The New Reality

First, a quick apology for my absence of late. Work, sleep and illness have all conspired against me. But I’m back, and I’m…<smart comment here>. Anyway to business, and it really does feel business-like such is the enormity of the matters in hand for a follower of The Arsenal these days.

You see during the mauling at Old Trafford (apologies for the memory), a good gooner mate said, although I thought it a little reactionary after, that “this is the new reality”. Having just witnessed and taken scant pleasure from a dominant City team beating Spurs, we ourselves got one hell of a shoeing. The sentiment was easily agreeable at the time. We’d be fighting for the top four if we were lucky, and we had an interlull and, hopefully, new players to come.

After that period we sort of regrouped, sort of got some results and a little bit of Russian luck, and were then unceremoniously body-slammed by a combination of poor refereeing, a lack of belief, and…well, Blackburn. Three wins on the spin were a welcome change, and then there was Spurs. I’ve not posted since the Spurs game for no other reason than I almost resorted to A Clockwork Orange-style eye tactics to actually watch the game. And because the week previously I was barely with it enough to feed myself (exaggerated for sympathy), the work I had to do after the result left me little time to post.

Still, now I am. And now I can say that it wasn’t very good. I suppose we knew that, but I can’t state otherwise. It’s a bit late for a full dissection of a disappointing result (although it’s arguably no worse a result than last season’s home fixture), but when you’re 2-1 down with 20 minutes left you expect far more than we saw. Mertesacker goes up top, and no balls are lofted to him, while a more experienced player going forward in Song, who let’s not forget set up the goal, sits back. It doesn’t make much sense. Injuries and all don’t help in such situations, and neither do decisions that go against you, but at WHL the players’ decisions seem wrong, the spirit seems lacking, the concentration looks absent and fight had gone AWOL. In short, it’s hard to argue we deserved the win.

But it’s bad isn’t it? It’s actually at the point where I look at our next three home games, in cup an league, around an away trip to Marseille and wonder whether we can win them all. Can we even get six points from Sunderland and Stoke? And if not from Sunderland, struggling with a poor start to the season, where does that leave us?

16 Sun Add to Calendar Barclays Premier League H Sunderland 13:30 SS1
19 Wed Add to Calendar UEFA Champions League A Marseille 19:45 Player
23 Sun Add to Calendar Barclays Premier League H Stoke City 13:30 Player
25 Tue Add to Calendar Carling Cup H Bolton Wanderers 19:45

The answer is with an away trip to Chelsea on the 29th Oct, and right now that’s scaring the hell out of me. And yet another answer seems to be doing the rounds on Twitter, coming to my attention via @DarrenArsenal1.

Blimey, eh?

I don’t think I can correctly construct any sentences to match my thoughts on this. No doubt it will be noddingly approved by some, and sicken furious others should it be unfurled at a game (I would sit solemnly fidgeting), but everyone is entitled to opinions on the club they love. I’ve mentioned before that I can’t think that refereeing decisions or injuries can really be the fault of Wenger. Yet he himself has agreed in the past that football is a results business, and it is managers who need to produce those results. If a decision goes against the team, you need to get them back up and going. If your team goes down you need to keep them believing. I think Wenger is still the man to do this, but clearly some do not.

So I don’t know where we are the moment. It’s like I’ve finally gotten some sleep and awoken from a rolling nightmare, only to find myself adrift upon the good ship Arsenal, which has mistakenly sunk a tribal village’s kayaks and has run out of both the necessary fuel to power out of a hostile situation, or the required dialectical knowledge to charm away the danger. Ah, talking ships. I think it’s time for me to call it a day. But not before I reveal my secret weeping over the Arsenal injury list at PhysioRoom. Hang on, Szczesny’s injured?

Well at least there’s the rugb…oh.

AllTheBest.

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A Reactionary Error

I think I made an error over the weekend. Not in going to the Gooner friend’s flat from which I am now – hopefully jokingly – barred from watching those games I cannot get to at – and barred because we normally lose or occasionally draw.

My error wasn’t even the optimistic amounts of wine I ‘tasted’ on Saturday night, leading to a terrible headache combined with the recollection of a 4-3 defeat, both of which steadfastly accompanied me throughout  Sunday. The error wasn’t then going to a local bar to watch the Sp*rs vs Liverpool and then ManU vs Chelsea games, and to then wonder how The Arsenal will fare in the reckoning this season.

No, my error was in not keeping my head, my sense of footballing rationality, and bending under the weight of negativity experienced in the wake of a defeat.

I’ve mentioned before that I count myself fortunate to have been supporting Arsenal since a time before it was the norm to assume that we would challenge for anything. Indeed, one year in the not too distant memory we actually finished 10th. TENTH. To steal a line from an Arsenal glory day:

WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?

Who remembers that first season in the Premier League? Here it is courtesy of ArseWeb:

                              P   W  D  L   F   A   W  D  L   F   A   Pt
Season 1992-93
 1. MANCHESTER UNITED        42  14  5  2  39  14  10  7  4  28  17   84
10. Arsenal                  42   8  6  7  25  20   7  5  9  15  18   56

No doubt the very thought of us finishing 10th this season would send shivers down some Gooner spines, but then there we’d ago again with the psychology of deserving fans, and it wouldn’t be the first time that happened for many of us. Of course we can raise questions as to how our beloved club has fallen in form in the last two, few, or several seasons – indeed as a football fan it is our place to question as well as support our clubs.

But we shouldn’t fail to forget that “Arsenal’s present lack of success is scarcely a drop in the ocean”, as mentioned in an excellent piece by Sam Wallace today for The Independent. Indeed, in terms of Wenger’s record, our current ‘success’ (and we might define that more by fourteen successive Champions League qualifications than the odds-against acquisition of four trophies we consider ourselves as having a shot at) isn’t suffering too badly either.

Those shots at trophies may have gotten longer of late, and our form in the here and now might suggest that some sort of disaster is occurring. Yet, if like me you find yourself uncharacteristically down in the dumps at the moment I’d urge you to re-assess things in terms of a longer perspective (and remember this and this for some light relief). Football seasons are long. Football histories are longer. We’re not in a good way, but let’s not forget that it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. That Arsenal is still here, and that it is so well regarded globally is something we should be thankful for.

We’ve survived and endured as a club, and recently shone thanks to the very man currently in control. If he does go in the not too distant future, and if that is what is ultimately needed to change our trajectory (although I don’t believe it is), let’s not make the error of forgetting the club’s past; the more recent as well as the almost forgotten. And some of the glory in between.

Blackburn 4 – 3 Arsenal – A Game of Moans

Highlights

Well that wasn’t very enjoyable was it? It’s easy to look back on yesterday and think that our club is embroiled in some sort of Shakesperian tragedy set in a tunnel of woe with few glimmers of hope. Rumours of Arsenal’s demise may well – to coin a phrase – be greatly exaggerated, but it’s not exactly happy-go-lucky right now.

When Gervinho scored in the tenth minute, I smelled goals. A smart pass in behind the Blackburn defence from Song saw Gervinho let the ball run behind him and swerve to get his angles right before rolling the ball beyond Robinson. We looked in the mood, we looked comfortable in possession and we (and he) looked a threat.

Yakubu popped up with a deft finish fifteen minutes later. He was certainly onside, with new boy Santos sitting too deep, and Koscielny appeared to flail an arm suggesting some defensive partner made of thin air should go with his man. The thin air cared not a jot, failed to listen, and it was 1-1.

A defensive lapse, but not disastrous. We went again, and with Rambo sent into the box a lovely cut-back found 94% pass accuracy man (working title), Mikel Arteta. BOOM! Chants of “Who are ya?” could be heard from the away end.

Except who Blackburn were yesterday were a team deservedly at the bottom of the table at the start of play, but who would then find themselves acquiring three goals without reply. Not before Gervinho had the chance to play in RVP for an odds-on goal, but opted to go himself and saw his effort blocked away for a corner. The captain’s glare said it all – 3-1 and you would have fancied we might go on from there.

Our chance of taking the game by the scruff of the neck gone, a combination of poor confidence, poor focus and an almost tangible otherworldly mischievous spirit decided to stick collective oars in and capsize us. Arshavin, having kicked last season’s habitual laziness actually chased back, covering for his left-back. But the game decided to play funny and punish him for such audacity. The free-kick he conceded was a clipped ball in that nobody attacked and got rid of and just bounced off a statuesque Song into the net.

Whether Song could do much about it is arguable, but from then on it was like watching a team familiarly bewitched. Sagna limped off struggling with an earlier curse/challenge, and Djourou came into RB and very quickly got himself booked. A second for Yakubu came as we failed to clear a deep corner, but he was plainly offside as he scored, something I’m stunned an official looking right across the line couldn’t see, but perhaps a decision made harder by Santos – again – being deeper than his defensive partners.

3-2 down, Walcott replaced Arshavin, and with Martin Olsson, a man actually capable of tripping over thin air (and once shamed by Sam Allardyce, such is his character) running down our left, you’d expect an in-form and confident Djourou to take everything into touch. If not, at least a passing ant could probably trip the Swede. But Djourou, whether anxious having already been booked, seemed to falter at the last and missed the ball completely. Once Olsson was in behind – miraculously mastering his centre of balance like a regular everyday person –  Song attempted a weak as you like flail of the leg, and it was the much-maligned Koscielny who then provided another OG, celebrated by Steve Kean like some part of his own master plan.

Horrible, horrible.

Chamakh was called upon, and with five minutes of normal time remaining the Moroccan scored a fine header from an RVP cross. A goal Chamakh and the team needed, and Kean decided not to celebrate this time. Mertesacker and Chamakh then both missed headed chances and RVP had a shot stopped by Robinson and a bizarre and painful game soon came to an end. And then more pain erupted. Twitter is a harsh place to be after a defeat like that.

Gooners claiming the club is now in “freefall”, or that they were “ashamed” to support Arsenal bewildered me. It’s not happy viewing at the moment granted, but yesterday I found myself somewhat taken aback by the outpouring and even more taken aback to be agreeing with Rio Ferdinand:

Talk of “Wenger Out” isn’t for me, but this morning even as someone who errs on the positive side of things I’ve staggered myself by thinking about Rio’s tweet. Some are so “eager to get rid of him…” but…but what?  “How do we change that?” is the question that comes to my mind, and it’s something that needs to be figured out by Wenger, by the players, by the coaching staff and – preferably – quickly. Whether we should separate the end of last season’s form from the start of this is debatable, and we might call this a transitional phase with the new players coming in, but however I package it to myself I have to admit that luck can only be blamed so much. Logically, luck alone won’t put us 15th with 4pts and a -8 goal difference after five games, and we have to admit some failings. Failure to not defend properly. Failure to not take chances to stretch leads. Failure to keep concentration.

Such failures will do more damage in the course of a season than occasional failings of luck, and so they’re failures we can’t afford to keep entertaining.

Dortmund 1 – 1 Arsenal – Take it, take it.

Highlights.

I nearly called today’s post ‘A Tale of Two Ties’, as the fact that Barcelona drew in Europe is not one to be hidden down the back of the FIFA score drawer.

While we led the German champions until two minutes form the end of our tie, the Spanish champs went behind, went ahead, and then drew with the Italian champs, conceding one goal from open play (when Pato brushed past Barca’s high line), and a second from a set piece. Barcelona were held at home by champions. Arsenal were held away…by champions. Arsenal are not champions.

Looking at things from that perspective, anyone who thought we could go to the BVB Stadium and bring back three points must have realised they were a touch optimistic. That we nearly did was a superb achievement, the result of some resolute defending, a work ethic that – in the main – was shared by the whole team, but is also testament to a stunning effort from Ivan Perisic that Szczesny had little hope of seeing, let alone stopping.

So we’ll take that, won’t we? On paper, that’s the hardest away tie for us in the group, and that we went ahead and then nearly achieved our first clean sheet in Europe for three years speaks to the attitude of the players playing for us. Speaking of which, what an absolute professional and genuine worker Benayoun is proving to be. The Israeli captain hasn’t looked his 31 years so far, and of the last two games he told the club site:

We beat Swansea the other day and to take a point in the Champions League will build the confidence. There is a lot of quality in this team and I’m sure we will show it from game to game.

Absolutely bang on the money. On Saturday a win was a win, and last night the point was a fine result. That Benayoun – one of the players the less experienced should be turning to  – has his head screwed off the pitch and is putting in shifts on it can only be bonus to the team this season. On being at Arsenal he’s said.

It’s lovely to play for a big club like Arsenal and it’s a big challenge for me. I was happy that I have the chance to play and hopefully, with every chance I get, I will justify myself.

Well, no complaints here Yossi. I felt the boss would choose him ahead of Frimpong to add a bit of experience and attacking nous to the Germans’ equations, and that proved to be how it played out. He may not have had the best attacking game of his life, but there was a moment in the second half where he summed it all up for me: Battling one Dortmund player, and pressured to the ground as another engaged him (while unaware of winning a free kick) he made the effort kick the ball into space for another Arsenal player to take. Such commitment is welcome, and a great example to set.

Also mainly positive are the stats from last night’s game. Arteta had an 86% pass completion rate, continuing in his Swansea vein,  and the team as a whole won 58% of aerial battles. Arteta himself spilled blood for the cause, with a pressure relieving header he needed to win. Dortmund aren’t particularly threatening in the air as far as I know, but with most of or headers won by Mertesacker and/or Koscielny, that bodes well.

Dortmund had six corners and I don’t think we were really troubled with any of those first deliveries in…which is a start. From open play the odd occasion where we were undone, either good tracking back, solid defending or top goalkeeping paid off, and although I’m concentrating on our defence here, there were sparks of promise from the forward play, and RVP’s finish was superb.

But our defence being so resilient after going ahead is the story for me. We nearly defended a one goal lead for about 55 minutes (including stoppage time), and we can be mighty proud of the team for that.

There should be easier ties in Europe this season, and we should improve.

Well done the lads. Keep up the effort.

Just One Game – And Player Thoughts

Arsenal 1 – 0 Swansea: Thoughts

With the amount that has now been said and blogged about the 8-2 loss to ManU, the psychology of Arsenal after the 8-2 loss to ManU, the way we’d react after the 8-2 loss to ManU, and the fantastic new cut of hair of Rooney during the 8-2 loss to ManU, it’s nice to finally have a result to focus on rather than the 8-2 loss to ManU.

I share Arsene’s comments of the Friday press conference (and post-match comments) that sport is about what comes next. And you can only live in the moment and look forward with optimism. Yes, remember the glory of the past, but to sit and sulk on a past defeat is about as useful as a slug in a salad.

So, today, we should be happy for the 1-0 victory, over a solid and underrated Swansea side who may well feel slightly aggrieved to have returned to South Wales pointless. The win was the most important thing for us, and the clean sheet the second. People who are claiming that we should be hammering newly-promoted sides with a fistful of goals surely can’t have an understanding of manifold elements to any football game or season, and as the ever-excellent Arseblog points out today:

I know we live in a world where reactions are instantaneous and expectations are high but I really think we need to step back and look at where this Arsenal team is.

Exactly. Yesterday we had the uncertainty of new players thrown into the mix for a game which was pencilled in as “Arsenal’s season re-starter.” You restart a season with a win, and you build from there. We sit 11th in the Prem with four points from four, and we’ve a tough game against Dortmund on Tuesday. There’s no doubt we’re walking uphill. The players have their hiking boots on and it’s going to be a trek. For the moment the joy-to-watch, scoring-with-ease, rampant Arsenal we love to see is MIA.

Let’s not expect it to return so quickly, or expect the players that have come in to the squad to immediately pick up where the impact of Cesc/Nasri(/Henry/Bergkamp?) left off. Some people still think we’ve a right to be challenging this season. A right to win games, and at least reach certain stages in certain competitions. We’ve never had a right to challenge for anything, and this season should make that abundantly clear. We need to earn every positive result, and we need to take every positive result as a step.

That breeds confidence, and confidence is a magical, but ultimately helpful beast. Confidence breeds itself, and if it’ll help the “Shit! Shit! Shit!” crew two rows behind me to regain some semblance of composure every time the ball vaguely moves in a direction towards the Arsenal goal, then I hope that Mr and Mrs Confidence hop on the good foot and do the bad thing like no Confidences before them. Speculating on the copulation of non-quantifiable mental states. Time to move on.

COYG!

Some interesting news. I’m trying out a new ‘Player Thoughts’ summary of the players’ performances on game days. The first one is here. Hope you find it a worthy read!

The Twelfth Man

[September 2015 – I’m playing again…]

As another year passes, it strikes me that if I were professional football player I’d be in the prime of my career. Further, if I were a professional footballer at Arsenal I’d be looking ahead to tomorrow with a passion to make an impact, and to – as my father would say – have a say.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or who has taken notice of the favicon image that displays near the address bar when you visit this blog, will notice my fondness for the number 12. On the one hand it’s a nod to my belief in the power, joy and community of sporting support. But on the other – more impacting one – it’s a firm point at my days as a club player in SE London/NW Kent. I played in very competitive and then, as the years moved on, less and less competitive leagues.

I played in teams against Liam Ridgewell and Ben May. I won some trophies (the now defunct London Youth FA Cup being the crowning glory), had some great moments, and scored a few smart goals. From the age of five until the age of 16 I pursued my dream of  being a footballer, but in reality the closest I ever got was a failed borough trial and a dead leg.

I was never quite goo..well, determined enough. Often the first name on the bench in the days before squad numbers, I wore number 12. More recently, in Sunday League, I stuck with it as a nostalgic nod to my footballing past. And, should I ever get a number on the back of an Arsenal shirt, that’ll be it.

Of course these days I’m old enough to realise that I didn’t have the bite required to make it anywhere past the amateur level. My father (and others, less biased, believe me) told me I had all the skill (blog names don’t magic themselves up), but not the controlled aggression. Absent in me was the warrior attitude looked for in youth players of the late 80s/early 90s. Then I hit my mid- teens and, already demoralised, had a growth spurt and was well on the way to Mertesacker heights. A winger, over 6ft? No chance. I stopped playing, and only returned years later for what I knew was just the joy of the sport.

Becoming a professional footballer. A young, naive, pipe dream it may have been, but it doesn’t make me care less about football. I’ve realised that I shouldn’t let heavy defeats beat me up. That I have another profession to pursue and can detach a little to safer, sane grounds. And these days, I’m doing just that in the hope I can strike at some quite different goals.

But, Arsenal, all of this doesn’t make me want to be on the pitch at the Emirates very much less. Like Gazza at the end of his career feeling he could “still do a job” when obviously his time had passed, it doesn’t stop me seeing the balls I’d attempt to play when watching games, and it doesn’t stop the irrational hope that somewhere in an alternative universe a version of me may have achieved what I couldn’t.

I’m writing this now because Arsenal’s season has a chance to kick-start tomorrow. And if, by the slimmest chance, any of the players managed to come across this piece, I’d want them all to know not that I’m unhappy I didn’t make it to a position where I could have a say on the pitch tomorrow. But that I am happy they’re in a position in which they can. I’d want them to know that all of us Gooners, all of us 12th men and women, are behind them. And that this time next year another year will have passed.

Time waits for no man. It won’t be sympathetic to unfulfilled dreams. It won’t ever do you any favours. Yet it will let you “have a say”.

Arsenal, make no mistake, we’ve a massive game tomorrow. So guys, go out on the pitch and do what millions of us that can’t be out there wish they could. Try to have a say. And we will love you for it.

Arsenal vs Man Utd Sun 1st May 2011

Sack Them All

I was in a pub in South London yesterday with a fellow gooner and a Spurs fan. The defeat endured by the latter against City was far from enjoyable, proving that money can – if nothing else – buy you footballing quality. It also proved that facing Man City in any competition this year is a very scary prospect indeed…about as scary as our own prospects in the Premier League apparently.

We were in trouble, is the thing. In a way our injuries, suspensions an lack of quality replacements precluded yesterday’s defeat, but not the scoreline. Who thought it wouldn’t be hard? Really? Still, anyone who has seen the captain’s post-match interview will find it hard to disagree that the result is anything other than “honest”. There were turning points – RVP’s penalty at 1-0 down for one – but you can’t come out of  an 8-2 game and make excuses.

At the same time hammerings happen in football. It’s something those who’ve been around the game for more than five minutes, or just around Arsenal since before the Invincibles, will know. OneArseneWenger made this comment on Twitter after the game:

In 2001 we got thumped 6-1 by Utd at OT… the following year 75% of that same team won the Double… Never Say Never.

It’s true. So to anyone like the Gooner sat behind me during the game who called for Wenger’s head and then, when I questioned him, proclaimed “Sack them all”, I think a dose of perspective is needed, along with a big heavy stick of rationality.

If you want me to break down the scoreline, let’s not forget that the two goals Rooney scored from free kicks were absolutely, undoubtedly, world class. As were the two that Ashley Young scored. You can argue that inexperience might have conceded the fouls, or far too much space, but in any game fouls happen and in any game shots are made. Theo gave away a penalty, Park wasn’t closed down, Nani beat an offside flap (sic), and Welbeck simply out-muscled Djourou as the big Swiss and Koscielny proved once again our reliance on Vermaelen for defensive grit.

We were hammered, we can’t complain, we can’t make excuses, but it’s also imperative that we don’t self-combust as fans. I love Arsenal, but supporting a team is as much accepting the heavy losses when they happen as it is about accepting the moments of brilliance when they shine through. I don’t believe that anyone in or around the club took any joy from yesterday, and it’s a reminder to anyone thinking that we have a right to win games and be successful that the reality is distinctly otherwise.

The squad needs a shot in the arm, and I refuse to make any comment about our aspirations this season until the transfer window closes. A heavy defeat occurred and we’re all unhappy about it. But it happened. We need to deal with it, and we need to move forward.

COYG