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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A special English day

So yesterday marked a true turning point for English football. It’s fair to say it was a day and an event that a generation or two of supporters thought we might never see happen. Years of the same old thing with apparently ever shortening chances of winning the major prizes maybe turned on their head with one glorious sight. I am talking, of course, about the first Arsenal training session under the charge of Unai Emery. Surely you didn’t think I’d be referring to those Tottenham cretins playing for England?
I have to admit it felt very weird seeing photos of Arsenal in training with someone other than Arsene Wenger carrying the stopwatch or the clipboard. A bit like the first sight of Sol Campbell actually playing for Arsenal this was the true moment to realise it’s actually happened - Wenger’s era has passed and Emery’s has begun. Thanks to the access via Arsenal Media we see much more of this kind of thing than we ever did a few years ago and I wonder if Emery may be more open in the way he does things than Wenger was. We will see.
Noteworthy is the fact that so many of the first team squad are actually in attendance as not a lot of them went to the World Cup. A stronger team than usual will take the field at Boreham Wood a week on Saturday. The youngsters who made their breakthroughs last season - Nelson, Willock and Nketiah - were all involved with the first-team once again but it was notable to me that none of them have been given (at this stage) what might be termed a first-team squad number. The very promising Emile Smith-Rowe, who was the star of Arsenal’s youth teams last season, was also training with the senior players and may well get a run out or two in the pre-season schedule. Carl Jenkinson, Emi Martinez, Chuba Akpom and Lucas Perez are back from their loan spells and also back in the first-team group.
I half-joked about the England team above and the fact they’ve got through to the World Cup quarter-final. I know many Arsenal fans are very excited by that and were no doubt jumping about in celebration last night. Good luck to you if that’s you. For me I really can’t get joyful about England winning, and in the same way I won’t be upset if they lose. I no longer feel any great affinity to the national team and I haven’t for a long time. I think it would be a great thing for the country if England were to do well out in Russia and maybe even win it - they will surely never get a better opportunity - but it simply doesn’t make me nervous or excited at all.. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the whole World Cup, but I don’t “support” anyone in it. If Danny Welbeck makes it on to the pitch again my main concern will be that he does well simply because he is an Arsenal player. The slightly sad fact is that the sight of the Arsenal team back in training yesterday and today, with the new boss overseeing things, has filled me with far more excitement than Eric Dier’s winning penalty for England. Roll on the pre-season fixtures.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Emery's big mistake and a bit of perspective

Jack Wilshere of Arsenal Football Club

I was totally gutted by Jack Wilshere's announcement last night that he is leaving Arsenal. Wilshere is the one player left in the squad who genuinely seems to understand what it means to play for The Arsenal. I first saw Jack play when Arsenal briefly had their own TV channel on Sky. He was this 15 year-old genius playing in the youth and reserve teams. From the beginning it was clear that he was a level or three above everyone else on the pitch. When he made his first-team debut at Blackburn (where I was in the away end) there was no real surprise that he'd made such progress as to be playing for Arsenal at 16. His remarkable talent and ability saw him probably over-exposed at that level and too much football while still physically developing had an adverse effect on his body and what it could withstand. He was hampered by injury but his ever-present ability was always there to be seen. A number of those injuries, incidentally, weren't caused by over-playing but by terrible fouls made on him. For someone so small he never took a backward step and he would put everything on the line for Arsenal. This season he proved his fitness back at Arsenal after a year wasted at Bournemouth when he should have been back in our own midfield. That he isn't at the World Cup says more about the dishonest Southgate than it does about Our Jack.
I am quite simply amazed that Unai Emery should choose to tell Wilshere he's basically no longer wanted. It was bad enough that he was offered (and had accepted) a pay cut at a time when Ozil, Elneny and Xhaka have all signed improved deals. On what planet does the new boss see Xhaka as a better or more important Arsenal player than Jack Wilshere? I've actually seen Arsenal supporters online today who've spent all season lamenting the fact Wenger would never leave out Granit Xhaka now commending Emery for keeping him and kicking out Jack! 
In my lifetime there have been three genuinely special talents to come through the ranks at Arsenal from a child to the first-team. Two of them are David Rocastle and Ashley Cole, the other is Jack Wilshere. My Dad has always said that Jack is the best youngster he's seen at Arsenal since Liam Brady. He also said it's just our luck that he suffered so many injuries. Having come through, just like Rocky, Jack absolutely just "got it" where the fans are concerned. He is an Arsenal Man through and through. As I've said here before, to me he should be the Arsenal Captain and it is way past my comprehension tonight that the game against Burnley was the last time I will see him play for Arsenal. I can only wish him all the luck he deserves for the rest of his career but I fear, just like Rocastle, that his heart will never truly be in it anywhere else.

In the title to this piece I've mentioned "perspective" and by that I mean let's take a critical look at the recruitment we've seen since the new Manager arrived. Let me say before I go in to this that I'm willing to give Emery the chance to impress us with his new team, but my confidence in him has been jolted greatly by this Wilshere business.
Let's look at this objectively - Arsenal fans would almost all say that we needed a right-back of some standing, a new goalkeeper, a centre-back and a proper defensive midfield player. On the face of it Emery (or more probably the Gazidis appointed "team" behind the scenes) have done just that. Lichtsteiner has arrived to challenge Bellerin, Bernd Leno was announced last night as our new goalkeeper and Sokratis and Torreira will be announced in due course. All four boxes ticked. Or are they?
Let's just roll the clock back here and say that Arsene Wenger was still the boss, but the new people up top were signing these four players. Instead of excitement or anticipation most of us would be complaining that we've signed a 34 year-old full-back on a free, a goalkeeper who isn't among the three that Germany have taken to the World Cup, a journeyman Greek defender from Dortmund and a midfield player who can't get in the Uruguay side and plays for the team that finished 10th in Serie A. Puts a bit of a different spin on things doesn't it? So for all those praising the Club for the way things have "changed" I would suggest that looking at it from this angle ought to open a few eyes. These signings must be given the opportunity under the new Manager to develop and hopefully be successful, but we might still be guilty of shopping at Asda when the top clubs are carrying Harrods bags down Knightsbridge.
Let's also throw one more thing in to the mix here. Aaron Ramsey, in the absence of Jack Wilshere, simply HAS to be made Arsenal Captain. However, Aaron Ramsey is out of contract this time next year. Arsenal can't let him go for free so if he doesn't sign a new deal in the next few weeks he will have to be sold. So Jack and Aaron could both go within weeks of one another. Where does that leave us? Along with Cazorla being released Arsenal would have lost their three best midfield players but kept on average players like Elneny and Xhaka. Still excited for what lies ahead? I'm bloody petrified.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

World Cup of Arsenal

I’ve decided that I’ll forget the rest of the squad review for this season as it’s so long ago now I can’t really say I’m that bothered. Arsenal were poor for most of the season and that’s pretty much the story for almost every player. A few youngsters got their chance and Maitland-Niles took his, now rewarded with a new contract and a squad number of 15 from Unai Emery. Let’s move on.

I wrote the first piece on this blog on the eve of the World Cup in South Africa back in 2010. It was the day Philippe Senderos left Arsenal and I was lamenting a woeful England squad but looking forward to the tournament and seeing how the Arsenal players get on. Here I am on the night before the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and I find myself having the same view of an England squad totally devoid of midfield creativity and wholly reliant on Harry Kane to nick a goal if he possibly can. Arsenal interest in the England squad is limited to Danny Welbeck who will probably only really get a game if they’re losing and desperate for anyone to try and find them a goal. Even away from England our interest is limited. This has positives for me ahead of Emery’s first season as virtually the entire squad will be back in training right from the start - expect a stronger than usual line-up at Borehamwood this year. The negative means there is less interest in what might be termed “neutral” fixtures out in Russia but as I have no more than a passing interest in England in any case then every game is neutral for me.
Switzerland will grab my attention this year with Granit Xhaka and new signing Stefan Lichsteiner set to be key figures for them. I’ve never really paid any attention to Lichsteiner so I’m very keen to watch him play. I had expected to be interested in watching Japan to get a look at Takuma Asano but he has been the one to pay the price as they’ve selected only three strikers and didn’t make the cut for the final 23. Egypt have Mohammed Elneny in their squad but of course he finished the season here with a nasty injury so I’m not that sure how much he will feature. The Egyptians should fancy their chances of getting out of the group if Salah can keep his shoulder attached to where it should be.
Mesut Ozil, assuming he isn’t still sick, will be a key player for Germany as they look to defend their status as World Champions but I can’t see him setting the tournament alight - I’d like to be proved wrong. Spain were among my favourites as possible winners up until a few hours ago when they sacked their boss! I hope Nacho Monreal can show the planet what a decent player he’s become at Arsenal. Our usual bankers for Arsenal, France, have the grand total of zero Arsenal players in their squad thanks to Koscielny being injured, Lacazette left out, and Giroud playing for Chelsea.
David Ospina will be in goal for Columbia and they are fancied to do well, especially if James Rodriguez can rediscover his form of Brazil four years ago. Joel Campbell plays for Costa Rica and he also made a huge impression at the last World Cup - he will no doubt want to grab the eye of Unai Emery if he possibly can. The last Arsenal man involved is the much maligned Alex Iwobi who scored a good goal against England a couple of weeks ago for Nigeria. As well as having the best kit at the tournament the Nigerians ought to really fancy their chances of doing something special out in Russia. It would great to see Iwobi, an Arsenal youth product, sparkle at the World Cup and come back to Arsenal and become a fine player under the new regime.
On top of those I’ll be looking out for players we are heavily linked to such as the Uruguayan midfielder Torreira - if he is what my nephew says he is then he could be just the player Arsenal need. I’ll try to write some posts throughout the World Cup with an obvious Arsenal bias to them. It should be fun to watch.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Unai Arrives at Arsenal - "Those who know...", Squad Review Part One - Goalkeepers

Already looking Arsenal classy

It's been a momentous few days for Arsenal Football Club. For the first time in 22 years we have a new leader of the team. It's been quite surreal and almost disturbing, a genuine step in to the unknown for the newest generation of Arsenal supporters. For those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like before Wenger it has still been very odd indeed.
One of the absolute highlights of the week has been the skewering of every slimy journalist and all the "in the knows" on the internet by Ivan Gazidis using his man Ornstein on the BBC the other night to reveal Unai Emery was to be the new Arsenal Manager. I believe Steve Stammers had actually broken the story earlier in the day and he is a proper sports writer who has long been a regular Arsenal man. The whole Arteta thing had not so much been a red herring as more the biggest smokescreen in football. It almost put the Sol Campbell deal in the shade. I particularly enjoyed the "Those who know won't speak and those who speak don't know" slapping down of the media by Uncle Ivan yesterday. Gazidis is a man who is mostly unpopular with the fans at Arsenal but you have to say he's played a blinder here. That quote would have been a t-shirt waiting to be made back in the 90's when you could buy some really great stuff from the stalls on Gillespie Road and Avenell Road. It was all very Arsenal. In terms of the "catalyst for change" that Gazidis uttered last year you can't say he hasn't delivered. The next stage will show us whether his changes have been good or bad. I, for one, am more than willing to join in and find out.
Unai Emery handled himself superbly in the press conference yesterday. Clearly his English is not as strong as Arsene Wenger's was when he arrived but he carried out his media duties brilliantly in a foreign tongue. Somehow I can't see Allardyce or Redknapp or whoever rocking up in Spain and giving a press conference anything like that. Emery looked the business in his Arsenal suit and looked genuinely pleased to be at The Arsenal. There was a touch of class in Arsenal already having his name plaque up outside his office at the stadium. He spoke about work a lot in his answers to the journalists and I think that will be music to all our ears. I am convinced that certain players are going to have to shape up or ship out. I know his record from Sevilla and PSG but not much else. His "failure" at PSG was in the Champions League but you could aim that at Guardiola at Man City the last two years as well. If I have a concern it's that his only league championship came in the French league with a side that anyone could have managed to the title. That being said, I am encouraged that he is used to winning and will not accept slacking. He has dealt with far bigger egos than Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It is now an exciting time ahead for us. Whatever happens it will be different, and that difference brings hope and a step in to the unknown. Welcome Unai Emery.

The annual squad review will take the usual form with a few words on every player to make the match day squad this season, and one or two others who didn't. I'll start, as ever, with the goalkeepers:

Petr Cech
The undisputed first-choice for at least most of the season but it wasn't a vintage year for the veteran. Like David Seaman before him Cech is starting to show his age. He lacks mobility and agility. His positioning still gets him in the right place to make a lot of very good saves, but the weaknesses are there for all to see. Towards the end of the campaign he was nursed through as clearly he has been carrying an injury for some time. I would have preferred to have him in goal for the UEFA Cup games with Atletico and, who knows, he might have made a difference. For me he should be 2nd or 3rd choice next season but he's just been moved to the number 1 shirt.

David Ospina
He's had an odd Arsenal career where he's ended up playing a lot despite being first-choice for only a very brief spell. I like Ospina and he seems genuinely pleased to be an Arsenal player. However, he is really not that close to being a truly top class goalkeeper. He's been a decent signing as the understudy since the last World Cup but the time has surely come to move on. He doesn't inspire confidence in those who play in front of him  and certainly not in the fans. 

Emi Martinez
Spent the entire season on loan in Spain and hardly played. For a lad who seemed to have great potential and who wants to make it at Arsenal that must have been a disaster for him. What will the new Manager do?

Matt Macey
For the rest of his life he can say he played for Arsenal. Macey made his debut against Norwich and also got some experience in Europe, making a couple of crucial saves in the process. At his age he's not likely to make it but I'm sure he enjoyed his year in the Arsenal first-team squad.

Dejan Iliev
On the bench against Norwich he was highly rated before some bad injuries kept him out for a long time a couple of years ago. We are not short of young goalkeepers at Arsenal and some of them hardly get a game, Iliev included.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Arsene Wenger - An Appreciation, End of Season Awards

Arsene with his most won silverware

I've been one of many people labelled as a bit of a hypocrite in recent weeks for choosing to remember fondly the good times under Arsene Wenger after years of calling for him to leave as it had all gone wrong. Personally I don't feel there's anything wrong with being able to appreciate what he did for Arsenal, and for the English game as a whole, even though you realised long ago he just couldn't get us there anymore.
I've had a while to think about this piece and unexpected circumstances have given me the time today to sit down and write about Wenger's reign. The way it ended is typical of the end of any "great" dictatorship which sees a leader emerge whom everyone wishes to follow. Eventually they go on long enough to for everyone to see fault and the cracks become deep chasms, eventually leading to the end. Wenger's particular Imperial story mirrors Julius Caesar's ascent and fall in Rome. Having become a leading General Caesar conquered the Britons but saw his leading accolytes marginalised and removed back in Rome. He built his loyal army thanks to his success on the battlefield and marched upon Rome and became the all-powerful leader. In Wenger's case he took his army, the supporters, to support his own assault on power when David Dein was sacked. Arsene became the King of Arsenal and presided over everything. When the woeful Keith Edelman was shown the door Arsene helped to choose his successor in Ivan Gazidis, or Brutus as Caesar might have known him. Over the years that followed Gazidis slowly started to exert an influence while Wenger's own failings made him fair game - Ivan managed to lead a Board revolt. Finally he delivered the killer blow to Arsene who was forced to fall on his sword (as opposed to Caesar who was murdered) though Ivan definitely got his "et tu Brute" moment. If Arteta is the man who follows Arsene Wenger then we also have our Caesar Augustus - hopefully Arteta can reign as long and successfully over Arsenal's Empire as Augustus did. I digress, of course, and that is how it ended which is not the purpose of this post. I merely wanted to illustrate how Wenger's own dictatorship of Arsenal ultimately saw his downfall in the same way it has with most political and military dictators throughout human history.
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal there isn't one Arsenal supporter, with the exception of David Dein, who could genuinely claim to know much (or anything) about him. This bespectacled, quietly spoken, clearly intelligent man was as far removed from a Brian Clough/Alex Ferguson/George Graham figure as you could wish to see. Stand him next to Kevin Keegan who was riding high at the time and you had to wonder what the hell Arsenal had done. How would our grizzled English pros adapt to listening to this bloke who'd never played at the top level? The fact is we underestimated the man and our English ignorance and arrogance where football is concerned came racing to the fore. We also underestimated the players who, no doubt with some gentle persuasion from Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, did indeed listen to Arsene Wenger and quickly went along with his methods - Merson being the probable exception and he was quickly shown the door. The signing of Patrick Vieira before Wenger had even been announced must also have had an impact on the players - maybe this bloke might know something about the game after all if he can find a talent like that and bring him to England from AC Milan. Nowadays if a French teenager signed for AC Milan we'd probably all know about it but back then English football and the media was so insular that nobody knew anything about Vieira, even though Italian football was live on Channel 4. In that paragraph alone I've alluded to two or three things that have changed in English football as a direct result of Arsene Wenger's influence. To hear that idiot Neil Ashton from The Sun (he has a journalism degree and is therefore a football expert according to people in his profession) say he doesn't understand why Wenger gets that credit just sums up that cretin and his newspaper. Arsenal should have followed Liverpool and Everton's lead and banned The Sun years ago.
That first (not full) season saw Arsenal start to play a more expansive than we'd seen since around 1992. Wenger stuck with Bruce Rioch's preferred three centre-backs for the rest of the campaign, again a sign of his intelligence to not rock the boat unnecessarily early, and going to Highbury became very entertaining. We beat Spurs on a rainy Sunday with two brilliant late goals from Adams and Bergkamp but it was a dominant performance. This brought Wenger some early credit with the fans, again along with the signing of Vieira, and we were pushing for the Title until relatively late on when home defeats to Wimbledon and Liverpool (including a controversial penalty) just about saw us out of things. Nevertheless it was an encouraging start. What followed in the Summer of 1997 was a revolution.
Arsenal were famed for not spending. It had meant us missing out on Roy Keane, Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and others in recent years. Bergkamp and Platt had arrived for big money in 1995 but that was very much an exception. Someone, presumably Dein, persuaded the Board to spend out on a huge overhaul of the playing staff. Merson, Hartson, Linighan, Morrow, Selley and other squad and fringe players were let go. Arsene set to work on bringing in a mix of experience and youth, mostly from abroad, that would galvanise the entire club for the following season. Nicolas Anelka had made his debut on the final day of the previous season at Derby. Petit and Grimandi arrived from Monaco, Manninger came in to be the planned successor to David Seaman, Boa Morte, Wreh, Mendez and Upson were young players brought in to bolster squad numbers and, most impressively of all, Marc Overmars was signed from Ajax. Wenger gambled on the Holland man who had suffered serious injuries in recent years. It worked our perfectly and Overmars was a clear upgrade on the inconsistent Merson. Dennis Bergkamp reached his peak and the Dutch pair fired Arsenal to the Double. There was a bad spell in November and December but legend has it that Tony Adams called a meeting of the players, issues were honestly debated and resolved, and the team went on a stunning run to land the Premier League and FA Cup. Petit and Vieira, two Wenger players, formed the most dominant midfield pairing most of us had seen at Arsenal and they went on to win the World Cup in 1998, combining to allow Petit the glory of the last goal in the Final against Brazil. Arsene Wenger had become the first foreign manager to win the English league. That his team did so with such pace and flair made them popular winners. He'd also proved himself far too intelligent to let Ferguson's verbal games affect him and his players. As I said above he was no Kevin Keegan.
It's somewhat of a surprise, then, that Arsenal won nothing for the next four years. The team in 1998-99, now minus Ian Wright, were probably even better than the Double winners to be honest. Somehow they lost that FA Cup semi-final to Man Utd and that ultimately cost them another Double which they would surely have won had Bergkamp scored the penalty at Villa Park. They should have won it all. The Champions League had also been a massive anti-climax and would continue to be so - a feature of Wenger's time is ultimate European failure for Arsenal. Thierry Henry replaced the troublesome Anelka who would never truly fulfil his potential once away from Arsene Wenger, while Thierry became the best player in the World. Wenger was still pulling French rabbits from his magic hat.
The team became perennial runners-up, always second in the Premier League (sometimes by a distance) to Man Utd, a ridiculous defeat on penalties to the scummy Galatassaray in a game we dominated, and then an even more ridiculous loss to Liverpool at Cardiff in the FA Cup in 2001 - that was a total mugging overseen and totally aided by the second most dishonest refereeing display I've ever been witness to by Steve Dunn. If there was anything good to come from it then it was that this was the last straw and Arsenal again looked to the transfer market to freshen things up. Petit and Overmars had gone after the Copenhagen debacle with Pires and Wiltord arriving, along with an unknown Brazilian midfield player called Edu. In the Summer of 2001 they were joined by Richard Wright (another attempt to find a replacement for David Seaman) and Francis Jeffers who came in to try and solve the problem of missing too many chances. Junichi Inamoto arrived to wide acclaim but was only really there to sell shirts back in Japan. Gio Van Bronckhorst arrived from Rangers for big money before Scottish football got rubbish. Most importantly, and most unexpectedly, Sol Campbell arrived on a free transfer from Tottenham. Wenger and Dein had combined spectacularly to pull off such a coup and find the man who was to basically replace Tony Adams.
That season 2001-02 saw Wenger's Arsenal play better football than ever before. They remained unbeaten away from home and scored in every league game on the way to the Premier League again, winning it gloriously at Old Trafford despite Henry, Bergkamp and Adams all being missing from the starting XI. The FA Cup had been secured the previous Saturday on a glorious day at Cardiff. Although it could never erase the pain and disappointment of the Liverpool game the year before the two goals from Parlour and Ljungberg, two fairly limited players who reached legendary heights under Arsene's management, will rarely be bettered in FA Cup Final's. Robert Pires had been the star of the season, cruelly ended with a cruciate knee injury that stopped him being involved near the end and meant he missed the World Cup. Ljungberg came to the fore and, with Bergkamp's unerring ability to find him with the ball, scored the goals that secured wins in tight matches. This was the first of four consecutive seasons that saw Wenger bring silverware to Highbury. The next season, with World Cup winner Gilberto now alongside Vieira, saw old habits return in throwing away our Title at the end of the season, though heavily influenced by Mark Halsey's red card for Sol Campbell at home to Manchester United and then the first of many violent kickings from Allardyce's players as a 2-0 lead was lost at Bolton. It had huge echoes of 1998-99 but this time Arsenal did manage to win the FA Cup.
What came next needs no write up from me. It was, quite simply, the most incredible and unbeatable season in the history of English league football - P38 W26 D12 L0. Invincible. It almost goes unnoticed that the team also lost in both domestic semi-finals (with Wenger throwing away the FA Cup by resting Henry and Reyes on the day) and then also wasting their best chance to win the European Cup by conspiring to lost at home to Chelsea in the quarter-final. That team was so good they could have won everything they entered that season. The fact is that they should have done. They played the most sensational football with Henry mostly unstoppable. Few who were there will ever forget the Good Friday game against Liverpool at the end of the week where they'd lost their FA Cup and European Cup chances and were losing 2-1 at half-time. Pires and Henry took over and lifted the old stadium as a whole. The reaction of the crowd to Henry's solo effort to make it 3-2 is something you will rarely, if ever, experience again. Wenger's Arsenal were truly unbeatable in the Premier League. Chelsea's new found wealth was about to bring an end, really, to a period of Arsenal and Man Utd's domestic dominance of the game. One more FA Cup followed in 2005 as we were battered by United at Cardiff but Jens Lehmann won us the game by getting us to penalties and then keeping out Scholes' effort while Lauren, Cole, Van Persie, Ljungberg and Vieira scored all of ours to give us one final highlight in Wales.
Wenger's ultimate legacy to Arsenal will be the move from Highbury to Ashburton Grove, in the same way the majestic East and West Stand's stood as tribute to Herbert Chapman from his time. Without the period of success, gained with the players and the type of football that Arsene brought to English football then there would have been no success to cause the growth of Arsenal in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Some kind of increased capacity was clearly needed. I will always maintain the move away from Highbury was unnecessary and better brinksmanship from Arsenal's powers that be would have twisted the arm of Islington Council in to allowing development of the Clock End and North Bank. Ultimately the move created a schism between "old" fans and the new breed of Tarquin's that would fill the new ground. Over the next 12 years this was a cancer that would grow and ultimately lead to Wenger finding himself under fire from thousands of Arsenal supporters. We did, of course, say goodbye to Highbury by coming within an ace of winning the European Cup but Henry bottled the chance to make it 2-0 with 15 minutes left and Barcelona finally took advantage of a bad offside decision, Ljungberg's lack of fitness, Wenger's bad substitution of Flamini for Fabregas, and the fact we had only 10 men on the pitch. Things might have been very different this past decade had Henry scored as he should have done. 
Arsene's genuinely great times were over. We still saw occasional flashes of brilliance from his teams and we saw some great footballers like Fabregas and Van Persie and Alexis. Ultimately though the vital ingredient was missing and those players stabbed Wenger in the back by leaving and, even worse, causing trouble behind the scenes in order to force their moves. He would prove his biggest failing was his loyalty to his players who would continually let him down over the years. The recent FA Cup wins have been incredibly welcome and provided a few great highlights late in Wenger's time as boss, but the fact is that it was that first ten years that was a total joy. For that time, the best and most successful for Arsenal since the 1930's, I can only thank Arsene Wenger. He might have lost it, and gone on far too long, and failed to go when he could have gone on a high, but time will heal all that. In ten years from now, maybe sooner, and certainly in the longer term, Arsene Wenger will be remembered for what he won at Arsenal, not what he lost. He will be remembered for changing the game in England. He will be remembered as an all time great. Merci Arsene.

I'll take this chance to do my "awards" for the season as I have a few more minutes available.

Player of the Season
I was thinking I have really three options for this in Monreal, Ramsey and Aubameyang. Until about six weeks ago Nacho would have walked it. However, having given it some objective thought I have decided that my player of the season ought to be someone who was written off last year. A man who had no future at Arsenal it would seem. A man who would end up being Arsenal Captain on more than one occasion and who would drive the team forward when he played and a character who absolutely gets what it is to be The Arsenal. My player of the year is Jack Wilshere.

Goal of the Season
Easy one this, it has to be Aaron Ramsey's back-heel volley against CSKA Moscow.

Most Disappointing Player
Joint winners here for differing reasons. Firstly, and this will be no surprise to anyone who reads my stuff regularly, Mesut Ozil. For six weeks around December and January he was sensational, everything we know he is capable of being. Unfortunately circumstances and his form saw the Board feel it necessary to make sure he didn't leave with Alexis and he was given a huge salary to stay at Arsenal. He's been an utter disgrace ever since and doesn't even have to turn up if he doesn't feel like it. The other is Rob Holding who looked the absolute business in the FA Cup Final last season but, come the Charity Shield in August, turned in to a Sunday League defender. Having signed a new contract I'm convinced he'll be loaned out next season. Shout outs to Iwobi, Bellerin and Mustafi.

Most Improved Player
There was a possible shout for Granit Xhaka here over the last couple of months of the season but the clear winner is Calum Chambers. I thought his Arsenal career was over this time last year but, since Christmas, he has proven to be Arsenal's best centre-back. You could argue that doesn't mean much in view of the competition but he has shown more than enough to deserve an opportunity when the new man comes in. Expect him to be sold in July.

Best Team Performance
Burnley at home? Man Utd at home despite losing? No. It has to be the Tottenham home game. A 2-0 thrashing for the greatest team in English football history. Arsenal played them off the pitch from start to finish and the shadow is still a long one.

Worst Team Performance
Where should we start? Talk about plenty of options. For me it has to be Liverpool away at the start of the season. Wenger got everything wrong, not least the decision to play Oxlade-Chamberlain who he knew would be joining them within hours! Arsenal were beaten before they went on the pitch that day and Liverpool ended up easing off or it could have been another Old Trafford style humiliation.

Surprise Package
Not a lot has surprised us this season to be fair. That being the case I'll go for the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles. If he can keep his head level he might just have a big future at Arsenal. Wenger going could be the best thing that happens to him as someone new might just give him a position and keep him there.

Moment of the Season
No it isn't Wenger's announcement! It is, however, Wenger's final game at home. Him being presented with the Invincible Premier League trophy marked the Club out for the class it possesses and it was a very emotional and special day of thanks for all the stuff I wrote about above. The players turned in a Wengeresque performance to hammer Burnley and the man himself said goodbye in an eloquent and fitting manner.


Friday, 4 May 2018

End of the Empire

I had really hoped to be writing this morning that we were looking forward to a trip to Lyon in a fortnight. Instead I’m writing about the way Arsene Wenger’s final Arsenal dream died. He can only have himself to blame. The game in Madrid last night was a 90 minute microcosm of the last 7 or 8 years for Arsene’s Arsenal teams. It is a sad truth that since the sales of Fabregas and Van Persie for peanuts the football Arsenal have played has been woeful. It’s been not so much tiki-taka as catenaccio without the defending, so uninspiring it has become to watch. The slow, sideways build-up was in clear evidence last night. One shot on target in a game where you need to score is as inexplicable as it is unacceptable. I would say we created maybe five clear chances on the night but the only one that ended up with a shot being taken was the one Mkhitaryan volleyed just over the bar shortly after he came on. Lacazette, Bellerin, Ramsey, Monreal, Ozil and Lacazette again all chose to pass (or failed to control the ball in Monreal’s case) rather than shoot at goal. It is beyond my comprehension as to why.
The substitution of Jack Wilshere last night was probably the last nail in Jack’s coffin where Arsenal are concerned. I live in hope that the new manager wants him as it is clear that Arsene Wenger doesn’t. Jack was making Arsenal go forward last night, keeping us on the front foot and getting on top in midfield. Removing him rather than Ozil was typical of the way Arsene Wenger goes about things with Ozil completely untouchable as the star player. Contrast his contribution with his opposite number last night. Griezmann was dynamic when he got the ball, taking on people and looking to create and link up with Diego Costa high up the pitch. Ozil’s “efforts” on the night were typical of his time at Arsenal. This top class player yet again failed to influence the game. There is something missing with Ozil. The best players take the game over and dominate it. Ozil has all the ability in the world but he doesn’t have the desire. Martin Keown’s dissection of Ozil after the game last night was clinical in its delivery and searingly honest. Keown was fuming and it came across brilliantly. It made you wish that he or Tony Adams had been part of this Arsenal dressing room for years then things would have been much different for a number of players, not least Ozil and Arshavin.
The goal we conceded was as comically bad as the one last week. Bellerin simply doesn’t have the first idea how to defend. He doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on around him. How could he be thinking about going forward when Atletico have the ball and Diego Costa is the wrong side of him in space? His lack of awareness is disturbing but it’s been going on ever since he arrived in the first team. His pace often got him out of trouble early in his career. He is at least a yard slower now than he was then and his pace is no longer enough. Calum Chambers, meanwhile, carried on his very good form of recent months when he replaced the stricken Koscielny. King Koscielny has been playing on one leg for the last couple of years as he has had to nurse his Achilles problem throughout that time. Last night his tendon just gave up on him and basically finished his career at the top level. It’s a shame for him that he will also miss his last chance of playing in the World Cup.
One more note on the way things panned out last night; going in to injury time we still had Lacazette as our lone striker. We needed a goal but were sticking with one man up front against possibly the strongest centre-back partnership in Europe. Eddie Nketiah was named as a substitute but wasn’t thrown on as a late gamble when we had nothing to lose. It begs the question as to what circumstances Wenger would ever actually consider giving the boy a game. Clearly he was named there simply to make up the numbers. So I go back to January where Wenger sold Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, but signed a striker who he knew would be ineligible to play in the only tournament we might have a chance of winning (we were already in the League Cup Final by then.) Had Giroud and/or Walcott been there last night they would have been brought on, no doubt about it. Wenger sold them and then looked at his subs last night and saw a kid who he doesn’t really rate. Selling those two players wasn’t funny when it happened and it certainly isn’t funny now.
Whichever way you look at it the disaster of last night, of this whole season, is down to Arsene Wenger. It’s been going on far too long but it’s finally coming to an end. In ten days time we see the end of the Wenger era at Arsenal. There will be a hangover from it, have no doubt, but at the very least it will be different. That difference brings some hope and a change in the narrative. It should also bring a huge change in the squad, both in terms of who is actually in it by August and also their mentality. Three games to go.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Arsene's leaving so let's be happy

When he was King

This post has been a few days in the making as I was away on holiday when Arsene Wenger announced he would be leaving Arsenal last Friday. I suppose you could say it's been a number of years in the making really. I wrote my first "Wenger Out" piece on the Online Gooner website long before I'd even considered having my own blog. For me the worm turned when he made William Gallas the Arsenal Captain ahead of Gilberto Silva or Kolo Toure. It's been a long 11 years since that. If you will forgive I will save a proper "tribute" piece to Arsene until the end of the season. I have plenty to thank him for but I'll wait to see if there might yet be even one more special Wenger triumph in May.
When I got a phone-call from my brother last Friday morning to tell me the news I was in Disneyland Paris. I can honestly say that the news made an already very bright mood even brighter. It almost felt like a relief, something that I knew should have happened a long time ago, something that should have been announced weeks ago if it was to happen this season. There can be no doubt that Wenger going has to be the best for both him and Arsenal now. The empty stands in recent months will certainly have had an impact on the Kroenke's and even Arsene isn't so myopic as to not see something was badly wrong. By the time the evening came round and I was back in the hotel I started to catch up with the internet and read the tributes and testimonials, the recollections and the great memories. It started to make me feel emotional. Suddenly the depth of what had been announced started to strike me. Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal for 22 years this year. Apart from my family and Arsenal itself he is the most constant figure in my life. He has been the boss since before I became an adult. What we are faced with, no matter how much I know it to be the right thing, is almost totally unknown to a generation of Arsenal supporters. We simply aren't used to a change of manager at our club. I almost had a feeling of "what have we done?" Almost. Arsenal may actually take a step of two back (especially if the next appointment is a bad one) before we move forward again. I actually believe that Wenger leaving is only part of a triumvirate of departures that is necessary - the majority shareholder and the CEO need to follow him.
I have no doubt that there has been a dialogue between Ivan Gazidis (at the instruction of Josh and Stan Kroenke) and Arsene to discuss the fact that things are coming to an end. At the same time I do not accept he has been "sacked" in the popular sense of the word. Reading David Ornstein's piece on the BBC website (the only journalist with any inside knowledge of what goes on at Arsenal) it is clear that Arsene has reluctantly agreed it is time, but agreed nonetheless. What he did by making his shock statement was to steal the glory Gazidis so badly wanted for himself. That can be the only reason for Gazidis to call the most bizarre press conference on Friday afternoon. That was a pure vanity exercise from the CEO who had no real power to get rid of Arsene unless the Kroenke's said so. He has been able to chip away, rightly, at the absolute power Wenger had over Arsenal with the appointments made during this season, preparing the way for Wenger to be replaced. It amazes me now that so many people seem to see Gazidis, a smarming liar who always has the right words in public, as the saviour and arbiter of truthful facts. It actually worries me that he is the man charged with finding the right replacement.
The way Wenger made the announcement, with no prior speculation in the media, was a throwback for football and for Arsenal. I personally found it totally refreshing and totally Arsenal that the media were caught on the hop. It harked back to the day Sol Campbell was unveiled. Even after all these years Wenger can still shock everyone. I hope now, despite the years of wanting this to happen, that he can be given a fitting and deserved send-off, particularly at the Burnley game. I'll be there and it will no doubt be emotional for most of us.