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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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