Two goalkeepers, two calamitous errors, though Almunia nowhere in sight

December 6, 2011

Vito Mannone followed Fabianski's example by gifting Olympiakos the second of their fist-half goals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank heavens for Wojciech Szczesny. Since the eccentric 21 year old bolstered his way into Arsenal’s first team last December, nights like the one suffered in Greece this evening have become a rarity. Two separate calamities from two different back-up goalkeepers however reminded us of the fragility of Arsenal’s squad.

Wenger will remind critics that this evening’s match resembled a damp squib from his perspective, with his Arsenal side having previously excelled in order to book a premature spot in Friday’s draw for the last 16. More so, first place was guaranteed long before kick off this evening and so fringe players and hungry fledglings replaced those in need of a rest. An accumulation of 19 league points from an available 21 coupled with an unbeaten stroll to Champions League progression has largely been born out of a line-up consistent in both personnel and quality. Those unable to pries their way into the first-choice eleven were given an opportunity this evening. Yossi Benayoun, one of few who left the Karaiskaki Stadium with credit after superbly scoring Arsenal’s goal, lined up alongside the forgotten friends of Arsenal’s squad- Marouane Chamakh, Andrei Arshavin and Sebastian Squillaci. Adding some youthful artistry and determination into a somewhat sterile line up came in the form of Frimpong, Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Despite Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos providing some first-choice stability, Lukasz Fabianski and his deputy Vito Mannone helped rid this performance of any assuredness with two goalkeeping performances once synonymous with the modern-day Arsenal. Not helped by an equally recognizable mix-up between Johan Djourou and Squillaci, Fabianski was beaten within 16 minutes when rounded by Djebourr. With Olympiakos still in contention for a qualification spot themselves, the home side was disciplined in pressing Arsenal and tenacious in the tackle. Insecurity soon crept into Arsenal’s play, exemplified initially by Fabianski exposing himself before conceding the opener, and then a number of defensive calamites that followed.

Fabianski, who like his replacement Mannone, has been vocal in his desire to be given more of a chance in the first-team, had to hobble off soon after conceding having collided with Vermaelen. The young Italian was thus given the chance to enter the fray having ousted one more error-prone goalkeeper in Manuel Almunia. Mannone’s own error for the second Olympiakos goal would certainly of been worthy of Almunia however as, having charged 15 yards to head the ball clear, aimed to hook clear the ensuing goal-bound shot whilst retreating back to his goal-line. Rather than clearing his lines, Mannone was defeated by the movement of the ball and looked on in amazement as it trickled past him and into the back of the net.

Though youth may be used to excuse such a haphazard piece of goalkeeping in an undoubtedly intimidating stadium, Mannone’s error was basic and visibly haphazard. The inefficiencies of a back four Wenger promised would be experienced were highlighted with a concession of errors either created by the shakiness of Johan Djourou, or the unorganisation of Sebastian Squilacci. What must concern Wenger is a number of these defenders, and indeed goalkeepers, are a mere injury or suspension away from taking their place in the first team. Déjà vu must have been terrorizing the Frenchman as errors which triggered Arsenal’s torrid end to last season and start to this were common place. 18 year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain and 20 year-old Coquelin arguably looked the most assured players on the pitch, continually let down by Chamakh and Arshavin, the both of whom again failed to justify their places in the side and exposed a lack of attacking options Wenger should address in January. Though more pressing of a concern would have been the ankle injury sustained by Santos, ruling him out of Saturday’s visit of Everton and leaving Wenger with perhaps no choice but to field a back four entirely made up of Centre-Halves.

Despite Benayoun’s wonderfully executed to reduce Olympiakos’s lead, Arsenal will be mightily disappointed with their failure to add to this moment of class. Though the result, which was made worse with Modesto’s last minute tap-in, was essentially irrelevant, the performance will concern both fans and those players expectant of better. A winning mantra recently instilled by the influential displays of the likes of Van Persie and Arteta was all but forgotten in a night that will not live long in the Arsenal memory.

Maturity and stability the key as Arsenal go from strength to strength

December 5, 2011

Mike Arteta opens the scoring before proving pivotal to securing all 3 points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the 7 pensioners battling away inside Mecca Bingo’s raucously illuminated arcade, to the baron, moated wasteland posing for an adequate stadium setting, Saturday’s excursion to Wigan coughed up one stereotype after another. The hurtling rain, the northern territory and the struggling opposition also contributed to a fixture once typically considered a nemesis of Wenger’s teams. Thankfully, the one aspect of Saturday’s rain-soaked encounter free from stereotype was the result.

As well as a lack of trophies, a breachable and soft underbelly has been characteristic of the post-invincible baron years for Wenger and his consistently young charges. That which has regularly been exposed in the country’s northern quarters, when the weather often plays pathetic fallacy to Arsenal’s ailments, is though to stem from a lack of leadership, grit, determination and experience. Often euphemized by a lack of Britishness, a familiar vulnerability has at times proved mightily frustrating. Successive squandering of two goal leads in this fixture alone merely added to a succession of dropped points to many other relatively inferior opposition- the latter of these two catastrophes proving doubly frustrating coming just days after beating Chelsea. An almost entirely changed XI took to the field this Saturday however, with those players thought to be letting down the squad either moved on in the summer, or phased out. Similarly the introduction of an experienced and weather-beaten quartet of new signings has helped to instill a steadiness and confidence in the side, attributes which have remedied another of Arsenal’s habitual deficiencies of allowing goal advantages to be eradicated. Where Denilson, Squilacci and Chamakh featured in the corresponding fixture last December, Arteta, Mertersacker and Van Persie began the match on Saturday to instill an air of assured responsibility, alongside proven quality.

Alongside a new sense of leadership and savoir-faire, sprightly youth and a new-found directness has been regularly incorporated. Theo Walcott continues to impress, whilst Aaron Ramsey and Wojciech Szczesny complete a dominant trio of youth only set to be added to with the return of Wilshere towards the end of January. Gervinho’s arrival alongside the unpredictability of Andre Santos, albeit sometimes more worrying than inspiring, have helped speed up attacking moves whilst delegate creative responsibilities once resting entirely on Fabregas and Nasri. All held in place by the growing stability and maturity of Alex Song, Arsenal were able to comfortably stroll to a resounding 4-0 win without being particularly resounding in their play.

A quiet start insighted more disenchanted choruses of ‘come on Arsenal’ from the away support than vociferous support, though that soon came once Szczesny had repelled a Jordi Gomez chance and Arsenal decided to up the tempo. As of yet, little joy was being found on the wings with both Walcott and Gervinho affored little space. Thus it fell upon the central players to invigorate the rest and following on from Vermaelen striding into the opposition half, the benefeactor of this proved to Mikel Arteta who strode into his own space and unleashed past Ali Al-Habsi. Whilst the Wigan goalkeeper should have done better, this breakthrough allowed for Arsenal to press with less inhibitions and they gained a corner almost immediately from the restart. Vermaelen, still finding consistency from months out of action, leapt highest to head inside Al-Habsi’s near post.

Most impressively, Arsenal didn’t allow a purposeful Wigan re-start to dent their lead following the half-time break. The ability to understand when, and when not, to take risks when a goal or two up has often resulted in disastrous consequences in recent years. Similarly, a lack of maturity and understanding of the machinations of how to see out a win have consistently underpinned error-strewn seasons. Arguably the ability to do all these things correctly has been the most pleasing development of all since the arrival of a number of experienced heads. Indeed Arteta’s new found role as tempo-keeper has helped tremendously with holding onto 3 points when in commanding positions such as these. Whilst building up his pass-tally for the season, currently 3rd in the Premier League at 961, Arteta helped maintain a tempo that played into Arsenal’s hands, and eventually the Gunners were able to pick off a Wigan side lacking confidence. First Gervinho slotted in a rebound from Robin Van Persie’s right-footed curler, a goal that exemplified the more measured side to this team as it culminated a 33-pass move. Theo Walcott then helped to secure all three points by laying on yet another assist for Van Persie. With goals seemingly available whenever they are needed, defensive stability is key to the consistency Wenger insists will be key to the fates of the Premier League’s top clubs. Maturity and stability proved vital this weekend, as the stereotypes of Arsenal’s penetrable core were rubbished once again, and such features will need to be consistently honed in order to make up the deficit.

Capello grows weary of condemnable subplots and selects his captain

November 8, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The England manager’s job is one that is often talked of as the hardest job in world football, despite the £6 million annual wage.

Managing the nation who initiated football back in its fetal stage and one whose fans and press are cutthroat and unforgiving is a taxing mission. Where in the past this has been limited to forming a triumphant squad from a pool of largely high-pedigree and talented players, the job now entails wider chores of morality and righteousness.

At the beginning of another squad selection procedure, one more condemnable subplot engulfs England’s squad, though the alleged culprit is far from new to the situation. It seems however that Fabio Capello has grown weary of policing a squad whose key players are accustomed to the iron fist of punishment, and John Terry’s selection in the squad for friendlies against Spain and Sweden exemplifies this. Whereas Capello was quick to punish John Terry for allegations that would be more at home in an ITV soap, supposedly having an affair with a teammates ex-girlfriend, recent accusations of racial remarks aimed at an opposition player have not so much as been brushed under the carpet by Capello but avoided. Terry was forced to relinquish captaincy of the national side following a hullaballoo of adultery accusations, insults and evaded handshakes, though this time around, and with the insinuated charge far worse than that Hollyoaks-esque drama, Terry remains present and correct as the reinstated captain.

Innocent until proven guilty is Capello’s seeming stance on the situation. Inconclusive evidence, from videos and Anton Ferdinand himself, and a detrimental track record are all that stand against Terry, though in the midst of an FA and Metropolitan Police inquiry, it is perhaps weak of Capello to include him; even hypocritical from a man whose inconsistent policies have come to characterize his 3 year stint at the helm of the national side.

With the responsibility that supposedly comes with playing for England, Capello is then arguably growing tired of his role as head teacher as well as head-coach. Punishing his players for bad behavior had been an initial priority of the Italian, though now, far from success and approaching his final tournament as manager, perhaps Capello has prioritized playing his best side rather than policing a group of inherently wayward and susceptible individuals. To continue punishing accused players such as Terry, Rooney, Ferdinand and Gerrard, would leave Capello with a squad devoid of its most experienced and seasoned professionals. A lack of options has perhaps therefore forced his hand into giving Terry another go at redemption, with Lescott, Jagielka, Cahill and King failing to hold down a Centre Back role at international level. Ferdinand’s omission is also revealing, as including the brother of supposed victim Anton perhaps would be more damaging than leaving him out. A lack of form has been sighted for Ferdinand’s removal from the squad, though John Terry’s recent performances have been less than sparkling and arguably separating the two will help stifle a bubbling undercurrent of accusations towards Capello’s captain. Leaving out Terry would have suggested more troubling issues than form and though salvation was attainable the first-time, a second would have been impossible.

Terry is expected to be pardoned from duty in the first friendly against Spain, which is puzzling in itself as out of the two opposing sides Spain are the side most would like to see England testing themselves against. Revealing as that may seem, Capello is clearly at pains to remove yet more acrimonious focus from his captain as charges which are yet to be proved would most probably terminate his international career. As of now, Terry is still innocent, though a change in stance towards the Chelsea player’s latest misdemeanor is indicative of how tiring criminal subplots have become to Capello. For the time being, the Italian will ignore them in trying to put together a side ready to challenge in Poland and Ukraine next summer.

September 2, 2011

 

 

 

Will Wenger manage to appease the masses with the 11th hour signing of Mikel Arteta?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…And, breathe.

Wow, what a night. Nothing for 2 months, then at the most 11th hours of 11th, from the dark depth of the lagoons of fortune, the unimaginable happened.  Arsenal Football Club purchased some human beings from another football club. And not just any human beings. A vast array of human beings, all of whom are good at football. And experienced. And with international caps, and captain armbands, and ambition, and facial hair! Having expected the worst with grim acceptance, only to find out the worst was to be overpowered by the much better, Gooners across the land are waking up this morning happier people.

Though to find happiness one has to make great sacrifices, and seeing as transfer deadline day has never been such a whirl of activity for an arsenal fan as it was yesterday, sacrifices were indeed made.  Throughout the day, customer service, a key component to my day job, was thrown out the window, in lieu of constant flicks through the musings of informative twiterrati. And by night, social interaction and pleasantries ceased to matter.

The various degrees of fan excitement towards last night was summed up on Sky Sports News where the tedious ground hopping was greeted with differing shades of enthusiasm . Outside City’s ground, Vinny, Sky Sports’ lonely looking reporter, was surrounded by exactly 0 fans. Activity on transfer deadline day has become so regular for city fans it now seems to bore them to the extent of not even showing up to gawp at a lens and make bunny ear hand gestures behind a news reporter. How rude! The Emirates, on the other hand, was a hive of singing, jumping, smiling activity.  One signing on the last day of the transfer window is a novelty for Arsenal fans. 4 define a gigantic orgy of amazingness.

For we have to remember, a week ago many though that was that. A £12 million teenager from Southampton was to be the highlight of our summer, and thus resigning it to the history books as an atrocious few months. Chants of ‘Spend Some Money Please’ could be heard ferociously at Newcastle, before the momentary joy in Udine and then the blind faith ominously shown throughout the second half at Old Trafford. Cesc had left, Nasri had left and replacements hadn’t been found. This on top of the need for a Centre Back that couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious after the malaise of last season. And yet it was becoming more and more feasible that we could head into the season with a squad largely consisting of untried youths with a horrendous injury record supplementing existing holes in a tired and weary squad. As Wenger continued to relay his favourite gestures of loyalty towards his belegeared squad, the chances of any sort of signing looked less and less likely. Unbelievable, and yet so believable. And then something happened.

Arsenal FC, one of the world’s most successful clubs and onetime superiors of Manchester United, were defeated 8-2 at Old Trafford. The biggest defeat since 1896 and one that made it clear, if it at all needed to be, that our squad was by no means up to the challenge. And I am referring to the challenge of coming inside the top 6, let alone challenging for honours.

As it turned out, that result was the straw to break the camel’s back. And it didn’t just break the back of the poor sod. It blew it to smithereens. First came Armand Traore’s immediate departure to QPR, less than 24 hours after he turned in a shocking performance at Old Trafford. Everyone was happy, but still, did Wenger really need to see what we all saw on Sunday to make his mind up about a player we had established wasn’t good enough 3 years ago? Whispers of a signing were then finalized, after Park Chu Young’s mooted arrival from Monaco became clear on the coach up to Manchester. Who? Well I’ll tell you who. A captain, a leader and an experienced professional who will add great measure to our side. And if his cousin Park Ji Sung is anything to go on, he may possess a work-rate and diligence that would aid our squad no end. Young will also provide ability, having watched him play a few times at the World Cup, and he could be a welcome surprise for a few suspecting fans. Good signing then eh. Good, but not great.

And then yesterday, it all got rather great. Now listen, I am not for a minute suggesting the signings of Per Metersacker, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta weren’t panic buys provoked by Sunday’s result. Ofcourse they were and it is very worrying to think what would have happened if Van Persie had scored that penalty and we only lost 3-2, say. And ofcourse I am no way suggesting Benayoun and Arteta are equal replacements for Cesc and Nasri. What I believe is these players, 3 of which have experience as either club or international captains, will add great quality, leadership and desire to our squad. As I said, before yesterday many of us were literally contemplating the possibility of no signings. Now, as 4 come in, filling all the holes we wanted to be filled, I believe there is again reason for hope. Not too much hope, of course, but just a tiny slither.  The squad was becoming stale, players were becoming stagnant, and others were being hindered from thriving, growing and learning. Van Persie and Jack Wilshere both summed up the relief and excitement at these new signings with welcomes and vociferous demonstrations of delight on their twitter pages. Jack for one can now play alongside Mikel Artera without being made to believe the hope of the club rests solely on his 19 year old shoulders. Similarly Aaron Ramsey can afford to momentarily fade into the background and learn the game watching experienced players like Arteta and Benayoun, learning, accompanying and supporting them as opposed to being asked to lead the team. Again, promising players like Miquel, Frimpong, Gibbs and Afobe can gain experience from more experienced heads around them. It is what we have been crying out for and at last Wenger has delivered.

Bemusingly much of the fan reception this morning hasn’t been overly positive, despite Wenger bringing in experience and quality in the positions we were pining to be filled. Metersacker is too slow. Arteta is too old. Benayoun is too injury prone. Andre Santos cant defend. Look, holes are very easy to pick. But when we step back and put this transfer window into perspective, it has been successful. Cesc and Nasri both wanted to leave, and one factor for both being the lack of ambition shown in the transfer market. Now they have both left, regrettably, we have dipped into the market and pulled out an admirable assortment of players.  If Wenger can do with Nasri what he did with Benayoun, if Arteta can link up with Jack as we hope, if Mertesacker can defend and if Andre Santos knows where to stand, we may have a better squad than last season, during which, I must add, Cesc and Nasri were often injured. I am not all of a sudden saying Arsene knows again, but he is remembering how to, and whether out of desire or necessity, has taken one much needed step toward rejuvenating and rebuilding a team to challenge at the top.

Duplicity and Deception

July 15, 2011

Wenger must stop deceiving himself and the fans

I need a reality check. Well, not in the figurative sense of establishing what is and is not realistic. No, I literally need to make a check on reality, for I have just finished watching ‘Dynamo-Magician Impossible’. Watching a man toy with the boundaries of what is real to such an extent is unnerving and yet hugely thrilling. Never before have I seen someone perform such incredible deeds of deception, such as lifting the glasses off of the face of Tinie Tempah’s album cover and pulling a silver chain through his own neck. And it is truly remarkable. Here Dynamo tricks the public with calculated schemes of deception to a rapturous reaction. Oh how The News of the World would have loved their own acts of duplicity to be so well-received. With the resignation of Rebekah Brooks this morning, the News of the World phone hacking saga rumbles on and on, with the public being constantly reminded of the paper’s now notorious hoax. And with that, constantly being highlighted is the public’s position in the greater media sphere, where we are blindfolded and forced to stare helplessly into the occult world of ‘media clarity’. Somewhere in between the amusingly secretive performances of Dynamo, and the snakelike deceitfulness of Rupert Murdoch’s corporation lies our very own Mr. Arsene Wenger.

There was a time, once, when Mr. Wenger spoke nothing but beautiful prose of truth, sense and reality. What he said was gospel and anyone who questioned this man’s judgement was a fool. He came out with outlandish comments of going a season unbeaten and, whilst some ridiculed him, we could see sense in what he said. Comments which of course would eventually come to fruition. There was also a time when Le Prof’s hasty remarks about transfer speculation were seen of as no more than careful scheming. We all knew that him moving away from a transfer link or denying any need to dip into the market was merely away to step out of the limelight. We knew that something was up his sleeve and that was all that mattered. In Arsene we trust, remember! Those were the good old days. Now, well, a lot has changed. 6 trophyless seasons, an inflated and far more competitive market and the relative failure of many potentially superb youngsters has raised the fan’s collective cynicism and rendered each and every one of Wenger’s Wengerisms as recycled, predictable and unsatisfying.

When Wenger says, as he did yesterday, “The job is to find the players with the right talent that will give a plus to the team”, fans fear a repetition of the disappointment of recent transfer windows. Transfer windows during which the need for additions has been less, the quality of the squad has been higher and fan belief has not been eroded to such a non-existent level. When Wenger leaves his faith in an injury prone and unconvincing Kieran Gibbs and the habitual underperformer Armand Traore following the departure of one of the club’s most experienced players at left-back, fans are instantly reminded of a similar reluctance and lack of effort in purchasing a first choice keeper last summer. An outcome of misguided loyalty that has often been rued since. And when it seems we are no closer to bolstering nor improving an ailing defensive unit, and the one signing of a summer in which Wenger promised to be “very active” is a winger from the French League, unproven and unconvincing on the international and European stage, who can excuse us for feeling tricked.

And yet we have almost grown accustomed to this. So common were Wenger’s assertions that the team have ‘great mental strength’ and were ‘unlucky’ during last season’s tragic slump that his comments have now become a ridiculed cliché. It seems our manager is slipping away, just as our club is slipping backwards. The once unbreakable affinity every Arsenal fan had with Wenger seems to be trembling and creaking with every denial and horrendously optimistic statement. Wenger yesterday claimed the team are ready to win the title. “What we did last year, considering the age of the squad and the problems we had with injuries, was a credit to the team and we have a good opportunity now to show that we have the quality.” It is absolutely baffling how Wenger can be so glaringly wide of the mark. Last season was not a credit to the team. It was a disgraceful shambles in which we finished with 68 points, Wenger’s second lowest total since his arrival in 1996. The age of the squad is young, yes, but much too young, and this was glaringly revealed when push came to shove. And injuries should not cause a top club such hardships as they should possess a squad rich in adequate personnel. The same old excuses, the same old predictions and the same old blind, stubborn faith is being wheeled out and the season is still a month away. More than tiresome, it has become infuriating for those who can see through the nonsense.

Wenger’s outlandish comments are becoming more than just hopeful prophecies. More than drivel even. They are beginning to become deceitful lies. Whether he believes his own lies is debatable, but it is becoming an old case of ‘if you say something for long enough you start to believe it’. The fans are being served up a smokescreen of recycled garbage time after time. And just like his attempted appeasements, his first line-up of the season included the same old inadequacies. Denilson was still there, after another season of ineptitude and despite even claiming he wanted out of Arsenal. Squilacci also made an appearance, the player we all thought would be the first of the deadwood to leave the Emirates. Even the perennial underachievers Armand Traore and Carlos Vela have seemingly wormed their way back into the squad and underlined the stagnation and imminent decline facing the team. For someone who has always kept faith in Wenger, and never called for his sacking whilst others have been quick too, I not only recognise but demand that this must be his last chance. One more season. That’s all he’s got to remove the wool from in front of our eyes, buck up his ideas and rediscover his ability to lead a team to success. Over to you boss.

Late, late lamentations.

April 18, 2011

Arsenal vs Liverpool. A fixture illuminated by the veneer of engrained British tradition between two of the most recognizable clubs in the English game. Certainly as well it is a game that rarely fails to surprise. And amongst the great battles between these two clubs, and the logic defying results that compile an almost endless list headed by Anfield ’89, yesterday’s encounter will be right up there. When the dust settles and even the most fervent optimists accept that the title was lost long before Dirk Kuyt’s 102nd minute penalty, hindsight will cast a glowing light on a remarkable string of events.

However, if this game is to be remembered as one of the greats in Premier League history, it will solely be in light of the events which happened after 90 minutes had been played. Prior to this, and before the unprecedented drama that ensued, the match was little more than predictable and drab. With Liverpool missing key first teamers due to injury, young Jay Spearing and Jonathon Flanagan kept their places from Monday’s mauling of Man City in place of Glen Johnson and Gerrard. This while Arsenal began more adequately equipped with Wojciech Szczeny and Johan Djourou returning to bolster a defensive quartet now only missing Bacary Sagna. The Frenchman, who was later named in the PFA team of the year for the 2nd time in his 4 year Arsenal career, was most notably missed in the dying seconds when Eboue foolishly sinned. Yet prior to this fatal misdemeanor the Ivorian looked lively and focused, helping to consistently establish Arsenal in Liverpool’s half.

Nevertheless, first half openings came and went for the Gunners, as Koscielny saw his header cannon off the crossbar from a Van Persie corner and Fabregas too came close with a low drive. Indeed the familiarity with which Arsenal failed to trouble Pepe Reina other than with speculative efforts, like Theo Walcott’s stinging drive, was predictable.  Pretty patterns and fluent passing was consistently on display yet as the first half ended just as Arsenal’s previous two home games had done, the 0_0 score line smacked of both physical and mental weariness. Jack Wilshere, who was later also lauded for his season’s efforts with the PFA Young Player of The Year Award, looked drained, whilst Fabregas fell back into the anonymity which preceded his impressive display at Blackpool. Even more worrying was the seeming languor shown by Robin Van Persie who portrayed an image of indifference and exhaustion, despite having missed large junks of the season through injury.

The infectivity of Arsenal’s 2nd half dominance was almost punished by a constantly active Luis Suarez who had two second half efforts at the Arsenal goal. Both however evaded the net and allowed the home support to sustain a faint hope of catching United. Though any dreams of a late surge looked to have been dashed when Van Persie fluffed a late chance, remarkably prayers seemed to have been answered when, with the 8 minutes of time added due to Carragher’s lengthy treatment for a head injury coming to a close, Jay Spearing unwittingly tripped Fabregas for a penalty. Van Persie’s calm in dispatching beyond Reina however was painfully parodied moments later by an act of characteristic foolishness from Emmaneul Eboue. With Lucas heading away from goal, the right back prodded him in his back with a flailing arm and, although the contact was minimal, the sprawling Brazilian was clever and earned his team an obscenely late lifeline. Kuyt replicated his fellow Dutchman in cooly passing the ball into the net and, with that being the last of the game’s action, the scene was something out of Roy of the Rovers. Though such a season defining and season ending moment could only ever be associated with Arsenal. After being given that hope, after being shown a small slither of possibility having previously had it buried so often, the door to Zion was slammed in our faces. Yet slammed not by the enemy, but by a loose and irresponsible limb of one of our own.  An Oscar would suffice for such a script.

Come the final whistle shock was the overriding reaction, yet fury, exasperation, disillusionment and worry will soon set in, if they haven’t already. Fury in particular will be directed at Wenger as the ever-growing scapegoat. Certainly his denial at full time will be a cause of disgust as he turned to speculative excuses rather than addressing the moronic behavior of one of his players, ‘”I don’t see where those three minutes came from and it was no penalty.’  Yet the old adage that it is the bad loser in you that creates the winner seems relevant here. It’s just a pity recent seasons have forced us to be presented with more of the former than the latter. Almost as if to hammer home this cold truth, soon after came the all too common denouncement of yet another season when Wenger did his best to insist the title is still attainable, “It is about us winning our games. The hope is always there but, to keep the hope alive, it is up to us to win our games.’

The summer will be a welcome relief to another season which promised so much but failed to deliver. Regrouping, rebuilding and refocusing will be the priorities from June to August, during and after which Arsene will need to dip into his once Magic Hat and placate a growing group of anti Wenger anarchists. Before then however battles with Spurs and United await and our two greatest rivals will be faced with no more than pride at stake. This is when the true character of the team will be unearthed.

Bitter Sweet Symphony

April 16, 2011

Straining and blinking, the view facing my bleary eyes was certainly a pleasant one. The sun-soaked pastures of Blackpools Bloomfield Road greeted me inside my adopted local pub here in Quito. The time was 7:30 am, and although the gloop of alcohol stained saliva in my mouth was more stale than bitter, one hour of sleep instigated that feeling which parodied the almost ethereal scene coming from the tele. Watching amongst a shrouded mist of disappointment and regret, whilst trying to stifle any lingering feelings of hope, Sunday´s eventful encounter didn’t cease to create a constant barrage of contrasting emotions. So much so that ´The Verve´s´ oxymoronic 90´s hit would not have been inappropriate had it incessantly blurted out from the tannoy during the game. All in red and white or yellow and maroon would have got the message.

After 6 weeks and 4 separate concessions of potential silverware, the joy was back. The panache, pace, glamour and beauty of this team had returned and all those watching were treated to a mouthwatering display of attacking fluency in the first half and, at the heart of the revival was our equally revitalized captain. Apparently fit again and ready for the fight, albeit a tad too late, Cesc Fabregas pulled the strings at the heart of an impressive display. The heartbeat of the team, and aptly covered by Wilshere and Diaby, Cesc played delicious pass after delicious pass. His performance was a throwback to the days before he was constantly befallen by either injury or overly aggressive opponents and, as a little known enigma, always had the time and space to dictate a football match. It was a specter of nostalgia that as much as it delighted, served up a massively half-empty glass of something utterly revolting, like Jif for example- (indeed either the lemon juice or toxic cleaning product). I say this because, when either injured or underperforming this season, whilst frustrating us beyond belief and hampering yet another season, Cesc´s inevitable move to Barcelona this summer seemed that bit more manageable. Alas, Jack Wilshere had arrived and all was going to be OK. Then, in a moment, Sunday´s display of pure magnificence from El Capitan destroyed any attempts to self-console or act like everything will be alright. Lost in an utterly confusing emotional paradox, I established that in fact everything will not be alright as Cesc nonchalantly flicked the ball onto Theo for the final goal. How utterly demoralizing.

It was a goal of pure beauty, putting an end to a nervy second half and helping to claim a much needed 3 points. Very lovely indeed, but needed for what exactly? To momentarily placate us after weeks of torture? To dissuade the growing group of ´AMGs´? Or worse of all, to edge away from the galloping hooves of a rabid third placed team from West London and cement 2nd place? For those 3 points surely cannot be another stab at the title. As much as I hate being the pessimistic voice of reason, it’s an unavoidable role to assume. We can hope, we can talk, as Lehmann and Jack have done at length, but surely the chance has gone. The reality of this was widely accepted last week after a drab display against Blackburn and I´m afraid all that cannot be forgotten after one promising display. Yes this was very nice. Yes I would love to forever watch Eboue bang in left-footed pile drivers against relegation candidates, but the reality of it is the title has gone, will further slip out of our grasp in the following weeks and thus render this picturesque offensive display utterly futile. And I will tell you as to why.

Whilst Van Persie roamed about, scratching his bum and waiting for the perfect moment to score a goal, there unraveled a perfect display of haphazardness in our own penalty area. The delight that came from seeing the return of Jens ´Invincible´ Lehmann in goal and the ousting of that Spanish clown quickly evaporated. Firstly Laurent Koscielny could have, and should have, conceded two penalties after equally unnecessary tackles, though fortunately both appeals were incorrectly waved away by Lee Mason. Then Lehmann replicated his misdemeanor in Paris in the build up to Blackpool´s inevitable goal. Had he been sent off, arguably his deserved fate, I dread to think of the game´s outcome with no replacement ´keeper on the bench. Continued displays of defensive negligence continue to hamper our side and although Mason sided with us here, Blackpool scored the goal that everyone knew was coming. This in turn lead to a tense 20 minutes in which no one would have been shocked had the scores been tied, but which thankfully saw only one further goal, Van Persie´ late tap-in. The almost predictable bout of sloppiness in and round our own defensive third has become such a regular occurrence in our performances that it almost nullifies the enjoyment taken out of such attacking flair. With this still being inherent in our team, it is needless to say the title will continue to evade our clutches.

The aforementioned Abou Diaby was a further cause of conflicting emotions. His performance allowed another trip down memory lane in the way in which it replicated that midfield dominance of Patrick Vieira. Similar in stature and possessing a comparable languid style, the pair have consistently been associated but rarely likened. Yet the joy I got from at last watching Diaby live up to his potential and combine strength and skill with energy and desire was nonetheless tinted with a dull sense of ´what could have been´. Had the Frenchman shown this sort of willingness and infectious desire more often this season, perhaps we would be going into these last 7 games fully in control of our own destiny. Instead injuries and consistent drab performances have seen him dropped into the box of deadwood lying about London Colney. Hopefully on the back of this performance, and a promising final few weeks of the season, he can regain his place amongst the team’s core. For I´m sad to say, that may be one of the very few things to smile about come May 22nd.

Arsenal Abroad; Part 1

March 28, 2011

Find my latest article here: http://onlinegooner.com/article.php?section=exclusive&id=2172

Goodbye My Lover, Goodbye My Friend.

March 6, 2011

That’s it?! That’s all I get? My grande finale, the big exit, the game that was to perfectly tie up my love of Arsenal and our coming of age in one gorgeous 90 minute masterpiece to bid me farewell, and I get that instead?! Only Arsenal could do such a thing.

I shall explain. On Wednesday I am shipping off to South America. For 4 months I will be traveling around this exciting continent, with the world at my feet and my heart in my mouth. Thus I will naturally not be attending another Arsenal game until next season. Sunderland at home, on March 5th was therefore the one. My final game. The last hurrah. Just like an optimistic child who marks a cross in each day leading up to Christmas, only to find he has got no presents and Santa has died in his chimney after getting stuck, my big day similarly betrayed me.

I’d had it all planned out. 4-0 up and sailing on our way to being 1 point off the top of the league, this match would be the silver lining. In this metaphor, the cloud looming is the unthinkable prospect of being anywhere other than North London during the climax of a potentially fruitful season. Then, to a standing ovation from the crowd, Aaron Ramsey would make his long-awaited return from a career threatening injury. After a few renditions of ‘there’s only one Aaron Ramsey’, he would pop up with a last minute goal to make it 5-0, then turn at wave at me, bidding me luck on my travels. It was poetry.

Regrettably, Sunderland had somehow failed to read the script. In a first half performance in which Steve Bruce packed the midfield with 5 tireless runners and condensed any space from which we usually carve openings, Arsenal consequentially failed to create. Working as a collectively strong defensive unit all over the pitch, Sunderland afforded us little time on the ball, and even less in terms of chances. Without Cesc Fabregas orchestrating the game in the middle, we lacked that one creative instinct, able to create half a yard of space and provide a probing pass in a split second. Although an exceptional talent, Jack Wilshere was unable to replicate his captain, the 19 year old having been charged with this offensive responsibility. Similarly, with Diaby and Denilson apparently playing the match in slow-motion, Sunderland were comfortable in getting men behind the ball and stifling our creative urges. Samir Nasri huffed and puffed, going on one  particularly scything run, yet he two seemed bereft of ideas. After Sunderland had had two snap shots on goal, our best chance of the first half fell to Bendtner, who narrowly failed to connect with a low centre from Clichy. Moments later, while most inside the Emirates probably prepared themselves for a sky high shot into the Clock End, the Dane smashed a powerful shot towards the roof of Mignolet’s net having been played in by Wilshere. As is customary at The Emirates, the visiting keeper was playing exceptionally well and followed suit with a good save.

The second-half continued in a similar vane, though as Sunderland seemed to tire, chances began to come more often. As we have so often seen with this Arsenal team, constant probing often brings a goal late in the match. Yet while this was always on the cards, it never materialised, and when Arshavin was first denied a penalty before incorrectly being adjudged to be offside, you knew it just wasn’t going to be our day. Undoubtedly we missed the clinical finishing and lightning instincts of Robin Van Persie, though Chamakh also could have scored with a header that thumped off the bar from close range. Nasri, who became far more effective once being moved into the middle, came close too, as his looped free-kick was flapped away by Mignolet. Once Nasri was moved into this central role, a tactical adjustment many were hoping to see at Wembley after 70 minutes of ineffectiveness from Rosicky, Arsenal were able to dominate the match. With one last flurry, and a driven ball at the hart of the Sunderland penalty box, it seemed as if the goal was finally going to come. Instead Bendtner headed into the ground, and the arriving Djourou failed to connect. Unbelievably it could have been worse when Wellbeck almost delighted his parent club with a smartly hit shot, though luckily Szczeny came to the rescue with an excellent save.

With United having lost on Monday, and awaiting a tricky encounter with Liverpool today, it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that this was two points dropped. Nevertheless, the team will need to move on and showcase the thick skin Arsene loves to compliment when coming head to head with the greatest team on earth on Tuesday. The injuries mount up, the doubters lick their lips and the fixtures continue to come thick and fast. Woe is me for leaving at such a time. Though with my entire excursion based around being able to watch each and every game, I’m not really leaving at all.

The Danish pastry or rockin’ Moroccan?

March 3, 2011

Rather than respond to David Hytner’s recent Guardian column with an angry and incoherent e-comment destined to be lost to the realms of internet space, this is how I will pick my bone. From my more lofty position as an irrelevant and unknown internet blogger, there will be no escaping my wrath.

Whilst the outcome of tonight’s encounter with a seemingly awe-struck Leyton Orient side was always going to be a formality, the bearing it had on future team-selections was an interesting selling-point. As the media prod around for any sign of Szczesny or Koscielny crumbling after Sunday’s trauma, could Almunia edge closer to regaining the gloves, or Squillaci the Centre-Half berth? Can Diaby still have a role to play in this tantalsing season? And what could be said for the young trialists, Miquel and Henderson? Above all however was the audition played out between Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner, both aiming to step into the lethal boots of glass-bones, or as his friends call him, Robin Van Persie.

As I said only recently, it is foolish to be lulled into any sense of security, be it false or real, on the back of this man finding a purple patch. His draw to the treatment room is too strong, and even in the act of scoring a beautiful (I have been told) cup final equaliser, he can aspire to become injured. Knee ligament damage is apparently his latest ailment, keeping him out for at least 3 weeks according to the boss, and presenting a very problematic conundrum.

Vying to replace one of the most prolific strikers in world football, I give you a lumbering, paceless, arrogant slouch, and Marouane Chamakh. A key debate amongst fans this year, though one I cannot say is at all riveting, is the enduring question of who is the better of the two. Now, it seems, the decision will at last be made. Starting with Sunderland on Saturday, Arsenal may be forced to contest a minimum of 5 fixtures without one of our most prized assets, including visits to the Nou Camp and Old Trafford. Instead, Bendtner or Chamakh will be called upon to lead an optimistic challenge for the treble. Although Bendtner’s early withdrawal from last night’s proceedings suggest he will get the nod, I’d encourage Arsene to rethink his choice.

If tonight was the audition, then it was no coincidence the audience seemed less than enthralled. A hat-rick has never before been greeted with such muted recognition. Because for each goal Bendtner neatly tucked away, there were far more wayward touches and half-hearted sprints. What is so agonizingly frustrating about Bendtner’s hat-rick is that it will most likely earn him the opportunity to start in the central role against both Sunderland and Barcelona. A role he is not at all worthy of. Yes he scored a hat-rick this evening, yet the opposition, with respect, would have been given a game by the Under 15’s. More importantly, he as ever lacked any energy or finesse and played with far too much unfounded arrogance. The latter was epitomized in a cringe-worthy moment when he cupped his ear to the Orient fans after scoring his second.

One of the many admirable features of Van Persie’s game is his excellent link up play. With Bendtner playing in the central striking position, this is lost. His touch is not good enough and defenders find it very easy to play against him. As against Braga away, and more recently at home to Stoke, the midfield players so often relied on to create danger were anonymous. Walcott, Nasri, Arshavin and Cesc thrive on being able to pick the ball up from the central striker in order to create opportunities when the defense are on the back-foot. With Bendtner charged with providing them with this luxury, Arsenal lose a key dimension to their attacking play as his disinterested and plodding work helps slow down or lose possession.

Whilst Bendtner tends to miscontrol a ball aimed his way, or over-elaborate before wasting an opportunity, Chamakh is exemplary in such a scenario. He is the ideal target man. Knock it up to him, be it feet, chest or head-high, and the ball will stick like glue. Whilst he may not be the most aggressive centre forward, he can certainly hold his own. Far more willing to challenge aerially than the more flowery Bendtner, Chamakh was key to our good early season form, with goals as well as affective link up play. 11 of them to be precise, a not too shabby record from the first 4 or so months of the season. Similarly, whilst Bendtner mopes around the pitch without ever breaking sweat, Chamakh his intent on harrying and hassling oppositions. An important trait.

In his column, Hytner suggests Bendtner’s admirable versatility unfairly hinders his claim for the central-striking role as he is forced to play on the right or behind Chamakh. Paradoxically, it is instead more of an unattainable ambition of Wenger’s and highlights the Dane’s inappropriateness in that role. Bendtner is never going to be a suitable winger for Arsenal, again down to his poor control of a football. Look down the history of Arsenal wingers. Can you see Bendtner slotting in nicely amongst a procession of Pires’, Ljungbergs, Overmars’ and Rixs- I think not. For me he has no place in a title-challenging side, and should be the prime candidate to help raise Arsenal’s net profit with a move elsewhere in the summer. However, whilst many lambast him endlessly, an equal amount are prone to forgetting the hours of Bendtner induced pain, hypothesizing that his presence may one day be vital. It won’t be. It will be as disappointing, clumsy and lackadaisical as ever. He may grab an early goal at the Nou Camp, as he did last year, but his overall contribution won’t be nearly as effective as what Chamakh could offer. Without Van Persie it is necessary to look for alternative ways of unlocking Barcelona, not to turn to a half-adequate understudy in the hope he may have suddenly become as good as he thinks he is. Choose wisely Arsene, lest we concede possession, and then the game.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: