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Monday, 31 March 2014

RIP David Rocastle

Today is the anniversary of the death of David Rocastle. As is traditional on this site, the post today is a simple tribute to the Great Man. When I was a child Rocky was my hero. This video and this video will tell you why.

RIP Rocky.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Better than last week, King Koscielny back for Wembley?

Arsenal's driving force celebrates his goal

I’ve always said I can forgive a lot if the players put in the effort. Yesterday was one of those such occasions. Let’s get this straight: Manchester City are a far stronger side than Arsenal (especially an Arsenal missing Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott and Ozil). If you want an illustration of the respective strengths of the squads on show yesterday then look no further than the late subs – they brought on Alvaro Negredo, we brought on an unknown French kid who is yet to score a goal. For that Arsenal team to put up such a display, especially off the back of the previous week and the publicity they’ve had, showed a lot of resolve and respect for the shirt and the fans. I haven’t written about the Swansea game and perhaps it’s just as well – the opposite of what I’ve written above would have been appropriate content.
If there is a frustration for me today it is that we had to go through the humiliation of the Chelsea game and the lack of effort in the Swansea game to get here. If the same players (and there was only one starting change yesterday from Tuesday) had played with the same desire against Swansea we would have been two points better off this evening and still in the mix (albeit mathematically). What I witnessed on Tuesday was as far removed from yesterday evening as it’s possible to be. Swansea City should have been swatted aside and the only reason they weren’t was a lack of proper motivation in our players after the hammering at Chelsea.
Yesterday they looked like a different group of players. There were nerves early on as City clearly came to play but I thought the defence weathered any early storm and Arsenal were then largely the team on top for most of the rest of the game. That didn’t translate to shots on goal unfortunately but we were mostly unthreatened. City’s goal came from us yet again dithering in midfield, though our lack of a decent run of the ball was there again when they scored. Szczesny made a very decent save to push Dzeko’s shot on to the post. For the ball to rebound and basically hit Silva and go in the net summed up a team short on fortune at the moment. As I write this I’ve yet to see the highlights so I don’t know if we should have had a penalty when Rosicky appeared to be fouled by Zabaleta, but the lack of a yellow card for a dive summed up a return to form for Mike Dean I suspect.
Mr Dean was certainly pretty abysmal for most of the rest of the game. But not as bad, maybe, as the linesman at my end of the ground. You might recall I referred to this official as a “busy little f****r” after the game at Spurs a fortnight ago. He certainly was yesterday, as long as you were “infringing” in a red shirt, at least. Again, I’ve not seen the replays but I’m told Flamini was offside when scoring in the first-half – just about the only thing the linesman got right in the whole game. James Milner was certainly offside when he nearly laid on a second goal for City shortly after coming on. Incidentally I’ve read the match report on the BBC website by some cretin called Phil McNulty who claims that Arsenal were being dominated down our left, with Podolski basically labelled a waste of space. That will be why Navas, on City’s right wing, was taken off then Phil. In general I don’t get this media impression of Podolski (that idiot Paul Merson said on Sky last week that he “doesn’t know what Podolski does” – well he doesn’t waste his talent with drink and drugs does he you bitter little t**t?) It might have been Podolski who was eventually robbed of possession that ended with City’s goal, but it was Arteta’s dithering and negative passing (which is getting more and more annoying) that saw us get closed down in the first place.
Arsenal’s biggest problem was, as ever in the absence of Theo Walcott, that we had nobody trying to run beyond the City defence. My brother pointed out that Zabaleta, from right-back for City, made more moves in behind than any Arsenal attacker did. I actually thought that Cazorla and Rosicky (especially Rosicky) had very good games, but nobody was really supporting Giroud who was winning more than his share in the air against Kompany and Demechelis. Rosicky was the man who was willing to take someone on with the ball at his feet and get between the lines. More than once it looked like it would drive us on, but there was nobody making that run that would see us get City’s defenders turning towards their own goal. We know how weak Clichy is but we didn’t really test him.
The Arsenal goal was thoroughly deserved and was again created by Podolski (absolute waste of space that bloke). His ball to Flamini was superb and it was a very decent finish. Flamini got forward a lot during the game which worried me at times, but his engine is good enough for him to get up and down all day long. Vermaelen’s more disciplined approach to defensive positioning today also made that possible. When the ball fell to Podolski a little while later, one on one with Hart, I felt sure he’d bury it. Again, with a bit of fortune it might have squeezed the right side of the post for us, but it wasn’t to be and Podolski really shouldn’t have given the Head and Shoulders boy a chance to make the save.
The season will, no doubt, end with some regrets for us. Yesterday’s performance won’t be one of them, I feel. The fact that we went in to such a game without the necessary strength in the squad will certainly be one, but that’s a discussion for another day. In concentrating on what was available on the day I thought it was a fine effort, ultimately not quite getting what might have been the deserved reward of three points. If nothing else it stops the rot and restores some confidence ahead of a tough trip to Everton next week. That game is, at the very least, a must not lose.

One final note for optimism. I met Laurent Koscielny in the car-park after the game yesterday and he said that he will be fit in “two weeks”. Assuming that it’s a real two weeks and not a Wenger two weeks he should be back for Wembley and Wigan Athletic. Fingers crossed.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Wenger has ostracised Flamini to our detriment

We are missing this man badly

I haven't written anything since before the game on Saturday afternoon. Where do I start? Where do I finish? What could I add that hasn't already been put quite superbly elsewhere (and not so well in some cases, it should be said)? I really don't know what to put that you haven't already heard.
What is clear is that we have a good side. We wouldn't have been in the position we were at kick-off on Saturday if this Arsenal team was poor. We were in with a real chance to win the Premier League if we could avoid defeat at Chelsea. To not even get close to that is hard to take. I had started to think that we had a chance this season. On Saturday morning I felt confident. That was the first sign that something would go wrong, I suppose. What unfolded, when put together with the results at Manchester City and Liverpool this season, proves that there is something seriously wrong inside this group of Arsenal players. I don't know whether it's their own mental issues or whether it's the way they are sent out for these types of games by Arsene Wenger.
Let's make it clear that a team as close to the top as Arsenal have been this season is not five or six goals worse off in any game than the sides that now lie above them. They should be more than able to compete in these games. We may lack the goal scoring options of the others in the absence of Walcott, Ramsey and a top striker, but we shouldn't be getting thrashed. This is the team that matched Bayern Munich when 11v11, and battled for all it was worth even when a man down against them. So why are we getting hammered by relatively mediocre opposition like this lot? If I had the answer I'd be the Arsenal Manager. I don't and I'm not. But there are a couple of things that appear to be common to these hammerings, and I don't mean the 12.45 kick-offs.
The first thing, and the most obvious, is Arsene Wenger's complete unwillingness to adopt a tactical approach to football that might give us the opportunity to steal a result despite not being the Arsenal team we were ten years ago. The Arsenal side from 2001 to 2005 didn't really need tactics. They had dominant players on a different level to just about everyone in the current squad. Because we had GREAT players and communicators like Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon, Lauren, Lehmann, Campbell, Cole, Vieira, Pires, Henry, Bergkamp, Gilberto, Parlour, Ljungberg etc we had a side that was able to adapt to situations and make decisions on the hoof, for themselves. This current team needs to be given a game plan to combat opponents who possess more quality than we do. It's not enough for Arsenal to play "their" football and hope for the best in these games. That Wenger has never grasped this, despite his years of no success in Europe, is perhaps his biggest failing.
Looking more particularly at this season there is one other thing that is apparent, and it's not so much just about those "major" fixtures we've been thrashed in. Let me say, first of all, that I do not believe Mathieu Flamini is the "answer" in Arsenal's midfield. However, in this squad he is a key man. Maybe he is THE key man. Since getting sent off at Southampton in January Flamini has started three games. The first was the FA Cup tie with Liverpool, a tremendous team effort marshalled from midfield by Flamini. The second was that fabulous rearguard action at home to Bayern Munich. The third was a 4-1 win, and an excellent team performance, in the FA Cup against Everton. Flamini provides pace and energy in our midfield. He also provides organisation. Nobody else directs operations in this team. Mikel Arteta never stops trying, but it is obvious that in the last two months his legs have well and truly gone. He is getting slower by the week and simply can not play in midfield without Flamini alongside him. Watch Chelsea's first goal again and you'll see him trying to run back but seeming to wade through treacle as Oxlade-Chamberlain rushes past him to try and get to Eto'o. 
Now I mentioned above that Flamini has started just three games since Southampton (to provide balance I should point out that he started the game at Man City, but was substituted with 20 minutes left and was suspended for Anfield through his own fault). Of those three games, the ones against Liverpool and Bayern Munich were the first for which he was available after suspension. From that we can deduce that he isn't being left out because he lacks discipline on the pitch. The reason he has been put out in the cold, as far as I can see, is that he chose to go after Ozil that night against Bayern and tell him what he thought about such an insipid display while everyone else worked their socks off. Just look at some of the games since then and try to tell me that Flamini wasn't the man we needed in midfield. Stoke away, we lost, we were bullied in midfield, and Flamini wasn't there. In Munich we drew 1-1 but at times Arteta's lack of pace and legs stopped us getting on the attack. Spurs away, we won 1-0, we were over run through midfield for large parts and only got a grip in the last fifteen minutes following Flamini's introduction. And then there was Saturday's debacle which saw Flamini watching on from the bench yet again. I am convinced that Wenger has fallen out with Flamini for daring to have a pop at his star player like he did. It is frightening to me that such a glaring error of team selection has been allowed to happen from Wenger in such important games. Of course there is no guarantee that we would have got results at Stoke or Chelsea with Flamini in the side (one man probably wouldn't have been enough to change the mentality on Saturday) but Wenger has not given us the best chance to do something in those games. If you don't give yourself the best opportunity then you start from a position of being on the back foot.

I didn't really know what I wanted to write today. If it seems a bit rambling then that is why. Like most Arsenal fans my mind is a bit scrambled at the moment where the Club is concerned. I've deliberately gone down a different route with this post, that I do know. I didn't want to write about Saturday as such. As I said at the top it's all been written elsewhere. I wanted to analyse, even briefly, where we could have given ourselves a better chance (or at least where Wenger could have given us a better chance). I also didn't want to write a "Wenger out" type piece. I've done that pretty much to death over the years and now isn't the time for it. But that doesn't change the fact, and it is an indisputable fact, that whichever way you look at it Arsene Wenger is the problem. My personal hope is that we finish the season strongly enough to stay ahead of Spurs, and maybe even grab second or third spot (the Title is gone, I am certain) and that we win the FA Cup. Such a finish to this season would make it the ideal time for him to bow out gracefully and with glory. I'll say no more for now.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Celebrating Arsene Wenger

The Great Man

Over the last few years I have written regularly with negative comment on Arsene Wenger. I firmly believe he should have been sacked immediately after the 8-2 defeat at Manchester United. In truth he shouldn't still have been in charge at that point as far as I'm concerned. I have long been in the "Wenger Out" lobby.
However, today (and tomorrow in particular) is not a day for sniping at Arsene Wenger. Instead it is a day to celebrate his achievement of being the Arsenal Manager for 1,000 (ONE THOUSAND) competitive matches. You could successfully argue that he has been fortunate to have a board of directors that were happy with a healthy balance sheet over success on the pitch in the last eight years or so, but that doesn't take anything away from this milestone. 
Over nearly 18 years he has overseen the development of Arsenal Football Club from a side that was just about filling Highbury (and not all the time) in to a Worldwide major player that is selling out 60,000 seats in the new stadium every week. More than that he has transformed English football by introducing the methods which just about every successful club in the country has used to prepare and recover their players before and after matches. Diet, stretching, rest periods etc were all pretty much in the Dark Ages in England until Wenger arrived. Maybe he hasn't moved with the times as others have developed new ways, but that doesn't mean his influence on the game has been any less. The Premier League would never have become such a massive international success without Arsene Wenger.

Eighteen years ago

I was around long before Arsene Wenger, and I will be around (God willing) long after he has left Arsenal. There is no doubt, however, that his first ten years in charge were the best I've had as a supporter. George Graham brought the good times back to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger took things to a level we could never have imagined. Years ago I remember watching Real Madrid playing in the European Cup and being amazed at the way in which their players moved the ball at pace, but with the most amazing control over it. I always thought that it was the football I'd never see from any English team. Arsene Wenger built teams that did exactly what that Madrid side did, only we did it even better. He was maybe a little fortunate that his appointment at Arsenal coincided with the rise of the French national team. He brought in a number of players that were part of that side - Vieira, Petit, Anelka, Henry, Pires, and Wiltord were all major stars for Les Bleus during their great run. Having the players in one thing. Making them successful in a foreign country is entirely another. Arsene Wenger recognised the talent of those players and made them in to stars of the World game. I've said before that I think he is now doing the same thing with German players - he has realised that Germany are the next big thing on the international stage and he is filling the Arsenal squad with quality players from that country.

Reaching the Champions League Final - a rare show of joy

The glaring omission on Arsene Wenger's CV is a European trophy. We've been to two finals in Europe with Arsene and should have won both games. We came up short on each occasion. We have certainly had the teams to do it. A lack of tactics on occasion, and more than our share of bad luck have scuppered us at times. Given that nobody really wants to play in the UEFA Cup anymore our only chance would tend to be in the Champions League. Right now we're as far away from winning that as we have been in any of Wenger's seventeen consecutive campaigns in the tournament. I imagine he, like most of us who were there in Paris in 2006 and Copenhagen in 2000, often thinks back to those games with much regret. I sadly doubt he will be around long enough to build a side capable to genuinely challenging in Europe (the days of poor sides winning it, or getting close to winning it, in the mid-2000's are gone).


What Wenger did do, of course, that nobody else has, is go through the season unbeaten. The Arsenal Invincibles are without a doubt Arsene's greatest achievement on the pitch. I would say that they maybe weren't his best Arsenal team, but that's a subjective view to be debated on another occasion. The Invincibles played football from another planet and, in Thierry Henry, they had the best player in the World at the very peak of his career. They should have won everything that season, and I mean everything. They were semi-finalists in the League Cup, but too many were rested from the 1st leg that ultimately lead to elimination. They were semi-finalists in the FA Cup but a strange team selection and a host of early missed chances cost them. They were quarter-finalists in the European Cup but those missed chances again were costly after an incredible first-half performance at home to Chelsea. But to not lose a single game in the Premier League is astonishing. No other club has a gold trophy to commemorate such an achievement because no other club has done it. It will stand for years as a tribute to Wenger's greatness.

Wenger's Arsenal legacy

It may be that Arsene's greatest success overall actually came away from the pitch. Building a new stadium was basically his idea. He wanted it and the Arsenal directors backed it. Perhaps that's the reason Wenger has stuck around despite the apparent lack of transfer money. He is nothing if not loyal and it's a real shame the modern day player doesn't have such values - Wenger has suffered more than most as a result of the avarice and greed of certain players he developed in to top class performers. The Emirates Stadium is one of the most visually impressive buildings in football. It is a stunning arena. For people like me it lacks the feeling of home that Highbury had, but that's not to take away from it in any way. Herbert Chapman built up Highbury as a citadel of class that would be the last word in luxury football stadia for many a long year. The stadium at Ashburton Grove is a modern day version of what Highbury was. It is intended to bring a new, more affluent audience to Arsenal. The East and West Stands at Highbury were exactly that as well. When Arsene is gone it will be noted that the success he achieved on the pitch allowed Arsenal to build their new ground. It will stand, as Highbury did for Chapman, as Arsene Wenger's legacy to Arsenal Football Club.

One more Double?

I've felt for a long time that we were destined to win nothing more with Arsene Wenger as Arsenal Manager. The FA Cup draw has opened the door to the best chance we might ever get to end his drought. We are also still in with a great chance to win the Premier League as I write this. Arsene has won the Double on two occasions. Here we are on 21st March 2014 with the chance to go for a third. I think we'll come up short in the league, but the FA Cup is ours to lose, quite frankly. Perhaps in a season where Arsene Wenger reaches his landmark of 1,000 games it would be fitting or Arsenal to win a trophy for him. He may even still leave at the end of the season as his contract remains unsigned. Given Manchester United's performances this term people like me maybe ought to be careful what we wish for as Wenger will be as tough an act to follow at Arsenal as Ferguson was at Old Trafford. I want Arsene Wenger to prove me wrong. I want him to make me look stupid. I want Arsenal to win at least the FA Cup. If we can win tomorrow (or at least not lose) then we are right in the hunt for the Premier League. It would be nice for Wenger to celebrate his 1,000th match in charge with a first win over that obnoxious self-publicist at Chelsea - much like a trophy, it's long overdue. It would be even better to celebrate come May with an actual piece of silverware (or two).

Congratulations Arsene Wenger.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Wenger's best signings for Arsenal

Anelka - should have been an Arsenal legend

While I was working yesterday it seems that Twitter was awash with Arsenal fans naming variations of "Best XI's" under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Having missed out on the fun I thought I'd put together a blog post this afternoon of my own Arsene's XI, this one being based on a team put together from players signed by Wenger at Arsenal. Anyone in the first-team before his arrival is not included (I reserve the right to make an allowance for a certain player signed on Wenger's advice, but before his official appointment). Players brought in to the first-team from the youth system after Arsene came to Arsenal are also eligible. One of the good things about doing this on the blog rather than Twitter is that I can elaborate as to why each player has made the cut. Incidentally, at the bottom of the post I've listed my all time Arsene Wenger XI (players who've played for him at Arsenal) which is slightly different.

Goalkeeper - Jens Lehmann
How exactly do you replace David Seaman? When you think of the trouble Man Utd have had finding a new Peter Schmeichel you can see it's not easy. Quite apart from natural ability you need a man with skin thick enough to be able to put up with the constant comparison with his predecessor. Seaman's gloves were large ones to fill. Jens Lehmann coming in meant you could barely see the join. In truth Big Dave had been on the wane for some time, but that still didn't make it easy for Lehmann. His particular personality made it possible for him to come in and add his name to the pantheon of great Arsenal goalkeepers. It's worth noting that Jens didn't taste defeat in the Premier League until his 48th game in it. He was an outstanding goalkeeper for Arsenal, badly treated by Wenger at times. He should never have had to play second fiddle to Almunia in the way he did and it cost us the Title in 2008. I'll always be particularly fond of Jens Lehmann and he was the man that won us the FA Cup in 2005 with one of THE great performances in an Arsenal shirt.

Right-back - Lauren
This was a tough one. Bacary Sagna has been unbelievably consistent since he arrived. There was also Emmanuel Eboue to consider (okay, not really). For me Lauren gets the nod because he is one of the most under rated footballers I've ever known. He arrived as a midfield player, of course, and a very effective one. I've never really forgiven Arsene for leaving Lauren and Parlour our of the Cup Final team in 2001 when we contrived to lose to Liverpool - Ralph had destroyed Spurs midfield alongside Vieira in the semi-final. When he moved to right-back he was having to take over from Lee Dixon, a man many consider our finest ever in that position. With Dixon still around the place Lauren was able to learn from the master and he made the position his own until serious injury intervened. Ralph could tackle, run, cross and score goals. More than anything he was a genuine hard man. Nobody messed with Lauren and Ray Parlour says that Lauren was his and Freddie's "protector" on that right side of the Invincibles. Lauren was a top class player.

Left-back - Ashley Cole
There is no competition here in my opinion. Kieran Gibbs is getting better and better, but is not there yet. Gael Clichy simply plateaued as a player. Cashley was the best left-back in the World even before he left Arsenal. It serves as one of Arsene's greatest regrets, I'm sure, that we didn't get the best years of his career. Cole was the man destined to be the Arsenal Captain for many years. His personality defects sadly outweighed his love for The Arsenal and he chose to go Chelsea. His excuses over the years have been poor, and his digs at the Arsenal supporters when he won the European Cup at Chelsea were classless and unnecessary. It's sad that a player who should have been one of our greatest has ended up being one of our most hated. He was still a blinding player for us though.

Centre-back - Sol Campbell
Quite simply the most outstanding coup of a transfer probably in the history of the game. His second coming was also inspired. To sign the Captain of Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer, just as he was entering his peak years as a player, was simply incredible. Big Sol was a tremendous player for Arsenal and replaced Tony Adams in a seamless fashion. He was colossal for Arsenal during our most successful period under Wenger and would be robbed by referees and injury of personal FA Cup glories. His goal in the Champions League Final got us so close to his Manager's Holy Grail in Paris. One of very few World Class players to join Arsenal at a time when they were in that category Sol is a legend of the Club.

Centre-back - Kolo Toure
Less easy than picking Campbell was finding someone to be paired with him in this team. Arsene has a chequered history with centre-halves. Mertesacker and/or Koscielny may yet force their way in to this sort of company over the next couple of years, but people like Vermaelen flickered and faded quickly while the likes of Cygan were never more than a decent squad player. William Gallas was another man whose personality let him down. Kolo arrived and nobody knew where he should play, not even Arsene Wenger. It seems that it was Martin Keown that suggested he should move in at centre-half in the Summer of 2003. That shows what a great Arsenal Man Keown was as it effectively meant seeing himself left out. With Keown's cajoling from the sidelines and advice in training, and Campbell and Lehman organising on the pitch Kolo was a star of the Invincible season. He was upset at not being made Arsenal Captain and that ultimately was what saw him move on. In truth we'd had the best out of Kolo and I'll never forget his trademark runs out of the defence, pushing us forward and making things happen. Kolo got his share of goals too and was a fabulous signing by Wenger - an archetypal Arsene Wenger buy, if you will.

Right wing - Freddie Ljungberg
It's well known that Arsene likes to scout players many times before he signs them. Freddie was the exception, signed on a whim when Le Boss gambled on him after watching Sweden v England on TV. Freddie scored on his debut but really he struggled to adapt for a year or so. He would get better and better and then cemented his position as a legend when Pires got injured in 2002. As a goalscoring midfield player he developed a seemingly telepathic bond with Dennis Bergkamp. Their combination was lethal, but never more so than in that run-in to the Double in 2001-2002. When injury finally robbed him of a yard of pace Freddie became a player who struggled, but we'd had great times with him. He loves the Club and we loved him.

Central midfield - Gilberto and Patrick Vieira
You can't have one without the other, in my opinion. There is obviously a case for putting Emmanuel Petit in there and it's a pretty close call. But Gilberto was the missing piece in Arsenal's footballing jigsaw for me. Like many I found him frustrating for a time. I couldn't understand what it was he did. Then he got injured and missed a few months. My God, how the Arsenal team missed him. At that point it was obvious what a great player Gilberto was. He was a leader on and off the pitch, and he skippered the side superbly in the first season at the new stadium while Thierry Henry was out injured. He should have been made Captain of Arsenal when Henry was sold. We still haven't really replaced Gilberto, who was released at least two years too early.
Vieira was Wenger's first gift to Arsenal. I don't think anyone will forget his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. With some players you just know from that first glimpse that they are that good. David Rocastle was like that. So were Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Vieira was the best midfield player in the World as far as I was concerned. Forget any idea that Roy Keane has some kind of measure over him - Keane was afraid of Vieira because he knew Vieira wasn't scared of him. Patrick was the dominant force in Arsene Wenger's greatest Arsenal team and, like Gilberto, should never have been sold because he could never be replaced.

Left-wing - Robert Pires
This was a close one between Pires and Marc Overmars. Pires gets the nod because I think he was a better footballer than Overmars. He had more natural ability and skill. That's not to say that Overmars wasn't skillful, but I always feel Pires could be dangerous even when his pace had departed. For Overmars his speed was key. The combination Pires formed with Ashley Cole down Arsenal's left which allowed Thierry Henry to hammer sides was probably the key attacking component of the Invincibles. He was deservedly made Footballer Of The Year for 2001-2002 after  a stellar season was cut short by a serious knee injury. That he came back to be even better tells you just how great a player Le Bob was. He left after the Champions League Final when he felt his early substitution (he was the man sacrificed after Jens was sent-off) meant he was now behind people like Hleb. That robbed us of at least two more years of Bobby at Arsenal.

Centre-forward - Thierry Henry
Quite simply Wenger's finest project. Having given him his debut as a kid at Monaco, Arsene kept tabs on Henry throughout his early years. He came to Arsenal as a winger who had briefly played in Italy (not quite as unsuccessfully as popular myth would like to suggest). After a settling in period where he struggled to adapt to English football Thierry would go on to be THE star of the Premier League. A multiple Footballer Of The Year winner he was the man who provided the gloss in Arsene Wenger's greatest side. He should have won us the Champions League in 2006 but failed to take his chances when they came that night, a familiar failing on the biggest of occasions. That doesn't detract from just what a great player he was however. The ability to control the football while running at such pace, and with such power, made him a phenomenon. Henry redefined centre-forward play in England, and probably throughout Europe. He was unstoppable over a three year period for Arsenal that brought us plenty of trophies. To me he is second only to Dennis Bergkamp as an Arsenal player.

Centre-forward - Nicolas Anelka
Slightly strange selection, I suppose. It's a shame that Anelka's career has always been simultaneously on the edge of greatness and calamity. That it now appears to have finished with the latter probably shouldn't be that much of a surprise. What a contrast to the teenager who fired us to Wenger's first Double in 1998, and nearly did it again the following season (though if Ian Wright hadn't thrown his toys out of the pram and stropped off to West Ham he might well have lost his place early in the next season after a series of bad misses). Young Player of the Year in 1999 he was persuaded by his family that he should agitate for a move away from Arsenal. When you see what happened to Henry under Wenger's tutelage you can only wonder how the even more talented Anelka (certainly as a goalscorer) might have developed. If he'd stayed then Henry might never have arrived, of course, but that makes it no less of a shame that his incredible talent never saw him become the best striker in World football. When we did sell him to Real Madrid it was for a profit of £22.5m. Wenger used it to build his training ground that would lay the foundation for the players and the success that lay ahead.
So there you have it. I suppose if I was picking some substitutes they would be:
Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Robin Van Persie.

As promised, this is the team that I would select if I was picking the best players to have appeared under Wenger:
Seaman, Dixon, Cole, Adams, Campbell, Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto, Pires, Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs: Lehmann, Keown/Bould, Lauren, Parlour, Overmars, Petit, Wright.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Arsenal paper over Tottenham's crack and the Gooners enjoy the Craic


Tim Sherwood is as deluded as the most rabid of Tottenham supporters, which is unusual considering he's an Arsenal fan. His post match interview must have been cringe worthy to the Tiny Totts watching as he claimed that Tottenham deserved to win the game and that Arsenal's win was merely "papering over the cracks" for us. What an embarrassment. If Arsenal had cracks to paper over then you can be sure that we made sure Spurs mighty cavern was filled by Tomas Rosicky's glorious strike.
At half-time I couldn't understand why Sky's experts (though one of them was self-confessed "Chelsea Man" Paul Merson) were saying how Spurs had been so dominant. Yes, they'd had a lot of the ball, but Arsenal should have been three or four up before the break. We got the first goal in stunning fashion from Tomas Rosicky (as I may have mentioned) and then hit them on the break time and again. Every time we went forward we looked like we would score. Lukas Podolski was ridiculously given offside just as he was about to lay one on a plate for Giroud before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed a hat-trick of chances on his own - did he have the right boots on yesterday? There was also time for Podolski to hit the side netting himself. As I say, we should have been away and over the hills long before half-time. What exactly did Spurs create in that half? Szczesny didn't have a save to make (in fact he didn't make one until the 89th minute).
In the second-half Arsenal were poor, there is no doubt about that. The lack of composure in possession was disturbing while the front two might as well have gone and sat in the stand. I'm sure when Arsene told Santi Cazorla to take on the Ozil role he didn't mean that he should become invisible for 90 minutes. As for Giroud I couldn't believe he got through the whole game without getting the hook. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how he ponced about at Stoke and yesterday was exactly the same. Giroud gave us nothing up front and the ball just kept coming back. I'd start with Sanogo at Chelsea next week to run their centre-backs across the pitch before bringing on Giroud when they're tired. If Giroud plays next week and he performs like that then Cahill and Terry will have the cigars on and the sun loungers out.
How about another picture?


For all that Spurs huffed and puffed in the second-half they still didn't create chances. Their best opportunity came from Szczesny dropping the ball and having to be bailed out by Koscielny and Mertesacker who were both absolutely brilliant yesterday. Szczesny has a long list of mistakes in big games, throughout his career. I wouldn't be averse to Fabianski coming in for him now. Having said that, the one thing with Wojciech is that he doesn't lack confidence and he was assured enough through the rest of the game to keep coming for high balls and taking them. His handling when Spurs finally got a shot on target was excellent. I kept hearing about the effort Adebayor was putting in, but all I saw was Mertesacker beating him in the air and Koscielny dominating on the floor. I'm not sure how they were seperated in the Man Of The Match stakes, but I suppose Bryan Robson wasn't there to accept the award for himself (ask your Dad if you're too young to get that joke).
I thought Arsene got the changes wrong yesterday. Arteta's lack of pace was causing us a problem in midfield, both going forward and in defence. I saw no point in taking off Rosicky or Podolski whose effort on either side of the pitch was massive. They also provided attacking threat for Arsenal. The commentators said that Ox had a tight calf but I don't necessarily believe that - he looked like he was moving alright in the post-match celebrations. Talking of which, this was the scene in the away end for a full twenty minutes after the game as the Gooners were locked in - it's taken ten years but the Invincibles finally have their song and I can't wait to sing it at Wembley.
Shall we have another picture?

Podolski lapping it up

I must mention Mike Dean and the fact that he had perhaps the most anonymous game I've ever seen from him and maybe the best display of refereeing I've seen all season. It was most unusual for Dean to be so invisible as he usually wants to be the star of the show. Fair play to him yesterday and he was, in hindsight, probably having his view obscured when Vertonghen fouled Koscielny for a clear Arsenal penalty late on. However, his linesman who, to that point, might have been described as a "busy little f****r" most certainly did see it yet chose to keep his flag by his side. Well played Mr Dean.

You can always rely on the Tottenham fans for comedy and they are even better in defeat than they are before games. Funnily enough I've never known them so defeatist before playing us. Most of them expected a hammering for a change. Usually they're going on about this being their year and all the nonsense we expect of them. Yesterday there were two highlights from them. The first was seeing Nacer Chadli described as a "Belgian Andy Sinton" by an old friend of mine who happens to be a Spurs fan, and the second was the gentleman pictured below on the Tube after the game. There's nothing like beating Tottenham.

They just keep on giving

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Far from disappointed

Cazorla can easily replace Ozil at this time

I thought Arsenal were pretty damn good in the Allianz Arena on Tuesday evening. We held it tight to half-time and stayed very much in the tie. The plan was clearly to open up a bit more after the interval. Sadly we were quickly a goal further behind thereafter and seemingly out of it. However, when Lukas Podolski rammed home the equaliser (how hard can this man hit a football?) you could see Bayern visibly wobbling. A better pass here and there and Arsenal would have not only won the game, but would have seriously threatened to take the tie. A 1-1 draw away to the best side in the World is not to be sniffed at. The damage had been done back in London. I just wonder how much of a classic European Cup tie might have ensued had the referee not sent off Szczesny. Arsenal proved on Tuesday that they could once again get a result against Bayern, even if they were just lacking a bit of depth in what was on the bench the other night. Imagine if we'd had Walcott or Ramsey or a top striker to be bringing on. 
I was annoyed with Ian Wright and Lee Dixon both during and after the game. At half-time Wright was moaning about how Arsenal weren't doing enough to score a goal and all that. Dixon was also saying we should have been going forward more. Given that Dixon actually played at Anfield in 1989 I found it bizarre. The score being 0-0 at half-time was just fine. We'd soaked up plenty of pressure, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was far too good for their midfield throughout. Quite how one or two Bayern players weren't booked for fouls on The Ox is a mystery. Vermaelen had Robben well scouted throughout, Sagna had Ribery in his pocket, and Koscielny and Mertesacker were mopping up just about everything that went near Mandzukic. For all Bayern's passing and pressing they hadn't threatened too much. To hear Wright and Dixon hammering the Arsenal approach made me sick. After the game they moaned that Arsenal hadn't gone for broke after getting the equaliser. As I said above, I thought we had Bayern rocking and there was a stage when we looked certain to score another goal sooner or later. Rosicky, Podolski, Arteta, Giroud, Cazorla and Gnabry were all guilty of wasting great opportunities to either create or score a goal. That's my only regret from Tuesday, that we didn't take advantage of the pressure we put them under in the last 30 minutes. To say we didn't go for it was ridiculous. I expect better from ex-Arsenal players when they're talking about a Club they still refer to as "we". I wonder what George Graham would make of the way they criticise Arsenal given that they were taught to close ranks and "be The Arsenal" as players under him.
Of course we lost Ozil at half-time. I wasn't sure he was ever really out there to be honest. He had played a better game on Saturday than we'd seen in a long time from him. He wasn't outstanding, just better. On Tuesday he was poor. It seems now that he had injured his hamstring early in the game. Did he communicate that to the bench? We looked so much better when Rosicky came on. We were quicker and more combative. Ozil had already not started the game in the centre which is perhaps an admission by Arsene Wenger that the key man at Arsenal at the moment is back to being Santi Cazorla. I read a prominent blogger this morning who tells us that anyone seeing Ozil's injury as a possible blessing is some kind of idiot. Take it from someone that goes to matches that we are far better off with Cazorla at the moment than we are with Ozil. The contention is that we will be without one of our best players but that's not really the case. The Mesut Ozil that first arrived would be a miss to the Arsenal team. The Mesut Ozil we've had since November is someone we can get by without. It should mean more playing time for Rosicky and Gnabry and Podolski, whose second-half display in Munich was probably his best Arsenal performance. Ozil being injured means that Cazorla will play in the centre more often than not and be able to dictate the play. We went in to overdrive at this stage last season with Cazorla playing behind Giroud. With Oxlade-Chamberlain potentially playing the Walcott role (or the Ramsey role as necessary) there is not a lot to be sad about with Ozil's injury. And anyway, didn't people keep on telling us he needed a mid-season break?
One final comment on the punditry from Tuesday and it concerns John Hartson, another ex-Arsenal player, who was on Radio 5. Hartson said after the game that Arsenal had been "humiliated" by Bayern Munich on Tuesday and a major overhaul of our squad was required if we were ever to compete. Considering that Hartson watched the game you would think he might have noticed that the final score was 1-1. If drawing 1-1 at the home of the European Champions is the stuff of humiliation then I wouldn't mind a bit more of it, thanks very much. Barcelona lost 7-0 to Bayern over two legs last season. That's humiliation. Losing 3-1 on aggregate having played most of the home leg with ten men is far from humiliating. Hartson should be ashamed and embarrassed at talking such nonsense and he should never work on the BBC ever again. It's as bad as anything the likes of Savage and Claridge have ever come out with.
It was important to not get hammered in Munich. In the same way that winning there last season proved the spark that got us through to the end on a high I was concerned that a beating this year would have the opposite effect. As it is, having been disgraceful at Stoke, these players have been outstanding against Everton and excellent in Munich. It's good that we played on Tuesday as it gives an extra day for recovery from all the tremendously hard work before going to Spurs on Sunday. The next few weeks are going to be ridiculously hard but, if the players perform how they have in the last two matches, we could still be very handily placed for a tilt at the Double this season.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Ox upsets Everton's cart - WEM-BER-LEE!!!!!!!!!!!

"She wore, she wore.."

That was brilliant. From start to finish I thought Arsenal were fantastic today. Every player on the pitch was giving it maximum effort, epitomised by Ozil winning an unlikely battle of strength inside his own penalty area early on. That moment brought many of us to our feet to acknowledge that the man was genuinely trying. Then he got a goal too! I hear that clown Chiles said on ITV that a 4-1 win flattered Arsenal. I've always known he was a cretin but that was quite an incredible statement. Arsenal were so dominant that 4-1 was the least we deserved on the day. Arsenal were magnificent.
The spark for me today was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His pace and power was too much for Everton. He kept swapping wings with an equally impressive Santi Cazorla (was it the fourth goal that started with him tackling someone in our penalty area?) and Baines and Coleman had no answer. I have to say that I've always doubted Baines defensively. He is clearly incredibly dangerous going forward as he can cross the ball as well as any winger, while his set-piece delivery is probably the best in the country. However, he reminded me today of Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker in that he is constantly out of position. When he was in the right place he simply didn't know how to stop his man from running at him. If Roy Hodgson was watching then I hope he noted the dominant display of the bloke playing at left-back for Arsenal this afternoon as Kieran Gibbs looked different class.
Back to the Ox and he ran the show. With the ball at his feet he moved with pace and power. His passing was incisive and, on the occasions that he made an error, he was the one chasing back and making tremendous tackles in the defensive areas. He was awarded Arsenal Player of the Month for February before the game and I reckon he might be in pole position now for the March award as well. Leaving Ox out at Stoke last week was a terrible mistake and it's one I hope won't be repeated. I couldn't believe it when he was subbed today as I thought the better move would have been to bring on Rosicky in the centre in place of Arteta. As it was the Manager undoubtedly got things right as Tomas was involved in the goals that followed.
One of the most encouraging things today was the willingness of Arsenal players to actually take a shot at goal. The Everton goalkeeper was dodgy in the extreme throughout the match (though made a couple of very decent saves from Ox and Cazorla in between the madness). Arsenal had more conviction with the ball today than they have for a while. To so completely outplay a very good side showed that they have something about them still. It sets us up well for the next few weeks. If there was a disappointment then it was our woeful delivery from wide. Sagna's generally much improved crossing was back its very worst this afternoon and we failed to make anything out of a long succession of corners. Arsenal must realise that a set-piece properly put together is a chance to score a cheap goal - God knows we concede enough from them.
There was no doubt about the penalty. Gareth Barry can't resist the urge to foul people and so it was when Chamberlain got in the area. If Arteta's first penalty was good then his second was great. It is so rare these days to see a penalty have to be taken again. Yet again Mr Clattenburg managed, I'm sure, to get the TV cameras firmly pointed in his direction with that decision. Arteta certainly showed he has some bottle to put the second penalty in to the top corner like that. I suspect that, had the goalkeeper made the save while way off his line, the penalty wouldn't have been retaken again.
I wasn't surprised to see Yaya Sanogo play today. It's fair to say he struggled a bit. There was no shortage of effort from the youngster and he had some decent moments. However, by and large, the close attention of Distin completely stymied him. It was interesting to me that, when Giroud came on, Distin didn't go near him. Having marked Sanogo so tightly I don't understand why he didn't get close to our first-choice centre-forward. Maybe Giroud is too strong for him. Distin might also have simply run out of steam. As it was I thought Giroud was superb when he came on and he added another dimension to our play. His two goals added a deserved gloss to Arsenal's day and made for a comfortable and enjoyable last ten minutes or so.
One final word and it's about the Everton fans. It seems, as with the fans of Liverpool, you can take the people out of Merseyside but you can't take Merseyside out of the people. Having moaned at their reduced allocation (caused by the setting off of smoke bombs at the Premier League game before Christmas) a number of them chose to behave badly. There were more smoke bombs (at least four straight after their equaliser) and, just like Liverpool, somebody stole the football when they were losing. Right at the end the coppers actually had to come in to the ground to stop the trouble that was starting to kick-off over in the far side of the Clock End. It's a shame they couldn't behave as I've always thought Everton's fans had a decent bit of dignity and pride. Never mind.
So now we're off to Wembley. I'd rather be playing a semi-final at Villa Park or Elland Road or Anfield or Hillsborough (not Old Trafford) but it's Wembley and that's it. I suspect we'll draw Man City, unless Dave Whelan has another of his dreams come true (did you know he broke a leg in the Cup Final? Never mentions it). Going to Wembley is always exciting, whatever you go there for. I'd have liked a bit more cup-tie atmosphere today and a bit more fervent singing of the Wembley songs (another reason why proper neutral grounds were good for the semi-finals) but we're there and right now that's what matters. I might have to invest in a yellow ribbon for the wife with a bit of luck.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Big Cup ties are what fans live for

McClair - even worse penalty than Ozil

Being over 30 I still get excited at the prospect of a sixth round FA Cup tie. It's the quarter-final of the greatest tournament in World football. Of course you wouldn't know that if you were getting your football fix from Sky or the BBC as the FA Cup has become unfashionable to them. The sixth round should mean that you're ninety minutes away from a trip to a neutral ground (I don't mean Wembley either, but that's another thing that has spoiled the FA Cup along with no replays and penalty shootouts). Sadly it has also become unfashionable to the clubs involved. Arsene Wenger told us earlier this week that he would "love to win the FA Cup again". Tomorrow he gets his chance to prove it by not "resting" any of his players from what is, as far as I'm concerned, the biggest game of our season so far.
I notice from the pictures of Arsenal in training today that Laurent Koscielny was absent. He didn't play for France in the week after getting injured in training so, along with Jack getting injured when away with England, we come out of the international fixtures minus one of our first choice centre-backs. Bringing in Thomas Vermaelen, who hasn't played in months, is not an ideal situation to be in. However, it's all we have at the moment so we have to get on with it. I don't fancy Vermaelen up against Lukaku but it will be up to The Verminator to show he's still got plenty to offer this Arsenal team. He certainly should be looking to prove something to Arsene Wenger. Nobody else should be missing from those who were available last Saturday. My personal preference would be for Szczesny to play in goal (no need to rest a goalkeeper and the idea that Fabianski automatically plays in the cups is a nonsense). Szczesny is the first-choice goalkeeper so he should play every game that matters (which is every game we play) provided he's not injured or suspended. The dilemma for Arsene Wenger is across the midfield. I expect Ozil to come back in, but who else plays? I can see Flamini and Arteta being paired once more, though I wouldn't object to Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the engine room. The Ox certainly must start the game in some position as his pace is crucial. I would also like to see Gnabry included to form a twin threat of speed, but I imagine that won't happen. Such is the way that Wenger goes about his business I also wouldn't be shocked to see Sanogo in for Giroud, but there would be a justifiable claim for that in any case after Giroud's poncey efforts at Stoke last week.
The atmosphere at the previous FA Cup tie with Liverpool was probably the best we've had in the new stadium, especially in the last thirty minutes of that game. Big FA Cup games (and League Cup games in the past) have always inspired the Arsenal hordes. Tomorrow should be no exception. The jeopardy of elimination from a tournament adds an edge to things and gets people going that little bit more. Those atmospheres have the ability to inspire your own players and intimidate the opponents. One of the North Bank's finest afternoons came in a fifth round tie against Manchester United in 1988. Just check out the reaction to Brian McClair's penalty in this video and tell me you wouldn't want to have been part of that. 
There was also a great Highbury night against tomorrow's opponents in a League Cup semi-final just a week or two later in front of one of the last 50,000+ gates at the old place. This time it's the Clock End leading the celebrations (and Perry Groves showing the importance of pace). I'd love to show these to Arsene Wenger in the hope that he might realise how important tomorrow is. It means far more than winning in Munich next week, that's for sure.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A show of faith and loyalty

"Come on Bac, what are you waiting for?"

The announcement of new contracts for Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky didn't come as too much of a surprise. Arsenal had made little secret of the fact that both were being offered deals and that agreement wasn't too far away. Keeping hold of two experienced international footballers is certainly a good thing for Arsenal and it shows that "project youth" is well and truly dead.
Mertesacker has been outstanding for the most part in the last twelve months. Yes, there is the odd game when he is way off it (Saturday against Stoke being a case in point). However, it is clear to just about anybody watching this Arsenal team (with the possible exception of Arsene Wenger) that the leader of the side is the BFG. There is no doubt that Mertesacker is exceptionally slow to cover the ground, but he has an incredible football brain. For me he is the best reader of the game we've had at Arsenal since O'Leary or Bould. That ability to see what's going to happen is what compensates for his lack of speed. If he was to have O'Leary's pace and Bouldie's nastiness he could be the best centre-back in the World. At 6'7" I would love him to be more aggressive and to attack the ball more at both ends of the pitch (and cut out the turning of his back on the ball when forwards are shooting - your paid to get hit). When Mertesacker does go for the aerial ball properly he is never beaten to it. Lose the timidness that sometimes affects his play and he will dominate even more, especially with the pace and football ability of someone like Laurent Koscielny alongside him. Signing up quality, experienced players on long-term deals is a very good thing for Arsenal. Our defence is not perfect, but it's a damn sight better when Mertesacker is in the team.
Tomas Rosicky's new deal is a little more of a departure from the established method for Arsene Wenger. Rosicky is well over 30 and has suffered more than his share of injuries during his eight years as an Arsenal player. To see him put on a two year deal might surprise the likes of Robert Pires. Unlike Mertesacker, Tomas was to be out of contract in June. As such he could have gone anywhere he wanted and got himself a nice big signing-on fee. For me his decision to stay shows a display of loyalty that is rare in the modern day footballer. As I said, Rosicky has missed a lot of football with long-term injuries. Throughout that time Arsene Wenger and Arsenal stuck by him. He still misses a number of games with knocks but when he does play he is key to the way we play. There are few players in the Arsenal squad who match the effort of Tomas. He has added a mean slide tackle to his game in the last couple of years as well. Now he has decided to repay the faith the Boss has shown him by signing on to end his career as an Arsenal player. Rosicky says he wants to win the Premier League with Arsenal before he hangs up his boots and we can all identify with that. I would say he's a true Arsenal man.
Now then, Bacary, how about you?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The night everything changed for the better

When Rocky revived The Arsenal

Two of Arsenal's senior players were announced as having signed new contracts today. Good news indeed. However, I'm not going to go in to that this evening - it can wait until tomorrow. Instead I'm going down memory lane. My favourite posts that I've written have been the ones that reminisce on the past in some way and this is no exception. 
Twenty-seven years ago this very night the modern era of Arsenal was started by a last minute goal from David Rocastle. It would mark the beginning of a run of success that would continue until 2005 in Cardiff (or Paris the following year, perhaps). In many ways it's the moment that makes the current trophyless spell all the more hard to watch. March 4th 1987 didn't end with silverware, but the nature of the win gave the players the belief and the springboard they needed to beat Liverpool at Wembley six weeks later. It was the end of a three part drama played out in North London and saw more successful comebacks than the career of Elvis Presley (that might be an exaggeration).
I was still only seven at this time all those years ago. We'd earned the replay with a win the previous Sunday, coming back from 2-0 down on aggregate to get the result. I can remember that pretty well, especially Quinny's sliding finish for the winner. It seems bizarre now that ITV should choose to not screen the replay live on that Wednesday night. I suppose it also seems bizarre now that there was a replay in the first place. Younger readers will be shocked to know that the League Cup (Littlewoods Cup) was a massive thing back in the 1980s. 
With TV only providing us with late night highlights you had to have a ticket to actually see the game. For those of us who weren't at White Hart Lane it was a case of tuning in to Radio 2 (there was no Radio 5 in those days). There was no DAB signal either. 
I can remember the scene in our house pretty well. Being a very young boy I didn't have the patience or the concentration to be listening to crackling voices on a radio all evening. As such I was in and out of the darkened bedroom where my Dad and brothers were listening to the game. My eldest brother (who had turned 15 on the day of the second leg) was wearing, as he did for every game we played around that time, his yellow Arsenal hat. For some reason he had decided this was "lucky" and so he couldn't possibly be listening to the game without wearing it (me and my other brother had less faith in the mystical powers of our half-and-half Arsenal/Celtic and Arsenal/Rangers bobble hats). They were more quiet listening to that game than they ever would be these days, but I suppose there aren't many games that are listened to like that in these days of digital TV and broadband. As for the content of the commentary it's more than hazy.
I suspect that my constant coming and going got on the nerves of the other three huddled round the wireless. Given how annoying I was as a little brother I probably got told more than once to either stay or go. I do remember the cheering (I think) when Rocky got the winner. We were all allowed to stay up (was it half-term?) to watch the highlights that night. Being as young as I was I clearly didn't understand what it actually meant, even though I was becoming mad on Arsenal by then, much as my own eldest boy has over the last two years (he is eight now). At the same time I knew that it meant David Rocastle was a hero. He was my hero (along with Charlie Nicholas, of course). I knew from the smiles on the others' faces that this was big.
When it came to the Final I missed out. Dad could only get three tickets so, being the youngest, I was the one who couldn't go. I'd have to wait until the Luton game a year later for my first Arsenal match at Wembley. I'd leave disappointed that day, but the events of March 4th 1987 had marked an upturn in Arsenal's fortunes that none of us could have imagined would carry us to where it did. 
In hindsight I wish I'd been a couple of years older. I could have appreciated what was going on that much more. I'd remember it much more clearly now. Regardless of how old I was I'm definitely pleased it happened. I'm pleased that it lead to what we enjoyed for the rest of the Graham era and most of the Wenger era. As for Spurs, they've never recovered, and we can all be happy about that.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Like going back in time

Utter shambles

It's many years now since Allardyce first demonstrated that Arsenal could be beaten by physical intimidation and non-stop fouling. Over those years referees, The FA and the media have failed to get a grip on such tactics. It's cost Arsenal three shattered legs in the process. However, another thing that has happened over those years (or not happened as the case may be) is that Arsene Wenger has failed to send out a team that is prepared for, and willing to go up against, this kind of thing. Instead of fighting back a bit the Arsenal players have resorted to whingeing and whining at the officials for protection. It should be obvious by now that the referees are incapable of policing games in the way they should. The only way to deal with it is to show that you're not going to have it and start cutting up a bit rough yourselves. That doesn't mean going around kicking people. It means getting up when you've been fouled and getting in the face of the opponent. Hitting them hard in the tackle. Knocking them about in the aerial duels. Show them you won't be cowed by their attempts to bully.
Yesterday there were two clear instances of Olivier Giroud being stamped on. On both occasions he gave a small moan in the direction of the referee. Where were the other players? Why weren't they piling in on the likes of Whelan and Adam? Lukas Podolski said this week that he's never known such a good team spirit. So why weren't they diving in on behalf of their centre-forward? I don't give a toss that Arsenal got panned for going after Van Nistelrooy in 2003 at Old Trafford. The Dutch diver had wronged the Arsenal skipper and the likes of Keown and Lauren and Parlour and Cole weren't going to let it happen. It was the same in 1989 and 1990 against Norwich and Man Utd. The message from people like Davis and Rocastle and Adams and Thomas was that they weren't going to take any crap against their team mates.
You need leadership in these type of games. In recent years we'd been sorely lacking this. We all thought that had changed with people like Mertesacker around, but not yesterday. With an opponent sent out solely to kick you off the pitch (we shouldn't be surprised by this - Mark Hughes made an entire career out of it and Stoke know only one way to "play") then your Captain should be in the ear of the referee all the time. Make it clear what's going on. Keep badgering him until he opens his eyes to the thing that is obvious to everyone watching. John Terry is constantly talking to the referee. Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand are also always in the referees face. It's not a nice thing to see, but when the refereeing is so unbelievably weak you have to make sure you're on a level playing field. I didn't see Arteta or Mertesacker go near Mike Jones yesterday. Mertesacker was too busy making Peter Crouch look like a good player. We missed Flamini yesterday in every way possible (more of which below).
Let's deal with the penalty. As far as I'm concerned it was a correct decision by Mr Jones. You can argue that it was ball to hand as the players were so close together but there was simply no need for Koscielny to have his arm in the air like that. If your arm is that high then you are giving the referee the chance to make a decision. If it had been at the other end we'd have been screaming for a penalty. Away from home you might not get it, but that doesn't mean it's not a penalty. The fact is that Koscielny has a problem with making stupid mistakes in his own area that often lead to the concession of penalties. To add some balance I should point out that Phil Thompson said it definitely wasn't a penalty on Sky after the game. He also was disgusted at the kicking the Arsenal players were getting. If Thompson, not famed in any way for defending Arsenal, says things were bad then you know it's the truth.
As for the game as a whole we were awful. There were no tackles or tactics. There was no heart, no bottle, no fight and precious little football until Oxlade-Chamberlain came on. I said on Twitter before kick-off that we would need to start quickly, as we did against Bayern Munich, and get Stoke on the back foot. Instead of that we were timid and lacklustre. It's been the same for weeks now in away games. Southampton, Liverpool, Stoke City. All three performances have been woeful from the first whistle. 
The team selection itself was bizarre. I was naturally very pleased to see Gibbs was fit to play. I was also pleased to see Podolski in the side and Ozil not in it. What I couldn't understand was why Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain were both on the bench. At Stoke, perhaps more than anywhere else, we needed Flamini. Do you think Charlie Adam would have got away with it had Flamini been on the pitch? Of course he wouldn't. Without The Ox we had no pace, yet again. With no pace we carry no threat. All we have is the Giroud "wall-pass" that has now become so easy to defend against that it's embarrassing. Jack Wilshere spends every game rolling around on the floor clutching his ankles - if he's that injured he shouldn't be on the pitch. When Chamberlain did come on we suddenly started getting in behind them (Ozil passed to an Arsenal player on one occasion when he came on which is frankly an embarrassment) and we should have got a scarcely deserved equaliser through Sanogo. If Nicklas Bendtner had missed that chance you wouldn't have heard the end of it. Wenger got things so badly wrong yesterday that you have to wonder if we haven't regressed years in the space of the last few weeks.
For all that the players talked the talk but failed to walk the walk this week (Rosicky claimed on Friday that we would have to match Stoke physically - actions speak louder than words) the blame is squarely at the foot of our inept Manager. The attitude of the players at the start of the game is set in the changing room by Arsene Wenger. With all the nonsense the idiot Stoke fans have been spouting at Aaron Ramsey this week a team talk need hardly have been necessary. The players should have been shown what was being said and that should have been enough to have them properly fired up. This is not Wenger's way and it is constantly costing a team incapable (or not allowed) of thinking for itself. Yesterday was as bad as any of those games against Bolton under Allardyce, or Stoke under Pulis, where Arsenal allowed themselves to be bullied out of the match. The Title challenge looks like it is crumbling. I just hope Wenger realises the important game is the one next Saturday in the FA Cup and that he doesn't rest anyone ahead of chasing a pipe dream in Munich.