all enquiries to:

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Are We Family?

Desolate expanses of the Clock End on Thursday night signal Emery's death knell
            Sadly I've grown so enfeebled in recent times and awaydays have become such a debilitating ordeal that I'm forced to be somewhat discriminating about which outings I can and can't manage.

            Following the almost inevitable consequences of Thursday night's thoroughly depressing defeat, amidst the desolate expanses of a half-empty Emirates and facing the potential prospect of an FL8 inspired renaissance at Carrow Road on Sunday, by hook, or by crook, I was going to make it to Norwich.

            Mercifully, I'm blessed with such kind Gooner pals, who will always do their utmost to encourage my continued attendance at away games, with their willingness to fetch and carry me, door to door, thereby trying to ensure minimal physical exertion. On Sunday morning, Jim had arranged a convenient pitstop on route, at the Bull in Barton Mills, to meet up with a mate from the Arsenal mailing list and to join up with a couple of other Gooner pals coming from Banbury.

            Yakking about all things Arsenal, over my doorstop sausage sandwich, I was listening to Michael from the mailing list, expressing his desire that above all, he was concerned that any appointment of a new gaffer shouldn't be at the expense of sustaining "the Arsenal family". He was referring to the way in which we've grown accustomed to seeing Arsenal players come and go, over the decades and from the boundless egos of the multimillionaire superstars, to the humblest schoolboy apprentice, all those who part ways with the club invariably express sincere affection for the Arsenal, as an extremely special institution.

            The anti-climax of a somewhat disappointing 2-2 draw with the Canaries certainly wasn't quite the optimistic overture that we were all hoping for, from the anticipated injection of enthusiasm that was our minimum expectation. following Freddie having been handed the reins on Friday. 

            With the Gunners getting off to a more effervescent start, on the front foot for the opening thrusts of this entertaining, end to end encounter, there was a sense that Ljungberg had at least inspired a positive reaction amongst the troops. Yet the evidence of the Canaries first riposte, with the Gunners defence parting like the waters of the Red Sea, leaving Leno exposed by one long ball down the middle, only served to remind us that even the much beloved Freddie Ljungberg can't make a mickle out of a muckle.

            Perhaps Freddie felt it was worth a try, believing he might be able to encourage a little more of a concerted an effort from the likes of Xhaka and Luiz, but myself I felt he'd made a massive ricket putting his faith in the triumvirate of Xhaka, Luiz and Mustafi, as the defensive heart of his debut team selection. Witnessing the limited amount of effort that Xhaka appeared willing to expend, I suspect the club's relationship with Granit is irreparable.

            If recent events have resulted in Xhaka losing his Arsenal mojo, I'm unsure David Luiz ever had it! I believe the Brazilian defender rocked up at the club this past summer, merely with a view to bolstering his pension. Who knows, I might well be wrong, but my instinct is that both Xhaka and Luiz no longer care sufficiently about winning games and achieving success for the Gunners, in order to be able to produce a fully-focused, 100% committed shift.

            Many believe we'd be best off playing Torreira in the holding role, in front of our defense. The whirlwind Lucas Torreira who turned up last season and covered every blade of grass would be top of my team-sheet. However, I feel it's Torreira's intensity which is his principle asset. Ever since the rumours of him wanting out, we've seen little, or no evidence of the same sort of wholehearted zest and without it, sadly he's a somewhat banal looking participant. Unless Freddie (or any other managerial successor) can reignite Torreira's flame, I fancy we might be best advised to cut our losses.

            When it comes to Mustafi, I don't know, perhaps he's guilty of trying too hard, but watching Shkodran on Sunday, if he wasn't backing off from the opposition attack with infuriating timidity, he was diving in, with his severest bout yet of "go to ground-itis". 

            Personally, I wouldn't have Xhaka, Luiz or Mustafi anywhere near our first XI from now on because it's patently obvious that the heart of this Arsenal team is liable to have a coronary at any moment. If Freddie is to be afforded the time to try and build anything, surely he must appreciate that he needs to somehow achieve a more solid foundation at the back.

            I simply cannot imagine quite how frustrating it must be for our forwards to be patiently plugging away at creating a goal-scoring opportunity, only to find that no sooner have they breached the opposition's defences than our own backline is guaranteed to fold, at the first sign of the slightest pressure.

            Nevertheless, we came away from Carrow Road clutching at the positives, content in the knowledge that at least we hadn't capitulated and hoping Freddie can build on the draw, by securing a victory against Brighton on Thursday. Meanwhile, it was while watching Match Of The Day 2, later that same night that the thought struck me that any misguided illusions of an "Arsenal family" might well prove to be an oxymoron nowadays.

            We witnessed a touching tribute from the Wolves players, in the black armbands worn in honour of the tragic passing of Benik Afobe's two-year old daughter. Yet when Afobe was with Wolves for a mere couple of seasons, after spending an entire decade with the Gunners, one simply has to question why it hadn't occurred to anyone at our club to merely avail themselves of the black tape in the kit tins, to show some sympathy for the plight of our former player?

            Moreover, watching the highlights of Leicester notching up yet another win against Everton, we suffered the irritating reminder that Brendan Rodgers appears to be receiving able assistance from Kolo Touré on the Foxes' bench. 

            Following on from the likes of Vieira, Arteta and countless other ex-Arsenal stars who've left the club, only to go on and lend their experience and their knowledge to one of our competitors, I can't help but wonder why it is that the suits at our club simply don't appear to comprehend the invaluable benefits to be had from having players of this sort of stature in and around our squad. Even if this is solely for the purpose of our existing players to be able to look up at our former stars and appreciate the winning mentality required to achieve success.

            I find it hard to believe that a player like Kolo would prefer to be working at Leicester than at the Arsenal, as I imagine he'd be "weally, weally" happy to be invited back to his old stomping ground. Then again, perhaps it's foolish of us to expect our beloved club to have retained the slightest sense of a family spirit, when we're blighted by an absentee owner, who's interest in his cash cow only extends to showing his face a mere couple of times per season? If the man at the top couldn't care less, so long as he continues to receive his regular dividends, can we really expect the rest of his staff to want to go "above and beyond" the call of duty, in the best interests of their employer?

email to:

Sunday 1 December 2019

In the words of Andy Kaufman AKA Latka from Taxi "Thank You Very Much"

Not worth reading if you've already seen the edited version in the Examiner, but I thought I might as well post the original



            Standing shooting the breeze at half-time last night, in a humiliatingly half-empty stadium, the like of which we’d not seen since the inauguration of the Gunners new home in 2006, it couldn’t have possibly been more glaringly obvious that Unai Emery’s number was up.

            If the match itself wasn’t miserable enough, with the likes of David Luiz ambling off after half an hour, following an innocuous looking collision, as if the Brazilian had decided he really didn’t fancy all the running around involved in this midfield malarkey and where we watched Joe Willock taking instructions from the manager at one point, knowing Emery is incomprehensible at the best of times, never mind trying to make himself understood from the touchline, there was an abiding sense that even our absentee landlord surely must now sit up and take notice of the inescapable evidence of the lack of bums on seats.

            When Frankfurt took the lead around the hour mark, frankly I resigned myself to believing that it would be worth binning a few Europa League points, if this was likely to precipitate the Basque bodgers imminent exit, before our few remaining star-turns lose complete patience and some of our more promising youngsters risk their confidence being permanently shattered by this car crash calamity of a campaign.

            Truth be told, the writing has been on the wall since our campaign flat-lined in quite such a disappointing and demoralising fashion at the tail end of last season. The exasperation levels both on and off the pitch since the start of this season seem to have risen with each passing match, in direct proportion to the damming statistical evidence of shots and goals conceded. But then how could the Arsenal’s very own incarnation of Latka from Taxi possibly be expected to command any respect, amongst the callous banter of a Premiership dressing room, when he’d become a complete laughing stock on the terraces.

            Trying to fill the void left at the culmination of Wenger’s dynasty was always likely to prove something of a poisoned chalice, but it appears Emery’s prosaic management style couldn’t possibly be in more stark contrast to the erudite genius of Arsène. Personally, I would’ve settled for Unai coming in and replacing the all too casual air of complacent indolence that had pervaded the club during the latter end of Wenger’s reign, by instilling our spineless looking squad with a bit of backbone.
            Yet aside from an initial bounce from Emery’s obvious enthusiasm, the Spaniard patently failed to overhaul his listless looking dressing room. We’ve endured a season and a half of him shuffling his pack, constantly alternating line-ups and formations, seemingly throwing the cards up in the air every week, to see how they fall. Unai’s blatantly evident inability to chance upon a system, or a selection to encourage the best from our squad was only highlighted by the recent performances from Leicester and Chelsea and quite how rapidly the likes of Rodgers and Lampard have appeared to mould a team in their image with their managerial input.

            At least when Pochettino first arrived in this country, he made a concerted effort to ensure he could make himself understood, whereas Emery is no more intelligible in English today than he was on day one. Unai’s pre-match interviews on the big screens in the stadium before home games were a standing joke, where the poor sound quality only added to the embarrassment of not being able to comprehend a single word, of what I always assumed to be a fairly standard stream of clichés. It would’ve indeed proved interesting to hear how Emery justified giving his charges two-days off, after such a woefully lacklustre showing against Southampton. I wonder what the likes of George Graham would’ve made of our spoiled rotten stars being awarded with a break to “mentally recover”. A disciplinarian like Graham would’ve been more likely to have them back in for a double-training session on Sunday by way of punishment!

            Nevertheless, there’s no sense of enmity felt towards the hapless Mr “Good Ebenin”, since my anger is reserved for the suits who employed him and who somehow perceived the diminutive Spaniard as the having the sort of stature necessary to fill Wenger’s shoes. Success in France with the immense advantage of PSG’s financial doping was a given and any shine from Emery’s successive Europa League triumphs with Sevilla was decidedly tarnished by the recent discovery that in his last season in La Liga his side failed to win a single game on the road (sound familiar?).

            Even during Wenger’s decline, Arsenal fans could at least rely on the fact that our interminable inconsistency would be interspersed with odd moments of straw-clutching artistry. Not only has Emery failed to eradicate the habitually sloven lapses in concentration, but in recent weeks our football has become so painfully disjointed that our displays have been almost totally devoid of attacking flair.

            Circumstances appeared to be deteriorating so dramatically that Emery’s departure will be greeted with massive relief, since Gooners have rapidly reached the conclusion that absolutely any alternative would have to be an improvement. At the very least, I would hope that Freddie Ljungberg’s longstanding relationship with the Arsenal’s Young Guns might afford him an opportunity to galavanise the troops. Even if Freddie struggles to sustain an initial remotivation, hopefully this might afford the board time to avoid jumping out of the frying-pan and straight into the fire, by appointing another failure.

            The perennial problem is that we really need to sort of confrontational new broom, who’s capable of commanding fear and respect from his dressing room, with a “take names and kick arses” type intervention, but sadly it’s hard to envisage the Arsenal ever appointing the sort of character who might risk ruffling feathers and impacting upon the smooth running of the Gunners global commerce.

            Fortunately, only yesterday I went online at the club’s official ticket exchange to seek out a ticket for the Brighton game next Thursday for Cliona, my sister-out-of-law who’s traveling over from Dublin. I was flabbergasted to find a glut of seats available in all areas of the stadium. Doubtless Stan Kroenke will be satisfied if the Gunners return to playing in front of packed houses, whereas I’ll settle for the Gunners turning up at Carrow Road on Sunday and putting in fully-focused, wholehearted shift for ninety minutes, for the first time in many a moon.

email to:

Sunday 24 November 2019

Dead Man Walking?

Arsenal fan
 Too soon? Arsenal’s ‘hapless’ manager is under fire. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images

           My litmus test, when Emery first arrived at the Arsenal was always how much time it would take for the penny to drop in respect of Xhaka. Just how long would we have to wait, for it to dawn on Unai that, playing in such a pivotal role, sadly Granit lacks both the mental and physical acuity to build a team around.

           It didn't bode well, when at the start of the season Emery accepted his charges choice of Xhaka as club captain. Yet as someone who's hardly Granit's no. 1 fan, it shows you just quite how enraged I've become with such a soft-centred Gunners side, who couldn't keep a clean-sheet if the opposition were playing with their eyes shut (and at times on Saturday afternoon it felt as if the relegation fodder Saints were so profligate in front of goal that they were playing with this very handicap!) that I actually wonder if we can currently afford to be leaving Xhaka out?

           The Gunners seem to be so powder-puff in the middle of the park that even Hassenhüttl's confidence shot Saints can come to our house and monopolise the sofa. Sure, perhaps we might go on to nick a result at Norwich, or put the brakes on our slide at home to Brighton. Maybe we'll heap more woes upon Pellegrini and a Hammers side who appear to be in even worse shape than us? Nevertheless, despite the possibility of some momentary respite offered by a rare positive result, from here on in, as far as I'm concerned Emery is already "a dead man walking".

           The question is just how bad will our circumstances have to become, before the Arsenal's laissez-faire suits pull their collective fingers out, cut their losses and throw the switch. Moreover, it's questionable just how much faith we should have in their ability to chance upon a suitable alternative candidate. After all, who on earth was it who sat down with this prosaic Basque bodger and somehow drew the conclusion that here was a man with the strength of personality and the footballing nous to fill Wenger's shoes. Surely they were having a laugh? No matter your views on Wenger, it's blatantly evident that Unai's not fit to lick Arsène's boots.

           I suspect part of the attraction was based on the board's belief that they were employing a "yes man", who could be relied upon not to ruffle any feathers. As a result, it should come as no real surprise that Emery is not the authority figure that was required. Unai is a beta, rather than the alpha male, new broom that the Arsenal needed, in order to thoroughly eradicate the pervasive air of slipshod complacency, amongst a squad that merely appears to be "clocking on" at their job of work. But then this has been a perennial problem at the Arsenal because the suits are never going to risk upsetting the apple cart of their well run business, by employing the sort of confrontational manager who's capable of taking names and kicking arses.

           Personally, I'd prefer to see Ljungberg take the helm for the time being, until we land Emery's replacement, as at the very least I fancy that the players might be motivated to play for Freddie. If anything symptomised Emery's inability to inspire the troops to be sufficiently switched on, it was the way in which the likes of Bellerin, Sokratis and Torreira were all caught on their heels, when Ward Prowse pounced, to stab home Leno's penalty save.

           Admittedly, my colander-like memory might be to blame, but I actually can't recall the last time an Arsenal keeper successfully saved a spot-kick. Thus it was extremely disappointing to finally see our goalie lay a glove on a pen, only for Soton to capitalise on the rebound. OK, with his head start as the taker, Ward Prowse probably would've reached the ball first, even if all of our players were on their toes, but I simply can't put into words my sense of dismay over the inexcusably sedentary attitude evident from the Gunners.

           Despite the limitations of his tractor like pace and Papa having the lumbering turning circle of an oil tanker, he's often deserving of a bit of free pass for his faults because he at least offers some solace, by seemingly playing with his heart on his sleeve. Nevertheless, just how many times do we have to suffer the ignominious sight of Sokratis being clumsily caught on the ball, before Unai is forced to accept our Greek centre-half's blatantly obvious inadequacies and the fact that Papa patently ain't good enough to play out from the back.

          FFS it's not rocket science! I watched Shamrock Rovers win the FAI Cup Final the other week and they were more composed playing out from the back than we are. Einstein defined madness as repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome, but it's blooming' obvious to my mind that if we we weren't so sodding predictable and varied our tactics, we might even enjoy more success playing out from the back because the opposition wouldn't be able to risk pressing high up in quite such numbers, if there was actually a risk of Leno playing it long. Whereas at present it feels as if our keeper is in fear of being fined, should he ever dare putting his foot through the balll.

         And yet Sokratis is far from being the Gunners most infuriating Achilles heel. When David Luiz arrived at the club in the summer, I was of the opinion that, at his best, the Brazilian might prove a useful stopgap. However, much to my chagrin, Luiz is not only a long way from being "bang at it", judging by the insouciant attitude demonstrated in his displays thus far, it would appear as if Chelsea's Trojan horse has rocked up for a season at N5, solely for the purpose of topping up his pension.

           We've witnessed several equally disgusting instances to date, but where my anger has been appeased by a headed goal, or some other positive contribution. Yet watching on Saturday and seeing Luiz languidly ambling back, even after the Gunners' fatally delayed reaction to the opposition's quick thinking, with the free-kick that resulted in the Saints opening goal, I was left in such a fury that frankly I wouldn't have the lackadaisical Luiz anywhere near our first XI, doubtless infecting the dressing room atmosphere with his apathy.

           Similarly, the pocket rocket, Lucas Torreira, who was covering every blade of grass when he first arrived at the Arsenal, would be one of the first names on my teamsheet. But it seems to me that Torreira is the sort of player who is only effective when performing at maximum intensity. Ever since the rumours of Lucas wanting out, he's not been 100% "at it" and with his dampened "garra charrua" spirit, sadly Lucas just ain't worth a light.

           Then again, with three centre-halves on the pitch Saturday, one might have thought Lucas could've put his feet up? What on earth was Emery thinking, lining up on home turf, against a relegation threatened Saints side with five defenders out on the park? 

           Could it be that Unai was reacting to the increasing clamour from the media and the criticisms of the fickle Gooner massive about his incessant tinkering with both formation and selection. Was the beleaguered Basque hoping that a win against Southampton might afford him with an opportunity to stick with a formation, thereby answering his detractors by finally achieving some semblance of continuity?

           If so, then this is merely confirmation that the club's in big "schtuck" with a manager who's no longer his own man, but is instead making feeble, sticking plaster decisions, in a misguided effort to appease his many critics. When those of us on the terraces scent the foul odour of gangrene and we all know that an urgent amputation is required, before all the other limbs become necrotic and the patient expires on the operating table!

           Frankly we were fortunate yesterday that Southampton are so crap, otherwise it could've been seriously humiliating. Albeit it would've been worth a drubbing, if this was likely to precipitate Emery's P45. Unfortunately, I fancy that our situation will have to become a lot, lot worse to force a reaction from our spreadsheet obsessed board.

           With even Auba not being his customarily clinical self, remarkably Mesut Özil was about the only Arsenal player to come away with any credit. Aside from Mesut offering momentary solace, in the odd glimpse of genuine class, there was the rare sight of our mercurial playmaker tearing around, at least trying to kick the opposition up in the air.

           In the past, the sight of the fourth official holding up a board showing a whole SEVEN minutes of time added on, this would've been the cue for me to jump out of my seat and spend that entire amount of time, bellowing myself hoarse, in my efforts to encourage the Gunners to snatch an unlikely three points, from the jaws of defeat. Yet such was my level of exasperation at the complete and utter lack of urgency demonstrated in the dying throes of Saturday's match that I couldn't even muster more than a damp squib, limp high-five reaction to Laca's last gasp equaliser.

           Snatching a point at the death would normally feel like a win and would usually provoke an eruption from the comatose Library. Yet such is the spoiler effect of constant VAR interventions that on a day like Saturday I was half-expecting Laca's goal to be chalked off. And when the goal was allowed to stand I was left feeling thoroughly cheated of an all too rare rush of euphoria. As it stands at present, the introduction of VAR has transformed "the people's game" into a pitifully pale shadow of the passion play of yesteryear. While we're at it, demanding our Arsenal back, is it too much to ask of the authorities to give us back our beloved beautiful game!

email to:

Monday 22 April 2019

Unai Emery, linguistically challenged masterful tactician, or the Basque Barry Fry?

One of Manuel's weaker menus
          I’ve done my utmost to avoid reaching any definitive conclusions on Unai Emery’s management before now, preferring to allow him as much time as possible to put his imprint on our squad and to ensure that I’m not party to the premature rush to judgement of those irritating, customarily fickle, usual Gooner suspects.

          It’s going to be an interesting summer, since it seems to me that we at least need to wait until the beginning of next season, both to see how Unai addresses the blatantly obvious deficiencies within our existing line-up and before we can start apportioning blame, because not until then will this truly begin to be Emery’s Arsenal, as he starts to have his opportunity to mould a squad in his image.

          Nevertheless, hard as I try to remain patient, Unai’s seemingly naïve inability to appreciate the significance of fielding our strongest XI against Palace on Sunday afternoon, only raises further concerns about his overall competence. It’s been suggested that he’s too obsessed with repeating his Europa Cup success and maintaining his impressive record on the European stage (albeit the far less glamorous B-stage!). Could it really be the case that Sunday’s weakened team selection was dictated by our management team’s focus on achieving optimum fitness levels come the 2nd May semi-final encounter with Valencia?

          For all the high-tech statistical models designed to predict footballers’ red lines (and how to avoid crossing them!), in my humble opinion, there is nothing more important than maintaining a winning run and building the sort of psychological momentum that will invariably trump any such data-based evidence. No matter the line-ups Emery selects between now and the semi-final, surely there’d be no question of fatigue and energy levels would be a whole lot higher, on the back of a succession of confidence building victories.

          If the Gunners end up appearing at all “leggy” against Wolves at Molyneux on Wednesday, it won’t be because of insufficient squad rotation, it will bloomin’ well be because we lost against Palace. Surely Unai and his management team (since our new gaffer always speaks in the third person “we”, instead of “I”, I am assuming there must be collective responsibility in his management by committee model?) should have learned by now that while one might well get away with it when playing against the lesser lights on the Continent, selecting a weakened side in the Premiership is an open invitation to have one’s pants pulled down for an ignominious spanking!

          Frankly, we got away with it last Monday night and were extremely fortunate to come away from Vicarage Road with all three points. Yet while one’s luck might hold over the course of ninety minutes, the marathon league campaign is designed to sift the chancer whey, from the genuinely talented chaff. 

          My Spurs mates have spent much of the time since their euphoric Champions League triumph, fretting about the likelihood of there being insufficient fuel left in the good fortune tank, for a nail-biting, neck and neck race down the Premiership home straight. Their considerable anxiety was highly amusing (and perhaps not unsurprising for supporters of a club whose most memorable performance in their modern history happened to be a 4-3 defeat :-) and I was able to enjoy of few token crumbs of comfort, knowing that we at least had Spurs worried.

Mavro giving it all he's got
          For all the constant banter, in more honest moments I found myself reassuring my closest Spurs pal that in the Gunners current guise (the depressing workaday form seen at Watford) we didn’t have a hope of producing the level of focus and intensity necessary to churn out consistent wins in the last few games. But I meant that I didn’t think this team looks capable of banking nine points from the remaining three away trips to Wolves, Leicester and Burnley. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be so promptly proved right, by Sunday’s soporific home display against Palace.

          By Unai fielding anything other than our strongest XI against the Eagles, such disrespect not only presented Roy Hodgson with a motivational gift, but this also sent out entirely the wrong signal to our own squad ie. that we didn’t really need to be at 100% to beat Palace. Heaven only knows how we’ve managed to achieve such miraculously consistent form at home, but I was hoping Man Utd’s drubbing at Goodison in the lunchtime KO might serve as a timely warning of the humiliating consequences, when any team fails to turn up, fully attuned to the commitment demanded in every Premiership encounter

          Sadly, I guess we ended up getting precisely what we deserved, since complacency was on the cards both on the pitch and in the stands. Apparently, it was hotter in Highbury than it was in Spain this past weekend and when I received a call five minutes before KO with the kind offer of a Club Level spare, Sunday afternoon was all going swimmingly. I was looking forward to spending ninety minutes in the glorious sunshine, soaking up some rays and enjoying both a tan and the satisfaction of ending the afternoon lording it over our North London neighbours.

          I adore my inconspicuous lower tier pitch at the Emirates, compared to the dirty looks when bellowing my head off in the sedentary environs of Club Level. Yet nowadays it’s far less exhausting being able to remain seated for ninety minutes, rather than suffering the physical toll of the constant up & down of a lower tier workout. However, seated on the halfway line, in the front row of Club, savouring the 24-degree heat in my shorts and t-shirt, I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to spend an Easter Sunday and much like our team and fifty odd thousand other Gooners, I sat back to savour a perfunctory three points.

Only one winner in a contest of "statues"
          Perhaps much like our defence, I was guilty of dozing in the sunshine and considering it had been more than a year since Benteke last found the back of the net, it simply didn’t compute when the Palace striker headed home. It felt as if the response to our guests taking the lead was largely indignation, both on the pitch and in the stands. Unfortunately, Palace had inconsiderately neglected to stick to Sunday afternoon’s script!

          As a committed Gooner, I adore Carl Jenkinson, but that doesn’t mean I’d allow someone who gives the impression of a fan who happened to turn up with his boots, anywhere near our first XI. The Corporal might’ve been to blame for playing Benteke onside, but apparently Mustafi, El Neny, Guendouzi (to name but three!) all need reminding of football’s most basic principle of playing to the whistle. Force of personality alone and all the hissy fits in the world are never going to change the course of things, when the ref fails to toot his tin whistle (are they still tin?) and little pisses me off more than the sight of an Arsenal player standing there whinging like a truculent teenager, whilst the game goes on about them.

          Mavropanos might well have lacked composure, terrified of a tricky Zaha making a monkey of him, but while the majority of his team mates were prodding the ball sideways and backwards in a far too leisurely fashion, our Greek centre-half was at least one of the few players in red & white who actually looked “up for it”. In view of Mustafi’s culpability in all three of Palace’s goals, with hindsight, we’d probably have been better off if Emery had left Mavropanos out there and instead hooked his German sidekick for the second-half.

          It invariably appears difficult to change gear, whenever the Gunners start a game in such a sluggish fashion, even with the half-time injection of youthful vigour from Iwobi and AMN. I’ve got nothing against El Neny. The Egyptian midfielder always puts in a shift whenever he gets a rare run out. But in a horrifying vision of our future, in Ramsey’s absence, the Gunners are devoid of dynamism and any forward impetus in the middle of the park.

          It made for seriously frustrating viewing, watching us attempt to thread the eye of a needle, through the massed ranks of the Palace defence across the width of the penalty box. Despite catching Foster asleep at Watford last Monday and his mazy second-half run for a superb goal on Sunday, this was pretty much the sum total of Auba’s contribution to 180 minutes of football. Who knows if PEA has already downed tools for the summer, but he’s definitely gone off the boil in recent weeks and we really can’t afford our Gabonese goal-poacher losing focus at this crucial stage in proceedings, if we’re to retain some hope of sneaking under the wire into 4th spot.

          I lost track of the number of times we were camped in the final third first-half, with Auba the sole target amongst all the yellow shirts in Palace’s box. My most frequent whinge about Özil is that with so much pace in our front pair, Mesut so often appears guilty of slowing the game down and gifting the opposition defence time to organise themselves. Yet when Mesut popped up in the penalty area, only two minutes into the second-half, I think that like most of our crowd, we were only slightly less surprised than the Palace keeper when Özil dinked him at his near post because we were all expecting the cut back. 

          Here’s hoping Sunday’s goal stimulates Mesut’s appetite because it feels as if our “assist king” all too often has an aversion to taking responsibility for putting the ball in the back of the net, which is bonkers when you see him do so with sort of “Coolhand Luke” composure that the likes of Iwobi would kill for!

Pained expression of incompetence writ large
          Sadly, the game was only back on script all too briefly, only so long as it took for Mustafi to make yet another brace of costly rickets. After he’d been mugged off by Zaha, forlornly and idiotically hoping for Leno to come out and rescue him, I sat there pondering quite how frequently during this one encounter we either suffered, or failed to capitalize for the want of some proper leadership.

          I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually missed Palace’s second goal, as I was distracted, focusing on something through my binoculars. I originally started bringing binoculars to away games because it’s impossible to work out what’s occurring at the other end of the pitch, when located behind one goal. But superstitious anorak that I am, I now have to bring them to every match and truth be told, as my eyesight deteriorates with my all-round increasing decrepitude, nowadays I often need them to decipher what’s going on over the opposite side of the pitch.

          However, I frequently find myself concentrating on something other than the ball and after having endured a decade or more, devoid of any real leadership out on the park, I spend most of my time peering through my binoculars, searching in vain for some evidence of communication between our players. As an experienced old lag, I thought Sokratis showed some sign of paternal promise as captaincy material, but then admittedly I was suggesting something similar about Mustafi, when he first rocked up!

Who's the Daddy? Sadly not Sead
          Most baffling to me is the apparent complete lack of communication when we’re defending set pieces. What I wouldn’t give for a goalie like Ederson, who dominates his penalty area with such assuredness. The crowd at the Etihad might not be the noisiest, but there aren’t many keepers who’s cry when they come for a ball is so authoritative that it can be heard on the effects mics on TV.

          They were enthusing n MOTD2 about the Liverpool players working out that Wijnaldum was being left unmarked at corners. Invariably the only time we see Arsenal players talking to one another during a game, it’s when one of them has made a blatant cock-up and is looking to blame one of his colleagues. The apparent lack of communication between the Gunners can’t be blamed on us having a team full of timid, introverted personalities. Therefore, I can’t help but question whether this failure to coax, or cajole one another is a reflection of their limited desire?

          Even standing on tiptoes, Lucas Torreira is probably only level with Scott Dann’s bellybutton, so where was the vocal defensive authority to ensure that the diminutive Argie wasn’t left marking the lanky Palace centre-half at the corner that resulted in us conceding a third? Moreover, as captain of the Arsenal I’d be screaming at a couple of our paciest players to go and stand on the halfway line in such instances. Not only would this have forced a couple of the Palace players to drop back, but when visiting opponents park the bus after taking the lead, a swift counter attack seems the most obvious source of scoring.

          If we had a demonstrative captain geeing the team up, we might not have started Sunday’s game in quite such a languid fashion, but after going a goal behind, I wanted to see a reaction, some evidence of vocal leadership from someone willing to take names and kick arses, thereby demonstrating a determination not to blow such a prime opportunity to put one over on our own increasingly noisy neighbours.

          I find myself being increasingly wound up by Unai’s post-match gibberish, wondering what it says about our new gaffer’s own commitment that he hasn’t made more of an effort to get to grips with the lingo. Doubtless I’m being hyper-critical and Emery could be talking in Vulcan so long as he’s talking about victories. Perhaps we should be grateful he’s no Steve McClaren, trying Spanish phrases with a cockney accent, but the problem with his continued use of limited cliché-speak in English is that it doesn’t exactly promote a perception of him as an astute managerial genius and for all we know, Unai might merely be the Basque Barry Fry?

          At the very minimum, I hoped that Emery’s enthusiasm would rub off on his charges, but while he’s been able to motivate the team for the odd encounter and there were a couple of players who put a shift in against Palace on Sunday, there was little evidence of the sort of intensity and urgency of a team that’s utterly desperate to secure Champions League qualification. If Emery is indeed fixated on achieving qualification via Europa Cup success, it is perhaps inevitable that his team put their Premiership efforts on the back burner, as a secondary objective?

          To my mind this would be a massive mistake. Aside from the fact that they rolled over Villareal (with Coquelin and Gabriel on the bench), I know nothing of Valencia, but my feeling is that the odds of us beating the Spanish side and then overcoming Chelsea (or Eintracht Frankfurt!) in a final in Baku are fairly similar to our chances of achieving a top four finish. But you simply can’t turn form on and off like a tap and to my mind, it’s a fool’s game to do anything other than to go all out to win every single game.

          With the cheapest flights to Baku a hefty 600 quid, it will be utterly outrageous for both sets of fans to have to schlep all the way to Azerbaijan, if it ends up being an Arsenal v Chelsea final. Emery’s stock will rise tenfold amongst the Gooner faithful, if his first full season in charge results in an immediate return to Europe’s top table. However should the Gunners fail to win the Europa League Final, Emery will find himself starting next season in some way into the red, should we find ourselves narrowly missing out on a top four finish solely for the want of putting out a full strength team against Palace and the three points Unai’s seemingly pissed up against the wall on Sunday!

email to:

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

email to: