfied with Unai achieving such baby steps.
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