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Friday, 23 January 2015

I can never forgive Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry

The King and The Greatest

The two best footballers I've ever seen at Arsenal are Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Dennis is, quite simply, the greatest as far as I'm concerned. It says it all about how good he was that I don't rate Henry as the best in my time. These two men are responsible, at least in part, for a number of the best things I've watched from an Arsenal side, and they provide some of the greatest memories. But there are two things for which they are responsible, two moments in Arsenal's history, from which I never have, and never will, recover. It seems ridiculous to even mention failures from two men with over 300 Arsenal goals and numerous medals between them. Sadly, they are both one goal and (at least) one medal short of the totals they should have achieved. You're probably reading this and wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Well, in my years of watching Arsenal there are three matches that stand out for me and that I can't forget for all the wrong reasons. The first one has nothing do with the players as we were robbed of the 2001 FA Cup Final by the referee, Steve Dunn. The other two are the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999 and the European Cup Final of 2006. For those, as far as I'm concerned, the blame for Arsenal losing falls on the shoulders of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. These two games sometimes still come to my mind when I can't sleep and the anger that wells up inside me from the vision I still see of the chances missed doesn't help me to drop off.
There is a supreme irony in the case of Dennis Bergkamp's penalty against Manchester United. That night he had, to that point, his best game for Arsenal. He had been too quick, too physically strong, and far too skilful for Jaap Stam. He had knocked Stam all over the place and scored a deserved, albeit deflected, equaliser in the second-half. He was the best player in our side, the best player on the pitch, and the only man who was ever going to take the penalty when Ray Parlour was fouled in the last minute. One thing we knew was that the Ice Man would not buckle under pressure. For him to miss it having played so well just seemed wrong.
Standing in the Holte End, about 125 metres behind Dennis Bergkamp, many couldn't watch. I did. I can still see it now. The thing is that I think we all knew where the penalty was going to be directed. Schmeichel clearly did. On this occasion it wasn't hit hard enough, or far enough in to the corner, to beat the goalkeeper. Watching some of the more recent documentaries on Dennis something about his penalties becomes obvious. The fact is that whenever he had to take a pressure penalty he always put it in the same place. He'd done it the year before in the League Cup semi-final at Chelsea and just got away with it. There are numerous examples. Most pertinently he had taken a penalty against Denmark at Euro 92 and beaten Schmeichel low to his left. The Dane clearly never forgot.
What annoys me most is that Dennis' miss allowed that Manchester United side, which wasn't really better than the Arsenal team, to go on and win three trophies. It allowed Ryan Giggs to score that bloody winning goal that keeps coming back to haunt me on TV. It allowed Man Utd to hijack 26th May as a great day in their history, as well as ours. But more than anything it meant we went on to win nothing that season. We should have won the Premier League. We should have (would have) won the FA Cup. I am certain that the defeat would have knocked it all out of that Man Utd side, knowing that they hadn't beaten us all season (including a couple of 3-0 thrashings early on) and we'd have completed back to back Double wins. It's one of the great footballing injustices that the Arsenal team of 1998-99 won nothing, while Man Utd won it all. Unfortunately it's Dennis Bergkamp's fault.
Thierry Henry, Arsenal's record goal scorer, is the reason we haven't won the European Cup. I don't say that lightly. Of course there are plenty of other reasons when you dig down, but we have never come closer than in 2006. We have never been in a position, before or since, where the winning of football's biggest club prize was on the end of the right foot of our best player. Shortly before Barcelona equalised in that game Thierry Henry was in exactly that position.
Unlike the Bergkamp penalty Arsenal were attacking the end where we were all stood (nobody was sitting) in Paris. I can clearly see Hleb play Henry in on goal to the right side of the penalty area. I can see Valdes not really in position in front of me, with most of the right of the goal (Thierry's left) available. It is almost identical to the goal Nicolas Anelka scored in the 1998 FA Cup Final. I see Henry draw back his foot, and I see the ball go straight at Valdes. It was an appalling finish. We would have been 2-0 up and the game over, European Cup in the bag. Thierry Henry, the best player in the World, was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He could have gone round Valdes, he could have smashed it, he could have done anything he wanted. Why did he put it so close to Valdes?
Thierry says now that he was simply exhausted as we'd played so long with ten men against a great Barcelona team, and he just didn't have the energy to finish properly. You have to take him at his word, I suppose, but it's not an excuse I can accept. Arsenal should have a European Cup to show off. We should have been the first London side to win it. Arsene Wenger should have had his Holy Grail. We have none of that. Unfortunately it's Thierry Henry's fault.
I've waited a long time to get this all off my chest. I can now  get back to honouring Dennis and Thierry properly for being utterly, utterly brilliant for Arsenal Football Club. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Let this be the point of change

Let's celebrate Santi

Over the last two Sundays Arsenal have produced their best performances of the season. Even more heartening and exciting than that is the fact that they were two totally different kinds of display, albeit both predicated on the defining principle of unquestioning hard work and discipline. Against Stoke we had less cause to defend, though working hard high up the pitch gave us the ball in advanced areas. Yesterday, against a far better side than Stoke City, it was more about being properly organised with a dominant midfield axis of Coquelin and Cazorla. I was sitting at home late last night and I thought about where I'd seen this kind of thing from an Arsene Wenger team in the past and I could think of two previous games like this - Old Trafford in 1998 and at home to Real Madrid in 2006. As was the case in those two games it wasn't just about defending as we were also very dangerous going forward. Where it was Santi Cazorla yesterday, it was Marc Overmars against Manchester United and Thierry Henry against Real Madrid those years ago. Where it was Coquelin yesterday it was Petit and Vieira at Old Trafford and Gilberto at beautiful old Highbury. When you watch football then it's performances like the one Arsenal produced yesterday that make you love it.
Regular readers will know I am not Arsene Wenger's biggest fan. He is too inflexible, too determined that his team must play "his" way and not adapt to the opponent. Well yesterday he showed that, when he wants to, he can do tactics. The side was set up, and sent out, to do a particular job and knowing that they have enough quality when they get the ball they could create opportunities.
I am utterly amazed, having just watched Match Of The Day from last night, that there is even a question of debate over whether or not we should have been awarded the penalty. Since when was a blatant body-check not a foul? Trevor Sinclair and Robbie Savage (remember the glorious careers those two had) accused Monreal of diving (or "simulation" as Sinclair put it). How the BBC can continue to market the show as a serious football programme while employing such poor quality "pundits" is beyond my comprehension. And the goal was the least that Arsenal deserved. Having contained City's attempts at a fast start I thought we were controlling them very well, and Alexis was causing them problems, albeit without much end product. My only disappointment, aside from the return of Aaron Ramsey's ever more infuriating back-heels, was that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain chose a game against the worst full-back in the Premier League in which to have a stinker. For some reason Ox just couldn't get the ball under his spell enough yesterday and it let Clichy off the hook - when Rosicky and Flamini were on the pitch we finally saw what should have been happening all day long. The only times we looked like we might be in trouble were when City tried to break on occasion and expose the gap left by Ramsey who likes to sprint forward but jog back slowly (if Rosicky had come on for him instead of Ox then we'd have won by four goals easily). Thankfully Coquelin and Cazorla were in no mood to let City get in at Mertesacker and Koscielny.
I felt Olivier Giroud wasn't great before half-time, but his second-half display was surely the best of his Arsenal career. Vincent Kompany had no answer to Giroud's strength and first-touch. I've never seen him dragging the ball out of the air in the way he was yesterday and it was a joy to watch from a player who hasn't necessarily been at his best since coming back from injury. On the subject of Kompany, how did that guy stay on the pitch? I kept reading people on Twitter last night saying how well Mike Dean had done. What utter poppycock. Kompany could have gone for the foul on Monreal, yet wasn't booked. Millions of people then watched him repeatedly swear at the referee after he finally got a yellow card, only to be called back and warned by the ref (plenty of Sunday League officials will be thanking Dean for that). And then he took Alexis out with a quite disgraceful foul on the edge of the City box in the second-half and got away with that too!  If that is Mike Dean having a good game then God help us! Giroud, meanwhile, got his reward with that well taken header for the second goal.
What can you say about Santi Cazorla? In the past I've lamented his inconsistency, but in the last two months he has been brilliant for Arsenal. Moved back in to the centre he has been dominant. People have gone on and on about Alexis, but Santi has been quietly influencing our best stuff for weeks. Yesterday he put in the sort of performance that becomes legend. He was making tackles in his own penalty area, winning headers, running with the ball with skill and pace, and making key passes in attacking areas. Quite simply there is no way Mesut Ozil can come back in to this Arsenal team at the moment. Why would you want to move Cazorla out of the centre, and why would you ever play Ozil out wide?
Of course there have been times in the past where Arsenal have played well and we've all wanted it to be the turning point. We've turned so many times that we've gone backwards more than once. However, yesterday was so different in the way we went about our business, and the quality of the opponent, that you just feel that maybe something has changed. Perhaps the penny has finally dropped. There is a fear that it makes Arsene Wenger feel justified in not supplementing this squad with a signing or three, but if it marks the point at which things change for the better then we might yet be on the verge of something special. The Premier League, of course, is gone but those tactics and that intensity can be applied against opponents in the European Cup too. Play like that and you've got a chance against anyone. And in a cup competition you only need to give yourself a chance and anything is possible. Let it be the point of change Arsene as I'd love to be proved wrong, and a trip to Berlin in June wouldn't go amiss.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Football 3 - 0 Rugby

Everybody is happy

If you're an Arsenal fan and you're not happy with the performance against Stoke City then you need to get out more. I don't care if you're staunchly in the Wenger out camp, this was Arsenal playing their best football of the season and putting in a great team performance all across the pitch. The passing was quick, the movement superb, and we were excellent without the ball as almost all the other players finally followed the example of Alexis. It was as far removed from our performance away at Stoke a few weeks ago as it's possible to be. Following that game I tore in to Arsene Wenger for the mentality given to the players before kick-off, leading to the concession of a goal after twenty seconds. Today he clearly had the players right up for it and it was brilliant.
I couldn't go to the game again so I had to make do with Sky. It's always disappointing to miss a game when the players turn on the style. It was far and away our best performance of the season as far as I'm concerned, and probably the best all round team display since the FA Cup quarter-final against Everton. Even Per Mertesacker looked better today, though I do wish he'd show a bit more feistiness at times, as well as getting in the face of a referee who was willing to let Stoke get away with some terrible behaviour.
Mathieu Debuchy is likely to be out for a while again now with a dislocated shoulder. Once again an Arsenal player has been nobbled by a Stoke thug. Why did Arnautovic feel the need to shove him in the back with the ball, and Debuchy, already off the pitch? It seems that Stoke's players simply can't help themselves but to be violent when they play Arsenal. But then you only have to look at Mark Hughes sitting on the bench to see where they get it from. Remember his Blackburn side targeting the knee of Cesc Fabregas in the FA Cup semi-final of 2005? Quite incredibly Mr Moss dismissed the incident involving Debuchy and wasn't even calling for medical help until Mertesacker started waving frantically for it himself.
Peter Crouch was up next. He spent the whole game kicking and pushing at our BFG (who I really wanted to see give some back) but saved his best for the eye of Nacho Monreal. Isn't it amazing how many times Crouch accidentally catches someone in the face with the pointy part of his elbow? Again, Mr Moss didn't care. And he kept on not caring as foul after foul was made, but often not penalised with so much as a free-kick. I found myself lamenting the fact that this Arsenal team doesn't have a player or two who will decide, in those situations, that enough is enough and they're going to start fighting back. Today the players did that with the ball, but maybe the likes of Stoke might be less inclined to try and bully Arsenal if someone like Lauren was still about.
I'm running out of things to say about Alexis. He created Koscielny's goal, scored a magnificent Arsenal second, and then got the third with a little help from the otherwise excellent Begovic. That second goal was put together in the way that Wenger's teams used to hit opponents. Closing down, quick passing, movement off the ball and a great finish. The TV cameras kept cutting to Thierry Henry and Robert Pires in the crowd and it could easily have been themselves putting that move together down the Arsenal left. It was a beautiful goal from our best player. The only trouble is that it's only a matter of time before Man City or Real Madrid come in and offer outrageous money if he carries on in this way.
If there was a criticism today then it was that we didn't go on and humiliate Stoke following the third goal (incidentally Mr Moss showed just what little authority he has on the pitch with the wall for the free-kick - they wouldn't move back so he simply sprayed the grass around them, seven yards from the ball, rather than dealing with the issue). On the day it's a small criticism of Arsenal really, and Theo and then Ozil could easily have made it the four or five goal smashing that the performance deserved. It really was a very satisfying display, and we'll need the same intensity all over the pitch at Manchester City next week. Now if we could just have a signing or two before then...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Lots of options but no solutions Arsene

"Why didn't you give me a chance Arsene?"

This is the first blog post of 2015 and it isn't a particularly happy one. The two performances on the pitch since the turn of the year have basically summed up this team - totally outplayed and utterly disinterested (bar the obvious exception of a certain player from Chile) against a decent opponent, followed by a dominant and comfortable display against an abysmal Hull City side. People used to say that the Arsenal team of last season were flat track bullies. Compared to this lot they were World beaters.
If there is a positive to come from the Southampton game it may well be that Wojciech Szczesny has finally been found out by his Manager. His performance, and his behaviour after the match (Arsenal haven't denied anything written in the newspapers) ought to mean that he is no longer first choice. Following a good game at West Ham we really should have known he would mess it all up at Southampton. I don't think any player I've ever seen quite believes his own hype in the way that Szczesny does. And that's not to say that Ospina is the answer - I'm not a fan of short goalkeepers, he is yet to prove he can stay fit for more than five minutes, and he is to kicking a football what I am to running marathons. However, as an experienced international player he can't be expected to sit on the bench behind a goalkeeper who has not improved since he came in to the first team a few years ago. Let's be honest here, Szczesny isn't really any better than Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone. He certainly isn't good enough to play for a team that has any genuine designs on winning the major trophies on a regular basis.
Of course there is one thing that has really, really annoyed me in the last week and that is the departure of Lukas Podolski. I can't blame the German for wanting out as it was becoming more and more obvious with each passing week that Wenger didn't want him at Arsenal. When we signed Lukas Podolski I wrote a piece on this site saying how excited I was about it. For me it was the biggest signing we'd made since Sol Campbell - a World Class striker had signed for Arsenal, a man with a quite incredible record in front of goal. He was set to be paired with Robin Van Persie and Arsenal were going places! And then we sold Van Persie. Podolski found himself as the lone striker for the first game of the season and it was a pointless exercise. That very day Arsene Wenger seemed to decide he didn't really want Poldi. He was shunted out to the left, while Giroud came in to play as the man alone up front. It was obvious to everyone that Podolski wasn't suited to the role on the wing as tracking back isn't his game. At the same time Giroud was crying out for support through the middle. In short, we had the chance to play two up front and make the best of the players we had. Wenger chose not to. And has kept choosing not to throughout Podolski's time at Arsenal - with two notable exceptions; in the semi-final and final of the FA Cup last year he took off Podolski in order to put on Sanogo to support Giroud. In fairness the move had the desired effect in both matches, but surely putting your best finisher (Wenger's own words just two days before the Wigan game, lest we forget) at centre-forward might have been an idea, would it not?
I am gutted to see Podolski leave Arsenal. He never had the chance to play properly for us, and now he has been forced out. This is a player with 31 goals in 82 appearances, which actually equates to a goal every 150 minutes spent on the pitch. Almost all of those goals were scored while playing out of position. Can a team like Arsenal really afford to lose that sort of potency? Can we really afford not to have adapted the system to make the best out of him?
The counter to all of that is to say that Wenger shouldn't be changing the way the team plays just to suit one player. But that wouldn't be the case. Every single striker in the Arsenal squad would benefit from playing two up front (even Sanogo). Arsene named a load of forwards on Sunday when questioned about Podolski, and said he has a number of "solutions" up front. Nonsense. He has many options, but not a single solution all the time we play only one striker. He even had the brass neck to mention Joel Campbell, a man yet to play as a striker at Arsenal and who he didn't even bring on at 2-0 down last Thursday, while not talking about Chuba Akpom who did! Solutions? Do me a favour.
Of all the forwards in the Arsenal squad there is only one who has anything approaching the ability to play as a lone striker and that is Giroud. Welbeck needs support, Alexis needs support, Theo Walcott simply can't play there, Sanogo is as far removed from a Premier League player as it's possible to be, Campbell might not be physical enough (though I must say I thought he had a good game on Sunday) and Akpom is big and strong but has no experience. Even Giroud is reliant on Ramsey or Cazorla or Ozil getting around him when the ball is played forward. The fact is that any talk of "solutions" coming from within is nonsense, unless we change the game we play. And surely anyone can see that Arsenal would be far better served to make best use of what they have, rather than constantly putting square pegs in round holes. It's a madness that has already cost us Lukas Podolski, while Giroud has not exactly covered himself in glory lately, incurring a very rare public dressing down from Arsene Wenger. So where are we going, apart from further backwards?