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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A worker not a waster

This knee is a wreck

When Arsenal posted the picture above on their official website I suspect they hadn't looked all that closely at it, though I also suspect the photographers had done exactly that. Stuart MacFarlane and Dave Price are outstanding at their job and whichever of them took this (I think it was Pricey as it was at an U21 game) knew exactly the detail they were showing to the fans with it. We should be grateful that they did. This proves once and for all the scale of the injury that Abou Diaby has been struggling with since March 2013, as well as numerous other problems with which he's been struck down in his Arsenal career.
The most striking thing, aside from the permanently bruised look at the front of the knee is that massive scar to the side. In the old days these were not uncommon, as Paul Gascoigne would attest from his own ACL injury. However, with more modern techniques, particularly among the elite sports medics of the World, most of these kinds of operations are carried out with keyhole surgery - Robert Pires did both his cruciate ligaments yet his scarring is nowhere near as gruesome as Diaby's. You just wonder how badly Diaby's knee was banjaxed. When you see this it is not really surprising that he's taken as long as he has to get back on to a football pitch.
There is no doubt in my mind that Abou Diaby's career has been wrecked by the deliberately executed leg breaking tackle at Sunderland on 1st May 2006. Quite apart from the damage that particular injury did in its own right, everything that has followed surely has something to do with that incident. We can only imagine the stress that was put on the muscles and ligaments around it in the process of rebuilding the ankle and lower leg. The eagle-eyed will no doubt point out that the ACL scar is on the opposite leg to the one that was broken, but just think of the compensation that leg has been making for the broken one since it was repaired. Both of Diaby's lower limbs have suffered time and again from muscle pulls and ligament strains. 
I've seen Abou Diaby get dogs abuse in recent years due to the time he has spent out injured. I have regularly said that Arsenal should have cut their losses on him as there is no way he will ever be fit enough to get through a sustained spell of games. The evidence of the last eight years points you in that direction. However, none of this is Diaby's fault. The lad is not lazy. He is not a waster. He is not "stealing a living". To come back from so many serious injuries must take some incredible willpower on the part of Diaby. The psychological impact of constantly seeing your career taken away from you, just when you might begin to think you're over it all, must be truly awful. Yes, £60k (plus) per week softens the blow but he didn't decide to pay himself to be an Arsenal player. For me he should be lauded for an amazing desire to want to play football that has driven him through the rehabilitation process on so many occasions.
Another thing I regularly see is people scoffing at the idea that Diaby is a fabulous footballer. I've seen people call him lazy, inconsistent, disinterested and much worse. I must admit that I have been frustrated by his performances on many occasions in the past, but I long ago came to a realisation on this. It is my belief that Abou was able to play a game, maybe two games, without too much pain. However, once he got to the third (and the very occasional fourth or fifth) game he was in such pain that he simply couldn't get around the pitch properly. This would then lead to yet another spell on the sidelines. The best example I can think of is the way he played unexpectedly at Fenerbahce in a Champions League game some years back. He simply ran the game, scoring and creating goals. Within a fortnight he was out again. In many ways it summed up his career.
The most annoying thing as far as I'm concerned is that I (and all Arsenal supporters) have been robbed of the chance to enjoy the development of the player that was to replace Patrick Vieira. Diaby had all the attributes he needed to do just that. Had he stayed fit he would almost certainly not still be an Arsenal player, as Real Madrid or Barcelona or Manchester City would have paid big money to get him. As it is his career has been wrecked by some no-mark who never made it at Sunderland. What I have now, however, is enormous respect for a guy who has tried and tried (and is still trying) to get there. I said a few weeks ago that I could see him scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final. He just might, you know.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Showing us what we've missed

If only they'd stayed fit

If that's a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup Final then I'll take it all day long. Arsenal were extremely comfortable winners this afternoon despite an early onslaught and, what you might euphemistically call, a "robust" display from certain Hull City players. If someone could please tell my why we weren't awarded a penalty (we should have had two on the day) and how El Mohammady didn't even get booked during the game then I would like to hear it. Steve Bruce certainly seems to have imbued his players with his own trademark as a player as they all seemed extremely well versed in art of the body-check. Mikel Arteta lost a tooth to one such use of the shoulder (his hair stayed perfectly in place) while Giroud was blocked off by Davies when chasing a weak back pass. As for Huddlestone's face high challenge on Arteta I find it beyond my comprehension that he got away with it.
With all that being said it should be no surprise that the Hull fans thought they were the ones being hard done by when it got to half-time. A read through the comments of my previous post will show you that chips are worn squarely on the shoulder in that part of Yorkshire. They thought Jelavic was fouled as we won the ball back at the start of the move leading to our second goal but he really was just weak and looking for a free-kick (much like El Mohammady who rolled around like an amateur Luis Suarez after a Monreal tackle in the first-half). The Cup Final won't be much of a spectacle if Hull approach it in the same way they did this afternoon.
Arsenal, on the other hand, played some lovely football at times. I thought Ozil looked pretty much with it throughout the first-half and was at the heart of most of our best stuff, not least the opening goal. The star of the show was Aaron Ramsey yet again. I said to my Dad on Tuesday night that we play at least twenty yards higher up the pitch when he's playing well. That was certainly the case today. It was noticeable to me that our centre-halves were only really touching the ball in general play once we'd put the game to bed. It was a stark contrast with Wembley last week. The combination of Ozil and Ramsey, looking to go forward and, in Ramsey's case, trying to make the runs beyond the ball makes such a difference. If you added in Theo Walcott we'd have some real threat. With Liverpool now a stick on to win the Title with such an average midfield and weak defence you have to think we've blown a huge chance to get our hands on the Premier League trophy this season. We all know that signings should have been made, but we would surely have been challenging had Walcott and Ramsey stayed fit. The blow it dealt us is just so noticeable now that Rambo is back.
The first two goals today were fantastic, quick passing moves. Again, we've not played at that sort of pace for a while. The ball from Ozil to Cazorla, and then the one-touch lay-off in to Ramsey's path was genuinely outstanding. Then the second goal was probably even better with a fine pick out from Giroud being expertly laid off by Ramsey for a clinical volleyed finish from Lukas Podolski. The third would also have been a great goal had it been Ramsey's, but a good save by Harper saw Podolski sniffing around in the six-yard box to finish things off. He has also made a difference in the last week.

 "I don't know what he does Jeff"

I am particularly enjoying the goals of Podolski. I have felt since he arrived that Wenger has failed to use him in the best way. It seems obvious to me that he and Giroud would both be better if they were allowed to play up front together. If you look at Podolski's scoring record from such limited appearances it is easy to see what he can bring to the team. All of which is a round about way of me getting in a position to have a pop at Paul Merson. Regulars will know I am not a fan of Merson on Sky. He has made it clear on many occasions that he is a "Chelsea fan" despite his long and successful association with Arsenal. I suspect Merson's big problem is that he was the first to be ditched by Arsene Wenger. This has filled him with a jealousy and bitterness akin to that of a Tottenham fan where Arsenal is concerned. In recent weeks I have twice heard him talking about Podolski and using this phrase: "I don't know what he does." Well Merse, get yourself a DVD of the man scoring lots and lots of goals and you might get a clue. Of course you'd have to drag yourself out of the drug filled gutter, or the betting shop, or even away from the bar in order to do that. For a man that owes everything to Arsenal FC I hate what Merson has become when he talks about us. I hope Poldi can keep showing him, all the way to Wembley in May.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The great FA ticket scandal begins again

Places are as limited as ever

So the FA has confirmed the ticket allocations for Arsenal and Hull City for the FA Cup Final on 17th May. As ever it has caused uproar due to the limited allocation for the two clubs involved. It is beyond the comprehension of any normal person that a 90,000 seat stadium will cater for only 50,000 supporters from the two teams actually playing. Without fail the FA policy for their distribution of tickets for the FA Cup Final is criticised widely every year, yet the organisation in charge continues to refuse to listen.
As I wrote last night Arsenal took 52,000 people to Wembley on Saturday. Hull City sold 24,000 tickets for their end yesterday. Accounting for the 17,000 Club Wembley seats which are ring-fenced due to the way they were sold in order to help fund the stadium in the first place, there should still be 73,000 seats, give or take a few hundred for segregation purposes. If Hull were to receive the 24,000 they sold yesterday that would leave around 49,000 for Arsenal, accounting for almost everyone that was in attendance on Saturday. Instead of that we have this ridiculous and antiquated system by whereby the FA looks after what calls its "family". 
It may have escaped the notice of the FA but England matches at Wembley are starting to not sell out again. When they enter the Euro qualifiers there will, without doubt, be crowds dipping well below 50,000 for England fixtures (who is going to pay to watch the likes of Estonia and San Marino?) If they want to reward their "volunteers, counties, leagues, local clubs and charities" then they should be allocated tickets for those low demand FA events. That would sort the men from the boys at the very least. A few years ago I used to play for my office side in the Dover Midweek League. At that time there were only five teams in the league, yet it received three Cup Final tickets every year! On what logical basis should a local league (of any kind) receive tickets for the biggest showpiece event in English football ahead of people who go and support their Club week in, week out, throughout the season? It's a disgrace. If you're the sort of person that takes one of these tickets, having not been a regular all season, then you should be ashamed of yourself as you're robbing people of their right to follow their side at Wembley.
I should say at this point that I ought to be alright for a Wembley ticket. I have the requisite away credits with Arsenal that should see me in the first tranche of applications. However, there are friends of mine who have been season ticket holders for many years, but who don't attend any away matches, and will now miss out on the FA Cup Final because of these freeloading "FA Family" people robbing them of the tickets that should be allocated to them by right. It's a scandal that seems to get worse every year, but the powers that be are simply not interested. 
There is, however, one more possible ray of light here - the Rugby Football League is bizarrely holding its "Magic Weekend" at Manchester City FC on 17th and 18th May with the showpiece game on the Saturday being Hull FC v Hull KR. It is possible, therefore, that Hull City might not sell their allocation for Wembley. Clutching at straws? Perhaps.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The scenes of Saturday will never be repeated

52,000 Arsenal supporters at Wembley yesterday

Yesterday at Wembley should go down as one of THE great days. Due to the poor performance of the team and the way in which it was won against weak opposition that will not happen. The reason that it should be remembered so positively, however, is all about the Arsenal supporters. Yesterday there were 52,000 Gooners at Wembley. Considering the fact that we are generally very unlikely to ever draw an opponent with such small support as Wigan then you will never again attend a neutral venue with so many of our fans. That number of tickets will probably never be made available to us in the future. 
The noise that we generated pretty much throughout the game was incredible. Of course we will get no credit from anyone outside Arsenal for the fervent atmosphere on our three (and a bit) sides of Wembley as it doesn't fit the media narrative for any of the big London Clubs to be showered with praise for its fans - you have to be from Liverpool, Manchester or the north-east for that to happen. The atmosphere in the Arsenal end could not have been any further removed from the Birmingham game a few years ago. The frustration was setting in after Wigan's goal, and there was a reaction to Podolski being substituted (more of which below) but the support was pretty much non-stop and incredibly vocal. I was at the game with family and I will always look back extremely fondly on the day. The look on the face of my eldest son when Mertesacker scored and when Cazorla wrapped it up will live with me forever. It was truly a privilege to share that with him - his first Arsenal win at Wembley. The media (led by Roy Keane on ITV) have made out that we were embarrassing in our celebration of such a win. That sums up the anti-Arsenal nature of these people and I have a two word answer to them: "F*** you!"
The game itself saw us make a very decent start. The Ox miscontrolled when looking to be in on goal virtually from the kick-off and then crossed superbly for a Sanogo header that was well saved by an in-form Scott Carson. Then it all started to get a bit flat from the players. I've said a lot of times that you know we're not playing well when our centre-halves keep getting the ball. The constant square and backwards passing is frustrating and infuriating. We'd shown what we could do with a bit of movement and a ball played forward. I just don't know what gets in to the players at times. The movement of those high up the pitch was virtually non-existent at times, with the notable exception of Oxlade-Chamberlain. On the other hand, whenever Wigan came down our left we were in trouble with McManaman simply too quick and too good for Monreal (always out of position defensively) and Vermaelen (what has happened to him?) 
The second half was no better with Ramsey starting to drop off the pace after such a long time out of the game and Santi Cazorla as anonymous as he has been all season. Yaya Sanogo simply looked what he is - out of his depth at this level (his first-touch when one-on-one with Carson before half-time was an embarrassment, as bad as anything Nicklas Bendtner has ever produced). Wigan then got their goal. From the other end of the stadium it looked a good tackle, but having seen it on TV the ball was virtually on the North Circular by the time Mertesacker got there. What was missed in the build-up was a blatant foul on Nacho Monreal that allowed McManaman to get the ball and run at Arsenal in the first place. Monreal going off injured brought on Kieran Gibbs which was to our advantage, but the referee had once again failed to give a major decision our way.
Gibbs added a lot down our left and was bringing Podolski in to the game for the first time. In truth the German had been so quiet you wouldn't really have known he was out there up to then. However, we were 1-0 behind and he is, as Arsene Wenger has consistently acknowledged, the best finisher in the side. With him now getting in to the play, and Sanogo just not getting any change out of second division defenders, what happened next beggared belief. First of all let me say that it was mightily refreshing that Wenger finally did something different and decided to go two up front. But surely you take off the youngster who hasn't scored for Arsenal in any game since his arrival. You certainly don't take off your best finisher, a man with more goals in his career than just about all of the rest of the team put together. Whatever the paucity of Podolski's performance yesterday, at 1-0 down and needing a goal, and switching to two strikers, to take him off was both insulting and bizarre. This was the chance we'd all been waiting for to see Giroud play with another striker, and Podolski to play through the centre with a strike partner. The loud booing of the substitution from the Arsenal supporters summed up the feeling of just about everyone there. 
Having two strikers put more pressure on Wigan and pushed them back. Them taking off McManaman did us a huge favour as their only out ball then was Fortune. I thought Giroud made a big difference as the ball stuck a little more higher up the pitch and this brought Chamberlain back in to the game (though Ox kept appearing more centrally which choked up the space and gave us nothing out wide where the spaces now were). There was plenty of huff and puff from Arsenal but little invention. We then started to put proper pressure on their goal. Sagna hit the post, Gibbs had one cleared off the line after a great Carson save and I began to think it wasn't our day. From the resulting corner a shot from Chamberlain was turned in by Mertesacker (I think most of us were expecting an offside flag such was his position at the far post) and it was pandemonium in the Arsenal masses. The relief was palpable and you thought we'd go on and kill it from there. We didn't do that and were fortunate once or twice before the end of the game, and extra-time, that Vermaelen could outmuscle Fortune and that Sagna could get back to deny him when he'd beaten Mertesacker for pace. Powell missed the target for them when well placed, but the best efforts in the remainder of the game were a snap shot on the turn by Sanogo (probably his best moment on the day) and Ox's shot that hit the bar - again I thought things weren't going to go our way.
I must just add some praise at this point for a player I've been getting on at a bit of late. I'm not the only person who thinks Mikel Arteta's legs have gone and that his insistence on passing square and backwards is a massive hindrance to the way we play the game. What I can rarely fault with Arteta is his effort. Yesterday was no exception. I'm amazed he didn't get booked for persistent fouling, but he seems to be one of those players that gets away with a lot of stuff. In extra-time, with Ramsey completely gone (and replaced by Kallstrom who seems to make Giroud look quick across the ground) and Oxlade-Chamberlain totally done by cramp, Arteta seemed to get stronger and stronger. I thought he was immense in the extra 30 minutes and dominated that midfield single-handed. For a bloke who has looked so slow and leg weary in the last four or five months it was quite incredible.
When it went to penalties I feared the worst. I think we all do. Sending up their centre-half first was a bizarre call from Wigan and Fabianski finally wrote himself in to Arsenal folklore for the right reasons with two huge penalty saves. The quality of Arsenal's penalties was outstanding. Carson didn't get close (didn't even go the right way) for any of them. I actually have no recollection of Cazorla's penalty. I remember him walking forward, and singing his name, and I remember him running to Fabianski, but him actually scoring is just not there for me to remember. What I do remember is the celebration when he scored.
I've read and heard that Wigan were "unlucky" and "deserved more". Why? They were damn lucky that Arsenal played badly again. They were lucky the referee missed that foul on Monreal. They were lucky we hit the post and the bar. And as for deserving more, what utter nonsense - they wasted time from the first goal-kick and then played deliberately for penalties in extra-time. If you play for penalties then you deserve to lose on them.
As I said above we Gooners (and the players) and have been given a lot of stick for our celebrations. What are you supposed to do? Why do we go to football if not to celebrate things like getting to the Cup Final? It seems that anything goes when it comes to getting at The Arsenal. What these people don't understand as well is the relief that was involved. We keep being reminded about not winning trophies for all these years. We came so close yesterday to blowing the chance to end that. Is it wrong that we should go mental at getting the result one way or another? It also showed to anyone that was watching that the FA Cup still means plenty to the supporters. Anybody that thinks the FA Cup is unimportant wasn't at Wembley on Saturday. It was a great feeling and I know from experience that it's one that is ten times better if you can actually pick up that beautiful old trophy. Roll on 17th May.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Fitness boosts for Arsenal - FA Cup Semi-Final Preview

Will anyone emulate Christopher Wreh tomorrow?

"Que sera sera
Whatever will be, will be
We're going to Wem-ber-ley
Que sera sera"

The pictures of Arsenal's training this morning are encouraging. Yesterday it looked like Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would all be missing tomorrow. All three of them took part in training today so we can hopefully relax on that score. We already know that Lukasz Fabianski will start in goal and Aaron Ramsey will be in midfield. We have to hope that Rambo can boost the team sufficiently to get the win tomorrow. The confidence in the group is obviously low so a returning player might just give them something to cling to. I hope he is one of a few changes tomorrow, regardless of injuries and suspensions - too many are back in the comfort zone and need shaking out of it.
My biggest fear tomorrow is that the players are not sent out with the right mentality for the game. We all know that Arsenal should win tomorrow. We all know that it should be pretty comfortable, regardless of who is playing for us and who isn't. But this is the FA Cup. Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City in the previous round. They are also the holders of the Cup. Their players, unlike ours, actually know how to win a trophy. They also seem to have a Manager who can set up his team to combat better quality opposition. If Arsenal's players are not up for it tomorrow they (and us) will suffer the most extreme humiliation in front of a nation willing them to fail. There is no logical reason why we should be even remotely worried, but this is football, the FA Cup and an Arsenal team that has made letting us down in to an art form.
We've played at Wembley twice since it was rebuilt and we've yet to get a win. The Birmingham game in the League Cup Final should have seen us come back with silverware. On that day our defenders couldn't handle Zigic and the attacking threat failed to really materialise. Tomorrow is not a dissimilar mismatch if truth be told. Birmingham shouldn't have lived with us. Wigan shouldn't live with us. There are enough players in and around the squad who were involved that day and should be the ones sorting out the frame of mind for tomorrow. Go out, play with pace, and blitz Wigan Athletic. If we beat them for hard work we will beat them for pace and football. Fail to get going early on and we could be in real trouble.
I've written before that I don't like the semi-final matches being played at Wembley. Going to a genuine neutral venue was always a great experience. I've put a picture of Christopher Wreh at the top of this piece. He scored the winner when we played Wolves at Villa Park in 1998, a goal notable for the fact that many Gooners were sat on the M6 still trying to get in to Birmingham when he scored it. I was in the upper tier of the Holte End nice and early and it was a wonderful thing to watch, and be part of, the travelling Gooners on two sides of the ground celebrating the goal, and again at the final whistle. The neutral venues used to provide an atmosphere unique to FA Cup semi-finals, and that is something that has been sadly lost. For a player like Christopher Wreh it made him a cult hero. It's a shame that those days are gone, but how about Yaya Sanogo having a Chris Wreh moment tomorrow?

Time to break our duck at this place

Going to Wembley is always exciting. In truth I preferred the old stadium, dilapidated as it may have been. The new place doesn't quite have the soul and atmosphere without the Twin Towers to walk towards. Having said that, if tomorrow can start to create some positive memories for Arsenal supporters then maybe my view will change a bit. 
I'm certainly looking forward to going to Wembley. I always do. Going to Wembley is always special, whatever the event. I went to see the NFL there last September, and England v Ireland last May and still got excited at the prospect of visiting, even without Arsenal. Going to Wembley Stadium is an event in itself. Going there to support Arsenal is something to be savoured and remembered. You never know how long it's going to be before you get to do it again. I've been lucky enough to watch Arsenal play at Wembley on 17 different occasions. Tomorrow will be just as exciting to me as the first time I went with them for the Littlewoods Cup Final in 1988 against Luton Town. I have red and white ribbons to decorate the car with tomorrow morning and I'm really happy to be taking to my eldest son with me again. I hope that, this time, Arsenal can deliver him a win at Wembley to come home with.
If you're going tomorrow then remember to wear red. The Arsenal fans, who will outnumber Wigan supporters by more than two-to-one must get behind the team. There is no excuse tomorrow for the sort of soporific atmosphere that poisoned our end at the Birmingham game. This is Arsenal's chance to end the trophy drought. The fans must play our part. See you at Wembley!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A bona fide 2-1 thrashing - when Sol left the Dark Side

Bobby sends Spurs crashing

As it's FA Cup semi-final week it's not inappropriate for a little bit of a retrospective piece. I hope you enjoy it.

Thirteen years ago today a lot of us travelled to Old Trafford for a North London Derby. The setting in Manchester was nothing short of a joke from the FA. Of course Wembley was out of commission but they used their insatiable desire for money, and their apparent wish to ensure Man Utd got their cut of that money, to avoid putting the game on at Stamford Bridge and sent us all north for a lunch time kick-off in Salford.
Our group decided the best (safest) way to get to the game would be to get on the Travel Club coaches from Finsbury Park. As a result we were on our way out of Dover in the early hours of that Sunday morning. Two car loads wended their way to the meeting point, all the while listening to Naseem Hamed getting a boxing lesson off Marco Antonio Barrera. As a result the day had started well, albeit far too early for sane people. The coach journey itself was fairly uneventful. We were entertained with Minder On The Orient Express, a feature length episode of the legendary TV show which includes reference to the Arsenal 1971 Double squad. Those of us at the back of the coach (extra leg room from the middle seat there) were fairly awestruck by the bloke a few rows in front who had downed at least four cans of Redbull by the time we reached Watford Gap. 
By virtue of our buses heading up the M1 and then cutting across the Pennines we were in place outside the ground with plenty of time to spare. We met up with the men and girl (I hope you're reading this in Australia Andy Gibbons!) from Peterborough who had caused a stir on their way up to Manchester by dragging a stuffed toy cockerel on a rope from the back of their minibus. There were some Tottenham fans from Dover who stopped by to say hello (and talk about how this was their time and all the usual rubbish you associate with them) and some good natured abuse for Pat Jennings who got off the Spurs staff bus in his Tottenham blazer. All fairly inoffensive stuff, if more than a little tense.
When the game got going (our seats were in the lower tier, about eight rows back, in what is now the Alex Ferguson Stand) it was obvious our players were up for it. Lauren and Vieira were dominating the middle of midfield while Ray Parlour tore them a new one down our right. Somehow they scored first after a great save from Seaman was turned in on the rebound by one of their numpties. This was Glenn Hoddle's first proper match in charge after being appointed as their new boss. It being the FA Cup and all that "year ending in one" nonsense added up to us not being meant to win. However, they had also rushed Sol Campbell back from injury to play in the match. It was Parlour's dominance and Campbell's injury that would put us back on top. Big Sol dived in to foul Ray out on the touchline. It was his last involvement as he went off injured. As he was limping away I remember shouting "Sign for us in the Summer Sol". This was his last ever game for Tottenham. It had nothing do with my shouting at him. The next time any of us saw Sol Campbell he was being announced as an Arsenal player. From the free-kick Patrick Vieira planted a superb header past Sullivan.
What followed was 60 minutes of the most one-sided FA Cup semi-final you might ever wish to see. Arsenal just didn't stop creating chances. The trouble was that we kept missing them. Time and time and time again we looked like we'd get the goal, but it just wouldn't go in the net. Then Vieira decided he'd had enough. Pat won the ball in midfield, strode forward and then played a lovely ball to put Wiltord clear. From there the ball was passed across goal where Robert Pires slammed in his second goal to win a Derby in eight days, right in front of us. Absolute pandemonium. There were still 17 minutes to go but we weren't troubled in the slightest. It was comprehensive. An utter thrashing. Five or six goals would not have flattered Arsenal on that day.
At the final whistle our end erupted. Their end simply emptied. There was a magnificent rendition of "Forty years, forty years" from us travelling Gooners as the fire drill continued in the Stretford End (it's now 53 years!). The concourse outside Old Trafford was a sea of celebrating Gooners. In the car-park the coaches were absolutely rocking. None of us anticipated the near nine hour journey that lay ahead of us. For some reason we ALL headed back on the M6. As we were leaving Old Trafford the coach was still full of noise until we drove past a closed garage, outside of which were a group of about 25 blokes looking less than pleased. Everyone shut-up and sat down. Until we'd gone past them. It was a party down the motorway with the other Gooners in their cars giving it all they had as they overtook the convoys in the never ending traffic jam to London.
The absolute highlight of the day, aside from the Arsenal goals, came in that slow moving traffic. My brother, sat nearest the window, became aware of an old Land Rover full of Spurs fans giving all sorts of abuse out of their car. Naturally we started giving it back. I swear the coach lurched dangerously as everyone on board headed over to the one side to see what was going on. We had these blokes alongside us in the traffic for a good two or three miles (or fifteen minutes!) and the "banter" kept going all the way. The bloke in the passenger seat was getting more and more irate, kissing his Spurs badge and calling us scum and generally being a bit of a c**k. Then he did it. He took off his shoe and hurled it at our coach. We all creased up and so did his mates in the car with him. I think even they knew he'd made an absolute pillock of himself.
It was well gone midnight when we got off the bus back at Finsbury Park. By the time we got back to Dover we'd been on the road for over 24 hours. We'd only been to bleeding Manchester and back. It was all worth it, but how much hell would it have been to have lost? I suppose the bloke with the shoe tells you how bad it would have been. We'll not talk about the Final that season. Here are the highlights from the game.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Seven* more games of this purgatory under Wenger

All too familiar

I knew we were in trouble this weekend when Wenger announced that the Man City game had seen the Arsenal team "turn a corner". I must have heard that on at least three occasions last season, each time preceding some disaster or another. This Arsenal team has turned so many corners in the last 20 months that they've ended up right back where they started - looking over their shoulder at 5th place. As recently as the second week in February we were two points clear at the top of the Premier League. Today we sit ten points off the lead and, potentially, two points outside the top four. For the third time in six years Arsenal have thrown away a Premier League Title that was theirs for the taking. On each occasion we've been maybe two players short in obvious areas. It is a scandal that OUR money has not been spent to give us the best chance of seeing OUR team become Champions.
There is an argument that the money might not necessarily have been available in the past. I don't accept that. In terms of this year there can be no dispute. Arsenal have the best part of £150m in cash that could be spent on new players that would strengthen this squad. That money has not been touched. I keep hearing the Wenger apologists blaming injuries to key players and it is fair to say that any team would struggle without star performers like Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil. However, Aaron Ramsey was injured on Boxing Day. Theo Walcott got injured on 4th January. Jack Wilshere hasn't really been fit to play all season if we're being honest. We already knew that we were lacking options at centre-forward (Giroud is well and truly shot at the moment) more than a year ago. Yet Wenger did not sign anyone. On Decemeber 8th we drew at home to Everton and went five points clear at the top. That was the time to strengthen. That was the time to drive home our advantage. It didn't need to be expensive, or even a star striker at that point. Proven Premier League talent like Lambert or Benteke or Remy or Berbatov (why the hell didn't we sign Berbatov?) would have got us the goals that Giroud has been struggling to come by. 
Another thing I keep hearing from the ever dwindling Wengerites is that "you'd have taken this position after the Villa game in August". That's most definitely true. But you wouldn't take it from a position that had you five points clear just before Christmas and top in February. We were there. We had it in our hands. Yet Wenger failed to grasp the nettle. He failed to give us a chance. We rode the crest of a wave for the first five months of the season off the back of signing Mesut Ozil. That wasn't going to last without reinforcement, especially once we lost Ramsey and Walcott (and we were always an injury to Mertesacker or Koscielny away from disaster in defence). And make no mistake, the signing of Ozil was a fluke. Mesut Ozil was not part of any plan last Summer. We spent the whole window embarrassing ourselves and failing to sign Higuain or Suarez (all because Wenger wouldn't spend the extra required). We then suddenly bought another midfield creator out of nowhere. Without the Villa defeat and the vitriol from the stands Wenger would not have signed anyone. It is my belief that he was forced to buy a top player by a very anxious board of directors who didn't like the way things were about to turn inside the stadium.
Having signed Ozil we haven't seen the best of him since his early games. Apart from his own mentality, we haven't had his best because we don't play to his strengths. We don't have players, except Theo Walcott, that have the willingness to get in behind a defence and would bring out the best in Ozil. We don't play a system that is suited to our best player. And we certainly don't have any tactics. Against the other four sides in the top five we have lost 6-3, 5-1, 6-0 and 3-0 away from home. At no point has there been a change of approach. Even at 3-0 down yesterday we saw the formulaic taking off of Lukas Podolski (another player who is better suited to a different formation to Arsenal's) and Giroud. We still had just the one man up front. How many times does it have to fail before Wenger sees that something needs to be done differently? We used to play a 4-4-2 (with a "number ten") when we were successful. Why don't we see it anymore? Giroud would benefit from the help. Podolski would benefit from a more central role alongside a centre-forward. Ozil would benefit from players running beyond him from wide positions. Of course it wouldn't have hurt to have signed a player or two like that in January.
The other thing I'm seeing week after week is the lack of pace in the side. In the absence of Theo we have only Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry that can run at speed. So why the hell are they sitting on the bench? We're at our best when we play with pace. Surely Wenger and the yes men that surround him can see that Arteta slows everything down. Cazorla has been anonymous since Mesut Ozil got injured, despite being given the chance to play in his preferred position. Giroud, as we've said, is gone. Yaya Sanogo is simply not up to it, and his position on the bench in recent weeks shows Wenger knows it. So why not change something? I keep saying the same thing, don't I? What would be wrong with throwing in Chuba Akpom, for example? The boy is scoring goals for fun below the first-team and is the same age as Sanogo. He also had a fine pre-season with the first-team. And you know what? He's quick. Very quick. Wenger said the other week you "need experience" in these games. What were those scores again? 6-3, 5-1, 6-0 and 3-0. If that's what experience gets you then I want some youthful exuberance instead.
One final thing to talk about before I sign off. We've heard plenty over the years from Wenger about "mental strength". No Arsenal team in his tenure as boss has had less of the stuff. It is evident from those results I keep quoting. Even more it is evident from the fact that our season fell apart, irreparably so, with the missing of a penalty against Bayern Munich. One bad kick of the ball and we haven't got going since. The players are weak. The Manager is weak. It's time for change. We shouldn't fear it.

* - seven games assumes we will win on Saturday, and who could possibly be confident given our record in the pressure matches this season?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Wenger lands Romanian prodigy at bargain price

Competition for this man

Arsene Wenger is about to loosen the purse strings and bring in some Eastern European talent to challenge Olivier Giroud. It seems that Romanian top division side Gloria Bistrita are about to part with their nineteen-year-old centre-forward Lirpa Sloof as Arsenal are in final negotiations with the player having already agreed a fee for his services. 
The terms of the deal are said to be more than agreeable to Wenger with an up front payment of €500,000 plus a years supply of oranges for the selling club who are suffering from a Vitamin C deficiency. Sloof has scored one goal in 47 appearances in the senior side but Arsene is confident he can turn the boy in to a top class striker in the mould of Julio Baptista. He should provide excellent competition to Giroud, with Nicklas Bendtner on his way out of Arsenal and Yaya Sanogo failing to make any impact on the goal scoring charts.
It is rumoured that Arsenal also offered a more formal tie-up with the Romanian minnows, with particular emphasis on allowing them access to our medical staff and their expertise. However, the selling club have apparently turned down this arrangement as they have a thin enough squad already without allowing our physios to get their hands on their players thighs and hamstrings.
I look forward to welcoming our new young star when he arrives for pre-season training in July. He is set to make his debut against Thierry Henry's New York Red Bulls and he will wear the squad number 26, vacated by Bendtner.