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Friday, 23 October 2015

This is how it should be


The last few weeks have been good for us Arsenal supporters. Five goals away at Leicester preceded an international break book-ended by different styles of 3-0 wins, and that was followed up quickly by a 2-0 home victory over the most in form side in Europe. It's fair to say that Arsenal are playing pretty well at the moment and it is impressive that they have been able to win these games in different ways.
I haven't written since before Watford so I'll deal with that first. I felt the attitude of the players was all wrong in the first-half. Following the way we had beaten Manchester United I had hoped for the same effort early on at Vicarage Road. Given the difference in the quality of the opponent, had we played the same way last Saturday we might have got another glut of early goals. As it was we started fairly brightly before Watford's enthusiasm got them on top for a good spell. They created a chance or two that were spurned and Ramsey missed an even bigger sitter for us than the one against the Mancs. Mr Tyler on Sky Sports was willing Troy Deeney to get a goal against us and he seemed to be the key player for the Hornets. He reminded me a lot of people like Kevin Davies and Peter Crouch in the way that, whenever the ball is played towards him in the air, his first move is a foul on the defender that always seems to go unnoticed by the officials, before invariably hitting the deck himself to try and win a free-kick. It is an effective style, but both Crouch and Davies were better footballers than Deeney and that's probably why he is not hitting the net in the Premier League.
The second-half saw more of Watford putting pressure on without genuinely threatening, up to roughly the hour mark. It was at this point that Mesut Ozil seemingly decided he ought to put in some effort and, with Alexis as energetic as ever, the pair combined to put Watford away in good style. The lay-off by Ozil for Giroud's goal was sensational and that's what you pay the big bucks for. I give Ozil plenty of stick, and I truly believe he deserves it most of the time, but when he turns it on he is sensational. The third goal, while a deflected Ramsey shot, belonged to Hector Bellerin for a brilliant run in to the box and short pass that laid it on a plate for the Boyo. More on Hector below.
So a 3-0 win at Watford was more than adequate. The way Arsenal went in to overdrive as Watford's hard work began to tire them out was familiar for the way Wenger's teams used to play when faced with a determined opponent. There was no lack of patience in the players and, once they got in front, they went forward with the idea of putting the game away. It was impressive and it afforded Arsene Wenger the chance to give Ozil and Alexis a short rest towards the end of the game. All in all it was a very satisfactory performance.

The game on Tuesday is the sort of fixture that makes qualifying for the Champions League exciting. There is no doubt that the group stages can often be a bit of a bore. Being in pot 2 this year meant we were likely to get one of the genuine European giants in our group and so it proved in the shape of Bayern Munich. The chance to see players like Neuer, Lahm, Muller and Lewandowski is what European nights should really be all about. With Bayern's form being second to none at the moment I think we all knew a tough night was in prospect, regardless of them missing Gotze, Robben and Ribery.
The first-half was pretty even. Bayern had more possession and their movement is excellent, but when Arsenal got on the ball we created some chances. Their centre-halves seemed genuinely afraid of Theo Walcott's pace and, had he not reverted to the player who seems incapable of running with the ball without standing on it, he would have been in on goal a couple of times. Cech made a couple of good saves, but the best chances of the half were Arsenal's. The cross from Monreal for Waclott's header was perfect and Theo should have buried it. Having said that it was a remarkable save from Neuer to claw the ball off the line as he did. I'm sure Theo felt he simply had to head it at goal to score but Neuer's athleticism is incredible. When it fell then to Aaron Ramsey we all knew it was 1-0 to Arsenal but he somehow missed the goal completely. It summed up his season so far really. The most dangerous player on the pitch was Douglas Costa who was giving Hector Bellerin a really terrible time throughout the first-half. He seemed even quicker than Bellerin, even with the ball at his feet. Costa looks an incredible talent.
After half-time it felt like we were getting a football lesson. It was really men against boys for most of the time as we just couldn't get on the ball enough. Bayern passed and moved in such a brilliant way that they were pulling us all over the place. When we did get the ball it seemed that Ozil kept running it in to touch, or Alexis appeared determined to keep putting Lewandowski in against our goalkeeper. What was noticeable from my seat was how Arsenal formed up to stop the threat. Ozil dropped in to make a five man midfield line, with Theo left to plough a very lone furrow up front. Starved of any real service that was an impossible job for Walcott. Ramsey's injury saw the introduction of the ineffective (what is wrong with him at the moment?) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I would have preferred to see Giroud come on at that point with Theo's pace moved to the right-wing. The introduction of The Ox merely exposed Bellerin even more as he was failing to help his full-back properly, and not for the first time. However, Hector Bellerin is a proper player. He got better and better as the game went on and ended up winning the battle with Douglas Costa. It's not just Bellerin's pace that is impressive. I love the way that he adapts his game to the match situation. He seems to learn on the job extremely quickly. It was the same against Man Utd when they moved Rooney to the left and Fellaini kept drifting out there too. Bellerin simply took the challenge in his stride and put them both in his pocket. It could be that we are seeing the start of the career of a player who will go on to become one of THE great full-backs. Unfortunately Barcelona will be circling if he continues like this.
When Olivier Giroud finally came on the game changed. It coincided with Bayern taking off Alonso which meant they seemed to lose their defensive game in the midfield. There was also one other factor at play, and it is something I have spoken about in the past that is particular to Guardiola's teams. He sends them out to play a high energy pressing game, allowing them to win possession high up the pitch and use their better players to continuously attack the opposition defence. If you watch his Bayern side they play just the same way as his Barcelona team, but this lot don't have Lionel Messi. I would say that Bayern don't have much at the back, but the problem is getting enough of the ball to actually test them - Arsenal showed that they are over-reliant on Neuer at times. The key to beating Guardiola's teams is to stick with them. I'm sure from the way Arsenal didn't go for it early on that Wenger planned all along to keep it tight and hit them late in the match. The high pressing game I've written about above is great as long as it results in goals. If it doesn't, and you can get to 70-75 minutes within one goal of them, then they are there for the taking. The style of play that Guardiola employs takes it out of his players. The consequence to this is that the opposition can use their own fitness to go after your tired players as the clock ticks down. Arsenal did the same thing to Barcelona a few years ago as they did to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. It's easier said than done, of course, but it seems to me that this is the way you beat Pep Guardiola.
The first Arsenal goal had an element of luck involved in the way that Giroud bundled it over the line, but you have to get in there to score those goals and the delivery has to be good too. I really never expected Neuer to go full Almunia on us but coming, as it did, just moments after Cech had made his own amazing save to deny Lewandowski it was the difference between the sides on the night. The second goal was, as with the one at Watford, all down to that man Bellerin. Having worked so hard for the whole game it was unbelievable that he should be able to show such pace and such stamina, and then such poise, to beat two players and lay it on a plate for Ozil. Neuer all but saved it, but I could see from my seat that it was definitely over the line and I would have been fuming had the officials not given the goal. 
To beat Bayern Munich 2-0 was a great result. We are now in with half a chance of qualifying for the next round, but avoiding defeat in the return game will be necessary for that to happen in my opinion. What it should do is give further confidence to the players. They have proved that, with effort and organisation, and a top goalkeeper, they can stop any team from scoring a goal. 
To have been there and watched these two excellent football teams go toe-to-toe was something of a privilege. It should be noted that what we saw the other night was a display of mesmeric football from two sides, and two managers, that had ultimate respect for one another. There was none of the nonsense that pervades most of the Premier League games and it must have been a joy for the neutral too. This winning lark is very enjoyable and I hope it continues tomorrow evening at home to Everton.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Another rent-a-gob returns

"You're more deluded than Rodgers"

As you know, I am not one to sing the praises of Arsene Wenger on a regular basis. However, I am always offended on his behalf when jokers like Sam Allardyce regain the ear of their mates in the press, with the express intention of making headlines for themselves at Wenger's expense. It says a lot about Allardyce that he chose to talk about Arsene on the day he took over at the worst team in the Premier League. I suppose it was his intention to do anything other than mention the fact that Sunderland are in all sorts of trouble and he isn't that likely to be able to get them out of it. It also enabled him to deflect attention away from his sacking at West Ham, brought about by the fact that he had no idea how to get them playing the sort of football the regulars like to watch at Upton Park, almost regardless of any results.
Allardyce, lest we forget, was the pioneer of the "kick Arsenal off the pitch" style of play. It was his Bolton Wanderers side that booted our players out of the Title race in 2003 with an unpunished assault on top footballers of the type Leeds United indulged in during the early 70's. The difference between Allardyce's Bolton and Revie's Leeds was that the Yorkshire side also had brilliant footballers of their own. The big walrus-faced cretin that is Allardyce became famous off the back of "knowing how to beat Arsenal". In reality this meant he was in charge of a media-sponsored, FA backed, campaign to physically injure Arsenal players during a football match. The end results of this "style" were smashed legs for Abou Diaby, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey. After all, those namby-pamby foreigners didn't like it up 'em Mr Mainwaring.
I despise Allardyce. He is the type of boorish throwback that English football should have left behind years ago. He is, thankfully, the last of the dinosaurs who think physical, thuggish football is the way to go in England (at the top level, at least). Is it any wonder English players lack the technical ability of their European and South-American rivals? My ten year-old plays for a local team and is lucky enough (now) to have a coach who teaches football to them properly rather than what I see from many of their opponents (and the bloke who ran his former team) where it is all about hitting the ball long and shouting loudly about "getting in to them" for example. Allardyce also thinks he is "friends" with Alex Ferguson. I've no doubt Ferguson kept on the right side of Allardyce as his players tended not to go for United in the way they did Fergie's rivals at Arsenal - nothing to do with enjoying a bottle of wine with the old Scottish alcoholic after another drubbing of course.
Arsene Wenger is an erudite, educated, articulate man and an advocate of the best kind of football. Can Allardyce really be surprised that Wenger didn't want to invite him in for a drink? Is he really surprised that Wenger disliked losing to his band of thugs? Why would Arsene Wenger have any interest in discussing football with a man who hasn't the first idea about playing a passing game and exciting football? Signing Jay Jay Okocha and Yourri Djorkaeff didn't mean Bolton played good football, it just meant they'd brought in a couple of really good players and not used them properly in the twilight of their careers.
The problem with Allardyce being back is that the media fall over themselves for his quotes, especially where Wenger (and Mourinho) are concerned. There is no doubt Allardyce has some kind of formula for getting results against Arsenal and Chelsea, and for winding up the aforementioned managers. However, both Wenger and Mourinho can simply point at their career trophy cabinets and laugh in Allardyce's face. Here is a man who claimed he could manage Real Madrid and still thinks he might replace Roy Hodgson with England. He makes Brendan Rodgers look level-headed. Sadly the press love him. I've never had any particular ill-will towards Sunderland until now, but I really hope they get relegated so that Fat Sam can sod-off back to Real Madrid as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

A positive international break

Alexis Sanchez of Chile

Regular readers will know I am not a fan of the international break. I believe football would be a far better sport without international football being played at any time during the season, with all those fixtures played once domestic hostilities were over for the year - by shortening the season so that it started later and finished earlier all the international games could be done before the end of May in any year outside of a major championship. That being the case it may come as a surprise that I'm writing with some positivity about this latest pause to allow our players to turn out for someone who doesn't pay their wages.
For Arsenal's players this has been a good couple of weeks in terms of seeing them keeping up their form. Most notable of these is Alexis who scored three goals in two games for Chile. He bagged the second goal to see off Brazil and got two against Peru last night, as well as creating their other two goals. It remains to be seen whether or not the groin injury he picked up against Manchester United has been aggravated further but he didn't look too unfit on the highlights I've seen. With nine goals in his last five games he is truly back to his best. Only Lewandowski can boast a better goal scoring record at the moment, but Alexis' all round contribution must surely see him rated as one of the very best players in the World on current form. If he is fit and raring to go on Saturday evening then Watford can afford to be very concerned.
Germany were struggling over the weekend and their defeat to Ireland was notable for a lack of contribution from all of their star players. Step forward Mesut Ozil as the architect of their crucial win on Sunday to secure qualification. I remain totally frustrated by Ozil and the way he too easily becomes anonymous. However, the way he stepped up for Germany when it really mattered was good to see. I'd love to see Ozil show us the player I know he can be - it would win us the Premier League if he was to produce on a consistent basis for Arsenal.
Olivier Giroud has been seriously lacking in confidence as has been clear for all to see. He played from the start for France last night and had scored two goals before six minutes had been completed. This should hopefully see some of that confidence restored for Giroud, but he was assisted greatly by some awful goalkeeping by Schmeichel for both of his strikes. On the plus side you have to be in there to get the chances in the first place, but there can be no argument that his finishing remains sub-standard far too often. He won't have taken too much solace from seeing Theo Walcott's outstanding goal for England on Friday night - a superb run and beautiful finish to put his side ahead. I wasn't upset to see Theo sit on the bench throughout the game in Lithuania on Monday night. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did play, and score, but was generally poor for most of the match, while Kieran Gibbs got a good ninety minutes in and played extremely well. The Ox might take confidence from his goal but his general play is nothing other than poor right now. Calum Chambers was able to stay sharp with a full run-out for England U-21's.
Spain also played a couple of games and Santi Cazorla got himself a couple of goals. The little man hasn't really been looking sharp when presented with opportunities to score this season so seeing him grab two is a real boost. I know he is playing in a deeper role for Arsenal these days but his ability should see him scoring far more than he has in the last year or so - taking penalties is fine but I want more from him in open play. Hector Bellerin played in one of Spain U21's matches which means he wasn't over-burdened too much. Meanwhile the forgotten man Joel Campbell scored a lovely winning goal for Costa Rica against USA - in the absence of too much game time at Arsenal he really benefits from the international arena. Hopefully he'll be able to repeat the goal scoring trick for Arsenal in the not too distant future - Sheffield Wednesday away is likely to be his next genuine opportunity to impress Arsene Wenger.
So all in all it looks like a positive time away for the Arsenal players involved in international squads. Obviously I'd still rather these interruptions didn't exist, but all the time our players do well and don't get injured we can't be too upset - this being a rare occurrence of course. If you add to this the sights of Cesc Fabregas missing a penalty and Robin Van Persie sealing Holland's fate with an own-goal then it was all a bit Carlsberg really.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The forgotten Arsenal Champions of 1990-91

The men who would be 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.