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Monday, 24 April 2017

And everyone turned up for once...

After the final whistle

Yesterday was a wonderful day to be at Wembley. I can leave aside, for now, the annoying fact of the semi-final being played there and just revel in the atmosphere generated by the Arsenal supporters and players yesterday. The absence of many season ticket holders, and I will assume the vast majority of the absentees are the same who leave their own seats empty at Ashburton Grove on a regular basis, saw a lot of Silver and Red members get the chance to go and see Arsenal in a big Wembley occasion. I really believe that made a difference to the nature of support given to the players yesterday. Every fan seemed to be determined to back the players, and Arsene Wenger, on the day and the players responded in kind with their best performance since we beat Chelsea back near the start of the season.
For the first 30 minutes or so Arsenal seemed very content to let City have the ball and we packed back in defence with no real attacking ambition, save for the occasions when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the ball and ran at the City defence. In fairness, for all their possession of the football I felt City were very similar to us in the way they went back and sideways across the pitch in search of an opening. In Aguero they have the threat that we don't when Giroud plays but we were mostly comfortable. The goal they had disallowed was obviously a real stroke of luck for us. I was directly over the goal-line in the front row of the top tier and said straight away that the ball hadn't gone out. Goals change games, and that may well have been a problem for Arsenal. At the same time we went up the other end and should have had a clear penalty when Alexis was hauled down by Navas as he tried to get on the end of a free-kick. There was another one in the second-half when Monreal was basically climbed all over having got in to the box down the left, a stone-wall penalty denied. Swings and roundabouts so the "hard done by" articles in almost every paper today are indicative of the selective minds of the current football writers where Arsenal are concerned. For the last ten minutes of the first-half Arsenal got on top and I was encouraged at half-time that we could do City some damage.
After half-time I thought Arsenal absolutely dominated the game and City were rocking. A look at their back-four should really tell us they are no better than we are defensively - Navas, Kompany, Otamendi and Clichy is frankly a defence just waiting to be dismantled. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the best player on the pitch yesterday and Clichy simply couldn't handle him. With Gabriel mopping up anything behind Ox (the Brazilian most certainly had his best game for Arsenal yesterday) we were dominant down our right. Xhaka matched up very well against Toure and De Bruyne in midfield, which was just as well given Ramsey's inability to contribute (at least he was trying though) and Ozil who is simply scared of anyone from the opposition going anywhere near him. We were well on top when we conceded the goal to Aguero. Ramsey ridiculously tried to take on Toure when he simply had to play the ball in to the penalty area, while Monreal was inexplicably left all alone against Sergio Aguero on the halfway line. Even then the goal should have been stopped but Cech had forgotten his zimmer-frame and failed to take advantage of a slight mis-control from the Argentinian, only to see himself beaten by a wonderful finish. That was the only time, really, that we saw Aguero all game. Gabriel, Koscielny and, perhaps most praise worthy of all, Rob Holding played him really well. Holding is superb with the ball at his feet and really should have been scoring the match-winning goal himself in extra-time when he headed marginally over the bar. There is no way Mustafi should be getting back in this side any time soon. 
Our equaliser was a stunning goal. It will never get noted as being special because it was a close-range finish from Monreal. However, just look at the quality involved in the goal. The cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain was stunning, taking out the entire defence and the goalkeeper. Monreal, impressive throughout, made up great ground to find himself on the end of things. As for the finish it was simply stunning. Monreal is demonstrably a left-footed player yet he took the cross from Ox first time, on the volley, with his right-foot and slammed it in to the net. It was absolutely what Arsenal deserved for their second-half display. Thereafter we sat off them a bit, relying on Welbeck and Alexis to use their pace on the break and that allowed City to have some more of the play up to full-time. Again we rode our luck as they hit the post (wonderful save from Cech rolling back the years) and the bar, but a goal for them would have been an injustice based on the play. Welbeck also had the chance to win it and he chose to shoot narrowly wide instead of rolling it to the unmarked Alexis Sanchez who was arriving at speed.
In extra-time Arsene Wenger made a very important tactical change and put Alexis in the centre and Welbeck on the wing. It made a huge difference, as it did all season up to Christmas. We got the second goal thanks largely to Welbeck's willingness to work so hard for the team. He won the ball back in City's half to give us possession, then won us a free-kick when fouled by Kompany. It was his (unfortunately all too regular) mis-kick when he should have scored that saw Alexis get a great foot in to take the ball in to his path, and away from the defender, and then finish beautifully in to the bottom corner. The Arsenal end went absolutely mental when he scored that goal with the deafening kind of noise that you only seem to get at Wembley. 
We were rarely in genuine trouble from then on. Arsenal should have wrapped things up on more than one occasion, each of them involving some really pathetic football from Mesut Ozil. With Welbeck and Alexis out-pacing the City defence it was criminal that a player of Ozil's ability failed to provide the killer moment, choosing instead to simply fall over and stay on the ground instead of working as hard as everyone around him. The only moment of genuine danger came when Ramsey again gave the ball away badly on the halfway line and Delph seemed a certain scorer before a charging Bellerin somehow got a toe to his shot and deflected it past the post.
The last couple of minutes were notable for the wall of noise from the flag-waving Gooners at our end of the pitch. The final whistle greeted with as much glee as you would expect for an FA Cup semi-final. The photo of Arsene Wenger at the end really shows how much it meant to him, especially after what has gone on in recent weeks. Yesterday the old man got everything spot-on and credit is due for that. If you blame him so much, as I do, when it all goes wrong then you have to praise him when it all goes right as it did yesterday. The effort from the players yesterday was everything that has been missing for so long from this Arsenal team. Now they have to finish this season in strong fashion, get to Wembley for the Final in good order, and hopefully send Arsene away from the Club with another FA Cup under his arm. It would be a perfect ending in the circumstances.

Image result for arsene Wenger man city

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Change with no change

Still can't defend

Arsene Wenger sprung a small surprise last night with a move to three centre-backs. We haven't seen him use this since the last day of the 1996-97 season when Arsenal brought down the final curtain on the Baseball Ground with Anelka and Bergkamp to the fore after Tony Adams was sent-off early on. Halcyon days ahead of Wenger beginning his Revolution of Arsenal and English football in the three months that followed. 
It would be fair to say that, beyond the excellent display from Rob Holding, the move wasn't a total success at Middlesbrough. We lined up with the three central defenders but, more often than not, once we started the interminable sideways passing Gabriel was suddenly charging up the field to join the attack, the consequence of which was leaving just two at the back as per usual. Yes, we changed the formation on paper, but the method in reality was painfully familiar. It's all very well making the change, but the biggest change actually has to come from being organised properly. Chelsea don't have particularly good centre-backs - Luiz and Cahill are woeful defenders if we're being honest - but they have an organised team. At least one of Matic or Kante is always where they're supposed to be, guarding their defenders from in front. Luiz no longer takes off on mad dashes up front in the way that Gabriel was being asked to last night. We had Xhaka, who is immobile and slow, and Ramsey who I really don't know what it is he is supposed to bring to the side. Coquelin can very much play the role that Matic does at Chelsea, but he too seems to think that he's some kind of latter-day Beckenbauer type as soon as Cazorla is missing. We also don't examine our opponents in any way. The Middlesbrough goal is a perfect case in point here. Remember how Robben opened the scoring in Munich by being allowed to cut in on his left foot? Last night Monreal actually showed Downing inside and on to his left foot from where he curled the cross over a stranded, and woefully out of position, Koscielny. This is not rocket science, but it keeps happening to Arsenal over and over again. It's easy to fix it with a bit of hard work on the training ground on something other than passing the bloody football all day long!
Going forward we lacked much in the way of creativity. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the standout player in the way he drove at the Boro defence, constantly beating his defender, but his final ball sadly epitomises his career to date. The Ox is an amazing talent; quick, strong, skillful, has a powerful shot etc. But far too often he picks the wrong option, or his pass is just not accurate enough, or his shot at goal is wayward. He is an exciting player, he can play in a few positions and impress with his ability, but something is not quite there just yet. I want Ox to stay at Arsenal, and I believe he owes it to the club for all the times they've stuck by him through injury lay-offs. When fit he has almost always been involved and he should be looking to stay loyal in my view. His interview after the game was excellent, by the way. As for the rest of the attacking players I think the new formation was a little confusing at times, and the effort from some was lacking. Giroud had the better of their defenders all night but he lacked service in the first-half and application in the second - he was totally anonymous after half-time. Ozil flitted in and out but was better in the second-half, though I counted six occasions in the first where he bottled out of challenges and that is not acceptable. I've already mentioned Ramsey. So what about Alexis?
We saw a stunning goal from Alexis Sanchez from a superb free-kick. Yes, the goalkeeper was badly positioned but you still have to execute the dead-ball strike effectively and he did that in great style. At a time when we are playing so badly it was lovely to see a great goal from an Arsenal player. He also had a big hand in the second goal with his chip in to the box allowing Ramsey the space to not mess things up and lay the ball off to Ozil for a very tidy finish. There is a fair argument to say that is the only contribution that matters, and Dennis Bergkamp had many a poor game only to be remembered for actually setting up the winning goal. However, Alexis was awful in every other moment of the match last night. I have never seen him give the ball away so much. On three or four occasions, including their equaliser, it was his carelessness that allowed Middlesbrough to go forward and put our defence under pressure. The bit where he gestured to everyone to "calm down" and then played it five yards square to the nearest opponent would have been comical if it hadn't been an Arsenal player. For all his greatness, and Alexis is a really great player, last night I thought his general play was woeful. It's possible to appreciate his superb goal while still criticising a bad performance.
Three points mattered last night in terms of keeping alive the possibility of illusory "success" by finishing in the Champions League positions. It also mattered that the players got a win ahead of going to Wembley on Sunday. I hope we intend to persevere with the change in formation and, hopefully, work properly on it this week. I also hope the players are actually up for it ahead of playing Manchester City. Make no mistake, if the performance is on the level it was last night then Arsenal will get thrashed on Sunday.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What is this Arsenal we all want back?

Arsenal and money is not a new thing

The brilliant BT Sport documentary on Ian Wright and David Rocastle has stirred a lot of emotions among Arsenal fans over the age of about 35. I've seen so many people online over the last few days lamenting the fact that things were so much better back then, with players who cared and a club that was interested in the fans. To quote a famous comedy scene, "au contraire Blackadder." 
As I was watching the documentary I was thinking similar thoughts to all those people as, for someone of my age, the George Graham era brought the first success I'd ever seen. That it went on over eight years to the Zaragoza final in Paris was incredible in a time where Liverpool being the top dogs was all I'd ever known. 
If there is one big difference between then and now it is that players seemed more like ordinary people. Most of them were British, for a start. They earned good money, obviously, but they weren't exactly The Beatles in terms of being superstars. Footballers were accessible to the public. You could get their autographs, you could maybe get a photo with them, they lived in ordinary houses next door to ordinary (but reasonably well off) people. At Arsenal they used to drive their not so posh (apart from Paul Davis' famous Porsche) to the ground before a game and we were able to see them going in to the car-park behind the Clock End at Highbury. If there is a difference between modern football, and certainly modern Arsenal, and those days then that is it.
What struck me towards the end of the documentary was that one thing in particular isn't any different, and it's something that has been used to bash The Arsenal for a while now. One of the biggest criticisms I see of the club, particularly since we moved to the new stadium, is that Arsenal "is all about money" and "it's a business, not a football club anymore" and "the Club doesn't care about the loyal fans of many years." David Rocastle was an Arsenal Man. He had come through the youth-team at Arsenal and was totally "one of us" in terms of understanding what Arsenal meant. Along with Tony Adams, to fans of my age, he simply was "Arsenal" for want of a better description. The trouble for David was that he got a knee injury and Arsenal's medical people and appointed surgeons basically cocked up the repair. As a result he struggled to stay fit. George Graham mentioned in the programme on TV the other night that he knew Rocky "could maybe play one game per week, at the most" and that was the situation. Given the way Rocastle played in his final season at Arsenal I would like to challenge what George had to say there, and his performances when selected at Leeds and then when he played a key role at Manchester City give something of a lie to his statement. However, in the absence of a right to reply to George we have to take him at face value, though maybe if you paid him George might change his mind. He then went on to say, as did David Dein, that Howard Wilkinson called to ask after Rocky's availability. What followed was that Arsenal decided to accept £2m+ for their star midfield player, knowing that he might not be able to play a totally full part at Arsenal because of his knee problem. In short, Arsenal decided to sell David Rocastle - a true Arsenal Man, the hero of the North Bank, a man who didn't want to go - because they had no loyalty to him. Rocky was just another player, despite what Dein and Graham might say in a TV show 25 years later. Dein, Graham and the Arsenal Board put money ahead of David Rocastle. When you put it into context it is clear that Arsenal being a cash-cow is not a post-Highbury phenomenon. Now Rocky wasn't the first, or the last, Arsenal player to be sold against their will having given everything for the shirt. However, with all we've seen over the last few weeks about Arsenal and the contract for Arsene Wenger, his story brings in to sharper focus that the idea of our club suddenly being all about the money is a lazy and convenient stereotype of modern football and fits the agenda being pushed.
Having thought about the Rocastle sale it dawned on me that Dein sold Arsenal's soul to the Devil even before that. He also used a typically cynical ploy of using the success of the team to do so. Do you remember Arsenal v Coventry in May 1991? Arsenal had won the Title on the Monday before that game. Those attending the stadium on the following Saturday for what was basically the celebration party, complete with League Championship trophy presentation, might remember that the advertising boards had all been replaced with the first announcement of the "Arsenal Bond," and we were all implored to "Sign For The Arsenal" and spend £1500 to earn the right merely to be able to buy a season-ticket when the North Bank was replaced by a new stand. That's right kids, Arsenal wanted fans to hand over £1500 (which was a massive amount of money back then) to enable us to have the chance to buy a season ticket. The "pay-off" was that those season-tickets would be discounted for ten years - ultimately, with football becoming more expensive than anyone could have imagined back then, it turned out a good deal in the long-run for those who could afford the £1500 up-front payment. Back in 1991 the Arsenal fans were apoplectic about it. It was basically going to cut off the "loyal fans" (that phrase again) to move in a new breed of upper-class toffs who could afford what it took to have a seat in the new North Bank Stand. Protest on protest was staged around the stadium throughout 1991-92 as the club "lost touch" with what the fans were about. There were even plaintive chants of "we want our Arsenal back" during that season. The mood at times was as ugly as it is now amid the business surrounding Arsene Wenger's future. 
So you see that Arsenal being about money, and not being interested in the fans, and all the other bull**** that is currently being spouted by the latest "look at me" wannabe super-fans is nothing new. I see people lamenting the fact that a "real Arsenal supporter" like David Dein is not running things anymore. That's the same David Dein who was the architect and spokesman for the Arsenal Bond Scheme and who sanctioned the sale of David Rocastle when neither he, nor the fans, would ever have wanted him to go. Next time some p***k tries to tell you that Arsenal is no longer bothered about people like us just point out to them that it has ever been thus, certainly over the last 25 years. It's nothing new. You don't have to like it, but that's just the way it is. So I ask the question in the headline here once again - what is the Arsenal you want back?