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Friday, 27 February 2015

Saddening and maddening and utterly brilliant - Arsenal's Invincibles

We'll never see their like again

I'll start by congratulating Arsenal Media for their production "Invincibles" which premiered on Sky on Wednesday night. It is a brilliant film about the greatest of teams. There are notable absentees in the programme in that Ashley Cole and Patrick Vieira are not interviewed (though Vieira is paid tribute too) but I suspect there wasn't much Arsenal could do about getting them involved. Ashley Cole actually Tweeted the other day to say he hasn't involved himself in any of the Invincibles stuff as he thought the fans wouldn't want it. I believe he's mistaken there. Whatever happened afterwards Ashley Cole was one of the crucial parts of a wonderful Arsenal squad between 2000 and 2006. If you haven't yet seen the film then you've missed a treat. It's on again on Sunday after the League Cup Final.
There are a few things that struck me when I was watching the film. The first of those was a little sense of regret that maybe I didn't appreciate enough what I was watching at the time. The players, the style of play, the achievement was all lost to a certain extent because human nature is such that you think it will go on and keep getting even better. Early on in the film the new stadium is mentioned, and I feel that was Arsenal's way of trying to explain why things dried up and certain players left (or were sold) not long afterwards. Looking back now I realise that I was lucky to be watching that Arsenal team. From back to front it was stacked with top players. Straight through the middle of the side was Lehmann, Campbell, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry. By the time you've hung Lauren, Cole, Kolo Toure, Freddie, Pires, Gilberto etc around them you have a formidable team. A bench that would regularly feature Keown, Edu, Parlou, Edu, Wiltord, Reyes, Kanu and co just underlines that those were halcyon days. And when you compare that to the team we have now it makes me sad. Sad that we've fallen so far. There is only Alexis (and possibly Ozil, because they were good enough to have carried his type of player) would get in that squad. There's maybe a shout for Koscielny as a back-up centre-half ahead of an ageing Keown or Cygan. None of the current players are better than the man who played in their position in 2003-04. That's pretty sobering. We left Highbury "to compete". It makes me sad and angry that we were duped like that.
What shines through clearly is the spirit that the players had as a team and a group of men. It's easy to understand, when you listen to these men speak, what Arsene Wenger is talking about when he bangs on about "mental strength". The Invincibles were incredibly strong mentally. There were leaders all over the pitch, all through the squad. Lehmann, Cole, Campbell, Toure, Keown, Vieira, Gilberto, Parlour, Bergkamp, Henry. They were all leaders. You can see now why Wenger probably thinks players can work things out for themselves on the pitch - all of that team could. But then they were all experienced international footballers in their own right. They'd all tasted real success. They were all top class footballers. I think about those leaders, those characters, and I wonder why Arsene ever went down the path of "project youth". Why did he bomb out Gilberto in favour of having William Gallas as Captain of Arsenal FC? Even leaving aside the stadium draining away the financial clout, there has to be questions over bringing in so many young prospects at the expense of vast experience. And let's not forget that those youngsters, the likes of Denilson, Bendtner, Senderos, Fabregas, were all put on massive wages - they were on as much as almost any top player who'd seen and done the lot.
There is no question that Old Trafford was the main thing that drew the Invincibles together. We were lucky that Van Nistelrooy missed the penalty, but the injustices of the penalty award and Vieira's red card spurred the squad on. Jens Lehmann says that it was the day he realised he was in a genuine team as they showed a willingness to fight for one another. I keep relating it back to the current team, but do you see them fighting for each other? When there's an injustice, or a bad tackle, do you see them getting around the referee or the opposition like other top teams do? Every side needs a nutcase like Keown, a genuine hard man like Lauren, a tough as teak genius like Bergkamp, and a brooding assassin like Lehmann. Lehmann also alludes to what was going on in the tunnel as they left the pitch that day and it seems that Wenger and Ferguson might have done a bit more than shake hands at the end.
I have always regarded Arsene Wenger as the key man for the Invincibles. A genius Manager who put together a great and cosmopolitan squad, and achieved something that nobody else had. Watching the documentary has dented that a bit. Clearly Wenger recognised the enormity of what they could achieve and he dragged the players over the line after the Title had been won at Spurs. What comes across elsewhere, however, is that the players (and Pat Rice) were behind many of the key moments. Having lost the two cup-ties in the six days before Easter, we were 2-1 down at home to Liverpool on Good Friday at half-time. We were playing badly and looked like everything was about to slip away. Martin Keown tells us on the film that he felt the Manager didn't know what to say. Crucially he says "even Pat" was lost. Is it the case, in fact, that Pat Rice was really managing that side in terms of motivation and tactics? Keown asked permission to speak to the players at half-time and Wenger let him do it. Aside from, once again showing the value of having experience, leadership, and born winners in the squad, I found it interesting that when it got to the lowest point Wenger was broken. Of course, Keown's words inspired his team mates and Thierry Henry decided to take it out on Jamie Carragher (who still hasn't recovered from the bitterness of serial humiliations at Henry's behest) and we won the game. Similarly at Portsmouth, after we'd won the Premier League, it was Jens Lehmann who had got them going at half-time, and then saved us two or three times in the second-half. It's interesting stuff to say the least.
As I said at the top, watching Invincibles made me sad as the realisation hit me that we were so good at that time, and we are comparatively so bad now. At the same time it renewed my appreciation of having been privileged to have watched them. I can be upset that I'll never see a side like that again in Arsenal colours, but I know I was damn lucky to be around when they were.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Needing a miracle in Monte Carlo

Time to take a seat Per
In the first five or ten minutes last night I thought we were looking good. Three times we opened up the Monaco defence with pace and running and strength. Twice Welbeck might have scored and then Cazorla took the usual ridiculous decision of an Arsenal player passing square when it's easier to shoot in to the corner of the net. And then it all went flat from Arsenal's players. Monaco were able to get on the ball and Mertesacker allowed himself to be pushed around by Berbatov. He was also beaten in the air and, at one point in the second half, beaten in a tackle by Berbatov. Given the way that he knits Monaco's play together it was no wonder that they started to get the upper hand. Imagine the shame of losing a 50-50 tackle to Dimitar Berbatov.
I want to blame the players for last night. Nothing they did was what was required. They have to take their share of the responsibility. But at the same time I can't get away from the fact that the Manager picks them and sends them out to play. His quotes from after the match are astonishing. He states that they knew how Monaco would play to hit them on the break. So why were the mistakes made like they were on the second and third goals? He says that the heart ruled the head for the players after we got our goal back. So why wasn't he off the bench and on the touchline getting the orders out to sit tight at 1-2 behind? Why, at 2-0 down, were we still playing with one striker? Why did he take off Santi Cazorla, the only player (with the possible exception of Kieran Gibbs) to have passed off a decent display last night? As I say, I'd like to blame the players but Arsene Wenger is ultimately responsible. He and the players let us all down last night.
Monaco's three goals all involved Per Mertesacker in one way or another. The first one deflected off him because he is not brave enough to put himself in where it hurts. Time and again I've written here about him turning his back on shots. He turned away last night and the ball flicked off him and wrong-footed Ospina totally. If Mertesacker had simply faced up then the ball would have hit him square in the chest and gone nowhere near the goal. It is scandalous from a professional footballer to play like that. The second goal came from him being, for no reason I can fathom, trying to win the ball fifteen yards inside their half. With both full-backs (yet again) high up the pitch this left Koscielny all on his own against two attackers. Koscielny did the right thing by coming to the ball as it makes the striker have to complete the pass, but Berbatov had the freedom of the borough to make it 2-0.
When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a super goal to get us back in with half a sniff I turned to my Dad and said "We don't want to go chasing this now". Obviously 2-1 wouldn't have been a good result, but it's a damn site better than 3-1. The Ox gave the ball away again, only to see that everyone bar Mertesacker was upfield. What the hell were they thinking? Monaco had been giving them a lesson on the break all night, yet nobody seemed willing to learn from it. This time they broke and Mertesacker didn't do what Koscielny had done, giving the Monaco player a free shot at goal. Yes, Ospina should have done better (it's only a matter of time before Szczesny is restored to the team), but Mertesacker might as well have gone and sat in the stands. His performance last night was as bad as anything that people like poor old Gus Caesar and Igors Stepanovs ever produced at Arsenal. And all I see today is people getting at Olivier Giroud because he had a nightmare. Yes, he did. But why was he getting the bird, yet Mertesacker gets no stick from people? The time has come for the BFG to go and sit on the bench.
I wrote yesterday that Monaco might not be quite the pushover that so many people seemed to be claiming when the draw was made. Last night they went and proved that totally. Barring a miracle in Monaco we are out of the European Cup at this stage yet again. Something has to change before we can be successful in Europe, and we all know what that thing is. If we do somehow win by three goals on St Patrick's night, and you're in Monaco, get yourself down to Monte Carlo and play the roulette wheel before you hit the Irish bars - you're luck will certainly be in like never before.
Tomorrow I'm going to be writing about the outstanding documentary that Arsenal Media have made about the Invincibles. If you haven't yet seen it on Sky then I urge you to watch it. If nothing else it will ease the pain and anger of last night.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Past and present, Why Arsenal won't keep getting lucky

What Arsene Wenger really wants

The Champions League returns for Arsenal tonight. A great many Gooners seem overly confident that we will qualify comfortably for the quarter-final by beating Monaco. A look at Monaco's defensive record in the group stage makes that confidence look a little silly. Yes, Arsenal should beat Monaco, but that doesn't mean that it will happen. Aside from the games against Man City, Stoke and Aston Villa there has been very little from Arsenal to inspire such confidence. We've been on a very good run of results, leaving aside the defeat to Spurs, but the performances have not been fantastic. More on that below. We should also remember that Monaco beat Arsenal in pre-season, albeit with a goal from Falcao who isn't there anymore.
The visit of, and to, Monaco brings Arsene Wenger up against the club with whom he first tasted success - it would be wrong to say he made his name there as he was still "Arsene Who?" to all us ignorant English football fans when he arrived at Arsenal. It provides the craved "narrative" that the media cling to in football nowadays in order that they can hype a game for TV. No doubt it will provide nostalgia for Arsene Wenger, and it seems he is still revered in Monaco for what he achieved with their football club. However, it should have little bearing on the players involved, let alone the supporters. This is not George Graham returning to play against Arsenal, or Kenny Dalglish taking Blackburn to Anfield, or Brian Clough arriving at Derby County as boss of Nottingham Forest. Let the media indulge in their hyperbole, and hopefully Arsenal can concentrate on playing the game.
The European Cup remains the one trophy that Arsene Wenger would like to win above any other, of that I'm certain. Considering the quality of the Arsenal side from 2001 to 2006 it is an incredible anomaly that he hasn't got one in the bank. However, a record of just two appearances in the semi-final (one successful, one not) in nearly twenty straight seasons in the competition is an indictment on the failings in Arsene's management. Whether it's a lack of tactics, a lack of luck (which has certainly been true on occasion), or a lack of bottle from the players (also true) he has failed to deliver in Europe. The arrival of Monaco in the last sixteen, while not a pushover, certainly gives Arsenal and Wenger their best opportunity in years to progress to the latter stages. Arsene's past meets Arsene's present, and it might have a huge bearing on Arsene's future.
I went to Crystal Palace on Saturday and was happy to come away with the win. But what I saw is something that is becoming all too familiar and unless something changes is going to cost us important points. Arsenal didn't play particularly well. Our passing was poor for most of the game and we failed to control Crystal Palace enough. The hard work of Welbeck, Alexis, Coquelin and Monreal shone out above all else from an Arsenal point of view. We got 2-0 up before half-time, were maybe fortunate with a decision or two (though Clattenburg was certainly not favouring our players by any stretch of the imagination), and for all that we hadn't played well we were pretty well in control. The only thing that was genuinely concerning me at half-time was the amount of free-kicks we were conceding near to our penalty area as you felt Palace would get the delivery right at some point. Still, an early second-half goal would kill the game.
Instead of that early goal what we got is something that seems to be getting habitual for this Arsenal team. Just as they did against Leicester, and against Brighton, and against QPR, and against West Ham, and against Liverpool they decided to sit back and hope that they'd get something on the break. We nearly did just that as Ozil and Alexis combined in the second-half, but why make life so difficult against inferior opposition? Never give a sucker an even break. One goal puts us under pressure (at Anfield it meant a last minute equaliser). This is where Arsene Wenger puts the wrong mind-set on the players.
The substitutions on Saturday were ridiculous again. In taking off Welbeck he removed one of our outlets, took away pace going forward, and an extra six-footer from the defence of set-pieces. To bring on Kieran Gibbs to play in midfield simply sent out a further defensive message. Then he took off  Alexis to put on an extra centre-back and we sat on the edge of our own penalty area, allowing Palace to pile everything forward. They got their goal by scrambling home from a corner, and then Arsenal simply fell apart. Ospina appears no better than Szczesny (his diving header was utterly ridiculous) while Mertesacker no more leads the team than I do. From the kick-off we gave the ball back to Palace and got ourselves in to some kind of 5-5-0 formation with nobody going towards the football. Calum Chambers is totally out of his depth in the Premier League and was nowhere near stopping another ball from wide in to the box. From my view in the ground I couldn't see the ball hit the post (considering the ticket was £40 you could see very little from the away section at Selhurst Park - an utter disgrace to be charged that much for such a badly obstructed view of the pitch). We got the win, but with no small fortune. And it was so unnecessary to be in that position. In the same way that Tottenham won't keep on getting late goals to rescue points, we won't keep getting away with letting teams in to games we are in charge of.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Welcome to Arsenal Mesut Ozil

I think I like these three in one photo

That was a really controlled display from Arsenal yesterday. Middlesbrough simply weren't allowed into the game by Arsenal's use of the football and their movement. There was pace in the side, and individual ability. Kieran Gibbs couldn't be tamed by Boro down our left, while Ozil and Cazorla dominated the midfield. Okay it was against a team from a division below, and so a £40m player should be ruling the roost, but I thought Ozil was brilliant at times yesterday. That's two games in a row where, for me, he has produced the goods. Wouldn't it be nice if he started doing the same thing week in, week out, in the games that matter? The acid test comes quickly in a game away at Crystal Palace this weekend, but in the meantime I'll bask in the memory of a totally dominant Arsenal from yesterday. Ozil was superb and long may it continue - he has been given the benefit of the doubt by a lot of people (not me) in his time at the Club so far and he needs to repay the faith shown by a lot of fans and his Manager. Is this the start? Let's hope so, even if his physicality is still far from the required standard.
I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) so see Santi Cazorla named skipper yesterday. I have a real problem with the way Arsene Wenger selects people to wear the armband and yesterday was another such moment. In defence of Wenger there were very few obvious candidates yesterday. Flamini, for his seniority would have been a possibility, and Szczesny might have had a shout were it not for the fact that his own game is under such scrutiny. For me it should have been a choice between Koscielny and Gibbs on the day, and I'd have given the nod to Gibbs simply because he's come through the ranks. It would have been a fine message to the youngsters currently trying to make their way at the Club. I'm sure many see this as a ridiculous gripe, but it's my website and my opinions.
Something that was particularly impressive yesterday was the way Arsenal quickly nullified any threat Middlesbrough might have thought they could pose. We controlled possession, had great movement that ran their midfield and defence all over the place, and closed down really well whenever they had a brief spell on the ball. Boro's strikers simply couldn't get a touch and I really enjoyed Gabriel's no nonsense attitude to heading the ball clear. It was in stark contrast to Mertesacker's style, and that was refreshing. Gabriel also got booked for a Keown-esque foul to stop a Middlesbrough break - a defender who wants to defend? It was a promising start for the Brazilian and I'm looking forward to seeing a bit more of him. Time will tell if he is up to it but he has to be given his chance.
The two Arsenal goals were both excellent, if entirely different. The first was a glorious tribute to Arsene Wenger's preferred style of play. In case you weren't already aware it is worth noting that every Arsenal player touched the ball in the move that put us 1-0 up. The pass from Cazorla to Gibbs created the opening and I was delighted that Gibbo finally looked up and passed to another Arsenal player when in an attacking area - far too often he plays it blind or just whacks it at the legs of the nearest defender. Giroud had a simple task after the great build-up. The second goal, however, was a showcase for what Giroud can be capable of at times. Alexis saw the run and knocked a superb ball over from the corner, but the finish from well in advance of the near-post was incredible. Yes, Boro's players went to sleep, but you can't argue with the quality of the finish.
From then on the game was over as a contest and Arsenal were comfortable until a late chance saw Middlesbrough hit the post. Alexis (who didn't have his best day as far as I was concerned) was denied by a fabulous save, and Theo Walcott missed yet another great chance. But overall you can't be upset with a comfortable win in the FA Cup. We're in the draw for the quarter-final and that was the aim before the match kicked off. I don't much care who we get in the next round, but I'd prefer to avoid Liverpool at Anfield. Anyone else, bring it on.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ozil stands above for Arsenal against Leicester

Gave Leicester the eyes with some passes last night
Regular readers will know I'm not a particular fan of Mesut Ozil. I believe he's lightweight, disinterested and afraid most of the time. But he is also a footballer with a range and eye for passing that few other players can dream of. Last night, for me, he played one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt, and we needed him to. Yes, there was one occasion where he turned his back on the ball as it was hit forward by Leicester, and that remains totally unacceptable (if I was Manager I'd fine anyone a weeks wages for that) but so did Mertesacker and Bellerin (twice) on shots at goal. On the ball last night Ozil was on another level to just about everyone else on the pitch - aside from Cambiasso who was the undisputed man of the match for me.
Leicester provided a curious mix of time wasting, heavy tackles (and terrible fouls like the unpunished one that put Alexis on the injured list again - how a guy like Upson, who has had such bad injuries, can make a challenge like that is beyond me), pace, good football, and good and bad finishing. Mahrez looked a real talent, Cambiasso was magnificent in midfield (and it didn't go unnoticed that it was he who demanded the ball be put out for Alexis to get treatment), and Kramaric should have got more than the good goal he did.
The referee was clearly watching a different game to everyone else in the ground. Upson, as I said above, should have been at least booked for the foul on Alexis, and should have already been on a booking by then in any case for hauling the Chilean down by the neck. Bellerin somehow avoided a yellow card despite trying to swap shirts with Schlupp as he ran away with the ball. We weren't given a clear penalty for handball, but then Rosicky was booked for a good tackle. As for the last two minutes when Mr Jones gave two decisions against Olivier Giroud while looking in the opposite direction, well I give up. The first one was bad enough. The second one resulted in a yellow card. Mr Jones didn't see the incident. Come to that, nobody in the stadium saw the incident as it didn't actually happen. Giroud was running away from the ball when Schwarzer's attempted clearance hit him in the back from about six or seven yards away. Apparently being hit in the back with the ball is a bookable offence. Yellow cards can not be appealed. I can only hope the referee assessor in the stands takes appropriate action against Mr Jones. Officiating is getting worse on a weekly basis right now and it is spoiling the game for people who've paid good money to go and watch it.
From an Arsenal perspective our performance was poor for all of the second half. I thought we played some decent stuff at times in the first half, one pass from Ozil to put Theo Walcott in on goal was something from a different planet. We were caught more than once at the back, however, with Walcott giving no cover to Bellerin whatsoever. The closing down that was prevalent in the wins over Man City, Stoke and Villa was missing again. As was Santi Cazorla who seems to have trouble playing in the same side as Ozil. As it was we got a couple of goals, one from a corner that was well taken by Koscielny and one from Theo, again very well taken. I suspect many would blame Schwarzer for Theo's goal, but from the angle I had in the ground the shot from Ozil was moving all over the place and he did well to get anything on it. I want to see more of that from Ozil.
Three points were important after the disaster of the weekend. I'm still taking nonsense from their fans. Why is it that most of the Tottenham supporters you encounter in life are total morons? Not all, but most. Now we have to keep winning. We have a big FA Cup tie on Sunday, and then a tough away game at Crystal Palace. Winning is a habit, and scraping through last night could turn out to be huge. I'll take that at the moment.

Monday, 9 February 2015

A heinous weekend

Time to leave Mertesacker out
It's been a weekend from Hell for us Gooners. The absolute worst thing about losing to Tottenham is the idiots that follow them and the way they react to any of their rare wins over Arsenal. Being a shift worker I'm lucky that I don't get the Monday morning nonsense from any of the clowns that have too much to say. For anyone who has Spurs acquaintances it's been like a creeping death since Saturday afternoon. Being largely in-bred, poorly educated cretins, the Spurs fans are unable to win with any sense of humility (there are one or two who can enjoy their win without feeling the need to act like they've won the World Cup) and that's been the worst thing these last two days.
On the other side of that coin is the comedy gold that these fools can still provide. They never learn. So many have identified Saturday as a turning point. This is their year. There has been a "power shift" in North London. Arsenal are finished and Spurs are going to dominate. And therein, as it ever was, is their problem. All they are genuinely bothered about is Arsenal. And all the time their only interest is in beating Arsenal, or finishing above Arsenal, they will never be a success. While we get annoyed about being miles behind Chelsea and Manchester City, and pull our hair out about only finishing fourth every year, they couldn't really care less where they finish as long as it's above Arsenal. They'd be happy to finish 19th as long as they'd beaten Arsenal and seen us finish 20th. Imagine being like that. And then there's the Harry Kane phenomenon. I said on Friday that Koscielny would have to dominate him for Arsenal to win and he simply didn't get near him. But the Spurs fans have been producing pictures of him depicted as the Messiah. Again they never learn. I remember Juande Ramos being the Messiah. And when Glenn Hoddle came back he was the Messiah. In Kane's case they may well be right, however, as I've always known that Jesus is an Arsenal fan just like Harry Kane.
As for the game itself I have to confess I've seen only highlights as I was at work when the game was on. There can be no doubt, however, that Spurs deserved the win. It should have been far more comfortable for them. Quite simply Arsenal didn't play. From what I've seen, read and heard Monreal and Coquelin basically had to play them on their own. We got a goal through a fantastic finish by Ozil, but aside from that he wasn't in the game. The team selection was entirely wrong to my mind. Leaving out both Walcott and Rosicky was crazy. And then to take off Santi Cazorla and leave Ozil and Ramsey on the pitch was even worse. Ramsey needs to be dropped, regardless of the fact that Wilshere and Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain are out injured. Rosicky should come in and play in his place until Ramsey can learn that fancy flicks and f***ing about like you're Lionel Messi isn't going to work. I'm sick of seeing him give the ball away by trying to be clever all the time.
At the back we were left trailing in Spurs' wake. Koscielny couldn't get the better of Kane, and the way he lost him for the winner was criminal. But the real problem at the back, as he has been all season, is Mertesacker. As with Ramsey it's time for him to take a rest. We don't really know anything about Gabriel, but Mertesacker's failure to use his height, and his criminally weak heading ability, means the Brazilian ought to be given his chance sooner rather than later. Mertesacker is supposed to be the Captain in Arteta's absence but he is simply not leading anyone.
What really irks me about Saturday is that it seems the pressing game that had allowed us to play so well at Man City, and at home to Villa and Stoke, was gone. Did the players start to believe their own press? It wouldn't be the first time. In the last few weeks it had been as though the penny had finally dropped but the Arsenal squad of recent years has a habit of thinking they've turned a corner and switching off badly. Arsene says it worries him that we make the same mistakes late on in games, but it's his job to sort that kind of thing out. Perhaps a bit more cajoling from the touchline might wake a few of them up on occasion. They certainly all switched off for the winner on Saturday.
If there is a positive to find this morning then it's that we play again tomorrow evening against Leicester. The other results mean we must go on a winning run now to get in to those Champions League places. Two of the other sides challenging have no European football on the horizon, unlike us, so it's vital that we get points on the board. We had been on a decent run for four or five weeks before Saturday, we now need to produce a longer one.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Lucky Spurs fans getting two cup finals this season

Whatever happens tomorrow...

As a result of scraping past Sheffield United last week the Tottenham fans are able to use the match with Arsenal tomorrow as nothing more than a warm-up for their trip to Wembley and certain defeat against Chelsea. Two cup finals in less than a month for the Spuds. Having said that, most of them would rather beat Arsenal than win a trophy, such is the mind set down there. Still, it must be nice for them to be knocking on the door of silverware again after these barren years, even if it is only the League Cup (which I seem to remember them telling us didn't count until we contrived to lose to Birmingham a few years back). This might be their year - let's face it, they've got to be right one day.
The good(ish) news for Arsenal is that Alexis might be fit enough to take his place in the side tomorrow. Clearly we're a better side with our best player, regardless of the win at home to Villa last weekend. A couple of weeks rest might also have done Alexis a bit of good. The question mark is over who plays on the opposite side of the pitch. As I said the other day I don't want to see Ozil starting the game at Spurs, but I'm certain that it's he who will get the nod.
We've been playing some great stuff in recent weeks, easily our best form of this season, and probably for a couple of years really. Tomorrow should focus the mind of every one of the players. Francis Coquelin will be key again and it will be a marker of whether he is a flash in the pan, or if he is a serious long-term prospect in front of the defence. He simply has to get tight when Eriksen receives the ball, while everyone needs to be careful not to give away easy free-kicks around the penalty area. Hector Bellerin will have his sternest test since he was taken out of the firing line at Stoke and Per Mertesacker will be needing to communicate well with him. I expect Monreal to keep his place, but I'd rather see the pace of Gibbs in at left-back, especially if Ozil is in on the left - Kyle Walker is a threat going forward and we need to keep him turned back towards his own penalty area (and that's why I'd play Tomas Rosicky or Danny Welbeck on that side of the midfield). At centre-back we have to see Koscielny at his best and bossing Harry Kane. I have to admit that Kane is a threat. Earlier in the season I thought he was a nothing player who was getting UEFA Cup goals because the opposition is second or third rate, but he has shown in the Premier League he has some real quality, and he must be in the next England squad (he's not one of their own though having played for Arsenal as a kid!)
At the other end of the pitch I want to see the Olivier Giroud we got last Sunday. He was too strong, too powerful and had too good a touch for Villa. I want to see him using his height and muscle to dominate their defenders, bringing Cazorla in to the game high up the pitch. If Santi shows his recent form he will be too good for them. But all of this only comes to fruition if our players work as hard as they have in the recent wins. This Spurs team is a decent side, so we have to match their desire before we can beat them for football.
As it stands now I would be happy enough with a draw tomorrow. It's vital that we don't lose, while a win would be a nice bonus. Whatever happens we know that they will be forever in our shadow. Did you know that Portsmouth have won as many League Championship's at Tottenham? Wolves and Huddersfield, Newcastle and Sunderland have won more than Tottenham! But I suppose two Titles for a provincial club from Middlesex is not really to be sniffed at.
As one final aside, if you want a laugh (and with thanks to Twitter for this) go to Google Maps and type in "the s*** hole" - the highlighted venue will make you chuckle. Here's hoping for a positive result tomorrow, and to all those heading swamp side please stay safe.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Jack Wilshere the odd one out at Arsenal?

What are you doing Jack?

I was writing this piece before Jack Wilshere's latest smoking incident. To see him making an idiot of himself yet again is depressing. How many times is he going to try the patience of Arsene Wenger? These aren't the good old days when footballers could enjoy a pint and a smoke pretty much whenever they felt like it. At the moment he looks like the latest precociously talented footballer hell bent on throwing it all away. Why does he keep doing it? Is he that thick that he can't see he's doing something wrong? I know he's a young lad, and young lads go to clubs and enjoy themselves and all that, but the difference is that he's a young lad being paid a fortune to be a professional footballer for Arsenal and England. A couple of years ago he looked a shoe-in for being the future Captain for club and country. As I write this he isn't even sure of getting a place on the Arsenal bench.
A few years ago Setanta hosted the Arsenal TV channel. In truth it was a half-arsed attempt by the Club and amid some really good programmes (which mostly involved Bob Wilson) there was a feeling that Arsenal weren't putting enough in to the venture to make it something worth watching. When Setanta's UK arm went broke it took Arsenal TV with it and the Club went back in house and ran their TV channel as an online feature. Among those few good things on Arsenal TV were the youth team highlights and the live reserves matches. And the absolute best thing about those games was watching one of the most talented 15 year-olds you will ever see. Jack Wilshere was an absolute revelation. At those levels the opponents couldn't get near him. You knew that he was going to play in the first team before too long. One goal he got at Stoke was absolutely unbelievable. It seemed that we were about to bring through a home grown superstar at Arsenal.
Of course Jack did come through and I was there when he made his debut at Blackburn. He made an impact against Sheffield United in the League Cup, capping his dominant midfield display with a goal near the end. Later on he was loaned to Bolton (it was significant that he was loaned within the Premier League) for some more match experience and he was soon ready to be part of the Arsenal first team squad. I was lucky enough to meet Jack after one game the following season when my Dad won the match ball with the lucky programme number. What struck me was the fact that he was so small for a physical midfield player, and he was also pretty cocky, but at the same time very friendly (I'd be a bit cocky if I was Jack Wilshere). He was on his way and he was going to be the main man at The Arsenal for many years to come.
As Arsenal began to struggle, so Jack seemed to be the only player putting himself on the line. A lack of genuine options in midfield meant he played a lot of games as a very young man. And being a young man he didn't want to tell the medical team that he was struggling. When he limped off in the Emirates Cup a few years ago I don't think anyone realised that he was seriously injured. We didn't see him again all season. The number of matches, and his unwillingness to reveal he was injured, caught up with Jack. In truth he has never really recovered. His ankles seem like they're made of glass at times. Every time someone goes near him he is on the ground clutching his lower leg. It got to the point where I was actually getting fed up with his rolling around every time he was tackled. When he went down against Manchester United this season I actually dismissed it as another moment of Jack making the most of the tackle. How wrong I was, as he is still out now. It was just the latest in a number of long term problems that has stalled the career of Jack Wilshere.
The problem Jack has now, besides his seeming inability to lay off the smokes, is that he is drifting down the pecking order. Arsenal don't play a system that fits Jack in to it. He isn't the defensive midfield player, even though Roy Hodgson keeps putting him there for England. Jack tackles hard enough, but usually comes off worse than his opponent. Going forward he can carry the ball brilliantly, but he has seemingly lost his willingness to do something special in front of goal (maybe it's been coached out of him by Arsene's pass, pass, pass mentality) so he doesn't score enough and doesn't create enough. Jack seems in some kind of middle ground that, apart from his wholeheartedness and pride at playing in the Arsenal shirt, is not really of benefit to the side. Let's be honest, if everyone is fit (and I know that will never happen) then Wilshere is the one who doesn't get in the team right now. He is behind Coquelin, Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Ozil in the centre of the pitch. I'd even put him behind Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky if I was looking for someone in the middle. If Abou Diaby were fit he'd be behind him too. There's only really Flamini that Jack would get in ahead of at the moment. In short, he has serious work to do to secure a future at Arsenal. And yet he doesn't seem to get it.
Jack probably knows that if Arsenal sold him he'd be snapped up by another top club. The trouble is that his injuries will follow him. And so will his own off-field behaviour. I have often wondered if some of Jack's injuries are actually what we're told they are. Of course there were the spurious rumours of cocaine abuse in the past, but that's something that's often levelled at English players and almost always unfounded (though I don't doubt for one minute that it happens with some of them). But you do wonder when you keep seeing pictures of him out smoking and drinking whether he is as focused as he should be. He can only push Arsene Wenger's patience so far. It's time to knuckle down for Jack and show he wants to be an Arsenal player. Otherwise he might not be here this time next season, and he could end up as nothing more than a foot-note in our history - one of those talented, brilliant young footballers, that threw it all away. It would be a massive shame, and I should say that he is someone who has time for the fans - he is one of the few that will stop for autographs and photos. Time to focus Jack.
As it's Spurs away on Saturday, here's a little video to get us in the mood - back tomorrow.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

An upward trend

Happy days

It's alright this supporting Arsenal, isn't it? Since the abysmal performance at Southampton on New Years Day the players and the management have got their acts together. Performances have got better and better, against varying quality of opponents, and we've seen different styles of play adopted to win certain games. If the win at City was notable for the way Arsenal controlled their opponent without the swashbuckling Arsene Wenger football of old, then the second half on Sunday against Villa showed this team can play the exciting stuff too. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Sunday, albeit against a poor opposition, was that Arsenal put together a 5-0 win without Alexis. We'd been constantly accused of being over-reliant of the Chilean before Christmas, but Sunday underlined what nonsense that is.
I spend a lot of time on this site moaning and criticising. Most of that is warranted as far as I'm concerned. Arsene Wenger is the usual target. I still believe that his best days are long gone, and we'd be better served with someone else at the helm. However, credit is due and I far prefer to be writing something happy than something angry. The motivation, at least for now, seems to have returned for the players over the last month. They're going on to the pitch in the right frame of mind, regardless of the opponent. The pressing and hard work in evidence from almost every player is making us too good for our opponents at the moment. By closing down properly we are winning the ball back much better, often in good areas of the pitch, thus allowing us to break and hit the opposition with pace and movement - the superior technique drilled in to his players by Arsene comes to the fore in those situations. There has been far less of the pass, pass, pass game and more of the pass, pass, shoot game. It's no coincidence that we have scored a nice few goals recently. We could easily have had more. And there was even a wake-up call to a few players at Brighton when they let the work rate slip a bit and allowed themselves to come under pressure unnecessarily.
The January transfer window was, for once, satisfactory. We brought in a centre-back as we needed to. I don't know anything about Gabriel. He might turn out to be a disaster of Stepanovs proportions. However, in the absence of being given a chance to show otherwise I'm happy to wait and see. If he plays as ugly as he looks then we've got a new Martin Keown in the squad which is not something to be upset about.
I would have liked us to have still gone and got that beast of a midfield player, but Francis Coquelin is currently a breath of fresh air in that area of the pitch. I have long wanted to see Coquelin given his chance at Arsenal, and I still don't understand why it's taken so long. I don't buy the idea that he was sent to Charlton for experience. He was on his way out and was only brought back to Arsenal because the injuries gave Wenger no option. So far it has been a stroke of fortune for the Manager, but I'm more than happy with that. It's too early to suggest that Coquelin is the answer to our ills, but he's more than doing his job at the moment. I like Flamini (unlike many) as a squad player, but he is really not up to that particular job on a regular basis. The emergence of Coquelin and the signing of Bielik probably mean that Flamini is in to his last few months as an Arsenal player but, as a free agent, he has more than done his job these past two seasons. What it all means for Jack Wilshere is a matter for another day (I'll be writing about Jack later in the week).
This Saturday's game at Tottenham is another big test. I'd be happy enough with a draw at this stage. Not losing is the most important thing. If we are to get that result then Mesut Ozil can't play at White Hart Lane. He's got a couple of goals and an assist in his two starts since injury but he is still not interested in the physical side of the Premier League. His style will be completely out of place in an away game at Tottenham. Is that something that's acceptable in a £40m player? Of course it isn't, but that's the situation. I'll be very worried if he plays ahead of any one of Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Welbeck or Walcott this weekend (assuming the fitness or otherwise of any of those players).
All in all it's been a very positive last few weeks. If you can't be happy with the way the team has been performing, regardless of any feelings towards Arsene Wenger, then there is surely something wrong. Had we beaten Manchester United (as we should have done) we'd be 8 points behind Chelsea right now and probably getting excited. As it is we are left to lament a poor first half of the season. We have to keep this momentum going now and try and finish as high as possible. It might end up a case of "what if" at the end of the season, but let's just concentrate on Saturday before worrying about where we'll be come May. This is the week to dangle the bait at the Spurs fans and see if we can get any bites (hoping that we end up with the result on Saturday).