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Wednesday 5 December 2018

They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore..... Or Do They?

Still basking in the warm afterglow of an ecstatically triumphant derby and the deafening silence emanating from our noisy neighbours, ever since Sunday's supremely dominant display restored the North London status quo and quelled all that irritating crowing coming from the cockerels, it suddenly occurred to me that I'd better post Sunday's Terrace Talk missive for the Irish Examiner, before it's overtaken by events at Old Trafford.

There've been a few instances this season where we've regaled Unai's side with a rendition of "We've got our Arsenal back". Although I didn't hear it being sung on Sunday, least not in our end of the East Lower, if I'm entirely honest, this was the first time during Emery's brief tenure that I truly felt this sentiment.

Better not be the last of my hair gel I can feel?
Sure, we've enjoyed brief cameos of beautiful artistry, such as Aaron Ramsey's wondergoal at Fulham, but it feels as if it's been over a decade since I've been sat watching the Arsenal and savoured the sort of desire and commitment that we witnessed on Sunday, of the kind that has me totally convinced that the outcome matters just as much to the players, as it does to those of us on the terraces.

As much as I've enjoyed mercilessly lambasting all my many Spurs pals, with the same sort of 21-gun, piss-taking salute that one can be sure would've been aimed in my direction if fate hadn't favoured us with this victory, I've been forced to temper my comments, for fear of going too far overboard.

The Totts have been trying (in vain!) to console themselves that this was a Spurs side that arrived at the Emirates possibly still burdened by the lactic acid remaining in their legs, following the effort they'd expended against Chelsea and Inter. Perhaps more crucially, in my humble opinion, any potential element of fatigue was combined with the inescapable psychological impact of a Spurs side who knew they didn't need to win this game. With their three-point cushion and after having beaten Inter and demolished Chelsea, a draw would've done them very nicely.

With the exception of their impressive performance against Chelsea, I think most Spurs fans would concur that they've been struggling for form this season (which much like Chelsea and Liverpool has made the absence of dropped points amongst them all the more galling). I'm still not sure to what extent Sunday's result was down to a brilliant display from us, or an extremely mediocre showing from the visitors from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road. Doubtless, as always, it was down to a bit of both.

On the radio they pondered about the impact on their preparation, as apparently the Spurs charabang rocked up at the Emirates only an hour prior to kick-off (instead of the customary 90 mins). But while an in form Spurs might well have presented us with a much stiffer test, I'm still fairly certain that they would've failed to match the wholehearted appetite of an Arsenal side that started this game like a team possessed, inspired by the "shit or bust" attitude that only a win would suffice.

The big question now is whether Unai can recreate this same level of intensity on a regular basis. It's a big ask for him to inspire the troops to produce a repeat performance, only three days after such a draining effort. Should the Gunners fail to cap Sunday's triumph, with an equally dominant display at Old Trafford against such an apathetic Man Utd side (especially if Spurs produce a routine win against Soton at Wembley!), it will definitely take the gloss off our derby victory, leaving us with little more than North London bragging rights. At least until the rematch, in our Mickey Mouse Cup quarterfinal match in a couple of weeks time.

However if Emery can motivate his squad sufficiently for us to find ourselves returning back down the M6 from Manchester with the all-important three points in our back pockets, suddenly Sunday's victory might be perceived as a seminal moment in our new manager's reign, in both senses of the dictionary definition of seminal - relating to or denoting semen (with 57,000 Gooners on the verge of coming in our pants when Laca's effort found the back of Lloris' net :-), or strongly influencing later developments.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see who Unai selects to take the place of the suspended Xhaka at Old Trafford. With us playing away from home, I suspect Emery might opt for Elneny to partner Torreira, in the belief Mo might offer more defensive responsibility? Personally I would love to see Unai use this opportunity to try out the effectiveness of a partnership of Torreira and Guendouzi. Although I'm aware that this would be viewed as risky because of Matteo's immaturity, which to date has seen him robbed of the ball a little too often for my liking, I can't help but feel that the refreshingly fearless energy produced by these two, in the midfield engine room, would prove just the sort of catalyst that's been witnessed in the past, when the commitment of the likes of Vieira and Petit encouraged that crucial additional 5/10 per cent effort from all those around them?

When Emery arrived at the club, I originally said that for me, the litmus test for our new manager was how long he took to recognise that Xhaka really wasn't up to the pivotal role, as the Gunners midfield fulcrum. Instead of which, Unai's presented Granit with the captain's armband! Xhaka is the subject of constant debate with my neighbour at the Emirates and while I have to concede that even as his greatest critic, I've been forced to express begrudging credit for much of Granit's recent efforts, ultimately he's unlikely ever to win me over entirely because he appears to lack both the mental and physical acuity that's essential in his role. 

To my mind Xhaka will never be that sort of midfield general who has a picture of where all his team mates are, or where they will be, before he receives the ball. Moreover, he ambles around the pitch, permanently on his heels, when I want someone on their toes, able to compensate for the superior pace of an opponent by anticipating their every move. 

Lucas Torreira is just that sort of animal, as evidenced by his ability to steal possession from unwitting oppos. What's struck me as Lucas' most impressive attribute to date is his (typically South American?) ability to anticipate a challenge, in such a way as to pretty much guarantee that the ref awards a free-kick. It's a fabulously valuable asset for Torreira to be able to relieve the pressure on our defence, with his intuitive ability to invite and anticipate a tackle, in a manner that invariably ends up with the ref blowing his whistle.

For all Lucas' relentless efforts to limit the frequency with which the opposition can get at our backline, sadly he's never going to be a panacea for all our innate defensive inadequacies. With his flapping arms, in Sokratis' wide-eyed duel with Harry Kane on Sunday, our Greek centre-half reminded me of one of Attenborough's young chimps and his histrionic efforts to prove to himself and those all around that he's capable of ousting the alpha male.

Who's the Daddy?
Hopefully Sokratis will accrue confidence and gain more composure in direct proportion to our positive results. Albeit presumably Unai's penchant for playing three centre-halves is dictated by Monreal's injury and his reluctance to rely on Kolosinac's lack of defensive nous, without additional cover. It will be interesting to see if we revert to playing four at the back when Nacho regains his fitness and with our club captain getting more minutes under his belt, playing with the U21s, as sadly they exited the Checkatrade Trophy at Pompey, it can't be too long before Koscielny is back in first team contention.

As much as I'd love to see Laurent back in harness, it'll be a great shame if this is at Rob Holding's expense, just as he's beginning to live up to the burden of his "better than Cannavaro" ditty. What's more Mustafi's fondness for eating grass continues to get my goat. Surely Shkodran is long enough in the tooth to have learned to remain on his feet?

I like the idea of having a squad with the flexibility to switch between four and five at the back, as the uncertainty about our formation keeps opposition managers on their toes and they can end up shooting themselves in the foot, trying to match our lineup (as I felt happened on Sunday, when Poch tinkered with his defence in the second half) . But ultimately one would hope to be able to establish some consistency with a defensive unit and it's evident that up until now, Unai's selection decisions are dictated by his efforts to discover the least permeable solution.

It would be brilliant if he could begin to solve this problem at Old Trafford, as we can't continue to count on our forwards to keep outscoring the opposition. Unai has certainly proved his astuteness with his in-game substitutions, but with the increasingly hectic festive football schedule, we're likely to discover his acumen for man management in his ability to rotate the squad, preferably with minimal negative impact.

Along with Xhaka, I won't be surprised to see other changes in the starting XI against Man Utd. because there are bound to be those still suffering from the shift they put in on Sunday. Sadly the limitations of our existing squad are all too apparent in the most physically demanding position. Playing on the flank, either as a wing-back, or a full-back and the ability to patrol the full length of the park for the entire 90 has become increasingly crucial in recent times. Despite Sead's defensive limitations, with there currently being no obvious replacement and with Lichtsteiner's ageing legs hardly making him a like for like stand-in for Hector, Unai simply can't rest either Bellerin or Kolosinac, not without there being an obvious detrimental effect, especially when it comes to the width necessary to stretch opposition defences.

Momentum is so crucial at this stage that Emery might well be tempted to risk sticking to his guns. Personally I've always been of the opinion that you pick your best starting XI and then ideally rest two or three after having secured a lead, rather than playing a weaker side and being forced to throw on your star turns to try and effect a rescue. Yet he'd be left with egg on his face, should a decision to start with the same lineup that finished Sunday's game end up being at the cost of losing any of them for two, three months, due to a fatigue related injury.

I guess we're about to discover the mettle of the Gunners' new management team over the coming weeks, but for the minute, I'll be more than satisfied to see them prove their worth, by serving up some more humiliation for Jose in Salford.

Nuff waffle

North London Is Red - Sead gets literal with his claim

They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore..... Or Do They?

            Flicking through the matchday programme, 1-2 down at half-time on Sunday, it felt as if the editor had played a part in putting the kibosh on our Derby Day prospects, seemingly with a succession of references to Mesut Özil, his 10th appearance in a North London Derby and how “these are the games that you get really excited for”!

            With Mesut conspicuous by his absence, the poor love supposedly suffering from another back spasm (doubtless from picking up his hefty wage packet!), Lacazette only on the bench and the terrifying prospect of Son tearing Sead Kolosinac a new one on our left flank, there was plenty of trepidation in the air around the Emirates in advance of Sunday’s KO.

            Yet with the Gunners struggling all season to grind into gear during the first-half of most games, mercifully for once Unai Emery managed to motivate his troops to hit a suitably intense note, right from the opening whistle. In fact, during an utterly scintillating twenty-minute spell at the start of Sunday’s encounter, we produced the sort of fervor, which felt like a throwback to the blood and thunder derby days of yesteryear.

            A page in the programme was dedicated to Lee Dixon’s quote about his first NLD - Tony Adams literally had me up against the wall by the throat and said “you don’t understand. We can’t lose this game” With us unsettling our guests, by pressing Spurs so high up the pitch, winning every 50/50 challenge and every second ball. Adams himself would’ve been proud of the hunger and desire evident in the 100% committed way Unai’s side went about their business on Sunday.

            It felt like Christmas had come early, when Vertonghen gifted us with the penalty, which resulted in Auba’s opening goal. Perhaps the handball was related to the fact that such a forceful start had created a sense of panic, amidst Spurs’ customarily composed defence. Nevertheless, in the knowledge that it wasn’t feasible to maintain this same level of intensity, I couldn’t help but feel that we needed to make more of our early dominance, if the Arsenal were to finally break our duck of not having achieved a first-half lead all season long.

            Despite Lucas Torreira’s extremely impressive efforts, in preventing our porous backline from being exposed quite so frequently, our defence remains a work in progress. Dean might’ve gifted Spurs with a soft penalty, but our centre-backs have a bad habit of going to ground and Bernd Leno really should’ve prevented Dier from scoring the equalizer only moments prior.

            Albeit, even if Spurs two goals in five minutes had the effect of bursting the balloon of Gooner euphoria, putting a serious dampener on the halftime break, it was brilliant to witness the sense of outrage from our bench, as Aaron Ramsey squared up to Dele Alli. All too often in the Arsenal’s recent past, I’ve come away from matches with the demoralising feeling that the result hasn’t mattered sufficiently to our players. However thankfully the Arsenal’s second half display on Sunday demonstrated that there was only one side, which point-blank refused to settle for anything less than all three points.

"And roll away to a half sashay"
          Both Iwobi and Mkhitaryan might’ve felt hard done by at being hooked at the break, as Unai made the sort of bold tactical halftime changes that were always a complete anathema to Arsène. With Ramsey seemingly with one foot already out the door at the Arsenal, questions about his motivation are inevitable. But suitably fired up by his handbags with Alli, Aaron was bang at it, feeding a two-pronged attack of Auba and Laca. This was the formation most of us had been expecting from the start, but with Özil playing in the no.10 role.
          Auba’s equalizer reignited the atmosphere and blew the roof off the Emirates, with the sort of eruption that hasn’t been seen at our place for many a moon. Then when Dier kindly diverted Laca’s shot in for our third, it was the sight of Bellerin kneeling down on the halfway line and kissing the turf, which summed up the strength of feeling that Emery has inspired within this squad.

            It was fitting that Torreira capped his man of the match performance with our fourth. A debut goal on derby day confirmed Lucas’ status as our firm terrace favourite. But no matter how splendiferous, a single swallow does not make a summer and the real test for Emery is whether he can manage to get the adrenaline pumping again, for us to consolidate Sunday’s triumph with an equally dominant display at Old Trafford on Wednesday night? 

            In the meantime, I’ll savour the fabulous feeling of waking up this morning certain that North London is most definitely red!
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