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Will Arsenal’s British Core Meet The Challenge?

The British Core

So the 2015 Emirates Cup is done and dusted and next up, looming like a filthy, giant troll trying to prevent our passage over the bridge, is Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the upcoming Community Shield. Even though it is another glorified pre-season friendly, whose results will have absolutely no bearing on either team’s eventual league position, one can be absolutely certain that next Sunday both teams will try to lay down a marker as to how they will approach the season.

In the coming days the game will be predictably hyped by the media as Champions vs Contenders. Mourinho’s record of winning titles in 4 countries and his supposed infallibility vs Wenger will be thrust in our faces. In contrast, his record of substantially outspending almost all his opponents at every one of his managerial destinations will be shamelessly downplayed. But there will be one almost insurmountable challenge for the media; how to spin Mounrinho’s negative, boring defensive brand of football. I have no doubt he will have to employ these tactics on Sunday if he is to curb the insatiable desire of the current Arsenal squad to create goal-scoring opportunities and profit from them. These tactics are in his DNA, validated by a history of success, hence the inability of this leopard to ever change its spots. The major problem for the media is, when competing directly versus Wenger, Mourinho is completely exposed for the contrast in footballing philosophy, i.e. the professor vs the translator, the artist vs the artisan. This is increasingly validated by the masses of football fans across all the away-grounds that Chelsea must play who spontaneously erupt with chants of “boring, boring, boring” to the dismay of Mourinho’s fawning cheerleaders and stenographers in the press corp. I expect no less at Wembley.

But I digress. In truth the game is not about Wenger vs Mourinho, blah, blah, blah, but where is the current squad in terms of its readiness to make a meaningful assault on the Premier League title, the last such attempt, to my mind, having taken place in the 09-10 season. It is almost the unanimous opinion that this is the strongest group of players Wenger has assembled since the Invincibles of 2004. They are certainly more battle hardened and there is far more quality in depth than the VanNasriGas era at the height of their near-success.

So how much of a gap exists between the two clubs at the end of the 2015 season? Despite the siren cries of doom and despair from diverse pundits in the media, a look at the following table suggests Arsenal is not that far away.

Chelsea Arsenal Difference
W 26 22 -4
D 9 9 0
L 3 7 4
GF 73 71 -2
GA 32 36 4
GD 41 35 -6
Pts 87 75 -12
Pos 1 3 2

The difference between both teams can be distilled into four losses, most of which were the result of performances way inferior to the known standards of the squad as established in the 2nd half of last season. The seven losses total were to Chelsea – away, United – home, Swansea – home and away, Stoke-away, Tottenham – away, Southampton – away. With the probable exception of Chelsea and United, none of the other clubs are expected to beat Arsenal on an average day. Thus if Arsenal’s 1st team maintains the consistency and high standards it set between January and May of 2015, any reasonable man or woman would have to conclude that the gap between both clubs is surmountable.

But reasonableness is foreign to the legion of pundits feasting on the riches of the EPL. In April, even one of our more famous ex-players, Titi Henry, now seated firmly in the cushy comforts of Sky Sports, pronounced:

“Arsenal need to buy four players, they need that spine,
”They need a goalkeeper, they still need a centre-back, they still need a holding midfielder and, I’m afraid, they need a top, top-quality striker in order to win this league again.”

Despite the uproar from sections of Arsenal fan-dom and public repudiation of his statement by current players, most famously by Giroud, Henry as recent as mid July was still singing the same tune:

“I still think they need four players to get closer to Chelsea.”

In contrast, previewing the upcoming season Arsene remarked:

“We built up something special last season. That is a good team dynamic, a good confidence level, a convincing and efficient style of play. We want to work on that and we do not expect too much from outside now.
“It’s inside our squad that our performance has to be efficient. We have to focus on the quality of our performance inside the group. We also want to focus on the style of our play and our performance – that’s what football is really about.
“Part of the respect of your players is to focus on the players you have and to try to improve and look at the performance.
“We are open-minded [about transfers] everywhere and we work very hard to find the quality of the players we can. Let’s not forget that we have spent a lot of money in the last two seasons and we have bought as well Gabriel in the middle of last year to give him time to adapt and be ready for this season.
“If there is something more, we are not reluctant to spend the money. I know that you like to paint me as doing that! I didn’t do it for a while because we didn’t have the money. Now that we have, if we find the players we will spend the money.”

It is not as if Arsene words are inconsistent with his actions. So far there has been only one major signing, Petr Cech, clearly aimed at upgrading the quality of the goalkeeping department. Despite the mindless racket in the press and social media suggesting that Ospina has been a failure and therefore supplanted by Cech, in due course it became clear that Wojciech Szczęsny had been identified as the weakest link and is to be sent out on loan. This should have been self-evident to any unbiased observer of the Pole’s role in some of the poorer performances by Arsenal in the last campaign. But being unbiased is as rare as common sense among those who preach loudest about the needs of the football club.

Pre-season performances in Singapore and at home in the Emirates Cup suggests that Arsene has been working to build on the team dynamic and confidence level that was reflected in the annihilation of Aston Villa in the FA Cup final. Score-lines are usually meaningless at this stage but surely the freedom at which the team has been hitting the back of the net in these games is at minimum good for confidence.

What of the existing players whom Arsene says there is need to focus on trying to improve. The boss has suggested that the main objective is getting:

“…. some more goals from some players who are not really strikers and that was our strength traditionally. Our offensive and creative players scored 10 to 12 goals, that’s what you need. In the second part of last season we only conceded 13 goals in 19 games. So we want to keep that and add a few more goals. I think we can find that from inside, I am convinced of that. If we can find it from outside then we will do it as well.”

Upon reflection, it is clear that in 2013-14 Alexis (16) and Giroud (14) were carrying too much of a goal-scoring burden without the expected contribution by the British core in particular. Due solely to the injury blight, compared to the prior year, there was a significant fall-off in output from Walcott and Ramsey with almost no input from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere:

13-14 14-15
Walcott 5 6
Ramsey 10 6
The Ox 2 1
Wilshere 3 2

The table does no justice to the significance of Theo Walcott’s the absence. In both of the years covered above he was absent for more than half-a-season. A better baseline for comparison purposes should be 2012-13, his last full season, when he scored 14 goals and made 12 assists. Surely this more than a 50% loss in expected goals from Walcott is arguably the primary reason why the club was not more competitive in the past two years. It is noticeable that the media is dominated by a clamor for a new world-class striker versus almost indifference to Arsenal re-signing someone who was on course to becoming a 20-goal a season producer. Tells us all we need to know about the hysteria and sensationalism surrounding this club.

Even the newly signed Danny Welbeck who was expected to make a contribution only scored 5 league goals in 24 games before being struck down in April.

Finally but by no means least I have included Wilshere as a possible source of goals, because from time to-to-time he has shown the potential. Last year’s strike in the match at home against Man City to put the team up 2:1, prior to conceding a late equalizer, is an example of his quality. Nobody expects Wishere to be a great goal scorer but as demonstrated by his volley against West Brom in May as well as his two long range rockets for England vs Slovenia in June, he can be a scorer of great goals. This is a very useful luxury to have.

Surely this blog hasn’t put too much pressure on the British core. But one cannot ignore the challenge that history has presented them. It bears reminding that after the heights scaled by the youth project, almost all the stars of that group showed, what can be politely described as, a lack of commitment to the club and an unwillingness to press on and win the League. Once they became stars, under Wenger’s tutelage, they all became susceptible to bigger clubs waving fistful of dollars. Arsene may never say this publicly but Adebayor, Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie, et al had one element in common; being non-British they did not identify with the competitive tradition of the English League and could be easily swayed by more lucrative offers from competing clubs. In 2015-16, four years after signing Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (and Karl Jenkinson) to long term contracts and pronouncing them the British Core, fate has presented them with the challenge to help the club cross the winning line. Hopefully they will embrace it by staying fit and scoring the goals.

By @shottagunna

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“Commencing countdown, Engines on, Check Ignition and May God’s Love Be With You”

highburysquirrel

So the long close season is drawing to an end, the evenings are shortening, arable crops stand tall and golden in the fields, cheery yokels chew on a shared stalk of straw by my gate, and the slamming of the transfer window is no longer the distant dream it was a billion tweets ago. Hip-Hip-Hooray!

Shedding the sleepy early Summer shroud we must prepare ourselves for another season supporting our club, mountains to climb, let us get to work then:

What did I learn from this weekend ?

As Stew said yesterday and we all know, the thrashing of Lyon and what was a much more interesting game against Wolfsburg a pleasant interlude. I expected more from Lyon but they were knocked out of their stride and suddenly found the game lost. Wolfsburg were a much better work-out, the first half an hour was particularly tricky. We looked a little unsure of one another in that opening, a little rattled. We settled though, we took control. Nacho probably did as much running as I have seen him ever do in 90 minutes. The Germans controlled the ball well and do not give it away. We shall come to more of that below. What they lacked was a really sharp striker, but you know that.

Both sides are in the hat for CL group stages. We may see them again. There will be tougher opponents who do not fold as Lyon did. Mossy will not always be as obliging as he recently has been.

The evidence yesterday and today confirms that we enjoy a squad of formidably talented individuals, technically the best squad I can remember. And beyond the first eleven another what ? …. eight, nine or more players who could come in and do as good a job as those who are on the team sheet.

Clockwork, very fast clockwork. They enjoy an excellent understanding of each other’s movement and pace, short and long passes are pinged about. And did you see the finishing yesterday ??? Oh my ! Arsene has taken several years to assemble this selection of players. It has taken time, it has taken patience, there have been errors, and so often progress of the team has been set back through injury. The dish seems just about ready to serve.

And that perhaps brings us to a second thing I learned yesterday. The necessity of ensuring that players are fit, physically and mentally, for a full season of football when the contest gets underway. For the first time we embark upon a season with neither a) numbers of key players knackered because of summer competitive commitments, or b) carrying long term injuries that will bar them for months from contributing. The players looked, to me, rested, confident, and ready. That has not always been the case.

And the third valuable learning experience ? Well this youngster Jeff Reine-Adelaide must have made a hell of an impact in training, on coaching staff and manager. To get at his age and experience from new recruit from the admittedly highly rated Lens academy, and never having played a game for the French side, on to the Emirates pitch in six weeks as a starter is not usual, is untypical, is downright odd. We have a LOT of teenage talent and most of them have served their time. Iwobi I see joined the club at eight years old. Young Jeff’s rapid progress caught my eye even though, by the time he did get on yesterday, the game had lost its fizz. Today though he was a central figure, made Theo’s goal, a creative player and so strong for a 17 year old. One point of concern though, the name “Jeff”, is that French ??

One pot down, I admit is was a little embarrassing not having won the Ems Trophy since 2010

And what do we think the next week will bring ?

Sunday – Chelsea at Wembley of course. 3.00 Kick off time as it should be. Checking the records we have never played them in the Charity or Community Shield at the stadium. During the Millennium years there was just one meeting, in August 2005, with the Fulham Broadway posse winning 2-1. Jose’s only Community Shield, their winner from Droggie, our goal from the 18 year old prodigy Fabregas and, according to the match reports I looked at today, an excellent performance from Peter Cech keeping us at bay in the final quarter. Oh for the wheel to turn the full circle next Sunday.

A step back though from the edge of the wishing well.

Like just about everyone, everywhere ( including a number of CFC fans I know) most people consider Jose Mourinho to be the incarnation of football evil, a man who consciously sets out to destroy any semblance of art or beauty in the game. He almost invented bus parking in modern football with Inter. He acquires and discards footballers like disposable paper hankies. He treats opposing manager, often former colleagues and mentors, with contempt.

Not only does Jose have that satanic core running through him like a stick of rock but, unforgivably, the man keeps winning trophies. He is not lucky, he works hard. He uses the massive resources he is given well. And each time we anticipate bagging the bastard, cutting him down and mounting his smug Portuguese head on the library wall, he eludes the hunters. He even, once or twice, contrives to get the hunters to shoot each other in the head. I wince at the recollection, for the 1,000th time.

But what Jose is very good at is setting up his football team to stifle the opposition, to stop them winning. No side managed by Jose ever is profligate with the football. They keep it and keep it. ( Rather like Wolfsburg but with a greater propensity for violence) At worse Jose’s approach ensures a share of the points, at best his cautious control of the ball allows his side, if they can force a chance or error, to win.

So this week Jose will be working very hard indeed. He will be looking at the tapes of yesterday and of our closing games last season, and from his careful and shrewd analysis setting up Chelsea next week as the immovable object against which our artists will batter themselves to exhaustion. It has worked so often before, will it work on the 2nd of August ? The Community Shield will be no friendly, it will be no sham display, at the end of the game there will be a trophy won by the better side with plenty of sweat expended.

Enjoy your week.

Mr_Happy

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Arsenal Versus Lyon: Games Don’t Come Any Bigger Than This

Action Shot

As the transfer crazed hordes follow the script fed to them by a click hungry media and demand more money be spent, and while they crave another Arsenal player be thrown on the beach to make room for a newer, more shiny and above all more expensive model, the rest of us, with an appetite for football rather than furthering the careers of a morally bankrupt, corrupt and lying fourth estate, have something to watch today. True it is only a public training session but there is a sense that this friendly tournament might matter a little more than usual as the first game of the season approaches.

This is largely due to the fact that our final warm up is being hyped as a proper match with a real trophy at stake. Both concepts are of course nonsense. The Charity Shield has never been a bona fide competitive game nor in any way an indication of a teams fortunes once the real games begin. This year however, the opposition we face is managed by the man who wishes more than any other to inherit Ferguson’s crown. The man who, above all else, longs to be regarded as Arsène’s bête noire and the new force of evil in the world of football now that the true prince of darkness has become a fading memory. He fails of course. Rather than a second rate Sir Alex, Mourinho is merely a richer Phil Brown, a wealthier Pulis. Hateful, silly and representing all that is antithetical to Arsène’s vision of how beautiful the beautiful game might be, his presence in the dugout next week has nonetheless added spice to an otherwise meaningless encounter and that in turn winds up the scrutiny under which today’s match must be played. There is a feeling that we are warming up for Wembley rather than three games away from West Ham and if that helps focus the players and excite the fans then who am I to poke a stick into the spokes?

I actually enjoy the Emirates Cup matches. They are light entertainment. Enjoyable little hills in an otherwise flat landscape. I don’t read anything into them, of course not. If I did I would have assumed that Sanogo was about to go on to become the Premier League top scorer after his crash bang wallop of a performance against Benfica last year. Also while we’re at it, despatching a team we were assured was one of Europe’s in form sides, and despatching them in such style surely indicated that we would rampage up and down the continent slaying all before us in the coming Champion’s League campaign.

On occasions there have been genuine portents. But these are the exceptions which prove the rule. For example I clearly recall the sight of a very young Kieran Gibbs tearing down the left wing a few years back and remember thinking ‘I wonder if this young man might make the grade?’. But then Gedion Zelalem looked so comfortable among the first team players last year that one might have assumed he was ready to step up. With him partnering a fit and in form Aaron Ramsey in the midfield, Sanogo and Campbell up front, Europe trembling at our feet the blueprint for 2014/15 was there for all to see. Wasn’t it?

The reality of course is that as with last season, today’s tournament is a friendly. Warm up matches designed to give some youngsters a little experience and help the others get into the groove so they can hit the ground running when the real business begins. If you watch Hector Bellerin’s performance last time around you can see what I mean. He played with a freedom and a joie de vivre which allowed him to show us just what could do. The way he slipped past the Benfica defence and then calmly looked up to pick out Joel Campbell rather than rushing a hopeful cross into a crowded penalty area was sublime. As we saw, however, it would take him many games in the Premier League pressure cooker before he felt that relaxed again. In short an exhibition match may showcase what players are capable of but it takes a different kind of confidence, and a deal of experience, to produce the same stuff on a weekly basis when the stakes are high and the crowd is hissing and groaning at every mistake.

So I heartily recommend we all try to simply enjoy the matches this weekend, don’t read too much into them either good or bad, and remember we’re all still on our football holidays, there will be plenty of time for bitten nails and smashed coffee cups when the real thing begins in a couple of weeks time. Before I leave you I must apologise for the brevity of today’s post. I would write more but for two factors. One I don’t know a thing about either of our opponents, and two the sun is shining outside and I am in the throes of a campaign to reduce the inordinate size of my spreading paunch and to that end I am going to put down my quill, replace the lid on the ink pot and get out onto my bike and try to put a few miles under my groaning belt.

 

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Do you love ARSENAL or do you love the idea of ARSENAL?

A guest post from Seebs

Singapore, half time, first friendly of the season, a young side are putting on a decent display in extreme heat. Stupidly I wandered on to twitter, hoping to see praise for Chuba Akpom and Alex Iwobi, only to find many showing frustration at the game. One person twitted “that’s 45 of my life I’ll never get back”, I couldn’t believe it. At first I was annoyed and I was going to add a sarcastic reply however, as I know the person and know their passion for ARSENAL, I resisted and then started thinking about things that drives supporters.

This is not anything to do with AKB’s and wob’s but actually goes across the spectrum. As we have seen on this forum the arrival of a relationship with ARSENAL is different for everyone and probably means something slightly different for everyone as well. I think I love ARSENAL more than anyone else in the world and I would imagine most would inwardly feel the same boast (whether you’re from N5 or north Australia). I know there are people who spend more money than me and I know there are people who spend more time than me on our beloved club but I validate my illogical reasoning with the hurt I feel when something bad happens to the club or the elation I feel when even the minor positive happens. My life is undoubtedly affected by the club and my wife understands that our diary is guided by the diary of ARSENAL and knows she will lose me on certain occassions  and I am unavailable even to listen to a conversation at some points. She says I love ARSENAL more than her and jokingly I say that’s because I’ve loved ARSENAL longer than I’ve loved her, but in all seriousness there is a commitment there. This love means I hate anybody attacking my club, I love watching even the most boring game, I would never walk away or turn off even if we were getting stuffed and reading about our history feels me with a warm glow.

I do think of the club as “THE ARSENAL”, an institution full of class that you have to pay your dues to truly belong. I remember at a wedding I went to many years ago, two young lads were introduced to an uncle they hardly knew, there Mum said they had just started supporting ARSENAL (although knowing their family there would have had little choice). Their uncle stood up straight and almost ceremonially shook their hands and welcomed them in to an institution he said would be with them all their lives. This red and white cloak we all wear as we go about our daily lives manifest itself in different ways, on here we support everyone hoping they will come good while others have a standard of which they believe must always be matched to be truly representative of a great club. This standard has obviously been raised by Arsene and invincibles and there are fans who will match every game, every player and every situation with not just invincibles but the best of the best of the invincibles.

As I look at the many ARSENAL books in my collection and the massive history columns that make up the ARSENAL empire I can understand those who say this or that is not good enough for our great club however if you look deeper into our history you would find many who if judged with hindsight would fail the modern fans test. In my first Highbury years there was a CB who wasn’t blessed with the skills of Bobby Moore in fact many would include him in the list of our worst ever CB’s, his name was Terry Mancini and as a young defender I loved him. He scored one goal but it was a very important goal and it helped ARSENAL stay in the top division that year. Modern day fans would have castigated him but he is part of our history and part of “THE ARSENAL”.

Arsenal, in whatever form turn me on, I still get the infantile excitement and nerves I got when I was a kid, whether its watching on the telly,  getting off the train on match days or sitting in a cold rickety old stand on a Monday night watching the stiffs. There are many fans however who have let their love of the image, the institution, the banner, “THE ARSENAL” get in the way of their pure enjoyment of game. So I would ask them once again do you love ARSENAL or the idea of ARSENAL?

cheers,

Seebs (arse or brain)

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Theo ! Theo ! Theo !

A guest post from @foreverheady

The autumn of 2012 was an interesting time for The Arsenal. The three new signings, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla were settling in quite nicely, but their arrival early in the summer, initially greeted by the fans with some degree of enthusiasm, did little to compensate for the disappointment felt when both Alex Song and Robin van Persie left the club for what, to them, seemed greener fields elsewhere.  The first few results seemed promising: despite successive nil-all draws suggesting that Giroud wasn’t quite the replacement for RvP some had hoped for, a comprehensive win at Anfield with goals from the other two new boys and a display of poise, power and grace from Diaby suggested that the season might turn out well after all. A thrashing of Southampton and a hard-earned away point against Manchester City confirmed the promise, and, albeit prematurely, some were talking of a title challenge. However, and especially in light of the two afore mentioned departures, one particular cloud hovered over the horizon. Theo Walcott, who had been with the club since he was 16, and now surely entering his most productive footballing years, was entering the final stages of his contract, and as yet had not put pen to paper to commit himself to the club for another term.

As autumn gave way to winter the mood around the Emirates darkened too. A number of poor results saw the team slip down the table, injuries (especially to Diaby) began to take their toll and an embarrassing League Cup exit on a frozen Bradford pitch seemed to suggest that the stadium project was nothing but a white elephant, draining the club of money, players and hope. The vultures were circling, and Walcott was the prime target. Not many would have bet heavily on him staying at the club with the January transfer window about to open. Much was made at the time over his desire to play centrally, but I think there was more to it than just positional preference. Money came into it, of course, but also I think a desire to be central to the plans of the club – and also a need to know that the club was worth being central to. Just after Christmas he got his wish to play up front as lone striker in an astonishing game against Newcastle, and he answered those critics who suggested that he lacked the physical presence and skill set to be a Number 9 with three fine goals: the first a Henryesque finish from left of centre into the bottom far corner, the second a predatory effort in the box, the third an exquisite chip after an audacious solo run. 7-3 the  score line, and as he acknowledged the applause with a solo lap of the ground after the final whistle it was impossible to know whether he was saying goodbye to The Emirates or just revelling in the moment. I felt sure he was off. Only he will truly know, but I suspect he could not have failed to be moved by the warmth of his reception and the love the crowd had for him.  But much to my surprise in mid-January, sign da ting he did, and for a while he must have wondered what he had done.  Defeats by City and Chelsea, a premature Fifth Round FA Cup departure to Blackburn and then an away defeat to Tottenham saw the Gunners fortunes, while not quite at rock-bottom, at least feeling suspiciously much like it. We trailed Spurs by seven points, we were about to be knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich, confidence was low and a season that had started reasonably optimistically was threatening to unravel.

Except it didn’t. Changes to the defence tightened things up, and Theo started to fire on all cylinders. A ten-game unbeaten run in the league, inspired by vital goals from him, saw The Arsenal secure fourth place on the final day of the season, breaking our neighbour’s hearts into the bargain. I suspect we may never properly know quite how important a placing that was, how seminal Walcott’s strikes were. What we do know is that by denying Tottenham Champions League football they found it impossible to stop Gareth Bale from leaving them. And we also perhaps know that because Real Madrid needed to fund his purchase, they made Mesut Ozil available, and that The Arsenal were able to step in and buy him. Inspired by that acquisition the Gunners played some brilliant football at the start of 13/14 and went on, of course, to win the FA Cup as well as finishing comfortably ahead of the chasing pack in the Champions League spot again. More top signings followed those successes, with Alexis being the most notable, and despite a horrific injury crisis in the first half of 2014/15, third place in the League and another FA Cup triumph suggested that whatever assurances were given to Theo back in January 2013 about the direction of the club, they were very much on the money.

The irony of course, is that since the club signed Mesut Ozil, Theo has been almost permanently injured, and so we have yet to really see the full flowering of a relationship that I believe could become one of the most potent and formidable in the history of the game. Walcott possesses electrifying pace, a fine footballing brain and the predatory instincts of a natural born goal scorer. He is articulate and well-mannered, but also ultra-competitive. He is also appropriately ambitious and has it within him to become a legend for both club and country. His career thus far has been interrupted by a whole series of niggling injuries, and at times he has seemed just a little bit frail. However, after suffering what could have been a career-ending cruciate ligamentinjury in the Third Round FA Cup defeat of Spurs back in January 2014, he has shown admirable fortitude in not only fighting his way back to full fitness, but also returning noticeably more solid and robust.There is a bit of bulk about him now, a real physical presence. All credit to him, but also the medical team and the manager for resisting the temptation to bring him back too soon.  It seemed to me entirely fitting that he should have scored the opening goal in the 2015 Final, and I hope he felt it just reward for his patience and fortitude.

So when people talk about all the new strikers we might buy, I just feel glad that we have on our books someone who has already scored over 50 goals for the Club, is a proven International and is still only 26. In the few games he has played with Ozil, Alexis, Cazorla and Ramsey he has shown signs that he could add quite significantly to that tally. Indeed, I would not dissuade anyone from having a few pennies on him ending the season as the league’s leading goal scorer, as long, of course, that he continues to play for The Arsenal. I like to think he will, for I believe his best years are yet to come, and that he is, in many ways, the vital cog in our attacking wheel.  I also believe that it was his decision to stay three years ago that reminded everyone that although a few rats may have left, the Arsenal ship was far from sinking. I suspect the manager is more than aware of all of that, and that he has a special regard for him. After all, he did pay more than Five Million to Southampton when Theo was was only 17, a not inconsiderable fee back in 2006. While it would be fanciful to claim that Walcott plays Potter to Wenger’s Dumbledore, I cannot help but think of him as the boy who stayed. After all, I am often told that Arsene wears a magic hat….

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It Appears Wengerball Is Back.

A guest post from @foreverheady

Meaningless methadone it may have been and for the manager and team no doubt a low stakes game, where getting fit and building up gently for the rigours to come was the main priority. And yet Arsene would have known that it was also a game that the team was expected to win, and win well – and that the right result would do much to build momentum and confidence. It was a useful, risk free game for the critics too: a win would be treated as all that should have been expected and that counted for nothing, while a stumbling draw or embarrassing defeat sure signs that the team was lacking the key personel so obstinately ignored by the out of touch manager.
But as things turned out, something rather wonderful emerged from a game which certainly exceeded my expectations – and given that this was the third time in a row that this has happened it is perhaps time to start taking it seriously. In the final game of the 14/15 League season Arsenal needed a point to secure third place in the table, their charge towards second spot having been derailed by two disappointing home results (with no goals scored each time) and a lacklustre point at Old Trafford. West Brom at home was a nice way to finish the campaign, but there were plenty saying that if we couldn’t break down the Swansea and Sunderland defences we would struggle to do so against a Pulis team. To add to the interest the following week’s Cup Final ensured that players would be anxious to make a last claim on a starting spot, while also remaining injury free. Arsene rested Giroud and started with Walcott up front and in an astonishing display of free flowing football Arsenal scored four goals, with Theo bagging three. It was breath-taking and the WBA defence was shredded. Much the same happened at Wembley: once again Walcott started centrally; once again the team scored four with Walcott the first scorer.
Fast forward seven weeks or so to the game yesterday, and Walcott was again a central attacker, although this time paired with Giroud in what looked suspiciously like a 442. I have to say it didn’t come as a total surprise to see Theo open the scoring, but what was slightly unexpected was the fluency and sharpness of the team, who seemed to pick things up exactly as they had left them at Wembley. At times the Everton players looked compleley bemused by the speed and trickery of their opposition, and if you haven’t seen the game I urge you to find a recording of it somewhere. Cazorla, Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere were unplayable, the stretching runs of Walcott almost impossible to predict. This was football of the highest order, football that no English club has produced for some time – and as I say, it was the third time in three games that it has happened. Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly (although before the game I was told Everton would provide a stern test). Yes, Aston Villa were poor (although before the Final I was told that they would be awkward opponents). Yes, the Baggies played as if they were already on the beach (although before the game I was told they would be resolute and well-organised). And yes, harder games lie ahead and we won’t always have it our own way (thanks for pointing that out because I would never have thought it, wet behind the ears that I am).
But given the evidence of yesterday, you would be foolish to think anything else than this side is transforming into something rather special who play football in a most unusual and next-level way. Any new signings will have to fit into this new evolving pattern – and, of course, help it evolve still further. These are exciting times to follow The Arsenal – and yes, it is only pre-season, but if you can’t be optimistic and excited in July, then you really have no business being a fan at all.

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Arsenal Versus Everton: Meaningless Methadone

hector

When I finally stopped drinking the need to have a glass of liquid ever at hand remained with me. I used grapefruit or cranberry juice mixed with carbonated water. This provided a necessarily bitter beverage and a useful prop to ease me into my sobriety. Cigarette smokers have a variety of patches, gums and electronic devices while heroin addicts populate the chemist over the road on a regular basis in order to receive their methadone. After the final ball of the football season has been kicked the Arsenal addict is plunged into a state of cold turkey and must thrash about grasping at any straw to sustain themself. By far the most popular placebo is the nonsense of the transfer window but people can turn to international tournaments, videos of past matches and past masters, and some even use the age old remedy of alternative summer sports such as golf, cricket or tennis. For many, the closest they get to the real fix is the pre season friendly.

These are curious affairs. Their approach is greeted with a blend of anticipation and relieved enthusiasm. Like the first snowdrop they are a portent of the many coloured flowers to come and yet they are entirely meaningless. Glorified fitness sessions and marketing opportunities for the club, stop gap, proxy tournaments to alleviate the cravings of the fans. I enjoy them. Like the League Cup they are no pressure games. You want to see some nice football, a few goals and hopefully a win but you’re not heartbroken if none of these are forthcoming. The aspect of the warm up matches I most enjoy is the chance to see some of our youngsters rub shoulders with the heavyweights of the squad. Once the match is over I can fantasise as to which sparkling young talent might go on to become a world beater in red and white.

The problem is the young players all look so good, so promising and so splendid in their Arsenal strip that you want all of them to succeed. Some become a cause célèbre among the fans, Little Jack springs to mind and of course Señor Fàbregas Soler before him. The problem is for every Kieran Gibbs there are several Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’s, for each Cesc a plethora of Nacer Barazites. We as fans long to see them scale the heights, to strut their stuff in front of an adoring Emirates crowd before going on to lead their countries to the World Cup Final, but alas, it cannot always be so.

In fact now that Arsène has a little more spending power and the team he has been building achieves a certain maturity the route from youth team to first is an ever more perilous, and occasionally tortuous one. How does a player with the unquestioned gifts of Gedion Zelalem or Chris Willock hope to break into a side where Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere are already snarling, baring their teeth and tugging at the couple of bones Arsène has to throw to the four of them? When he brings in a brace of the best players in the world in successive transfer windows the likelihood of breaking into the team never mind holding down a place must seem a very distant if not an impossible proposition.

There are also problems about which a player and a club can do little. Beyond the competition for places, the huge stars already fighting to get their names into the starting line up there is the small matter of timing. Think about it. All players reach their maturity, the point at which they are physically and mentally able to best employ the blend of their natural gifts and their many years of patient tuition and coaching, at different times in their lives. You cannot take a nine year old boy and decide he’ll be ready at the age of nineteen and then spend the intervening ten years either promoting or buying players to some strict plan so that the boy’s best position becomes vacant on his birthday. You just can’t. The boy may be turn out to be a child star, ready at sixteen, he may not flower until a couple of loan spells have passed and he’s into his twenties. He might,  for any of a number of reasons, never make the grade. And of course when he does get to the stage in his career when he’s ready, when he needs regular first team football he may have Mesut Özil and Jack Wilshere in front of him in the queue.

Timing, in this context, is an inexact science. Luck. There’s another one. Yet these two play such a huge role. We don’t have to look far for the evidence. Francis Coquelin came good just as injuries and form created the need to recall him from a loan spell. Carl Jenkinson went on loan just before our first choice right back got knacked in the back by Marko Arnautovic in yet another stupid piece of thuggery from Stoke City, while for all his enthusiasm Calum Chambers was looking a lot more like a centre half than a full back. Or maybe a central midfielder – I’m no expert. The point is this these planets aligned at a time which I feared was maybe a year too soon for young Héctor Bellerín to step up. The concatenation of circumstance may have left him diddled by the dastardly digit of destiny. I of course could not have been more wrong. Young Héctor was catapulted into a space which, it transpired, was precisely Héctor Bellerín shaped. In Theo’s absence and to complement Per’s languorous, considered game, we needed a super quick, ultra confident, highly skilled attacking full back on the right side of our defence. Having one as cool in the opposition area as his two goals suggest he is was another pile of cherries on top of an already over iced cake.

Did Arsène know? Could he have known? He knew a lot more than you me or any of the social media armchair experts out there. Of course he did. Arsène Wenger knows as much if not more about football and his players in particular than any person on the planet and yet I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that even he cannot cause the planets to align just to suit his own needs. He can’t have been timing Mikel’s injury and recovery, Flamini’s form, Chamber’s readiness, all to run on a perfect trajectory with Francis’ loan spells. He couldn’t have sat with a slide rule and an Etch A Sketch and plotted every possible permutation of injury, form, game time needed, loan spells and youth development involved in stocking the right back department so that Héctor stepped from the wings just as Mathieu was felled. Running a football club isn’t a tightly scripted theatrical production. Like the game on the field you can plan and practise but in the end improvisation and split second reactions in a fluid unpredictable environment can carry as much weight and have as great an influence over results.

What Arsène and his staff do is to keep all the plates spinning as best they can. Follow the youngsters development closely, train them with the first team, bring them up with all the right principles and in the right environment. Expose them to first team football in cup games and friendlies and send them on loan to get vital game time so that if the fates conspire to plunge them into the limelight they have the best possible chance to win the confidence of both team-mates and supporters and to carry themselves in a manner befitting a first team member of Arsenal football club.

What would have happened if Mathieu Debuchy had not been so badly hurt in that stupid incident? What if young Calum had been the perfect fit alongside big Per? Would Héctor have missed his chance? Not necessarily. I was musing about time travel the other day. I was trying to watch the test match at Lords and thinking to myself if I could have gone back in time and told Joe Root that he needed to stand farther back during Anderson’s first spell – just a couple of feet deeper than a regulation slip – because an Australian batsman was going to send an early chance fast and high, and it would be one of only two chances in the entire day then I could have helped avert the appalling Ashes disaster that was Thursday. Then I thought why stop there? That’s a bit like a man granted three wishes asking for a million pounds in his first wish and another million for his second. Surely I could do more to bring about a righteous and happy day for the cricket lovers of the world. It was then I realised of course that helping Root to take his catch was in fact all a time traveller could do. From the moment a shaky Australian team, low in confidence, lost an early wicket the whole of the future of the test might have been irrevocably altered. They may have come unravelled, England may have gone on to bowl them out cheaply and get in when the pitch so favoured batsmen. They may not. The next man in may have gone on to score three hundred and the outcome would have been much the same had I not meddled with history.

My point is that changing one of the variables in a sporting arena does not allow you to predict future outcomes with any degree of certainty. If Héctor hadn’t played for us last season at right back he may have come on as an auxiliary right winger – we’ve seen the boss do it with Kieran and Nacho so why not with Héctor and Mathieu? He may have set up the winner against Monaco that sent us through to the next stage of the Champions League. No one knows. He may have made gradual inroads to the first team and eventually usurped our French international in the fullness of time, going on to have a glittering career. He might have got Dan Smithed in his first game and Carl could have come back from West Ham and claimed the shirt himself. All the manager can do is assemble the squad get them all as ready as possible, keep them all as happy as possible and keep buggering on. He can develop players, he can buy players but he can’t control the positions of the planets.

I want to see Chuba Akpom play for our first team and become a world beater. Not because he scored a hat trick in a meaningless friendly but because he’s one of us. I want to see Gedion Zelalem become the next Mesut Özil and Serge Gnabry become the first name on the team sheet one day. None of this may come about. There may be another youngster I get all excited about in a couple of years and those three so full of promise may end up languishing at Ashton Gate or some other horrendous footballing backwater. Who knows? Chuba may follow Jack’s footsteps and become one of the best players in the league and still not be able to get a game because of a bought in world class talent blocking his path. He may be the next Thierry Henry, he may end up playing for Hereford. But I’ll tell you this. I’d rather see him, an Arsenal boy since he was six years old, more a part of the club than almost anyone else there, given his chance up front than any number of imported ready made superstars that the press and Twitter’s idiocracy wish to foist upon us.

 

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