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Monday, 18 March 2019

Ramsey Inspired Renaissance?

North London Is Red

If ever we needed a reminder of quite what a fickle mistress football can be and the gossamer thin divide between unbridled ecstasy and abject despair, we Gooners have enjoyed a stark demonstration, in both encounters this past week, of the confidence boosting benefits afforded to the club that’s graced with Lady Luck’s capricious favours.

Considering quite how often we’ve fallen victim to the inspirational goalkeeping efforts of David De Gea in recent seasons, it felt as if we were long overdue a slice of good fortune against Man U. Still there’s no escaping the fact that if it wasn’t for Man Utd’s profligacy in front of goal last Sunday, we might’ve witnessed an entirely different turn of events. Aside from being deprived of the immense satisfaction of an all too rare clean sheet (which was almost as gratifying as the victory itself!), we might’ve been denied this incredibly euphoric cherry, on top of a costly point-dropping cake of a weekend for the competition.

I happened to be sitting in Club Level on Thursday night. Reverse snob that I am, in the past I invariably used to decline any offers to sit in the prawn circle, where one gets dirty looks for disturbing the peace & quiet, preferring to sit in my own lower tier pitch, able to give full vent to my vocal exhortations without feeling too conspicuous. However nowadays I’m extremely grateful for the occasional Club Level invite because it’s so much less exhausting for me to be able to remain seated for the entire 90-minutes, rather than being up and down like a Jack-Rabbit all game long. 

Worse still, in my own Block 18 seat (a block away from the visiting fans), I’m forced to spend the entire game trying to anticipate when those in front of me are about to stand up, whenever the ball comes down our end of the pitch. Otherwise, it’s become such a struggle for my creaking bones that by the time I struggle up out of my seat, I’m all too often in danger of missing whatever it is that everyone else is standing up to see!

Many of those who were sitting with me in Club Level on Thursday night might not fully appreciate quite how close the Gunners came to making an embarrassing Europa Cup exit because so many of them were still availing themselves of the free halftime refreshments and had not returned to their seats in time to see Niang’s effort hit the woodwork in the opening moments of the second-half. 

Presumably the Gunners would’ve produced a somewhat more focused second-half performance, if Rennes had bagged a precious away goal at that stage of the contest. But if Mustafi & co. had gifted the opposition this encouragement, it might well have made for a far more uncomfortable evening against the French side and their vociferous fans. We certainly would’ve been far less forgiving and wouldn’t have been able to laugh off Aubameyamg’s glaring misses quite so flippantly.

After the stick PEA took following his feeble penalty against Spurs, his willingness to step up again, against De Gea, spoke volumes about our Gabonese striker’s character. The cream of the crop in most competitive sporting endeavours tend to be shameless egomaniacs because it invariably takes a supremely self-centred, obsessive belief in one’s own ability to rise above mediocrity. 

Wakanda Forever!
With Auba having revealed prior to the match that he’d be unveiling a new alter-ego in the event of him scoring against Rennes, I was peering through my binoculars prior to kick-off, to see if I could spot a bulge in his socks or his shorts, which might indicate the presence of a mask. When nothing materialised during the celebrations, after Auba scored in the opening minutes of the Gunners early barrage, I wondered if he’d decided against it. Or could it have been the case that he hadn’t accounted for the possibility of us losing the coin toss and being forced to swap ends at the start?

Perhaps Pierre thought it best to leave any such tomfoolery until after the Gunners had done the business and got their noses in front in this two-legged tie. But it tells you everything about our shy, retiring striker that he was sufficiently confident of notching another goal to go to the trouble of placing a bag behind the advertising hoardings at the Clock End containing his new mask.

Truth be told, if Rennes had put the tie on a knife edge and threatened our progress into the quarterfinals by nicking an away goal, after Auba had subsequently missed a couple of sitters, we’d have wanted his head on a plate for pratting around, instead of fully focusing on the task at hand and PEA could’ve headed off to “Wakanda Forever” for all we cared. But surprisingly we managed to maintain a second successive clean sheet and our very own Black Panther was only left to rue the yellow card, brandished by a by the book, spoilsport Latvian ref who obviously didn’t appreciate Auba’s antics.

Doubtless there will be plenty of killjoys who’ll criticise Aubameyang, but with this mask stunt being something that he started at Dortmund, I quite like the idea that the timing of his new superhero disguise attests to Auba’a burgeoning self-belief at the Arsenal and only helps to foster a mood amongst the rest of our squad of a team that is currently enjoying their time on the pitch.

Yet we mustn’t get carried away, after all if it wasn’t for the fortuitously timed reduction in Lacazette’s suspension from three matches to two, Unai would’ve been deprived of the option of playing the pair of them and the Gunners might not have been able to produce the scintillating intensity of that opening spell, which cancelled out the opposition’s advantage within a mere 15 minutes of the kick-off.

Pleasure principle
Additionally, there’s more than a little irony involved in the fact that we’ve spent most of this campaign to date focusing on the contribution of Torreira and Guendouzi as the primary evidence that the new regime have begun to ring the changes and the soaring mood of positivity resulting from the two victories this past week has been achieved in the absence of our two principal arrivistes.

Instead of which, I’m sure some might agree that it’s been the dynamism of Aaron Ramsey, providing forward momentum in the middle of the park, which has proved to be the most obvious difference in both games. Emery seems to be developing the knack of motivating his troops to produce the sort of intensity necessary to steam into opponents and put them under the cosh right from the off. Yet it remains to be seen if he can continue to inspire this sort of urgency on a more regular basis, so we might achieve the sort of consistency necessary to secure a top four finish.

I’ll wait to see if we can reproduce this same fervour against Newcastle and Everton, but even as one of Granit Xhaka’s greatest critics, I have to admit that he’s barely put a foot wrong in both matches and his form appears to benefit from playing alongside Ramsey.

Hopefully we can count on Torreira benefiting from his time on the sidelines, so that he might return to the starting XI at some stage, reinvigorated and transformed back into the whirlwind of a Tasmanian Devil that we witnessed earlier in the season. And while Aaron might be a sufficiently experienced old-hand not to be guilty of overplaying on the edge of his own box and risking being caught in possession, in the manner that we’ve seen on the odd occasion from an immature Matteo, I’ve no doubt that Guendouzi will get his opportunity in the home straight to reprise his influential role to date.

Nevertheless, if the Gunners were to achieve the mammoth feat of a winning streak between now and the end of the season, this would make Ramsey’s departure even more difficult to swallow if he continues to play such a significant role.

Meanwhile with Ainsley Maitland-Niles creating our first goal, scoring the second and demonstrating a “shall not pass” resolve in defending our right flank on Thursday night, he definitely deserved “man of the match” consideration. I was wondering if Ainsley felt he had a point to prove, after being left out of the England U21 squad, but as was the case against Man Utd, he suddenly seems to have grown into his Arsenal shirt.

Aaron passing the baton to AMN
In his rare run outs at full-back in the past, I’ve found myself criticising AMN for too often thinking he can use his searing pace to get him out of trouble, whereas in both appearances last week he seems to have acquired he discipline to ensure he’s goalside of the ball, facing up his opponent, instead of chasing back alongside him to try and effect a last-ditch tackle.

If Ainsley continues to progress at such an impressive rate, Hector will have some job on his hands displacing him when he returns to fitness and hopefully some serious competition for his right-back berth will only benefit Bellerin (as opposed to Hector knowing he can walk straight back into the first XI the minute he returns from his ACL injury).

Although these two triumphs and the two clean sheets definitely did not demonstrate that Unai’s leaky ship has suddenly become watertight and that he’s discovered a solution to the defensive deficiencies which have plagued us all season. But while we still might be prone to being exposed at the back, there appears to be increasingly satisfying evidence of a renewed determination to prevent any such inadequacies costing us quite so dear.

There’s little that pisses me off more than the sight of anyone in red & white turning their back, in a cowardly fashion, to avoid being hurt by a powerfully struck shot. By contrast, there’s little that pleases me more than the sight of one of our players courageously throwing themselves at the ball, with absolutely no thought to their own personal safety, in an effort to block an attempt on goal with some part of their body. 

As a defender myself in my dim and distant youth, such brave incidents of self-sacrifice for the Arsenal’s cause are almost as pleasurable as the paroxysm of joy when the ball hits the back of the net at the opposite end of the pitch. In an age when one can’t help but cynically question the commitment of our modern-day mercenaries, where loyalty is measured in terms of the obscene number of digits in their pay-packets, it’s inevitable that we question whether their desire can possibly live up to to the unstinting devotion of those of us on the terraces. 

Thus it’s positively heart-warming to see the Gunners make like bona fide troopers, willing to risk life and limb for the multi-millionaires beside them. Unlike a 30-yard screamer into the top corner, this sort of defensive valour attests to the burgeoning of a genuine team spirit, amongst a group of players who might just be beginning to buy into “project Unai”, as they discover quite how much more they’re capable of achieving, when they respond to the unrelenting, wild-eyed haranguing from their somewhat batty Basque gaffer.

Yet one, or even two swallows do not make a summer and when one considers that it was only a couple of weeks back that we were ten points behind Spurs, with the majority of Gooners already having begun to question Emery’s capacity to take this team forward, I certainly don’t want to tempt fate by going overboard. We need remember that this is the same Unai Emery who’s left Mesut Özil spending much of the season earning his eye-watering £350k per week by shining the bench with his backside.

So long as Unai persists with putting our most talented players out on the park and energised by their warm weather break in the Emirates (in Dubai, as it’s unlikely to be eighty degrees in N5!), we go on to produce an equally vigorous performance against the Toon, while the game at Anfield the day before goes to form - speak it quietly since a lot can happen during the fortnight of this International break – our noisy neighbours might well end up being the April Fools, with the natural order of things restored just in time for the grand opening of their new white elephant. Albeit there’s still some serious snagging to be accomplished at Spurs new stadium, if the video clips of the water pouring down inside the building were genuine (don't forget to pack an anorak)!

It’s going to be a helluva long couple of weeks with no domestic footie, at such a crucial stage of the competition, when we Gooners have been left positively salivating for more ever since last Thursday. Still at least we’ve plenty of time to see if there exists such a thing as anti-stab boxer shorts for our impending trip to the welcoming environs of Naples.

Lastly (phew!) watching all the other matches this weekend, it seems as if almost every club now has a green kit and I have to wonder as to the IQs of these marketing geniuses responsible for putting teams out in a green kit, on a green pitch. Did it not occur to any of them that footballers are far less likely to perceive their teammates around them, when they're blending into the background! If I never see the Gunners play in green again, it will be too soon!

Nuff waffle
Come on you Gunners

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Monday, 11 March 2019

Tottenham Hotspur We're Coming For You!

"Miss this one mate & you ain't getting out of here alive"
          While most Gooners would’ve bitten your hand off for a draw in advance of last Saturday’s North London Derby, there was no escaping the sense of disappointment, coming away from Wembley having failed to capitalise on such a prime opportunity to silence our increasingly noisy neighbours.

          Yet far more foreboding was the fear of the possible recriminations of Torreira’s needless last-minute red card and the potential significant impact of the absence of our Uruguayan pocket-rocket to patrol the middle of the park on Sunday & snuff out Man Utd’s rampant goal threat.

          Although in recent weeks Torreira’s struggled to exert the sort of influence that we witnessed early in the season and instead of Emery focusing on trying to compensate for our porous defence and thwarting Man Utd, there was an almost tangible elevation of the mood of positivity around the Emirates with the announcement of the team news an hour before KO, with this rare instance of Unai having the cojones to select his best available XI.

          There was always the hope that Man Utd might arrive at our place suffering from a hangover, following the emotional toll of their triumph against PSG and it was a relief that Herrera remained unfit, considering how the midfield triumvirate of Herrera, Matic & Pogba have swept all before them since Solskjaer rocked up.

          However, with Chelsea joining Spurs in wasting precious points in advance of Sunday’s KO, in some respect this seemed to take some of the pressure off. Aided by Unai’s offensive team selection, it felt as if this damage limitation insurance provided us with the liberating confidence to take the handbrake off and go toe-to-toe with our guests, in a concerted effort to put a spoke in the Solskjaer bandwagon.

          You can’t have watched the Gunners over the past few decades, live or on the box, without having heard Maria’s cacophonous “come on you Gunners”. It was fitting that the club made a presentation to one of our most devoted fans, in celebration of her 80th birthday and it would’ve been downright embarrassing if the Gunners had gone on to poop Maria’s party, by failing to replicate the same undaunting vigour at the start of this encounter, evidenced in the octogenarian’s pre-match pep talk.

          Sure, we gifted Man Utd with a few glaring opportunities, during a fairly even first-half, as has been our most problematic failing, all season long. Yet there was a most pleasing determination to our last-ditch defending and it’s this evidence of a concerted team spirit, an unrelenting will to win that we’ve been waiting to see made manifest (on a more consistent basis!) under our new management.

          Deprived of any real threat down our right flank, with the lumbering Mustafi in this role in recent weeks, it was a massive relief to see Emery give Maitland-Niles a rare run out. Where in the past Ainsley hasn’t exactly performed as if he truly relished being asked to do a job at full-back, against Man Utd it appeared as if the penny had dropped. In producing what was arguably a man of the match performance, perhaps for the first time it felt as if the youngster had grasped the nettle to make the most of his opportunity to nail down a first-team berth.

          Doubtless Man Utd fans will moan about the contentious penalty decision, but no one was more surprised than us to get anything out of ref Jon Moss. Following the fortuitous turn of events in Paris in midweek, surely they have to accept the rough with the smooth? Credit to Aubameyang for having the courage to step up against a keeper of De Gea’s calibre, after his miserable failure last week.

          In the past we’ve grown so accustomed to drawing a blank against De Gea that we all stood gawping at the replays of Granit Xhaka’s first-half strike on the big screens to try and comprehend how De Gea had been undone.

          Although our attacking triumvirate of Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette failed to truly click on Sunday, I pray that Emery persists with starting all three of them in the remaining matches as they’ll only improve with more game time and it should make for a highly entertaining climax to such an unpredictable contest.

          Hard to believe it was only 16 days ago that we were 10 points behind Spurs, without a hope. “Tottenham Hotspur we’re coming for you”!
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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

It's Unai, Or Never

The Gunners' defence, or just a divot?
After venting my frustration bashing out a column for the Irish Examiner  (unedited version of my missive copied below), I've not been able to bring myself to watch Saturday's depressing calamity again. With a full-strength team, I would've quite fancied that an in-form Arsenal side might've given Liverpool far more of a run for their money. But the realists amongst us knew that it was always going to be a right turn up for the books, for the XI that trotted out onto the pitch (in those ridiculous green shirts!) at Anfield to achieve any sort of result.

Upon reflection, as tough as it was to witness the Gunners being so emphatically turned over (yet again!) by a top four team, this defeat wouldn't have felt nearly quite so costly, if it wasn't for the unacceptably blasé attitude that resulted in us fluffing our lines and dropping points at the Amex v Brighton.  With Chelsea and Man U both taking maximum advantage of the five points that we've pissed up the wall in our last two outings, suddenly we've exited, stage left, from the top four picture, with Solskjaer's seemingly reinvigorated side hot on our heels.

It is indeed essential that we all keep reminding one another to continue to cut Unai sufficient slack and that we don't begin to lose patience at this delicate stage; especially in the aftermath of Saturday's reality check, where the extent of the essential surgery necessary with this squad was squarely shoved down out throats. I can't recall the precise details of Torreira's culpability in the goals we conceded, aside from Firmino's second, where Lucas ended up on his backside, along with everyone else. Yet I suspect it was no coincidence that the Gunners started shipping goals wholesale, the first time his performance level dipped and our defensive fragility was no longer masked by Torreira's relentless, terrier-like commitment.

As the saying goes, it's not how you fall down, but how you get up that counts and as far as this campaign is concerned, if Unai doesn't get the Gunners back up on our feet pronto, our season could be over before the end of this month. 

No matter how much I might love to see our obvious defensive issues addressed during the winter transfer window, personally I'd rather we write this season off, than panic buy any more ageing warhorses, speculative teenagers, or whoever might be left on the shelves during the January sales, only to find we've eaten into our limited budget and no longer have the wherewithal to procure more serious targets come the summer.

However, if you'd asked me at the start of this campaign about the extent of my ambitions, during this period of transition, I think that like most Arsenal fans, I would've said that I'd be absolutely delighted if Emery managed to restore the North London status quo and finish above Spurs in his first season.

It will be no mean feat to bridge the seven point gap, but just past the halfway mark, there's still plenty of time, with fifty-four points to play for. If Emery is to keep us all on side and to avoid coming under too much pressure, he can't afford for us to fall away completely, to the point where we've no longer any hope of even taking advantage of a customarily Spursy collapse.

When one considers quite how many instances we've endured of the shoe being on the other foot over the years, the only solace to be found in getting stuffed by Liverpool on Saturday was the thought of all those Spurs fans, who would've been secretly praying that we might help to perpetuate their foolish fantasy of a title challenge, by preventing the Scousers from taking full advantage of the three points that they'd just dropped against Wolves. Now they know precisely what we've endured during all those seasons in the past, whenever we found ourselves forlornly hoping Spurs might do us a similar favour against the likes of Man U and Chelsea.

Meanwhile it's crunch time for Unai, as we're about to see just what our new manager is made of. Can he reenergise his flagging troops, make light of all the lactic acid in those aching limbs and restore the feelgood factor, by overwhelming Ranieri's Cottagers with the same verve and intensity of our five goal crucifixion back in October?

A very happy and healthy New Year to one and all.

Green With Envy

        I’d love to be able to blame our humiliating 5-goal annihilation on the numbskull responsible for dressing us in a green kit, upon a grass pitch, but frankly that’s a feeble excuse. Saturday’s demolition served as a timely reminder of the enormity of the task facing Emery. No less disconcerting was the number of our players who were content to see out the second-half, passively blending into the verdant background.

        If Unai has truly managed to revitalize the spirit in our squad, then 4-1 down at the break, with the result already a foregone conclusion, I would’ve at least expected the Gunners to display a modicum of pride. The 2-points blown at Brighton in midweek made this capitulation all the more galling, but it was our abject reluctance to stand up and be counted for the remainder of this no contest, which left our demoralized travelling faithful disconsolately trudging out onto Anfield Rd.

        Between the astounding ecstasy of Maitland-Niles’ first goal, there was a whole 3 minutes for us Gooners to fantasize that it was “game on”, until Firmino promptly quashed any such delusion. Although no Arsenal fan makes the long schlep to Merseyside expecting to get mullahed and no matter how misguided, one always retains that faint hope of pulling off a shock result, it’s been a long time since we trod this particular path with quite such modest expectations.

        The gulf that currently exists between these two teams is evident in the fact that Klopp’s side virtually picks itself. By contrast, Arsenal fans anxiously fretted over our team news. As Unai strives to resolve this recurring tendency to present all of our adversaries with Xmas pressies, it’s impossible to predict how he’ll shuffle our decimated pack. Compounded by the loss of Holding, injuries to Monreal and Bellerin have exposed the glaringly obvious defensive shortcomings of our existing squad.

        Albeit I’m unsure precisely what more Emery might’ve done to mitigate our porous bulwark, in the face of the Scousers’ potent firepower. Koscielny’s so blatantly short of match pace that it was no surprise to see Salah almost immediately breeze past our most unlikely second-half saviour. With their table-topping clash with City looming, I was relieved the league leaders took their foot off the gas after the break, limiting the risk of permanent damage to our club captain’s confidence rebuild.

        At nearly 35, Lichsteiner is no longer a viable option at wing/full-back. As a wizened doyen, he increasingly relies on old-school chicanery to conserve his waning reserves of energy. While Kolosinac might be built like a tank and can prove effective in attack, as part of a back five, sadly he’s a complete liability in a four-man rearguard, with insufficient defensive nous to fill the back of a proverbial postage stamp.

        As for Sokratis, over the course of our deceptive undefeated run had I seriously begun to kid myself that this donkey could be our Zeus, a genuine vocal leader? Appearing on the same stage as the serenely composed, £75m Rolls-Royce Van Dijk, there’s no disguising the Arcadian inelegance of our tawdry £17m tractor. This tragic roll call of ineptitude wouldn’t be complete without doffing my hat to Mustafi. It’s some achievement to be just about the only centre-half who seems to spend more time on the deck than his feet!

        Should any affirmation of a nerve-wracking encounter be necessary, it came with our first corner of the night and the sigh of relief that greeted the blast of an offside whistle resulting from the Gunners’ ball into the box; if only for some momentary respite from the ignominious ease with which we’re prone to being sliced and diced on the counter. Deprived of the tools and the capacity to shut shop, Emery’s logic in trying to take the game to our hosts was understandable. Aubameyang might’ve been less anonymous playing in tandem with Lacazette, but this would’ve likely involved Iwobi’s omission, just about the only Arsenal player to come away with any credit.

        Even Torreira was made to look torpid, in his least impressive performance to date, whereas Liverpool’s ‘in yer face’ intensity was always destined to expose Xhaka’s limitations and the lamentably slow response time of our midfielder’s bovine brain. Whether it’s fatigue, or a demurring attitude from Özil and Ramsey that’s dampening the mood, the dynamism of Emery’s side has ebbed of late, to the point where performances are disturbingly indistinguishable from the Arsenal of old.

        Inevitably the customary recourse from the terraces is the clamour to “spend some f***in’ money” but where does Unai begin, when the odd addition won’t provide us with a panacea? Hopefully with our defence, since it’s futile to try and build anything on such flimsy foundations. But with only two genuinely creative talents remaining in our squad and with neither particularly inspired by the honour of the captain’s armband, is it possible to address the issues with Özil and Ramsey in a beneficial fashion?

        Peter Hill-Wood was the very last link to the Arsenal’s tradition of old-Etonian, aristo chairmen. The passing of this benign old duffer truly symbolizes the end of an era. Ideally an urgent overhaul of our squad might mark the start of a new one?

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