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Tuesday 13 November 2018

Unai's Long Journey Begins, Not With Baby Steps, But With A Halftime Break?

            Exiting the Emirates on Saturday night, frustrated at having fallen a further two points behind a Spurs side that continues to notch up wins, despite struggling for any real form, I was flabbergasted to hear it revealed on the radio that the Arsenal are in the company of Cardiff City, as the only two Premiership sides yet to have led a single game at halftime so far this season.

            At least Neil Warnock's Bluebirds have the excuse that they're really not expected to do much better, but as for the Gunners, this statistic seemed like a fairly damming indictment. Yet with us all getting a bit carried away with our expectations about the Unai Emery revolution, perhaps this evidence, along with our failure to tame Wolves on Saturday, will prove to be a timely reality check? 

            After all, it was always likely to be no mean feat for Unai to overhaul the decades long indolence that's endured in the comfort zone of Arsène's dressing room and to be able to totally transform the attitudes of those players who've grown all too accustomed to getting away with merely going through the motions on a matchday.

            Mind you, after the haunting tones of the Last Post had echoed around the ground before kick-off, leaving everyone reflecting on the real meaning of giving of one's all, one might've thought we could've at least expected the Gunners to be sufficiently fired up to pull their collective fingers out! With the exception of perhaps a couple of positives, in the study in perpetual motion that is Lucas Torreira and the unshrinking bravura of Bernd Leno, Saturday's uninspiring display felt like a disappointing throwback to the slipshod arrogance of Wenger's Arsenal. 

            Having watched quite a bit of Nuno Santo's Portuguese influenced entertainers, I was eagerly anticipating Saturday's contest, expecting an open, expansive game, full of flair footie. Albeit with Wolves having already taken points off Man City, applying the brakes to Guardiola's steam train by giving them a tough workout, it was obvious that they weren't about to be intimidated on our hallowed turf.

            Sadly there was very little evidence of the confidence that the Gunners have been grafting so hard to build up in recent weeks and instead of taking the game to our guests, much as Wenger's team was in the infuriating habit of doing, the Gunners began tamely prodding the ball around sideways and backwards, as if expecting the visitors impressively staunch defence to simply lay down their arms on Armistice Day and succumb to our supposed superior ability.

            Instead of which, it was somewhat ironic that it was the milky Arsenal rearguard who demonstrated themselves to be as about effective as the Maginot Line, as a somnolent Granit Xhaka not only gift-wrapped Cavaleiro's goal, but almost made a claim for being the perfect host, by very nearly putting the ball into the back of the net for him!

            As well as Xhaka performed against the Scousers, in one of his most impressive displays to date in an Arsenal shirt, sadly Granit reverted to dunderhead type on Saturday and was perhaps fortunate to have his failings overshadowed by Kolosinac's lamentable efforts out on our left flank. But then if Sead was supposed to be defending across the width of the eighteen-yard box, it appears as if someone neglected to remind Aubameyang that it might be helpful to the Arsenal's cause, if just on the odd rare occasion he might make some effort to deny our opponents all the time and space they wanted out on this wing, entirely unchallenged.

            OK so perhaps it's written into PEA's contract that he doesn't do tracking back into defence, but where was the expected intervention, to address Kolosinac's glaringly obvious struggle to singlehandedly subdue the opposition on his side of the park. It's not as if the Gunners are exactly short of a few instructions being issued from the sidelines. 

            Perhaps Juan Carcedo's English is more intelligible than Unai's, but I found myself studying our manager and his assistant through my binoculars on Saturday and while Unai is pretty animated on the touchline, he does have moments of reflection, whereas Carcedo literally does not stop screaming, appearing to issue a relentless stream of instructions to the players, only stopping now and again to confer with one of the other backroom staff, who looked to be disseminating info from the laptop/iPad before him. All of which seemed to reinforce the sort of management by committee approach, which appears to be the Arsenal model nowadays?

            Yet if they were making decisions by consensus on the bench, sadly there was little, or no evidence of any leadership out on the pitch on Saturday, as the listless body language of our captain suggested Mesut might have preferred to have been at home, with his feet up, watching the game on the box. 

            Don't get me wrong because Özil is the sort of supremely gifted footballer who will always be a joy to watch and anyone who believes otherwise is a Philistine IMHO. Yet where for example, the likes of Hazard, or David Silva might impose their ability at crucial moments, to influence the outcome of a game, Mesut can all too often be guilty of merely decorating a match, flitting in and out, with single (albeit often sublime) touches to a team mate, when we're crying out for him, as the one most capable player, to assume responsibility for picking the lock of a crowded defence and actually making something happen.

            Having awarded Özil the captain's armband, in an effort to encourage our superstar playmaker to embrace this responsibility, it will indeed be interesting to see what transpires if Unai's efforts to increase Mesut's influence on proceedings are to no avail. If I'm correct in my understanding that Emery was perceived to struggle at PSG with his relationship with the mega-egos of the likes of Neymar, then he'll surely not want to be saddled with this label by a similar failure with Özil?

            And yet Unai doesn't strike me as someone who suffers fools gladly and I really can't envisage our new manager putting up with any prima-donna antics long-term. Certainly not when he's attempting to set a tone of total commitment and intensity from the rest of his squad. Albeit, any such attitude adjustment has definitely not been reflected in the succession of slow starts that have resulted in so many below par first-half displays. Perhaps a proper headbanger of a captain could provide a solution, if we had someone capable of intimidating their teammates into giving their all from the opening whistle, for fear of incurring the wrath of the armband wearer?

            Meanwhile, although many seem to feel Bellerin has improved under Emery, while Hector might be offering more threat going forward, I remain unconvinced by his defensive efforts. With full/wing backs playing an increasingly pivotal role in the modern game, if we've learned one thing in Monreal's absence in recent weeks, it's become patently evident that we're lacking sufficient depth in this area of our existing squad. Whatever targets might've been in mind for the January transfer window, sadly I suspect our objectives will have altered dramatically, following Danny Welbeck's tragic injury.

            We always knew we would need to be patient and I fancy it will at least take until a transfer window for Unai to begin to exert some real influence on producing an Arsenal team in his image. As a result, personally I will be only too happy if we can maintain contact with the top four into the New Year, to give ourselves an opportunity to mount a credible assault, as Unai's squad develops some genuinely consistent chemistry.

            In order to get us to this point, I still fancy that the fearless energy of a Torreira and Guendouzi partnership in the midfield engine room could inspire more intensity from the rest of our team. I'm not sure I want Matteo playing at the base of our midfield, so long as his naivety continues to be exposed. While I can accept Guendouzi occasionally having the ball stolen off his feet further up the field, I don't want to be having a heart-attack, watching such glaring gaffes occur on the edge of our own penalty area. Yet unlike Xhaka who ambles around on his heels, these two are capable of the sort of zest that can benefit us at both ends of the park, by making us more incisive in attack and by being sufficiently on their toes, to limit the frequency with which our backline is exposed.

            I was pleased to see Iwobi in the starting XI on Saturday and while sadly Alex failed to impose himself in the first-half, I'm really not sure we can afford to start with both Özil and Mkhitaryan on the park because it leaves us looking somewhat lightweight. Henrik might shine in an Arsenal side that was performing totally on song, but despite Saturday's equalizing goal, for my money he's "Mesut light" and lacks sufficient pace and presence to impose himself consistently.

            Yet with Unai continuing to tinker with his starting lineup, it's apparent that he's still some way from settling upon his best eleven players. If Aaron Ramsey is soon to be making his exit, I'm not sure I see the point in continuing to throw him into the mix. Aaron might've been responsible for the goal of the season so far, but aside from this, he's hardly been busting a gut to put himself in the shop window. Perhaps Ramsey's far too nonchalant body language is merely down to him being deprived of sufficient sleep by his new born twins, but if he's out the door in January, Aaron is hardly about to risk injury by putting his body on the line in the meantime.

            After witnessing a totally committed Danny Welbeck suffering a potentially career threatening ankle break, I'm really not sure of the benefit of an ambivalent Aaron Ramsey hanging around like a bad smell?

Enuf waffle

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Tuesday 6 November 2018

A Welcome Glimpse Of Gooner Cojones

            With football’s powers that be seemingly so intent on garroting their golden goose, with increasingly relentless, wall-to-wall live TV coverage, its somewhat of a relief that unlike our disappointingly underwhelming midweek cup win, an Arsenal v Liverpool Premiership outing, under the floodlights, remains a sufficiently portentous encounter to set Gooner pulses racing and pack out the Emirates.

            Our thirteen match undefeated run since those two, not unexpected, opening defeats has certainly ensured that Unai’s stock has risen. Yet the modest calibre opposition left everyone eagerly anticipating Saturday’s duel with Klopp’s front-runners, as the first realistic litmus test of our current aspirations.

            Albeit in the absence of a recognized left-back at Selhurst Park last weekend and with Bellerin having retired hurt at half-time, there was little optimism about our prospects of stemming the tide of the Scousers attacking triumvirate, prior to the team news announcement an hour before KO. Confronting Salah & co. was likely to be just a slight step up from his single only other appearance against Qarabag, but with Kolosinac back from injury and Hector able to soldier on, it was a huge relief to discover that we wouldn’t be relying on another makeshift backline.

            It wasn’t merely the terrifying prospect of the likes of Lichtsteiner and Xhaka being left for dead by Liverpool’s searing pace on the break, but the fact that our injury woes at full-back had deprived the Gunners of much of our own attacking thrust down the flanks in recent weeks. Not that the inclusion of Hector and Sead in the starting XI left me feeling that the visitors were no longer favourites to win on Saturday. But this was just the sort of confidence inspiring news that was needed as we took our seats for this mouth-watering contest. In contrast to recent defeats against top-four opposition, the Gunners weren’t about to roll over.

            Emery’s bizarre (Manuel from Fawlty Towers?) interpretation of the English language might be no more intelligible, but there’s certainly no mistaking the fervour of a man who’s touchline antics leave Klopp looking more Trip Hop than Heavy Metal. After two decades of Arsène’s “Zen and the art of football maintenance” it’s such a refreshing change from his managerial sang-froid, to see Unai prancing around his technical area for the entire ninety, kicking every ball, along with every other Gooner.

            More importantly, on Saturday Emery’s passion was made manifest out on the park. In the majority of games the Gunners have been found wanting for intensity in the first-half and it’s taken until after the break, or to go a goal behind, for us to begin to find our groove, but it was perhaps indicative of the significance of this match that we had our foot to the floor, right from the opening whistle.

            Under our new, management by committee model, in complete contrast to the Wenger dynasty, our new coach would appear to have both the time and the (somewhat less arrogant?) inclination to adapt his tactics, on a match by match basis, according to the opposition’s specific strengths and weaknesses. This was immediately apparent in Aubameyang’s instructions to take on Alexander-Arnold at every opportunity.

            It was more than a little unnerving that Liverpool were able to open us up, far too frequently, with a simple ball over the top and perhaps we were a little fortunate with the offside flag, which denied the Scousers a halftime lead. Nevertheless, we’re so accustomed to defensive lapses that it felt like a foothold for it to be honours even at the break.

            We might’ve blinked first with Milner’s goal on the hour mark, but where in the past this might’ve caused us to throw the kitchen sink at securing an equalizer, only to be carved open on the counter, Emery’s Arsenal appear so much more resilient.

            According to the stats, even Xhaka achieved one of his most impressive all-round performances to date. Perhaps Granit is thriving on the serious competition for his midfield berth? Or could it be the unstinting tenaciousness of our Uruguayan pocket-rocket that’s proving infectious? It’s said that the best things come in small packages and Torreira is fast proving himself to be a revelation, blessed with just the sort of wholehearted attitude that we’ve been crying out for, for far too long. With our defence far less likely to be exposed so frequently behind this more effective screen, they might even begin to acquire some composure?

            The importance of being able to state our claim as genuine top four challengers was evident in the explosion of unbridled elation that greeted Lacazette’s equalizer when it eventually came, the like of which I’ve not experienced at our place for a long time. I was swallowed up by bearhugs from the blokes who’ve sat behind me since the stadium opened a dozen years ago, without previously ever passing the time of day!

            It’s only the beginning of the Emery adventure, but after suffering the constant accusations about the Arsenal’s lack of character for so many years, I’ll gladly settle for this welcome glimpse of our cojones.

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