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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.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Greetings

It’s been 3 months since I wrote a post so I thought I’d use the annual Christmas Eve blog to tell you I am still here. The football has been mostly awful from Arsenal in the intervening period with performances of note being few and far between. Jack Wilshere has been the brightest thing at Arsenal this season as far as I’m concerned and he should not only be given his new contract but made Arsenal Captain at the same time. Jack wants to play for Arsenal which is more than can be said for certain superstars at the club, although Mesut Ozil has been turning it on lately - nothing at all to do with the fact he can talk to any club he wants after Tuesday next week.
I’ve digressed slightly as the Christmas Eve post isn’t about that really. I want to thank you again for reading, albeit there hasn’t been very much to read compared to years gone by. I shall resolve to write much more in 2018 and, given there’ve been only 20-odd posts all year that should be achievable really. Despite the lack of content the site has had 43000 hits this year and is up to 1.172 million. I find that astonishing given the lack of writing. Thanks again.
I wish all the readers of my drivel a very Merry Christmas and let’s hope Arsenal do the right thing next year and give us all the Christmas present we know is needed. I promise to write a proper mid-season review at some point this week when I can look back properly at the season so far.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Tribute to a Gooner Legend

Frank Benn

This will probably be the hardest blog post to write that I've yet done. This morning we heard that our dear Frank Benn, legend of the Dover Gooners, has passed away. Some of you reading this will know Frank personally, others will have read about him before in these pages, and some will recognise his face from away games both here and in Europe over the last 20 years. For me personally I have had the pleasure of being in Frank's company on so many occasions, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere. He came to my wedding, knew my children, and is a genuine friend of our family. More than that he was a friend to so many others, a local legend known to hundreds. In terms of our travelling as a group of Dover people to watch Arsenal he is one of our originals.
Way back in the mid-90's Frank lost his wife. He was a regular in one of the local pubs, The Boars Head, where my brother and his mates used to drink. I think there was genuine worry for what might happen to Frank once he was on his own. At this point my brother Mick stepped in and got him to come along to Arsenal. Frank was a lifelong fan, but match going had been a thing of his younger years. It's said by some that Mick saved Frank by getting him back in to going to Arsenal. So it began that Benny started to follow The Arsenal over land and sea (and Leicester) until his health began to falter a few years ago. The fact that he was getting on in years didn't slow Frankie down in the drinking stakes and he would hold his own with most of us over the years, although he did become famous for falling over a lot once he was out of his tree. He followed Arsenal from Moscow to La Coruna and all points in between. In doing so he became well known and a popular friend to Gooners from all over the continent. The pre-season tours of Austria, where he'd go with my Dad and Mick, were where some of the most lasting friendships we have at Arsenal were made. Everyone there knew Frank, and everyone there liked Frank. 

Frank and his European friends from Austria, Germany, Italy and beyond

There was always fun to be had when Benny was about, often at his expense. He had his own song on the FA Cup Final trips down to Cardiff to the tune of the Sol Campbell song, something about being a "stupid old ****, who falls over drunk" and the stories are legend. There was the night he couldn't operate a turnstile in a petrol station shop to the point where Bill, one of our other Dover men, had to plead with him to stop because he was about to wet himself with the laughing. There was the night he was drunk as Mick and Tony played football on some forecourt somewhere and decided he was David Seaman, taking off at full length to save a ball that was about 15 yards away - Frank was in to his 70's at that stage! He informed everyone he had the address of their hotel should a taxi be required in Germany one night, not realising that the hotel he had the address of was from Belgium the night before. And then there was the day my Dad always loves to talk about when Frankie brought the travelling Gooner army to their feet in a German (at Schalke was it?) beer kellar; someone pointed out that a stein had gone untouched as they were leaving for something to eat, so Frankie lifted the 2 pint jug and downed it in one. I'm reliably informed that everyone in that pub cheered the old boy to the rafters. Frank was indeed a legend.
Being of the generation he was Frank was not politically correct. He would use words and phrases in the presence of certain people that would not be necessarily acceptable in this day and age, but Frank being Frank meant that nobody ever took offence. He was just Frank and everyone loved the old boy. He was with us in Copenhagen when we lost to Galatassaray, and in Paris when we lost to Barcelona. He went to the finals at Cardiff and Wembley and rarely missed a game that any of the others were going to. It didn't matter whether it was Selhurst Park or Ewood Park, just pick Frank up from his house and he was happy watching The Arsenal. He couldn't say "Keown" even when he was sober, but he loved Dennis Bergkamp. Who didn't? Looking back it's great that this old Arsenal man (who used to tell me about playing at Highbury in his youth) got to see the very best of the Wenger years and the success that we had.
The last time I got to speak to Frank was at the Dover Gooners dinner last year when we persuaded him to come along. He looked well at the time, especially considering how sick he had been in recent years. The dinner this year will now have a certain sadness attached as Frank was there when we had the first one in the upstairs room of another local pub back in 2003. Maybe going to football hasn't been quite the same since he stopped going, certainly him and Bill are missed by us all. The Christmas Eve lunchtime session has certainly missed his presence these past few years. Frank will always have a place in the hearts of the Dover Gooners -my Dad has known Frank all his life - and will always be a legend to his many friends, whether here in Dover, all over England, Norway, Austria, Germany or Italy. There will never be another Frank Benn. RIP old'un, I'll miss you.

All together in Paris