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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A special English day

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

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Emery's big mistake and a bit of perspective

Jack Wilshere of Arsenal Football Club

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

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

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

World Cup of Arsenal

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

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

Thursday, 24 May 2018

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

Already looking Arsenal classy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 18 May 2018

Arsene Wenger - An Appreciation, End of Season Awards

Arsene with his most won silverware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 4 May 2018

End of the Empire

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

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Arsene's leaving so let's be happy

When he was King

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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Seventeen years and never forgotten

Today is 31st March and, as ever on this date, this blog takes the time to remember David Rocastle.

This time 17 years ago Arsenal were in the process of beating Tottenham. It was the day when Robert Pires’ Arsenal career began to take off with a sublime solo effort to put us ahead in front of the North Bank. However the day is more remembered for the fact that David Rocastle had died earlier that morning. The Arsenal XI contained a number of Rocky’s ex-teammates. The Tottenham fans had helped to observe a perfect minutes silence before the game in memory of a true Arsenal great.
I wasn’t there that day. I was having to miss the derby because of work as it was the only way I could get a shift swap that enabled me to get to Old Trafford the following weekend for the FA Cup semi-final against the same opponents. I remember well how I find out that Rocky had died when an Arsenal supporting colleague came in to the office and asked if I’d heard the news. I had my transistor radio with me so I’d be able to listen to the game but it wasn’t on at that time of the morning. I turned it on and the news was being confirmed on Radio 5 with a series of testimonials being given by assorted ex-players including a very tearful Ian Wright. 
I had to take myself away for a moment or two as I couldn’t hold back the emotions. David Rocastle had been an absolute hero in my childhood. He scored that goal that gave us the chance to bring back success with his winner at White Hart Lane in 1987. I was coming up to my 22nd birthday and Rocky was the first one of my Arsenal idols to die. I’d cried when George Graham sold him when I was 13 and if I can forgive George for the bungs and all that controversy I can never forgive him for selling David Rocastle. George’s Arsenal midfield never recovered really, even though we went on to win 3 more trophies before he was sacked. The exciting football left along with Rocky, a man who emobodied everything that those on the terraces could feel. To now hear he had passed away at such a young age, an age when many are still playing at the top level, was too much for me. I’ll always remember him.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Nice to win again

The Brighton game saw me reach my lowest point as an Arsenal supporter in my nearly 39 years - I’m not quite old enough to genuinely remember what it was like at the end of the Terry Neill era - and I really couldn’t see how we’d get out of the rut. The performance in the first-half at the San Siro, therefore, was as welcome as it was unexpected. The players came out with a different mentality and actually played to score goals. Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Ramsey, Welbeck and co were superb on the night - special mention to Granit Xhaka - and a 2-0 away win against a traditional European giant, in very good form in Serie A, was not to be sniffed at at all. I could have done without the players reverting to type and trying to pass the ball to death in our own half after the interval but I could forgive them with the final score. It was a genuinely nice feeling to have seen Arsenal go out and be The Arsenal, if only they were being forced to dress appropriately on and off the field things would have been ideal.
Off the back of the win in Milan, and with the second leg in mind, Wenger made a number of changes for the Watford game last Sunday. Some of the players who came in really did very well on the day with Holding and Elneny particularly impressive. I really enjoyed Holding taking on Troy Deeney in the same way he did Diego Costa at Wembley last May. It seems that Holding might need to be up against a total s***house of a centre-forward to get him playing well. Seeing Deeney try to barge him off the ball but end up on his backside waving his arms at the referee was a joy to watch. We scored a couple of nice goals and Aubameyang got his 3rd in 5 games (add in the missed chance at Wembley against City and the wrong offside call against Spurs at the same ground and he could easily have been on a goal a game) with Mkhitaryan also being heavily involved again. The penalty save from Cech brought the crowd to life for the last half-hour and it was nice to rub Deeney’s nose in the dirt just that little bit further. At the same time Watford had real chances to get goals that a decent set of strikers would have taken so our defensive issues are as present as they ever were - our next defeat will still be not too far away.
I was sadly working Thursday night so missed a decent crowd for the home leg against Milan. I watched the whole game back on TV yesterday morning and we certainly rode our luck at times. We gave up far too many goalscoring opportunities to not be concerned had we been up against Griesman and Costa, for example. The penalty we got was not something I want to see again from an Arsenal player. I can’t be doing with diving and I go out of my way to criticise the Tottenham players who are being praised for the cheating they are starting to perfect. I hope we don’t see anything like that again from Welbeck, or anyone else in an Arsenal shirt, but the headlines he got yesterday were unbelievable given what Kane and Alli have been up to. Clearly it’s a different standard when it’s Arsenal players as far as the press are concerned and John Cross of the Daily Mirror really was a disgrace in his paper. The man is clearly miffed that Arsenal have chosen David Ornstein of the BBC as their media mouthpiece rather than a man who considered himself an insider at the club after his years on the Islington Gazette. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the penalty Arsenal created plenty on the night and were worth the win, despite the fact it might have been different had Milan taken some of their opportunities.
So we’re in to a European quarter-final for the first time in a long time. There were two teams to avoid in the draw and we predictably drew one of them. A 1st leg at home, and our abysmal record in Russia, does not fill me with great optimism. Arsenal should beat CSKA Moscow every day of the week but our players are fragile and don’t travel well. We need a handsome win at home to get through I fear. I’d actually have rather played Atletico Madrid than CSKA. Still, we’re in the competition and it offers the season some salvation. I’d very much like to be in Lyon in mid-May watching Arsenal take some silverware. If it saw Wenger sign-off with the only European trophy of his career I think we’d all take it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

When will it end?

There used to be a football club over there...

Let me start by confessing I didn't see the Brighton game. I was working and had to make do with the commentary on Radio 5. What I was hearing gave me no cause for surprise as we've seen it all before, time and time again. Arsenal seemed to have made a promising start in the first few minutes, dominating the ball, but I didn't hear commentary on a single shot at goal. I heard a lot of Kolasinac, Mustafi, Koscielny, Xhaka, and a lot of Ozil "lays the ball off short" type stuff. I didn't hear Aubameyang's name even once in that period. Within seconds of Brighton getting the ball there was a shot that was deflected behind for a corner. How is it that these players can have so much of the ball but no shots, only for a clearly inferior opponent to play two or three passes and be in a position to shoot at goal? From the corner Brighton scored. Again I wasn't surprised. Almost every shot on target in the last few weeks has ended up behind our goalkeepers and in the net. I then listened as the expected implosion happened with Arsenal's players unable (more likely unwilling) to stem the tide. A second Brighton goal was also similarly unsurprising. The fact it was Koscielny (who simply isn't physically fit to play football at the moment) who gave the ball away wasn't a shock. Even less of a shock was hearing that Mustafi had totally lost Murray and got underneath the cross allowing him a free header. I feel a little sorry for Petr Cech on this one. I know he should probably have done better, and his issuing a tweet afterwards taking all of the blame for the defeat is a mark of the man, but does he really have any chance when the defensive players in the side are like this?
Wenger said on Thursday that we'd been awful defensively. I looked forward to seeing changes yesterday. I'd like to have seen wholesale change in the back four, although we have only one person  who actually plays right-back in the entire squad at the moment. I wanted a back three with Mertesacker back in the middle and Chambers and Mavropanos given their chance next to the big man giving them some organisation. I wanted Maitland-Niles back in on the left, but was resigned to Bellerin keeping his place for the reason given above. I wanted Elneny to come in for Xhaka in front of that defence. I genuinely couldn't believe it, therefore, when I saw the ONLY player actually dropped at the back was Bellerin! How can Wenger accept that his team has been woeful defensively and then change virtually none of the personnel? The man has become genuinely mad. His head is gone totally. The press conference stuff about shirts and trousers is simply the ramblings of a total basket case. He needs to be saved from himself now.
After the game, apart from the clothes analogies, Wenger decided to go in to one about Arsenal's schedule. Utter, utter nonsense. Manchester City have had the exact same schedule as Arsenal this week and they won all three games without conceding a goal. Let's not forget, either, that Wenger made no substitutions on Thursday night, even with the game all over at half-time. He also waited until the 83rd minute yesterday before his last two changes, with the two players taken off (Chambers and Mkhitaryan) both absent from one of the two Man City games. Does he not realise we all see through it now? Is he that crazy? Or that arrogant? I just think he's become dangerously deluded.
The players must take their share of the blame for what is going on at Arsenal. A lot of these men are better footballers than they are showing. They've clearly given up on the Manager but, in doing so, they've also given up on us who pay our money to follow them. That's criminal. Wilshere remains the only one who looks like he gives a s**t but, ironically, he is the one who will be shipped out of the club if Wenger stays! David Pleat kept telling us on the radio that Jack tried to take the game to Brighton in the 2nd half but doesn't get enough shots off, or play enough "incisive" passes. Now Pleat watches a lot of Arsenal games so he must have noticed by now that nobody in the team takes enough shots or looks to play incisive passes. Wenger has banned them from doing it! When Jack was in the youth teams he got loads of goals. Yes, he was superior to every player around him, but he still had to shoot to score those goals, or to do something inventive and individual to create the opening in the first place. That is not allowed in the Arsenal first-team anymore as we have to pass, pass, pass and keep possession with no intention whatsoever of scoring a goal. I digress. The likes of Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang etc simply aren't doing what they're being paid to do. Ozil had a couple of sensational months leading up to January where he showed the player we know he should be. Since signing his new contract he has been a disgrace as he has for most of his time at Arsenal. He and his advisors have played Arsenal like a bad piano, making Alexis Sanchez their fall guy. Ozil knew Alexis was leaving in January, and he knew that Arsenal couldn't afford to lose himself for free in May. By turning it on for a couple of months he and his people knew Arsenal would have to offer him big money to stay. They did all of this without leaking stuff to the press about leaving while Alexis got all the stick about upsetting his teammates etc. If it was a Hollywood heist movie it would be a blockbuster. How is that team harmony doing since Alexis left?
As much as the players must take their share of the blame, we have to understand that Arsene Wenger has signed all of them (with the possible exception of Aubameyang) and he continues to select them to wear the Arsenal shirt. He spent £70m on Mustafi and Xhaka. The pair of them, given their huge transfer fees, must surely go down among the very worst signings Arsenal have ever made. Valencia fans must be wondering how they got £35m out of Arsenal for Mustafi and were then able to sign Gabriel and Coquelin on the cheap - both of those players should be in the Arsenal team at the moment, but they aren't even at the club anymore! 
I'll finish, if I may, with an interesting insight in to how the Arsenal players are not disciplined and how the values of the club are being eroded. Vic Akers was interviewed (I guess on the pre-match show on the official website) at pitch side by Alex Scott yesterday. She asked what has happened with the shirt sleeves and the famous "captain's choice" as it's known at Arsenal. Vic replied that certain players (no names mentioned) preferred to wear short sleeves all the time and the tradition has been allowed to die. Quite apart from the fact that all those who wear short sleeves also wear a long sleeve skintight base-layer underneath, what does that say about Wenger's lack of power over the players? I couldn't give a f**k what length of shirt sleeve any individual wants to wear. This is The Arsenal. At The Arsenal the Arsenal Captain and the kit-man decide what shirt is being worn. This is a value that has set us apart as our players always looked the business when they entered the field. They wore, effectively, a uniform. It was shirts tucked in and same length sleeves. It was Arsenal suit and tie, with top buttons fastened everywhere they went. It said "we're superior to you before we even kick-off because we are The Arsenal." Instead we now have a rag-tag looking bunch of scruffs with no care for the values of the club and, my God, are they playing like that too. 
The only way to arrest the slide is to sack Wenger now. Don't wait. Give us a chance to win the Europa League by changing the Manager before Thursday. Bring in George Graham and David O'Leary until May and tell them to instill the discipline, tactics, defensive organisation, and respect for the values we stand for and live by at Arsenal. Right now we are heading in to Brian Clough territory and waiting until May, or even worse the end of NEXT season, is asking for trouble - literally.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Humiliated at Wembley

At least he tried

For 20 minutes Arsenal were the better side without being spectacular. We had an open goal early on that might have put doubts in City's minds after their loss at Wigan but Ozil chose to pass (yet again) rather than bury the chance. Aubameyang should still have scored but Walker was able to get back showing the sort of desire to stop a goal that our players so sorely lack. We should have known things were going to go from bad to worse when Nacho Monreal  had to go off injured. Despite that we were properly in the game at half-time despite being a goal behind. Now let's be clear, Aguero did foul Mustafi as the ball came forward. However, let's not allow that to deflect attention away from what Mustafi was doing. He had chosen to stand 5 yards the wrong side of the best centre-forward in the World. If he'd been in the position he should have been it would have been a simple header but he had allowed himself to get under the ball. It was scandalous defending. For all Manchester City's famed good football it took one long punt down the middle to undo Arsenal. Again. That the same thing happened on at least two other occasions in the game says it all about our players and the way they are managed. Mustafi makes people like Caesar, Cygan and Stepanovs look top class. The man cost Arsenal £35m yet defends like a pub player. 
Let's get to the bones of it now. What goes on in the Arsenal dressing room at half-time these days? Just like the Spurs game a couple of weeks ago they walked on to the field for the second-half but weren't actually there at all. We simply didn't play the game after half-time. The most sickening thing is that City, the best side in the country, didn't even have to play well to hammer Arsenal. It was embarrassing and it was humiliating. We've seen many scandalous performances from Wenger's Arsenal in the last 10 years, but none in a Cup Final. No amount of apologies, or "we'll learn from this" can ever make up for what went on  at Wembley yesterday. 
When Wenger can't even drag a performance out of the players for a Wembley showpiece then even the most die-hard of his cult worshippers ought to be able to see it's finished. Only Ramsey and Wilshere looked interested yesterday, with Ramsey outstanding as far as I was concerned - especially in the first-half. But what about our two superstars, for example? Ozil has gone back to the lazy, do nothing, player he's been for 3 years in the weeks since he signed his new contract. That's no coincidence. Aubameyang was taken to school and allowed himself to be bullied by Vincent Kompany, even down to being out-paced by him on at least one occasion. Is that what we paid £60m for? 
We know this can't go on. We also know that it will go on. At least until May, and probably for at least another year after. Clearly the best thing for Arsenal would be for Wenger to go now so we still have a chance to win the UEFA Cup this season. That isn't going to happen and we will be embarrassed once again by a seemingly resurgent AC Milan side. Kicking the can down the road does no good for any of us but, until Gazidis can persuade Stan Kroenke of that, it's only going to get worse. I really can't be bothered to even get angry about it anymore.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

It was all going quite well

I’m not sure what’s the worst thing about losing to that lot these days. There’s the annoyance and anger at being beaten. There’s the predictable gloating from a set of supporters whom live for Tottenham beating Arsenal occasionally, simply because they don’t know what it’s like to actually win trophies. Then there’s the lazy journalistic nonsense that seems to follow this fixture around when Spurs win it describing a “power shift” in the area - I’ve never seen this discussion around the Manchester clubs, yet City actually have silverware backing up a genuine on-field superiority over Manchester United. The media fawning over Tottenham this last couple of years is beyond embarrassing. It underlines an absolute bias towards them for a reason that is scarily unknown. It will ever be thus until the print media, in particular, is finally consigned to history. Journalists today have set themselves up as “experts” as they see the impending Armageddon on the horizon and appear of TV and radio to give commentary on the game. The fact is that none of the “football writers” know more about football than you or me as they’ve never played the game, just like us. Add in their smugness and contempt for Arsenal FC and you have a vicious cocktail to contend with. The sooner Arsenal realise that they don’t need to engage with newspapers outside of Islington, where they have a community responsibility, the better off we will all be. You might have guessed I’m not a happy bunny writing this morning. 
In the game yesterday I thought we were quietly impressive before half-time. Three or four times we should have done better on the break - criminally bad passes in to the final third when you have the pace of Aubameyang going beyond the defence is hard to accept from players like Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Watching the Armenian yesterday it was easy to see why his career at Manchester United wasn’t successful - compared to last week it was like seeing a different person in an Arsenal shirt. Ozil was wasted out on the right and only looked like doing anything when he drifted towards the centre - for once I won’t criticise him for a quiet(ish) display when he was ridiculousy moved away from where he does damage. Our key man was, yet again, Jack Wilshere and he created what would have been a goal when he put Aubameyang through on goal, only for the linesman to wrongly raise his flag. We were fairly comfortable elsewhere with Elneny and Xhaka doing a decent job in front of the defence, and Bellerin looking pretty solid at right-back. Half-time, 0-0, probably shading things, there were reasons to be content.
You have to wonder what happens in Arsneal’s dressing room at half-time these days. Within seconds of the restart yesterday you could see we weren’t on it as we had been before the break. Mustafi had to make a good block (and generally did well yesterday I felt) before Cech got stupid and took on Harry Kane in our penalty area. It all pointed to a casual approach. Less than a minuted after Cech’s Beckenbauer impression we were losing. Nobody closed down the cross which was perfect for Kane to attack. Koscielny is finished and never got off the ground - Monreal waving his arms for a foul was nonsense as Kane just got up first and stayed above the Arsenal defence. What came after, until the last five minutes, could have been embarrassing for Arsenal. Were it not for Cech (the save from the free-kick was superb) and Tottenham’s bad finishing we could have lost by 4 or 5 goals.
Wenger made his substitutions, rightly taking off Mkhitaryan and wrongly taking off Elneny (instead of Xhaka) to bring on Lacazette and Iwobi. Inexplicably Iwobi played through the centre and Ozil stayed on the right. Just as inexplicably our new £60m centre-forward (100 goals in 117 games) was sent to the left wing as Lacazette was left to play on his own up front. We’re 0-1 down to Tottenham and we stay with one man up front, a man with 1 goal in his last 12 games. It is beyond the wit of sane people to understand what goes on in Wenger’s mind. Eventually he introduced Welbeck (5 minutes from time) and we got on the front foot as Spurs started to panic about not being out of sight. We managed to create two chances, at last, but they both fell to Lacazette. The first wasn’t easy but he had time to bring it down rather than smash a difficult volley in to the crowd. The second was just terrible finishing after Iwobi’s pass found him through on Lloris. I’ve seen people saying Wenger has damaged his confidence in the way he has handled him this season, and I have some sympathy with that viewpoint, but the fact remains that a £50m striker should be scoring in that position - he certainly shouldn’t be missing the target. You have to feel that Aubameyang, with his extra pace, would have scored the goal as he’d have been there a yard quicker and would have had a choice in how he finished it. I’m not going to get at Lacazette as some have, but it’s hard to ignore that he hasn’t succeeded this season since arriving. I’m yet to be genuinely impressed by him at any point. He also got himself offside 3 times yesterday through sheer laziness and that is unacceptable.
So another defeat on the road. In this case it matters more because of who we were playing. It’s obvious how this must come to an end but we will have to wait until at least May before that happens. In the meantime we will continue to drift in the Premier League and must hope to win the League Cup and do something special in Europe - given Wenger’s comments about the Europa League on his BT Sport pre-match interview yesterday I won’t be holding my breath.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Back to Wembley

Wednesday night ended up being very enjoyable at Arsenal despite the presence of thousands of glory-hunting chavs and no trains after the game from Arsenal Station. There’s something about winning a semi-final that takes away those small annoyances. 
For 25 minutes we were battered by Chelsea. The Arsenal team was almost unrecognisable from the one that destroyed Crystal Palace last weekend which is completely bizarre when all ten outfield players were the same. In hindsight the turning point seems to have been when Willian went off injured, something I have to admit I hadn’t thought of until I heard someone say it to his mate as we were leaving the ground. In that first part of the game we barely made it out of our own half and Hazard seemed to be constantly finding space in between our centre-backs. It was obvious watching that Koscielny simply didn’t have a clue where the Belgian was. Somehow we got through that period and the players got it together and started to close down properly all over the pitch.
That foothold allowed Wilshere and Ozil to come in to the game and Arsenal dominated midfield from that point on really. Kante and Bakayoko looked far removed from the players who everyone saw at Leicester and Monaco. Elneny and Xhaka also played their part in that with Xhaka playing a more advanced role than usual, as he had done against Palace. Alex Iwobi also never stopped working and was very good against Moses defensively, while not really going at him as Maitland-Niles has done in a couple of games recently at the other end of the pitch. 
Both of our goals had a huge element of fortune. When a header takes two deflections to go past a stranded goalkeeper then you can’t argue with your luck. I suppose the Chelsea fans must have felt the way everybody else did on the many occasions Lampard saw a shot hit a defender and end up in the opposite corner of the net. You can also say that maybe Nacho Monreal has earned his luck with the way he has performed in the last few years. He is far and away Arsenal’s most consistent performer and was a deserving man of the match on the night. It’s great that he is finally being recognised by the pundits for his displays at Arsenal. The second goal also benefitted from a deflection as Lacazette, having held the ball up very well to allow support to arrive, tried to lay it back to Iwobi but saw his pass fall instead to Xhaka who turned home a very nice finish from close-range. 
I thought Chelsea never really threatened after that with their best chance being from a corner where Ospina went walkabout and was lucky to get away with it. There were no opportunities from open play for them, while Iwobi should have buried the chance to put us home and dry. I have to give a word here to Mohamed Elneny who had been moved back to play in the centre of a back three. I thought the Egyptian turned his best performance for Arsenal in what became a defensive masterclass from him. His positioning was perfect, he won tackles and attacked everything in the air winning every header he jumped for. I was crying out for Wenger to bring on Chambers when I saw where Elneny was now playing but he proved to be more than up to the task on this occasion. Credit where it’s due, as ever. At the other end Ozil was outstanding again and it will be interesting to see whether his form (when he hasn’t been on holiday) in the last two months is a sign he is happy at Arsenal, or whether it is a shop window ahead of him going elsewhere.
So we are off to Wembley again, somewhat unexpectedly in the League Cup. My Dad said to me on the way out that, for all we want Wenger gone, Arsenal are in a fourth final in five seasons. We’ve become absolutely a cup team, with the players seemingly able to get themselves motivated for some one-off big games in a way they can’t in the Premier League all that often. I suppose I’d rather be a cup side than a nothing side - I wonder who I could possible be referring to..?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

All the best Theo and thanks for being The Arsenal

Imagine having a photo like this

So Theo Walcott has moved on to Everton after 12 years as an Arsenal player. During that time he's infuriated me more often than not and there have been occasions where I've questioned if he has ever improved from the 16 year-old child we signed from Southampton. On other occasions he's thrilled me with his pace and his goals. The lad is one of the few to have scored more than 100 goals for Arsenal FC and that is totally deserving of praise. He's done that pretty much exclusively while playing on the wing, often as a substitute, and usually taken off when he started a game regardless of his performance. Some people have been quite abusive towards him, especially in the last year or two, but that is a viewpoint I take particular exception to, as I would with any Arsenal player.
The worst thing that happened to Theo, in hindsight, was being taken to the 2006 World Cup but not being given a game. It created a hype and an expectation around a young boy that he could never possibly have lived up to. It's actually a testament to his character that he is still such a level-headed, well-adjusted bloke. There has never been any controversy around Theo Walcott. He is always well-spoken in his interviews and has never stepped out of line on or off the pitch. He is a family man, married to the young lady he's always been with. He got stick over the business about the coffee machine she allowed him to purchase after getting his goals target a couple of years ago. Why? Why would you abuse him for being quite so down to earth? Most footballers with his money would be promising themselves the new Aston Martin or something but it was apparently a sign that something about Theo wasn't right in the minds of some idiots. I take the opposite view and see it as a sign that, despite the pressure he has always been under because of the fame he had at a young age, he is due absolute credit for never being swept along. Plenty of English youngsters, Jack Wilshere included, could learn a lot from the way Theo has conducted his life.
On the pitch he has an incredible record in big games. His best moments have often come against top opposition, or on the big occasion - his debut saw him set up Gilberto for the first competitive Arsenal goal in the new stadium, his first goal was in the League Cup Final later that season. He scored in FA Cup semi-finals, against Barcelona, at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, and he had a superb record against Tottenham - who can forget his two goals in the first of the 5-2 wins against them? Just in case you have forgotten here is a link - just feel that celebration and energy in the stadium.
Theo's pace could be electrifying and he scared defenders when he was on his game. I'll always have the memories of the night he sparked the comeback against Barcelona, the best team on the planet. There was the incredible run at Anfield on the night we should have beaten them in the Champions League when he set up Adebayor. He was also instrumental in the dismantling of Manchester United a couple of years back when his pace ran their defence all over the pitch and created the space that allowed Ozil and Sanchez to utterly destroy them. I wish he'd used his pace to take on defenders far more than he did by simply knocking it past them and chasing it - that was where he would frustrate me so much by either running straight in to his man or by turning inside. Nevertheless, when he was on his game I have never seen anyone so quick across a football pitch. I will always maintain that, played as a striker alongside Van Persie or Giroud he would have had an even better career - Giroud would also have benefited greatly from that.
My favourite Theo moment has to be the 2015 FA Cup Final when he had earned his starting place by scoring a hat-trick at home to West Brom in the last league game of the season. We were dominating Aston Villa but couldn't score and were missing chances. Theo hadn't played the year before against Hull after doing his cruciate ligament in the 3rd round win over Tottenham, remembered for him winding up the away end from his stretcher. He wasn't able to be at the game against Hull as his baby son was seriously ill at the time. Walcott was clearly hungry against Villa and he started and finished the move for the first goal. When Alexis nodded the ball back across Theo was right down in front of me and you could see the ball falling to him on the volley. I swear time stopped and everyone held their breaths as he struck it with his weaker left foot. He caught it brilliantly and the ball left his boot like a rocket. It slammed in to the net past Shay Given and I have rarely heard a noise, or witnessed a scene like the one that greeted it. The yellow and blue covered Arsenal fans at that end of the ground exploded in one of the greatest goal celebrations I have ever been a part of. It was a truly magical moment. It's worth reliving here I would say.
So I have nothing but respect for Theo Walcott. I'll keep the fond memories of him and will always think of him as an Arsenal man. He understood exactly what it meant to "be" The Arsenal. Theo is a classy individual and I wish him all the best for his future. He will always be welcomed back, I hope, by the supporters - he certainly will by me.

Monday, 8 January 2018

No defence...and no attack either

You’d be forgiven for not realising Arsenal won the FA Cup last May, such was the insipid and unacceptable surrender of our title at a managerless lower division team. I have consistently backed players like Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck etc but no more. Holding, Elneny, Walcott, Iwobi, Welbeck - they should all be slung out of the club this morning for what they produced at Forest. Per Mertesacker’s legs have gone, we all know that. Only a mad man would put him in a back four instead of being the middle man of three so Wenger did exactly that. What ensued was what looked to people on TV as though the lad Brereton (I guarantee you will never hear of this 18 year-old ever again as he is nothing more than a big lump really) was beating him to everything. Look more closely and you’ll have seen that Mertesacker was constantly trying to cover across to his left in order to bail out the ridiculously out of position, and out of his depth at Arsenal, Rob Holding. Make no mistake, Holding was outstanding in the FA Cup Final against Diego Costa last year, but every dog has its day and anyone can produce something special on a big occasion - remember Andy Dibble of Luton Town? I do because he spoiled my first ever Arsenal Wembley final. Holding has since been nothing other than woeful for Arsenal and simply lacks the basic talent necessary to play at our level. Had it not been for an excellent performance by David Ospina Forest would have won by a five or six goal margin, they were that superior to Arsenal on the day.
Plenty of stick has been handed out over Arsenal’s team selection and that’s a consequence of losing in such abject fashion. However, a team including Ospina, Debuchy, Mertesacker, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Walcott and Welbeck should have more than enough to beat Forest’s youngsters. What was seriously lacking was a subs bench with anyone on it capable of rescuing the game if things started to go wrong. And they went seriously wrong. Wenger picked the team but failed to set them up right. Wenger failed to motivate them against lower division cannon-fodder. Wenger failed to provide the insurance policy of senior players on the subs bench. And I don’t want to hear his b******s about people being tired - the senior players in the squad have played league games only this season and no cup ties - Alexis played one Europa League game having not started a Premier League match to that point if my memory serves me right. Wenger threw away the FA Cup yesterday and it is unacceptable. Over 4000 Arsenal fans travelled to Nottingham yesterday to get the latest in an ever growing list of humiliation under our once great manager.
I resign myself now to the hope that each defeat, each time we concede three or four goals in a game, each humiliation and embarrassment, is simply one more closer to the day when Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal. Any club worth their salt would have had him out of the job before the team got back to London last night. The man is finished. Nobody is listening to him. Nobody cares what he has to say. Nobody has any respect for the man anymore. It’s over. The only people who can’t see it are Wenger and Kroenke.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Mid Season Review

I had planned to get this written during the period between Christmas and New Year but I was then laid low by flu and only today getting back to anything approaching normality. As such I didn’t make it to Arsenal last night and had to make do with Sky’s character assassination of Jack Wilshere which was utterly despicable, even more the case when you consider one of the biggest cheerleaders for it was our “own” Thierry Henry. Actually the game itself yesterday summed up a lot of the 1st half of the season, particularly the bit where we often need to score at least three goals to win a game. It’s a feature of Wenger’s Arsenal in the last six or seven years that they don’t play good football most of the time. It’s slow, sideways, lacking imagination and certainly lacking in efforts at goal. All the more ridiculous then that four of the standout Premier League matches of the season have all involved Arsenal at home - Leicester, Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Given that Leicester was the first game of the season it’s there that I will actually start to piece together what has been wrong with Arsenal again this season so far. Here’s an uncomfortable truth; Arsenal’s “challenge” for the Premier League ended the moment Shinji Okazaki nodded in their equaliser after five minutes. Harsh? Not really. It was a moment that should have told all of us watching that nothing had really changed in this Arsenal team. There we were having had the perfect start with new signing Lacazette’s early goal, only to see a 5’6” striker out-jump our defence and nod past a goalkeeper who had got out of position at his own far post. We simply do not know how to defend. Somehow the attacking players bailed us out on the night (and a ridiculous in-game management decision by Craig Shakespeare also played a huge part) but the writing was on the wall. The following week at Stoke an insipid display against what has proven to be the worst team in the league (a sign of our mental fragility simply because it was a game at Stoke’s ground) and more abysmal defending saw us get beat for the first time. The only thing I’d point out on that is that we also got turned down for a stick-on penalty and had a perfectly good (and quite superb) Lacazette goal disallowed for offside. Not even small margins those, but the performance overall was instructive and is repeated all too often, just as it was as recently as Sunday at West Brom.
Indeed those awful performances are seen more than any free-flowing games from our boys - ironically they’ve played well to a degree against a number of the top teams, albeit without getting what they might have deserved with the honourable exception of the Tottenham game - more of which below. It’s the infernal passing against mediocre opposition that riles me and many others. If we played with the pace and effort we’ve seen against Chelsea, Man Utd, Spurs, Liverpool (at home) against rubbish like Stoke, Watford, West Brom, Southampton, West Ham etc then we’d be right up there above Manchester United. You can forget about getting close to Man City and it’s unfair to beat the team over not challenging for the Title this season as nobody is able to get even remotely close to City after the run they’ve been on. At the same time I’m not going to moan unduly about the officiating, but in those games at Stoke, Watford and West Brom (and if I could be bothered to look it up I’m sure I’d find more) we have been undone as much by woeful refereeing as our own woeful football. Again, give us the points refereeing decisions have apparently taken from us and we’re up there with Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool. At the same time the worst performance of the season was all of the making of Arsene Wenger and it came at Anfield. Losing 0-4 flattered Arsenal and the players were incredibly fortunate that Liverpool stopped attacking or it could have been an Old Trafford type of humiliation. 
What about the good stuff? Well, as I said above, we’ve played very well in some big games but we simply don’t defend well enough. Apart from one that is. The game against Tottenham was as brilliant as it was surprising in the way Arsenal played them off the field pretty much from start to finish. It was a 2-0 thrashing and by far the most gratifying result of the whole season so far. The media were so determined their beloved (why is that?) Tottenham were about to move away from Arsenal and leave us behind. They had, of course, forgotten that Arsenal have a 50-plus year head-start over the poor little Totts and that they’ll have to make up a gap of eleven League Titles before even coming close to Arsenal’s level of success and dominance. Arsenal have been superior to Spurs since 1987. Earlier in the season the players underlined it once again.
The League Cup and Europa League have provided a number of youngsters the chance to stake a claim and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is very much taking that opportunity. I just want to see him get his chance in his own position replacing Xhaka. Those competitions also allowed Jack Wilshere to show he is still Arsenal’s best midfielder and he has earned his place back in the team now. He HAS to be given a contract soon and SHOULD be made Arsenal Captain immediately. Jack understands what it means to be The Arsenal, as does the ostracised Theo Walcott. Those tournaments are also offering our best chance of silverware this season as it stands and I hope we go for it in both of them from here on.