Are #Arsenal Back Yet?

So, we are going to hit the San Siro – one of the real Meccas of world football for me – at 4th place in the league, on a little run of three games unbeaten, and quite a lot of the vocal minority (i) would not have predicted that, and (ii) seem to have shut up, for a few days at least.  But what have the last month and a half told us?

Not a surprise, but firstly, we need our better players, in their best positions, playing for us.  I have banged on about how important Mikel Arteta has been for us – linking the play in the “water carrier” role, but we really missed him in those three games we lost.  It is great to see him back doing his excellent work in the middle of the park.  I also think his experience is helping the younger players.  He is a great example he just keeps moving into space, getting the ball and laying it off. He even got a deflected goal against Blackburn, and his shot led to the equaliser against the Mackems. If you look at his career, he’s not really won much outside Scotland: I think he is desperate to win big prizes. He thinks that joining Arsenal is his last throw of the dice and that’s what’s driving him on.  Arteta has settled very quickly, and almost instantly become a very influential player, taking some of the burden off Alex Song.

The second really important player to return for me is Bacary Sagna.  If you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I’m a massive fan of his: he is top class and having a right back at right back has made a real difference: he defends superbly but he adds to the attack as well – something Djourou didn’t do, although Francis Coquelin got a good assist against Blackburn.  Thomas Vermaelen filling in at left back has given us experience at the back, but I don’t really like him at full back: I think he gets drawn in too narrow, and he doesn’t overlap enough for the system we play. I think he has been at least partly to blame for 3 or 4 of the goals we conceded (including both vs Man Utd) while he’s been covering.  Unfortunately, it looks like Per Mertesacker has picked up quite a bad injury – another player who looked to be just settling like Eduardo and Ramsey before him. With Gibbs ready for the bench yesterday, it looks like the Verminator will be moving back to the centre against Milan, which is good news if Ibrahimovic plays he’s caused us problems before.

I also think we have shown some character in the last 3 games.  Going 1-0 down, losing your centre back away to a Sunderland team with 3 wins under their belt, under a new and very good manager, is not a great position to be in.  But the players dug deep, and not only carved out the equaliser, but managed to sneak the winner at the end.  Arteta’s heavily deflected shot from outside the box fell to Aaron Ramsey, on as sub, who hit the leveller from outside the box.  The strike couldn’t have been more accurate: it hit the post, landed on the goal line, hit the other post and span in, not even getting as far as the back of the net.  He’s had a lot of criticism lately, I think unfairly: people forget how young Ramsey is, 21, and that he is still recovering from a very bad injury.  I love the way he plays: he gets up and down, and he has done a job for the team this season, playing in a role that isn’t his natural position.  I think he is more of a holding midfielder, who likes to arrive late into the box, and not the creative “Cesc” player that he’s been asked to be this season. Most fans I’ve spoken to agree he’s been overplayed this year, and has just run out of gas.  It was really great to see him get such an important goal, that should shut his critics up for a while.

There was also a bit of the much fabled “mental strength” shown in not losing the 0-0 at Bolton.  We had missed a lot of chances in the first half, and they had quite a few good chances near the end. So to let that point go would have been a psychological disaster – a real confidence sapper.   And the reason for the displays with a bit more character?  Well I think Thierry Henry has certainly made a difference.  He either does genuinely love the club, or he’s a bloody good liar. I simply don’t believe any modern players love the clubs: it’s total rubbish.  The prime example of this is Wayne Rooney: he grew up on merseyside, plays for Man Utd.  He’s a professional and yes he “loves” playing for Man Utd – they pay his handome wages – but I bet at family barbecues he doesn’t go on about how much he loves Man Utd.  Professional footballers “love” the club they’re playing for – the days of them coming from round the corner, cleaning the boots as a YTS trainee, and making the first team are long gone.  I remember Henry getting a standing ovation from the Portsmouth fans when he was subbed once down there.  He had just destroyed them with a hat-trick, a superb performance, and they respected him enough to stand up and applaud the man as he left the field.  There arent many opposition players that are held in that regard, and he responded by applauding them too.  His goals and performances, his passion and his class wearing our famous shirt makes Thierry Henry so special to us, and to English football.  A true legend.

The character has not all been from Henry though:  Laurent Koscielny has shown it week in week out.  Many a player would have buckled with the problems we’ve had in defence since he joined the club, but he’s been a rock.  If he was English, the media would be going mad about him, but so far he seems to have slipped under the radar, largely unnoticed. If he carries on, it’s just a question of time before the media pick up on how good he is. Still early in his Arsenal career of course, and a long way to go, but he could be a top central defender, and one of Wenger’s best ever centre back signings.

You can’t write a piece about Arsenal’s fortunes these days without mentioning Robin van Persie.  He has continued to take his chances, whenever they come.  It’s a lot of responsibility, being the top striker, and he’s added the captaincy this season as well.  To be honest he seems to be relishing it all – enjoying his football more than ever.  With him, Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen in the side, that’s three quarters of a very strong “spine”, all those have the mental strength needed at the very top level.  I leave out Wojciech Szczesny deliberately: he’s a prospect but not there yet. He’s made a couple of slight errors lately, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to a little blip, but I think he will get there too, with a bit of experience.

The next thing is that the second string players have started to produce.  Thomas Rosicky has finally strung two or three solid performances together, coming in for Ramsey who was looking very tired.  Even the much lamented Andre Arshavin put a wonderful ball in for Henry to flick in the winner against Sunderland.  Francis Coquelin has impressed everyone with his tenacity and importantly he looks to be a very useful player for his versatility: he has done well at full back and in midfield.  Finally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who, with perfect timing while Gervinho was away at the African Cup of Nations, has exploded into the first team.  When Gervinho comes back I’d like to see him and the Ox on the wings.  Theo Walcott started the season well, but his level has slipped a bit, and he has dropped down to 3rd choice winger for me.  He’s not a natural footballer for me – betrayed by his decision making which is still a big achilles heel. Even just a few games into his Arsenal career, you can already see The Ox is much better at choosing the right option. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for a winger who got 3 assists against Blackburn, but they were awful that day, and I think Theo could do with a bit of a wake up call.

Not a reason for the recent better results, but another thing to mention, is the appearance of a 4-4-2 formation at the end of the game against Sunderland.  For me, this is genuinely exciting, and might be truly significant.  This might be a separate blog topic, but I think it might be another sign that Arsène Wenger might have decided to abandon the experiment to build and grow a team from a group of young players.  The signings in August 2011 of the experienced Arteta, Mertesacker and Bennayoun, and the decision to bring back King Henry, indicated a slight change in policy.  If we see 4-4-2 again a few times in the 2nd half of the season, I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for it to be employed as either “Plan B” next season, or even the regular starting formation.

Looking forward, we have two massive games in Milan and Teeside coming up.  The FA Cup game is more important for me.  There are some top, top teams left in the Champions League – there’s very little chance we can win that. [Although I did remember the other day that Liverpool won it one year when they were the 2nd best team in Liverpool…].  If we can get past Sunderland, it’s just 3 more games to win it.   With both Manchester clubs out, the FA Cup presents a real opportunity for us to get a piece of silverware.  To win it though, I have a sneaky suspicion we will have to overcome the old enemy at Wembley, who got a bye into the quarters.  It’s amazing:  since their manager got off his tax evasion charges, and the bungling Italian resigned, how quickly Spurs have become “the most attractive team in the premier league”.  If ever there has been a badge of convenience, that is one.  Not mentioned once before he was in line for the England job, now presented as accepted fact.  Anyway, hopefully, they will have picked up a few injuries by then, and will maybe have Joe Jordan as their manager, we can put them back in where they belong, in our shadow.

Returning to the original subject. There have been problems, but I personally think they have been blown up a bit. Having four full backs injured is a rarity that none of the clubs cater for, it shouldn’t happen again. Missing chances has been a problem for years – that’s just football. Heads going down is something that I’ve never seen before, but can be understood with so many young players out there. Bringing in experienced heads can help here, which has already started. What price buying out Henry’s contract with NY Red Bulls and keeping him until the end of the season…?

On the positive side then (as always 🙂 ) I’ve seen signs in the last 2-3 weeks that things are changing at the club. Tactics have been changed during games, a sub was made at half-time (Yennaris for Djourou vs Man Utd). 4-4-2 was used at the end at Sunderland. Experience has been used effectively (Henry). Ramsey being rested or dropped has been good as well – it gave Rosicky a chance which he’s taken. Generally, the team is a bit more pragmatic this year: we don’t always try to pass our way out of trouble, which is something that has frustrated the fans over the past couple of years when it goes wrong. Obviously as a result, we are a bit less attractive, but I think we are looking a bit more robust and able to grind out results a bit more.

If we can keep this run going through the Milan and Sunderland cup games, we will be well on the way.  A clean sheet at the San Siro, or nick an away goal, or both, and we’ve got a chance of getting through to the last 8 there. For the 5th round tie at Sunderland, they will have had a full week’s rest, where we will have been to a hard European away match. It’s very difficult to call, depends a lot on the teams the managers pick, and I don’t think Wenger will pick his full strength team for that.  Although we have suffered 7 years without a trophy, the club’s priorities are still the Premier League and Champions League.
Not back, not yet. But watch this space.

Wear your Red & White Scarf with Pride. Or Yellow in Milan.


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Positives for Bolton

I know we didn’t get the “marquee” signing we were all hoping for, but I think there are many positives ahead of the game tonight. Arsène Wenger has his view of the January transfer window: I disagree with him I think good business can be done in January. If the right player is available, why not snap him up? Every signing is a risk anyway – look at Torres for £50m. At the current rate the payback on him is probably 250 years…

So onto some positives, in a shorter post than usual…

The first is that we showed belief and managed to pull an excellent performance out of the bag in the 2nd half on Sunday. Obviously it wasn’t great that we got ourselves in the position to be two goals down in the first place, but by ‘eck did we put a shift in in the 2nd half. Koscielny was totally dominant, the Ox continued with his promise. It is now extremely important to keep that momentum going into this game and get the 3 points tonight. No mistake, that’s all that will do as well. Psychologically tonight, a win is worth 4 or 5 points, on the back of Sunday. The players will feel they have really turned the corner.

Secondly, Bacary Sagna returned, and as predicted by Steve who sits next to me, Francis Coquelin was able to move into midfield. Bacary was voted the best right back in the Premier League last year – and for good reason when he’s fit and playing well, it’s very rare to see even the very top wingers go past him. And over a game it is very unusual for someone to get the better of him. An underestimated performer who has set very high standards at the club.

Another big positive is that Thierry Henry is available. When he came on against Villa he looked like he lacked a bit of match sharpness, and his match winning cameo against Leeds was obviously quite adrenaline driven. But I don’t think it is on the pitch that we need him for 90 minutes at the moment. You can see he has matured as a player and as a leader at Barcelona and in New York. Wenger’s captain selection is one of his weaknesses in my opinion: Thierry shouldn’t have been captain he was given the job for all the wrong reasons. Now he looks more like one than he ever did in his first spell at the club and I think the whole squad will benefit from that, and especially youngster like the Ox and Coquelin.

Talking of which, I thought Coquelin had a superb game on Sunday. He’s a real prospect for me he tackles well – he fights. He gets out of position a bit at right back but he don’t half make an effort to get back in position. A few of us wanted Yennaris to start but those thoughts were soon dispelled as Coquelin performed excellently. I think he could be a future top midfielder let’s hope he keeps improving and we can keep hold of him.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was again very promising, this time playing on the other side. I love the way he has the confidence to mix it right up, sometimes passing and moving, sometimes taking defenders on with skill and sometimes just knocking it past them. He also does the simple things really well: if he’s shut out he knows the right ball is to pass it back. He contrasts with Theo Walcott quite a lot in this respect: I think Theo feels under pressure to do something every time. I still don’t think Walcott is a winger he is a pacy striker – he’ll get chances in the middle just because he can get there. His temperament is better suited as well to chances where he doesn’t have time to think as well. The one on Sunday a case in point. 😉 Not worth his own paragraph but Rosicky was excellent in the 2nd half as well: that’s the best game I’ve seen him play since his injury. Someone said afterwards that was strange because he’s about to start contract negotiations but I think that’s just a coincidence…. [cynical, me…?]

I think it’s fair to say that Per Mertesacker has struggled to settle in so far. Maybe he is finding the sheer physicality of the Premiership a little difficult – he certainly looks a lot slighter than I thought he would. I was genuinely excited when I first heard we might be signing him: I was really impressed with him playing for Germany in the last World Cup he was dominant. So it’s been a bit of a surprise that he hasn’t been that impressive so far. So why a positive? Well on Sunday I thought we saw him start to come of age. One of his key skills is reading the game, a bit like Tony Adams used to. I thought he made 2 or 3 excellent interceptions on Sunday, that showed this. I think he will settle and we will see the best of him next season. Look at Kosh – he had a nightmare last year, played with about 8 different partners – look at him now. It’s bugger all to do with pre season by the way….

Another fantastic positive is the return of our midfield man who links the play. He strings it all together if you ask me and we’ve missed him desperately. His first touch is superb, he hardly loses it, I believe from a stat on Twitter that he has made more forward passes than any other midfielder in the Premier League this season. Mikel Arteta has become essential to the way we play, and he is the most important signing we made last summer. He is not as creative as I thought he was: I thought he would get more shots, make more runs behind the defence, and get more goals and assists. There’s a case that says he is doing a job for us at the moment, playing out of position as the “water carrier”. If that’s the case even better because it shows how much he wants to do a job for the club. Top man in my book.

And finally, of course, one Robin van Persie. With a striker around like him, you’ve got a chance in any game. I don’t think I’ve seen a striker playing with such confidence – perhaps Ian Wright as a finisher, but I’m not sure Wrighty had a run like this. The way he slotted both those penalties away – against Shay Given who is an expert penalty stopper – was truly exceptional. The only worry with him is he is over played and gets injured. I think he is tracking back a bit much: if I was Wenger I would tell him to stay in the middle 3rd of the pitch don’t go out on the wings at all, patrol the area inside imaginary lines that join the two penalty boxes. He should become the archetypal “Goal Hanger”!! He should stay up front, get goals, conserve energy. Use your loaf, son!

That’s it. If you’re reading this on the way to the game, give the lads a shout or two for me.

Wear your Red & White Scarf with Pride.

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Passion at The Grove

I was talking to someone the other night about great, atmospheric nights in Arsenal’s history. I can recall many nights sat in the East Stand at Highbury, the old stadium that so many fans have such fond memories of: Everton in the League Cup semi final in 1988; the match against Tottenham when Wrighty crossed to Bergkamp at the far post, he took the sweetest, half volleyed 1st touch I’ve ever seen, with one foot, and drilled it past Casey Keller (95%) with the other. I remember once, about 5 minutes from the end of the match against Wigan that secured the unbeaten season, I even heard a song drifting over from the old West Stand…

The atmosphere in the ground can be very important. I can remember the first few games I went to with my cousin, who insisted on getting in the queue for the old North Bank at 12.00 for a 3 o’clock kick off. In those days, the North Bank would chant the names of every first team player, and that was just during the warm up! Right before the game, as the team names were read out, every player’s name was greeted with a huge cheer. When the away team’s names were read out, you couldn’t hear them – the whistles and noises of derision completely overwhelmed the announcer’s voice. The teams came out separately back then, and when The Arsenal ran out, the crescendo of noise was amazing. There was a pecking order for songs, with Charlie Nicholas the darling of the North Bank, being first. I remember the whole North Bank singing “who put the ball in scousers’ net, Charlie, Charlie”. Once, at a break in the game, when Liverpool were attacking the North Bank, we sang as one “you’re just an ugly c**t, Beardsley”. It must have been about 5,000 people all singing it.

I am one of the believers that a great atmosphere can influence the outcome of a match. The fans can play their part in lifting the team, particularly in difficult periods. Fans aren’t referred to as the “12th man” for no reason. It works both ways and sometimes the fans do need a bit of inspiration, a bit of magic on the pitch to get them going. Players like Bergkamp, Henry, Pires, Overmars, Fabregas, Van Persie can get you out of your seat with a breathtaking piece of skill – something you talk about in the pub afterwards, and think, how did he do that? Failing a bit of unbelievable skill, the next best thing to get the crowd going is when the tackles start flying in, or when there is a ruck of some sort. I’m not condoning those things, of course, just observing the crowd reaction to them. I remember tons of crap games at Highbury in the early 90’s, kicking it to the long grass in the corners, waiting for Ian Wright to get one, nothing happening. If Lee Dixon or Nigel Winterburn crunched into David Ginola or Dennis Wise, half the crowd would be on their feet, applauding and pumping their fists.

At the Grove, I can only really recall one night that stands out, and it was the other night against Leeds when Henry scored, and it nearly took the roof off. Someone else mentioned the game against Real Madrid, but I think that was at Highbury – that’s how few really memorable nights there have been at the new ground. The game when we beat Barcelona was pretty good, but then beating the European champions including (unquestionably for me) the best player the world has ever seen, generates its own atmosphere. My seat at the Grove is reasonably close to the pitch, and I have been very surprised this year, I have been able to hear the players calls at probably 5 or 6 games. Not for the whole game obviously, I’m talking at some point in the game. It was a very strange atmosphere at the Man Utd game last Sunday, but I was really surprised as for a period in the 1st half, when Utd were dominant, it was quiet enough to hear the player calls from the pitch. I only ever heard the calls from the pitch at Highbury when I went to see reserve or youth team matches.

The lack of atmosphere hasn’t just been restricted to the new, bowl-shaped ground, with The Home of Football regularly being referred to as the “Highbury Library” in some of the more honest media outlets like fanzines and podcasts, and also as a cheap wind up by fans of rival teams. I have been to Old Trafford and also watched Arsenal from the Matthew Harding stand at Stamford Bridge, and their grounds also suffer from this malaise of poor atmosphere. I went to a game at Anfield a few years ago, and I must say that wasn’t the case at all. Even though we’d won the league and fielded a weakened team, and they had nothing to play for, the atmosphere was superb, with lots of banter between the sets of fans, inside and outside the ground. I think they were pleased we’d stopped Man Utd winning the league that year. We drove up there, and were stuck in traffic as we got near to the ground. In a red car, with Arsenal shirts on, we stood out as Gooners. Suddenly, these lads in a little white van in front of us shouted out of the window, in a broad scouse accent, “Ay ay, are you goin to the game?” We nodded. They started waving at us, pointing at us to follow them down this side road. We looked at each other, it was the dodgiest looking white van with what looked like about 5 blokes crammed in the front of it. They could see we were hesitating, they were making reassuring gestures, so we thought “Fuck it, let’s go!”. We followed this little white van through all these backstreets of back to back houses (a bit like the streets around Highbury) and suddenly they pulled up at a corner and told us to park there. Without further ado, they drove off. We could see the floodlights high up – we were right near the ground. My mate was a bit worried about his car – he was quite “car proud” and his pristine red Ford Escort with all it’s Arsenal stickers stood out a bit, amongst all the clapped out cars parked nearby. I think there was one on bricks on the other side of the road. Luckily a group of about 5 little kids rolled up, some of them on bikes, and offered to “look after your car for you mate; 50p”. He thought that was a sound investment. We were slightly worried, but sure enough when we got back, there were no bricks – the car was fine. I have heard stories of more difficult trips up there – especially back in the day – but they treated us like royalty that year, as they thumped our 2nd string 4-0.

There have been some efforts to try and make the atmosphere in the stadium better. The singing section (“Red Section”) is great – lots of the songs seem to start from there. The “Arsenalisation” of the stadium is coming along: I love the big collages outside with all the Legends linking around the outside of the stadium. Putting banners up inside the ground that have been suggested by fan groups (just below the 2nd tier) has been great as well – it’s beginning to feel more like home. Things that I don’t think have gone so well is the choice of a “theme tune”: “The Wonder of You” didn’t ever work for me. The old Fatboy slim one at Highbury (“Right Here, Right Now”) was better but frankly I don’t like crap like that. I noticed that they’ve stopped announcing the players’ first names, for the crowd to add the surname. It was quite a good idea – brought back from a European away trip I believe – but it didn’t really work for me – Denilson being the classic example.

Hopefully this isn’t too controversial, and don’t get me wrong the people who put these things together are fantastic, loyal fans who give up their time for the cause. But I REALLY HATE it when we all get a flag, or a scarf, or a song sheet. The one thats freshest in the memory being the Man Utd Champions League home semi final debacle, and the flags. The number of texts and emails I got the next week with “for sale 54,000 flags – good condition – only used for 8 minutes”. Every single football fan in the country watched that game: we got absolutely humped; and then I was reminded of it just about every 10 mins for 3 days. Not a happy Gooner. I have got so many of those things from lost games – and they tend to be the bigger ones – that I’ve really started to think they’re a bad omen. I do like it when there is a card or shirt display that makes a design like the club badge – like at the 2006 Champions League final (shirts) and I think there were cards at the Barcelona home tie last year and definitely at the 125th celebration. My favourite was the way the club gave a T-shirt to everyone at the last game at Highbury – even the Wigan fans. That had class written all over it, and I didn’t see any of those shirts left at the end. I don’t know what it is, but whenever I get to my seat now and I see a flag or a song sheet I just dread the match. Again, sincere apologies to REDaction the effort you put into getting this stuff together is fantastic. If we’d won most of the games I’d be campaigning for them all the time, by the way!

One of my favourite stories I heard about passion was when Dean Saunders was on Fighting Talk – the brilliant points for punditry show on Radio 5 Live. He related this story from when he’d been playing for Aston Villa, and (Big) Ron Atkinson was his manager. There was a home game when Villa had been having a bit of a ‘mare and were a couple down at half time. As they trooped into the dressing room for Big Ron’s half time team talk, he said they were all shitting themselves – he’s a big imposing man after all. Ron must have been getting near to his wits’ end, because he wasn’t in the dressing room at all at half time. The whole Villa team are relieved, as they tuck into their half time oranges. About half way through the break, the door flies open, in comes an out of breath Ron with none other than Luciano Pavarotti, who was in the directors box, a guest of Ron Noades. Big Ron says “You guys need to play with more passion: listen to this.” Pavarotti launches into a full rendition of Nessun Dorma, right there in the Aston Villa home dressing room. The players listen dutifully, and when he’s finished they politely clap and Big Ron says “Now that’s passion! Get out there and win this game!” Out they went for the 2nd half, but unfortunately, Deano couldn’t remember if they did win it…

[For those who don’t know, Nessun Dorma is a song from the opera Turandot – wikipedia/spotify it – and massively associated with football it was the BBC theme to the 1990 World Cup when Gazza cried. I’ve since looked up this story and found out it wasn’t Pavarotti at all: it was Renato of Rene and Renato, but it’s nowhere near as good with him as the singer so I’ve left it! Is that a yellow?]

There’s no question for me, football has emotion at its very core. The only sport I can think of that is more emotional, is boxing: it takes a lot more than muscles and strength to get in a ring and fight someone – amazing courage and belief in yourself, and at the top level – coping with enormous pressure. Total respect to any boxer. Part of the trick with the most successful players, teams and managers is controlling that passion. Knowing, as a team, when to let it go, and when to hold it back, is one of the real skills. Ferguson has this in spades – he knows how to exploit others weaknesses by getting at them. You can’t really play mind games without understanding what makes the other person tick. Ask Kevin Keegan. Perhaps this is a bit controversial, but I do think the Arsenal teams of the last five years have lost a bit of that passion. You don’t need to have the courage of a boxer to win a tough premiership match, but some of the qualities are the same. You need to have the body language so that your opponents know you won’t take any shit. You need to demonstrate the togetherness , the team spirit on the pitch in front of your adversaries. If you get a setback, you have to stick together, and bounce back. No boxer ever slipped into the arena by the side door, pretending his opponent wasn’t there, not looking him in the eye and crept into the ring. Quite the reverse they arrive in a huge fanfare announcing “Here the fuck I am, look at me, try and knock me over!” It breaks my heart to say it but honestly there’s an element of that which has been lost at Arsenal over the past few years.

And so to the Grove and the subject of this post. I have read criticism of the new stadium, labelling it a passionless, concrete bowl. It’s just a building to me, buildings don’t have passion. Yes, they can make you feel a certain way, but it’s totally unrealistic to expect a brand new, purpose built, modern stadium to generate the same “aura” as one that had been there for 93 years, that had seen countless great matches, trophies, players, managers and teams. The Grove has not had any time to build any history: the only trophies it’s seen are the ultimate mickey mouse “Emirates Cup” and the ones the Arsenal Ladies bring around each year! Despite this, we have seen a couple of games where the atmosphere has been like the old days, so we know it can be done. And the reason is that it’s not buildings that have passion it’s the people that go there who bring the passion. If there’s one thing that I’ve found amazing over the course of the past couple of weeks, it’s the passion, energy and drive the supporters of this club have. The number of people who are commenting on everything that’s happened, the number of topics, the diverse range of views is truly staggering. This has just reinforced to me what a great club we have, and that no matter what happens, it will go on and on and on.

But at the moment we are in the shit: the manager and players are under tremendous pressure. Yes they are paid top dollar, but they need our backing. The FA Cup match against Aston Villa is an ideal opportunity to show them how much we all care about this club. I think if they see when they run out on the pitch every single Gooner there is right behind them, it will give them a great boost. This really is an excellent opportunity for all of us to get together, get behind the team, to create that special atmosphere, and inspire these boys to produce what we all want to see – winning, exciting football.

Wear you Red & White Scarf with Pride. And Passion.

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Taboo or Not? To Boo.

That is the question, certainly the one being asked in the red half of North London, after a section of the Arsenal home support made their feelings known to the Arsenal manager during the match with Manchester United last weekend.

When you purchase a ticket to watch any sort of spectacle, whether it’s a sport like football or rugby, a firework display or cinema ticket with the kids, or even a more up market performance like the theatre or the opera, you accept a few formal conditions.  But there are also certain accepted behaviours – an unsaid code which you are expected to conform with.  For example, if you were in the local Odeon, watching Jason Bourne slaughter another one of his adversaries, you would probably attract quite a bit of attention if you jumped  up and down manically, shouting “Yeeeeees! Get in there you beauty!”  In a football ground, however, when an exciting young prospect has just played peach of a through ball, right into the path of perhaps the most in-form striker in Europe and he fires it into the far corner, now that’s a different matter altogether.

As part of an audience or in football “the crowd”, the dynamics of behaviour change slightly.  A couple of things happen: it becomes more difficult to differentiate yourself, and therefore to get noticed – especially true when large numbers are dressed the same way at a football match.  Secondly, individuals are a lot less accountable for the actions of the whole group.  This means if things go well, you can get less credit, but also members of the group, and particularly the leaders, are a lot less accountable for their actions.  The larger the crowd, the more these can apply.  The demographic, location and circumstances all add to the mix.

The other element is being in a confined space, close to other people.  This makes it difficult to communicate in ways that we are used to, talking in a normal voice, brief, gentle hand gestures that accompany or emphasise points.  Quite often, the sheer number of other people around, can mean the party you’re getting your point across to can be a way away too, outside the distance you’d usually bother.  People all have slightly different opinions, so to get people on board with a complicated message is difficult.  Songs with simple words, and easy to remember tunes like hymns everyone knows from school are the staple of crown influencers – the classic demo “what do we want?   [insert cause] When do we want it? [now].

In very large crowds where people have hardly any space, like at the front of a rock gig, it becomes almost impossible to do much more than sing and move up and down, and clap in between songs.  According to rock folklore, Queen were apparently one of the first bands to notice this, and wrote Radio Ga Gaspecifically so that people could all join in with the song live.  Love it or hate it, seeing 125,000 people all doing the same thing is quite amazing.

Bringing it back to the football context, the booing question has come up a few times in the past few years.  Particularly when England play at Wembley, there have been regular pleas for the fans to respect the opposing National Anthem.  I personally don’t agree with booing anyone’s anthem:  it’s frankly a massive insult which I feel is bound to make them play harder.  It is embarrassing for our country to be associated with that too.  It does prove that there is still a core xenophobic group in the national team support, which I’m sure some people are proud of, but I am not I’m ashamed.  I have a friend I grew up with who married a French girl – they live in France and now have two kids who are French: imagine taking them to an England v France match at Wembley and explaining that one?

There’s also what seems to be the fashion, and seems to go largely unchallenged, of  quite large sections of the England support booing certain players.  This seems to be determined by recent newspaper coverage to do with players’ private lives.  Ashley Cole (no comment), Frank Lampard and Emile Heskey have suffered.  Let’s just think about that for a minute:  you live in a modern industrialised country of 60 million (ish) people, you are picked by a manager who in his chosen profession must be in the top 2 or 3% in the world, to get in the team you’re in theory one of the top 11 people who play the National Sport in the country that invented the game itself!  There’s no question, this is a huge achievement for an individual, career wise – the odds against it are so great.  And you get booed in the warm-up, before a ball has even been kicked!   This sort of crowd reaction is completely wrong, unjustifiable in any context.

Another sort is the jeering, booing and whistling of opposition players.  This might have served a purpose in the old days, when crowds were quite close to the players, and genuinely intimidating.   I don’t think it has any real value nowadays, except as part of the “pantomime” sub-plot:  players like Robbie Savage and Joey Barton court this kind of reaction, turn themselves into “bad boy” characters and use it to further their careers, off the field.  This kind of treatment doesn’t seem to work to me, look at the number of opposition villains that perform against us: Sheringham, Shearer, Rooney, Ashley Cole.  Apart from potentially improving the performance of opposition players, I don’t think this booing serves a purpose.  It does make you feel better though, so I still do it of course!

And so to last Sunday’s substitution.  Emotions were running high: the Arsenal manager and team are under a bit of pressure, due to a few poor results;  the visitors were challenging opponents – there’s quite a history between the clubs and managers;  the game was on a knife edge at 1-1;  and lots of people had been in the pub since the Spurs Man City game kicked off at 1.30.  One young player ,on his Premiership debut had arguably been Arsenal’s best player (Koscielny the only serious challenger).  Another player’s Arsenal career spinning out of control;  what started so brightly (included a 4 goal tally at, of all places, Anfield), has declined and disappointed the fans to such an extent that even his place on the bench has been questioned.  Shortly before, a double substitution was being prepared, Arshavin & Park stripped down, drawing groans & negative comment from the Grove “faithful”.   All around where I sit, there was the usual speculation, “Gotta be Theo”, “wont be Robin”, “might be Ramsey”, “cant be Song”.   Meanwhile, on the pitch there was a quite brilliant, lightning fast break, and we nicked the goal so plans changed, the subs sat down briefly.  After a couple of minutes, Arshavin got up again, & the guessing game restarted.

There are some subtle nuances around reactions to substitutions.  Broadly, from the time the player’s  number is visible, the reaction is to that player’s performance.  Any dissent about the decision is usually expressed as the players high five each other (I hate that Americanism) and cross over.  There’s a customary cheer, and if it’s a popular player coming on, probably a chant of his name, if hes got a song, then on with the game.  As Arsène said on MOTD2, he’s done 50,000 and there are always people who don’t agree with the substitution, whether it’s timing, who comes on or off – there are too many variables for everyone to agree entirely with one.  Another thing to mention here is that booing has been happening at Arsenal matches since I started going.  Booing at half time and full time has happened regularly in lean periods ever since I’ve been going.  It was regularly accompanied with “Georgie, get your cheque book out” (sound familiar?).  I remember once we lost at home to West Ham – Sol Campbell had an absolute shocker.  I think he might have left the ground at half time after being subbed.  There was booing that day and we had a fantastic run to the Champions League final that year.  Messages ARE given to the players: “Come on Arsenal” is a bit like pull your socks up, we didn’t come here to watch you run around after this other team.

On Sunday, the first reaction to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s number on the board was one of total incredulity – people looking at each other bemused.  Then a huge outpouring of appreciation to him for a wonderful performance:  assured, gifted, influential.  At the point when the players changed over – the biggest amount of booing I’ve ever heard.  Unfortunately it continued and poor Arshavin didn’t get any appreciation when he ran on.  I sit right behind the Arsenal bench and all around me people were standing up and shouting at Wenger.  I’ve never seen such an outpouring of dissent against the manager.  Unbelievably, then there was a chant of “you don’t know what you’re doing” – normally reserved for everyone’s anti-heroes, who can do no right and are hated by both sets of fans, the referee and linesmen.  Arseblog has suggested this might be a watershed moment:  I certainly felt the level of dissent towards the manager was a shocking development at the time.  It remains to be seen and the outcome of that will depend on results from now on.

I’ve also read on Twitter that The Ox signalled to the bench he had picked up a calf strain, but that wasn’t mentioned by either the player or the manager in the interviews on MOTD2 that night.  I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t have taken that chance to clear that up.  I can’t find any footage on youtube either.   The media has also made a lot of Robin Van Persie’s reaction.  I think it was more shock and disappointment than anything, at a player he’s obviously got a good understanding with going off.  You can be sure there will be cameras on his reactions next time round.

I do feel a bit sorry for Arshavin in all this.  One thing I will say:  I’ve seen Arshavin play from right behind the bench on many occasions.  I can recall many, many occasions when he’s lost the ball and not tracked back, and there has been no reaction at all from the bench.  We’ve noticed it where we sit, and commented on it many times.  From all that I’ve seen I personally don’t believe he has been given that job to do by the management at the club.  He may have been told to do that on Sunday.  Who knows, maybe he decided to track back with Valencia because of the crowd reaction.  For whatever reason, he did it and he didn’t do it very well.  I have since read that Wenger apparently wasn’t happy with Arshavin and that is disgraceful if it’s true.  Wenger bought him and picked him:  we all know where the buck stops on that one.

So it is taboo to boo?  For me, no – you’ve paid your money, you take your choice:  fans have every right to agree with the manager by clapping and cheering, and equally every right to disagree with him by jeering and booing.  What I don’t ever agree with is outright abuse of either the manager or the players.  It’s not acceptable to call any of them c**ts, as far as I’m concerned – that’s taking it too far.   But in a healthy relationship, the communication must be two way.  The crowd has very little opportunity to do this with the manager, so it has to be during matches.  If he accepts “there’s only one Arsène Wenger” with his quick little waving gesture, then he has to accept a little booing now and then.

The bigger question, though, is this:  was it an indication that the relationship between Wenger and the Arsenal crowd has broken down so much, that separation and eventual divorce is on the way?  Or was it just an isolated incident, due to the particularly stressed circumstances?   Not only the result against Villa is crucial on Sunday, but also the way Wenger’s decisions are received by the crowd.

Stick together Gooners.  Wear your Red & White Scarf with pride.

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Red Rivalry

There are big games every season to look forward to – the ones you look for when the fixtures are published.  That’ll be moved to Sunday, oh bollocks it’s one of the missus’ cousin’s weddings – hope that one gets moved…  Any game against the current champions is big, with the exception of Blackburn…, the nail biter against our friends up the road, any game against a club with a similarly rich and glorious history like Liverpool, and more recently the ones against the small club in Fulham have had an added significance because of the “top team in London” tag.

But there is one rivalry which almost every season has had that extra edge to it:  it’s provided hours of entertainment to millions – being one of the staple Sky matches – column feet (forget inches), fights, drama, and huge highs and lows for both sets of fans and players.  In short, for the last 20 years Arsenal v. Manchester United has been the Premier League fixture to watch.  Possibly one fixture could claim to be a rival because it has generated quite a bit of controversy in recent years – Chelsea v. Liverpool – but not really a serious contender.

The first game I can remember was the “five minute final” in 1979.  I wasn’t there but the whole country watched the cup finals in those days – it was the only live game on the telly.  An Arsenal team containing legends Pat Jennings and Liam Brady, that had dominated the match,  led 2-0 with five minutes to go, conspired to let United back into the game and let them equalise with seconds remaining.  What made it worse was that the previous year, we had lost the final to second division Ipswich Town, led by one Bobby Robson.  Not an unlucky break, or even outplayed but simply hadn’t turned up:  in the South Coast town, where I was literally the only Arsenal fan, I had been ribbed mercilessly at school.  Tears welling up in front of the telly, Liam Brady got the ball from the kick off, and headed for the corner flag, knocked the ball out to Graham Rix, and – you’ve seen the tape.  One of the most famous goals scored at the old Wembley Stadium.  Ha ha – enjoyed school after that….

My first instalment of watching the game in person is 1988, Highbury: I’m on the North Bank for an FA Cup match.  The place  is packed to the rafters – maybe 54,000 – I’m squeezed in with the nutters, the songs are basic “let’s go fucking mental”, and goading the Manc fans in who have taken the whole of the West Lower seats with “Are you going home by plane?”.  The game is a tight one – we’re a good side back then and there’s a lot at stake in the FA Cup 5th Round because neither side is mounting a serious challenge for the title.  We’ve nosed in front and lead 2-1 going into the last few minutes.  Songs are ringing out: “What did she wear?  She wore a yellow ribbon…” etc.  “Who put the ball in scousers net Charlie, Charlie…”.  Then suddenly, the ref gives a penalty to United.  I can’t remember the incident but there’s a suggestion of a dive – a long time before diving was popularised by foreign players.  The pen is right below the North Bank, this is massive drama.  Brian McClair steps up to the total derision of 3/4 of the stadium, people waving anything they can get hold of to put him off behind the goal.  The noise on the North Bank is unbelievable to me, the whistling hurts my ears, it’s as loud as a Marshall stack.  A replay at Old Trafford will be a tough game.  The cacophony of noise and waving works and puts McClair off, he fires the ball into the North Bank, and pandemonium breaks out – people flying all over the place, sheer joy – like we’ve scored the winner in the last minute of the cup final.  All to no avail really we lost at home to Forest in the next round – there was some controversy but I can’t remember it – too much Dogbolter in the Founder & Firkin on Holloway Road probably….

On a couple of years.  The seeds sown soon after George Graham’s arrival in 1986 have flourished, with Arsenal securing the last gasp title win at Anfield ’89, and later this season will be crowned champions having only lost one game.  There were tensions beneath the surface in the away match at Old Trafford, which erupted after a difference of opinion between Nigel Winterburn and Dennis Irwin:  all 21 players except for Arsenal keeper David Seaman were involved.  There was a massive FA inquiry (two blazers and their red setters watched a few video tapes in the pub) and everyone was fined or banned.  Later on, unluckily for him in the lead up to Christmas, when a high profile case was needed, the Arsenal captain Tony Adams crashed his car after a bender, on his way to meet the England squad at Heathrow.  He was subsequently charged and sent to prison.  We sang, to the tune of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers, “We’ve lost our Tony Adams, now he’s gone, gone, gone, etc.”.   In an amazing coincidence, United were the visitors to Highbury on the day when we could clinch the title.  Firstly though, to keep the race alive, Liverpool had to beat Nottingham Forest.  They failed, word got around the pubs near Highbury, we were to kick off against United as Champions.  The walk to the ground was amazing that day: dancing, jigging, conga’s.  Then just before the kick off the United players came out and in an obviously pre-arranged thing, they applauded our players onto the pitch, in a guard of honour.  It was truly amazing I have never seen such half hearted clapping before or since.  Their players hated every second of it!  We’d won the title, amazingly, with a few games to spare, after the FA had docked us two points for the Old Trafford brawl.  Our fans had a very simple message to the FA “You can stick your two points up your arse” which rang around the ground long and loud during and after the game and also well into the evening…..  I think we won 3-1.

The Premier League started in 1992-93, United bought Cantona who turned them into the trophy machine we thought we would become under George Graham.  Arsène Wenger (or Arsène who?, as the press called him) arrived in 1996 and in a short space of time, Arsenal and Manchester United became the two dominant clubs, sharing the title between 1996 and 2004, and both winning cups.  At this time both teams really knew the only other major threat domestically was each other.   When the names came out of the hat for the 1999 FA Cup semi final, there were a few ooohs and aaaahs because Arsenal and United were paired.  The match was to be played at Villa Park, Birmingham, so the trip was organised.  The first match ended in a draw, and I won’t dwell on this too much.  I wasn’t alone in thinking “This is it.” when we got the penalty that Bergkamp never really looked up for and missed.   Then, we were tortured with an amazing view from  behind Seaman’s goal when Ryan Giggs ground his way past half of the best defence ever assembled in English football (#2) to score the last ever goal in an FA Cup semi final replay.  Like Alan Sunderland ’79, one of the goals that is dusted off every time we meet United in the cup:  I know which one I prefer…  But the reason for mentioning these games is that they were not only cup matches full of all the usual incident, they really had something extra.   I don’t think I’ve watched two games where so much was at stake, of such incredible intensity, with such amazing quality, too.   Quite often those games are spoilt by negative managers who just play the percentage and cancel each other out.  Not Wenger and Ferguson in those games.  It was like watching a boxing match, two teams who respected each other’s power, but were still willing to have a good go at each other.  As if to confirm the level of those matches, United went on to win the European Cup as part of their treble.  I expect you’d forgotten that because it’s hardly ever mentioned by the media…

The next selection, two matches at Old Trafford related to The Invincibles’ Unbeaten 49 run.  The first one when Ruud Van Nistelrooy (you know – horse goes into a bar.  Why the long face? I’m RvN) blatantly dived for a penalty which is given.  Arsenal players are furious, delay the penalty, Ruud misses.  Martin Keown, veins extruding from his neck, runs to the penalty spot and surrounds RvN ON HIS OWN, and engages in a bit of ungentlemanly conduct, urging Ruud to try harder next time and suggesting that perhaps he isn’t aware of his own parentage.  It inflames the crowd but doesn’t quite erupt into a repeat of the brawl but the level of provocation by Keown is extraordinary.  He pays the price later when an FA committee of blazers – don’t worry I’ll get a couple of chaps from the club old boy – throw the book at him, and 4 other Arsenal players but only two Man Utd ones. The club are also fined heavily for “failing to control its players”.  RvN is of course completely exonerated for CHEATING during the game itself, something which the FA accepts readily if you play for the most powerful club in the land.  This match is notable because if Ruud had scored that penalty, there would have been no unbeaten season 2003-04, no Invincibles 49 game run.  So in reality Arsenal fans, if you ever see a horse in a bar, don’t ask it why it’s got a long face, offer it a drink as a thank you for that penalty miss.

The second of this pair would have been the 50th game in The Invincibles run.  The last place any Gooner wanted this run to end was Old Trafford, but unfortunately it did, again in controversial circumstances with Rooney this time going down easily to get a penalty.  It was dubious enough for his England colleague Sol Campbell to refuse to shake hands at the final whistle.  Then apparently all hell broke loose in the tunnel after the game and Ferguson got covered in a foodstuff, either pizza or soup or something.  Hence after the previous match game having constantly been referred to as the “Battle of Old Trafford” this one was dubbed “The Battle of the Buffet”.  Terribly disappointing for us to have lost it there of all places but we still won the league there with Wiltord’s goal in 2002 and of course winning a whole season unbeaten shouldn’t be taken lightly at all – that’s an amazing feat.

The final one to mention is the 2005 FA Cup Final in Cardiff.  United absolutely murdered us that day, hitting the post at least once.  Henry was injured and Wenger, for the only time I have known, completely changed the way we played that day.  Bergkamp played up front  on his own, hardly got a kick and we defended for all we were worth.  As the game went on it reminded me of the Sheffield Wednesday Cup Final in 1993 where we never looked like we’d lose.  Each time United missed a chance, although we were playing total shite, the crowd got a lift.  Football is the spiritual home of the cliché, but if you believe anything you can believe the phrase our name was “written on the cup” that day.  It made up for the loss to Liverpool in 2001, which was a travesty, and who better to see at the final whistle than Ferguson and Keane looking shell shocked, angry and upset.  I bet they enjoyed the buffet after that one.  I nearly forgot, they say hooliganism is nearly dead, but it wasn’t after that game at Cardiff station.  There was a fair amount of winding United fans up that day with “USA” chants – the Glazer family had just or were about to take over.  There was a bit of banter going on, as there would be, and one of our mates got on a train – can’t remember where he was going.  The carriage was full of United fans, so we were showing our scarves and taking the piss out of him through the window.  Suddenly the atmosphere changed, and there was a firm of United fans coming towards us being pursued by some “special” Welsh looking police.  The mob got onto the same carriage, right by our mate – not funny now.  There had obviously been an incident the police were outside the train watching video camera footage and they held the train and tried to get one of the mob off.  After a while they gave up and the train pulled away.  Nothing happened he was right as rain.

If you’ve read this far thanks.  I hope my little trot down memory lane of Arsenal vs. United matches has whetted your appetite for Sunday.

Obviously, the rivalry isn’t quite as intense now, although I think Sky would like it to be.  The arrival of Chelsea and more recently Man City on the Premier League scene with their ridiculous wages has diluted it a bit.  But whilst Wenger and Ferguson are involved, it will still bubble under the surface, waiting to come out, and when it does, it will be fucking spectacular.  It always is.

Wear your Red & White Scarf with pride on Sunday.

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Arsène: In or Out?

I was trying to collect my thoughts into a few tweets but it’s just impossible.  Events over the past couple of weeks and particularly the past few days including the reaction to the Swansea result have opened my eyes to some of the things that are going on at Arsenal.

On the one hand it’s disheartening to read so many negative comments about the club you love.  On the other hand it’s good to know there are so many passionate people following this great football club.  Sometimes you wouldn’t know it when you go to the games:  over the past couple of years there have been more and more games where you can actually hear the players’ calls to each other from my seat at The Grove.

I’ve supported this club for a long time, and I can’t remember many sackings.  Terry Neill was sacked in 1983, soon after we were knocked out of the League Cup by Walsall.  Bertie Mee and Don Howe both resigned, the latter after I was one of the unlucky ones in the away end at Luton when we got hammered 3-0 in the FA Cup on their awful plastic pitch, and he’d found out the board had approach Terry Venables, then the Barcelona manager.  George Graham led us to 2 titles, domestic cups and even a European triumph before he was summarily dismissed when he got caught with his hands in the till in 1995.  Bruce Rioch then lasted just over a year before he got the boot because he made public his displeasure at the lack of funds available to strengthen the team.

So that’s three sackings, then, in about 40 years.  It’s pretty clear that the Arsenal board have a history of being a reasonably loyal bunch.  The game has changed a lot since then, of course, and football has moved on quickly, but I think some of the old Arsenal values do remain in the board room and unless things get markedly worse, they’ll stick by Arsène Wenger at least until it’s (i) definite we won’t qualify for the Champions League 2012-13 or (ii) the currently vocal minority are joined by a far greater number of disaffected fans and a sustained and major protest campaign is mounted.  Of course I hope that neither of these things happen.

The terrible start to the season, the frustrations of the summer departures and very late activity in the transfer market, combined with the last two poor away results, have led some people to believe that Arsène Wenger is no longer the man for the job.  They want him out:  some are even calling for his head now.   Names mentioned as replacements are Mourinho, Hiddink and Ancelotti.  Big names with impressive CV’s, who have all spent a lot of money and have had varying degrees of success, in various club and international posts.

But we’re talking about replacing a man who has given us 15 years service.  I personally have had some great days out with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams:  in Copenhagen, Paris, Cardiff;  great victories and goals at Highbury; who can forget the two doubles?  Wembley 98 was one of the special days of my life, I was desperate to see Arsenal win the FA Cup at the old Wembley on Cup Final day.  Then there’s Wiltord’s goal at Old Trafford,  The Invincibles,  Paddy’s penalty in Cardiff, to steal the trophy from Fergie [after they played us off the park – retribution for the Liverpool final when we murdered them and lost due to two missed hand balls].   I’ve seen great players he brought in – Vieira, Henry, Pires, Overmars, Fàbregas to name a few.   Some not so great players too like Jeffers, R. Wright, Senderos, Cygan.  I saw him weld a powerful, athletic, exciting forward team onto the best back 5 ever seen in English football, extending their careers and our trophy count.  In short, this man has given me so much over the years, I just can’t abandon him now and forget all that he’s given to me, my friends and family.

Even if we ignore the purely emotionally charged stuff above, I don’t think it makes sense from a purely hard nosed business point of view.  It is January 16th, slap bang in the middle of the key period in the season for transfer activity – the January window of course.  I am not familiar with the internal workings of the club, but it’s beyond belief, surely, that after the August 2011 last day antics if there wasn’t a plan for this transfer window?   If we change manager now, we won’t be able to execute that plan (forget what he says to the press).  We will have the current players, with a new manager who doesn’t really know them.    With no change at the helm, I think we have a decent chance of getting 4th in the league, and at least getting into the Champions League qualifying, which hasn’t been any trouble getting through before.   Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have put a run together like we have already, and we have big players to come back like Sagna and Wilshere.  If things go our way it’s possible we could just catch Tottenham (on the last day – the lasagne is on order…) but I think making up that much of a gap is probably unlikely.  I do think both Manchester clubs are out of reach now.

Talking of which, let’s not forget that both United and City are looking forward to playing on Thursdays for the rest of the season, because they didn’t even quality for the last 16 of the Champions League.  We take it for granted, but it’s no mean feat qualifying for that season after season:  it’s income, kudos, and demonstrates a little bit quality (couldn’t resist, sorry).  Wenger has transformed our expectations on that score: when he joined in 1996 we’d competed in Europe three times since 1984 (91-92, 93-94, 94-95).  We were hardly a European super power.

If I was the person in overall control of the board, yes I’d be calling Wenger to account for the bad performances, yes I’d be making him squirm a bit – showing him some of the more constructive criticism from fans.  I’d be making it absolutely clear to him that this is his last chance, giving him some transfer funds to buy a renowned striker to support Robin van Persie (either in the PL like Zamora – to give us a Plan B – or a top quality forward like Cassano of Milan).  I’d also say he must  get cover at full back, and sell Arshavin & Diaby but keep Chamakh for now, in case one of the two top strikers gets injured.  We also need some tactical changes: we need to be able to start with 4-4-2 or at least be able to switch to it during games.  Our one dimensional approach is too easy to counteract at the moment.

But I wouldn’t be sitting down discussing his compensation package just yet:  Arsène, the players, the staff – all deserve the backing of all the fans to get us through this difficult situation.

Now is the time to stick together, to show our strength and resilience as one club.

Wear your Red & White Scarf with pride.

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