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Thursday, 31 December 2015

2016 - time The Arsenal moved up a level

THE moment of 2015 for me

So we are in to the final hours of 2015. It has been a successful year for Arsenal with the FA Cup in the trophy cabinet once again. Across the year Arsenal have won more points than any other Premier League side and, though it's less relevant than a "Premier League" record, it shows that the team has done extremely well overall. The key now is to keep that going in to the second half of this season and earning more points than anyone else between now and May. With two trophies in two seasons now is the time to kick on and secure that Premier League Title for the first time since 2004. 
My greatest moment of the year was when Theo Walcott slammed in the first goal of the FA Cup Final in front of the Arsenal fans. We'd missed a few chances already and most of us were getting edgy about it. When Theo volleyed that ball past Given, and the net billowed with the ball hitting it, there was an explosion of noise from the Gooners. It was a proper Wembley celebration of a goal. You can see in the new year with the BBC highlights here or the FA highlights here. They're worth watching just for Theo's and Alexis' goals. Memories to last a lifetime.

Gooners in Wembley yellow

Happy New Year to all of you, near or far. Here's to a successful, trophy winning, 2016 for The Arsenal. A signing or two in the next couple of weeks and it's ours for the taking. I think even Arsene Wenger realises that this time around.


Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Mid Season Review

The Key Man

So we sit top of the Premier League at New Year. I suppose it's only Arsenal who could be second at Christmas, lose 4-0 on Boxing Day, and find themselves top before the year end. It's also a sign of how mad this Premier League season has been so far with everyone beating everyone else (except for Aston Villa) and Leicester in contention at the halfway point. Arsenal and Manchester City should be soaring away from the rest but both sides have dropped cheap points to leave them scrapping with all the others. For the neutrals and Spurs fans it must be very exciting but for us it is frustrating at times and brilliant at others. I've said it before, but if someone offered you this position after losing at home to West Ham in August you'd not be upset in the slightest.
Mesut Ozil is currently the best player in England. He had been setting up goals early in the season without being spectacular. However, it was following his last minute goal at home to Bayern Munich that he has gone in to overdrive. His missed penalty against the same opposition a couple of years back had seen his form leave him alarmingly. Perhaps scoring that goal was some kind of personal redemption. There can be no doubt now that Ozil is imposing himself on this Premier League season and is leading Arsenal's assault on the Title race. I really want to see him take on his defender more with the ball at his feet, and certainly to score more, but his passing ability is off the scale. He can pick anyone out from the most ridiculous of angles and Arsenal are reaping the benefits of that. I don't like the comparisons to Bergkamp but if he can keep going the way he is, and Arsenal can win the Premier League, then even I might concede that he is getting up there near to Dennis.

The Game Changer

Despite the defeats we've suffered this season, including absolute hammerings at Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, our defending has actually improved in general. Yes, we can be much better, but it's getting there. The main change at the back is down to the presence of an actual goalkeeper instead of the long run of impostors we've been dealing with since Jens Lehmann was dropped by Wenger. Petr Cech is possibly the most important signing Arsenal have made since Thierry Henry in terms of the effect he has on the team.
I would prefer to see Cech having less saves to make than he does. However, it's nice to have a bloke there who you feel confident will actually stop most of them from going in to the net. The opening day disaster against West Ham was a blip and he has gone on to organise those in front of him, while inspiring confidence in the whole team that they actually have a last line of defence who might be able to keep them in the game. He rarely makes the spectacular save which, for me, is always the sign of a top goalkeeper. The best goalkeepers are usually in the right place when it matters and don't need to be flying across the goal time after time. There was a save in the Man City game last week that struck me as the difference between Cech and Szczesny, for example. Wilfried Bony won a header from a corner late in the game and it was heading towards the roof of the net. It was a ball that a top goalkeeper should keep out, but I wouldn't have been convinced Szczesny would have. Cech, on the other hand, took a step to his right and caught the ball just above his head, calm as you like. As an outfield player that must give you so much confidence to see your goalkeeper totally in control of the situation in his penalty area.
David Ospina took the popular blame for our poor opening to the Champions League campaign and, yes, he made a mistake at home to Olympiacos. However, it wasn't his fault we lost those two games - the rest of the team was totally woeful in those matches. Ospina was extremely cruelly singled out. It wasn't Ospina's presence that cost us in those games, so much as Cech's absence. That confidence he gives his defence, and the organisation he puts in place in front of him, was just not there. Ospina is a very good goalkeeper and he did superbly at times last season. I find it harsh that he found himself subjected to such stick. But those games provide the perfect illustration of how important Petr Cech has become for Arsenal in such a short time. Yes, we've lost games with him in the team. Yes, he's been at fault on a couple of occasions. However, he has become a key man in this Arsenal squad and when Cech plays well then Arsenal look so much better.

The Returning Hero?

Injuries have once again been a feature of our season. We don't do niggles at Arsenal. If it's not a serious injury that keeps the player out for months at a time then it doesn't happen. It also happens to a number of key players for us. I fear Cech suffering something nasty as much as I do Ozil right now. However, it's the players we are already without that makes a sobering list - Wilshere, Rosicky, Welbeck, Arteta, Cazorla, Coquelin and Alexis are all players who would ordinarily be in the matchday squad. It says a lot about the character of a guy like Mathieu Flamini or Joel Campbell that they have managed to keep Arsenal winning in the absence of those players. Flamini should get particular credit for his role in the last month or so.
It seems unlikely to me that we will see Wilshere or Welbeck this season. Arsene says Rosicky could be training in January but I will believe it when I see it. Coquelin and Cazorla are nowhere close to playing until at least early Spring as far as I can see. We need to sign a midfield player and that will seemingly happen sooner rather than later - credit to Arsene and co for that, even if it's a player most of us know nothing about. In the meantime the players that are left are slowly being run in to the ground and that must be a worry.
The man who is going to come back, hopefully, before too much longer is Alexis Sanchez. His injury may just have turned out to be a blessing. It has forced him to get the rest he clearly needed after non-stop football over the last three years or so. A fully refreshed Alexis coming in to the side for the last four months of the season could be massive for this Arsenal team. If Ozil can keep his form going and combine with the magic of the magnificent Chilean then Arsenal could get over the line. It will free up space for Giroud and Walcott to play around each other up front as and when required, while allowing more rotation and freshness for the likes of Campbell and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alexis has already had a huge impact in the first half of the season - the game against Manchester United being the best example of his outstanding quality. It was also one of the finest performances we've produced as a team this season.

The Prize

We have a great chance to win the Premier League this season. The Arsenal squad includes some World Class players in the shape of Cech, Koscielny, Ozil and Alexis (I'd be tempted to add Coquelin to that list in terms of his ability to play his particular position on the field). If we can supplement that in January with a midfield player and another striker - because Welbeck isn't coming back any time soon - then the Title becomes ours to lose. The first half of this season has put us in a great and largely unexpected position. I just hope they can make it count come May. The second half of the season includes some very difficult away games which could easily be the difference between Champions and plucky failures. The points are there to be won and it's up to Arsenal to go and win them.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Winning but frustrated but top of the Premier League

The most deserved goal of the season

I was really happy with the win yesterday, obviously. But I was also left very frustrated by the missed chances that meant we failed to add to our goal difference - both Spurs and Man City have better figures there than us and that could yet prove crucial in the final reckoning. Let's face it, Mesut Ozil couldn't have done much more for his mates than lay on six clear-cut chances in the game. Bournemouth should have been humiliated yesterday but we weren't ruthless enough and Theo had one of "those" days. Three points are not to be sniffed at, however, and we sit on top of the Premier League this morning.
The first 15 minutes or so saw a nervous looking Arsenal. Following the chasing at Southampton on Saturday it looked like the players were more interested in safety-first in the early going. We weren't committing anyone forward, lest we should open up the back-line and give Bournemouth some encouragement. They did get in on occasion but lacked the quality to trouble us unduly. When we did start to play our football in their half Arsenal totally dominated the game and were just too good for their opponents. Gabriel added much needed application in the back-four, while Koscielny will benefit from getting a day off. Calum Chambers came in for the injured Flamini and did just fine in the defensive midfield position. His lack of pace may well be exposed in there against better players but he did all that was asked of him yesterday and showed, on a couple of occasions, that he is a good footballer when he has the ball at his feet. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had too much for either Bournemouth full-back but his end product is still worryingly non-existent, while Hector Bellerin's crossing has become progressively worse since he came in to the side - our inability to hit Giroud's head from wide areas is actually an embarrassment at times.
Despite the poor crossing in open play I haven't seen us look so dangerous from corners in years. There were three elements to that yesterday. Firstly Ozil was delivering the ball really well. Secondly Gabriel was attacking everything that came in to the area. And thirdly Bournemouth didn't have a clue how to defend when we had a set-piece. The first goal was a perfect illustration of what I'm saying. It was a very well taken corner from Ozil, Gabriel made sure he was getting on the end of it, while Bournemouth were neither marking their men, nor occupying the space in front of the goal. You could see what it meant to Gabriel to get his first Arsenal goal, having come close to doing so at Wembley against Reading, and I was really pleased for him. I like Gabriel a lot and I would like to see him in the side far more regularly next to Koscielny.
The only surprise after that was the amount of time it took to get the second. We missed chance after chance after chance. Ozil kept putting the ball in perfectly and nobody could produce the finish. Theo Walcott must have set a new record yesterday (previously held by himself) for the number of total miskicks in a game of professional football. Gabriel hit the post with a lovely flicked header, only to see Mertesacker take the rebound in the mooey and the ball go agonisingly wide of the goal. I did worry a little at half-time that we might live to regret the misses if we switched off for a second and allowed Bournemouth the chance to score. We did let them have that chance, but Gabriel made a proper defenders block to deny Stanislas early in the second-half and we went on to dominate again until the later stages.
With Ozil seeing all the others miss the chances he created he clearly decided he would have to do it himself. The one-two with Giroud was beautiful - what a flick by Giroud to put Ozil in behind the defence. Ozil opened up on to his left-foot and rolled it past Boruc to tie things up. In its own way it was one of the goals of the season. I have to say that fewer goals can have been more deserved by the goalscorer. For me Ozil should score more than he does, but he has been so good in the last couple of months that he totally deserved to get his own moment of glory, especially in front of the North Bank. With Alexis injured he has become the sole focal point of our attacking game and he has stepped up to the plate in the grand manner. 
We saw out the rest of the game missing more opportunities to score, while the substitutions (or the late timing of them) baffled me completely given what we hear from Wenger about fatigue. Bournemouth might have got a goal late on but it is a mark of Petr Cech's quality that he was still concentrating enough to make a very good save. Of course this gave him the "Premier League" record for clean sheets - this, like Jamie Vardy's scoring run, is modern football nonsense on the highest level as the game was played long before 1992!
So top of the league for at least a few hours and you can't argue with that. We should be far better off than we are, but so should Manchester City really. If someone had offered me our position after losing at home to West Ham in August I'd have taken it like a shot.

Tomorrow I'll be writing the traditional mid-season review piece so look out for that.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Not even remotely shocked

Another ridiculous defeat

I hope everyone enjoyed a fine Christmas. Mine was spent, as ever, with family. My two boys had a great time and were rewarded with a few Arsenal goodies delivered by Father Christmas. I did have to spend some time yesterday at A&E with my wife after an accident with some boiling water but it didn't put too much of a downer on the celebrations. What it did instead was to leave me totally unfeeling about the lack of effort put in by the players last night at Southampton.
I feared this sort of thing after the great win against Manchester City. Unfortunately this bunch of no-marks have a terrible habit of letting their arrogance overtake them far too often. There is nothing wrong with losing a game. It happens. However, there is everything wrong when you lose a game simply because you can't be bothered. There is even more wrong when it ends in a humiliating scoreline like it did yesterday. Yet again they went on to that pitch thinking that turning up would be more than enough to beat a side in bad form. How many times does this have to happen before they get it in to their thick skulls that they aren't good enough to do that? The Manager must sense when the players are in this mood yet he seems incapable of doing anything to stop it. Or is he the reason for it? 
I've seen some people saying the players were looking tired last night. Nonsense. It was five days since they played against City. I was concerned that one or two weren't rested, but that was more because I could see Wenger making six or seven changes at once for the Bournemouth game and costing us the points there instead. The eleven players that started the game should have had plenty to give Southampton a hard time. Of course there isn't actually a lot available at the moment to "rotate" properly, but that goes back to yet another wasted Summer and we've done that do death.
The referee and linesmen certainly played their part last night. A marginal offside could easily have gone our way for the first goal (more of which below), the second goal was the most obvious off the ball foul you will ever see - all three of the officials didn't see it, while the idiot with the flag somehow gave a corner for an obvious goal-kick leading to the third goal. It says a lot about how bad we were that, even with the officials handing Southampton their first three goals, a four-nil scoreline was a fair reflection of the game.
That first goal was sadly indicative of our play. We'd missed a chance shortly before when Monreal should probably have scored, but then we showed how we weren't at the races. The cross was allowed to be played in with nobody getting even close to thinking about closing down the play. Mertesacker (who I felt had his best ever game for Arsenal on Monday, only to follow up with one of his worst yesterday) then nodded the most aimless of defensive headers straight back in to the midfield. You can do nothing about the incredible strike that hit the net thereafter, other than to curse your luck that you were the unfortunate victims of the only time that bloke will ever hit a ball like that - it reminded me of a goal Neil Mellor once got against us for Liverpool. 
There wasn't a single player worthy of any praise last night. We were all over the place throughout. The defending, as a team, was unforgivably bad. Where had everyone gone for their second goal? What were Chamberlain and Mertesacker doing for the third one? What was Mertesacker doing for the unjustly disallowed Long back-heel in the first-half? What was Cech doing for the second disallowed goal? Or for the third goal which was headed in from the sort of range that used to see Almunia in the back of the net before the ball? As I said, nobody played well and everyone should be taking the blame.
With less than 48 hours between matches there must surely be a change or two for tomorrow against Bournemouth. The problem is that we can only make a couple before we're in to playing kids. Debuchy appears to have been bombed out of the squad before being sold in January (and rightly so, such is the nonsense he's been coming out with in recent weeks). Gibbs could come in somewhere on the left, Gabriel for Mertesacker or Koscielny, and possibly Chambers for Flamini (though I wouldn't like to see that). Bournemouth have done well in December so they won't be a pushover. We've dropped too many points away from home so we can't afford to drop any at all at home. Worryingly this team has missed five opportunities to go top of the Premier League this season. It strikes me they have a mental block when it comes to being put under that pressure. It's time they sorted it out.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Don Howe - a giant of Arsenal FC, Christmas Eve is here

Arsenal will pay tribute on Monday

Don Howe is, quite simply, one of the most important men in the history of Arsenal Football Club. Player, coach, Manager, and youth-team coach of our great Club spanning nearly 50 years. He was the tactician behind Bertie Mee's success in the early 70's, and Terry Neill's great cup sides at the end of that decade. He was the man who laid the foundations of George Graham's Arsenal by bringing through Tony Adams, Martin Keown, David Rocastle, Martin Hayes, Michael Thomas, Niall Quinn and Gus Caesar. He later returned to Arsenal under Arsene Wenger to lead an all conquering youth set-up. 
Don was a top class England international full-back until a broken leg forced an early end to his playing career. He stepped in to coaching where he became revered by his players. No coach in this country, or beyond, has had the influence that Don Howe has had. A man maybe not suited to the actual management side he was the ultimate tracksuit man - a professor of football coaching. He loved Arsenal FC and the fans loved him. When he was stitched up by the Board in 1986 the fans backed Don Howe and sung his name long and loud on the North Bank. They will again on Monday.
The team of 1971 were drilled by Don Howe, and managed by Bertie Mee. It was a match made for football with Don the man who really dominated the way the team played. Bertie was an organiser and a disciplinarian, but Don Howe was the football brains of the operation. His influence on the Fairs Cup win in 1970 and the Double the following season can not be over-estimated. We can say the same about the Terry Neill era (albeit Terry probably wasn't quite the organiser that Bertie was!)
It wasn't just Arsenal where Don Howe excelled as a coach. He was assistant to Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables during their time as England Manager. At Spain 82 England didn't lose a game. At Mexico 86 they were undone by Maradona's handball. At Italia 90 and Euro 96 England lost on penalties in semi-finals against Germany. Those are the closest England has come to winning anything since 1966. It is not a coincidence that Don Howe was coaching all of those sides. Always, perhaps, the unsung and unnoticed influence over the players it is only with hindsight we can look back and see what an unbelievable record he had. 
Last night the tributes were flooding in for Don. One of them in particular really struck me. Bryan Robson said on Twitter that Don Howe was "the greatest coach" he ever played for and how he had been "taught everything I know" by him. Coming from one of the finest midfield players in England over the past 40 years that is some high praise indeed and it reflects the respect and the gratitude his players have for his influence on their careers. Arsenal will be paying tribute over the next two home games with the cover of Monday's programme already carrying a wonderful photo of Don being presented to the Wembley crowd by Terry Neill in 1979. I am just grateful to have seen a Don Howe Arsenal team and been able to have seen his players make Arsenal great again under George Graham. With Jimmy Hill passing away earlier in the week English football has lost two of its most influential figures ever. It's a sad week in the game.
Don Howe is a true Arsenal Man. He will be sorely missed. RIP.

So here we are on Christmas Eve once again. It's been a very good year for Arsenal when all is said and done. When I wrote this piece last year we were struggling badly and playing poorly. This all changed with the introduction of Francis Coquelin to the side, particularly after the game at Manchester City. I suppose the two wins over City have book-ended the year quite well in that respect. Let's hope Monday's win isn't the high-water mark for this team and that they go on from here and make 2016 even more of a success.
This time last year 970,000 people had accessed the site. Over the last 12 months there have been around 92,000 hits, significantly down on any past year, though there are now more than 1 million in total. I don't know why there are less hits. Obviously the writing isn't always great, and it is regularly negative. There have been roughly the same number of posts as there were in 2014. I think the saturation of Arsenal blogs plays a part as nobody can read all of them. I'm just pleased that some of you take the time to read what I put here. I can't thank you all enough for reading my nonsense.
The Facebook page has been a success this year with a steady trickle of new "likes" across the twelve months. If there has been any debate then it has been on that page. There was one occasion where an Arsene Wenger fan got out of his tree and fancied a punch-up but there is always going to be an idiot or two. 
In terms of my watching Arsenal I have not been to anywhere near as many games as I would like, purely down to my shifts at work. There is a spell coming up at the end of January and through February where I can actually go to about four home games in a row which will be the first time in a long time. My absence means more opportunity for my eldest to go instead (and his little brother might make a few appearances at Arsenal in the next year) so it's not all bad. It does mean my opinion is not so much based on being there as it maybe used to be and that lends less credibility to my writing in my opinion.
I'd struggle to pick a low point from this year as the players have largely done well. My three highlights would have to be, in reverse order, the win over Bayern Munich, the win at Olympiacos and the FA Cup Final in May. There can have been few more dominant victories in any Wembley final as the one Arsenal produced against Aston Villa. I will never forget the goals going in, especially those from Theo Walcott and Alexis. The massed Gooners were going mental when they hit the net and it was one of the best atmospheres I've ever been involved in. Sitting there for that last 30 minutes, knowing we'd won, was surreal and brilliant all at the same time.
I can't seperate my two players of the year. I would hasten to add that this is based on the whole of 2015, not just the last three months. That being the case my choices are Francis Coquelin and Nacho Monreal. The consistency of these two players and the role they have played in Arsenal's improvement is immeasurable. Both of them gained their places on merit and have been superb throughout the year. They deserve far more recognition, especially Monreal who is undoubtedly the best left-back in the Premier League right now.
All that remains now is to sign-off so that my sons can get the laptop back and start tracking Father Christmas on Norad. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and I hope that we can all be celebrating three points again on Boxing Day. Have a great time, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Two players who've wasted their legacies

Happier times

Cesc Fabregas was booed before, during and after his appearance for Chelsea at the weekend. Rightly or wrongly their fans have decided that he was one of the major figures in the downfall of Jose Mourinho. None of us know if he really was, but his public support of the manager would be seriously at odds with reality if he really was leading a dressing-room revolt. To be honest I can't see John Terry allowing some newbie like Fabregas to have any great influence over his team. Regardless of that, the reaction of the Chelsea supporters got me to thinking about how Cesc's career has gone. It seems bizarre for a player of such profound and undoubted football ability to actually be not liked by the supporters of any of his clubs. When I thought about it further I realised that Cesc isn't the only recent Arsenal skipper to be thought of in this way. Let's face it Robin Van Persie and William Gallas are also in that bracket. Two of them, Cesc and RVP, should have been Arsenal legends. They will end their career with no club to look back on thinking "this is my team" in the way that people like Thierry Henry and Tony Adams can. Dennis Bergkamp has two of them!
When Fabregas left Arsenal I would say the majority of the supporters still loved him. He had blotted his copybook with some through his snide dealings with Barcelona to get his transfer. It is seemingly well reported that he refused to train in that pre-season, effectively going on strike, and his "hamstring" problems of the preceding 12 months are a largely distant memory in his career. In forcing himself away from Arsenal, with just the one trophy on his CV, he got his dream move home to Barcelona. His arrival saw the beginning of the end of Guardiola's time there. While still successful Cesc came to symbolise, in the fans eyes, the downturn from the peak years under Pep. He could never really displace Xavi and Iniesta from the side and, when he did, results weren't perhaps what the regulars were used to. By the time his Barcelona career came to an end Fabregas was actively disliked by sections of the Nou Camp crowd.
Given that Arsenal had first option on Fabregas it seemed certain that he would return to us when it went sour back in Barcelona. We could have got him cheap. The fans, even those who were annoyed with how he had left, would have had him back in a heartbeat. Clearly Wenger had not forgiven him and passed up the opportunity to bring back a sensational midfield player. And all of this at a time when Ozil was singularly failing to live up to the hype. Cesc went to Chelsea instead and, in the first half of last season, effectively won them the Premier League. The Arsenal fans were raging as we watched him unlock opposition defences while we were awful for most of the first half of the season. However, there was one quote from Arsene that I found more than interesting; when asked about Cesc going to Chelsea he replied that Fabregas had "maybe ended up where he wanted". We had all thought that Cesc had begged for a return, and I know Arsene is prone to not telling the truth, but this stuck with me. Maybe, just maybe, Cesc never wanted to come back to Arsenal. He chose to go and play for a club that has become a bitter rival to Arsenal. More than that he had gone to play for Mourinho, a hated man in Barcelona and a man obsessed by an ongoing war with Arsene Wenger - the manager who had created Cesc Fabregas as a top player. When Chelsea played us Fabregas did it with a scowl on his face and clear scorn for anyone in a red shirt. He should have been sent-off and, when Welbeck smashed him in the last few minutes most of us loved it. There were a number of idiots that applauded him on his return to our stadium but I think most of them have now realised the error of their ways after Fabregas' words at the end of the season.
Fabregas will now look back on his career and realise that he has no "home". He is treated, at best, with indifference by the supporters of Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea. If he was to leave Chelsea as a result of this recent business I would probably still take him back, especially given our injury issues, but I could never love him as an Arsenal player like I used to. What a waste of such a brilliant talent.
Cesc is not alone, of course. There is also the curious case of his Arsenal contemporary Robin Van Persie. Here is a man disliked all across his home country, despite being an exceptional player in the national team. At Arsenal he is hated beyond belief for the way he went about leaving us. And then he went to Manchester United, won them the Premier League, and left under a cloud as their fans totally turned on him. At Fenerbache he simply looks like a player that would rather be doing something other than playing football for a living.
Van Persie had it all at Arsenal. He had finally stayed fit for more than three months and was the absolute hero of the Arsenal faithful. No striker in English football was as good or as devastating as RVP. He was the Arsenal Captain and we had come within a whisker, a couple of times, of winning the Premier League. Obviously that is frustrating for players, but to do what he did was unforgivable. We all knew well the photo of Robin in his bedroom as a child, wearing his Arsenal kit. Despite being foreign he was an Arsenal Man. Or so we all thought.
The statement he issued to announce he was to leave Arsenal, having clearly done the deal with Manchester United behind our backs, was intended to salve the open wound. He thought we were stupid. The phrase "the little boy inside me" brought that photo back to haunt him. Quite simply he became the Frank Stapleton of his generation. He was nothing more than a greedy c**t, just like Stapleton had been. Robin Van Persie threw away his legendary status at Arsenal for the sake of a Premier League Title which, had he stayed with us, might well have come his way in any case - the form he showed at Old Trafford in that first season would have fired us to the summit as it did them. Now, when he is in his dotage, he will realise he is not remembered fondly by anyone. It's sad when you think about it.

There will be the usual Christmas Eve post tomorrow.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

More than an ordinary win

The Arsenal Goals Trust

What a chance Arsenal now have to challenge for the Premier League this season. They have earned it through their own endeavours, and against many odds. Is it a strong Premier League? No. Is it maybe a more competitive Premier League? Most definitely. And while the TV companies and the written press make excuses on behalf of certain other clubs regarding injuries they conveniently ignore that Arsenal are on their current run without Alexis, Coquelin and Cazorla. Arsenal also haven't spent massive money in the last transfer window for no apparent improvement as others have. We haven't achieved anything this season just yet, but the players (and the Manager) have put is in a better position than any of the other clubs deemed capable of winning the Title. For me it's between us, Man City and Tottenham at this stage. Disrespectful to Leicester? Maybe. Realistic? Probably.
I would have taken a draw before kick-off last night. The important thing was to not lose and allow what amounts to a six-point swing in favour of Manchester City. To go out there and win a big game when it really matters shows that this Arsenal team (this Arsenal squad) is a far stronger and more impressive proposition than in the past. A lot of this is down to the influence that Mesut Ozil is now having on the team. I make no apology for the slagging I've given him over the last couple of years - he has deserved it. His current form shows that he has been messing us around for most of his time at Arsenal. However, right now he is the best player in the Premier League and he is spearheading Arsenal's charge at the top of the table. I can't be doing with the "told you so" nonsense from people who refused to see his faults in the past as I never said he wasn't a top player. My problem was that he was just not doing his best for us and being the player we spent £42m on. Now that he is doing that I am more than happy to revel in his form and give him all the credit he is due. Starting with the FA Cup Final last season he has been tremendous and has shown that he is World Class. To hear Jamie Carragher on TV last night saying he'd rather have David Silva, and then being destroyed post-match by a smiling Thierry Henry, showed that Robbie Savage isn't the only dipstick paid to talk football.
Arsenal played a similar sort of game last night that they did at City earlier in the year. Maybe we didn't press the ball quite as well, but we were content to let them have possession. It seemed that De Bruyne's missed chance was the catalyst for Arsenal to decide to go at them a little bit and within two minutes we were ahead. What a goal by Theo Walcott. I have cried out since he was 17 for Theo to play from the left as he has the ability to score Thierry Henry type goals (that is not me comparing Theo to Thierry, by the way) and he proved it last night. I see Ozil is credited with the "assist" for the goal but for once his pass had nothing to do with the scoring. It was a truly brilliant strike by Theo and unstoppable for the dandruff man in goal for City. Having soaked up the pressure reasonably comfortably it must have knocked City for six to then concede from our first shot at goal.
It is rare for us to be clinical in front of goal (as the second-half showed) but to score two goals from our first two shots on target was exceptional. I was really pleased for Giroud as he seems to have got the monkey off his back of scoring in big games. The pass from Ozil was perfect for Olivier to hit the ball first-time through Hart's legs. A second goal on the stroke of half-time was huge for Arsenal.
I thought we played some outstanding football in the second-half and created some great chances. Ramsey could have had a couple, as could the outstanding (again) Joel Campbell as Arsenal's pace and movement was simply too much for City's expensively assembled midfield and defence. City's main tactic throughout the game was to kick, pull and barge the Arsenal players. It summed up Mr Marriner that he failed to punish what was an obvious tactical ploy from City, not befitting of a top side - it really did look like a Pulis or Allardyce inspired kicking at times. Then there was the diving from Sterling (£50m!) and Yaya Toure that also went unpunished. If City had ended up getting a result, following the wonderful goal from Toure, it would have been an injustice. City did have a half-chance or two at 2-1, but so did Arsenal. Having watched it calmly on TV last last night they didn't actually threaten once Calum Chambers came on as Arsenal held on to the ball quite well and Giroud simply dominated Otamendi and Mangala. Per Mertesacker was an absolute rock in the defence and Flamini outstanding in front of the back-four. The calmness of Petr Cech, which is reflected in his defence, was also clear to see towards the end.
Going in to Christmas I couldn't be much happier with Arsenal. December has been good so far. Champions League progress added confidence to the side and the league results have been exceptional. You could sense the crowd know we have that chance, such was the atmosphere towards the end of the game. It's up to us to keep that going for the rest of the season and leave the rest of it to the players and the Manager. We all know what we could do with in January and I really hope Arsene does too and goes out and does it. If we can get through the next three matches with six or seven points (nine is the dream scenario, obviously) then it is game on for the second half of the season.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Retro Chelsea a joy to watch

What a total s***hole

There is always a massive clamour for days gone by. Football fans are, by nature, a nostalgic bunch. There is nothing better than looking back on the good times from the past (especially if you're a Liverpool or a Spurs fan, such is the lack of modern things to celebrate) and everyone genuinely believes that football today is not the experience it was in their youth. The clubs themselves have tapped in to this and Arsenal now sell a variety of retro shirts so that we can all pretend we're back in the 70s or 80s. What I didn't expect was that one club in particular would totally immerse itself in what might well be termed the "Ken Bates era".
When I was growing up in the 1980s (and I'm reliably informed it was the same long before that) Chelsea were utter rubbish. They seemed to spend as much time out of Division One as they did in it. The only threat they carried was on the terraces. Their stadium and their team reflected the fans - empty, vacant and pretty awful. How many grounds can you name where there was parking behind the goal? Move forward to the modern Chelsea and they play in a glorified meccano set, albeit a modern stadium where you can actually see the pitch from some angles, and enjoy the trappings that only a shady Russian oil baron can bring. They've won a few FA Cup's, a few League Title's and (gallingly) the European Cup. They've gained many "fans" all of whom seem totally oblivious to Chelsea's past - particularly the middle-aged black men who apparently have no idea of the reputation of those who stood on The Shed for overt racism. 
What a joy it is to see Mourinho taking Chelsea back to the 1980's in the grand manner this season. It couldn't really happen to a nicer bunch of people. The sight of Mourinho on the touchline watching his little empire implode before his eyes is one of the most wonderful images of the decade. The absolute best thing about it is that he seems to have no idea how to stop it from happening. I am convinced he has fallen out badly with John Terry. Eden Hazard couldn't look more disinterested. Diego Costa gets more and more like a Shed regular with every passing snarl. And Cesc Fabregas used to be a footballer once upon a time. To top it all off we had Mourinho virtually begging not to be sacked, David Brent style, following Monday's defeat at Leicester City. If it wasn't for Mike Dean accepting his share of the roubles against Arsenal they would actually be in the relegation zone. At the moment that is the only difference between Chelsea of 2015 and Chelsea of the 1980's. It's good of them to go back to their roots like this.

I must just share with you something that I saw yesterday - the car in front of me at traffic lights was carrying a Mickey Mouse car sticker next to a Tottenham Hotspur one. I couldn't agree more. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Professional weekend from Arsenal

Game over

I thoroughly enjoyed the display at Aston Villa on Sunday. We have a great record at Villa Park but that didn't mean I was any less nervous ahead of the game. Coming off the back of a big midweek game in Europe, against a side well overdue a win, things could have easily gone wrong given the record of this squad for implosion. An unchanged XI, named pretty much because there are no other real options, meant that any heavy legs would only get heavier as the game wore on. To control the game the way Arsenal did was, hopefully, an indication that the times are now changing.
I thought we made a slightly slow beginning to the game and it looked like Scott Sinclair might be about to give Nacho Monreal a tough time. There was one early, but comfortable, save for Cech as Villa got on the front foot. However, when we did get hold of the ball and started to pass it we got on top quickly. I was frustrated at the lack of shots we were having, as ever, given how we were dominating the ball and the territory. It was clear early on that Theo had the beating of that idiot Alan Hutton and we didn't use him enough. When Flamini finally played a lovely ball in to the space for Theo you just knew that Hutton would bring him down. I'd like to know what Mr Friend was doing to not give the penalty straight away. He was in the perfect position to see the incident so why the delay? Having finally pointed to the spot he then failed to book Hutton despite the fact that Theo was a touch or two away from a clear shot at goal. Having scored in midweek with a penalty to the right of the goalkeeper it was nice to see Giroud mix it up and go the other way to make it 1-0.
What followed was as close to a training ground exercise as you can get for the rest of the first-half. Villa couldn't get near the Arsenal players but we still wouldn't shoot. When we finally did break properly again it was just a wonderful piece of football. Ramsey, playing his best game of the season, won a good tackle to get the ball to Theo. A lovely pass from Walcott set Ozil clear on goal and he knew exactly where Ramsey was (Ozil didn't even seem to look, such is his mastery of the pitch at the moment) before sliding it across for a tap-in. Arsenal were  2-0 up and the game was basically over. Meanwhile Alan Hutton had turned in one of the worst displays of professional football I have ever seen, totally outplayed by his winger and only managing to find the touchline with every pass he played. You'd never know he played for Tottenham earlier in his career.
The second-half saw Arsenal more than content with their 2-0 lead and, following on from Wednesday night in Greece, I was happy enough with the way we played after half-time. Villa maybe threatened (though that might be the wrong word for them having one reasonably dangerous header) once or twice but I did feel we could easily step things up if needed. If there was a disappointment for me it was the performance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he came on. For a lad who we are told is desperate to force his way in to the side he played like someone wanting out. There were two or three times we looked towards the right and he was either standing still or trotting along, happy to let Bellerin do more running than he should have had to. When he did burst in to life it was obvious that The Ox had the beating of the Villa defence, but there was nowhere near enough of it from him as far as I'm concerned.
It was a great week for Arsenal, all told. We got through in Europe and book-ended it with two good wins in the Premier League. The players now have a decent break before starting the Christmas programme on Monday against Manchester City. We will learn a lot about our chances next Monday, but I am worried that the squad will not be able to cope with the frequency of fixtures, and the massive number of injuries, over Christmas. Time will tell. Oh, and we've got a visit from Messi and Neymar to look forward to - rather that than a Spursday night game.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Giroud + Campbell = no Spursday football for us

Giroud takes a well deserved break

Sometimes Arsenal are bloody superb. Last night really was one of THOSE nights when it all comes together on the pitch, from front to back, with perfect tactics, great football and the required result. Everything seems brighter this morning thanks to Arsenal's victory over Olympiacos. For two much maligned players it may provide something of a watershed in their Arsenal careers. For the Manager it means total relief that the first two games of the competition can be forgotten (as long as the lessons are learned and not repeated). For the fans it means no Spursday night football in the Europa League. For the Club it means more money for reaching the second round again. For the season it might just allow us to make a proper challenge for the Premier League.
I think not many of us were convinced Arsenal would progress last night. The team has the ability to self-destruct and come up short, especially away in Europe. Olympiacos are not a top side, but they have an enviable home record. For Arsenal to go there and match the result Bayern Munich got in Piraeus says a lot about the qualities this squad does have. When they are focused and up for it this Arsenal team can do the business. What they need to do now is to produce this kind of thing consistently.
Olivier Giroud takes plenty of stick. I would say at times that it is deserved. At Norwich last week, for example, he was totally disinterested. He misses chances in big games far too often. However, when he is on song like last night he is a fine centre-forward. I suspect that kind of display is due in no small part to the return of Theo Walcott actually adding some pressure to Giroud's position in the team. Whatever the case may be, Giroud produced the goods on the big occasion last night - a Champions League hat-trick in a crucial game is worthy of great credit. In a group that started with him getting sent-off in Zagreb he has ended up the key reason for our qualification for the knockout rounds. He actually has a fine scoring record since his arrival at Arsenal, despite appearances to the contrary. I have long said Giroud is a good striker, not a top striker. Last night makes me look wrong and this pleases me.
The other man who should be getting some personal credit this morning, in the face of the most unjustified criticism from the fans, is Joel Campbell. Having been given a proper run in the team Joel is now there on merit. His workrate is possibly up there with that of Alexis. What has become clear in recent weeks is that he is not lacking in quality. He played a wonderful ball to Alexis for the final goal against Zagreb, scored a lovely goal himself on Saturday, and last night topped all of that. Campbell's work in the build-up to the second goal was a showcase of an all-round kind of player. He made a great run to allow Ozil to find him in the first place, but then he had to show strength to hold off a couple of defenders, a good first touch to bring the ball down, and then great quick feet to get himself just a yard of space. To then pick out the (excellent) run of Giroud with that reverse pass was the stuff of dreams. It was probably even better than Ozil's incredible ball to Ramsey that helped set up the opening goal. Breathtaking football and Joel Campbell is finally getting the credit he deserves for his hard work and patience.
I don't really care who we get in the next round. Obviously you'd probably prefer someone like Zenit, regardless of the long journey in to Russia, but just being there is the important thing this morning. Avoiding the Europa League allows this already stretched squad to play Premier League football without having to come and go around Europe on a Thursday night. If Arsenal can go on and, hope of hopes, win the Premier League then it might just be that a game in the Champions League in Athens was one of the key victories that secured it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Another fail from the physios, Arsenal need some 1989 spirit tomorrow

Something like this tomorrow would be nice

Santi Cazorla's injury sustained at Norwich looks to be as bad as I feared at the time. The way it happened was reminiscent of an injury to Robin Van Persie that he suffered in the act of scoring in the League Cup Final against Birmingham. It seemed clear to me that Santi had done something fairly bad to his knee. It is now emerging that he may have a ruptured ligament and could even be out for the rest of the season. At best he will be gone until at least March. With this being the case I have to question how our medical team allowed him to stay on the pitch for the entirety of the second-half at Carrow Road.
Colin Lewin took over from his cousin Gary as Arsenal's physiotherapist seven years ago. I had long felt Gary was overrated in his role, especially following broken legs to Keown and Upson that saw them both try to play on following treatment from our medical man on the scene. The way the injuries have gone since then it seems that Colin is not any better. Worse than that he is backed up by a massive team of physicians from masseurs to doctors. Now there is clearly nothing they can do to actually prevent an injury like Santi's, but allowing him to play football for 45 minutes on a ruptured knee ligament is surely a failing of epic proportions.
I don't have the answer to Arsenal's injury problems. I doubt anyone at the Club has either. What I am sure of, however, is that the current medical team at Arsenal Football Club fails far too often to get things right. How many times have we heard of a player suffering a "setback" in their recovery? Why is it that when one of our players suffers a sprain or a strain they are gone for months at a time? I won't go over old ground any further but Arsenal need to get this sorted and that starts with dealing with the incompetence that is on display.

I read a Tweet earlier saying that tomorrow reminds the author of Anfield 89 in terms of the situation in which we find ourselves. When you think about it this is absolutely spot-on. We need to win by two clear goals and are not really fancied to do so. Now Olympiacos are no Liverpool of the 1980's, but their stadium is notoriously difficult to get results in for visiting teams (unless you are Bayern Munich, perhaps). The reason we need a two goal win is because we produced two terrible performances a short while back in the competition. Where it was Derby and Wimbledon in 1989, think Zagreb (away) and Olympiacos (home) in 2015. 
The key to winning at Anfield was the ability of that side to defend so well, yet create enough to get the job done. I fear that we are always more likely to concede at least one goal than we are to keep a clean sheet with this team. There is no doubt we can create enough to score the goals we need, but we've been in this position in Europe a few times in recent years, always coming up short.
Do we have a Michael Thomas type of player in this side? I believe we do, in the shape of Aaron Ramsey. Like Mickey, Ramsey is keen to get forward and score goals. He is able to run up and down for 90 minutes and will still be bombing around at full-time assuming our physio hasn't got his hands on him by then. He also divides opinion, as Thomas did, because he tries to be too flash too often when keeping it simple would be so much better for the team. Can he flick in an injury-time winner though? Olivier Giroud can fit the bill in the Alan Smith role, so if Rambo can be Michael Thomas we're home and hosed.
I would like to see us go for it properly tomorrow. This would be a great time to do something different with the line-up and formation. We need goals and we need to throw Olympiacos off their game. Would it not be an ideal time to go 4-4-2 with Giroud and Walcott up front together? I know a midfield of Ramsey and Ozil could leave us badly exposed at times, but is that not a risk worth taking in the circumstances? Anything other than the result we need doesn't bear thinking about as we don't want to drop in to Thursday night football. Go for broke instead.
Whatever happens tomorrow in Piraeus it won't be the reason for us failing to go through. The fact is that we put ourselves in this ridiculous situation by losing those first two games in the group. Frankly we should have the cigars on tomorrow night and be getting the key players rested and ready for the weekend. Instead of that we need to them to put in a big shift and secure our place in the second round and, more importantly, out of the Europa League.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Arsenal on the edge

Another Campbell contribution

Our defending is a problem. Without Coquelin to protect the back-four they are totally exposed and their weaknesses are being exploited. Without Petr Cech in goal we would have been in all sorts of trouble these past couple of weeks. Against opposition with better quality strikers we are going to pay the price. Mertesacker seems to get slower by the week, Koscielny lacks positional sense (though I think he is constantly aware that he needs to be ready to bail out the BFG at any given time) while Bellerin has entered a serious dip in form and is being found out down the outside. Nacho Monreal is still going about his business pretty well. I'm not overly worried by Bellerin as this happens to young players, but perhaps a week or two watching from the bench might do him some good. All of this could be less concerning if we had a fit Francis Coquelin. Flamini has to begin to understand his role and start to execute it.
I can never criticise Flamini for effort. However, a player of his experience should be able to work out that he doesn't have any need to get himself around the opposition penalty area, almost at any time in any game. Ian Wright picked out a situation on Match Of The Day on Saturday night where both Flamini and Ramsey were in the Sunderland box. What possesses Flamini to get himself up there? We don't generally see Coquelin getting involved in attacking areas and Flamini is basically his replacement in the team. At the same time, why is Flamini not getting told to get back? When he gets carried away like that surely Mertesacker, as Captain, should be telling him to get back and protect us from the potential counter-attack that a decent side would no doubt exploit? Why are Wenger and Bould not off the bench screaming at Flamini to remember what his job is? This is a more acute problem now that Ramsey is back in midfield as he will always make a point of getting forward and is less effective in the tackle than Santi Cazorla.
On Saturday we did get the win, though we didn't play particularly well. Thankfully Sunderland were lacking Defoe on Saturday and were unable to punish us. Going forward we can be a different story. Mesut Ozil is very much in the best form of his Arsenal career and his pass to Joel Campbell for the opener was a corker. Campbell finished confidently and is gradually becoming more appreciated by the fans who are noticing his hard work around the pitch - the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who are more talented players, should be taking note. I am concerned, however, by what I see as a divide in this squad. When Campbell scored only the Spanish speaking players - Monreal, Bellerin and Ozil - went to him (my Dad said that Giroud was the first one to congratulate him but that is wrong as it was Monreal). I've noticed this kind of thing a few times, with the French players largely congregating as a group, and when there is a youngster on the bench they are almost totally left out when the substitutes are mucking around at half-time. I find that a concern and does not lend itself to the "great spirit" the Manager always bangs on about.
Olivier Giroud made up for his own-goal with a superb finish for the second, capping off a really good move between Monreal and Ramsey and then the boyo wrapped things up himself in injury-time. In between times we were indebted to Cech, and Sunderland's awful finishing, for keeping us in front. Having said that, we were also profligate in front of goal on occasions. 
Three points was massive with Man City and Man Utd both failing to win. We have to keep winning and take advantage of the fact that there is no outstanding team in this Premier League season. Any side putting together a winning run of eight or nine games could see themselves clear. A boost in the January transfer market is also needed.

Before I sign off I want to add my voice to those paying tribute to Ernie Crouch, an Arsenal match-going fan since 1934 who sadly died on his way to the game on Saturday. Many Arsenal fans were acquainted with Ernie, including my Dad and brothers, and I think we can all hope to be following his example and watching The Arsenal in to our 90's. I think it would be a fine gesture for the players to wear black armbands in Athens this week in honour of Ernie. RIP.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A major moment in English football history

Match programme from the day

Twenty-five years ago yesterday (I must admit I had thought it was today so I've mugged myself off already) came what, with hindsight, should be seen as one of the most important games in the history of English football. The performance of the Arsenal team on that day marked the end of something that had been a constant in the domestic game for almost twenty years.
It had been a strange couple of weeks for an Arsenal team that was still unbeaten in the First Division. The Club had been deducted two points following the punch-up at Old Trafford before hammering Southampton at home in a game that saw Alan Smith start a scoring run that lasted most of the rest of the season en route to another golden boot. This had been followed not long after by a great comeback win at Loftus Road with three late goals, including a wonderful finish from young Kevin Campbell, and a memorable v-sign of celebration from Tony Adams to answer the non-stop abuse he'd suffered all afternoon from the QPR fans. Four days later, however, things were not so great as Manchester United stuck six past the tightest defence in the country to knock us out of the League Cup at Highbury. With the visit of Liverpool looming it wasn't the best sign. Put together with the points deduction the mood was a little gloomy with the t-shirt sellers doing a storming trade in new products bemoaning the fact that the FA might have just handed Kenny Dalglish a Christmas present in the shape of the League Championship.
The Liverpool team that arrived at Highbury was, like Arsenal, unbeaten in the league. Thanks to the points deduction they were also safely above Arsenal in first place. They were still the dominant side in the English game and the defending Champions. What followed, live on ITV, was a demolition that spelled the end of that dominance. Arsenal's win was so comprehensive that it ultimately sent such a shockwave through Liverpool FC that everything had unravelled within a few months, with Dalglish resigning and Arsenal going on to win the Title at a bit of a canter. Obviously even the greatest of Liverpool teams had been defeated on occasion (they don't have a gold trophy) but rarely had they been totally outclassed. It quickly became apparent that they were maybe all getting old together and they simply couldn't live with the new generation. A quarter of a century on and they've only come genuinely close to winning the Title again on one occasion.
Arsenal were awesome that December afternoon. The first goal was poked over the line from close range by Paul Merson when Liverpool failed to clear a corner - Barry Venison's mullet wasn't quite big enough to prevent the ball going in. We were more than deserving of the 1-0 lead at half-time. In the second-half, with Arsenal attacking a packed North Bank, Anders Limpar took the game over. The pace of both he and Merson was too much for the Liverpool defence with Hysen given a particular chasing by the Super Swede. Not long after half-time Limpar was fouled in the penalty area and Lee Dixon smashed the resulting spot-kick in to the top corner. Coming when it did it meant that Arsenal could play their game with some freedom. We should have had another penalty for another foul on Limpar and Liverpool simply couldn't seem to carry a genuine threat to David Seaman's goal. 
In the final minute Arsenal turned on the style and put the most stunning exclamation mark on the result. A ball out wide found Merson with his back to goal and his beautiful back-heel put Alan Smith in on goal to the right side of the penalty area. Smudger hit a superb right-foot shot across Grobelaar and in to the far corner of the net to send Highbury delirious and prompt Brian Moore to get seriously excited on The Match. 
At the time nobody could have predicted the impact that the 3-0 scoreline, and the utter thrashing, would have on such an experienced and high quality Liverpool team. Twenty-five years later it is easier to pin-point where things changed in English football. The only disappointment to me is that it should have been George Graham's Arsenal that went on to dominate the 1990's, only to be usurped by Ferguson's Manchester United. Still, we'll always have the memories and the satisfaction of de-railing the Scousers once and for all. You can see the highlights of the game here - enjoy!