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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Unai Arrives at Arsenal - "Those who know...", Squad Review Part One - Goalkeepers


Already looking Arsenal classy


It's been a momentous few days for Arsenal Football Club. For the first time in 22 years we have a new leader of the team. It's been quite surreal and almost disturbing, a genuine step in to the unknown for the newest generation of Arsenal supporters. For those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like before Wenger it has still been very odd indeed.
One of the absolute highlights of the week has been the skewering of every slimy journalist and all the "in the knows" on the internet by Ivan Gazidis using his man Ornstein on the BBC the other night to reveal Unai Emery was to be the new Arsenal Manager. I believe Steve Stammers had actually broken the story earlier in the day and he is a proper sports writer who has long been a regular Arsenal man. The whole Arteta thing had not so much been a red herring as more the biggest smokescreen in football. It almost put the Sol Campbell deal in the shade. I particularly enjoyed the "Those who know won't speak and those who speak don't know" slapping down of the media by Uncle Ivan yesterday. Gazidis is a man who is mostly unpopular with the fans at Arsenal but you have to say he's played a blinder here. That quote would have been a t-shirt waiting to be made back in the 90's when you could buy some really great stuff from the stalls on Gillespie Road and Avenell Road. It was all very Arsenal. In terms of the "catalyst for change" that Gazidis uttered last year you can't say he hasn't delivered. The next stage will show us whether his changes have been good or bad. I, for one, am more than willing to join in and find out.
Unai Emery handled himself superbly in the press conference yesterday. Clearly his English is not as strong as Arsene Wenger's was when he arrived but he carried out his media duties brilliantly in a foreign tongue. Somehow I can't see Allardyce or Redknapp or whoever rocking up in Spain and giving a press conference anything like that. Emery looked the business in his Arsenal suit and looked genuinely pleased to be at The Arsenal. There was a touch of class in Arsenal already having his name plaque up outside his office at the stadium. He spoke about work a lot in his answers to the journalists and I think that will be music to all our ears. I am convinced that certain players are going to have to shape up or ship out. I know his record from Sevilla and PSG but not much else. His "failure" at PSG was in the Champions League but you could aim that at Guardiola at Man City the last two years as well. If I have a concern it's that his only league championship came in the French league with a side that anyone could have managed to the title. That being said, I am encouraged that he is used to winning and will not accept slacking. He has dealt with far bigger egos than Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It is now an exciting time ahead for us. Whatever happens it will be different, and that difference brings hope and a step in to the unknown. Welcome Unai Emery.


The annual squad review will take the usual form with a few words on every player to make the match day squad this season, and one or two others who didn't. I'll start, as ever, with the goalkeepers:

Petr Cech
The undisputed first-choice for at least most of the season but it wasn't a vintage year for the veteran. Like David Seaman before him Cech is starting to show his age. He lacks mobility and agility. His positioning still gets him in the right place to make a lot of very good saves, but the weaknesses are there for all to see. Towards the end of the campaign he was nursed through as clearly he has been carrying an injury for some time. I would have preferred to have him in goal for the UEFA Cup games with Atletico and, who knows, he might have made a difference. For me he should be 2nd or 3rd choice next season but he's just been moved to the number 1 shirt.

David Ospina
He's had an odd Arsenal career where he's ended up playing a lot despite being first-choice for only a very brief spell. I like Ospina and he seems genuinely pleased to be an Arsenal player. However, he is really not that close to being a truly top class goalkeeper. He's been a decent signing as the understudy since the last World Cup but the time has surely come to move on. He doesn't inspire confidence in those who play in front of him  and certainly not in the fans. 

Emi Martinez
Spent the entire season on loan in Spain and hardly played. For a lad who seemed to have great potential and who wants to make it at Arsenal that must have been a disaster for him. What will the new Manager do?

Matt Macey
For the rest of his life he can say he played for Arsenal. Macey made his debut against Norwich and also got some experience in Europe, making a couple of crucial saves in the process. At his age he's not likely to make it but I'm sure he enjoyed his year in the Arsenal first-team squad.

Dejan Iliev
On the bench against Norwich he was highly rated before some bad injuries kept him out for a long time a couple of years ago. We are not short of young goalkeepers at Arsenal and some of them hardly get a game, Iliev included.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Arsene Wenger - An Appreciation, End of Season Awards

Arsene with his most won silverware

I've been one of many people labelled as a bit of a hypocrite in recent weeks for choosing to remember fondly the good times under Arsene Wenger after years of calling for him to leave as it had all gone wrong. Personally I don't feel there's anything wrong with being able to appreciate what he did for Arsenal, and for the English game as a whole, even though you realised long ago he just couldn't get us there anymore.
I've had a while to think about this piece and unexpected circumstances have given me the time today to sit down and write about Wenger's reign. The way it ended is typical of the end of any "great" dictatorship which sees a leader emerge whom everyone wishes to follow. Eventually they go on long enough to for everyone to see fault and the cracks become deep chasms, eventually leading to the end. Wenger's particular Imperial story mirrors Julius Caesar's ascent and fall in Rome. Having become a leading General Caesar conquered the Britons but saw his leading accolytes marginalised and removed back in Rome. He built his loyal army thanks to his success on the battlefield and marched upon Rome and became the all-powerful leader. In Wenger's case he took his army, the supporters, to support his own assault on power when David Dein was sacked. Arsene became the King of Arsenal and presided over everything. When the woeful Keith Edelman was shown the door Arsene helped to choose his successor in Ivan Gazidis, or Brutus as Caesar might have known him. Over the years that followed Gazidis slowly started to exert an influence while Wenger's own failings made him fair game - Ivan managed to lead a Board revolt. Finally he delivered the killer blow to Arsene who was forced to fall on his sword (as opposed to Caesar who was murdered) though Ivan definitely got his "et tu Brute" moment. If Arteta is the man who follows Arsene Wenger then we also have our Caesar Augustus - hopefully Arteta can reign as long and successfully over Arsenal's Empire as Augustus did. I digress, of course, and that is how it ended which is not the purpose of this post. I merely wanted to illustrate how Wenger's own dictatorship of Arsenal ultimately saw his downfall in the same way it has with most political and military dictators throughout human history.
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal there isn't one Arsenal supporter, with the exception of David Dein, who could genuinely claim to know much (or anything) about him. This bespectacled, quietly spoken, clearly intelligent man was as far removed from a Brian Clough/Alex Ferguson/George Graham figure as you could wish to see. Stand him next to Kevin Keegan who was riding high at the time and you had to wonder what the hell Arsenal had done. How would our grizzled English pros adapt to listening to this bloke who'd never played at the top level? The fact is we underestimated the man and our English ignorance and arrogance where football is concerned came racing to the fore. We also underestimated the players who, no doubt with some gentle persuasion from Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, did indeed listen to Arsene Wenger and quickly went along with his methods - Merson being the probable exception and he was quickly shown the door. The signing of Patrick Vieira before Wenger had even been announced must also have had an impact on the players - maybe this bloke might know something about the game after all if he can find a talent like that and bring him to England from AC Milan. Nowadays if a French teenager signed for AC Milan we'd probably all know about it but back then English football and the media was so insular that nobody knew anything about Vieira, even though Italian football was live on Channel 4. In that paragraph alone I've alluded to two or three things that have changed in English football as a direct result of Arsene Wenger's influence. To hear that idiot Neil Ashton from The Sun (he has a journalism degree and is therefore a football expert according to people in his profession) say he doesn't understand why Wenger gets that credit just sums up that cretin and his newspaper. Arsenal should have followed Liverpool and Everton's lead and banned The Sun years ago.
That first (not full) season saw Arsenal start to play a more expansive than we'd seen since around 1992. Wenger stuck with Bruce Rioch's preferred three centre-backs for the rest of the campaign, again a sign of his intelligence to not rock the boat unnecessarily early, and going to Highbury became very entertaining. We beat Spurs on a rainy Sunday with two brilliant late goals from Adams and Bergkamp but it was a dominant performance. This brought Wenger some early credit with the fans, again along with the signing of Vieira, and we were pushing for the Title until relatively late on when home defeats to Wimbledon and Liverpool (including a controversial penalty) just about saw us out of things. Nevertheless it was an encouraging start. What followed in the Summer of 1997 was a revolution.
Arsenal were famed for not spending. It had meant us missing out on Roy Keane, Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and others in recent years. Bergkamp and Platt had arrived for big money in 1995 but that was very much an exception. Someone, presumably Dein, persuaded the Board to spend out on a huge overhaul of the playing staff. Merson, Hartson, Linighan, Morrow, Selley and other squad and fringe players were let go. Arsene set to work on bringing in a mix of experience and youth, mostly from abroad, that would galvanise the entire club for the following season. Nicolas Anelka had made his debut on the final day of the previous season at Derby. Petit and Grimandi arrived from Monaco, Manninger came in to be the planned successor to David Seaman, Boa Morte, Wreh, Mendez and Upson were young players brought in to bolster squad numbers and, most impressively of all, Marc Overmars was signed from Ajax. Wenger gambled on the Holland man who had suffered serious injuries in recent years. It worked our perfectly and Overmars was a clear upgrade on the inconsistent Merson. Dennis Bergkamp reached his peak and the Dutch pair fired Arsenal to the Double. There was a bad spell in November and December but legend has it that Tony Adams called a meeting of the players, issues were honestly debated and resolved, and the team went on a stunning run to land the Premier League and FA Cup. Petit and Vieira, two Wenger players, formed the most dominant midfield pairing most of us had seen at Arsenal and they went on to win the World Cup in 1998, combining to allow Petit the glory of the last goal in the Final against Brazil. Arsene Wenger had become the first foreign manager to win the English league. That his team did so with such pace and flair made them popular winners. He'd also proved himself far too intelligent to let Ferguson's verbal games affect him and his players. As I said above he was no Kevin Keegan.
It's somewhat of a surprise, then, that Arsenal won nothing for the next four years. The team in 1998-99, now minus Ian Wright, were probably even better than the Double winners to be honest. Somehow they lost that FA Cup semi-final to Man Utd and that ultimately cost them another Double which they would surely have won had Bergkamp scored the penalty at Villa Park. They should have won it all. The Champions League had also been a massive anti-climax and would continue to be so - a feature of Wenger's time is ultimate European failure for Arsenal. Thierry Henry replaced the troublesome Anelka who would never truly fulfil his potential once away from Arsene Wenger, while Thierry became the best player in the World. Wenger was still pulling French rabbits from his magic hat.
The team became perennial runners-up, always second in the Premier League (sometimes by a distance) to Man Utd, a ridiculous defeat on penalties to the scummy Galatassaray in a game we dominated, and then an even more ridiculous loss to Liverpool at Cardiff in the FA Cup in 2001 - that was a total mugging overseen and totally aided by the second most dishonest refereeing display I've ever been witness to by Steve Dunn. If there was anything good to come from it then it was that this was the last straw and Arsenal again looked to the transfer market to freshen things up. Petit and Overmars had gone after the Copenhagen debacle with Pires and Wiltord arriving, along with an unknown Brazilian midfield player called Edu. In the Summer of 2001 they were joined by Richard Wright (another attempt to find a replacement for David Seaman) and Francis Jeffers who came in to try and solve the problem of missing too many chances. Junichi Inamoto arrived to wide acclaim but was only really there to sell shirts back in Japan. Gio Van Bronckhorst arrived from Rangers for big money before Scottish football got rubbish. Most importantly, and most unexpectedly, Sol Campbell arrived on a free transfer from Tottenham. Wenger and Dein had combined spectacularly to pull off such a coup and find the man who was to basically replace Tony Adams.
That season 2001-02 saw Wenger's Arsenal play better football than ever before. They remained unbeaten away from home and scored in every league game on the way to the Premier League again, winning it gloriously at Old Trafford despite Henry, Bergkamp and Adams all being missing from the starting XI. The FA Cup had been secured the previous Saturday on a glorious day at Cardiff. Although it could never erase the pain and disappointment of the Liverpool game the year before the two goals from Parlour and Ljungberg, two fairly limited players who reached legendary heights under Arsene's management, will rarely be bettered in FA Cup Final's. Robert Pires had been the star of the season, cruelly ended with a cruciate knee injury that stopped him being involved near the end and meant he missed the World Cup. Ljungberg came to the fore and, with Bergkamp's unerring ability to find him with the ball, scored the goals that secured wins in tight matches. This was the first of four consecutive seasons that saw Wenger bring silverware to Highbury. The next season, with World Cup winner Gilberto now alongside Vieira, saw old habits return in throwing away our Title at the end of the season, though heavily influenced by Mark Halsey's red card for Sol Campbell at home to Manchester United and then the first of many violent kickings from Allardyce's players as a 2-0 lead was lost at Bolton. It had huge echoes of 1998-99 but this time Arsenal did manage to win the FA Cup.
What came next needs no write up from me. It was, quite simply, the most incredible and unbeatable season in the history of English league football - P38 W26 D12 L0. Invincible. It almost goes unnoticed that the team also lost in both domestic semi-finals (with Wenger throwing away the FA Cup by resting Henry and Reyes on the day) and then also wasting their best chance to win the European Cup by conspiring to lost at home to Chelsea in the quarter-final. That team was so good they could have won everything they entered that season. The fact is that they should have done. They played the most sensational football with Henry mostly unstoppable. Few who were there will ever forget the Good Friday game against Liverpool at the end of the week where they'd lost their FA Cup and European Cup chances and were losing 2-1 at half-time. Pires and Henry took over and lifted the old stadium as a whole. The reaction of the crowd to Henry's solo effort to make it 3-2 is something you will rarely, if ever, experience again. Wenger's Arsenal were truly unbeatable in the Premier League. Chelsea's new found wealth was about to bring an end, really, to a period of Arsenal and Man Utd's domestic dominance of the game. One more FA Cup followed in 2005 as we were battered by United at Cardiff but Jens Lehmann won us the game by getting us to penalties and then keeping out Scholes' effort while Lauren, Cole, Van Persie, Ljungberg and Vieira scored all of ours to give us one final highlight in Wales.
Wenger's ultimate legacy to Arsenal will be the move from Highbury to Ashburton Grove, in the same way the majestic East and West Stand's stood as tribute to Herbert Chapman from his time. Without the period of success, gained with the players and the type of football that Arsene brought to English football then there would have been no success to cause the growth of Arsenal in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Some kind of increased capacity was clearly needed. I will always maintain the move away from Highbury was unnecessary and better brinksmanship from Arsenal's powers that be would have twisted the arm of Islington Council in to allowing development of the Clock End and North Bank. Ultimately the move created a schism between "old" fans and the new breed of Tarquin's that would fill the new ground. Over the next 12 years this was a cancer that would grow and ultimately lead to Wenger finding himself under fire from thousands of Arsenal supporters. We did, of course, say goodbye to Highbury by coming within an ace of winning the European Cup but Henry bottled the chance to make it 2-0 with 15 minutes left and Barcelona finally took advantage of a bad offside decision, Ljungberg's lack of fitness, Wenger's bad substitution of Flamini for Fabregas, and the fact we had only 10 men on the pitch. Things might have been very different this past decade had Henry scored as he should have done. 
Arsene's genuinely great times were over. We still saw occasional flashes of brilliance from his teams and we saw some great footballers like Fabregas and Van Persie and Alexis. Ultimately though the vital ingredient was missing and those players stabbed Wenger in the back by leaving and, even worse, causing trouble behind the scenes in order to force their moves. He would prove his biggest failing was his loyalty to his players who would continually let him down over the years. The recent FA Cup wins have been incredibly welcome and provided a few great highlights late in Wenger's time as boss, but the fact is that it was that first ten years that was a total joy. For that time, the best and most successful for Arsenal since the 1930's, I can only thank Arsene Wenger. He might have lost it, and gone on far too long, and failed to go when he could have gone on a high, but time will heal all that. In ten years from now, maybe sooner, and certainly in the longer term, Arsene Wenger will be remembered for what he won at Arsenal, not what he lost. He will be remembered for changing the game in England. He will be remembered as an all time great. Merci Arsene.


I'll take this chance to do my "awards" for the season as I have a few more minutes available.

Player of the Season
I was thinking I have really three options for this in Monreal, Ramsey and Aubameyang. Until about six weeks ago Nacho would have walked it. However, having given it some objective thought I have decided that my player of the season ought to be someone who was written off last year. A man who had no future at Arsenal it would seem. A man who would end up being Arsenal Captain on more than one occasion and who would drive the team forward when he played and a character who absolutely gets what it is to be The Arsenal. My player of the year is Jack Wilshere.

Goal of the Season
Easy one this, it has to be Aaron Ramsey's back-heel volley against CSKA Moscow.

Most Disappointing Player
Joint winners here for differing reasons. Firstly, and this will be no surprise to anyone who reads my stuff regularly, Mesut Ozil. For six weeks around December and January he was sensational, everything we know he is capable of being. Unfortunately circumstances and his form saw the Board feel it necessary to make sure he didn't leave with Alexis and he was given a huge salary to stay at Arsenal. He's been an utter disgrace ever since and doesn't even have to turn up if he doesn't feel like it. The other is Rob Holding who looked the absolute business in the FA Cup Final last season but, come the Charity Shield in August, turned in to a Sunday League defender. Having signed a new contract I'm convinced he'll be loaned out next season. Shout outs to Iwobi, Bellerin and Mustafi.

Most Improved Player
There was a possible shout for Granit Xhaka here over the last couple of months of the season but the clear winner is Calum Chambers. I thought his Arsenal career was over this time last year but, since Christmas, he has proven to be Arsenal's best centre-back. You could argue that doesn't mean much in view of the competition but he has shown more than enough to deserve an opportunity when the new man comes in. Expect him to be sold in July.

Best Team Performance
Burnley at home? Man Utd at home despite losing? No. It has to be the Tottenham home game. A 2-0 thrashing for the greatest team in English football history. Arsenal played them off the pitch from start to finish and the shadow is still a long one.

Worst Team Performance
Where should we start? Talk about plenty of options. For me it has to be Liverpool away at the start of the season. Wenger got everything wrong, not least the decision to play Oxlade-Chamberlain who he knew would be joining them within hours! Arsenal were beaten before they went on the pitch that day and Liverpool ended up easing off or it could have been another Old Trafford style humiliation.

Surprise Package
Not a lot has surprised us this season to be fair. That being the case I'll go for the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles. If he can keep his head level he might just have a big future at Arsenal. Wenger going could be the best thing that happens to him as someone new might just give him a position and keep him there.

Moment of the Season
No it isn't Wenger's announcement! It is, however, Wenger's final game at home. Him being presented with the Invincible Premier League trophy marked the Club out for the class it possesses and it was a very emotional and special day of thanks for all the stuff I wrote about above. The players turned in a Wengeresque performance to hammer Burnley and the man himself said goodbye in an eloquent and fitting manner.


 



Friday, 4 May 2018

End of the Empire

I had really hoped to be writing this morning that we were looking forward to a trip to Lyon in a fortnight. Instead I’m writing about the way Arsene Wenger’s final Arsenal dream died. He can only have himself to blame. The game in Madrid last night was a 90 minute microcosm of the last 7 or 8 years for Arsene’s Arsenal teams. It is a sad truth that since the sales of Fabregas and Van Persie for peanuts the football Arsenal have played has been woeful. It’s been not so much tiki-taka as catenaccio without the defending, so uninspiring it has become to watch. The slow, sideways build-up was in clear evidence last night. One shot on target in a game where you need to score is as inexplicable as it is unacceptable. I would say we created maybe five clear chances on the night but the only one that ended up with a shot being taken was the one Mkhitaryan volleyed just over the bar shortly after he came on. Lacazette, Bellerin, Ramsey, Monreal, Ozil and Lacazette again all chose to pass (or failed to control the ball in Monreal’s case) rather than shoot at goal. It is beyond my comprehension as to why.
The substitution of Jack Wilshere last night was probably the last nail in Jack’s coffin where Arsenal are concerned. I live in hope that the new manager wants him as it is clear that Arsene Wenger doesn’t. Jack was making Arsenal go forward last night, keeping us on the front foot and getting on top in midfield. Removing him rather than Ozil was typical of the way Arsene Wenger goes about things with Ozil completely untouchable as the star player. Contrast his contribution with his opposite number last night. Griezmann was dynamic when he got the ball, taking on people and looking to create and link up with Diego Costa high up the pitch. Ozil’s “efforts” on the night were typical of his time at Arsenal. This top class player yet again failed to influence the game. There is something missing with Ozil. The best players take the game over and dominate it. Ozil has all the ability in the world but he doesn’t have the desire. Martin Keown’s dissection of Ozil after the game last night was clinical in its delivery and searingly honest. Keown was fuming and it came across brilliantly. It made you wish that he or Tony Adams had been part of this Arsenal dressing room for years then things would have been much different for a number of players, not least Ozil and Arshavin.
The goal we conceded was as comically bad as the one last week. Bellerin simply doesn’t have the first idea how to defend. He doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on around him. How could he be thinking about going forward when Atletico have the ball and Diego Costa is the wrong side of him in space? His lack of awareness is disturbing but it’s been going on ever since he arrived in the first team. His pace often got him out of trouble early in his career. He is at least a yard slower now than he was then and his pace is no longer enough. Calum Chambers, meanwhile, carried on his very good form of recent months when he replaced the stricken Koscielny. King Koscielny has been playing on one leg for the last couple of years as he has had to nurse his Achilles problem throughout that time. Last night his tendon just gave up on him and basically finished his career at the top level. It’s a shame for him that he will also miss his last chance of playing in the World Cup.
One more note on the way things panned out last night; going in to injury time we still had Lacazette as our lone striker. We needed a goal but were sticking with one man up front against possibly the strongest centre-back partnership in Europe. Eddie Nketiah was named as a substitute but wasn’t thrown on as a late gamble when we had nothing to lose. It begs the question as to what circumstances Wenger would ever actually consider giving the boy a game. Clearly he was named there simply to make up the numbers. So I go back to January where Wenger sold Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, but signed a striker who he knew would be ineligible to play in the only tournament we might have a chance of winning (we were already in the League Cup Final by then.) Had Giroud and/or Walcott been there last night they would have been brought on, no doubt about it. Wenger sold them and then looked at his subs last night and saw a kid who he doesn’t really rate. Selling those two players wasn’t funny when it happened and it certainly isn’t funny now.
Whichever way you look at it the disaster of last night, of this whole season, is down to Arsene Wenger. It’s been going on far too long but it’s finally coming to an end. In ten days time we see the end of the Wenger era at Arsenal. There will be a hangover from it, have no doubt, but at the very least it will be different. That difference brings some hope and a change in the narrative. It should also bring a huge change in the squad, both in terms of who is actually in it by August and also their mentality. Three games to go.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Arsene's leaving so let's be happy

When he was King


This post has been a few days in the making as I was away on holiday when Arsene Wenger announced he would be leaving Arsenal last Friday. I suppose you could say it's been a number of years in the making really. I wrote my first "Wenger Out" piece on the Online Gooner website long before I'd even considered having my own blog. For me the worm turned when he made William Gallas the Arsenal Captain ahead of Gilberto Silva or Kolo Toure. It's been a long 11 years since that. If you will forgive I will save a proper "tribute" piece to Arsene until the end of the season. I have plenty to thank him for but I'll wait to see if there might yet be even one more special Wenger triumph in May.
When I got a phone-call from my brother last Friday morning to tell me the news I was in Disneyland Paris. I can honestly say that the news made an already very bright mood even brighter. It almost felt like a relief, something that I knew should have happened a long time ago, something that should have been announced weeks ago if it was to happen this season. There can be no doubt that Wenger going has to be the best for both him and Arsenal now. The empty stands in recent months will certainly have had an impact on the Kroenke's and even Arsene isn't so myopic as to not see something was badly wrong. By the time the evening came round and I was back in the hotel I started to catch up with the internet and read the tributes and testimonials, the recollections and the great memories. It started to make me feel emotional. Suddenly the depth of what had been announced started to strike me. Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal for 22 years this year. Apart from my family and Arsenal itself he is the most constant figure in my life. He has been the boss since before I became an adult. What we are faced with, no matter how much I know it to be the right thing, is almost totally unknown to a generation of Arsenal supporters. We simply aren't used to a change of manager at our club. I almost had a feeling of "what have we done?" Almost. Arsenal may actually take a step of two back (especially if the next appointment is a bad one) before we move forward again. I actually believe that Wenger leaving is only part of a triumvirate of departures that is necessary - the majority shareholder and the CEO need to follow him.
I have no doubt that there has been a dialogue between Ivan Gazidis (at the instruction of Josh and Stan Kroenke) and Arsene to discuss the fact that things are coming to an end. At the same time I do not accept he has been "sacked" in the popular sense of the word. Reading David Ornstein's piece on the BBC website (the only journalist with any inside knowledge of what goes on at Arsenal) it is clear that Arsene has reluctantly agreed it is time, but agreed nonetheless. What he did by making his shock statement was to steal the glory Gazidis so badly wanted for himself. That can be the only reason for Gazidis to call the most bizarre press conference on Friday afternoon. That was a pure vanity exercise from the CEO who had no real power to get rid of Arsene unless the Kroenke's said so. He has been able to chip away, rightly, at the absolute power Wenger had over Arsenal with the appointments made during this season, preparing the way for Wenger to be replaced. It amazes me now that so many people seem to see Gazidis, a smarming liar who always has the right words in public, as the saviour and arbiter of truthful facts. It actually worries me that he is the man charged with finding the right replacement.
The way Wenger made the announcement, with no prior speculation in the media, was a throwback for football and for Arsenal. I personally found it totally refreshing and totally Arsenal that the media were caught on the hop. It harked back to the day Sol Campbell was unveiled. Even after all these years Wenger can still shock everyone. I hope now, despite the years of wanting this to happen, that he can be given a fitting and deserved send-off, particularly at the Burnley game. I'll be there and it will no doubt be emotional for most of us.


Saturday, 31 March 2018

Seventeen years and never forgotten

Today is 31st March and, as ever on this date, this blog takes the time to remember David Rocastle.



This time 17 years ago Arsenal were in the process of beating Tottenham. It was the day when Robert Pires’ Arsenal career began to take off with a sublime solo effort to put us ahead in front of the North Bank. However the day is more remembered for the fact that David Rocastle had died earlier that morning. The Arsenal XI contained a number of Rocky’s ex-teammates. The Tottenham fans had helped to observe a perfect minutes silence before the game in memory of a true Arsenal great.
I wasn’t there that day. I was having to miss the derby because of work as it was the only way I could get a shift swap that enabled me to get to Old Trafford the following weekend for the FA Cup semi-final against the same opponents. I remember well how I find out that Rocky had died when an Arsenal supporting colleague came in to the office and asked if I’d heard the news. I had my transistor radio with me so I’d be able to listen to the game but it wasn’t on at that time of the morning. I turned it on and the news was being confirmed on Radio 5 with a series of testimonials being given by assorted ex-players including a very tearful Ian Wright. 
I had to take myself away for a moment or two as I couldn’t hold back the emotions. David Rocastle had been an absolute hero in my childhood. He scored that goal that gave us the chance to bring back success with his winner at White Hart Lane in 1987. I was coming up to my 22nd birthday and Rocky was the first one of my Arsenal idols to die. I’d cried when George Graham sold him when I was 13 and if I can forgive George for the bungs and all that controversy I can never forgive him for selling David Rocastle. George’s Arsenal midfield never recovered really, even though we went on to win 3 more trophies before he was sacked. The exciting football left along with Rocky, a man who emobodied everything that those on the terraces could feel. To now hear he had passed away at such a young age, an age when many are still playing at the top level, was too much for me. I’ll always remember him.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Nice to win again

The Brighton game saw me reach my lowest point as an Arsenal supporter in my nearly 39 years - I’m not quite old enough to genuinely remember what it was like at the end of the Terry Neill era - and I really couldn’t see how we’d get out of the rut. The performance in the first-half at the San Siro, therefore, was as welcome as it was unexpected. The players came out with a different mentality and actually played to score goals. Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Ramsey, Welbeck and co were superb on the night - special mention to Granit Xhaka - and a 2-0 away win against a traditional European giant, in very good form in Serie A, was not to be sniffed at at all. I could have done without the players reverting to type and trying to pass the ball to death in our own half after the interval but I could forgive them with the final score. It was a genuinely nice feeling to have seen Arsenal go out and be The Arsenal, if only they were being forced to dress appropriately on and off the field things would have been ideal.
Off the back of the win in Milan, and with the second leg in mind, Wenger made a number of changes for the Watford game last Sunday. Some of the players who came in really did very well on the day with Holding and Elneny particularly impressive. I really enjoyed Holding taking on Troy Deeney in the same way he did Diego Costa at Wembley last May. It seems that Holding might need to be up against a total s***house of a centre-forward to get him playing well. Seeing Deeney try to barge him off the ball but end up on his backside waving his arms at the referee was a joy to watch. We scored a couple of nice goals and Aubameyang got his 3rd in 5 games (add in the missed chance at Wembley against City and the wrong offside call against Spurs at the same ground and he could easily have been on a goal a game) with Mkhitaryan also being heavily involved again. The penalty save from Cech brought the crowd to life for the last half-hour and it was nice to rub Deeney’s nose in the dirt just that little bit further. At the same time Watford had real chances to get goals that a decent set of strikers would have taken so our defensive issues are as present as they ever were - our next defeat will still be not too far away.
I was sadly working Thursday night so missed a decent crowd for the home leg against Milan. I watched the whole game back on TV yesterday morning and we certainly rode our luck at times. We gave up far too many goalscoring opportunities to not be concerned had we been up against Griesman and Costa, for example. The penalty we got was not something I want to see again from an Arsenal player. I can’t be doing with diving and I go out of my way to criticise the Tottenham players who are being praised for the cheating they are starting to perfect. I hope we don’t see anything like that again from Welbeck, or anyone else in an Arsenal shirt, but the headlines he got yesterday were unbelievable given what Kane and Alli have been up to. Clearly it’s a different standard when it’s Arsenal players as far as the press are concerned and John Cross of the Daily Mirror really was a disgrace in his paper. The man is clearly miffed that Arsenal have chosen David Ornstein of the BBC as their media mouthpiece rather than a man who considered himself an insider at the club after his years on the Islington Gazette. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the penalty Arsenal created plenty on the night and were worth the win, despite the fact it might have been different had Milan taken some of their opportunities.
So we’re in to a European quarter-final for the first time in a long time. There were two teams to avoid in the draw and we predictably drew one of them. A 1st leg at home, and our abysmal record in Russia, does not fill me with great optimism. Arsenal should beat CSKA Moscow every day of the week but our players are fragile and don’t travel well. We need a handsome win at home to get through I fear. I’d actually have rather played Atletico Madrid than CSKA. Still, we’re in the competition and it offers the season some salvation. I’d very much like to be in Lyon in mid-May watching Arsenal take some silverware. If it saw Wenger sign-off with the only European trophy of his career I think we’d all take it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

When will it end?

There used to be a football club over there...


Let me start by confessing I didn't see the Brighton game. I was working and had to make do with the commentary on Radio 5. What I was hearing gave me no cause for surprise as we've seen it all before, time and time again. Arsenal seemed to have made a promising start in the first few minutes, dominating the ball, but I didn't hear commentary on a single shot at goal. I heard a lot of Kolasinac, Mustafi, Koscielny, Xhaka, and a lot of Ozil "lays the ball off short" type stuff. I didn't hear Aubameyang's name even once in that period. Within seconds of Brighton getting the ball there was a shot that was deflected behind for a corner. How is it that these players can have so much of the ball but no shots, only for a clearly inferior opponent to play two or three passes and be in a position to shoot at goal? From the corner Brighton scored. Again I wasn't surprised. Almost every shot on target in the last few weeks has ended up behind our goalkeepers and in the net. I then listened as the expected implosion happened with Arsenal's players unable (more likely unwilling) to stem the tide. A second Brighton goal was also similarly unsurprising. The fact it was Koscielny (who simply isn't physically fit to play football at the moment) who gave the ball away wasn't a shock. Even less of a shock was hearing that Mustafi had totally lost Murray and got underneath the cross allowing him a free header. I feel a little sorry for Petr Cech on this one. I know he should probably have done better, and his issuing a tweet afterwards taking all of the blame for the defeat is a mark of the man, but does he really have any chance when the defensive players in the side are like this?
Wenger said on Thursday that we'd been awful defensively. I looked forward to seeing changes yesterday. I'd like to have seen wholesale change in the back four, although we have only one person  who actually plays right-back in the entire squad at the moment. I wanted a back three with Mertesacker back in the middle and Chambers and Mavropanos given their chance next to the big man giving them some organisation. I wanted Maitland-Niles back in on the left, but was resigned to Bellerin keeping his place for the reason given above. I wanted Elneny to come in for Xhaka in front of that defence. I genuinely couldn't believe it, therefore, when I saw the ONLY player actually dropped at the back was Bellerin! How can Wenger accept that his team has been woeful defensively and then change virtually none of the personnel? The man has become genuinely mad. His head is gone totally. The press conference stuff about shirts and trousers is simply the ramblings of a total basket case. He needs to be saved from himself now.
After the game, apart from the clothes analogies, Wenger decided to go in to one about Arsenal's schedule. Utter, utter nonsense. Manchester City have had the exact same schedule as Arsenal this week and they won all three games without conceding a goal. Let's not forget, either, that Wenger made no substitutions on Thursday night, even with the game all over at half-time. He also waited until the 83rd minute yesterday before his last two changes, with the two players taken off (Chambers and Mkhitaryan) both absent from one of the two Man City games. Does he not realise we all see through it now? Is he that crazy? Or that arrogant? I just think he's become dangerously deluded.
The players must take their share of the blame for what is going on at Arsenal. A lot of these men are better footballers than they are showing. They've clearly given up on the Manager but, in doing so, they've also given up on us who pay our money to follow them. That's criminal. Wilshere remains the only one who looks like he gives a s**t but, ironically, he is the one who will be shipped out of the club if Wenger stays! David Pleat kept telling us on the radio that Jack tried to take the game to Brighton in the 2nd half but doesn't get enough shots off, or play enough "incisive" passes. Now Pleat watches a lot of Arsenal games so he must have noticed by now that nobody in the team takes enough shots or looks to play incisive passes. Wenger has banned them from doing it! When Jack was in the youth teams he got loads of goals. Yes, he was superior to every player around him, but he still had to shoot to score those goals, or to do something inventive and individual to create the opening in the first place. That is not allowed in the Arsenal first-team anymore as we have to pass, pass, pass and keep possession with no intention whatsoever of scoring a goal. I digress. The likes of Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang etc simply aren't doing what they're being paid to do. Ozil had a couple of sensational months leading up to January where he showed the player we know he should be. Since signing his new contract he has been a disgrace as he has for most of his time at Arsenal. He and his advisors have played Arsenal like a bad piano, making Alexis Sanchez their fall guy. Ozil knew Alexis was leaving in January, and he knew that Arsenal couldn't afford to lose himself for free in May. By turning it on for a couple of months he and his people knew Arsenal would have to offer him big money to stay. They did all of this without leaking stuff to the press about leaving while Alexis got all the stick about upsetting his teammates etc. If it was a Hollywood heist movie it would be a blockbuster. How is that team harmony doing since Alexis left?
As much as the players must take their share of the blame, we have to understand that Arsene Wenger has signed all of them (with the possible exception of Aubameyang) and he continues to select them to wear the Arsenal shirt. He spent £70m on Mustafi and Xhaka. The pair of them, given their huge transfer fees, must surely go down among the very worst signings Arsenal have ever made. Valencia fans must be wondering how they got £35m out of Arsenal for Mustafi and were then able to sign Gabriel and Coquelin on the cheap - both of those players should be in the Arsenal team at the moment, but they aren't even at the club anymore! 
I'll finish, if I may, with an interesting insight in to how the Arsenal players are not disciplined and how the values of the club are being eroded. Vic Akers was interviewed (I guess on the pre-match show on the official website) at pitch side by Alex Scott yesterday. She asked what has happened with the shirt sleeves and the famous "captain's choice" as it's known at Arsenal. Vic replied that certain players (no names mentioned) preferred to wear short sleeves all the time and the tradition has been allowed to die. Quite apart from the fact that all those who wear short sleeves also wear a long sleeve skintight base-layer underneath, what does that say about Wenger's lack of power over the players? I couldn't give a f**k what length of shirt sleeve any individual wants to wear. This is The Arsenal. At The Arsenal the Arsenal Captain and the kit-man decide what shirt is being worn. This is a value that has set us apart as our players always looked the business when they entered the field. They wore, effectively, a uniform. It was shirts tucked in and same length sleeves. It was Arsenal suit and tie, with top buttons fastened everywhere they went. It said "we're superior to you before we even kick-off because we are The Arsenal." Instead we now have a rag-tag looking bunch of scruffs with no care for the values of the club and, my God, are they playing like that too. 
The only way to arrest the slide is to sack Wenger now. Don't wait. Give us a chance to win the Europa League by changing the Manager before Thursday. Bring in George Graham and David O'Leary until May and tell them to instill the discipline, tactics, defensive organisation, and respect for the values we stand for and live by at Arsenal. Right now we are heading in to Brian Clough territory and waiting until May, or even worse the end of NEXT season, is asking for trouble - literally.