Thursday, 8 October 2015

The forgotten Arsenal Champions of 1990-91

The men who would Kings

I was following a Twitter conversation between a number of Arsenal regulars the other day. One of them, Chris Hudson (quite a few of you will have heard of him following an epic rant against Arsene Wenger on Arsenal Fan TV a couple of years ago, others will know him, I believe, from the Arsenal Action Group of the 1980s) mentioned that the 1990-91 Arsenal team is rarely talked of or written about. He is absolutely right. When you consider that this particular squad of players were one game away from being Invincibles, and one semi-final disaster away from the Double, it really is quite the omission. I suspect someone from Arsenal was following the same conversation as they stole a march on me yesterday with their own piece about this great season in our history. I'm about to try and redress the balance slightly with my own memories of the 1990-91 Barclays League Champions.

The new boys

I was 11 years-old in 1990, starting at secondary-school in September of that year. By the time I was there George Graham had broken the spending shackles in fairly spectacular fashion. George not only signed three new first-team players, but he paid £1m or more for each of them. Admittedly a fair chunk of this was recouped in the sales of Martin Hayes, John Lukic, Kevin Richardson and Brian Marwood, but the idea of Arsenal spending out over £3m on three players was unheard of. These were the days when million pound players were still a huge thing. I think I'm right in saying that, at £1.3m, Seaman was Arsenal's record transfer at the time (Ian Wright would come in just over a year later and smash that at £2.5m). 
Seaman's arrival had been controversial. He had looked likely to arrive before the end of the previous season but the move had collapsed. Us fans were none too pleased that our own hero, John Lukic, was being shipped our unnecessarily by George. Big John had been given a massive, and emotional, send-off by the North Bank after the final home game of the season before against Southampton. Seaman would be up against things from the off. Of course he would go on to have a stellar season and prove to us that he was even better than Lukic, and every other English goalkeeper for that matter.
Anders Limpar had just played for Sweden in the World Cup. He arrived from Cremonese in Italy. Just like the man he was replacing, (Marwood) had in 1988-89 he would inspire the team in the early part of the season by being totally unplayable by any full-back he came up against. Anders was a truly wonderful footballer. Unfortunately he had as much ability to wind up George Graham as he did for destroying defenders. Ultimately he would become the latest in a long line of star players to fall out with the Manager, but not before he'd become an Arsenal legend.
Linighan was seemingly signed as the final replacement for the ageing David O'Leary. He would contend for a starting position with Steve Bould for the opportunity to partner Tony Adams at the back. Andy was already an England B player and had been an integral part of an ever improving Norwich City team at that time. The move never really worked out for him in the way he would like. He won his Championship medal by scraping the requisite number of appearances on the final day of the season, but would gain ultimate redemption at Wembley in 1993 of course. O'Leary wasn't to be replaced just yet! The problem for Linighan was that he was a decent player, but Adams, O'Leary and Bould (and later Keown) were top players. Instead of competing for a first-team place in his first season he was mostly found alongside Colin Pates in the reserves.

My favourite Arsenal shirt ever

The first sight most Arsenal fans had of the new players came at Wembley in the Makita Tournament against Aston Villa. Anders Limpar made the sort of impact that had people sitting up and taking notice as he scored a stunning goal from the left edge of the penalty-area. His drop of the shoulder to send his defender the wrong way would become familiar, as would the rocket he hit just inside the far post. In the second-half there was a goal for Kevin Campbell whose impact would be felt after Christmas, and it all seemed to bode well. An unlucky defeat to Sampdoria the following day (Seaman gifted them the winner as Arsenal hit the post on a couple of occasions) did not derail the optimism.
As in 1988-89 the boys got off to a flying start with a win at Wimbledon. Limpar was the creative spark in a 3-0 win, rounded off with a stunning third goal from Perry Groves. By the time David Rocastle and Michael Thomas had been the main architects of the first home win over Luton we were off and running. A strong run of form in September, with Rocastle and Limpar (he scored in successive games against Chelsea, Forest and Leeds - two goals in an important away draw) to the fore left Arsenal up there with an also unbeaten Liverpool. What followed would define the season ahead and show what a camaraderie this group of players had. 

 Don't mess with this Arsenal team

Ever since Whiteside had got Rocastle sent-off at Old Trafford in the mid-80s things had not been good between Arsenal and Manchester United players. McClair's missed penalty in 1988, his attack on a prone Winterburn in 1989 and further small skirmishes and battles had seen a seething dislike bubbling along. All this came to a head in October 1990 at Old Trafford. With Arsenal leading 1-0 after Limpar's opportunist shot had caught out Les Sealey, things kicked-off big style in the second-half. What happened is well documented. The long and the short of it is that the Arsenal players saw one of their own getting kicked while on the floor and they piled in to deal with the problem. Limpar, Adams, Thomas, Davis, Rocastle, even Alan Smith were all flying in to show you couldn't intimidate The Arsenal. I remember the game was live on BBC Radio and that idiot Alan Green was going in to one about the "disgraceful" scene as he knew a young family in the crowd and wondered if they would ever go to a football match again. My Dad was none too pleased with the nonsense commentary and was telling the radio what he thought of the clown. 
The fallout from the incident went on for weeks. Arsenal kept on winning games amid the media storm that sat all around them. Given that this was before the days of Sky's saturation coverage of football it is quite amazing that it became such a massive issue. The FA, as ever, bowed to the media pressure and hit Arsenal with a two point deduction in mid-November. Arsenal had already dealt with it internally by fining a number of players and the Manager - such public bad behaviour was not the Arsenal way, of course. From the fans point of view it was great, apart from the point deduction. The hatred and bile directed at Arsenal by the newspapers meant it was us against everyone once more. The whole thing ended up with an in-house Arsenal camera crew being allowed to film George talking to his players about their behaviour - you can see it here - but in private the players would now tell you that George loved the way they had gone about looking after each other. Arsenal had done their PR bit very well, but George Graham and his players weren't going to change anything.

Anders v Liverpool, December 1990

Alan Smith hadn't scored in Division One since the first game of the season at Wimbledon. The two point deduction, which looked so certain to hand the Title to Liverpool, seemed to galvanise him as he went on an incredible run of scoring that never really let up for the rest of the season. A late November home thrashing by United in the League Cup was followed by the visit of Liverpool. Like Arsenal they were yet to lose a game, and were now clear at the top following the FA decision. On that early December day at Highbury they were dismantled in the grand manner. Merson, a Dixon penalty, and a wonderful team move rounded off by Smith saw Arsenal hammer the league leaders. In hindsight that day marked the end of Liverpool's dominance in England. It was the day that they were humiliated by the new guard and by the end of the season Dalglish was gone and Liverpool are still waiting for a Championship some 25 years later. It goes unnoticed now that we drew our next three games, simply because there was a further massive event that Christmas that ought to have totally obliterated Arsenal' season.
Tony Adams scored in a 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon (we conceded an awful equaliser in injury-time) but by the end of the following week our Captain was in prison. Tony had been caught drink-driving earlier in the year after crashing his car in to a wall. Unfortunately for him he would face his sentencing hearing in the week that the police launched their annual Christmas campaign against drinking and driving. Tony was made an example - a high-profile public figure, the Captain of Arsenal, an England international - and was sentenced to six-months in prison. There can be no condoning of what he had done but when, even today, people walk free from court after ending lives through the same offence you can see that Tony was dealt with because of who he was, rather than what he had done. 
I remember our next game was at Aston Villa, a couple of days before Christmas, and Andy Linighan came to the fore for the first time. His performance that day is often forgotten but he had a fine game as Arsenal eked out an important 0-0 draw. Had the referee not missed a clear foul on Perry Groves in the penalty area it could well have been a huge win. Three straight wins over the rest of the Christmas period showed the sheer resolve of the team, while Paul Davis took over from TA6 as skipper and was a different, but just as effective, leader of the team.
In mid-January David Seaman really started to show his value to this Arsenal side. In the North London Derby he made some stunning saves, one to deny Paul Allen sticks firmly in the memory, to earn a point. We ended up going to Chelsea in February still unbeaten. Of course this would be the game where Arsenal would finally lose. The circumstances totally built up against the Arsenal players. By the time Chelsea got their second goal we had young David Hillier in the back-four as Steve Bould had gone off injured. It's probably fair to say that, had Bould not been stricken, this squad would have gone on to be Invincible. That is genuinely how close they came. If there was a positive from the defeat at Chelsea it is that this is where Kevin Campbell first really got involved. If you think of Ljungberg's impact at the back end of 2001-02, I can tell you that Kevin Campbell did the exact same thing in 1990-91. 
In early March Arsenal went to Anfield to face Liverpool who had lost their boss and two games in recent weeks. The game was live on ITV and my brothers had gone to it on the special train that Arsenal had laid on. I rushed through my homework that Sunday so that I could be ready to watch what looked like being a bit of a decider between the top two. I've watched the game many times since then (we still have it on VHS recorded off the telly that day) and Liverpool really did go for it. David Seaman put in the best individual display of goalkeeping I have ever seen to keep us in the game. In the first-half he made some truly incredible saves. Then, during the second-half, Paul Merson broke away and finished beautifully past Grobelaar to give us the three points. The sight of the Gooners celebrating in the Anfield Road End is one of the iconic images in my mind from that season. Two weeks later I was present to see Kevin Campbell single-handedly beat a dogged Leeds (with John Lukic in goal) by scoring a brace of corkers in front of the North Bank. I think, from then on, we were really odds-on to take the Title, even though Liverpool regained some form for a while.
The home highlight of the season was against Aston Villa in a 5-0 win. Tony was back by then and had scored the winner in the FA Cup quarter-final at home to Cambridge. That night against Villa Arsenal played some of the best football I've ever seen, and I include the great Wenger teams in that assessment. Smith and Campbell bagged two goals each and Paul Davis scored a spectacular volley - a personal moment for him as reward for leading the side when Tony wasn't there. Of course it's most famous, perhaps, for David Platt having to go in goal and momentarily wearing an Arsenal shirt - the North Bank serenaded him with "you'll never play for Arsenal" - little did we know!
I'm deliberately not going to go over the FA Cup semi-final. It is the elephant in the room of this season and it can remain so. Suffice to say that George, for once, got his tactics and selection wrong. We got blitzed early on, Seaman had a 'mare, and we might still have won the game even from 3-1 down had we not kept hitting the Wembley posts or Thorstvedt hadn't played the game of his life. Let's move on.
The Title ended up being decided on May-Day Bank Holiday weekend. Chelsea beat Liverpool at Stamford Bridge before we were due to play Sunderland in a late Saturday kick-off live on ITV at Roker Park. A win would have meant celebration of the Title there and then, but Sunderland were desperate in their fight against relegation and played like men possessed. In the final minutes Gary Owers played a lovely one-two on the edge of the penalty-area and curled a beautiful right-foot shot in to the top corner of the net. Only it didn't reach the net. David Seaman was there again with a truly astonishing save to secure a 0-0 draw. I watch that save from time to time and I still don't know how he gets there. A top goalkeeper wins you points and wins you Title's. For all the goals that Limpar, Smith and Campbell and Merson created and scored, I have picked out at least five points in this piece that were won for us by Seaman that season. Incredible.

The final celebrations

On the Monday itself ITV chose to show Liverpool playing at Nottingham Forest as their live game. With Arsenal needing two points for the Title, facing a home game against a Manchester United side with one eye on a European Final, it was a crazy decision. Liverpool played in the afternoon, while we were an evening kick-off. By the time we had got to Highbury we'd already listened on the radio as Dover won the Kent Senior Cup, and then Liverpool went behind at Forest. My brothers were on the North Bank for the game so, as usual, we were at Highbury early for them get to the front of the queue and nab their usual spot on the barrier above the raised section of the terrace, just under the corner of the roof. A friend of mine from school was with us for his first trip to Arsenal (imagine that as your first game) so we went off to Finsbury Park to visit the Arsenal World Of Sport shop. Next door to that, at the entrance to Finsbury Park Station, was the Arsenal Boot Room shop. We were delighted to see that, on the TV screen inside, they were showing the Liverpool game. By this time Liverpool had equalised and me, Tim and my Dad stood gazing through the window at the game. As the trains continued to arrive so more and more people realised they could catch the end of Forest v Liverpool on the TV in the shop. Very soon there must have been hundreds of people massing outside the windows. And then Ian Woan smashed that ball in to the Liverpool net. The whole place erupted. When the final whistle went, with the crowd still increasing, it was bedlam there. Arsenal were the Champions!
I'll never forget the walk to Highbury from Finsbury Park. It truly was the march of the Champions. I'd never experienced anything quite like it - we'd celebrated Anfield '89 at home in Dover. I remember my Dad stopping to buy Champions badges for all of us - even then the street sellers were enterprising enough to gamble on Arsenal getting over the line - and then getting in to the ground to see the players supposedly warming-up, but actually mucking about and celebrating. Each player got their name sung by the North Bank and it was a massive party. As the regulars arrived around us in the East Upper there was much shaking of hands and celebratory back-slapping, especially among the old boys who had seen it all before. There was the massive "This is Arsenal, The Champions" banner unfurled from the Clock End boxes (I think) as the players came out to a guard of honour from a clearly annoyed Bryan Robson and co. And then we went on to witness a master-class as Smith banged in a hat-trick. 
Fans had been told that the players would be receiving the Barclays trophy after the game, as long as they stayed off the pitch. There was a great sense of annoyance, therefore, when those in the Clock End invaded the pitch at the end of the match. Amid announcements stating that the celebrations would be cancelled the clowns still cavorted on the pitch. And then the North Bank spoke. Chants of "You're just a bunch of w***ers" filled the air and the pitch was cleared. Tony and the boys came out and lifted the trophy to the four corners and we all went mad again. The Clock End invaded the pitch again, were called "w***ers" again, and eventually we enjoyed a lap of honour. It was one of THE great nights to be at The Arsenal.

George and Tony

I missed the final game with Coventry on the following Saturday as I had flu. With Limpar grabbing a hat-trick in a 6-1 win (Perry Groves finishing the season as he'd started) it is one of my great regrets to have not been there on the day. I missed all the celebrations with the real League Championship trophy, though I did get to have my picture taken with it (as I had in 1989) just a couple of months later.
The achievement of this side is too often overlooked, as was stated at the top of this piece. It's been a pleasure to write about them over the last couple of hours and it has brought back some exceptional memories. I hope you've enjoyed it.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Play like that every week!

Happiness is a cigar called thrashing Manchester United

If I was a footballer at Arsenal I'd like to think I might have learned something from yesterday. For the first time since we hammered Villa at Wembley the Arsenal team played brilliantly. It was a performance based on pressing the opposition, high up the pitch, and winning the ball in attacking areas. Closing down the opponent in possession and then springing forward with the pace of Walcott and Alexis (and sometimes Bellerin) along with the passing of Ozil and the non-stop running of Ramsey was something Manchester United, like Villa at Wembley, simply couldn't handle. Arsenal were too good in every part of the pitch and it was all down to a basic work rate and desire to win that blew the opposition away. Don't get in to any idea that United were playing poorly (though they aren't a very good side, that is certainly true) as they weren't allowed to play due to Arsenal's total dominance. Given that this is clearly the way to play if you want to win games then surely Arsenal's players must realise this is how they have to go from now on, regardless of the opposition.
I've been saying for ages that Manchester United are there to be taken apart. The briefest of glances at the defence they have been putting on the pitch would tell you that you simply need to attack them properly. It strikes me that most of the Premier League managers have been setting up their team to play against the reputation of Ferguson's Manchester United rather than the reality of Van Gaal's version. Take out David De Gea and there isn't a single player in their team that I would want at Arsenal (Martial may go on to be a star but nobody in England had really heard of him four weeks ago). This Manchester United squad is weak - they brought on James Wilson and Marouane "the foul" Fellaini to try and turn the game. An Arsenal bench so lacking in quality would have been the talk of the media had we just been done 3-0 in that way. As for the way in which Rooney, Schweinsteiger and Fellaini fouled their way around the Arsenal team throughout the game, that was just underlining the fact that Anthony Taylor is yet another incompetent joke employed to referee at the top level.
Back to Arsenal, it's fair to say we would have beaten almost anyone yesterday with that first-half display. The movement of the front three was outstanding, as was the quality and pace of the passing. I've often criticised Ozil, as regular readers are all too aware, but he was huge in the opening minutes of the match yesterday. I felt he pretty much disappeared thereafter, the odd moment of sublime skill apart, but a goal and an assist in any game makes some of it forgiveable. For me Aaron Ramsey was outstanding, totally tireless in his pursuit of the ball. I know others thought he actually didn't play well, but from where I was sitting he played his best game in months. He should have had a goal of his own that would have made it 4-0 before half-time but, again, with a performance like that I can forgive him a miss every now and again.
I felt that Theo Walcott played one of his best ever games for Arsenal yesterday. He was strong, good on the ball, and he had a fabulous work-rate. When you see Theo flying in to a sliding tackle on the halfway line and coming out with the ball, setting up another counter-attack, then you can see the improvement in his all round game. Is he the answer up front? I still say no, but the game is not just about scoring goals and he was brilliant against Manchester United.
What more can you say about Alexis? His finish for the first goal was the touch of a World Class player, totally aware of his position around the goal and confident of his own ability. His second goal was just breath-taking. I don't know how this little man can generate such ferocious power when he shoots at goal. He has scored some screamers since he arrived at Arsenal, not least in the FA Cup Final, but yesterday was right up there with his best. When you leave the best goalkeeper in the World grasping at thin air like that you know you've hit the ball well. I only hope now that the injury he limped off with is dealt with responsibly by the Chile national team over the next week or so. Alexis is so important to Arsenal. When he plays well we look so much better. He tormented Darmian yesterday to such an extent that I reckon he was begging Van Gaal to take him off at half-time so that he could get away from our man.
At the back we were rarely troubled. Coquelin and Cazorla dominated the middle of the pitch (some fantastic tackles from Coquelin throughout the game) while the defence was very solid. Petr Cech showed on the stroke of half-time what it means to have one of the best in your goal - the save from Martial was massive in that it kept the score at 3-0 going in to the second-half. I'm sure our players would have panicked had United got one back. We could have been punished a couple of times for giving the ball away cheaply in our own half, and that must be stamped out, but Mertesacker and Gabriel pretty much had Martial and Rooney in their pockets. The improvement in Hector Bellerin's game was there for all to see as he dealt with the physical threat of Rooney and Fellaini on more than one occasion, while Nacho Monreal continued to cement his position as our left-back - how is he not back in the Spain squad? United actually reminded me of Arsenal at our worst in the second-half as they were allowed lots of possession but hardly ever threatened to create a proper chance.
It was a complete and dominant Arsenal performance, everything that the Olympiacos game wasn't. That being the case I was disgusted to see how empty large swathes of the stands were with a few minutes to go. What exactly do you people want? The players went out there yesterday, properly set up to play by the Manager, and put it all in for the shirt. It was everything, surely, that a supporter wants to see from Arsenal. More than that, we were destroying Manchester United. We could, and should, have put four or five at least in their net. And yet thousands left early. Didn't the players deserve your appreciation? Sadly it sums up the sort of people that continue to populate the Emirates Stadium.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Another shameful embarrassment

Whose fault?

It may seem like I only write stuff when I get the chance to have a go at certain people. I can assure that this is more by chance than design. I haven't been able to go over the Leicester City game as I've been working since Friday and simply didn't get the time to comment on a nice away win. I did say to my Dad (who went to Leicester) that our defensive issues are massive following that game. I really didn't expect those problems to manifest themselves quite so obviously against dross like Olympiacos last night. As I'm now off work until Monday I have plenty of time to get in to the problem at Arsenal and it will come as no surprise to see me directing my anger at one person.
I said after the Zagreb game that I couldn't understand the logic of leaving out Petr Cech. It has never happened in the past that the first-choice goalkeeper was rested from Champions League group matches, unless we were already through/out. The fact that it had happened in the first game made it clear that it was going to happen again last night. It was stupid in Zagreb, and it was shown to be stupid last night. Petr Cech makes mistakes, as we all do, but why tempt providence by playing Ospina? If Ospina was the answer to our woes then there would have been no need to sign Cech in the first place. The arrival of our new goalkeeper was surely an admission that neither Ospina nor Szczesny were up to the job of playing for Arsenal at the top level on anything approaching a regular basis. To hear Wenger say that he basically promised Ospina he would get to play matches sums up what a terrible "leader" our Manager has become. You begin to wonder if maybe Cech wasn't signed by Wenger at all, but by a Board who realised there was a problem that needed sorting out and they could get a top class goalkeeper in at a low price. I read earlier a snippet from the new Gooner fanzine citing the way Arshavin was treated by Wenger having been signed above his head, so to speak - remember him being left out at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final and then being constantly played out of position? I digress.
Clearly David Ospina is going to get some serious stick following the second goal last night, but that is nothing more than scapegoating the goalkeeper. The fact is that Ospina shouldn't have been on the pitch to make that error. He did the exact same thing at Tottenham last week and was fortunate that he happened to be two yards off his line at the time. It wasn't Ospina's fault he was playing. Arsene Wenger sent the team out with Ospina in it. He can't be faulted for being told to go and play last night. It is convenient for those that would choose to defend Wenger to blame one (or more) of his players for letting him down. After all, it's always the referee or the players isn't it? Anyone but their demi-God Arsene. Wenger himself sat there in front of the press refusing to answer questions and then blaming "bad luck" for the defeat. When you start putting these embarrassments down to ill fortune then surely the last of the straws is finally being clutched.
Arsenal have conceded three goals at home in Europe against Anderlecht, Monaco and Olympiacos in the last twelve months. It's hardly a list of the European giants. Each of these games has seen some of the most rank bad defending you will see from an apparently decent football team. How can Steve Bould sit there and continue to take his wages? Either he's not allowed to coach the defence properly, in which case he should have some pride and quit, or he's simply not up to the job. Either way things are not getting any better. As I said at the top the warning signs were there on Saturday (and they have been all season in truth) yet nothing is done about it. Again, I come back to Wenger. Do they do any training on organisation at the back? The answer must clearly be no. You might get away with that domestically when you have Vieira, Gilberto, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry in the side, but even they couldn't get over the line in the Champions League. When you've got Ramsey, Cazorla, Ozil (waste of space), Walcott and/or Giroud it doesn't seem quite so high on quality so even the domestic league is something we are incapable of winning. The way things are, Alexis Sanchez will leave Arsenal at the end of this season. I am totally certain of that.
I had a clown on Twitter late last night blaming the fans for this latest capitulation. Apparently the match-going supporters had created a negative atmosphere. Is it any wonder? When you're paying big money the least you are entitled to expect is commitment and basic competence against second-rate opposition. If the Manager and his players don't deliver that then they can't expect the crowd to be happy. Make no mistake, Wenger is to blame.
I'll leave you with the fact that, having gone 3-2 down in the 66th minute, he waited until the 86th minute to introduce Joel Campbell to the pitch. Campbell is a centre-forward (he destroyed Manchester United in the Champions League two years ago) who has never been allowed to play there for Arsenal. Wenger clearly doesn't have any faith in him as a player (he wouldn't have waited that long to bring on Giroud/Walcott, for example), yet apparently he couldn't find anyone in the transfer window that would have been an improvement. Still want to blame the players, the referee, the fans or bad luck?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The World is a better place this morning thanks to Mathieu Flamini

I was worried when I saw the line-up last night. I didn't like pairing Chambers and Mertesacker at centre-back, while Gibbs and Debuchy had been awful in Zagreb last week. Arteta in midfield worried me again, but the presence of Flamini alongside him meant there was at least somebody who was capable of doing the running. Having been spooked by our own XI it was obvious to anyone that their back-four was there to be destroyed and it is a clue as to how badly Olivier Giroud is playing that we hardly saw him during the game.
Neither team looked like they were capable in the early going. I was impressed by Joel Campbell though and he looked committed and strong - a couple of times Spurs players just bounced off him when he had the ball, and he made his share of tackles too. Maybe he could have given Debuchy a bit more support at times in the first-half, but overall he shouldn't be disappointed with his work last night. Debuchy, meanwhile, put in one of the worst full-back displays I've ever seen from an Arsenal player. Regardless of the protection he may have expected from his winger he was totally out of position for almost the entirety of the game. He looked slow, nervous, and totally out of place. Time and again Spurs came down our right side and Debuchy was in the centre of the pitch leaving acres of space to be attacked. It looks like Bellerin will keep his place for some time still to come.
The rest of the defence I thought played really well. Mertesacker was calm and won the ball in the air whenever it came near him while Kieran Gibbs (my man of the match in terms of an overall performance) was back to his best. Gibbo was everywhere when it mattered, not least on the goal line when Kane hit a volley past Ospina. Following last week in Zagreb he needed to produce a performance and he was Ashley Cole-esque (never forget how good a player he was for Arsenal) on the night. The other defender, Calum Chambers, had his best game in an Arsenal shirt as far as I'm concerned. I know their goal went in off him, but it certainly wasn't that he was at fault for it. He had Kane pretty much in his pocket all night and was dominant in the air and on the ground. Well played indeed.
Further forward we saw Flamini tearing round the pitch, seemingly everywhere. He made his tackles, linked the play effectively and, as ever with Flamini, was never found wanting for effort. If every Arsenal player had the commitment that he does on the pitch (this is a player who has been almost totally frozen out, remember) we would have a much better team. Flamini isn't the finest player in the World but he knows how effort can make up for that. For a player whose transfer history shows a certain mercenary trend he also "gets it" in the same way that a fan does. He knows what it means to beat Tottenham and some of his very best performances have come against them. There was a certain football intelligence to his two goals last night too. He saw the situation that might develop as Oxlade-Chamberlain lined up a shot and followed it in to the box in a way that our centre-forwards rarely do. For the second goal he saw the space that was opening up and, when the ball spiralled in to the air, he was charging forward to fill it. I doubt anyone, even Mathieu himself, genuinely believed he was going to hit a volley like that as it dropped. We can only imagine how good it must have felt to him, especially given that he hasn't had a kick yet this season, when the ball hit the net. It was one of the great North London Derby goals and sealed Flamini's position in eternal folklore as a cult Arsenal hero.
We should have won by more goals in the end but Alexis, Giroud and Walcott (no surprises here) all missed great chances. It is a recurring and worrying theme (the passes from an otherwise fairly anonymous Ramsey for the Alexis and Giroud chances were beautiful) and it has to change quickly if we are to have any genuine success this season. At the end of the day the two Flamini goals were enough and the Totts were sent home (or just out to the High Road) licking their wounds and their windows as they contemplated another defeat to Arsenal.
This morning everything seems that little bit better, despite the fact that it's chucking it down on my day off yet again. We can smile until at least Saturday, safe in the knowledge that the Spuds aren't. I look forward to simply smiling at any Tottenham fan I see in the next few days - words are not necessary, just a smile winds them up something chronic. It's well worth enjoying it when we beat them, regardless of the competition.
A lot is being made of the Arsenal fans that ripped down the signs around the upper tier after the game last night. Of course they shouldn't have done it, and the bans that will surely follow as Arsenal identify them (the idiots that were filming it on their mobiles and then posting the videos to social media have effectively grassed up those involved) will see them regret their actions. However, let's not be too quick to condemn. Firstly, let us point out the damage that the Tottenham supporters have done to the away ends at Highbury and Emirates over the past fifteen to twenty years. Arsenal have had to spend a ton of money in repairs after every visit. It doesn't excuse what happened last night, but it provides some context. And then there is the whole experience that Arsenal fans are subjected to when they visit White Hart Lane. For some inexplicable reason they were locked in by the Met last night for around an hour after the game. Having already run the gauntlet of hate on arrival at Tottenham, the Gooners were then kettled all the way down Tottenham High Road (regardless of where they wanted or needed to go) and, according to some of those who were present, in to a mob of waiting Spurs fans. Again, it doesn't excuse the ripping down of the hoardings, but unless you've experienced the Tottenham supporters you're not qualified to judge. And you know what else? F*** Spurs anyway.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Arsenal must get uglier than Gabriel to be successful

I wouldn't mess with Gabriel
People who read my stuff regularly will know that I am never slow to blame Arsene Wenger or the players in defeat. More often than not, when we lose, I will go on a rant about the failings of Le Boss in whichever area I feel he's done wrong. Today is not one of those days. The defeat at Chelsea was not a result of anything that Arsene Wenger did, or didn't do. I could criticise one or two of our star players who might not have been at the races even before we lost Gabriel, but I don't think it's appropriate today. We lost, but nobody from Arsenal is to blame.
I actually thought we got off to a bright start on Saturday. Alexis was giving Ivanovic a bad time down our left, ably supported by Nacho Monreal, while Coquelin was everywhere in midfield. Theo was working hard up front and running their centre-halves around while Ramsey (who failed when the ball went to his feet from a pass) was breaking up play really well down his side. I read somewhere that Eden Hazard recovered his form of last season the other day - if they mean he was totally over rated then I agree. The fact is that in the first twenty minutes or so we were on top of the game, not really threatening too much, but certainly in control. Arsene had set the team up well and everything was going according to plan.
The first turning point, for me, came with the injury to Coquelin. When you see the slow-motion replay of him landing you see his knee hyper-extend. I dread to think how long he'll be out for with the idiots at Arsenal managing his recovery. With Coquelin subdued it allowed Chelsea to take a hold in midfield. This is where I have one of few criticisms from the other day as the other players chose to stand off Fabregas when he got the ball. With Coquelin less mobile the likes of Cazorla and Ramsey had to get closer to Fabregas to stop him picking his passes. It allowed Chelsea to get on top for the first time. Having said that they didn't really threaten any more than Arsenal had earlier in the game with the defence doing well.
The game ultimately turned for the worse on the stroke of half-time. Ozil made his only contribution to the game as he broke away on the left and played a lovely ball to Ramsey who was coming in at the far-post. Of course Ramsey couldn't resist the chance to try and be clever and lost the ball instead of just smashing it in the net. Chelsea then broke away themselves and Costa assaulted Laurent Koscielny off the ball. When the play broke up he then knocked Koscielny to the ground. This all followed his first minute dive to try and get Coquelin booked, followed up by waving an imaginary card at the referee. Just in these incidents he could (should) have been sent-off for three different offences. To ignore the first was typical Mike Dean. To miss both of the next two (there are four officials remember) shows a seriously flawed group of referees and linesmen. Gabriel then did what we've been crying out for and came to the defence of his mate. Costa, as usual, acted the hurt party in all of this and got way with a yellow card despite the obvious scarring of Gabriel's neck from Costa's fingernails. Gabriel also got booked. As the referee was in the process of booking them both, right in front him, Costa swung a punch at Gabriel. Again Dean ignored it. I think we might be up to five red card offences now (even Howard Webb picked out three during the game).
When the players moved back to the halfway line the referee followed them. It was clear that Costa was talking in Gabriel's ear. Given that I doubt Mr Dean speaks Portuguese I suspect  he couldn't understand what was being said. Gabriel was probably foolish to raise his foot backwards towards Costa, but who knows what insults he was getting? The same officials who had all missed the elbows and punches from Costa managed to see the flick of Gabriel's leg and Dean couldn't wait to show him a red card. From then on we were knackered in terms of the game.
The second-half was fairly predictable as Chelsea won the match. However, we did shoot ourselves in the foot with letting in a goal from a set-piece - that was rank bad defending regardless of how many players you have on the pitch. I would like to ask Mr Dean what the free-kick was for though. Aaron Ramsey simply took the ball off Fabregas, no contact with the treacherous little snake (who was right in Dean's face calling for Gabriel to be sent-off incidentally) and was penalised. If the referee had made the right decision we wouldn't have been 1-0 down.
Dean wasn't finished though. He let Costa off again for a kick out at Oxlade-Chamberlain (more on that below) and then sent-off the dirtiest player on the pitch, Santi Cazorla, for his second foul of the game (Ivanovic made seven fouls for his yellow card). Fabregas was again instrumental in ensuring Cazorla was punished as he rolled around like his leg was in two pieces. I hope all the idiots that applauded Fabregas at our place last season remain totally ashamed of themselves. The second goal was just one of those things. Quite how it's been given to Hazard instead of a Chambers own-goal I really don't know. I must put a word in here for Calum Chambers, a player I've often criticised. I thought he was exceptional on Saturday when he came on and full credit to him for a job well done.
As I said at the top of this article, I am not criticising Arsene Wenger for this one. It was clear to me at the time, and it is clear to me now, that if the officials had done their job properly we would have not lost on Saturday. If Costa had been punished for his misdemeanours then Gabriel would not have needed to intervene. Mike Dean and his linesmen were the reason we lost on Saturday and that can't be right at any level of football. The FA must act and I thought Arsene Wenger gave an exceptional interview after the game, laying it all out - even the media have come out on Arsenal's side (maybe not Sky) over this one which says all you need to know.

This is what we are missing
I've seen people blaming Gabriel for falling in to Costa's "trap" on Saturday. Nonsense. Gabriel did what I want from our players. He saw one of his mates getting done by an opponent and flew in to show Koscielny wasn't on his own. He did what Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Lauren and Patrick Vieira would have done (and did do when required). The only tragedy was that when he was being stitched up himself the rest of the Arsenal players (bar Coquelin) were nowhere to be seen. Our Captain was doing nothing, but at 5'6" he's hardly likely to go getting involved in a dust-up. The fact is that the Arsenal players are largely too nice and too timid. They don't try to look after each other and that's one of the reasons they are not a top side.
Take a look at the photo above. Look at those yellow shirts piling in. They'd just seen Nigel Winterburn getting kicked by Irwin and McLair as he lay prone on the floor. Anders Limpar (not a giant) steamed in and laid a right-hook on McLair's jaw. Tony Adams flew in to the throng, while Thomas, Davis and Rocastle acted as one to protect their mates. This was just a year after a similar brawl at home to Norwich. That Arsenal team was not to be f***ed with in any circumstances. They fought tooth and nail for one another. They ended up as League Champions.
When the players walked off for half-time on Saturday not one Arsenal player was in the face of Diego Costa. That team of 1990, or the Invincibles, would have been all around him. The physical confrontation would have sent out the message that this team isn't going to take the kind of s**t that Costa gives out. His dive in the second-half wouldn't have happened and, if it had, he'd have got a load more from the Arsenal players.
The incident that really annoyed me in the second-half was the one involving Oxlade-Chamberlain. You can see Costa clearly kick out at him. The reaction of The Ox was to basically shrug his shoulders at Costa. He should have been going for him, getting him by the throat, making a serious issue out of it. If nothing else it would have been cute play as even Dean would have had to give Costa another yellow, thus evening numbers up a bit. At the same time, where were the other players? Why were they not all piling in on  Costa? We are simply not nasty enough and not ugly enough as a squad. It just confirms the idea that we're a bit of a soft-touch. The attitude has to change and it has to become one of "us against everyone else" if we are to contend properly. I don't care that "it's not what we want to see on the football field" or whatever other nonsense the media would want to spin. When we were ugly, snarling opponents we were winners and that is all that matters. What we wouldn't give for the fighting attitude of Adams, Keown, Winterburn, Thomas, Davis, Rocastle, Lauren, Bergkamp, Petit and Vieira these days.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Wenger costs Arsenal again

I knew we were in trouble last night as soon as I saw the team that had been announced. I haven't got much of a problem with resting a player or two. The whole rotation thing is the modern way and we should be able to handle the odd player being left out to have a breather (though quite why anyone needs a break in September I have to wonder). To change six players is madness. We've seen this happen before and it has always ended up in a negative result. I remember Arsenal beating Chelsea at our place over Christmas a few years back, only to go to Wigan with a totally different side a few days later and not get the result. Quite simply it is too many changes at once. We are also in to the realms of keeping people happy by playing them - there can be no other explanation for David Ospina getting a game ahead of Petr Cech. Ospina did nothing wrong on the night, but there was no question of playing the "cup" keeper in the Champions League last season. Cech certainly doesn't need a rest.
Olivier Giroud looks like a man carrying the weight of the World on his shoulders. I personally believe his confidence has been shot ever since Thierry Henry opened his mouth about him earlier this year. This set the fans off and he's been struggling ever since. It can't really do you much good when the greatest goal scorer in the history of your club and your country gets on your case for no reason. It all came to a head last night with a ridiculously bad performance (bar one header that was brilliantly saved early on) in which he was clearly not in the mood to play football. I have no complaints over the sending off. The first one was stupid - you don't get away with those kind of histrionics with a European referee, and the second one was a yellow card all day long for a lazy foul. As we were already 1-0 behind by then it bordered on criminal from Giroud. He's probably lucky that the tunnel was about 50 yards in front of the away section so he didn't get the full force of the abuse he deserved from them.
The first goal was a defensive disaster. In the absence of Coquelin we saw an Arsenal back-four totally shorne of their protection. I like Mikel Arteta a lot. He's been a fine servant to Arsenal and is a fine player, but his legs went two years ago. To ask him to play in Coquelin's position is to ask for trouble. He was always a yard behind the play, never in a position to make the tackle. Debuchy followed his winger in to the centre, but then failed to pass him on to Gabriel, which meant he was tucked in too tight behind his centre-back. Gabriel himself had dropped a yard behind the other three defenders, playing (just) the full-back onside as Oxlade-Chamberlain, not for the first time, failed to do his job in tracking the runner. Ospina produced a fine save only to see the ball bounce of the late arriving Ox and in to the net. It was clueless from Arsenal but surely a direct result of changing so many players at the same time.
The second goal was another disaster. Debuchy had rescued us seconds earlier with a stunning block, but then Kieran Gibbs literally ducked out of the way of the corner to allow a free-header at the near post. If Gibbs had simply headed the ball away, which is his job in there, Zagreb wouldn't have scored their second goal. Gibbs is going backwards and he needs to sort himself out quickly.
At 2-0 down nothing changed for another ten minutes! Finally we saw Walcott, Campbell and Coquelin introduced, but still we played with one man in attack. Joel Campbell was again stuck out on the wing and he failed to get in to the game. However, I couldn't believe the stick the lad was getting online as Mesut Ozil played yet another of his anonymous games of football. There we were, on the back foot, and our £40m superstar was nowhere to be seen. Why was he not the man getting on the ball and making something happen? The fact is that he is totally disinterested. As with those who will defend everything Wenger does, there are people who refuse to criticise Ozil and would instead choose to have a pop at a lad who hasn't played football since last season and who Wenger would have sold if he could only have found a buyer. When we did get a goal it was predictably created by the tireless Alexis and put away in good style by Theo Walcott. We got that goal with more than ten minutes to play, plus injury-time, and then never had another shot at goal. Even in injury-time, with the ball wide on the right, we had just Theo on his own in the penalty-area. What was Wenger doing? He was sitting there on the bench watching it all happen. 
There is no doubt the players were poor last night. They played badly and the attitude was wrong. But let's not forget that one man selects those players. The same man is responsible for their attitude on the pitch. If they are not up for it then Arsene Wenger is to blame. If the wrong team is picked then Arsene Wenger is to blame. If there are no tactics then Arsene Wenger is to blame. And yet Wenger comes out afterwards and blames the referee. Embarrassing. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Another European tour begins

2016 Champions League Final is at San Siro, Milan
I'm not going to bother writing in depth about Jack Wilshere's latest setback. We all knew it was coming - it always does. The fact is that, yet again, weeks after the injury has been diagnosed the Arsenal medical people have decided it needs to be operated on. You couldn't make it up really. For years now they have been incompetent and it doesn't look like a change will be occurring any time soon. Jack is now heading in to Diaby territory.
Arsenal's European adventure for this season begins tonight in Croatia. Although I'm more than happy that we're involved in the top competition for European clubs I'm lacking in excitement about the prospect of playing. Years ago there was something really special about any European tie. Every match provided the prospect of some kind of exotic spectacle simply because you didn't really know the opposition. When we first qualified for this new version of the European Cup in 1998 it was genuinely exciting to travel to Lens for our first game. Familiarity, however, breeds contempt and I'm sure I wasn't alone in being totally underwhelmed at being drawn against Bayern Munich and Olympiacos yet again this season. Sadly the competition lends itself to such repetition due to the largely closed shop nature of the participants, and the heavily "fixed" draw that cuts down the options of who you can play for a number of reasons. To be honest, the most intriguing fixtures of this Arsenal group are the ones against Zagreb simply because they're more of an unknown to us (or to me, at least).
Arsenal have travelled to Zagreb with an interesting squad in that Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin have not gone out there. I'm not surprised there will be a bit of "rotation" of certain players as we get in to the busy period of games (and one or two could do with actually playing some football ahead of the League Cup tie at Spurs next week) but I am surprised they're not there to be on the bench. Chambers and Flamini have replaced the pair from the 18 that was present on Saturday with Per Mertesacker still not ready to be involved - the BFG must have been really poorly these past few weeks, and he may find it difficult to get back in the side if Gabriel and Koscielny can play well together again this evening.
It remains to be seen whether there will be more changes to the starting line-up. I would expect Oxlade-Chamberlain to replace Ramsey with Debuchy obviously coming in for Bellerin. The other possible changes may be in goal (which would be foolish for me), Kieran Gibbs might play at left-back, but the rest of the side might well be the same (will Giroud get the nod for a tight away game in Europe, ahead of Theo Walcott?) As much as there is a need to keep players a little fresh, there is also the need to not change too many players in one go. In an ideal scenario we'd be able to rest Alexis Sanchez but that really is unlikely to happen until the Spurs game.
Despite the notable away wins in recent years in Munich, Dortmund and Monaco our away performances in Europe are notoriously poor. I fully expect an intimidating atmosphere in Zagreb but the players must remain unfazed and play their football. Last time we played over there Cesc Fabregas orchestrated a fine result in the qualifying round so let's hope Santi can pull the strings in midfield this evening. As it stands I would be reasonably pleased with a draw tonight - Zagreb are on a 41 match unbeaten run domestically - and another draw on Saturday at Chelsea. It is vital that neither game is lost. What we don't want is to be playing catch-up after one game. I'll write a review tomorrow - the road to Milan starts here!