Highbury Library Logo

Highbury Library Logo

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.