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Saturday, 30 March 2013

In memory of David Rocastle

Rocky Seven

It was a nice win for Arsenal yesterday but any reflections on that can wait until tomorrow.

Today is 31st March. That date is traditionally marked on this website with a simple post remembering David Rocastle. The Great Man was taken from us 12 years ago today. The way the fans remembered him yesterday showed how much we all thought of Rocky. As I've mentioned before he was my hero as a young boy. David Rocastle cried when he was sold by Arsenal. So did I.

I'll leave you with a few tribute videos from Youtube. The first is taken from Arsenal's own video tribute to Rocky (the video on Youtube lasts 14 minutes, but only the first four minutes have any picture/sound). The second highlights the genius of David Rocastle to a back drop of music from the pens of Lennon and McCartney - quite fitting. The third has some reflections from famous faces on what they thought of David Rocastle, many of which mirror my own.

RIP Rocky. I still miss you at Arsenal.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Very few will have an Arsenal future

Serge Gnabry - does he have it?

I thoroughly enjoyed tuning in to watch the younger Arsenal players in Next Generation action against CSKA Moscow at Ashburton Grove last night. I would have liked to be at the game in person as I wasn't working, but my wife did have to go and earn a crust so I was on childcare duties instead. A few things stood out from watching the match, and one or two players also stood out for differing reasons. Cheered on by a very good crowd I think the boys should be pretty pleased with their 1-0 win over the Russians.
From the starting line-up there were six players whose names stood out to me. There was the goalkeeper Deyan Iliev who had looked good in the atrocious conditions in Milan in the previous round. I was also looking out for Serge Gnabry, Thomas Eisfeld, Nico Yennaris, Chuba Akpom and Hector Bellerin. Some of those players have already had a bit of first team experience, but whether or not they can make it at Arsenal is another matter.
Iliev impressed me a lot, especially in the second half. Arsenal dominated throughout the game, but the second period was particularly one sided. This meant that the goalkeeper was a spectator for most of that time, on a particularly cold night. He showed impressive levels of concentration when the ball did come near him and was fairly commanding of his penalty area. On a rare break by CSKA in the closing stages he was switched on and had an excellent position to race off his line and gather the ball before the striker could get on the end of it. Being a young goalkeeper is difficult anywhere, but especially at a big Club like Arsenal. Iliev looked confident and capable. Time will tell if he can make a breakthrough in the near future. With James Shea, Vito Mannone and at least one of Fabianski and Szczesny set to move on he will certainly be closer to contention next season, regardless of who comes in.
Serge Gnabry has been very much the headline grabber this season and he has serious ability on the ball. There are times when he really needs to learn to keep it simple, but he is quick, powerful and skillful. It was probably no surprise that he got the winning goal following a superb move involving the similarly impressive Bellerin. Gnabry missed a couple of chances as well, most notably an early header from inside the six yard box which should have been buried. Gnabry has been unfortunate not to get a bit more time with the first-team having been surprisingly involved a couple of times before Christmas. When you see Arshavin making his rare appearances on the Arsenal bench I can't help thinking we'd be better off with one of these younger players there instead. The fact is that Arsene Wenger has no intention of playing Arshavin, so why not have a kid there instead? If we were to get a comfortable lead then that youngster could have a ten or twenty minute run out at a higher level. They could only benefit from such experience. Gnabry seems to be at the front of that queue and might well get a nod or two between now and May.
Bellerin was in action at right-back and looks super comfortable. With Carl Jenkinson set to move ahead of Bacary Sagna and Bellerin knocking about in the Reserves it is perhaps no surprise that Sagna is heading for the exit door. He needs to develop physically, and I'd question whether or not he is good enough defensively (he wasn't tested at all in that regard last night) but on the ball, and using the ball, he looks excellent. He was the architect of the winning goal, and has the rare ability (for an Arsenal player) to put in a devastating cross. I'm sure Olivier Giroud wouldn't mind combining with him occasionally.
Nico Yennaris was the first of this group to play for the first-team and I've been disappointed to not see a lot more of him. He can play just about anywhere across midfield and at right-back, as he proved against Manchester United in the Premier League a year or so ago. In this team he is the Captain and is deployed as the defensive midfield player. I think this is doing him no favours career-wise. Of course he can play there, but Nico is not really big enough of physical enough to do that job at the higher level. He is a good footballer who can pick a pass, make a tackle and score a goal. I hope he doesn't see his Arsenal career fizzle out through being made to play a role he is not really suited to. He's a born and bred Arsenal fan and I'd love to see him make it, but time is against him now.
Thomas Eisfeld was disappointing last night. He made a big impact in pre-season with the first-team and then put in a match changing performance at Reading in the League Cup. That being the case I expected to see him all over the opposition. Playing wide on the left he did a very good impression of his illustrious compatriot Lukas Podolski. He even smashed a stunning free-kick against the bar late on, but that was very much the highlight of his evening. As with Gnabry I was hoping to have seen a lot more of Eisfeld in the first-team, especially with jokers like Gervinho and Arshavin knocking about. Last night was hopefully just an off-night. His goalscoring record would certainly suggest he is better than he showed against CSKA.
At centre-forward last night was Chuba Akpom who has been having a decent season in front of goal. Last night he looked strong and showed a good touch, unlike when he had previously been seen. He didn't really get a sight of goal last night so it's difficult to judge his finishing ability. He is actually the only other centre-forward at the Club after Giroud. That being the case it wouldn't have hurt for him to have the odd position on the bench. I'm not saying you would bring him on in place of Giroud at any time, but he'd surely be a better late option alongside him than Per Mertesacker. In the absence of anyone else Akpom might have been unfortunate not to have had a look in at all.
Aside from those named the other player to impress was Martin Angha. He played at left-back last night despite not having any inclination to use his left foot. I saw him against Coventry in the League Cup back in the Autumn and he looked out of his depth. Defensively he is not up to it, but going forward he can be an enthralling watch. Angha can take people on and carry the ball well across the pitch. If he could pass or cross the ball then a future as a winger could well be his. Sadly his lack of end product will hold him back.
It wasn't just Angha who lacked a killer ball in this side. In fact the similarities with the first-team are depressingly familiar. At times these boys move the ball brilliantly, right up until the final pass. Too often the through ball is not good enough and there is an unwillingness from too many to have a go at goal (Gnabry is a notable exception). When they did get through last night the finishing was generally poor, bar the brilliant goal. For all the pressure and dominance enjoyed by Arsenal the opposition goalkeeper was woefully under-employed. On the plus side there was an impressive work rate across the entire team, especially without the ball. There was one bit of showboating when the crowd started to "ole" but that was quickly brought to an end, I suspect by a shout or two from Terry Burton on the touchline. Overall it was hard not to be impressed. Hopefully one or two will make it with Arsenal. If I had to pick some that might I would have to look at Gnabry, Bellerin and Eisfeld (despite his average display last night).
One more thing to note is that Arsene Wenger has talked over the past year about his new British core of players, and how that is a good thing. Of course, in the past the passport has not mattered, he has told us. To me the nationality of the player means nothing whatsoever, just so long as they do the business for Arsenal. Our greatest team included precious few British players. Given Arsene's  new found fondness for British players it is perhaps interesting that only three of last night's starting XI were born here. British core? I don't care.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Keep that murdering scum away Arsenal

You're not welcome

Just before I went to work this afternoon I was disturbed to read via Arseblog's news site that Galatasaray appear to be coming to London this year for the Emirates Cup. There was an immediate negative reaction on Twitter and elsewhere to this. Having come home from work I find that it is still the main topic affecting Arsenal supporters online this evening. Suffice to say that Gooners are deeply unimpressed.
Back in 2000 there were thousands of us in Copenhagen for the UEFA Cup Final. Before the semi-final two Leeds supporters were stabbed to death in Istanbul. On arrival at Copenhagen airport we Gooners were met by the Turkish fans giving slit-throat gestures to us as we waited to be taken in to the city for the day. There had already been trouble, and a stabbing, the night before. On arrival in the main square it was obvious that there would be more trouble. Our group moved away to find an Arsenal-only pub for the day. What unfolded across the city were running battles. We were among the lucky ones to get aboard the very few coaches that came back to the city centre to take us to Parken Stadium that evening. Many other Gooners had to literally fight their way to the stadium. It was a gauntlet of hate. If you want a flavour of what it was like, both for us and the Leeds supporters, you can see the videos posted on Youtube (I won't link to them as some of them include pictures of the mortally wounded Leeds fans).
The following day the English press reverted to type and blamed their own. So called Arsenal fan Piers Morgan chose to use his national newspaper to name and shame a number of men for their "involvement" in the violence. These men were banned from Arsenal for life and lost their jobs. They were later shown to be completely innocent and were not involved in the violence. They are still banned from Arsenal. Piers Morgan is still hated, and rightly so. The fact is that the Turkish fans were intent on violence against the English that day. It was no surprise that it happened, and it was even less of a surprise that the English gave as good as they got when attacked.
Now here we are, thirteen years on, and Arsenal are about to invite Galatasaray to our home. Of course we could have drawn them in Europe at any time since 2000, but there's a hell of a difference between having to play them by dint of a random draw and actually laying out the red carpet in welcome. Sadly it just shows that those running the Club have no idea of the feelings of the supporters or the history of Arsenal. Ivan Gazidis and his cronies weren't around in those days. You can forget Peter Hill-Wood and Ken Friar being involved in this decision - they have about as much power at Arsenal these days as I do. 
I can just imagine now the planning meeting for this. You will have had Gazidis and all his commercial muppets sat round a table wondering how the hell they are going to sell tickets when there is a chance the team won't have qualified for the European Cup next season. Who in their right mind would pay to watch such a team in pre-season, especially as there's no intention to spend anything on new players? They will have looked at the fact that they've already had Rangers and Celtic. They probably can't afford Barcelona. Then some bright spark will have thought out loud that there's quite a large Turkish population in North London. Who is the top Club in Turkey? None of these idiotic no marks will have any idea of the history between Arsenal and Galatasaray and that's why we're staring down the barrel of them arriving. Arsenal's commercial arm knows that the local Turks will sell out the stadium across the two days. Even if Arsenal supporters don't go it won't much matter, because the seats will be full.
I would never consider not going to a proper match because of disagreements over who the Manager is, or who owns Arsenal. But I'll be damned if I'm going to go to a pre-season friendly tournament that involves Galatasaray. It is shameful that it has even been considered. I bet the Met Police can't wait. Maybe Arsenal should invite Leeds and APOEL Nicosia so we can all watch a good tear-up before, during and after.And make no mistake, Leeds' main men will all be snapping up tickets when they go on general sale. Even if they can't get them they'll still turn up for the chance to lay out a few slaps. They could even get Piers Morgan to present the trophy.
I hope that, if this gets confirmed by Arsenal, there are genuine protests from the so-called supporters groups. I won't hold my breath, however, having read a Tweet from Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters Trust tonight where he has responded to a question about this with "what's your concern?" I'd have thought the concern should be obvious to anyone who's been around long enough.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

When will the FA learn it's lesson?

Custodians? I don't think so

I watched the Newcastle game at Wigan on Sunday and saw the tackle by Callum McManaman. Having seen the replays it is fair to say that referee Mark Halsey couldn't see it as a player ran across his view just at the moment of impact. However, as we heard yesterday, at least one of his linesmen did see the incident. For some reason that linesman did not deem it appropriate to help his referee by telling him it was a heinous foul that should have resulted in a red card. We still don't know the extent of the damage done to young Haidara's knee, I suspect because the swelling and tissue damage is too much to make scan results conclusive.
Wigan Athletic lost a lot of neutral admirers with the reactions of Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan. Whelan in particular left a very nasty taste with his insistence that it was a "fair tackle" and that McManaman had won the ball cleanly. When you consider that Whelan has recently been recalling how his own leg was broken in an FA Cup Final it's fairly sickening to hear what he has been saying since Sunday. Obviously he wishes to protect his player and his Club, but there are times when honesty is required. Sadly Wigan Athletic have chosen to follow the Stoke City path.
So what has this got to do with an Arsenal blog? The answer is that we have suffered from this sort of thing more than any other Club, going right back to May 2006 when Abou Diaby was banjaxed by a no-mark piece of scum from Sunderland. Seven years on and Diaby's career has suffered immeasurably from that act of deliberate violence against him. Dan Smith, the perpetrator, basically got away with ruining the career of one of Europe's brightest midfield prospects. Diaby has done very well financially out of not being able to play football, but he would surely have gone on to have professional success were it not for having his ankle shattered by a thug under instruction from his stand-in Manager Kevin Ball. Who knows, Arsenal might have fared better had Diaby been able to to fulfil his potential unhindered by a knackered leg.

When it should have been nipped in the bud

Had the FA dealt with Dan Smith appropriately and given him a massive ban then such things might not have become a feature of English football. You would have to think that maybe, just maybe, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey might have trodden a different path had an appropriate deterrent punishment been handed out to Smith those years before. Obviously we can't say that for certain, but the FA certainly didn't test the water, did they?
Even when Eduardo had his career shattered there was no comeback. Indeed there was actually sympathy for Martin Taylor, the perpetrator, because Arsene Wenger chose to attack him in a post-match interview. The same applied to Shawcross after Ramsey was carried from the Britannia with a leg facing in three different directions. These particular reactions are not the fault of the FA, but I'll come to the media in a minute. What the FA did yesterday, by failing to ban McManaman is put the careers of other players in danger in the future. There is no reason to pull out of such reckless challenges when the worst that's going to happen is a red card on the day of the game, followed by a three match suspension. The FA is supposed to protect the game of football. By allowing this violence to go unchecked they are protecting nothing except their own free dinners.
All of which brings me to the media and the way they deal with the issue. Back in 2003 Arsenal travelled to Bolton for a crucial end of season game. It was a game Arsenal had to win in order to retain the Premier League Title. At 2-0 up it seemed comfortable. At that point Allardyce's kickers went in to overdrive. For the last half-hour of the match Arsenal's players were booted off the pitch (literally) and out of the Title race. The press rejoiced in the way Arsenal's footballers were kicked in to submission. Allardyce had identified the "tactic" to be used if you were to give Arsenal a problem. They didn't like it up them. Over the next couple of years it became a regular sight.
The Invincibles of the following year were too good even for the violence displayed by numerous opponents. But when we went to Old Trafford in October 2004 it finally got too much. The Neville brothers kicked Jose Antonio Reyes (the best player in England at the time) out of the game. It effectively ended Reyes' career in England as he was never the same player again after the assault he suffered. Once again the press loved it. It was apparently acceptable to be "physical" with Arsenal. If you "let them play" they would destroy you. You had to be "in their faces" to beat this team. The blueprint was set in stone. Week after week us Gooners watched as it was allowed to happen. Arsene Wenger pointed out that eventually someone was going to get hurt. He was laughed at as the whingeing foreigner who was looking for excuses in defeat. When it finally happened with Diaby at Sunderland there was no apology towards Wenger. Le Boss even made the point that it had become "okay" to kick Arsenal players in his post-match interview that evening. The press chose to ignore that and carried on the same tack.
Finally we come to the sympathy culture I alluded to above. When Martin Taylor broke Eduardo's leg (again under instruction from his Manager to get in to the Arsenal players) he got sympathy. Apparently Eduardo didn't return his text messages of apology. The heinous foreigner wouldn't respond to the English gentleman. We were told to consider the fact that Taylor might be haunted by what had happened to Eduardo. I'd imagine he wasn't half as haunted as the player who faced a future that could have meant he would never play again. As it was his Arsenal career never did get back on track. Eduardo had to leave English football to try and resurrect what looked set to be a massive career at Arsenal. But we're expected to feel sorry for Taylor. And, remember, he's "not that sort of player". Nor, too, was Ryan Shawcross (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary before and since). Indeed, on the night Aaron Ramsey had his leg shattered we were told by Tony Pulis, who was backed up by Sky and the assorted media, that Shawcross was desperately upset. He had left the pitch in tears and his Mum had to come and pick him up from the ground. Well boo-hoo. Poor Ramsey was facing the same doubtful future as Eduardo had but as long as Shawcross loves his Mum then all is well. You couldn't make this up.
I went on Twitter after the tackle on Sunday and I said that I wondered how long it would be before someone made out that McManaman was a victim too. Lo and behold, McManaman was substituted shortly after the second-half began and Rob Hawthorne (Sky's Man Utd supporting commentator) told us that he was surely distraught at what had happened. Indeed, following the way Newcastle's coach had reacted at half-time we should spare a thought for the youngster (I believe he's actually 22 years-old so he's not really that young, is he?) This mentality astounds me.
In my mind I have identified two things that need to change before these tackles become a thing of the past. The first is that the FA must dish out proper punishment. A three game ban for a red card (whether issued at the time or retrospectively - or not at all in this case!) is simply not enough with a player's career hanging by a thread. Six months must become a minimum. The second is that the media must change it's opinion of the perpetrators. They should be shown up as the villains they undoubtedly are. The fact is that they clearly are "that sort of player" (McManaman, like Shawcross, has previous form). But what will cause this change to happen? Clearly the prevalence of such incidents is making no difference (there was one in the lower divisions about a month ago). As far as I can see the only thing that will bring this to a head is when it happens to an England player, at the hands (or feet) of a non-English player. All the high-profile incidents of the past seven years have involved an Englishman kicking someone who is not English. Things would be very different if it happened, God forbid, to Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard.

Monday, 18 March 2013

How Thomas Vermaelen can save Arsenal £15million

Skipper isn't done yet

Thomas Vermaelen was finally dropped from the Arsenal team in Munich last week. It's been coming for a long time and I suspect it was only the armband that was keeping him in for a while. Vermaelen has been a favourite with the supporters since his goalscoring debut in a handsome win at Everton a few years back. His goalscoring feats certainly promoted a strong reputation with the fans and made him an eye-catching player. Put together with some tough tackling and a willingness to attack the ball in the air he quickly became known as The Verminator. Of course the attacking of the high ball was soon coached out of him at Arsenal and disappeared almost entirely for a while. However, when Robin Van Persie left there was only really one candidate to be made Captain of Arsenal Football Club despite more and more regular mistakes in his defensive play. The partnership of Vermaelen and Koscielny was pretty awful throughout last season, and has got no better on the occasions they've been put together this term. Koscielny excelled last season, while Vermaelen regressed. He still got the odd goal to keep the wolves from the door of criticism - his last minute winner against Newcastle, crucial though it was, merely served to mask the deficiencies in his game. Since he was left out last week the defence has put in two very creditable performances, leading to speculation that Vermaelen in finished at Arsenal. Of course it's too early to talk in those terms, but there is definitely work to do for Vermaelen to reclaim his place. As Club Captain it is no doubt embarrassing for him and a dent to his pride. But there is another way in which the skipper could become an integral part of this Arsenal team.
Arsene Wenger has long been criticised for playing people out of position. From Stephen Hughes and Abou Diaby wide on the left, Sylvain Wiltord and Gilberto Silva and Sylvain Wiltord and Nicklas Bendtner wide on the right, and Aaron Ramsey anywhere other than his true position, Wenger always seems to have done it. It's not been good for any of those players, or for the team. Square pegs do not tend to fit in to round holes. However, in the case of Vermaelen I think we have a problem solver that would suit not only the player, but be of huge benefit to the team.
We've been crying out for a defensive midfield enforcer ever since Gilberto was ridiculously sold. Alex Song did a far better job than people give him credit for (I think we've missed him badly this season) but he was no Gilberto. Song had a habit of giving away silly free-kicks that would put us under unnecessary pressure. In my time watching Arsenal our trophy winning teams have always had a hard working midfield player who could tackle. In 1987 there was Steve Williams, then Kevin Richardson and Michael Thomas in 1989. David Hillier came in to do it in 1991, then Steve Morrow was joined by Ian Selley, Ray Parlour and John Jensen in 1993 and 1994. Petit and Vieira fitted the bill in 1998 and then Gilberto arrived in 2002 to complete that jigsaw.
The responsibility this season has gone to Mikel Arteta and it hasn't been wholly successful. Arteta is more than willing to stick his foot in (he's actually quite a dirty player) but he lacks the physicality to do the job properly. He is also a naturally attacking player so it is not fair to put him in that area of the pitch. It's a mark of Arteta's professionalism that he gets on with it without complaining, but it's not enough for success at Arsenal. Plenty of new blood has been consistently linked with us, such as Yann M'Vila and Chieck Tiote. There has also been talk of Victor Wanyama at Celtic and he is the one I would choose given the opportunity. I don't doubt that Wanyama would be released from Scotland for £10-15 million. But does Vermaelen actually have the ability to fit his square peg in to the midfield shaped hole and save us a big transfer fee?
One of Vermaelen's big problems at centre-back is a seemingly uncontrollable desire to chase the ball in to midfield. This often leaves us out of shape at the back, with no Gilberto figure able to read the signs and just drop in to the gap. If Vermaelen was actually deployed in midfield it would eradicate that problem. On the occasion that Koscielny chose to move forward I would hope that Vermaelen's centre-half instincts would see him drop in to the back four and cover appropriately. His tackling in the midfield would be very welcome, as would his aerial ability. Vermaelen is no racing snake, but he's no slouch either so covering the ground wouldn't be a concern. Aside from Wilshere he is still the only genuine Captain in the squad and he would be able to keep the armband if he was alongside Jack in the midfield. With Wilshere crocked it would allow Arteta to move up the field slightly and give some physical protection to Santi Cazorla while also unshackling his own creative abilities. Arteta would become a mini-enforcer higher up the pitch and his eye for goal from around the edge of the penalty area would be a welcome bonus. When Wilshere becomes fit again he is easily interchangeable with Cazorla or Arteta.
It strikes me that moving Thomas Vermaelen forward in to midfield could be a really good thing for this side in the games that remain. Of course we're assuming there will be no injuries among our centre-halves for the rest of the season, but I think it has to be worth a shot. Thomas Vermaelen is too important to this Arsenal team to be shunted to the sidelines completely. I like Vermaelen a lot and I want to see him succeed and stay at Arsenal. But I don't think he has the required ability to play at centre-half. A move to the defensive midfield position could save his Arsenal career, and save the Club a small fortune.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Who are you and what have you done with Arsenal?

Lovely day today for Arsenal's Irish

It's still too early to talk about corners being turned or anything like that, but two very solid defensive performances accompanied by goals at the other end has made this in to a good week for Arsenal and their supporters. There have been too many false dawns these past few years to get confident that change has finally arrived, but for the moment I am more than willing to enjoy a pair of 2-0 away wins in four days. Who are these masked men?
If we're honest Arsenal weren't expected to win in Germany or in Wales. To have emerged victorious from both, and in the fashion we did so, gives genuine hope of a strong finish to the season. It's just a shame that we now have to sit on our hands for two weeks while international football (what a standard that is, with England playing San Marino) takes our players away. We have to hope our momentum is not disrupted by this interminable waste of time and energy.
Aside from a couple of early chances for Swansea we were never in trouble yesterday. The first of those was created by good play by the hosts, the second by a mistake from the otherwise excellent Carl Jenkinson. We maybe deserved to get away with that aberration after a strong start had seen Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have a brilliant effort cannon back off the crossbar. The Ox had his best game of the season by far yesterday and was unlucky again later on in the half as he struck the bar again. He was quieter in the second-half and it was no surprise to see him substituted but, if his performances in Munich and Swansea are anything to go by, he is set for a good end to his campaign - his impact could be crucial to our chances of being in the European Cup next season.
I am clearly in a minority but I thought Abou Diaby also played pretty well. I genuinely believe that, as the latest boo-boy for the crowd, he is unable to do anything right for a lot of people. I thought he put himself about in midfield, made a few tackles, passed the ball well, and carried it through midfield on a few occasions to get us on the front foot. One run in the second-half took him half the length of the pitch only for his touch to let him down having passed up the opportunity to shoot. Diaby's ability to beat a player is huge in a team that is still obsessed with the square ball and I just don't get why he is abused by so many. Maybe a few people should try actually watching what's happening in the game rather than just going with the mob. For anyone who wants Rosicky in the side I would suggest they look at his performances since he came back to fitness - I haven't seen him beat a player yet, and his passing has been abysmal. Two goals in three years is hardly the return needed from an attacking midfield player, either.
The other man to stand out yesterday was the excellent Santi Cazorla. Regulars will know that I am quick to criticise Cazorla for the way he goes missing more often than not. Right now I believe he is over rated by a lot of people. However, yesterday he was the main man and Arsenal wouldn't have won the game without him. When he plays like that he drives us forward and makes things happen. He was extremely unlucky not to get a deserved goal yesterday. His form has come and gone from game to game this season, but we need him to become consistent. There's no time like the present to do just that. He's the sort of player that excites the crowd when he plays well. Robert Pires had an in and out first season. I hope Cazorla can go on and thrill in the same way Bobby did.
On the other side of the coin is Theo Walcott. This season has been his best, there is no doubt about that. But since he finally signed his contract he has played like the Theo of years past. There is nothing to his game. He isn't running at people. He isn't getting in to score goals. When he gets the ball he looks lost as to what he should be doing with it. In the past he always looked weak as defenders strolled up to him and walked away with the ball, like the big kids picking on the little ones in the school playground. Until January that had disappeared from Theo's game. Now it is back and as bad as ever. I'm not sure he's worth his starting place at the moment, so perhaps a place on the bench for a week or two might have the desired effect. Vermaelen and Szczesny are taking their medicine so there is no reason why Walcott shouldn't get a dose.
The World is a brighter place when Arsenal win. To go and get two unexpected away wins, without conceding a goal (or even a shot on target yesterday), makes it especially sunny today. With it being St Patrick's Day I think a can or two of Harp (God's own lager) might pass my lips in quiet Irish celebration this evening. I reckon O'Leary and Brady and Rice and Neill (not Stapleton - he's a money grabbing w****r) might just enjoy the day as well. Nice.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Has the Wenger worm turned? Or is it same old, same old?

Has he finally got it? Or not?

I am conflicted this morning. And it's all Arsene Wenger's fault. I read with interest his quotes from yesterday's press conference, and the headline parts made for good reading. However, they weren't quite the full story, were they Arsenal.com?
Arsene told us yesterday that the players need to realise that there is competition for their places and nobody is guaranteed a start. In short, if you don't play well, you don't play at all. Brilliant. At last. The penny has finally dropped. We've sat through a lot of turgid rubbish over the last few years, only to turn up the following week and see the same players producing the same crap. We've wanted things shaken up time and again with a few kicks up the backside dished out, but to no avail. That changed on Wednesday evening with Szczesny and Vermaelen finally being dumped. It's about time. For Arsene Wenger to actually drop his Captain was unprecedented. Nobody could argue that it had an adverse effect on the performance of the team, especially in Vermaelen's area of the pitch. Aside from the win itself, I felt the best thing about the Bayern Munich game was that the Manager finally started doing his job again.
Wenger was then asked about Wojciech Szczesny and what the future holds for him. Obviously he told the press that both Szczesny and Vermaelen are key players. He could say nothing else. But in talking about the way Szczesny has been playing he again cited the mental fatigue that can plague a young player. I don't believe in all that nonsense so I have no qualms with ignoring that as Wenger's way of fobbing off press interest in the way he dropped his goalkeeper. What I didn't like was the next bit from Wenger. He went on to say that maybe he should have "rested" Szczesny from the domestic cups. And in that moment I realised that the penny might not have dropped with Wenger after all. The very fact that he might think he should have put out a potentially weakened team in competitions we had a chance to win brings back the bad vibes. If he thinks he should have left out Szczesny does he think the same about all the other players? Is he of the opinion that had he put out a complete reserve side against Bradford or Blackburn then the first leg against Bayern might have gone differently? If that is his thinking then we can already write off next season.
The proof of the pudding will come against Swansea this afternoon. Kieran Gibbs is suffering still after his return from injury and will not be in the side to play in Wales. That's not too much of an issue, especially with Monreal coming back in. However, if either Vermaelen or Szczesny make a return to the starting XI today then we will know that nothing has really changed. Following the performance the other night it would be a disgrace if Fabianski and Koscielny/Mertesacker are left out. If there is any other change to be made from the starting line-up the other night I would bring in Oxlade-Chamberlain for Rosicky and move Cazorla back in to the centre (though I can see Giroud missing out to injury after the kicking he took on Wednesday night). There is every chance that Fabianski might revert to type and throw one in his own net, but we've been watching Szczesny do that for over a year now. Fabianski has earned his chance, and Szczesny has been playing very badly. It's a no-brainer to me.
Above all today Arsenal must produce the sort of effort they did in Munich. If that sort of defensive discipline can be in evidence today, and for the rest of the season, we will do okay. If we return to the lacklustre, couldn't care less if we make a mistake, kind of display then we will tail off in to obscurity. I hope Wenger can motivate the players like he did on Wednesday. Starting by rewarding good performances, and punishing bad ones, would be a good start for this supporter.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

When a win isn't a win - Gunners give us our pride back

I reckon he might be

Before the game last night I wanted to see some pride in the shirt. It’s something that has been sorely lacking in recent times from a lot of our players. By the end of the game they had certainly shown that and it was a mark of the performance that I felt unexpectedly gutted. Like most sane people I gave us no chance of getting through to the next round. I felt that anything that saw us avoid a humiliating thrashing would be decent, and a draw exceptional. To go out and come within touching distance of actually qualifying was just incredible. It was more like the Arsenal we have known in the past, but the glorious failure remains just that.
The back six were truly exceptional last night. For all Bayern Munich’s efforts at goal there was only one occasion where I would concede that they beat our defence and created an opportunity worthy of the name. When they did do that it was met with a storming effort by Carl Jenkinson to get his body in Robben’s path, and an outstanding save from a faultless Lukasz Fabianski. Those two, along with Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs and Arteta were superb. I know Arteta got some stick (and I was certainly screaming at my TV) for what he did in the closing minutes, but he had pretty much run himself to a standstill with his efforts in midfield. I felt at times that he was playing midfield on his own as Ramsey and Rosicky consistently gave the ball away with terrible passing. It is a supreme and tragic irony that it was our possession game, rather than our iffy defending, that was responsible for us not winning by the required margin.
The opposition was not given time on the ball in our half of the pitch. I thought Giroud tried very hard up front and was often the only player sprinting back to defend when Bayern tried to hit us on the counter. However, Cazorla and Walcott gave no protection to their full-backs. Philip Lahm was Bayern’s most effective player because he had the freedom of their right wing to double up on Kieran Gibbs. It was crying out for Rosicky to be taken off and for someone to come on to play properly wide on the left. When Gervinho was introduced we saw Lahm’s influence disappear and we got more on the front foot. How unlucky was the Ivorian after that sublime turn in the penalty area? If Giroud just had that little extra quality and proper goalscoring instinct he might well have been tapping it in to the empty net. I also thought that Oxlade-Chamberlain did well when he came on.
The performance of Carl Jenkinson was the absolute highlight for me. It was no coincidence that Arjen Robben moved to the other wing as he was getting no joy whatsoever out of Jenkinson. The moment in the first-half where he let Robben come on to him before just taking the ball off him was first rate defending. The Corporal also grew in to the attacking side in the second-half, with only Walcott’s wastefulness in possession stopping him being more of a tangible threat. As was the case before Christmas I can see no reason for Bacary Sagna to be recalled at right-back. There may be an argument for him to play alongside Koscielny or Mertesacker in the middle, but certainly not out wide. The youngster also spoke superbly after the game in his interview with the cretinous Geoff Shreeves. The look on Jenkinson’s face during it is really one of a fan as he glares at Sky’s microphone chimp.
Graham Souness is someone I’ve generally enjoyed listening to down the years. Last night he embarrassed himself. I was already sickened by the grinning of that clown Jeff Stelling (is there a bigger mirror watcher in television than this idiot?) who couldn’t even begin to mask his joy at our demise. Then Souness started saying that Arsenal hadn’t been good at all. Apparently our win was entirely due to Bayern Munich’s bad performance. He qualified this by stating that Manuel Neuer “didn’t have a save to make”. Given that Arsenal scored two goals I would say there were at least two occasions where he had a save to make. It comes to something when Jamie Redknapp is the one adding the sensible comments. By any standards it was an unbelievable display. To go and beat the team that many are fancying to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid this season, the team that has been in two of the last three finals, the team that is running away with the genuinely strongest league in Europe is simply astounding. The only thing last night that was more astounding was Souness making out we were lucky.
When we got the second goal with five minutes to go I really thought we might just do it. The reaction of the players to Neuer’s antics showed a togetherness that has been largely absent. I loved Gary Neville’s “get in there boys” reaction to the scuffle. I hated Neville as a player, but he is the best pundit television has had in many a year. If we see that sort of hunger and effort across the remaining ten games then we will finish this season strongly. The players have now proved to themselves that they can win against top rate opposition. All season we’ve been pretty much swatted aside by good teams who have taken advantage of our timid approach. Last night was so much different. It’s something I hope Arsene Wenger can harness for the next two months. He has kept on and on about the potential in the team. I hope he also realises now that good, committed defending is the platform from which winning teams begin. It was without doubt the best defensive display from a Wenger side in a long time. Had the referee not been so outrageously biased towards the home team we might well have been going through (don’t ever tell me that football is not corrupt).
One final thing is to give mention to the travelling Gooners. In that massive stadium, full of German supporters not famed for their silence, the Arsenal boys were loud and proud. There were flags there from all over Europe, including good friends from Tirol Gooners and Gunners Bergamo. As my Dad pointed out to me there were none from Vietnam or Indonesia or Hong Kong. So let’s hear no more from Gazidis and co about the “thousands of loyal supporters” in those areas, and let’s hear a bit more about those on the doorstep who actually, genuinely, support the team. They make you as proud as the players did last night.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Why we won't miss Jack, Why Szczesny had to be dropped - Munich (a) preview

One last chance

Don’t panic my Gooner friends. Jack Wilshere’s latest injury seems to have lead to a massive outpouring of grief, and the seminal writing off of Arsenal’s chances of reaching the top four this season. There is very much the feeling that Jack has been utterly crucial to Arsenal since his return to the side, but I think that might be overstating his contribution. Don’t get me wrong, it is clear that Jack Wilshere is the very heartbeat of this side. However, if he has had an impact since coming back it is simply that things would be even worse had he not been playing. It’s not as though we’ve had a storming run that has coincided with Jack being in the side. Moreover Jack’s stats are not especially impressive. For a player with his obvious skill and passing ability he has precious few assists to his name. His flat refusal to shoot most of the time (I know he’s far from being the only one) has meant that he has scored just the once. So aside from appearing to be the only player at Arsenal hurt by defeat I’m finding it slightly difficult to see what we’re that likely to miss. And to be honest, based on the last two matches, had we been playing well as a team he’d be looking at a place on the bench in any case.
I strongly suspect that this latest injury has been carried for a week or three, which would explain why our boy has turned in a couple of stinkers. What we won’t have without Jack is his perpetual motion and willingness to dish out a bollocking or two to the people around him. I have to say that I think the rest will do him good, while missing the Munich match and a pair of internationals will not harm Arsenal in any way. If we can get a win at Swansea without him and then have him back refreshed in a couple of weeks from now it might be no bad thing all round. Of course, with Arsenal's medical team we probably won't see him again before Christmas 2014.
Elsewhere it looks as though Wojciech Szczesny is finaly being given a long awaited and much needed kick up the backside. Arsene Wenger might call it a “rest” for Szczesny but he acknowledged his awful form by saying that playing many games this season has had an effect on him. I don’t really see why any goalkeeper would be “rested”. They don’t expend energy. David Seaman didn’t get “rested” until he was in his late 30s. Pat Jennings just played and played. Bob Wilson will tell you how he played all 70-odd games in 1970-71. There were no “effects” seen in their performances week after week. Now Lukasz Fabianski is back to stake a claim. Regular readers will know that I advocated such a move as soon as the older Pole returned for the under-21 side a couple of weeks back. Szczesny has been really very poor for over a year. I think Fabianski’s injury has prevented him from being recalled much sooner. If he gets through tomorrow without his customary mistake then Wenger will have a big call to make at Swansea. It’s worth remembering that Fabianski was in the best run of form in his Arsenal career before he damaged himself and allowed Szczesny to get his opportunity. I’m not saying that Fabianski is good enough for Arsenal, as the evidence is obviously to the contrary. But there is no doubt in my mind that he is no worse than Szczesny right now. If Szczesny’s main problem is temperamental rather than a lack of talent (I’m not convinced) then this will be just what he needs. If he’s simply not good enough (which is what I fear) then I hope we are bringing in a plethora of new goalkeepers this summer.
It’s obviously highly unlikely that we will progress to the quarter-final. With our defence we’ll probably have to score about eight times to get past Bayern Munich. Avoiding total humiliation, and maybe nicking a draw or a narrow win, is about the best that can be hoped for. That being the case I have no problem with not playing people who are carrying a knock or who need to be dropped for reasons of form, though it makes the resting of players against Blackburn seem even more stupid. I am concerned that our lack of squad strength leaves us with a very sub-standard shadow team, but that’s the way Wenger has taken us. If we go out tomorrow but win at the weekend I think most Gooners would just about take that right now. Enjoy the game. You never know, in football miracles often happen – just ask Bradford City, or anyone witnessing the recovery time of Gareth Bale.

Friday, 8 March 2013

No sympathy for Red Nose and his boys, Rooney for Arsenal?

Make him the first of many

For twenty years the media juggernaut that has supplemented the success of Manchester United has managed to ensure that little has gone wrong for them where refereeing decisions are concerned. We all know how it works, and any referee who dares to err from the script is destroyed by Ferguson via his acolytes in the press. The end result is that the official in question doesn't visit Old Trafford (or have any involvement in Man Utd matches elsewhere) too many times in the future. If Ferguson says something about an official the FA will usually turn the other way and pretend it hasn't heard or seen anything. All the while every other Club suffers by playing to different rules. Aided and abetted by Murdoch's empire (which still owned a large part of MUTV until last month) there was rarely any adverse publicity to be had.
Compare that to how other Manager's are generally portrayed. Steven Howard makes slagging Arsene Wenger a weekly event in The Sun. Kenny Dalglish, Rafael Benitez, Avram Grant, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Mancini and Roberto Di Matteo (even Jose Mourinho) have all suffered from outrageous negative publicity. They all have one thing in common, along with Wenger, and that is that they were in charge of genuine rivals to Manchester United and Alex Ferguson. No journalists have the bottle to write negatively about Ferguson because he bans them from press conferences or just refuses to speak to them. The BBC found that out to their cost. When Arsene Wenger had his pop at journalists a couple of weeks ago it got a huge media reaction. Yet one journalist dared to write that he couldn't understand why, as Ferguson does this on a regular basis at anything he perceives as negative towards anyone at United - he must really scour the papers to find anything like that. Ferguson's regular abuse of journalists gets no publicity, it seems. Any claim that there is no media bias towards Manchester United should be completely blown out of the water by that revelation.
This week we have seen Man Utd get dumped out of the European Cup after a seemingly dubious refereeing decision. Personally I thought it was a scandal. I mean, on what grounds did the referee disallow Real Madrid's goal before half-time? There was no foul and no offside. The goal should have stood. Then there was the penalty Madrid should have had for Rafael's handball on the goal line. Five officials and they all missed it! Of course, the media haven't written or spoken a word on that, have they? It's all been about the travesty of  Nani's red card. Personally, I don't think that it should have been a red card. However, I seem to remember Emmanuel Eboue being sent off at Old Trafford in the FA Cup for something vaguely familiar. Watch the video and you will see that clapper in chief, Rio Ferdinand, is the first man to go chasing the referee demanding the red card that followed for Eboue. I suppose Ferdinand has form for selective memory though. After all, he is the man who "forgot" he was supposed to take a drugs test. I also remember Robin Van Persie getting sent-off in a European Cup game for Arsenal in the exact same circumstances. The media, rather predictably, didn't react in a similar way back then. Nor did they when Van Persie was disgracefully sent-off at Barcelona two years ago.
Ferguson's reaction to the red card, apart from his Harlem Shake down the dugout steps immediately following it, was to refuse to speak to the press. There is an obligation, under UEFA rules, to do so at Champions League ties. When Arsene Wenger takes defeat badly he is chastised by the media as being "petulant" and a "sore loser". When Ferguson does it his reaction is "understandable" apparently. The fact is that Ferguson wasn't "distraught" as Mike Phelan (who spoke superbly, it should be said) put it. He was simply apoplectic with rage. He went in to five-year-old-child tantrum mode and locked himself in the bathroom, refusing to come out. I honestly thought ITV's commentators and presenter (with the notable and bizarre exception of Roy Keane - that man does not forgive and forget!) were going to cry on Tuesday evening. Make no mistake, if it had been Arsenal I would have been fuming. But you can rest assured the media reaction would have been similarly reversed had it been us. No sympathy. What goes around comes around, and it came around for Ferguson and Manchester United the other night. Long may it continue.

Staying with Ferguson and Manchester United I was shocked when Wayne Rooney was left out on Tuesday. When I saw their team I Tweeted that Arsenal should get in there and sign him this Summer. We've seen this before with Ferguson and high profile players. It goes as far back as Paul McGrath. Fall out with Ferguson and you career at Manchester United is dead. David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Dimitar Berbatov. The names trip off the tongue. So far Beckham is the only one of those bearing a physical scar from his locking of horns with his Manager, but Rooney is almost certainly on the same trajectory as all those named - the one that heads down to the exit door at the Stretford End. I notice that Ferguson has denied a rift today, and said that Rooney is not going to leave. We've heard it all before. There was no rift with Beckham or Van Nistelrooy but they didn't last long after, did they?
As for the possibility of us signing Rooney, why not? There is an argument that he would rather play elsewhere, but I think he'd be utterly crazy to head to Manchester City. I could see him replacing Torres at Chelsea, but that's why we must get in there and get business done. Last week we had the usual "we have money to spend" stuff from Arsenal. Well I've had enough of the words. We've heard the same thing for years, but not had the signings to prove it. I feel that with the sponsorship deals starting, and the shipping off the wage bill of people like Arshavin and Bendtner and co, there is now nowhere to hide. Arsenal really do have money. That money simply must be spent to avoid us slipping even further behind. What better statement of intent than to go and spend £25-£30m on England's best striker? We've all given Rooney plenty of stick over the years, but I'd take him at Arsenal in a heart-beat. It would make a nice change to have him scoring for us, as he's made a career out of doing it against us. Signing Wayne Rooney would get us on a high. I just hope it can happen because I'm certain he won't be at Manchester United come August.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Effort but no quality against Tottenham

Our best player yesterday

We got plenty of effort from the players yesterday. I've often criticised this group of players for a lack of it. But we certainly didn't get anything even remotely approaching top class at either end of the pitch. In attack we were never truly threatening after the first fifteen minutes, while the defending was again Sunday League standard. The one player to genuinely stand out as having a good game was Carl Jenkinson and I'll write a little more about that below.
The game saw us start on the front foot for a change. We've often seen the mugs dominate early on in the games at their place with a rabid crowd behind them. Once that first half-hour has been negotiated Arsenal get on top. Yesterday we were in to them from the first whistle. Two or three times we worked good openings, but our final ball was either poor or non-existent. We didn't force Lloris to make a save. The ponderous Giroud took so long to shoot when through on goal that even Mertesacker would have caught up with him. Theo Walcott spent a lot of time getting through the middle and made a lot of runs, only for the ball to go square in midfield instead of beyond Tottenham's high back line. I just don't understand it.
When they finally got hold of the ball they played the exact passes Walcott had been looking for at the other end and the monkey-boy was never going to miss. When Monreal and Vermaelen did their Chuckle Brothers impression for the second goal it was similarly easy for Lennon to put the ball in the net. It's not often I feel remotely sorry for Wojciech Szczesny but he had no chance yesterday. It is beyond my comprehension how international defenders can be so badly caught out. When it happens twice in two minutes it is genuinely scary. Gary Neville pointed out over a year ago that Arsenal try to play offside without pressuring the ball in midfield. Instead of dropping off in that situation our defenders come flying forward, but with no idea of communication or a coherent plan. The end result is almost always a goal for our opponents. Mikel Arteta is incapable of protecting the back four (why should he be?) and so it is easy for any team with a bit of quality to get at us. Bale had not been in the game, but our own fragility gave him one of the easiest goals he'll ever score.
In the second-half we got our early goal that we needed. A couple of minutes later Carl Jenkinson got in down the right and provided the perfect pass for Jack Wilshere to equalise. Wilshere didn't even get a boot on the ball. I thought Jack was poor against Villa last week. He was ten times worse yesterday. He undoubtedly tried, as he always does, but I don't remember too many of his passes finding a red shirt. He had an awful game as far as I was concerned. It's all very well people having a pop at Giroud and Walcott and Ramsey and whoever else, but Jack was equally culpable yesterday and should get stick when it's deserved.
Jenkinson, meanwhile, was playing very well. With Theo constantly moving inside Jenkinson's pace was a constant threat down the right. He was providing the width our game was needing and, after our goal, was letting us stretch their defence. So what does our genius Manager do? He takes him off and puts a central midfielder at right-back. What did Arsenal gain from that move? Why not just take off Ramsey or Arteta and leave Jenkinson to get at them? From the moment he went off our threat virtually disappeared. Unfortunately, when Ramsey was provided with the chance to get us the equaliser you just knew he wasn't going to score. That was our last clear opportunity but, again, Lloris didn't have to make a save.
When we got desperate we had the ridiculous sight of Mertesacker up front again. We started to lump high balls forward, which completely negated our midfield players, and left Podolski out wide on the left and out of the game. I don't know why Podolski is suddenly out of the team. I can't understand why we waited until the 77th minute to put him on the pitch. Santi Cazorla really put in a shift yesterday, but when we started playing high balls towards Mertesacker he was also effectively taken out of the game. Tomas Rosicky, meanwhile, may as well have gone and sat in the away end for all the use he was when the ball came to him. We only made two subs but, towards the end, we had a centre-back, a defensive midfield player and Gervinho warming up. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was not asked to have a stretch. All this when we were 2-1 down at Tottenham. It defies belief. And Lloris still didn't have a save to make.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Spurs' Cup Final preview

Whatever happens, our shadow will be forever cast

So here it is. We've arrived at Tottenham's biggest game of the season. This, finally, is their year. That Gooner scum is about to be dispatched for good and the power shift in North London will have finally arrived. Only its not quite that simple, is it? There is no doubt that sometime, and it could well be this season, Spurs will finally get the better of Arsenal across the course of a season. I said at the start of the campaign that I feared Villas-Boas more than any Tottenham boss of many a year. In recent weeks, with Bale playing superbly, they have put together a fine run. But this is the North London Derby and things are not straightforward. If the game this time last year should teach the Neanderthals of N17 anything then it is that they should get cocky against the better half of North London at their absolute peril. Remember all that "mind the gap" crap? I reckon they do.
It says it all, perhaps, that Arsenal supporters have been in uproar about the way things are going, while the Tiny Totts have been revelling in their recent form, yet a win for Arsenal tomorrow will see only one point separating the two sides. I suppose when you've not won the League in 52 years you try to create success out of something that isn't really there. Us Gooners have higher priorities when it comes down to it. It's an expectation born of success. The sort of success the cretins from White Hart Lane can only dream about - and you can be certain they've been doing nothing but dream of it since 1961.
I've very much enjoyed the way the press has built up our opposition over the past week. The adulation for Gareth Bale (undoubtedly a fine player in good form, but you shouldn't win Footballer Of The Year off the back of one good month) has been nauseating and enjoyable in equal measure. If ever a team has been set up for a fall then it's that lot. I reckon the Spurs loving media will go in to meltdown if Arsenal happen to pull it out of the fire tomorrow. We've done it before. There will be nothing better to see tomorrow than Arsenal celebrating a win, but Bale and a plethora of journalists crying over their predictions of times-a-changing would certainly add to the enjoyment.
The travelling Gooners will be running the annual gauntlet of hate tomorrow. Low profiles will need to be kept, with any semblance of red hidden away until safely inside the away end, or back at Finsbury Park. I suppose the crowd at Tottenham should be congratulated in a way. They may be the most charmless and offensive bunch of knuckle-dragging clowns in the Premier League, but they are also surely London's most popular and successful "Care In The Community" project. I hope the travelling Arsenal fans stay safe, and come away with a win to savour.
Just to finish I'll point out some anniversaries for this weekend. Yesterday marked 26 years since Tottenham announced the ticket details for Wembley at half-time, which merely served to inspire Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn to earn us a replay in the Littlewoods Cup semi-final . Tomorrow it's 22 years since Arsenal swung the Title race in their favour with a 1-0 win at Anfield, through Paul Merson's goal (I can't find video of that one). And, just for good measure, Monday is the anniversary of Ian Allinson and Rocky crushing the Spuds in that 1987 replay . If watching that doesn't get you in the mood for tomorrow then nothing will. Enjoy it Gooners. Let's hope we show the passion necessary and get the result we need.